The Case for a Creator: The Ultimate 747

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 6

In his frequently-maligned (but less-frequently read and understood) book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins offers what I think is an underappreciated argument against all varieties of supernatural design, the “Ultimate 747″ argument.

Briefly stated, it goes like this: If we accept ID advocates’ reasoning, complexity and organization require a designer. Yet it stands to reason that any designer that could create a complex, organized thing must be an even more complex and organized being in its own right, and therefore even more in need of a designer of its own to explain its existence. If we consider it unlikely that creatures as complex as human beings simply exist by chance, requiring no designer, a fortiori we should consider it even more unlikely that a supernatural, human-designing deity could just happen to exist with no outside explanation. Why do we need a human-designer, but not a human-designer-designer? (The allusion, of course, is to the infamous creationist argument that evolution is like a tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling a 747 jumbo jet.)

This argument applies with a vengeance to the claims made by Lee Strobel and Robin Collins in this chapter. Collins claims that it’s absurd to invoke as-yet undiscovered laws of physics to explain why the universe (or the multiverse) exists, when we already have a perfectly suitable candidate:

“We see minds producing complex, precision machinery all the time. So postulating the existence of a supermind – or God – as the explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe makes all the sense in the world. It would simply be a natural extrapolation of what we already know that minds can do.” [p.146]

Similar to William Lane Craig’s argument from the last chapter, this innocent-looking paragraph smuggles in all kinds of Christian presuppositions.

First of all, it is not a natural extrapolation from “intelligent beings can create machines” to “intelligent beings can create universes”. The former entails working within the cosmos and the laws of physics to shape matter to our advantage. The latter entails actually creating that matter and those laws of physics. These are completely qualitatively different abilities. One is a natural endeavor, following the principles of natural law; the other transcends natural law, by definition making it a supernatural power.

But more importantly, look carefully and you’ll see where the theistic presuppositions try to slide past. Human minds are also contingent entities, brought into existence by prior causes and existing on a material substrate. Are these also traits that we should apply to God? If not, why not, since we have no experience of any mind for which these two conditions are not true? Would this not also be a “natural extrapolation” from what we know of minds?

The thread of Strobel’s reasoning, if followed consistently, leads inescapably to the conclusion that God, no less than human beings, needs a prior cause and a designing intelligence of his own to “fine-tune” the conditions for his existence. Of course, this leads to absurdity, for how do we explain the existence and fine-tuned nature of that designing intelligence? These 747s just keep getting bigger and bigger the more we try.

The only way to escape an infinite regress of ever-greater intelligent designers is to assume that, at some point, complexity arose from simplicity. And we know of only one algorithm capable of doing that: the algorithm of evolution, which has amply demonstrated its ability to create marvelously complex, intricate and well-adapted systems from simpler precursors. But once you admit that this can happen, what need is there for a designer at all? Why not follow the (abundant) evidence, conclude that human beings arose from a process of evolution, and cut off the recursion at the earliest possible step?

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Jennifer

    When I was a kid, I had a good explanation for this. I figured that, yes, God too needed a designer, and that designer needed a designer, so on ad infinitum. My conclusion was that time travel had to be possible. Whichever was the first designer had to be able to go back in time and create himself!

    I’m genuinely surprised that no creationists have picked up on this one. But then, hey, why couldn’t the universe itself go back in time… maybe the universe itself is sentient… no, that’s just science fiction!

    I found myself the other day trying to explain the concept of Occam’s Razor to my Xian conservative aunt, using your example, unsuccessfully…

  • Ritchie

    Dawkins? You’re citing Dawkins?! Pah! How relevant is he?

    He’s only one of the most distinguished biologists alive today, author of nearly a dozen popular science books which have never been out of print in over 30 years, former Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford university – the man who has more awards and degrees than you can shake a stick at, championed the gene-centred view of evolution, and outlined two of the cornerstone ideas of modern (socio-?)biology – the meme, and the fact that phenotypic effects can extend outside the body.

    Who’s he compared to the ‘experts’ Strobel has wheeled out who… errrm… well… have a bronze swimming certificate between them.

  • http://timecube.com Oro Mezclado

    Here’s my chance to post this cool quote and be fairly on-topic:

    To say that a certain scheme or process shows order or system, one must have some norm or pattern by which to determine whether the matter concerned shows any design or order. We have a norm, a pattern, and that is the universe itself, from which we fashion our ideas. We have observed this universe and its operation and we call it order. To say that the universe is patterned on order is to say that the universe is patterned on the universe. It can mean nothing else.

