Dawkins’s Boeing 747 Argument Barely Takes Flight

Boeing 747

In 2006, Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion sparked a new wave of atheism whose reverberations continue to be felt today. These atheists take the guise of “the new atheists.” Yet there is not much new about the new atheists in terms of argumentative substance. Rather, the new atheists tend to adopt an “in your face” attitude. Unfortunately, the arrogance that accompanies the new atheists is undeserved. In particular, the arguments purported against the existence of God by Dawkins are so bad that the atheist philosopher Michael Ruse said that The God Delusion “makes me ashamed to call myself an atheist.” What is amazing is that the arguments purported in The God Delusion continue to be referenced by new atheist types.

One has the sense upon reading The God Delusion that Dawkins thinks he is doing science rather than philosophy. Since Dawkins is a biologist by training, it should come as no surprise that The God Delusion is a train wreck. The crux of Dawkins’s argument against the existence of God is dubbed the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit and takes the following form: Biological organisms are complex. The probability of complex organisms existing by chance is equivalent to a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747 jet. The only way to generate biological complexity is by natural selection coupled with the flow of time. Since God would have to be much more complex than any biological organism, the likelihood of God existing is fantastically improbable. In other words, God is the ultimate Boeing 747. QED.

Although the argument may seem plausible at first, once the engines are probed, the Boeing 747 Argument barely takes flight. According to Dawkins’s own definition of complexity, an object is complex if it is composed of many parts. Yet God is described as a spirit rather than a body. In essence, God is a very simple being. In short: Dawkins conflates complexity of structure with complexity of function. For example, the structure of an electric razor is more complex than a cut throat razor. By the same token, a cut throat razor is more complex than an electric razor in function, since a cut throat razor can both shave a beard and cut a throat. Likewise, although God is simple in essence (omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient) he can perform complex tasks that stem from these basic characteristics.

Furthermore, philosophers of science have long pointed out that the best explanation for a particular phenomenon doesn’t have to have an explanation. For example, suppose we were to discover the remnants of an extinct colony on the far side of the moon. Our best explanation would be that intelligence once crafted the colony. Yet just because we don’t have an explanation for where the intelligence came from does not mean the intelligence is not the best explanation. Likewise, although one may not have an explanation for the existence of God, that does not mean God is not the best explanation for the universe.

In addition, some theologians today describe God as a necessary being, meaning a being that exists in every possible world. The crux of this argument depends upon whether the concept of a necessary being is logically coherent. Specifically, if a necessary being exists in one possible world, then that being exists in all possible worlds, including the actual world. Thus, the probability of God existing is either 0 or 1 (meaning a necessary being is either logically possible or logically impossible). Therefore, no amount of counter evidence, such as the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit, could be weighed against the existence of God. Unfortunately, Dawkins does not even address the description of God as a necessary being.

Dawkins is an intellectual giant who spins prose that this author can only dream of writing. It is therefore unfortunate that the polemics purported by someone as gifted as Dawkins are so sloppy. Perhaps the engines of the Boeing 747 Argument can be modified. As of now, however, the Boeing 747 Argument barely takes flight.

By Nathan Cranford


Books and Culture
Reasonable Faith

2 Responses to "Dawkins’s Boeing 747 Argument Barely Takes Flight"

  1. Nigel   March 19, 2014 at 2:22 am

    I think what Dawkins is getting at is that there is no evidence that a god exists. If a colony were discovered on the far side of the moon then we would legitimately believe that intelligence existed at some time on the moon. Without it, we at best don’t know whether intelligence existed at some time there.

    If there is evidence of the existence of a god then include that in your arguments.

  2. RandyW   March 18, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    If it’s conceded that a god, were one to exist, is nothing more than “spirit,” how do you demonstrate that “spirit” is more or less complex than any other thing? You’d have to define “spirit,” then demonstrate that your definition is valid. That will require empirical evidence, of which there is none for “spirit” as it’s used here. So, at best, all you can say us “we don’t know how complex a god would be if one were to exist.”


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