Why it is almost certain that we can’t prove or disprove God’s existence

The title for this post was inspired by chapter 4 of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which is titled  “Why it is almost certain that God does not exist”.  According to at least one article I’ve read on the subject, the arguments in this chapter are Dawkins’ “most effective” (see “The DNA of Religious Faith” by David P. Barash, Chronicle of Higher Education. April 2007).  This will be the first of several posts in which I explore these arguments and my responses to them (this is also the second in my series on how an Anal MBA Believer responds to the new atheist authors).  The particular argument that I would like to discuss in this post is the ‘Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit’.

Here is a summary of the position, and my problem with it.

The Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit was developed in response to the Intelligent Design (ID) movement’s claims that there must be a divine Creator because certain organisms are so complex there is no way that they could have been ‘created by chance’.  These organisms “such the dragonfly’s wing or the eagle’s eye” must be evidence that they were created by God (The God Delusion p. 141).

Dawkins explains in detail how such tremendously complex organisms can in fact be developed through evolutionary mechanisms, and how natural selection is a third alternative to ‘design’ or ‘chance’.  He does an excellent job of explaining how evolution works and all of the scientific evidence behind it – all areas where I would expect that most religious moderates would fully agree with Dawkins (I would put myself in this religious moderate group).

However,  Dawkins then goes on to claim that if the ID folks believe that a given organism is so complex that it is improbable that it would have been created by chance, then by this same logic wouldn’t the ID people have to admit that God himself is even MORE complex, and thus even more improbable?  As Dawkins puts it

However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable. God is the Ultimate Boeing 747.

The Boeing 747 reference is from a quote that starts on the previous page from Fred Hoyle that “the probability of life originating on earth is no more likely than that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747”.

So – this is the “Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit”, which is apparently the closest Dawkins can come to proving that God does not exist.

There have been a number of responses to Dawkins’ argument (some of which Dawkins himself summarizes at the end of this chapter) and most of them have dealt with how God doesn’t have to be complex, and how you can’t use science to disprove God. But I have never seen anyone raise this more basic critique of Dawkins’ argument:

You can’t use probability theory to talk about God.

Here is why: probability theory deals with large numbers of an entity or event. The example used in every introduction to statistics course is that of rolling two dice. The number that turns up on a given role will be between 1 and 12 but the specific number that shows up on a given roll is purely random. However, if you roll the dice enough times, the laws of probability will lead to a pattern where you get a normal distribution –with certain results occurring more often than others because there are more ways for that result to occur. For example, there are 6 different ways to roll a 7 with two dice, while there is only 1 way to roll a 2 – therefore, we can say that rolling a 2 is much less probable than rolling a 7.  When we speak of the statistical probability of something occurring, this is what we mean.However, when we are talking about whether a single intelligent Creator exists – especially one that started life in the first place and got the evolutionary process going – probability theory cannot be used.  We are talking about one entity – God, and one event – the start of life. Probability theory is not designed to address a single number or event. As a former quantitative market researcher, in response to Dawkins’ claim that such a complex creator is highly improbable, I would say that ‘the population size is too small to establish a probability distribution’.

Richard Dawkins essentially acknowledges this statistical fact later on in this chapter when he starts to address the question of the origin of life:

The origin of life only had to happen once…..evolutionary steps are duplicated, in more or less similar ways, throughout millions and millions of species independently, and continually and repeatedly throughout geological time. Therefore, to explain the evolution of complex life, we cannot resort to the same kind of statistical reasoning as we are able to apply to the origin of life….(p.162).

Perhaps the only way that probability theory could be effectively used to evaluate the probability of God’s existence is if we had a known population of deities – some of which existed, and some of which did not.  We could then either measure the pattern of existence/non-existence in this population or, if the population was too large, select a sufficiently representative randomly drawn sample from the population and develop an expected value of the probability of existence of our deity in question – God.

Or not.

As anyone can see, this is completely ridiculous. This to me is a perfect case study of why applying scientific/mathematical methods  to disprove or prove God’s existence is a colossal waste of time, and usually just ends up with results that are ludicrous.

I have a dream: that some day, the new atheist authors and the theologians will stop battling each other and realize that they all care about the same thing – peace and justice on earth. Why can’t we all stop fighting to prove that which can’t be proven, and focus on the real problems of the world?

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4 Responses to Why it is almost certain that we can’t prove or disprove God’s existence

  1. Brian Carlson says:

    Very well put — though I’d suggest that this part of Dawkins’ book (which I haven’t read) would seem to be not an argument against the existence of God per se, but a simply a refutation of the intelligent-design argument specifically. And there is absolutely nothing original about that refutation; Kant and Hume effectively destroyed that so-called proof more than 200 years ago.

    Debunking logically flawed arguments for God’s existence does not establish that God does not exist. It merely emphasizes what I’ve always believed — that God’s reality cannot be grasped merely through an exercise of reason.

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hey Brian – I really appreciate your comments, as always (and the reminder of all the stuff I have to read or reread in order to write effectively about these topics!). My next 2 or so posts are going to also be on this same chapter from The God Delusion and as the title of the chapter implies, Dawkins does really believe that the arguments in this chapter prove that God, or at least a certain conception of God, does not exist. My goal is to show that the rationality that Dawkins values so much can be just as effectively used to debunk his own attempted proofs of God’s non-existence. Can the arguments of the new atheists live up to their own standards of impeccable logic and well-documented hard evidence? I personally don’t think so – but you all can be the final arbiters of that! FYI – I would really recommend reading this chapter in The God Delusion – actually the whole book. Of the four ‘horsemen of the atheist apocalypse’ I find Dawkins’ work to be the most well-structured, compelling and also just plain old entertaining. I disagree with a lot of it, but he is thought provoking, and his explanations of evolution are terrific.

  2. Steve Michie says:

    Thanks, again Louise, for thought-provoking material! Ah, the great age-old battle between gnosis (knowledge) and pistis (faith/belief)… reminder of the familiar claim, “If I believe in God’s existence, no proof is necessary; if I don’t so believe but want to, no proof will be sufficient.” Keep the good stuff coming… :). Steve

    • seeingfaith says:

      Hey Steve! Thanks so much for reading and responding -that means a lot to me! I am struggling with this comment though – because what I want to emphasize is that people should stop thinking about belief so much in black and white – that people must be either 100% absolute believers or atheists. What I have observed is how many people are somewhere on the spectrum between 100% certain that God exists and 100% certain God doesn’t exist. I personally think that the area in between those two poles is actually the most logical position – because NEITHER extreme can be conclusively proven. So people have good reasons for being pretty sure (but not absolutely sure) that God exists. And likewise, I think there are indeed some pretty understandable reasons for leaning in the other direction (basically, for being agnostic – which is what I was until a few years ago). What annoys me to no end are the folks who are arrogant enough to think that they can conclusively prove (and force the rest of us) to either extreme. To me, your quote above seems like what someone would say who is 100% sure that God exists – i.e. at one extreme end of the spectrum. I guess if I were to modify that statement to my own position, I would say “You can’t prove God exists or doesn’t exist, but based on my personal experiences and the thinking and reading I have done on the subject, I have good reasons for believing that God probably exists.

      I should note by the way that I did recently tell someone that I was 100% certain that God exists – but that I had absolutely no certainty about what that statement means. It could mean that the life changing transformation I’ve experienced is really just a phenomenon in my own brain, or it could mean that God literally touched me and changed my life. There is no way to know for certain. But given how amazing the experience has been and how grateful I am for the change in my life, I lean strongly towards the believer end of the spectrum.

      I hope this makes sense….

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