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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The ultimate 747 gambit - re-opened

I don't know whether Dawkins would agree with the following version, but here's a reworking of his ultimate 747 gambit into what I think is a good argument that the Abrahamic God probably does not exist. The argument is not meant to be a knock-down one. If we had some reason to believe in disembodied spirits or in substance dualism, or if we could rely on some other source such as revelation, then the argument could be defeated. But in the absence of a convincing independent argument for God's existence, and on the assumption that what we've been finding so far is that we really do live in a disenchanted universe (with no ghosts, spirits, metaphysical dualism and so on), I think it's a cogent argument. It also has the merit that it doesn't assume that metaphysical naturalism is true; it merely assumes the much weaker (and I think highly plausible) claim that we've never yet encountered anything like a spirit ... something capable of intelligence, design, and so on, but with no complexity to it.

The argument won't work with everyone, but it should confirm to a non-believer why the likely non-existence of the Abrahamic God follows from the rest of her worldview (without that worldview having to presume fully-fledged metaphysical naturalism). It should also be successful with a science-oriented religious doubter who is coming to think that we actually do live in a disenchanted universe. If the Universe is, as it were, disenchanted internally, that's a factor in how (un)likely it is that something like God exists.

Here goes, for comments.

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Whenever we look at something that has actually been designed, as opposed to something that has evolved over millions of years by natural selection, we always find that the designer is an incredibly complex being. We know of nothing in the universe that packs more complexity than the human brain, and we know of no process more complex than the brain's functioning as it moves from one massively internally-connected physical state to another. We simply have no experience of anything that is known to have been designed except by a highly complex designer.

Thus, if by analogy with objects such as watches and telescopes, we inferred that the Universe itself is designed, we would also infer that the designer is something incredibly complex. To make any other assumption would be arbitrary.

Once we reach this point, we must ask where the incredibly complex designer came from. The only ways that we have ever observed by which massive complexity comes about are by design or by the simple iterative process of natural selection over vast spans of time (and needing vast volumes of space for there to be conditions amenable for it to happen).

Hence, it is highly likely that the designer of the Universe, if there is one, was either itself designed by something else OR something that evolved. It is inconceivable that such a thing just sprang into existence.

However, both of these possibilities are incompatible with the supposed nature of the Abrahamic God. It follows that all the evidence available to us leads us inexorably to the following (very) likely conclusion: either the Universe is not the product of a designer (in which case the Abrahamic God does not exist, because this being is said to be the designer of the universe) OR the Universe was designed by something that does not match the description of the Abrahamic God (in which case, again, the Abrahamic God, as per theological descriptions, does not exist).

Therefore, it is probable that the Abrahamic God does not exist.

Abrahamic theists are likely to reply that their God is not only the designer and creator of the Universe but also a being that is simple, e.g. with no moving parts, internal linkages, or changing states.

This does seem to be a logically possible state of affairs. However, we have never encountered any entity remotely like this. E.g., we have not encountered the "spirits" that some Abrahamic theists talk about. To claim that God is like something that, in turn, is of a kind we've never actually experienced is a desperate move.

Once again, if we had some independent basis to believe in the existence of such things as spirits, then we'd have a basis to infer that the designer of the universe might be a being like that. But as we've come to know more and more about the Universe, and have failed to encounter disembodied, simple intelligences such as spirits, we find ourselves in a position where we have no basis at all to conclude that the universe as a whole was designed by something like that.

Note that this argument is only probabilistic. It does not say that there cannot be a God like the Abrahamic one - that it is just impossible.

The argument is "merely" that if we could think about the idea of design, without being prejudiced by our familiarity with religious ideas, and if in doing so we relied on our actual experience of the world around us, we would reach the conclusion that the Abrahamic God probably does not exist. If we could think about it clearly, with minds free of prejudice from familiarity with religious ideas, we would conclude that the probability of this being's existence is actually extremely low.

In short, the existence of something like the Abrahamic God is a bare theoretical possibility that's contrary to all the data that we have so far from our actual experience.

13 comments:

John Pieret said...

This does seem to be a logically possible state of affairs. However, we have never encountered any entity remotely like this. E.g., we have not encountered the "spirits" that some Abrahamic theists talk about. To claim that God is like something that, in turn, is of a kind we've never actually experienced is a desperate move.

Isn't God supposed to be The Ultimate Other, the being maximally different from us? Isn't that his/her/its function when all is said and done?

If this part of the argument is cogent, why even bother with the rest? "We don't experience 'mini-gods,' ergo 'maxi-gods' are desperately unlikely" doesn't need any talk about evolved vs. designed complexity. Conversely, as you acknowledge, the 747 argument doesn't really answer the god-is-simple argument.

