Sunday, May 25, 2008

The God Delusion reviewed (Part 3)

Back to the beginning of the review

The Ultimate 747

I was rather surprised to see how Dawkins analogizes everything to evolution. No wonder he likes the idea of memetic evolution. Nevermind that meme hybridization and amemogenesis are completely commonplace. It's like Dawkins has spent so much time popularizing evolution that he can't fully shift his focus. Well, maybe I sound the same way with physics, so I'll forgive him. The upside is that Dawkins gives a simple, well-balanced overview of how religion might have evolved.

The downside is his "Ultimate Boeing 747" argument. I've got to admit, though I'm familiar with most atheist arguments out there, this is one that I had never heard (except with reference to The God Delusion). And with good reason. See, here's how it goes, more or less:

According to the proponents of Intelligent Design, complexity is incredibly unlikely to form through random chance. It is as unlikely as a full Boeing 747 being assembled by a hurricane moving through a scrapyard. In fact, they misunderstand evolution, which is not completely random chance (though chance plays a part). Evolution slowly climbs up a complexity ramp. God, by contrast, must be at least as complex as the things he designs. But unless God was created through a complexity ramp, he must be even more unlikely than that Boeing 747.

Dawkins is trying to turn an Intelligent Design argument on its head. But it fails because a bad argument in reverse is still a bad argument. More specifically, Dawkins buys into the Intelligent Design concept of "complexity", which is just as wrong as any other Intelligent Design idea. "Complexity" is ill-defined in evolution; even more so in metaphysics. If you use standard definitions from information theory, complexity is actually very easy to create, and not at all unlikely. And there are just so many other things wrong with this argument. It's a shame that this was Dawkins' primary positive argument against God.

I sort of understand what he's trying to say here. It's a weird variation on Occam's Razor arguments. Because God is complex--the convolution of many unlikely elements--his existence is unlikely. I think Occam's Razor arguments are rather weak, but they would still be an improvement on this.

But I'd like to end on a positive note, so I'll say that Richard Dawkins certainly has succeeded in his main goal, which was to raise consciousness. People are talking. Atheists are sort of a big deal now. They're not to be ignored, hated, or feared anymore. For that, thank you, Richard Dawkins.


Anonymous said...

I somewhat disagree. I do find the Ultimate 747 argument unconvincing, and I suspect many creationists would as well, but I still think it's a valid argument.

Dawkins is using reductio ad absurdum (in an appropriate way, not as a logical fallacy). He is assuming their basic assumptions and then showing how they lead to a contradiction. He is effectively saying, "Look, assume what you say is true: everything that exists must have a creator, and that creator must be more complicated than the thing it creates (central to the creationist argument is that complex things cannot be formed from simpler things). Then it might be true that a god created the universe, but it must also be true that something created God, and that something must be more complex. These basic assumptions can't help but imply an infinite heirarchy of ever more complex creators."

By producing a contradiction (in that creationists don't claim an infinite heirarchy of creators), Dawkins shows that one of the initial assumptions must be false. In this case, his conclusion is that things that exist need not be created by something more complex than they are. Since this is the argument used to justify God in the first place, Dawkins shows that if you don't want an infinite heirarchy of gods, you can't justify even one god.

So in short, I think the Ultimate 747 argument is sound, although it could perhaps have been stated more rigorously. I don't think it will convince most creationists because they're hard to convince, and it doesn't convince me because I don't see infinitely many gods as fundamentally less plausible than a single one. But the argument itself is sound.

miller said...

The way you state it, it sounds like the "But what created God?" reply to the Cosmological argument. Incidentally, I also think that's a very weak refutation of the Cosmological argument.

Anonymous said...

I think I'm guilty of putting my own interpretation into the argument, rather than directly addressing Dawkins' words. I do agree that the arguments are similar, in that both are disproving the basic assumption: "Everything that exists must have a creator that is more complex." In this, they are sound as long as you deny the possibility of an infinite heirarchy. These arguments don't disprove the possibility of God, but they do show that the creator argument can't be used to prove a single god.

Rereading the Ultimate 747 argument, I see that there's an additional element I hadn't been thinking about--Dawkins is refuting the "747 in a junkyard" argument about the improbability of life arising by chance. The best refutation of this is that no, life didn't arise purely by accident, natural selection is highly nonrandom, etc. etc. But Dawkins is twisting the original argument to say that since God is supposedly more complicated than life on earth, he couldn't have arisen by chance either. In this respect, you're right--if he's using this as an argument against God, it's a poor one for the same reason that the original argument is poor.

I still say that both these arguments can be interpreted (if stated clearly) as simply disproof of the original flawed assumptions, rather than an actual disproof of God, and in this respect they are sound.

miller said...

But it's all too easy to do some special pleading. There is no need to explain why God arose by chance, because no one thinks God "arose" at all. God is in a special category that needs no cause. I am not fond of special pleading, but I am trying to see this from the theist's point of view.