November 24, 2016

Who Designed the Designer? Debunking Dawkins' Objection

Below is the text from my recent Provf Talk, in case it's of interest to my readers. I'll provide a link to the video version when it becomes available.


Who Designed the Designer?
Debunking Dawkins’ Objection

By Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Providence University College
Provf Talks, November 24, 2016


I. Introduction

Good morning.

The well-known atheist Richard Dawkins was Professor for Public Understanding of Science at University of Oxford from 1995 until 2008.  Dawkins’ 2006 book The God Delusion has sold over 3 million copies and has been translated into over 30 languages.  The book has been and remains influential.  This past July on Steinbach’s Main Street, during Steinbach’s outdoor festival “Summer in the City,” I saw The God Delusion displayed at a kiosk sponsored by a group called HUMANISTS, ATHEISTS, AND AGNOSTICS OF MANITOBA.  The book was displayed almost as a holy book.  In the book’s crucial fourth chapter, Dawkins argues that the objection/ question—Who designed the designer?—blocks any reasonable inference to a designer.  In today’s Provf Talk I will argue that this important objection is a philosophical failure—a philosophical blunder.

First I will clarify the objection.  Then I will set out my critique.  Then I will consider a couple objections to my critique.


II. Clarifying the objection

It’s important to begin by noting that Dawkins acknowledges that there is a complexity to nature which looks designed.  Dawkins has famously stated this: “biology is the study of complex things that appear to have been designed for a purpose.” But, Dawkins emphasizes, the design is merely apparent.

According to Dawkins’ who-designed-the-designer objection, appealing to an intelligent designer to explain nature’s complexity (i.e., its apparent design) is an explanatory failure. Why? Because it merely passes the explanatory buck. The intelligent designer hypothesis transfers the mystery of nature’s complexity, which is the puzzle to be explained, to the mystery of the designer’s complexity, which is a new puzzle to be explained. But this in turn generates another puzzle, i.e., the mystery of the complexity of the designer’s designer. And this generates another puzzle—the mystery of the complexity of the designer of the designer’s designer. And so on.

More specifically, Dawkins argues that because the complexity of the natural world (i.e., its apparent design) is highly improbable, and because the intelligent designer must be at least as complex as the complexity of the natural world, it follows that the intelligent designer must be at least as improbable as the natural world.

But, Dawkins continues, this is to explain one improbability by another improbability at least as great as, or greater than, the first improbability. What is worse (for the intelligent designer proponent), the question of the origin of the designer adds yet another layer of improbability to explain the additional complexity of the designer’s designer. Then the question of the complexity of the designer of the designer’s designer adds yet another layer of improbability. And so on, ad infinitum.

Because of this unending regress of additional improbabilities, Dawkins thinks that the God hypothesis is not a reasonable explanation for the apparent design found in nature. In fact, Dawkins thinks that his argument renders God extremely improbable. Dawkins concludes: “God almost certainly does not exist.” Thus, God is illusory.

Of course, the question arises: Is Dawkins’ who-designed-the-designer argument logically sound?


III. Critique

I think Dawkins’ who-designed-the-designer argument is not sound, for at least two reasons.

1. First, it relies on a false premise. It's false that the complexity of a designer makes a design hypothesis improbable. Intelligent designer explanations are accepted in science (and in everyday reasoning) even if the designer is complex: e.g., in archeology (to explain cave paintings and arrowheads), in cryptography (to explain codes), and in forensic science (to explain “who done it”).  In fact, in these sciences the designer is even more complex than the objects or phenomena explained, yet the designer hypothesis is legitimate.

Notice that if we were to accept Dawkins’ who-designed-the-designer objection as a block to inferring a designer, then—to be logically consistent—the aforementioned explanations would not be legitimate.  But they are legitimate.  In archeology, the designer is more complex than the cave painting and arrowhead.  In cryptography, the designer is more complex than the code.  In forensic science, the designer is more complex than the murder weapon or event. Thus, it’s false that the complexity of a designer makes a designer hypothesis improbable.

2.Second, the issue of the complexity and origin of a designer simply has no bearing on the process of determining whether something is designed. It's not relevant. Consider the science known as SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). In SETI the intelligent design hypothesis is allowed to explain ET's communications (if they were to occur); moreover—and significantly—whether the alleged message is truly a message from ET depends not at all on our knowledge of ET's complexity or origin, but solely on whether the message displays design.

How do we discern design?  Think about some strings of letters in a Scrabble game. Let's say I'm playing Scrabble with my family and I leave the room to answer a phone call and when I return I see these letters: “Dad, it's your turn to buy pizza.” To discern design, two conditions should be satisfied. We determine whether (1) the thing is highly improbable via non-intelligent causes, given what we know from empirical experience of the capacities of non-intelligent causes, and (2) the thing is strongly analogous to things we know (also) from empirical experience to be designed by intelligent causes. Surely, I discern, rightly, that my family wants pizza! The letters organizing themselves on their own into “Dad, it’s your turn to buy pizza” is highly improbable, and that particular string of letters is highly analogous to things done by known intelligent causes. Of course, it's possible I am mistaken, but it's reasonable to think I'm not.

