Is God the Ultimate 747? Richard Dawkins v. William Lane Craig

In The God Delusion, one of Richard Dawkins’s arguments against the value of positing a deity as an explanation for the universe’s existence is this: The deity would be more complex than the universe you’re attempting to explain, and so to say “God created the universe” is to make no real advance in understanding—but to explain a mystery with a mystery. God, in Dawkins’s terms, is the “ultimate 747”—a complex thing that, if It existed, would itself be in need of an explanation for its existence.

As an agnostic, I find this argument intuitively compelling. It does seem like God would be more “complex” than the universe It created. But William Lane Craig is a rather well known Christian philosopher and theologian, and at his website he offers two basic responses to Dawkins’s argument, and I thought that they were both interesting responses, and I offer them here for what they’re worth. Craig’s first response has to do with why it is legitimate, if one detects information or order in a system, to not have to explain the mind behind it right away:

If archaeologists digging in the earth were to discover things looking like arrowheads and hatchet heads and pottery shards, they would be justified in inferring that these artifacts are not the chance result of sedimentation and metamorphosis, but products of some unknown group of people, even though they had no explanation of who these people were or where they came from. Similarly, if astronauts were to come upon a pile of machinery on the back side of the moon, they would be justified in inferring that it was the product of intelligent, extra-terrestrial agents, even if they had no idea whatsoever who these extra-terrestrial agents were or how they got there. In order to recognize an explanation as the best, one needn’t be able to explain the explanation. In fact, so requiring would lead to an infinite regress of explanations, so that nothing could ever be explained and science would be destroyed. So in the case at hand, in order to recognize that intelligent design is the best explanation of the appearance of design in the universe, one needn’t be able to explain the designer.

In other words, an inference of telos within a system needn’t lead immediately to an explanation of telos itself. I think that Craig’s point here is a fair one. His second point has to do with the problem of complexity. What does it mean, exactly, to call something complex?:

Dawkins’ fundamental mistake lies in his assumption that a divine designer is an entity comparable in complexity to the universe. As an unembodied mind, God is a remarkably simple entity. As a non-physical entity, a mind is not composed of parts, and its salient properties, like self-consciousness, rationality, and volition, are essential to it. In contrast to the contingent and variegated universe with all its inexplicable quantities and constants, a divine mind is startlingly simple. Certainly such a mind may have complex ideas—it may be thinking, for example, of the infinitesimal calculus—, but the mind itself is a remarkably simple entity. Dawkins has evidently confused a mind’s ideas, which may, indeed, be complex, with a mind itself, which is an incredibly simple entity. Therefore, postulating a divine mind behind the universe most definitely does represent an advance in simplicity, for whatever that is worth.

Craig’s observation here makes intuitive sense to me as well. When we think about our own minds, for example, we find that they do not seem to consist of parts and cannot be, as it were, located or pinned down in space and time. Of course, to have human minds at all would seem to require complex material brains, but even here scientists are not at all clear about the relationship of the brain to the actual experience of mind, or to free will, and it may well be that the causal relationship between brain states and mind states are not, in fact, one to one (however mysterious that would seem to be). Minds may not be reducible to matter.

In other words, positing the existence of a necessary and noncomplex mind prior to matter, and existing apart from any specific space and time (as our own minds seem themselves to be in relation to matter), is no more far fetched than the idea that the complex universe, with its physical laws and all its information, simply popped into existence of itself (or has, unfathomably, always existed). The human mind, with its free will, and its inability to pinpoint itself in physical space or time, certainly offers a plausible analogy for a Necessary Mind prior to matter.

Alas, being an agnostic is perplexing.  To echo Wolgang Amadeus Mozart, both the theist wig and the atheist wig have their elegancies. Why can’t I have two heads? Help!

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Is God the Ultimate 747? Richard Dawkins v. William Lane Craig

  1. Chucky says:

    I think Dawkins argument is circular. It only works if you assume, as you rightly point out, that God has to be reducible to matter. But that’s a definition that no theist would ever agree with, and so the whole thing falls in a heap.

    There’s many other points that could be made, but a simple one is that God isn’t only given as the explanation of the beginning of the universe. At a minimum he’s also seen as the sustainer of it, explaining why we can have physical laws in the first place. God is seemingly integral to transcendent moral values, which atheists can struggle to account for. He’s seen as acting in history… and so on. Belief in God is certainly more straightforward than hodgepodge of questionable alternatives.

  2. Being agnostic is perplexing but atheism must cerainly be the metaphysics of last resort. I cannot see how one can avoid the nihilism that inevatibly must follow from atheism. The other problem with being agnostic (I’m only agnostic in the morning before my first cup of coffiee – by the way) is that you cannot wait for certainty becuase you need to know NOW if your life has any meaning at all, if there is anything you can hope for and if there really are things that ought and ought not (i.e. a way things are meant to be – which brings God into the picture again).

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