    Clarence Darrow, “The Delusion of Design and Purpose”, via Skeptic’s Dictionary

    Discuss.

    Oh, and Ritchie, to be fair, none of those achievements you listed qualify Dawkins as an expert on metaphysics… then again, nothing really qualifies anyone as an expert on metaphysics.

  • Ritchie

    Oro – point taken. I guess my rant would have been better spent in the chapter on evolution…

    Jennifer – ohh, time travel. But doesn’t that involve a paradox? Isn’t God going back and creating his own designer/himself the same as going back in time and killing your parents before you were born?

  • SteveC

    I expect the typical reaction to this argument of the designer needing a designer will tend to be along the same lines as the reaction of the “7-minute abs” hawking hitchhiker in Something About Mary on being confronted with the possibility of “6-minute abs.”

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “We see minds producing complex, precision machinery all the time. So postulating the existence of a supermind – or God – as the explanation for…

    rain, thunder, disease, fertility, crop production, etc. This is nothing more than the pre-scientific assignment of unknown causes to a conscious entity.

  • Tacroy

    The debate goes like this:

    T: I have a very good argument B for religion.
    A: That doesn’t even work, for reasons ~B.
    T: You just don’t understand the subtleties of religion! ~B is invalid because of them!

    Later:

    T’: I have a very good argument B’ for religion.
    A’: That can’t, for reasons ~B.
    T’: T has already countered ~B, and anyway B’ is an entirely different argument. Silly atheist, you can’t keep using the same tired counter-argument!

  • KarateMonkey

    ohh, time travel. But doesn’t that involve a paradox? Isn’t God going back and creating his own designer/himself the same as going back in time and killing your parents before you were born?

    I imagine it would be a bit more like this.

  • paradoctor

    I call this the “Grand-god” argument. To wit: define “Grand-god” as God’s God; i.e. the designer’s designer. Is there a Grand-god? If so, then is there a great-grand-god, etc.? And if not, then is God an atheist?

  • Alex Weaver

    The 747s bother me less than the Creationists’ penchant for trying to fly them into ivory towers.

  • Glenn Decker

    “The only way to escape an infinite regress of ever-greater intelligent designers is to assume that, at some point, complexity arose from simplicity.”

    Using the word “assume” seems to be opening the door to all kinds of creationist mumbo jumbo. Scientists don’t generally assume stuff, they make hypotheses and
    test them with observation and experiment. GD

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    I have never liked this argument. Ignoring whether the following claim:

    Yet it stands to reason that any designer that could create a complex, organized thing must be an even more complex and organized being in its own right.

    …is indeed valid (I’m not sure it is), I know from experience that this argument will fall flat with any theist. Like the many “proofs” that theists present to us atheists that fall flat with us, this one falls flat with them. Every time. It is far too easy to sweep this one away with special pleading and thus change the subject to something else.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Yes, Ergo, I seem to be right in the middle of one such discussion right now. It was kind of a wake-up call: “Wait, this guy believes in intrinsicism? Really?!” Guess so.

    God has always solved problems by magic. Back in the day, as Reginald Selkirk has pointed out, the supernatural was invoked to explain the big scary parts of nature that we couldn’t control. Now it’s used to explain the small scary parts that we can’t (or refuse to) understand.

    Everything comes from nothing? Nope, it comes from a God who loves you dearly.
    Your ego’s a damned liar? Nope, it’s your sin working against you.
    Free will is an illusion? Nope, you magically have it, ‘cuz that’s happier.
    Life lacks objective purpose and meaning? Nope, God will tell you.
    We have to make justice for ourselves, and might fail? Nope, God enforces justice.
    Bad things happen to good people? Nope, God punishes unholiness with mad splash damage.
    We live in a world of scarcity? Nope, God provides.
    Everything about me is a matter of luck? Nope, God’s got a plan.

    The more I look around, the more convinced I am that the one thing religion has consistently done, in all times and places, for all people, is to provide an escape hatch from the problem of dealing with a reality you don’t like. Don’t want to believe that the Universe is a scary and difficult place? Don’t worry, we’ve got a religion for that – you’ll be seeing Divine Providence everywhere you look in no time, flat!

