Dawkins’ “ultimate Boeing 747” argument

In his recent best seller “The God Delusion”, Richard Dawkins seems to understand his “ultimate Boeing 747 argument” (henceforth, the “UBA”) as an argument against God’s existence. I think, however, that it is best understood as a refutation of an argument for God’s existence—namely, the design argument. If so, and if the design argument is the only argument for God’s existence which has prima facie plausibility, then the UBA is an argument against God’s existence only in so far as showing that we don’t have reason to believe that x exists is showing that we have reason to believe that x doesn’t exist (which is probably pretty far).

Here is how Plantinga (in his review) seems to think the UBA goes:

P1) Any being capable of designing and creating the world as we know it is as at least as complex and organized as the world as we know it.

P2) If God exists, then God designed and created the world.

From (P1) and (P2) it follows that

C1) If God exists, then God is at least as complex and organized at the world as we know it.

Now we add two more premises

P3) The world is extremely complex and organized.

P4) The probability of a things existence is inversely proportional to its level of complexity and organization.

From (C1), (P3), and (P4) it follows that

C2) The probability of God’s existence is extremely low.

I believe Plantinga is wrong in his interpretation of the UBA. Instead I propose the following. The only premise is a logical truth:

P1*) If all complex and organized things have designers that are as complex and organized as they are, then if God exists, he has a designer that is as complex and organized as he is.

which entails

C1*) It is either false that all complex and organized things have designers that are as complex and organized as they are or that God exists or that God does not have a designer that is as complex and organized as he is.

Now, (C2*), by the transitivity of the “as complex and organized as” relation, entails

C3*) It is either false that all complex and organized things have designers that are as complex and organized as they are or that God exists or that God is the creator of the world, or that God does not have a designer that is as complex and organized as the world is.

which entails

C4*) It is either false that A) all complex and organized things have designers that are as complex and organized as they are or that B) God exists or that C) God is the creator of the world, or that D) the world is highly complex and organized or that E) God does not have a designer that is as highly complex and organized as the world is.

Since (A) and (D) are premises of the design argument, B) is the conclusion of the design argument, C) is either a premise or an implication of one of the premises of the design argument and D) is something nearly everyone who has ever given the design argument is unwilling to give it up, we seem to have here a refutation of the design argument.

The version of the design argument I have in mind is something like:

1) All complex and organized things have designers that are as complex and organized as they are.

2) The world is highly complex and organized.

3) Therefore, the world has a highly complex and organized designer (from 1 and 2).

4) Therefore, God exists.

No one since Aquinas has been able to see how to from (3) to (4), but however one does it, (C) will either turn out to be a premise or an implication of one of the premises.

Of course, the more popular versions of the design argument are inductive, where (1) is no longer taken as a premise, but, rather, a (basic or derived) principle of inductive reasoning. Things would be a bit more complicated, but I can’t see any reason why we couldn’t create a version of the UBA as I’ve presented it above which is equally a refutation of the inductive version. The basic idea of the UBA can be put in the form of a rhetorical question: if you think that the complexity and organization of the world is reason to postulate the existence of a complex and organized creator, why don’t you think that the existence of the complex and organized creator is reason to postulate the existence of another complex and organized creator? If you answer, “Because God doesn’t need one”, then we ask, “Then why does the world?”

On a side note, didn’t Hume already say all this?

On another side note, is anyone as upset as I am by the fact that Plantinga opens his review of “The God Delusion” by saying that “Richard Dawkins is not pleased with God”? Could there be a more shameless attempt to get one’s (Christian) audience on one’s (anti-Dawkins) side? Seriously, this really bothers me. Could someone offer me a more charitable interpretation of what Plantinga is up to there?

