New Atheism’s Undead Arguments

by Graham Veale


Richard Dawkins’  chief argument for atheism, the “Boeing 747 Gambit”,  is dead. It has been reviewed, analysed, critiqued and rejected by a range of analytic philosophers, theistic and atheistic, and he has issued no reply. These are not the theologians or continental intellectuals traduced by PZ Myer’s “Courtier’s Reply; they are the very scholars who specialise in reviewing the sort of argument Dawkins has advanced. No convincing response to these critiques is available; so Dawkins’ argument for atheism has no compelling force. That’s why I say it is dead.

Here’s how Dawkins describes the argument in his 2002 TED talk, “Militant Atheism“:

Now, the difficult problem for any theory of biological design is to explain the massive statistical improbability of living things. Statistical improbability in the direction of good design – ”complexity” is another word for this. The standard creationist argument — there is only one; they all reduce to this one –takes off from a statistical improbability. Living creatures are too complex to have come about by chance; therefore, they must have had a designer. This argument of course, shoots itself in the foot. Any designer capable of designing something really complex has to be even more complex himself, and that’s before we even start on the other things he’s expected to do, like forgive sins, bless marriages, listen to prayers favor our side in a war disapprove of our sex lives and so on.”

Complexity is the problem that any theory of biology has to solve, and you can’t solve it by postulating an agent that is even more complex, thereby simply compounding the problem. Darwinian natural selection is so stunningly elegant because it solves the problem of explaining complexity in terms of nothing but simplicity. Essentially, it does it by providing a smooth ramp of gradual step-by-step increment. But here, I only want to make the point that the elegance of Darwinism is corrosive to religion precisely because it is so elegant, so parsimonious, so powerful, so economically powerful. It has the sinewy economy of a beautiful suspension bridge.”

Obviously, this is just a variation of Hume’s “who designed the designer?” objection. It is a piece of philosophy of religion, not science, and this is  is why philosophers seem well-placed to judge its merits.To fully grasp Dawkins’ argument, we need to get our head’s around the concept of “organised complexity”. Roughly, an entity has organised complexity if it is composed of a variety of parts arranged in a highly specific manner so that it is able to function. For example, cells exemplify organised complexity because they have numerous parts that must be arranged in a precise manner for the cell to function.

Statistically, it is extremely improbable that a cell would arise merely by chance…


New Atheism’s Undead Arguments – Saints and Sceptics