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I have read the Wikipedia article on the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit, first published by Richard Dawkins, and it seems to me that there is a very obvious problem with the argument that isn't mentioned on Wikipedia.

Below is Dawkins’ argument against complexity of life being used as evidence in favour of God, and in fact as an attack against God's existence.

  1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
  2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.
  3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a "crane", not a "skyhook"; for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.
  4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that – an illusion.

Here is my proposed refutation. Edit: Please note that I am not attempting to justify belief in God. I am merely trying to show that Dawkins' argument that the designer hypothesis raises the larger problem of who designed the designer is flawed if God always existed. I have edited the next paragraph to make this clearer.

Complexity only is claimed as evidence in favour of a Creator because we have reason to believe that life didn’t always exist. We then ask how it originated and developed, and this leads us to a Creator (according to the designer hypothesis). In the case of the Creator, the Creator is believed in many religions to have always existed, so according to these religions it is meaningless to ask how He could have come to exist: He always existed according to these religions! In summary: Complexity of A only could conceivably indicate the existence of a creator of A if A has not always existed, while God is claimed to have always existed by many religions.

Is there anything wrong with my counterargument?

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  • "G-d" - God is not a swear word when you're talking about God...
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 3, 2023 at 13:44
  • So you just shift the focus to abiogenesis. But the issue is that there seems to be something about the universe that allowed both abiogenesis, & then complex apparently well designed organisms to evolve. God-did-it just is not a hood theory, it's not falsifiable, it lacks explanatory & predictive power, & it's poorly defined - the Euthyphro Dilemma shows how conventional superlatives like omnipotent aren't really coherent. Whereas, Constructor Theory can link our understanding of information theory, physics, & biology into one understanding.
    – CriglCragl
    Aug 3, 2023 at 15:23
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    Complexity is not claimed as evidence of a Creator because we have reason to believe that life didn’t always exist. If life always existed we'd still ask for a reason for that, as opposed to a universe without it, or with it coming into existence. It is only the form of the answer (creation or evolution) that depends on life not always existing, not the need for it. So claiming that the Creator always existed does not get him out of the need for an explanation, it is just that the form of the explanation cannot then be the ordinary temporal design.
    – Conifold
    Aug 3, 2023 at 16:34
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    Not to support your arguments, but Dawknins' argument 3 sucks in my opinion. If I have a watch, and say it has a designer, then it also opens the question of who designed the designer. He answers it by "There is none". And that's ok for him. But when I start with an eye, and postulate a designer, suddenly the answer of "there is no designer of the designer" becomes a problem?! If I apply this argument to the watch, then I should conclude the watch had no designer, which is simply false, regardless of probabilities involved.
    – kutschkem
    Aug 4, 2023 at 6:26
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    @kutschkem You seem to be ignoring the question of why we might say certain things have designers. If you say complexity requires a designer, then a more complex designer would require a designer (some theists say God isn't complex, but this is just asserted and seems contrary to what they claim God to be). We conclude watches have designers not because they're complex, but because we can see designers making watches in the real world, and we can take it apart and see that it consists of components that we've seen made and combined by designers in the real world - doesn't apply to the eye.
    – NotThatGuy
    Aug 4, 2023 at 8:47

8 Answers 8

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Is there anything wrong with my counterargument?

Yes, there is.

1. Argument from Ignorance: Your argument seems to be implying that because we don't know how life originated, it must be due to a Creator. However, this kind of reasoning is known as an "argument from ignorance." Just because we don't know something, it doesn't mean we should default to supernatural explanations. Historically many phenomena were attributed to gods before we had natural explanations for them (like lightning, diseases, etc.).

2. Special Pleading Fallacy: You're asserting that God, the supposed creator, has always existed and thus does not need an origin or explanation. This argument could be seen as a form of special pleading – a logical fallacy in which you make an exception to a general rule without proper justification. If we're positing that all complex things (like life) need a creator, why is God, presumably the most complex being, exempt from this requirement?

