Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit

I’ve been hearing much made of this Richard Dawkins fellow coming to speak at the University of Oklahoma, so I decided to have a look at his most recent book. I did not get far before becoming overwhelmed with the sense that he believes that his brilliance in some areas (e.g. biology, zoology) makes him perfectly qualified to argue about other areas entirely (e.g. philosophy of religion) in which he lacks any serious training or experience. This is a familiar feeling to anyone who indulges in reading the shockingly amateurish journals of high-IQ societies in their spare time.

Here is a telling example:

Creationist 'logic' is always the same. Some natural phenomenon is too statistically improbable, too complex, too beautiful, too awe-inspiring to have come into existence by chance. Design is the only alternative to chance that the authors can imagine. Therefore a designer must have done it. And science's answer to this faulty logic is also always the same. Design is not the only alternative to chance. Natural selection is a better alternative. Indeed, design is not a real alternative at all because it raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who designed the designer?

Any entity capable of intelligently designing something as improbable as a Dutchman's Pipe (or a universe) would have to be even more improbable than a Dutchman's Pipe. Far from terminating the vicious regress, God aggravates it with a vengeance.

These passages demonstrate the sort of metaphysical naiveté which philosophy profs usually try to beat out of their students in their first year.

Let’s unpack Dawkins’ (mis)characterization of creationist thinking here:

  1. If something we observe is sufficiently improbable, complex, awe-inspiring, etc., then it must have been intelligently designed.
  2. The cosmos as a whole meets the above criteria, because it is so improbably, complex, awe-inspiring, etc.
  3. Accordingly, the cosmos as a whole must have been designed by an intelligent agent which cannot exist as part of the universe itself.
  4. Anything sufficiently complex to design XYZ is at least as complex/improbable/awe-inspiring as XYZ itself
  5. :. Said intelligent designer must also have been designed, per premises (1 & 3)

Never mind that Dawkins has written an entire book debunking premises (1 & 4) or that the amazing explanatory power of natural selection is impossible to apply at a cosmic level (e.g. various universes competing for the scarce resources of the metaverse). It is the attempted application of creationist premise (1) to a non-spatiotemporal cosmic übermind which one should find particularly troubling. Dawkins is actually arguing that if premise (1) holds true for the cosmos as a whole (or any constituent units thereof) then it also must hold true for anything outside of space and time as well. This fallacy of extrapolation makes the better-known fallacy of composition (of which Dawkins is certainly aware) seem like a cautious bit of standard logical induction by comparison.

People of every worldview must accept some aspects of the universe as brute facts which are fundamental and lack any possible explanation. For naturalists, it is nature itself, while for deists, it is the mind of god. One cannot expect either sort of person to seek a deeper explanation for that which they consider ultimately fundamental.

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