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:

Debunking the Bible's Gender Binary
Weekend Coffee: May 31
#BeyondMarieCurie: Women in STEM & Medicine
Popular Delusions: Electrosensitivity
About Adam Lee

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


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