3. Unsupportable Claim: Stating that God has always existed is a massive claim that isn't supported by empirical evidence. We have no evidence that confirms the existence of an eternal being. If we're going to accept the existence of such a being without evidence, why not also accept the idea that life has always existed in some form?

Also you say:

the Creator is believed in many religions to have always existed, so it is meaningless to ask how He could have come to exist

Sorry, but that's just an example of bad logical chain regardless of our beliefs. Why is it meaningless to ask X, because many people believe Y? People may believe whatever they wish, it has nothing to do with asking a question being a reasonable and meaningful act.

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  • Please see my edit: I never meant to justify belief in God in my counterargument. Sorry for the lack of clarity. Aug 3, 2023 at 23:18
  • Magnifique! Good/constructive criticisms don't get any better than this! Aug 4, 2023 at 5:25
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    You can shoehorn those fallacies into any explanation of origin of life/universe, for example: 1. "Saying that since we don't know how life originated, it must've emerged from a primordial soup, is an argument from ignorance". 2. "Saying that the universe started existing at the moment of the big bang is special pleading, since every other moment in time had a preceding moment, while this one didn't.", and so on. Aug 4, 2023 at 7:12
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    The "primordial soup" theory is not an argument from ignorance. It is based on evidence about the conditions on early Earth and what chemicals and processes are needed for life. It does not claim "we don't know, therefore it must be this." Rather, it argues "based on what we do know, this seems a plausible explanation worth investigating further
    – user66933
    Aug 4, 2023 at 8:57
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    The Big Bang theory is not special pleading. It is based on observational evidence about the expansion of the universe, cosmic background radiation, etc. It does not just arbitrarily assert that the rules were different for the first moment. Rather, it is a deduction from the evidence that if the universe is expanding from a dense state, it follows that it must have begun from an initial, extremely dense point. The evidence points to the rules of physics as we know them coming into effect at that initial moment, not before
    – user66933
    Aug 4, 2023 at 8:57
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We then ask how it originated and developed, and this leads us to a Creator.

That is an enormous leap to make. Can you craft an argument that the origin of life necessarily has a capital-C creator?

the Creator is believed in many religions to have always existed, so it is meaningless to ask how He could have come to exist: He always existed!

This is another big leap. Claims of existence =/= actual existence.

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  • Please see my edit: I never meant to justify belief in God in my counterargument. Sorry for the lack of clarity. Aug 3, 2023 at 23:18
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Others have addressed your response, and I agree with them that it is deficient.

But let’s turn back to the original question - is there something wrong with Dawkins’ argument that, to paraphrase, a creator being is significantly more improbable, and thus explanations featuring it should be discarded as unwarranted, by virtue of the complexity of the designer?

Well, I would like to argue affirmatively, there is a prima facie problem here, and it’s a problem that runs deep with certain kinds of positive Atheism, which is to say a lack of creative theorising about the qualities of these hypothesised beings. Atheists give too much away to the theologies of certain theists in their arguments - Christianity might be radically incorrect about the philosophical God they seem to hypothesise, and yet too much of the possible discussion fails to progress because Christians determine and limit the scope of “God” in these discussions.

Specifically, why are we so keen to presume that the operative creative force is a complex one?

Consider the following. Our universe is a mathematical simulation. What is simulated is a reality where matter and energy settles into a large number of variations of quantum packets, each of which trace a complex path through a theoretically bounded space. However, the reality in which the simulation is run is one in which the physics is very basic, the universe has a limited capacity for possibility, and while to us the variety appears chaotic and exciting, really the computer just beeps, and the author is not much more complex than a bundle of simple state machines wired together. The guiding creative force, rather than being complex and improbable, just appears to be so, and has no true power or authority to determine anything; and in fact the explanation for how that kind of world might spontaneously come into being might be quite a bit more plausible than the thought that ours did.

What, exactly, is philosophically wrong with this interpretation of the creator? It’s certainly theologically non-canonical, but why, exactly, should a philosopher of science care about Christian theological canon?

The Boeing Gambit only works as a response to Christianity, not as a response to the potential for external intervention in the origin of our physical reality as such, and I see that as a very obvious flaw.

