Atheistic Teleological Arguments, Part 5: Dawkins’s Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit

A. The Argument Formulated

In chapter 4 of his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins advances an argument for atheism he calls the “Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit,” in reference to Fred Hoyle’s famous comment about a Boeing 747 arising by chance in a junkyard.[26] Just as Hoyle’s argument appeals to the (alleged) improbability of evolution, Dawkins’s argument appeals to the (alleged) improbability of God.

Dawkins is not a philosopher writing for other philosophers; he is a biologist writing for a popular audience. For this reason, it is entirely understandable that he does not provide his argument for atheism in its logical form. On the other hand, it is valuable to state it in its logical form, so that we can have a clear and precise summary of it. We are in luck: philosopher Erik Wielenberg has already done the work of carefully analyzing Dawkins’ argument and identifying its logical form. Since I agree entirely with Wielenberg’s analysis, I shall simply quote his formulation of the argument.

(1) If God exists, then God has these two properties: (i) He provides an intelligent-design explanation for all natural, complex phenomena in the universe and (ii) He has no explanation external to Himself.

(2) Anything that provides an intelligent-design explanation for the natural, complex phenomena in the universe is at least as complex as such phenomena.

(3) So, if God exists, then God has these two properties: (i) He is at least as complex as the natural, complex phenomena in the universe and (ii) He has no explanation external to Himself. (from 1 and 2)

(4) It is very improbable that there exists something that (i) is at least as complex as the natural, complex phenomena in the universe and (ii) has no explanation external to itself.

(5) Therefore, it is very improbable that God exists. (from 3 and 4)[27]

B. Assessment of Dawkins’s Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit

Dawkins began his chapter by reviewing why Hoyle’s argument from improbability (i.e., his ‘Boeing 747 gambit’) is evidentially worthless against evolution by natural selection. As Dawkins correctly points out, natural selection is the opposite of chance;[28] hence, the argument is literally irrelevant to the hypothesis of natural selection. It seems to me that the Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit (hereafter, “Dawkins’s Atheistic Teleological Argument (ATA)”) suffers from a parallel problem with respect to the God hypothesis. As Wielenberg points out, it’s valuable to distinguish two versions of the God Hypothesis:

(GH1) There exists a contingent, physical, complex, superhuman, supernatural intelligence that created the universe and has no external explanation.

(GH2) There exists a necessary, nonphysical, complex, superhuman, supernatural intelligence that created the universe and has no external explanation.[29]

The key point here is the difference between a contingent, physical being and a necessary, nonphysical being. As Weilenberg writes, “Dawkins’s argument may be effective against (GH1), but no clear-thinking Jew, Christian, or Muslim accepts that thesis. (GH2) is much closer to traditional monotheism than is (GH1), but Dawkins’s Gambit is ineffective against (GH2).”[30] Therefore, as far as (GH2) is concerned, premise (4) is false and Dawkins’s ATA fails.

Series on Atheistic Teleological Arguments

Notes

[26] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 111-59.

[27] Erik Wielenberg, “Dawkins’s Gambit, Hume’s Aroma, and God’s Simplicty,” Philosophia Christi 11 (2009): 113-128 at 115.

[28] Dawkins 2006, 113-14.

[29] Wielenberg 2009, 118.

[30] Ibid.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05130016615104653729 TaiChi

    There is no textual evidence to support, what Wielenberg attributes to Dawkins, the assumption that God is not a necessary being, who would be eternal. In fact the opposite is true, as Dawkins explicitly recognizes the possibility:

    "It may even be a superhuman designer – but, if so, it will almost certainly not be a designer who just popped into existence, or who always existed.” ~ TGD, p.156

    So why does Wielenberg attribute it to Dawkins? Because he doesn't understand that where Dawkins talks about something's being 'improbable', Dawkins is speaking of antecedent probability. An organism is improbable in the sense that it has many heterogenous parts which can be arranged in a manifold of ways, but only a few of which are functional. And it remains improbable in just this sense even when we bring in the theory of evolution: what the theory of evolution does is to explain the improbability, not to lessen it.
    But in that case God's necessity, and the corollary of his eternality, is beside the point. Whether or not a complex God came into existence, he would still be improbable in the above sense, for he would be composed of a particular functional arrangement of parts occupying a tiny portion of the logical space which represents all possible permutations of those parts.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    'There exists a necessary, nonphysical, complex, superhuman, supernatural intelligence that created the universe and has no external explanation.'

    So what is the valid argument that shows that a necessarily existent being is unlikely to exist?

    If odd perfect numbers exist, they exist necessarily, in the same way that the perfection of '6' and '28' is a necessary consequence of the laws of logic.

    Does this mean that any mathematician who produces an argument showing that it is unlikely that odd perfect numbers exist, is producing irrelevant arguments?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    I agree with Taichi.