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16 Responses to Dawkins’ “ultimate Boeing 747” argument

  1. Jon S. says:

    Dustin,

    Two thoughts. First, the easy answer to the question about why the world needs a creator if God doesn’t is that God is the sort of thing that doesn’t need a creator (and, besides, the only such sort of thing) and the world is not. Second, that opening sounds to me like a jocular attempt to lighten the mood before launching into a review of a highly partisan, unabashedly hostile book. The idea, methinks, is to get one’s (academic, pro-Dawkins) audience to chuckle for long enough to keep them from prejudging (in favor of RD) everything one is going to say before one has begun to say it. The first two paragraphs (at least) of the review seem to me to be engaged in precisely this task. Quoting Dawkins at his most abusive (and, maybe, Dennett doing his best martyr impression) seems like a reasonably good way to keep people from assuming that all the bias in the argument is going to be on the religious side of things (regardless of what they ultimately conclude). I mean, at the very least, you’ve got to admit that Dawkins has opened the door to abusive rhetoric ad nauseum. Anyway, there’s my attempt to provide a somewhat more charitable interpretation for the most famous Alvin without chipmunks I can think of.

    Best,
    j

  2. dtlocke says:

    Easy answer indeed.

    “Academic, pro-Dawkins” audience? Was Plantinga’s review published somewhere other than “Christianity Today”?

  3. Jon S. says:

    Yeah, yeah. I noticed that last bit later. (I’m not that observant after 4 am.) How about this: why would there be any reason to suspect that that particular audience isn’t already anti-Dawkins and on Platinga’s side? I’m not even religious (I certainly don’t read “Christianity Today”) and I think Dawkins is a biased jackass. At any rate, can you think of a significantly better way to break the ice for reacting seriously to an overwhelmingly hostile book that nobody in the relevant audience will be inclined to think twice about? Maybe the idea is to amuse them long enough that they get far enough into the article to bother to finish it, even though they can’t be expected to take Dawkins very seriously on their own.

    You’ve already read a too-short explanation of why the easy answer isn’t necessarily a bad answer via email. I don’t want to get into a longer debate about it because this is one of those arguments where nobody will budge and much time will be wasted.

    (WordPress claims to be in the middle of maintenance–sorry if this appears multiple times.)

  4. David Wiens says:

    Dustin’s question re: why the world needs a designer but God doesn’t touches on something I’ve been wondering about lately (but for which I have no answer; indeed, my ignorance leaves me unsure as to whether the whole set of questions is confused). Non-theists complain that using God to explain design—call this the `God-hypothesis’—is a bad tactic because it is simply an appeal to some brute fact, which requires further explanation. But I wonder whether explaining design by appeal to laws of nature—call this the `law-hypothesis’—is any better. (I take it that non-thesists treat laws of nature as ultimately explaining design, but I might be wrong about this.) Isn’t it the case that the laws of nature are taken to be contingent (i.e., the laws could have been different)? If so, then doesn’t the law-hypothesis run into the same problem as the God-hypothesis, viz., it appeals to a brute fact that requires further explanation? For there would still be questions regarding explanation left over after positing the law-hypothesis; viz., Why these laws? What explains the existence and operation of the laws? If the laws are simply taken as a brute fact, how does the law-hypothesis fare any better than the God-hypothesis as an explanation of design?

    I suppose one answer to this last question is to say that we can observe the existence and operation of the laws, whereas we can’t observe the existence and operation of God. But if the questions I’ve asked above have any traction, then this answer seems confused. The theist’s postulation of the God-hypothesis doesn’t deny the explanatory force of the law-hypothesis; but the purveyor of the God-hypothesis recognizes that the law-hypothesis’ explanatory force is circumscribed and extends no further than its capacity to explain the design of the phenomena in the world. Thus, the God-hypothesis is supposed to answer the deeper question regarding the explanation of the existence and operation of the laws (i.e., the explanation of the law-hypothesis). The theist and non-theist can agree that the laws explain the phenomena we observe in the world. Where they disagree is where the explanation of the phenomena ultimately stops. The theist thinks that the buck must ultimately stop with some version of the God-hypothesis. The non-theist thinks it’s sufficient to posit the law-hypothesis as ultimately explanatory; that the buck stops with the laws. But the non-theist’s response precludes asking the deeper question. What can be the justification for precluding this deeper question?