    But Ergo, though this particular argument might not appeal to you or any theist you’ve personally met, it’s another brick in the godless wall. Greta Christina pointed out the “water over rock” principle while explaining that we must patiently deal with each theist personally, otherwise we look like a crazy cult when we expect individuals (who vary wildly) to be swayed by this or that particular gem of wisdom. You can lead a horse to water, but sometimes you have to wait for him to be thirsty before he takes a drink all on his own; otherwise he very well may dehydrate just trying to resist your… whatever…

    Look, I quit metaphors forever!

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    Mad splash damage? Great way to put it. :)

    You’re right, it’s an argument that must be made for the sake of completion, if anything. I just don’t think it should be stressed as strongly as some others.

  • J Myers

    I have never liked this argument. Ignoring whether the following claim:

    Yet it stands to reason that any designer that could create a complex, organized thing must be an even more complex and organized being in its own right.

    …is indeed valid (I’m not sure it is)

    Theists offer this lame retort all the time, not seeming to realize that they lose either way. Either a more complex designer is required (in order to be consistent with the very observation from which they infer* their design argument; namely, complex humans creating comparatively less-complex machinery), or less-complex conditions can give rise to more-complex conditions, in which case, no designer is required.

    I know from experience that this argument will fall flat with any theist. Like the many “proofs” that theists present to us atheists that fall flat with us, this one falls flat with them.

    Talk about false equivalence… theist “proofs” fall flat because they are anything but. Yet if a particular theist (or every theist) manages to ignore this argument, that does nothing to diminish its validity. If you see a flaw, by all means, point it out. Please be aware, though, that an appeal to your aesthetic sensibilities does not constitute any sort of valid criticism.

    *for lack of a better word

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    Yes, they lose either way, and either way they resort to special pleading, which just changes the subject or ends in base assertions.

    And yes, it appears to us to be false equivalence, but they are working with an entirely different set of presuppositions than we are.

    And I apologize if my distaste for this argument appeared aesthetic, but it is not. If the aim is to deconvert people, then an argument’s effectiveness in achieving that aim is indeed a valid criticism. If the aim is to simply be right, then by all means, be right, and presumably leave the effectiveness to other people.

  • Caiphen

    Hey Guys

    I’ve worked it all out. God is several million stages ahead of us on an evolutionary scale, he then travelled back in time and created his own species.

    That’s what Q from star trek was- right?

    Seriously though, I’m now an atheist because the argument on the evolutionary algorithm reason for complexity makes too much sense to ignore. In essence, it’s the only argument that makes any sense.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    Ergo, Myers, the two of you seem to be arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Well, y’know, the atheistic equivalent. At the end of the day, we still need to engage theists as individuals, and that means having a thick playbook at our disposal. Just because a double-reverse doesn’t always get a touchdown doesn’t – wait – dammit, I quit metaphors already!

    Caiphen seems to be living proof that it works sometimes, though.

  • Paul

    D, trying to give up metaphors is like . . . trying to give up metaphors.

    It’s easy!

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    …and similes similarly.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Alternately, D, may I suggest:

    You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him think.

  • Joffan

    Like telling a good joke, you don’t give away the punchline at the beginning. You have to sneak this one up on the theists. Start by pinning down their objections to evolution along the lines of “So, you don’t see any way that complex beings can arise from simple conditions?” (or preferably get them to say something like that) and, assuming their agreement and bedding it down with a few more examples, you could ask “well, how complex would you say God is?”

    I would say, however, that in general the punchline approach to debate is far more proficiently used by the religious side than the atheists, so you may not get away with it.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    I know from experience that this argument will fall flat with any theist.

    Ergo: Are there any arguments that don’t fall flat with theists?

    Theists have an answer for everything. Not a good answer, but an answer: from “God is magic and the rules of cause and effect don’t apply to him,” to, “Not everything can be understood by evidence and logic,” to, “I feel it in my heart.”

    But I think making the arguments is still worthwhile. When I did a survey in my blog asking non-believers what finally convinced them to let go of their beliefs, the reasons they gave were many of the reasons we give in our debates with believers. Getting those ideas out in the world will (hopefully) mean that fewer people will have to re-invent the wheel. Also, a surprising number of people said that they were convinced, at least in part, by talking with or reading atheist arguments… reassuring for those of us who often feel like we’re banging our heads against a wall. (And the reasons they gave were all over the map: there wasn’t just one knock-down argument that convinced everyone.)