    Could that part of the post be rewritten as follows -
    'As Wielenberg points out, it's valuable to distinguish two versions of the God Hypothesis: "It may even be a superhuman designer – but, if so, it will almost certainly not be a designer who just popped into existence, or who always existed.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12645042531440559735 Aaron Boyden

    It is problematic to apply probability to necessary truths, but it is equally problematic to try to explain ordinary empirical facts by appeal to necessary truths. I think there's an inconsistency in accepting the latter and ruling out the former. If that's right, then anyone who takes GH2 to explain the universe can't say that probability considerations shouldn't be applied to GH2. And as TaiChi says, the most obvious way to try to apply probability to GH2 produces about the same results as applying probability to GH1.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    'It is problematic to apply probability to necessary truths….'

    So all Swinburne's arguments about the probability of God existing are the work of an ill-informed amateur – somebody who has read 'The God Delusion' and formed the opinion that it is meaningful to talk about God probably existing or God probably not existing?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12645042531440559735 Aaron Boyden

    Just because something is problematic doesn't mean there are no philosophers who will attempt it. It is problematic to treat contradictions as possibly true, but Graham Priest is not an ill-informed amateur. Priest is probably making a mistake, though, and I'd say the same about Swinburne.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    I agree with Aaron and Tai Chi.

    Isn't the definition of God that most Christians, Muslims and Jews would accept is – 'There exists a necessary, nonphysical, complex, superhuman, supernatural intelligence that created the universe and has no external explanation, and is deeply concerned about the details of our sex lives.'

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    What TaiChi said x10.

    I'm not baffled that apologists don't understand basic principles of evidence and argument for establishing existence claims. But I am baffled that so many atheists seem to be hoodwinked on the issue of antecedent probability and the 747 argument.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi TaiChi — Could you please define what you mean by "antecedent probability"? I think I know what you mean, but I don't want to assume that, especially since I've endorsed Wielenberg's analysis, which you (and others) say is based on a misunderstanding of that concept.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    TaiChi wrote:

    There is no textual evidence to support, what Wielenberg attributes to Dawkins, the assumption that God is not a necessary being, who would be eternal. In fact the opposite is true, as Dawkins explicitly recognizes the possibility:

    "It may even be a superhuman designer – but, if so, it will almost certainly not be a designer who just popped into existence, or who always existed.” ~ TGD, p.156

    Perhaps I am just being dense or even brain dead, but I don't understand how this quotation supports the claim that Dawkins's argument concerns God defined as a necessary being. "Being eternal" (i.e., having "always existed") is not a necessary condition for God to be a necessary being; many theists believe that God exists timelessly without creation. Or to pick a non-theological example: many people believe the laws of logic express necessary truths. Does that mean the laws of logic are "eternal"? Or could they be "timeless"? It's not obvious to me that one has to say they are eternal, especially when I reflect upon the fact that necessary truths, if they are abstract objects, don't exist in space and time at all.

    Apart from all of that, I think there is a further disanology between God and organisms. Since God is a dismebodied being, He is not composed of matter. If that is the case, however, then it's far from clear that God is composed of "many heterogeneous parts." The only way I can make sense out of the idea of 'measuring' God's complexity is to try to measure the relative "simplicity" of the God hypothesis. If I do that, however, it is far from clear that God is "complex."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Here is one quotation of Dawkins which provides some textual support for the claim that Dawkins, in TGD, is arguing against something like (GH1):

    "There is a much more powerful argument, which does not depend upon subjective judgement, and it is the argument from improbability. It really does transport us dramatically away from 50 per cent agnosticism, far towards the extreme of theism in the view of many theists, far towards the extreme of atheism in my view. I have alluded to it several times already. The whole argument turns on the familiar question, 'Who made God?', which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us to escape. This argument, as I shall show in the next chapter, demonstrates that God, though not technically disprovable, is very very improbable indeed."

    It seems to me that Dawkins's question, "Who made God?", makes more sense on the assumption he was treating God as a contingently existing being than on the assumption he was treating God as a necessarily existing being.

    Let's turn to the Boeing 747 example. Fred Hoyle argued that evolution is improbable. Why? Because he compared the probability of two hypotheses for the origin of a Boeing 747: chance and design. Boeing 747s are not eternal or timeless things; rather, they began to exist. So how did their parts come together to make a plane? Hoyle says the chance hypothesis, while not impossible, is extremely improbable.

    Enter Dawkins. He seems to want to turn this analogy on its head and argue that the God hypothesis, while not impossible, is extremely improbable. But it seems to me the analogy between a Boeing 747 and God fails. First, if there is a God, He is either eternal or timeless. In either case, there is no scenario in which pre-existing material somehow got rearranged or assembled to make God. Second, a Boeing 747 is a physical object composed of many parts, whereas God is a disembodied person, not composed of any parts. So it's not at all clear how to make sense out of the idea that God's 'parts' could have had any one of many configurations. But if God's 'parts' could not have had one out of many configurations, then I don't know how to make sense out of the idea that God's purported 'complexity' makes Him "improbable."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10509401627805923739 SWBTSguy321

    Lowder wrote:
    "It seems to me that Dawkins's question, "Who made God?", makes more sense on the assumption he was treating God as a contingently existing being than on the assumption he was treating God as a necessarily existing being."