    If it makes sense to say that the law-hypothesis leaves an open question about the existence and operation of the laws, then our ability to observe the existence and operation of the laws isn’t an answer to the final question of the first paragraph. In fact, the intelligibility of this deeper question might show that the law- and God-hypotheses aren’t even genuinely opposing answers to the same question. (At least, they need not be addressed to the same question. Of course, the simple-minded theist thinks there is a real opposition here, but they’re clearly confused about this.) When asked `What (directly) explains phenomena x, y, and z?’, both the non-theist and the (informed, non-superstitious) theist respond by answering ‘The laws of nature.’ When asked `What explains the existence and operation of these laws of nature?’, the theist answers with some version of the God-hypothesis; what answers are available to the non-theist? I don’t know (this is what I’m wondering about). Are the laws supposed to be self-explanatory? If so, this would be contrary to their (putative) contingency. Thus, to stop with the law-hypothesis in the face of the latter question is simply an appeal to a brute fact. The point is that the law-hypothesis can’t be ultimately explanatory in the same way as the God-hypothesis; the God-hypothesis seems to go one level of explanation deeper than the law-hypothesis. So, I ask again, why is the law-hypothesis any better at explaining design than the God-hypothesis? Both seem to be in the same predicament, viz., both are appeals to (apparently) brute facts. Indeed, if there’s an intelligible open question about the operation and existence of the laws, then the law-hypothesis as a brute explanatory fact may be in worse shape than the God-hypothesis because it’s explanation stops short of, and is subsumed under the explanation offered by the God-hypothesis.

    (Of course, there is an open question regarding the explanation of the existence and operation of God, which means that the God-hypothesis also posits a brute fact. But this brute fact seems to differ from that of the law-hypothesis, in addition to the difference noted above, in at least one other way: God’s existence is traditionally taken to be necessary, whereas the existence of laws is generally taken to be contingent. So, it might be that the real issue between the two hypotheses is this: Do you prefer to stop your explanation at a necessary, but unobservable brute fact? Or at an observable, but contingent brute fact? The theist chooses the former; the non-theist, the latter. Is there a way to adjudicate between the two on these grounds that doesn’t already assume the superiority of one over the other? Or is this a mischaracterization of the conflict?)

  5. dtlocke says:

    David, good questions. First, I think a lot of this is going to hang on what one takes a law to be. You seem to be talking about them as if they are THINGS that exist. Perhaps, but perhaps not. They may not be things any more than propositions are (they are in fact propositions according to David Lewis). So we should draw a distinction between POSITING THINGS and POSTULATING LAWS.

    Now consider the two systems.

    Theist:

    1) Posits the world.
    2) Postulates the laws.
    3) Posits God (to explain the existence of the world and truth of the laws).
    4) Holds that the existence of God is a brute fact.

    Atheist:

    1) Posits the world.
    2) Postulates the laws.
    3) Holds that the existence of the world and the truth of the laws are brute facts.

    So here’s the question for the design argument: why think that the existence of the world (as we know it) and the truth of the laws requires explanation, but God’s existence doesn’t?

    I think a reasonable answer would have to be something along the following lines: because there is an explanatory hypothesis for the existence of the world and the truth of the laws that does GENUINE explanatory work, whereas there is no such explanatory hypothesis for the existence of God. The problem, however, is that the theist claims that the God hypothesis is the former, and, well, he’s just wrong about that: the God hypothesis does NOT do genuine explanatory work. For the God hypothesis to do genuinely explanatory work, we would have to do be able to derive testable consequences from it (together with auxilliary hypotheses). But this is something we, as often admitted by the theist in response to the problem of evil (“we can never understand the mind of God!”), cannot do.

    Generally, I would think that any hypothesis that comes with the disclaimer “Thou shalt not put [this hypothesis] to the test” (Mathew 4:7, Luke 4:12) is simply a non-starter.

  6. David Wiens says:

    Dustin:

