Archive for January, 2012

Aeroplanes and beginnings

January 28, 2012

Chapter 4 of Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’ focuses on his central argument as to why ‘there almost certainly is no God’. His argues that God’s existence is highly implausible, an argument which he describes as ‘the ultimate Boeing 747 gambit’. The name comes from an illustration comparing the probability of life originating on earth as no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would assemble a Boeing 747. This sort of illustration is often used to argue that – given such an improbability – there must be a designer of life, God. Dawkins turns this argument round however and suggests that any such designer, or creator, must be more complex and therefore more improbable than the thing which has been designed.

For much of the chapter he seeks to counter the suggestion that the existence of life on earth is implausible. He argues that Darwinian evolution is a process which naturally explains how life can move from the simple to the more complex without the resort to any unlikely or improbable ‘chance’ occurrences. He then looks at other improbabilities required for life (as we know it) to exist; for example the need for water which imposes tight constraints on a planet’s orbit, how the physical laws of the universe seem finely tuned for life, and the improbability of the creation of the first cell. All of these potentially highly improbable events need only occur once, so their improbability can be balanced by the vast number of planets that probably exist around the universe, or a plethora of universes in a ‘multiverse’. Hence, while each event is highly unlikely to have occurred on any given planet / universe, the chances of it happening somewhere are perfectly reasonable. The anthropic principle then reasons that as we are here to be asking questions like this we must be in that place where conscious life has occurred. There are no such arguments to counter the implausibility of how God might have come into existence, however. The argument from implausibility, he argues, is therefore a strong one against the existence of God.

The weakness of Dawkins’ argument, I feel, is that he doesn’t really consider properly the question of ‘beginnings’. With regards to the improbable events required for life to exist – the first cell, the right physical laws etc., his argument may be valid, or it may not. The truth is that the probabilities he talks about are far too vague and unknown to really assemble any meaningful estimate of whether the vast number of planets or universes (the multiverse hypothesis is only that, a hypothesis, without any evidence, so how you can determine how many universes it might contain?!) does really counterbalance the low probability of the events which might occur in each one. But even allowing it as a valid argument, he doesn’t address the issue of why the universe bothers to exist at all in the first place? (Something else of great complexity and therefore highly improbable that it exists by Dawkins’ argument). The best you get from his chapter is a hope that physics might one day come up with some process analogous to evolution through which a complex universe naturally arises from a simple (nothing).

We naturally think of all things as having a beginning (and end) as that is our experience in life. The world around us has a definite ‘arrow of time’ which requires all things to have a start and end. The laws of thermodynamics, for example, insist that as time progresses all things move from an ordered to a less-ordered state and hence could not have just been there forever. But God is not part of the physical world around us, and hence does not need to have had such a beginning. Indeed the Bible tells us that he has always been around, without any such ‘starting point’. Arguments of improbability are only valid when considering how something might have come about from what was there beforehand. They have nothing to say about one who has always been there.

Dawkins seems to believe that God is postulated as a bad explanation for the mystery of why life exists – and now science has come up with a better, far more plausible answer. This is not true, however. I believe in God, not because I need an answer to the mystery of how I’m here, but because I know him personally. His existence is not an implausible hypothesis but an inner reality.

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