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On Dawkin’s Ultimately Unairworthy 747

August 5, 2011

At the start of chapter 4 of the God delusion we read:

The argument from improbability is the big one[sic].  In the traditional guise of the argument from design, it is easily today’s most popular argument offered in favour of the existence of God and it is seen, by an amazingly large number of theists, as completely and utterly convincing.  It is indeed a very strong and, I suspect, unanswerable argument–but in precisely the opposite direction from the theist’s intention.  The argument from improbability, properly deployed, comes close to proving that God does not exist. My name for the statistical demonstration that God almost certainly does not exist is the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit.

I don’t know where best to start, so I’ll begin with the words ‘almost certainly’.  Dawkins loves to rely on uncertain reasoning, but most religious believers will not let their faith anywhere near it, so if he wish to convince anyone other than an already convinced atheist, he should look elsewhere.  The argument from improbability fails for similar reasons: you are not permitted to use uncertain reasoning such as probability when tackling such fundamental questions as the existence of God as, no matter how slight, no uncertainty can be tolerated.

As to using probabalistic notions, be aware that in pure mathematics, there is the facility of reducing the uncertainty, by rigorous analytical argument, to an infinitesimal amount which is then equated with zero (either using the notion of a limit, or else using the standard part map of non-standard analysis).  In the case of physical reality, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle prevents this limiting process from going to infinity: quantum effects will appear on the way and you must deal, rigorously, with all uncertainties whose existence is mandated by the laws of Quantum Mechanics.  I do not understand the details of QM, only its principles, so maybe a physicist can explain how probability arguments can reduce dE.dt to an infinitesimal…

For a theist, God’s existence is a cut and dried notion because he or she intuitively knows the answer in the absence of the intellect.  The intellect is not strong enough to change this (intellect is, in general, very weak) and so any intellectual argument which supports their argument is taken as sufficient.  The logic here is that, from Q, you can deduce P implies Q with certainty, even in the case that P is false.  The theists rely on this subtlety of logic, but in doing so, their position is sound.

As to what he calls ‘argument form design’ I am not sure exactly what argument he is trying to shoot down.  My ‘argument from design’ is that a total absence of intelligent design would mandate symmetries which are manifestly absent in the reality that I see around me.  In particular, a twofold symmetry between what is designed and what is not designed.  Humans can sometimes tell the difference and this is sufficient to prove that a universal absence of design is not consistent with our reality.  Thus intelligent design exists and we should carefully come to know its nature.

That’s about all I can get from this paragraph, and I’ll not conjecture about the state of the engines in Dawkins’ Ultimate 747: for me the gambit is pure folly and no serious strategist would even waste time contemplating it.

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