Now consider the message from outer space in the 1997 movie Contact (starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, a film adaptation of agnostic Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel by the same title). Again, the way to discern whether something is designed is to determine whether (1) the thing is highly improbable via non-intelligent causes, given what we know from empirical experience of the capacities of non-intelligent causes, and (2) the thing is strongly analogous to things we know (also) from empirical experience to be designed by intelligent causes.

In Contact the message that twigs intelligent causation consists of a repeating list of the prime numbers up to and including 101.  Recall that a prime number is any positive integer greater than 1 and is exactly divisible only by 1 and itself: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29….to 101.  Picking out and listing prime numbers is improbable without intelligence. We know this.  Picking out and listing prime numbers is strongly analogous to what intelligent causes do. We know this too—it’s what mathematicians and scientists like to do in their spare time!  (Yes, I’m thinking of Prov’s resident mathematician Yinka Bammeke, Prov’s resident biologist Rebecca Dielschneider, and Prov’s resident social scientists Val Hiebert, Dennis Hiebert, and Morgan Mulenga.)

Back to ET. So, the discernment—the inference—of intelligent design from the list of prime numbers up to 101 is due to these two conditions being satisfied: (1) the thing or pattern is highly improbable via non-intelligent causes, and (2) it is strongly analogous to things we know to be designed by intelligent causes.  Now, notice this: The complexity or origin of the designer, in this case ET, has no bearing on the inference. It is simply not relevant to satisfying the two conditions!

Who designed ET?  Who designed the intelligent cause? Who designed the designer?  Perhaps the designer just is (and always has been).  Or not.  Perhaps the designer is complex.  Or not.  The point here is that we need not understand the nature of a designer (i.e., whether it’s complex or not) or even the origin of a designer (whether it has a designer or not) to determine that something has been designed and, by implication, that a designer exists.  We need only to discern the satisfaction of the two conditions: (1) the thing is highly improbable via non-intelligent causes, and (2) it is strongly analogous to things we know to be designed by intelligent causes.  Therefore, as an alleged block to discerning a designer from its designed effects, the who-designed-the-designer objection is beside the point—it’s not relevant.


IV. Objections to my critique

At this juncture, two objections might be set out to my critique.

1. First, one might be tempted to argue that God is simple and so the God explanation does not fall prey to Dawkins’ objection concerning complexity.

In reply, I’ll just say this. I think that the doctrine of God’s simplicity is an important (and difficult) philosophical and theological doctrine, and should be studied for the sake of achieving greater knowledge of God.  However, I think that such a project would be lost on the likes of Dawkins and so would have little apologetical value.  More importantly, I think it would be a rabbit trail. The fact remains (as I have argued) that whether the designer is simple or complex is irrelevant to the question of discerning whether something is designed, whether by God or a God-like being—i.e., the issue is merely whether the object or phenomenon in question displays the marks of intelligent design.

2. Second, one might object that in my examples in which we clearly detect design—e.g., archaeology, cryptography, forensic science, Scrabble—we model the detectable design on known intelligent causes, i.e., us; but it’s not reasonable to do this sort of modelling with any kind of supernatural intelligent agent such as God.  God, or so it might be objected, is too different from us.

In reply, in the examples of archaeology, cryptology, forensic science, and Scrabble—yes—we are modeling the design inference on known intelligent causes, which happen to be us. But the fact remains that with SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) things get interesting. In SETI we don’t know whether ET is a natural agent or god-like being or angel or something else—yet we permit the discernment of design independent of modeling ET’s mind. We use known intelligence, i.e., ours. If this is reasonable in SETI, which it is, it’s reasonable elsewhere. To say it isn’t reasonable elsewhere is to assume that intelligence other than human intelligence can never be modeled on the known effects of human intelligence. But if the issue is whether such intelligence is in fact limited solely to us, to forward this as an objection is to assume what’s at issue—it commits the fallacy of question-begging. It assumes as settled that which is at issue.  It assumes as settled that there aren't other intelligences somewhat like ours, when that's what we are wondering about. It puts the cart before the horse. It assumes the outcome of an investigation before the investigation begins. We should look and see, and let the evidence lead us.

Maybe there is a Mind or God who made us in God’s image and so we are able, using empirical investigation, to discern this Mind’s empirical effects in the created order. Recall that even Dawkins acknowledges that there is in fact apparent design in nature. Significantly, then, because Dawkins’ who-designed-the-designer objection fails, it does not preclude our discernment of the effects of such a God.


V. Conclusion and recap

Dawkins’ who-designed-the-designer objection has two major flaws: it is based on a false premise, and it is basically irrelevant.  In other words, the objection that purports to show us that God is a delusion is (to put it mildly) a philosophical blunder.

Significantly, nature’s apparent design remains—and continues to suggest an Intelligent Designer. As even Dawkins should admit.


Thank you.


Further reading:



Update (January 3, 2017)

Here is the video (17 minutes): Provf Talk

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