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  • Boeing Gambit analogy is focused on rebutting specifically the Judeo-Christian conception of God, which does tend to ascribe complexity, intelligence and intent to God. Yeah it doesn't address ALL abstract formulations of a "creator". However, many of the most prominent major religions do conceive of a personal, interventionist God. So his argument holds weight against these widespread theological views that make claims about God's nature.
    – user66933
    Aug 4, 2023 at 9:03
  • Also there is no empirical evidence for this simulation hypothesis or a simple non-intentional creator. Arguments from religious authority or pure possibility are insufficient. So what's the value in this?
    – user66933
    Aug 4, 2023 at 9:07
  • @Shuhatovich, the suggestion (which I don't endorse, but it's pointing out a problem with the argument) is that this bootstrap non-intentional creator model might be explanatorily more simple than the current model - if spontaneous generation a la Big Bang From Nothing is our working theory, then Simple spontaneous generation is a more likely version of that theory (according to the complex = improbable line of thinking).
    – Paul Ross
    Aug 4, 2023 at 12:56
  • @Shuhatovich, on the “Christianity/other faiths” point, my position on why Atheists do it is that they are rooted in a specifically Christian culture, so the weight doesn’t really hold for other faiths (which any relevance is largely coincidental, and often not met eg. Buddhism), but even if you substitute “the prominent faiths” for Christianity, my point still stands - we have drifted from philosophy of science into the philosophies of contingent world faiths, and that drift is not acceptable in consideration of the real philosophical questions of the origin of physical reality.
    – Paul Ross
    Aug 4, 2023 at 17:41
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Yes, there are two potential weaknesses which a pedant might pick at. Firstly, you say that life hasn't always existed so it needs a creator. I suspect Prof Dawkins might try to argue that life evolved randomly, so no creator was needed. Secondly, you claim that god has always been around, so doesn't need a creator. Someone really picky might suggest you are rather begging the question.

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  • Please see my edit: I never meant to justify belief in God in my counterargument. Sorry for the lack of clarity. Aug 3, 2023 at 23:19
  • Your edit does not invalidate my answer. If Dawkins says 'god needs a creator', then saying 'no he doesn't because he has always been there' is not a refutation. Aug 4, 2023 at 5:08
  • Please could you explain why saying 'no he doesn't because he has always been there' is not a refutation? Aug 4, 2023 at 15:46
  • @A-LevelStudent it's just a re-assertion of what Dawkins is arguing against. There's no justification for it. Refutation means more than just re-stating your position. A refutation proves that an argument is wrong. Your argument is not a proof that God has existed forever. You can argue that if God had been there forever then Dawkins is wrong. But God being there forever is precisely what Dawkins contests. You are effectively saying 'If what Dawkins contends is wrong, then Dawkins is wrong'. Aug 4, 2023 at 16:30
  • Surely Dawkins offers no evidence for God not being there forever? What do you mean when you say God being there forever is precisely what Dawkins contests? Aug 5, 2023 at 22:43
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I think the refutation is correct... but only because Dawkins (as quoted) is not really addressing the essence of the complexity argument: that the complexity of the existing world cannot be explained without invoking extra-natural causes. As we now have such an explanation, invoking God is not necessary: we do not disprove his/her existence, but using it as an explanation violates the Occam's razor.

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An obvious flaw can be illustrated by imagining a community of artificially intelligent entities produced by human programmers, existing within humanly designed hardware and software, largely incapable of accessing the "real" world. One of them challenges another, "If you claim there is an intelligent designer who programmed us, then who programmed him?" Obviously our human origins, lives, and environment are of a completely different order. Transfer this notion up a level to our reality where dark matter and energy constitute 95% percent of the known universe [cf. "NASA Science Universe – Dark Energy, Dark Matter"]. The possibility that the "dark" world/dimension is structured and supports a potentially higher and far different order of intelligent life cannot be logically discounted. In that light Dawkins' assumptions and arguments lose much of their traction.

