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.
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?