Thursday, August 2, 2007

The God Delusion: Improbable Complexity

In his book The God Delusion Richard Dawkins presents what he call "The Ultimate 747 Argument" to explain why he believes that God most certainly does not exist. The argument from improbability and its trademark image of the 747 is usually put forth by creationists or intelligent design proponents to argue for God's existence. Dawkins turns the argument on its head and posits that the argument from improbability actually is a good argument that God does not exist.

The argument from improbability and its image of the Boeing 747 and the scrapyard are credited to Fred Hoyle and simply put "the probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance of a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747" (Dawkins 113). The same metaphor could be used to argue against the evolution or higher life forms like the odds or a hurricane putting together a live parakeet, a person, or a Paramecium. But Dawkins looks at this argument and asks 'what is the probability of the existence of God?' by questioning the idea that God is a simple being (if not the simplest of all beings). Many theologians, especially Richard Swinburne, have asserted the belief that God must be simple because He consists of a single substance (Dawkins 147-8). Dawkins argues that God, if He exists, must be more complex than the phenomena he has been posited to explain, namely matter, life, and intelligence.

So how does something's complexity affect the probability of its existence? It is assumed that the more complex a being, the less probable its existence becomes. Simple things are simply more likely to occur than complex things. This assumption is true more often than not. For example, on the atomic scale, hydrogen, the simplest element (just a single proton orbited by one electron) is more likely to be found than oxygen (with its eight protons, eight neutrons, and eight electrons. And oxygen is more likely to be found than uranium (containing 92 protons, 146 neutrons, and 92 electrons). On a larger scale we see the same pattern. Here on earth simple sedimentary or igneous rock is more likely to be found than organic life; and simple organic life is more likely to be found than intelligent beings. It follows quite easily that an immensely complex intelligence capable of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence must be very improbable indeed.

I agree with Dawkins on both points. A being "capable of continuously monitoring and controlling the individual status of every particle in the universe cannot be simple" (Dawkins 149). And such a complex being must be immensely improbable. However, I don't think that admitting this presents nearly as big of a problem as Dawkins suggests.

Let's start with question of God's complexity. For centuries man has thought of God as the simplest explanation for the things we see. To answer the question 'Where did all the animals and plants come from?' we say: 'God made them' (Gen. 1:20-5). We now know that the diversity of life comes from natural selection acting on mutations to shape organisms more fit to survive and reproduce in a given set or range of conditions. In addition to natural selection other processes such as gene flow, genetic drift, and chance (such as a mass extinction or an unlucky misstep on a high tree branch) have also helped to shape Earth's current diversity of flora and fauna. But this explanation is far from simple. It is actually more complicated than believing that God spoke the animals into existence. And if you look at any other branch of knowledge you will see that the closer we come to the truth of the nature of things the more complex our explanations become.

We used to think that there were only four 'elements' in the world: air, water, fire, and earth. We now know that there are at least 110 different elements, a plethora of energy forms, subatomic particles, gravitons, etc. that make up the physical reality. We used to think that the human body was controlled and influenced by the proportions of four humors: blood, black bile, green bile, and mucus. We now know that the body has those fluid plus hundreds of hormones, proteins, electrical impulses, and ionic concentrations that control our inner workings. As our knowledge of the world increases it appears that our answers are not becoming simpler, but are becoming more complex.

Yes, God is very likely to be highly complex. But if the pattern we see with biology, chemistry, and physics of moving from simple answers to more complex explanations is true for theology as well we should expect to see that God is not simple, but is the most complex being possible. Furthermore, the progressive revelation of the Bible has painted us a picture of a God with increasing complexity, from the simple Yahweh of the Old Testament to the complex intertwining of the Father, Son, and Spirit of the New Testament. God as an immensely complex being makes perfect sense to the Christian believer.

What happens if we acknowledge that God is a very highly complex being and accept the assumption that complex things are less likely to occur than simple things? To put it shortly: nothing. Dawkins, and the creationists and intelligent design believers, make use of the sneaky art of statistics to support their cases. For instance, there are six crucial constants that must be fine-tuned to very exact numbers for matter to exist; and must be further fine-tuned to allow life to exist (this is known as the Anthropic Principle). The odds that those numbers are tuned to created the universe we see is very, very, very small. But the fact is those constants are tuned to create a universe like the one we see. Along the same line of reasoning as Dawkins employs I can argue pretty well that you do not exist.

The odds that the combination of genes from your parents would create your genome are very low (like 1 in 10 million low). Now the odds that the combination of genes from your grandparents would create your parents' genomes are similar to those of the previous calculation. The odds that your parents met and married are probably somewhere around 1 in 10 million. Now repeat the last two odds for the probability that your great-grandparents genomes combined to form your grandparents and the odds that your grandparents met. So what is the probability that you exist? One in 1070. I normally round off at the tenth decimal place so for me the probability that you exist is essentially zero. And if you are one of the few people that round off at the seventy-first decimal place, I can easily make the odds even smaller by calculating the odds your great-great-grandparents met and so forth back to the beginning of time. However, hopefully you are not quite convinced by the overwhelming odds against your own existence. That's because no matter how great the statistical odds are against you existing the fact remains that you do exist. And actually existing trumps probability every time.