    I know when I was deconverting, one of the things that made a big difference was that every single argument I made could be shot down by non-believers. It wasn’t that one particular argument was so unanswerable: it was that all of them together looked like a much stronger case than mine: more rational, less rationalizing.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Oh, speaking of the “God is magic” argument: Some of you might be interested in a piece I wrote about it a while back. (Titled, oddly enough, God Is Magic. Sorry for the self-promotion, but it really is relevant.)

    This is the argument many theists will use to counter the “infinite regression of creators” problem. They’ll say, “The universe couldn’t have just always existed/ come into being by itself, since the universe is physical, and physical things have to follow laws of physical cause and effect. But God is magic, and he doesn’t have to follow those laws, and therefore… (insert fuzzy thinking here).”

    It’s a terrible argument — mostly because it just defines its way out of the problem without actually thinking about it — but it is the argument many theists will make, and we have to be ready for it.

  • The Pink Ninja

    Huh, I had thought of this arguement before but not the section about “intelligent beings can create universes”

    Also, on an unrelated note I just wonder if you’d be intrested in this piece of very poor polling:

    http://forums.narutofan.com/showthread.php?t=554264

    Athiests seem to massively prefer the idea of Reincarnation to Heaven or Oblivion.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I would say, however, that in general the punchline approach to debate is far more proficiently used by the religious side…

    Well, they have more practice because religion is a joke.

  • Polly

    I think the Intelligent Design or intelligent creator idea has great potential value as a marketing tool.

    “The new Audi Quattro XVI is so perfectly engineered, you’ll think it was designed by a god.

    -fully equipped model shown, see dealer for extras, factory rebates subject to revision visit audi.com for details…”

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Like telling a good joke, you don’t give away the punchline at the beginning. You have to sneak this one up on the theists. Start by pinning down their objections to evolution along the lines of “So, you don’t see any way that complex beings can arise from simple conditions?” (or preferably get them to say something like that) and, assuming their agreement and bedding it down with a few more examples, you could ask “well, how complex would you say God is?”

    Bingo, Joffan. I think Ergo Ratio (#12) is right that, if we present this argument flat-out, the typical theist will respond with something like, “But God doesn’t need a creator because he is the First Cause,” or some other thinly disguised form of special pleading. But that’s true of any argument, really: If you openly lay out a whole string of deductions from premises to conclusion, you’re inviting your opponent to reject all of them. It’s like showing everyone what weapons you’re carrying before you go to war.

    It’s much more effective to state your premises without revealing where you’re going with them right from the beginning – state them in a way that seems harmless or even congenial to the opposing view, get your opponent to agree with them. Then, once you’ve cut off the obvious escape routes, do you lower the boom. Sarah Braasch showed us how this is done just two weeks ago. Sneaky, yes, but effective.

  • Grimalkin

    ohh, time travel. But doesn’t that involve a paradox? Isn’t God going back and creating his own designer/himself the same as going back in time and killing your parents before you were born?

    Would that really be so different to God impregnating a teenager with himself and therefore being both father and son at the same time?

    I mean really, you can’t apply these kinds of standards to religion. It just doesn’t work.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    Sneaky, yes, but effective.

    Well, to be fair, we are talking about rhetoric here – y’know, the art of persuading people to believe things they don’t already believe. Ergo Ratio already made a good point about efficacy, so I’ll not repeat him; I’ll just add the clarification that how you say it often makes more difference than what is being said.

  • Kendawgg

    I personally think that the government’s some sort of evil mastermind that needed to create a scapegoat for the people in order to stop all the questioning; hence religion. And if there are still more questions, that’s when capitalism comes in and distracts us all with consumerism culture. And just to make us feel a little more safe, there’s the school education system to babysit us to make us think we’re actually making progress in life. In the end we’re just their guinea pigs and the only way to get off this ride is to educate ourselves in our own way.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com/ D

    Wait, are you saying that modern life is a mug’s game? That none of the pretty distractions we constantly surround ourselves with can provide lasting happiness? That fulfilling meaning and purpose must come from within, and that we might fail to realize our dreams?

    By the stars, I think the boy may have just become a man! :)

    (Also, you can see adversity anywhere you look for it. Doesn’t mean there’s any intelligence behind it – I mean, really, you think the government is capable of that level of coordination? You give your fellow humans too much credit by far!)


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