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. The infinite regress argument is one of the first ones I dealt with in my own Christian walk. When I thought about the fact that everything we see, touch, taste etc. comes from some sort of force or process, personal or impersonal, the question arose: If this God is all-powerful, all-loving, etc. where did He come from? What or Who made God. I knew vaguely that other religions saw there to be some pre-existent force or substance such as water or spirit which ultimately gave rise to their gods, but I wanted to know what the Bible said about it. One of the things that struck me on reading the Bible through for the first time as a Christian was how clear it was that God is presented as self-existent. I had come to faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior after learning about my sinfulness and His sacrifice on the cross on my behalf. After my conversion I began to read and study the Bible more and more.

    The question of “Who made God?,” is certainly one that must be addressed. However, for Dawkins to so straw-man the majority of theistic beliefs is surprising to me. A reader of the Bible will quickly see God’s Aseity (self-existence). Genesis 1, Acts 17, Job 41, Psalm 50, and many others testify to a God who is not in need of anything from anyone. Genesis 1 is certainly a key one here. As many have pointed out in times past, Genesis doesn’t open with an argument for God’s existence or a description of how He came to be, rather it begins by showing Him act in creation. As the Bible progresses, this theme is picked up on again and again.

    Dawkins may however have hit on something beneath the surface of proper Christian orthodoxy and unintentionally hit on Christian praxis. Many Christians, both truly converted and nominal, see God as dependant on them. This comes in a variety of ways. I remember being taught in a Bible class in middle school that God created man essentially because He was lonely. This God needed a friend and so He created us to interact with. The biblical picture is interesting though. God is full self-sufficient yet He created a free man and woman to worship Him and enjoy His presence. In their chosen rebellion they refused His commands and chose the path of sin which leads to death. Yet it was His pre-arranged plan (Acts 2:22-24) to rescue these sinners and all of us like them, by sending His Son to die in our place. This God is not contingent on anything, yet is gracious enough to create us and redeem us even in our rebellion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12645042531440559735 Aaron Boyden

    It is highly questionable whether the notion of a necessary being makes sense. Part of the problem is investing necessary entities with causal powers. Probably the necessary God hypothesis should instead be interpreted as investing God with some analog of causal powers, rather than real causal powers, but the more complex and varied the analogous causal powers, the less plausible it is that there is some analog which is so cause-like but not really causation. And the more complex and varied the universe is, the more complex and varied these analogical causal powers would have to be.

    There's also a bit of a dilemma here; making God an ordinary cause means God can be an explanation of the universe, but it makes it unreasonable to see God as a necessary being and reasonable for Dawkins to ask what causes God, Making God some kind of special analogical cause makes it less clear that God really explains anything about the universe; it is not clear how any substitute can perform the explanatory work an ordinary causal explanation is supposed to perform, even if you give it a comfortingly similar name.

    Ultimately, the problem is that the theistic position doesn't make sense, and theists cover this up with vagueness and hand-waving. Any criticism of their view which tries to point out the inconsistencies must clarify things sufficiently to expose the inconsistencies. Such clarification will always end up disagreeing with some of the things the theists seem to be saying, and so they will insist that they are being misinterpreted. But the problem is that no coherent interpretation will actually capture everything they want to say, because their view is incoherent. So I will be unsympathetic to any theistic complaints that they are being misinterpreted until such a time as they present a clearly coherent version of their view.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Aaron — That's an interesting point, but I'm not sure it is persusasive. Abstract objects have no causal powers whatsoever. Supernatural beings, even necessary ones, are not abstract objects, but can they have causal powers? The answer, I think, is "it depends." I have a hard time even making sense out of the idea of a timeless supernatural being causing anything. If, on the other hand, God is not timeless but eternal, then I can make sense of the idea of such a being having causal powers.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12645042531440559735 Aaron Boyden

    "Supernatural beings, even necessary ones, are not abstract objects." Then my point is that I can't make sense of something being necessary and not abstract. As I tried to indicate, I think the problem is that there is an inconsistency between being the sort of thing which can be necessary and being the sort of thing which can be a cause.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    You've described your position (" there is an inconsistency between being the sort of thing which can be necessary and being the sort of thing which can be a cause"), but I have not yet seen an argument for that position in your comments.

    Let's return to the original context, which is Dawkins's argument for atheism. I think my important comment is at 12:32:00 AM CST, where I describe two disanalogies between God and a 747. I'm still waiting for someone to explain in what sense God's existence is even antecedently improbable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12645042531440559735 Aaron Boyden

    I'm relying primarily on the Humean insight that what makes it possible for a claim like "an even prime exists" to be necessary is precisely that an even prime isn't any sort of being; it's completely different from the things which can cause or be caused. Rather than going through all the different accounts that have been given of necessity and causation which seem to rule out necessary causes, I'll just ask, what is your account of necessity and causation such that necessary things can be causes?