I don't see how the design/evolution aspect really adds to any argument against the Abrahamic God. We all know that the nature of the Abrahamic God, as posited, does not permit of it being evolved from something "less" (cue Christian denunciations of Mormon version of God). It is something of an exercise in question-begging to even go through it.

Even as a confirmation of non-belief, the 747 seems a pretty pale.

Russell Blackford said...

I actually think there are much stronger atheist arguments than this one, and that Dawkins is would be better off relying on the Problem of Evil, for example, and that he's too quick to dismiss the latter. But this particular argument came up again on another site, so I'm working on it, and it does seem to have some force.

I find your comments a bit cryptic, John. I don't see how we can just say "We don't experience mini-gods; therefore maxi-gods are unlikely," without saying a lot more. Just put like that, it seems to be a non sequitur. The most we could infer is that we will continue not to experience mini-gods. Whether a maxi intelligence designed the whole shebang of the universe seems like a separate question.

I also don't understand what you think is question-begging in the argument. I don't think the argument is successful against all comers (in fact I doubt that any atheistic arguments are), but I don't understand just what question you think is being begged. Doubtless the argument is making some assumptions that many theists won't (and shouldn't) accept, so technically it is question-begging from their viewpoint. But what assumption is it making that someone who is not a committed theist should not accept? I don't think Dawkins - if he buys this revised version of his argument - has to assume at any point that there is no God or that metaphysical naturalism is true, or any other very strong premise; he only has to assume things that are perfectly reasonable (for him to assume), such as that we've never encountered a designer that was not a complex thing with an evolutionary history behind it. That's quite a weak assumption.

Feel free to run your criticism past me again. Maybe I'm not getting it.

John Pieret said...

I don't see how we can just say "We don't experience mini-gods; therefore maxi-gods are unlikely," without saying a lot more. Just put like that, it seems to be a non sequitur.

Well, yes.

But the whole 747 argument in this verson turns, it seems to me, on the premise that design is the result of either a complex designer or incremental evolution. To dismiss a logically "live" third option merely as a desperate move, without more, shifts the whole weight of the argument to how "desperate" the alternative really is. And if the move really is desperate (i.e. the possibility of there being a spirit God of a kind we've never actually experienced is so unlikely as to be dismissible) then the rest of the argument is superfluous ... you've already "won" the point. If you accept that any spirit god (and the Abrahamic God as worshiped today is certainly that) is so unlikely that it is not worth considering, why bother considering if the selfsame Abrahamic God could evolve?

As to question-begging, if anyone is already to the point of considering whther or not the Abrahamic God could be an evolved being, they have already rejected the Abrahamic God (universally described among its adherents as eternal and unchanging). Perhaps the problem I am having with this is that you are not arguing against a particular god (the concept of which may be malleable, but not infinitely so) but a type or species of god. If so, then perhaps a definition might help.

windy said...

Isn't God supposed to be The Ultimate Other, the being maximally different from us?

The God that created humans "in His image"??

As for the 747 argument, interestingly that came up in today's Nature in Armand Leroi's review of "Creationism and its critics in antiquity":

Listen to Aristotle heaping scorn on Democritus for supposing that living things self-assemble from accidental combinations of atoms, and you hear Fred Hoyle's gambit that "a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein".

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, John, you make an interesting point. I think part of the problem with the argument in Dawkins' original formulation is that it doesn't entirely know whether it wants to be an answer to the argument from design or a positive argument for the unlikeliness of God.

If it tries to be latter, then theists respond: "Aha, but God is a spirit! So it doesn't need any working parts."

I say that Dawkins has a good reply - "What are these spirits? We've never encountered such a thing, so why make up such a thing now?"

You say, "It that's the case, why not argue more directly: There are no spirits; If God exists, He is a spirit; Therefore God does not exist." In other words, the argument works only if it assumes the very strong claim that there are no spirits, which is question-begging.

Maybe you're right. This is an aspect of the argument that's always worried me, and it's never been my favourite argument.

But I still want to explore it a bit more. I agree that a premise as strong as "spirits are impossible" would be question-begging. Even "there are no spirits" would be question-begging. But I don't think premises such as "every designer we've encountered so far been material" or "every designer we've encountered so far has been complex" or "every designer we've encountered so far had been an evolved being" are question-begging. They won't be admitted by all theists, some of whom think we have encountered demons and who knows what else that are designers and are not material, internally complex, products of evolution etc. But I think that someone who accepts the picture of the world painted by modern science should accept these premises. She won't deduce "There are no spirits, therefore there is no God." But I think she entitled to deduce "In the absence of other considerations either (a) the universe does not have a designer OR (b) if it does have a designer that being is probably material, internally complex, a product of something like evolution, and so on".