    Thanks for the reply. But I’m still not entirely clear on how your response is supposed to work, so allow me to press a little. You ask: `why think that the existence of the world (as we know it) and the truth of the laws requires explanation, but God’s existence doesn’t?’ I guess my earlier questions were meant to gesture at a different question: `Why think that God’s existence requires explanation, but the existence of the world and the truth of the laws don’t?’ Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not very clear on what the laws of nature are supposed to be. Say that laws just are propositions, or that they are no more thing-like than propositions, as you suggest. Question(s): on this view of laws, are they determinative? That is, do they determine the behaviour of phenomena in the world? Or do they simply track something in the world (I don’t know what though, regularities perhaps?); that is, do they simply tell us what the world is like? On the former (determinative) view, wouldn’t their determinative force require some explanation? Isn’t it intelligible to ask why the laws are related to phenomena in such a way that they necessitate certain behaviour, or why they necessitate this behaviour rather than that? On the latter (tracking) view, wouldn’t whatever the laws track require some explanation? Isn’t it intelligible to ask why the world exhibits these regularities rather than others? On either view, can’t we ask further why the world behaves according to these laws rather than some others? If it’s right to say that the laws are contingently true, it would be odd if the explanation for why the world behaves according to these laws rather than others is the law-hypothesis, wouldn’t it? Unless, of course, higher-order laws were postulated to explain the lower-order laws; but then there’s an infinite regress of higher orders of laws explaining lower-order laws. (Not everyone will have a problem with this, but some might.) It seems to me that the law-hypothesis is supposed to explain why phenomena behave as they do, not why these laws are instantiated rather than those.

    If the preceding is cogent (and it may very well not be), then it seems that there’s still an open question regarding the explanation of the laws (although this time it’s not a question of their existence and operation, but a question of why these ones rather than some others are instantiated). And the law- and God-hypotheses are in the same boat in response to this one—i.e., they both posit something from which we are unable to `derive testable consequences… (together with auxiliary hypotheses).’ (I take it as plausible that we can’t test the consequences of an infinite regress of higher orders of laws, but I might be wrong about this.) So, to repeat the question, why think that God’s existence requires explanation, but the existence of the world and the truth of the laws don’t? I don’t know, this still seems a little confusing to me. Some clarity would be nice…

  7. dtlocke says:

    `Why think that God’s existence requires explanation, but the existence of the world and the truth of the laws don’t?’

    Who faces that question? I’m not claiming that God’s existence would require explanation. I’m just wondering how the theist can justify HIS claim that the world/laws require explanation but God’s existence doesn’t.

  8. David Wiens says:

    I’m just wondering how the theist can justify HIS claim that the world/laws require explanation but God’s existence doesn’t.

    While dissatisfying to the non-theist, the answer to this is simply that God is, ex hypothesi, necessary and self-explanatory, while the laws (or the regularities exhibited in the world) are contingent, and therefore, not self-explanatory (even for the non-theist). So it would seem intelligible to ask what explains the fact that the regularities in the world are as they are and not some other way. Asking that question leads us to an explanatory gap of sorts. For the theist, there’s a problem explaining how God explains the laws (as Jason K. pointed out to me); for the non-theist, there’s a problem explaining the laws (i.e., there’s no posited explanation).

  9. David Wiens says:

    I just noticed that Jon gave a similar answer (`the easy answer’) to your question as the one I just did, which you dismissed. Nevertheless, the fact (if it is a fact) that the laws are contingent and not self-explanatory is enough to raise the problem of the explanatory gap—which I think is a problem for both the God- and law-hypotheses, if I haven’t made that clear already. It’s in this sense that I think the God- and law-hypotheses are in the same boat. Or am I missing something?

  10. dtlocke says:

    Why should it be any more plausible that God necessarily exists than that the laws are necessarily true? In fact, I take it to be the exact opposite: it’s much more plausible that the laws are necessarily true (ala Shoemaker) than it is that some CONCRETE being necessarily exists.

  11. dtlocke says:

    No, you didn’t give the “answer” Jon gave. You actually tried to give some REASON to think that world/laws are the sort of thing that require explanation while God isn’t. In particular, the reason you gave was that the world/laws are contingent whereas God isn’t. Jon, on the other hand, just repeated the (alleged) fact to be explained—that is, that the world/laws (are the sort of thing that) require a creator while God isn’t. Hence my “easy answer indeed” response to Jon, and my (mildly) substantive response to you.

  12. David Wiens says:

    I’m not sure why one or the other of God’s necessary existence or the laws’ necessary truth should be more plausible, so I take your point. I guess I took the laws’ contingent truth as part of the law-hypothesis, but, as you pointed out, it’s not clear that this need be the case. (But it’s also not clear to me that the laws are necessarily true.) Whatever lessons there are to be drawn from this exchange, one is clear to me: I don’t know very much about explanation.

    While this has been profitable, I really do have other things to do; so it might be a while before I can get back to thinking about this.