    On your two disanalogies between God and a 747, I don't see how eternity or timelessness is to the point. Any true claim about the world can be made a timeless claim by building time into the claim; if it is true at a time t that P, then it is timelessly true that P is true at time t. But obviously if it makes sense to ask about the probability that the claim is true at time t, it makes equal sense to ask about the probability of the timeless claim (it'll be the same). So plenty of timeless claims have perfectly sensible and ordinary probabilities.

    Your other disanalogy involves the parts of God, and you make two points here. First, you suggest God doesn't have parts. I can't make sense of a being without parts, and I'm pretty sure I can make sense of stories about god-like beings with some of the features of God but not others, so I don't see how God in particular could lack parts. Second, you point out that since God is supposed to be necessary, there aren't supposed to be alternate possible arrangements of the parts, such that we can ask the probability of this arrangement rather than another. On that point, consider the analogy with a mathematics. Suppose there's some very complex mathematical claim which we have no idea how to evaluate at present. If it's true, there's no way it could be false, and if it's false, there's no way it could be true. And yet it still seems to make sense for someone who hasn't figured out how to prove it to say that because it's so complex, it's very likely that there's a mistake in it somewhere. Indeed, it not only seems to make sense; in such a case I'd say someone who said that would be saying something true.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    I'm not offering an account of necessity and causation. I'm not the one taking on the burden of proof by employing an argument for the improbability or impossibility of causation by a necessary being. :)

    I understand everything you wrote regarding my disanalogies between God and a 747. It seems to me that the discussion has shifted away from a defense of Dawkins's Ultimate 747 Gambit and towards a new type of atheological argument. The whole point of the 747 metaphor is that a 747 has a whole bunch of parts that somehow need to get assembled into an airplane. As Dawkins correctly points out, the fact that a 747 can't be assembled by chance by a tornado in a junkyard is irrelevant to the probability of evolution by natural selection. Evolution by natural selection says that increasing amouunts of biological complexity can be explained as part of a gradual process, not all at once like the tornado example demands. But the point is that you have a bunch of parts which get rearranged.

    I still don't seee any way to keep apply the 747 metaphor in any meaningful way to the God hypothesis. Even if we grant that God has parts, which is far from obvious, if God exists, there is no time at which God did not exist. On the God hypothesis, then, there is no need to 'explain' how a bunch of 'God parts' got organized into the specific configuration we have now, as opposed to some other configuration.

    I agree that necessary truths can have epistemic probabilities; my point is that the 747 analogy doesn't apply to God and so can't be used to show that God is epistemically improbable. It may be that God is epistemically improbable for other reasons, but not for the reason Dawkins provides. At least, I can't see how to repair his argument.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12645042531440559735 Aaron Boyden

    I understand how an even prime can necessarily exist. But 2 doesn't have any causal powers. I understand how a person, say, a human being can have causal powers. But human beings don't necessarily exist. The God hypothesis you discuss claims that God somehow has some of the features of necessarily existent things, like 2, and some of the features of causally efficacious things, like human beings.

    On my reading, Dawkins is focusing on the second half of this, the ways in which the God hypothesis requires God to be like causally efficacious things, and arguing that if God is like those things, further questions arise (like what caused God, etc.) I realize that the theist's response is to say that when it comes to being cause, God is like 2, but it is far from clear that it makes sense to say that something is like a person when it comes to causing things, but like a number when it comes to being caused. I further think that in pressing the issues which arise when God is treated too much like a person, Dawkins can be charitably read as complaining that unless we get some further clarification of how it's possible for a person to be in some ways like a number, all we can do is apply our usual understanding of people.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Aaron — I'm not grasping the problem that apparently seems to obvious to you, namely, the problem of a necessarily existent thing have causal powers. I think whether it is possible for something to have causal powers is inherently tied to the thing's relationship with time. Normally causes precede their effects in time (or, if you buy simultaneous causation, are simultaneous with their effects). The number 2, like all abstract objects, does not exist in time, so it cannot exist 'before' any effect. If we understand God to be eternal, as opposed to timeless, then I don't see the problem with God having causal abilities. But I'll keep thinking about this to see if I can figure out what what you take to be problematic.

    Regarding your reading of Dawkins, I'm afraid you're going to have to spell this out for me by quoting the relevant passages and then offering your interpretation. I'm just not seeing how to defend his argument as is or how to repair it so that it is successful.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05130016615104653729 TaiChi

    Could you please define what you mean by "antecedent probability"?

    By way of example: suppose I am playing Poker, and am dealt a Royal flush. The antecedent probability of my being dealt that hand is 1/2,598,960, and is the proportion of Royal flush hands in the far larger probability space encompassing all possible hands. This measure of probability disregards the fact that I am now staring at the Royal flush I have: it is antecedent in the sense that probabilities are assigned prior to the consideration of empirical data.

    I don't understand how this quotation supports the claim that Dawkins's argument concerns God defined as a necessary being.

    Being eternal is one way to think of necessary objects; another way is to think of them existing timelessly instead. But recognizing that God could manifest in just one of these modes of necessary existence amounts to recognizing that God might be a necessary being.

