Who designed the designer?
H. Allen Orr is Professor of Biology at the University of Manchester, and he questions Richard Dawkins’s famous “Ultimate 747” argument against belief in God:
[T]he fact that we as scientists find a hypothesis question-begging—as when Dawkins asks “who designed the designer?”—cannot, in itself, settle its truth value. It could, after all, be a brute fact of the universe that it derives from some transcendent mind, however question-begging this may seem. What explanations we find satisfying might say more about us than about the explanations. Why, for example, is Dawkins so untroubled by his own (large) assumption that both matter and the laws of nature can be viewed as given? Why isn’t that question-begging?
Orr has an interesting way of putting it:
- God made the universe , and
- The universe made the universe
are both forms of question-begging that leave us baffled—and yet one of them is a brute fact.
How can we possibly know which one is right? Orr wonders why Dawkins isn’t as “troubled” by his materialist assumption as he is about the theist assumption.
As an agnostic, I wonder too.
I actually think that the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, can be helpful for thinking about this question by introducing optimism v. pessimism into the equation. Here’s Niebuhr, from the beginning of his essay, “Optimism, Pessimism, and Religious Faith” (1940):
Human vitality has two primary sources, animal impulse and confidence in the meaningfulness of human existence. The more human consciousness arises to full self-consciousness and to a complete recognition of the total forces of the universe in which it finds itself, the more it requires not only animal vitality but confidence in the meaningfulness of its world to maintain a healthy will-to-live. This confidence in the meaningfulness of life is not something which results from a sophisticated analysis of the forces and factors which surround the human enterprise. It is something which is assumed in every healthy life. It is primary religion. Men may be quite unable to define the meaning of life, and yet live by a simple trust that it has meaning. This primary religion is the basic optimism of all vital and wholesome human life.
In other words, Niebuhr sees optimistic belief in the universe’s meaningfulness as an important factor for psychological vigor. The universe must, in some ultimate sense, hold together as a cosmos rather than a chaos for people to be happy in it. But it may be that Niebuhr is making universal a need that many people, in fact, do not feel. They are able to find meaning in much more narrow and less ambitious terms. In light of Niebuhr’s quote, I think it is telling that Orr intuits a personality issue at the bottom of expressions of belief (and disbelief): “What explanations we find satisfying might say more about us than about the explanations.”
Do we need to believe that the universe possesses some ultimate meaning for us to be happy in it—or not? Who’s question begging whom?