So Dawkins is right. God is improbably complex, but so are you. And if the high probability against a being of your complexity existing doesn't make you doubt that you exist it shouldn't make you doubt that God exists. In fact, this argument can contend that if God is the most complex being possible (and He might possible be) then there can only be one of them. And you end up with monotheism instead of atheism. So it seems that Dawkins' argument from improbability shows us practically nothing about whether or not God exists and more about why we should be wary of blindly trusting probabilities.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2006.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The God Delusion: Arguments for God’s Existence

In his book, The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins sets out to free the world of a dangerous irrational belief that has plagued mankind for thousands of years. That hazardous idea is the belief in "a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us" (Dawkins 31). Dawkins begins by disassembling some of the most common arguments for the existence of God then presents an argument against the existence of God; he then moves into a naturalistic explanation of the roots of religion and morality, as well as the harms caused by religion; he finishes up by advocating atheism as the correct worldview. I will examine some of the points brought up by Dawkins that I found to be of interest. I will start with his dissection of arguments that support God's existence.

In his third chapter Dawkins expounds on eight different arguments for God's existence. I will touch on three that piqued my interest. The first is the argument from personal experience. Dawkins opens with a story about a young man and his girlfriend who, while camping in Scotland, hear the Devil himself speak to them in their tent. The experience was so unforgettable that it was one of the reasons he decided to become ordained. Years later, Dawkins was recalling the story to two ornithologists who burst out laughing and told Dawkins that what his friend had heard was the shrieks of a bird nicknamed the "Devil Bird" (Dawkins 87). In short, Dawkins writes off all religious experiences as either hallucinations or a byproduct of the brain's 'simulation software.' This simulation software is our brain's internal way of processing information to make it recognizable. The misfiring of this software is often the explanation for illusions like the Necker Cube. To him when a religious personal experience can be explained in physical terms it loses its credibility as a genuine religious experience.

Unfortunately, Dawkins debunking of personal religious experience has an unintended side effect. When his method is applied to any subjective experience the result is a destruction of the validity of that experience. What Dawkins fails to realize is that all human experience, including science, is subjective. Everything we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste is just an electrical signal sent to our brains which use its simulation software to make sense of the electrical signal. Imagine what would happen when you turn this logic on some every day subjective experiences. If you tell me you like pistachio ice cream and I rebut that you don't actually like pistachio ice cream; it is simply a matter of the chemical receptors on your tongue sending a certain electrical impulse to your brain that releases some endorphins into your blood; you would laugh at me. But this is what Dawkins is suggesting that we do with religious experiences. I have no doubt that most, if not all of our personal religious experiences have physical explanations. However, I do not think that finding these explanations completely debunks religious experience. If that were the case then we could just as easily debunk the remainder of human experience and we would be left with nearly nothing.

The second of Dawkins' points that drew my interest was that of the argument from scripture (92-7). Dawkins argues that the Bible is full of inaccuracies, lies, and distortions. Most of his attacks come from other sources since he himself is not a Biblical scholar. He mainly contends that the Bible, in particular the New Testament, was written long after the events it records, it contradicts itself, and that major additions and subtractions have since occurred. Dawkins places a burden of proof on the Bible so heavy that I wonder if our modern newspapers could stand up under its weight let alone any ancient document_ Once again we see that if Dawkins' standards are applied to areas outside of religion we find self destructive side effects. Consider this: if you compare the number of copies we have and the time gap between the earliest copies and the events themselves for New Testament and other ancient books you find out that we have over 5,000 copies of the New Testament and a time gap of 50-100 years. The nearest competitor is The Iliad with 643 copies and a gap of 400 years. Livy's History of Rome only has 19 copies with a gap of 1,000 years and Caesar's Gallic Wars has only ten copies with a gap of an entire millennia (McDowell 38). If we apply Dawkins stringent requirements to the Bible we must concede that we know nothing at all about the ancient world before the printing press (and the time after that is somewhat sketchy as well).

Dawkins' final point that I wish to cover here is based on his dismantling of the argument from scripture. He attacks the trilemma put forth by many theologians concerning Jesus as either "Lunatic, Liar, or Lord." Dawkins asserts that "the trilemma on offer would be ludicrously inadequate. A fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistaken" (92). However, if any thought is given to the problem at hand this fourth option is quickly seen as ludicrous. What we are considering is how Jesus viewed his identity. Realizing that this question is a matter of identity and not of external fact is very important.

If the problem was a matter of an external fact the possibility that Jesus was honestly mistaken is possible. If you ask someone where the nearest Kmart is they might say the one by I-95, not knowing that there is one much closer. Their statement is false, but they are not necessarily crazy or a diabolical liar. However, if someone gives a false statement about their identity there are only three possible reasons. For the moment let's substitute me into the problem and let's have me claiming to be George H. Bush's son (a clear problem of identity). My claim can either be true or false. If it is true then I am his son. If it is false then I must be consciously lying or unconsciously lying. If I am lying consciously then I must be a liar. But if I am unconsciously lying I could be forming my claim on reasonable grounds or unreasonable grounds. If there is evidence that I am George's son then I could be honestly mistaken until I discover later that I am adopted. However, if there is no evidence then I am acting against reason and I am what we often refer to as crazy. You can substitute any other outrageous claim of identity (like claiming to be Napoleon or an alien named Zorak) and you will see even more clearly how ridiculous it is to claim that Jesus was honestly mistaken about who he was.

All of the arguments for the existence of God have holes in them and Dawkins has done some research into finding those holes. However, at times he must work so hard to find the holes that he unwittingly destroys the credibility of all subjective experience, erases most of history, and declares that people that claim to be God, Napoleon, or an alien named Zorak might not be crazy, but have made an honest mistake. No argument is air tight, not even the argument for gravity or existence, but at some point we have to go with what seems the most correct and fits the best with reality. For me it is that God created this universe and came to earth as a man, Jesus of Nazareth, to die for my sins. My arguments and reasons for believing this aren't invincible, but they are the best fit I have to the world around me.


Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2006.
McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.1999.