    "I think there is a further disanology between God and organisms. Since God is a dismebodied being, He is not composed of matter. If that is the case, however, then it's far from clear that God is composed of "many heterogeneous parts."

    Sure, if you define God in that way. But why are you using that definition of God, rather than the one which Dawkins explicitly gives in TGD to critique the man's argument? Here is the definition of God Dawkins is aiming to disprove:

    God is.. "a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us" (p.131).

    And to lay my cards on the table, here is what I think Dawkins argument is:

    1. God would have to be more complex than the highly complex universe.
    2. What is complex is improbable, and is improbable to the degree it is complex.
    3. God is highly improbable. That is, he almost certainly does not exist.

    Now, it is true that Dawkins is going to have to give some weighty support for premise 1. But just suppose for the moment that he has given adequate support for it: what would that mean for the classical conception of God, which you've alluded to? Well, it would amount to evidence against that conception of God, right? To show that God would have to be more complex than the highly complex universe, combined with the argument that a disembodied God would not be complex, delivers the conclusion that a disembodied God does not exist.
    The upshot is that these criticisms of Dawkins argument which define God in a more specific way than Dawkins does are misplaced. One would have reason to complain if Dawkins had defined God in such a way to exclude a non-physical, disembodied, necessary, eternal or timeless God – then he would be disproving one thing but claiming to disprove another – but this he has not done.
    Okay, so what support is there for 1? Well, I think it comes from the computational theory of mind and information theory. I've expressed my thoughts as well as I can here, which I'd like you to look at. Full disclosure: these are not fields with which I have the greatest familiarity, but I believe I have the line of argument which would support 1 roughly right.

    "It seems to me that Dawkins's question, "Who made God?", makes more sense on the assumption he was treating God as a contingently existing being than on the assumption he was treating God as a necessarily existing being."

    I don't see that. The question is rhetorical: it is not that anybody asking it seriously entertains the idea that God was created, and so that God came into existence some finite time ago; instead, people who ask the question are highlighting (by presupposing) the need for an explanation of God. Sometimes too they will be intending to draw attention to the futility of explaining everything in terms of a designer.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    Very briefly, consider the following questions about the number 10,829. Only think about them for about 5 seconds, no calculators.

    Is the number even or odd?

    Is the number greater than or less than 10,000?

    Does 17 divide into it more than 636 times or less?

    The answer to each of these questions is a necessary truth, but I bet you struggled with that last one. Would you accept as a good argument "my faith tradition has classically conceived that it divides by 17 fewer than 636 times"? I hope not. This is because there is a difference between something being a necessary truth and having good reasons to believe that it is even true at all.

    Re: being "composed of parts": Yahweh must be composed of parts. Alleged immateriality is a red herring. Here are some things that are true descriptions of Biblegod, if he exists:

    He knows what I had for breakfast.

    He knows what you had for breakfast.

    He hates fags.

    None of these properties is the same as any of the other properties, yet they must all figure in a complete description of him. Therefore, the minimum message length of his description must be at least as long as the conjunction of all these properties. Even if you don't conceive of him existing in physical space, he still occupies an absolutely enormous amount of logical descriptive space, and it is this latter kind which applies to claims of him being enormously complex.

    Re: causality:

    Necessary beings by definition cannot be causal agents. A necessary being could not possibly have different attributes than it has, and cannot act differently than it does. A causal relation is a counterfactual relation in our mental model in which different initial conditions yield different observational outcomes. But by definition, one's model of a necessary being does not admit of counterfactual initial conditions. If God is necessary then everything is necessary, and this is not only the best of all possible worlds, it is the ONLY possible world! The effect is similar to conditionals with necessarily true consequents – it doesn't matter what you plug in to the rest of the equation, the whole thing comes out the same.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Hi Hiero5ant:

    Very briefly, consider the following questions about the number 10,829. Only think about them for about 5 seconds, no calculators.

    I don't understand what role the second sentence is supposed to play in this thought experument.

    This is because there is a difference between something being a necessary truth and having good reasons to believe that it is even true at all.

    I agree; I'm surprised that you apparently (?) think I thought otherwise.

    Re: being "composed of parts": Yahweh must be composed of parts. Alleged immateriality is a red herring….

    None of these properties is the same as any of the other properties, yet they must all figure in a complete description of him….

    Hmmm… As an aside, I think the examples listed blur the distinction between essential and non-essential attributes of God. For example, omniscience is an essential attribute of God according to most or virtually all religiously significant concepts of God. But His knowledge of what people had for breakfast is dependent upon contingent states of affairs.

    Why does the essential vs. non-essential distinction matter? Because Hoyle's 747 analogy, as I understand it, appeals to the classical interpretation of probability, where if there are n possible configurations of a thing, each configuration a priori has a 1/n probability. For the parts needed for a Boeing 747 needed in a junkyard, n would have to be a huge number. Let k be the number of possible configurations which would make a Boeing 747. K would have to be an extremely small number. Thus, on a classical interpretation of probability, the probability of a Boeing 747 arising by chance alone would be k/n — a very small number. In contrast, the probability of a Boeing 747 arising from intelligent design is orders of magnitude higher. Thus, we can defend the following comparative claim: Pr(creation of Boeing 747 | design) >>> Pr(creation of Boeing 747 | chance).