Maybe the argument does boil down to "We've never encountered spooky things, so we're unlikely to in the future; God would be a spooky thing; so we're unlikely to encounter God in the future." But I'm not sure about this. I think it's the nub of the issue.

John Pieret said...

The God that created humans "in His image"??

His spiritual image. You can, as Russell says, argue that there are no spirits (including souls) but then you have to do more than merely dismiss the possibility.

As for the overall argument, I think the better one is along the lines it was originally fought: there is no need for such a spiritual designer. The universe can be explained (at least short of the cosmological argument, where pretty much everything runs into a blank wall) without resort to any spiritual designer. Many (but far from all) people who believe in the Abrahamic god will find that fact contrary to their version of god. That is the reason for religiously motivated anti-evolutionism. People who are disinclined to believe in such a god, have the satisfaction that there is no strong argument for the existence of one from the nature of the universe alone.

If you like science and how well it explains the universe, there is no incentive to go beyond its findings. If you don't like science, pretend it doesn't produce accurate results (ala young-Earth creationists) or point to areas science cannot determine (there always will be some) and cram a creator in there. The heartening fact for the godless is that, historically, the argument for god has been becoming weaker and weaker over time.

Steve Zara said...

Abrahamic theists are likely to reply that their God is not only the designer and creator of the Universe but also a being that is simple, e.g. with no moving parts, internal linkages, or changing states.

This is something I have a major problem with. The complexity of God is required by his supposed information content. The Abrahamic God is not of this unverse - he is not merely another way of labelling the information contained within it at any point. He has knowledge of the universe and is separate from it. Knowledge requires the existence of different and somehow separated states of information. To reduce this to absurdity, God could not be a single "bit" of information. There is a certain level of complexity that God, if he is omniscient (or even just reasonably knowledgeable) must have, whatever his nature, even if that knowledge never alters, so no state changes are involved.

This is why I feel the god-is-simple response is mistaken.

windy said...

His spiritual image.

I am aware of this refinement, but how does this rescue the claim of God as "maximally different"? "Creating in his image" does imply that some aspect of God should resemble humans.

John Pieret said...

I am aware of this refinement, but how does this rescue the claim of God as "maximally different"? "Creating in his image" does imply that some aspect of God should resemble humans.

Much like the number "one" resembles an infinite number? Even if I manage to wrap my head around a googolplex, I would still be infinitely far from experiencing an infinite number. Or another way of thinking of it would be that, a finite being could, at the very most, bear an infinitesimal resemblence to an infinite being.

And, since we are counting angels on a pinhead, the formula I used was maximally different (i.e. as different as can be), not completely different.

J. J. Ramsey said...

The advantage of your form of the Ultimate 747 argument is that it avoids statements that compare the complexity of a designer to the complexity of what it has purportedly designed, which means that you don't have to come up with a working definition of complexity that applies equally to really weird ill-defined ghosts, e.g. God, and biological organisms.

However, your argument isn't going to be too helpful against someone who is skeptical of the ability of bottom-up mechanisms to build up certain kinds of complexity. Take this form of an argument from design:

Premise #1: There are certain kinds of complex phenomena that would be incapable of being built up by bottom-up processes, cannot just pop into existence, and cannot be eternal, and so would have to be designed top-down.

Premise #2: These certain kinds of complex phenomena exist.

First conclusion: There is a designer who designed these certain kinds of complex phenomena.

Second conclusion: For Premise #1 to not apply to this designer, then if this designer has complexities, they must be of a kind that do not resemble those of the certain kinds of complex phenomena mentioned in Premise #1.

Of course, Premise #1 is dodgy, indeed, and as far as we can tell, dead wrong, simply because bottom-up processes have turned out to be much more powerful than our intuition often tells us. Of course, the thrust of the ID movement is to defend Premise #1. However, it is not inconsistent to suppose (wrongly) that biological organisms have the kind of complexity that has to be designed top-down, while a being that could be described as a really weird ghost is either eternal or just popped into existence from nothing.

J. J. Ramsey said...

Premise #2 should be rewritten as "These certain kinds of complex phenomena exist, but have no known earthly designer."

windy said...

Much like the number "one" resembles an infinite number?

It 'resembles' an infinite real number more than an infinite imaginary number or an infinite pot of porridge, sure.

truthseeker said...

My understanding of the more sophisticated, traditional Jewish understanding of humanity being in God's "image" is that we, like God, have free will. Of course, God's free will is not limited, as ours is, by such things as personal experience, environmental factors, memory loss, etc. This is opposed to lower life forms that act based on instinct alone - I, on the other hand, can choose not to do what my instincts tell me to do.

And whether God exists or not, we can still choose not to believe in Him, which lately seems to be the more reasonable choice!

BTW, I don't see dates on comments posted after this article - only times. It would be helpful to know how current the comments are.