  13. Jon S. says:

    As usual, here is a second version of one of my comments, which (I think) I am allowed to post:

    I’m not sure I get why “answer” is still going in quotes. Here’s some clarification of what I meant from an email discussion, with my responses interspersed among some comments by Dustin:

    D: “Whether the “fleshing out” can be done in this case is independent of whether it was a mistake to think that that was an answer, because in this case the “fleshing out” is giving ALL the answer-not expanding on an answer you´ve already given-and hence really isn´t “fleshing out” at all.

    I´m not saying that you (they, whoever) don´t (doesn´t) have an answer. I’m just saying that what you claimed to be an “answer” in your initial comment was just a restatement of the (alleged) fact to be explained. Seriously, is “A is the sort of thing that is an F and B is the sort of thing that is not an F” not just a restatement of “A is an F and B is not an F”?”

    J: I think I would recast the comment differently. I stated the question as “Why does the world need a creator if God doesn´t?” Or, “Why is A an F if B is not an F?” Then I stated the answer as “B is the sort of thing that is not an F (and sui generis besides), and A is the sort of thing that is an F [implicature: in particular because it´s not B].” Rather than restating that as “A is the sort of thing that is an F and B is the sort of
    thing that is not an F,” as you have it, I´d restate it as “They´re different sorts of
    things and, further, B is a unique sort of thing that has among its properties not being
    an F.” Then what I´ve been calling fleshing out really is fleshing out, because it´s
    telling you what it is for B to be that unique sort of thing, and in particular it´s
    pointing out the relevant difference between B and A.

    D: “Perhaps you´re thinking that “A is the sort of thing that is an F” means something
    like “A has some property in virtue of which it is an F”. If so, then indeed: it has the
    property of being an F in virtue of which it is an F.”

    J: Rather, it has the property of being nonidentical with God, the sole (purportedly)
    uncreated thing, in virtue of which it needs a creator.

    I think Dustin still finds it contentious whether that’s a legitimate reading of what I originally said (because, I think, of some pragmatic considerations about parenthetical comments), but I persist that it’s what I meant, however you slice it.

    Best,
    Jon

  14. Idetrorce says:

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

  15. Jonesy says:

    The design argument your rendition of UBA refutes can be refuted more concisely like this:

    1) Says who?
    2) Compared to what?
    3) Better find sturdier premises to support this.
    4) Only ‘complex designer’ would be established if your premises were established. Is
    ‘complex designer’ all you’re claiming?

    (You’re right that Hume observed all this long ago–Dawkins even mentions it in his book.)

    Dawkins himself refuted the design argument in a chapter before the one presenting UFA, as I recall. What I don’t recall is seeing anything hinting at ideas of the form ‘it is either false that blah, or blah, or blah, or blah.”

    At the very least, then, Plantinga got the conclusion right. Dawkins gave UBA to support the bold claim (A) God’s unlikely, not the ho-hum claim (B) the design argument sucks. The fact that Dawkins’ arguments work better supporting (B) does not negate this.

    Thus, your analysis should include, from C4

    C5) The design argument’s crap

    leading to

    C6) God (broadly defined) is super-unlikely.

    C5 to C6 is a fallacious inference unworthy of a dull preschooler, but Dawkins did make it.

    To summarize, your points seem to be

    a. your rendition of Dawkins’ argument is more accurate than Plantinga’s.

    b. your rendition of Dawkins’ argument is a useful refutation of the design argument.

    and possibly

    c. Plantinga’s a dumb theist who believes the design argument & deserves scorn.

    and

    d. Dawkins is a good, scientific thinker who deserves our respect.

    I suspect c is correct, and I sympathize. But I think a and b are simply incorrect, for the reasons I’ve indicated.

    As for d:

    While Dawkins is undoubtedly a good biologist, the facts are that he claimed that god (as broadly defined) is super-unlikely, and he backed it up with lousy reasoning–while claiming his lousy reasoning was a ‘statistical demonstration’ against ‘a scientific hypothesis like any other.’ This is the original (non-Humean) part of UBA and his book, and it is on this–his claim to have demonstrated scientifically what he couldn’t even demonstrate philosophically–that he should be judged.

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