    What is the analogous comparative probability statement for the Ultimate 747 Gambit? It cannot be this:

    Pr((GH2) | design) >>> Pr((GH2) | chance)

    (GH2) posits a necessary being which by definition is uncreated, so it's a category error to talk about the God of (GH2) originating by chance or design.

    The only way the 747 metaphor conceivably can apply to God is if we assume that "God" means something like (GH1). Then we could meaningfully say:

    Pr((GH1) | design) >>> Pr((GH1) | chance)

    That is a statement I can accept. But nobody or virtually nobody worships the God of (GH1).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Therefore, the minimum message length of his description must be at least as long as the conjunction of all these properties.

    How can we apply the classical interpretation of probability to the properties of any being X? Let n = the number of logically possible combinations of contingent properties. Let k = the number of combinations of contingent properties which would make a being X. Then Pr(X) = (k/n).

    Which properties must God possess to be God and not some other being? The answer, I submit, would be His "essential properties." On a classical interpretation of probability, the probability of an essential property is 1. It is logically impossible for a being to lack some property defined as an essential property for "God" and yet still be "God."

    So it's far from clear where to go from here to construct a comparative probability claim for God's existence, in a manner similar to Hoyle's 747 example. God's essential properties will have a classical probability of 1 (since they are logically necessary); God's non-essential properties are irrelevant to the classical probability of God's existence, since they are non-essential properties. So I just don't see how to rescue Dawkins's argument.

    Necessary beings by definition cannot be causal agents.

    As interesting as this argument is, it's unclear how it is supposed to be relevant to Dawkins's argument. Dawkins's argument is an argument for the conclusion that God, understood a certain way, is improbable. In contrast, your argument is an argument for the conclusion that God, understood a certain way, is logically impossible. You may be right. But you're advancing a totally different argument than the one advanced by Dawkins, as far as I can tell.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12645042531440559735 Aaron Boyden

    It is sounding rather like the classical interpretation of probability is the interpretation which is known to be certainly false, unless I'm failing to follow your explanation (your explanation appears to involve the discredited principle of indifference). Do you have reason to attribute such an unsophisticated understanding of probability to Dawkins?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    TaiChi wrote:

    …This measure of probability disregards the fact that I am now staring at the Royal flush I have: it is antecedent in the sense that probabilities are assigned prior to the consideration of empirical data.

    Got it. So when you say "antecedent probability," you are talking about prior probability according to the classical interpretation of probability, where if there are n possible outcomes, the probability of any 1 outcome is 1/n.

    Being eternal is one way to think of necessary objects; another way is to think of them existing timelessly instead. But recognizing that God could manifest in just one of these modes of necessary existence amounts to recognizing that God might be a necessary being.

    That's a non sequitur.

    Sure, if you define God in that way. But why are you using that definition of God, rather than the one which Dawkins explicitly gives in TGD to critique the man's argument? Here is the definition of God Dawkins is aiming to disprove:

    God is.. "a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us" (p.131).

    Wait a second. I did account for this definition in my original post. That definition is represented by (GH1). I've already granted that the prior (classical) probability of "God" having certain non-essential properties is improbable. I also pointed out that nobody or virtually nobody believes (GH1).

    Okay, so what support is there for 1? Well, I think it comes from the computational theory of mind and information theory. I've expressed my thoughts as well as I can here, which I'd like you to look at. Full disclosure: these are not fields with which I have the greatest familiarity, but I believe I have the line of argument which would support 1 roughly right.

    I'll take a look.

    I don't see that. The question is rhetorical…

    Maybe so, maybe not. It seems to me Dawkins is presenting a reductio ad absurdum against theism; the reductio only works if we think about God as a contingently existing being or, alternatively, that God's contingent properties are somehow relevant to His existence.

    Aside: All of the comments on my post lead me to believe I need to expand my post and possibly split it into two posts: (1) interpretation of Dawkins, and (2) assessment of Dawkins.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Aaron wrote:

    It is sounding rather like the classical interpretation of probability is the interpretation which is known to be certainly false, unless I'm failing to follow your explanation (your explanation appears to involve the discredited principle of indifference). Do you have reason to attribute such an unsophisticated understanding of probability to Dawkins?

    I absolutely do not want to misrepresent Dawkins (or anyone else, for that matter). My reasn for attributing the classical interpretation of probability to Dawkins is that I believe the Hoyle 747 example uses that interpretation. Additionally, note that TaiChi's Poker example also uses that interpretation.

    But if I'm wrong, I want to know that. Which interpetation of probability do you think Dawkins relies upon?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    I'm a bit late jumping into this discussion…been working on a case against the resurrection.

    =============
    Steven Carr said…
    'It is problematic to apply probability to necessary truths….' [quoting Aaron Boyden]

    So all Swinburne's arguments about the probability of God existing are the work of an ill-informed amateur – somebody who has read 'The God Delusion' and formed the opinion that it is meaningful to talk about God probably existing or God probably not existing?