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  • I think you are going too fast in this argument. You don't explain in what ways reality of a higher order would be like, and unlike, the reality we know. So your proposed transfer doesn't have any clear meaning. Nothing is known about dark matter and dark energy; all we can conclude is that we don't know anything much about it. So this argument doesn't help much - unless you can give us more details about the transfer and how it is comparable to, and different from, the thought experiment.
    – Ludwig V
    Aug 31, 2023 at 17:32
  • The essential point in the OP is that "the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer." The assumption that an observed (or postulated) case of design necessarily creates an infinite regression of designers is flawed. Dawkins clearly doesn't believe that the existence of humanly designed intelligence requires humans themselves to be designed. The same holds true should there be one or more designers for life on this planet or for our entire physical universe. Sep 3, 2023 at 23:05
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Complexity only is claimed as evidence in favour of a Creator because we have reason to believe that life didn’t always exist. We then ask how it originated and developed, and this leads us to a Creator. In the case of the Creator, the Creator is believed in many religions to have always existed, so it is meaningless to ask how He could have come to exist: He always existed! In summary: Complexity of A only indicates the existence of a creator of A if A has not always existed, while G-d is claimed to have always existed.

Take your same reasoning, apply it to something other than God, and see if it still makes sense.

Suppose I say "a universe with the conditions to eventually produce life by chance and evolution always existed." Do you then agree that by your own logic it is meaningless to ask what created this universe, because it always existed?

And then, given that this universe always existed (and thus by your own logic needs no creator or explanation), what need have you to posit God?

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  • I do agree that by my own logic it is meaningless to ask what created the universe that you describe, because it always existed. However, I am not coming to offer evidence in favour of God's existence - to do that using arguments concerning complexity and design would require me to understand and be able to explain those arguments, neither of which I satisfy. Therefore I cannot justify the need to posit God, as you point out. I don't think that's relevant to my argument though. Dawkins is using the argument from complexity - whatever it is - to try to show evidence against God's existence... Aug 3, 2023 at 23:06
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    @A-LevelStudent The point is that if you want to use that argument to justify God and dismiss God's complexity as needing no explanation, it just as easily justifies the universe without God as needing no explanation, and therefore needing no God.
    – causative
    Aug 3, 2023 at 23:22
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    It really justifies any position as needing no explanation. I could propose that a small teapot has always existed (not created by God or anything else) and your argument would say "so what? The teapot, having always existed, doesn't need any creator and leaves nothing to be explained."
    – causative
    Aug 3, 2023 at 23:27
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    @A-LevelStudent So your response to my argument, apparently, is to say that small teapots that always existed indeed don't demand any explanation. Dawkins (and I) would have the opposite response: a small teapot that always existed is a strange event that demands explanation, even if it technically needs no "creator." It still is weird and arbitrary, and a theory that invokes fewer arbitrary premises is more plausible than one that has more arbitrary premises.
    – causative
    Aug 3, 2023 at 23:39
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    A teapot needs an explanation but a universe doesn't? If I steal billions of dollars it's ok, but not if I steal a sandwich? Hmm.
    – Scott Rowe
    Aug 4, 2023 at 2:50
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Yes, the argument has an obvious flaw, but not in the way you think. The implications of the argument still point out a problem with the design argument for god that I think leads to a flaw in your counter argument as well.

Let’s start with the flaw in the argument. For starters, it makes no sense to talk about the statistical improbability of god. For probability to work, you need a sample space. In this case, god exists or does not. One may arguably define a probability for life since it is a process that presumably did not exist at one point and came about. But not for god. It makes no sense to talk about the probability of God especially if He is deemed to be eternal.

Now here is the problem with your counter argument. God existing eternally is merely a claim. If it is used to explain something, such as the origin of life, it merely begs the question of how God can be explained.

Theists usually assert, without evidence, that God is eternal and created life. If a proposition can simply be asserted, without evidence, then another proposition can as well. One can simply assert that life started by chance through natural laws. The benefit with the latter assertion is that atleast theists admit that life originating is possible, even if absurdly improbable. One cannot say the same for God.

That is the general idea behind why the god explanation often doesn’t work. It usually just begs the question.

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