    ================
    Comment:

    I think you assume that by 'necessary being' Swinburne means a logically necessary being. If so, that is incorrect. Swinburne explicitly rejects the idea that God is a logically necessary being. He asserts that the idea of there being no God is coherent; atheism does not contain a self-contradiction, so the non-existence of God is logically possible.

    The existence of God is logically contingent according to Swinburne, so he has to come up with an alternative analysis of 'necessary being', which he does in chapters 13 and 14 of The Coherence of Theism.

    Given all of the different possible meanings of 'necessary being' that term needs to be carefully defined before drawing any conclusions or inferences about God on the basis of that concept.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    BRADLEY BOWEN
    If so, that is incorrect. Swinburne explicitly rejects the idea that God is a logically necessary being.

    JEFF
    As Weilenberg writes, "Dawkins’s argument may be effective against (GH1), but no clear-thinking Jew, Christian, or Muslim accepts that thesis.

    CARR
    The trouble with Dawkins is that he has been reading too much sophisticated theology like Swinburne, who explicitly rejects what Jeff claims is standard Christianity.

    As Bradley Bowen has now shown that Christians cannot even agree on the nature of their god, can we stop knocking Dawkins for not being able to hit a moving target?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Steven, that's a rather uncharitable interpretation of my remarks. Bradley is correct that Swinburne does not believe God's existence is logically necessary. Swinburne also does not believe that God is a physical being. So Swinburne does not believe (GH1).

    Furthermore, even on Swinburne's view, while God's existence is contingent, at least some of his properties are not. And, as I argued in my 12:01 AM CST post, God's essential probabilities will have a classical probability of 1. So I just don't see how to rescue Dawkins's argument.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Based on the number and nature of the posts I'm seeing, I've realized that I can no longer assume Wielenberg's interpretation of Dawkins's argument is non-controversial. Therefore, I will write one or more new posts, which will follow the same path I took with Wesley Salmon in this series. First, I will summarize Dawkins's chapter. Second, I will present what I consider to be the logical form of Dawkins's argument. Third, I will offer an assessment of that argument.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05130016615104653729 TaiChi

    So when you say "antecedent probability," you are talking about prior probability according to the classical interpretation of probability, where if there are n possible outcomes, the probability of any 1 outcome is 1/n.

    Yes.

    That's a non sequitur.

    Yes, I suppose so. I should've instead said that it is evidence that Dawkins recognizes God might be a necessary being. Better, I should just ignore the issue of whether or not Dawkins recognizes that God might be necessary, as the only relevant question here is whether or not Dawkins recognizes that perhaps God "did not come into existence all at once entirely by chance because He did not come into existence at all". The answer to that question is that he does, and which the quote I gave shows.

    Wait a second. I did account for this definition in my original post. That definition is represented by (GH1).

    But (GH1) is not at all the same as the definition Dawkins uses, since being ""a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us" does not entail that God is contingent, physical, and complex as (GH1) states. That's why it's erroneous to substitute (GH1) for Dawkins definition and then proceed to criticize Dawkins argument on the basis of what (GH1) leaves out.

    I'll take a look.

    Thanks. If you have any comments, I'd like to hear them.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    JEFF
    If that is the case, however, then it's far from clear that God is composed of "many heterogeneous parts."

    CARR
    Are God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, 'heterogenous parts'?

    Why is God the Son an immaterial being?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    I don't have a copy of TGD in front of me, but I distinctly recall that Dawkins employs two types of probability. First there is what he calls "statistical improbability", by which he seems to mean the probability of a given event occurring under some uniform probability distribution. For example, he considers living organisms to be statistically improbable by virtue of the fact that, if you drew an organism from a uniform distribution over all permuations of small component parts (atoms?) there would be only a minuscule probablity of getting a living organism. This is the sense of improbability that he has in mind when he argues that evolution can "climb mount improbable". And it's clearly relevant to the creationist 747 argument, which talks about randomly assembling the parts of a 747.

    However, when Dawkins concludes that the existence of God is improbable, or that there is almost certainly no God, he cannot reasonably be referring to statistical improbability. Here he appears to be using a more colloquial or Bayesian sense of probability, meaning that it's reasonable to have a very low confidence in the existence of God, or something of that sort.

    One cannot argue that the existence of God is improbable by virtue of the fact that God is statistically improbable. That would be to conflate the two types of probability. After all, organisms probably (!) exist despite being (by Dawkins own argument) statistically improbable.

    Wielenberg is clearly using "probability" in the latter sense, the sense in which Dawkins expresses his conclusion, and I see nothing wrong in Wielenberg's use of the word. I do, however, have wider reservations about Wielenberg's presentation of Dawkins' argument. I think the argument is far too unclear to be confidently paraphrased.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18095903892283146064 Richard Wein

    On another point, I think Dawkins ignores the possibility of God's existence being "necessary", and I think it's reasonable for him to do so. It may make some sense to talk about abstract objects (like numbers) existing necessarily. But God is not an abstract object, and I cannot see how the concept of necessary existence can be applied to non-abstract objects. It seems like a category error to me. I admit I haven't read much on the subject, but I doubt that philosophers have made sufficient sense of this artificial concept for there to be a need to take it seriously.

    Bear in mind that Dawkins says he's going to treat the existence of God as a "scientific question". While I wouldn't put it that way myself, I do favour a naturalized (or relatively scientific) approach to philosophy, so I have sympathy with Dawkins on that point. In any case, his argument should be seen as an empirical inference, not as an exhaustive deductive argument. So I don't think we have to take seriously objections based on such dubious premises as the possibility of a necessarily existing intelligence. The onus is on the objector to make sense of that premise.

    The concept of a non-physical intelligence also seems problematic. But since it's a more familiar and intuitive one than that of a necessarily existing intelligence, I'd like to have seen Dawkins address it specifically.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12645042531440559735 Aaron Boyden

    As you say, Lowder, Swinburne believes that God is a non-physical being. I am not sure I understand how a non-physical being is possible, and I am certain that non-physicality shouldn't be used the way it is too often used in philosophical arguments (and the nature of the mistake circles back to why I'm not sure it makes sense at all).

    Often, philosophers assert that certain things are non-physical to avoid problems which arise for postulating the existence of that sort of thing. They think that making the thing non-physical will help with those problems, because they assert that these problems result from the thing being physical. However, this invariably misrepresents the problem. The reason we think minds have parts, for example, is not because we're assuming materialism, thinking they're physical things and physical things always have parts. Rather, as heiro5ant pointed out, it seems we can identify distinct elements of a particular mind even when we're only looking at the mental qua mental.

    This applies in general. The reason we think the causes of things themselves require further explanation is not because we think those causes are physical; being physical doesn't enter into it. We think that's just true of causes qua causes.

    Or consider the case of free will. Libertarian free will is central to Swinburne's account (and many other theistic accounts); God's creation of the universe is supposed to be a libertarian free choice, because that enables Swinburne to get around a lot of questions we would otherwise want to ask about the causal process; it's mysterious in the way libertarian free choices are always mysterious.

    The classic dilemma argument against free will says that something which is caused can't be a free choice and something which isn't caused can't be a free choice. I've encountered people who misinterpret this as showing materialism is incompatible with freedom, and so free choices must come from non-physical souls, but that is rather a bad misinterpretation; the argument never mentions anything about the causes being physical, and so simply saying that something non-physical is going on does nothing to escape the dilemma. It is so blatantly beside the point that I would find it hard to believe people make the argument if I hadn't encountered it.

    In general it seems to me that far too often saying something is non-physical amounts to no more than saying a lot of the things we have good reason to think are true of everything aren't true of it. But that's just to say that we have reason to think that thing doesn't exist; it is absurd to use that as part of an attempt to argue in favor of thinking the thing exists!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05211466026535549638 Bradley Bowen

    Jeff Lowder said…

    It seems to me that Dawkins's question, "Who made God?", makes more sense on the assumption he was treating God as a contingently existing being than on the assumption he was treating God as a necessarily existing being.
    ==============
    Comment:

    I agree. The only explanation required for the existence of the number two, is that we cannot form a coherent concept of a universe or reality in which there was no such thing as the number two. The non-existence of the number two is similar to the existence of a four-sided triangle or a married bachelor. There is no logically coherent alternative to the existence of the number two.

    Similarly, if God's existence is believed to be logically necessary, then the only explanation required for God's existence would be to point out that we cannot form a coherent concept of a universe or reality in which there was no such being as God.

    But Swinburne and Dawkins are in agreement on this point. God's existence is logically contingent. We can form a coherent concept of a universe in which there is no such being as God.

    But Swinburne also rejects (as unsupported, not as false) Leibniz's Principle of Sufficient Reason. In other words, there can be beings that exist without having a full explanation of their existence. There can be things the existence of which are brute facts. So, God, although a contingent being, could be without an explanation or cause of his existence. God's existence might just be a brute fact that has no explanation.

    The obvious atheistic response is that the same is therefore true of the universe. The existence of the universe iteself might just be a brute fact. There is no necessity in there being an explanation for the existence of the universe.

    Again, Swinburne would agree with this. He agrees that it is logically possible that the existence of the physical universe is the end point of all explanation, that it is just a brute fact.

    However, on another point of agreement between Swinburne and Dawkins, the simplicity of an hypothesis is the primary criterion for determining a priori probability. According to Swinburne the hypothesis of the existence of God as a brute fact, is a simpler hypothesis, than the hypothesis of the universe as a brute fact.

    Dawkins believes that the hypothesis of the universe existing as a brute fact is a simpler hypothesis than the hypothesis of the existence of God as a brute fact.

    Dawkins and Swinburne agree that the existence of both God and the universe are logically contingent, and they agree that both God and the universe are candidates for being the brute facts that serve as the ultimate stopping point of explanation. Where they disagree is about which hypothesis has the highest probability, because they disagree on which hypothesis is the simplest one.


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