Saturday, January 16, 2010

Who Designed the Designer?

Luke (over at Common Sense Atheism) after writing a couple of posts attempting to refute Richard Dawkins (which I responded to here and here) has now written a post trying to refute a very similar rhetorical atheistic question. When a theist tries to argue for God he will often point to things (like the human eye or bacterial flagellum) which appear to be designed. Atheists often reply to ths in the following way: "Yeah, it could be designed, but then who designed the designer? Was God designed by a SuperGod™? Was SuperGod™ designed by an UltraGod™?" Here are some of Luke's thoughts on that reply:

“God did it” is generally a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad “explanation” for complexity or, well, pretty much anything. “God did it” does generally fail as an explanation.
But it does not fail merely because the theist has no explanation for his explanation (God)...

Let us ask ourselves what would happen if we required that a successful explanation must itself be explained.
This would lead immediately to an infinite regress of explanations. We would need to have an explanation of the explanation, and an explanation of the explanation of the explanation, and an explanation of the explanation of the explanation of the explanation… on into infinity. And thus, we would never be able to explain anything.
Moreover, this is not how science works. Examples from physics are the most obvious. In order to explain certain quantum phenomena, scientists have posited the existence of dozens of invisible particles with very particular properties that yield predictable results. These have been some of the most successful explanations in all of scientific history, yielding the most accurate experimental results we have ever achieved. And yet we have no explanations whatsoever for the particles that we have offered as explanations for the quantum phenomena.

I'm basically in agreement with Luke: I do not believe that people have to explain explanations. However, I think that some atheists, when they ask the question "Who designed the designer?" have something a bit different in mind that Luke isn't understanding. When someone asks "Who designed the designer?" what they have in mind is that the theist is getting to postulate a highly specific and complex entity with no justification whatsoever. The argument from design itself seeks to take some highly specific and complex entity (the eye, the flagellum, etc.) and explain it with God. But if the theist is allowed to postulate a highly specific and complex entity with no justification, then why can't the atheist simply postulate an eye or a wing without any justification or explanation?

Here's a good analogy to illuminate this further: Suppose that I win the lottery. Luke hears about this, and decides that he will explain my winning not as the result of chance, but as a result of conspiracy. He comes up with a theory about how I could have cheated and rigged the lottery in my favor. His theory explains nothing more than the theory that I won the lottery by chance. Furthermore, the initial probability or a priori probability that his theory is correct can be calculated, and the odds of it happening are one in a billion. The theory that I won the lottery by chance, however, has an a priori probability of one in a million. Now the question is: which theory should we prefer? Obviously, the chance hypothesis, because it is more probable. But let me ask this question: what if the conspiracy hypothesis and the chance hypothesis had the same a priori probability of being true (one in a million)? And what if Luke started a new blog, Common Sense Lottery Conspiracy, in which he tried to convince people of his conspiracy theory on the grounds that it was too improbable that I had won by chance?

Now suppose PZ Myers reads Luke's blog and comments: "Hey, if you get to postulate a highly improbable theory to account for Ryan's winnings, then why not just propose that he won by chance? Your argument gets us nowhere because the argument from improbability does not reveal to us why one theory should be preferred over another."

This analogy, I think, mirrors the situation with the design argument. Let me tell you what I mean: Most of us are familiar with the fine-tuning argument, that is, the argument that life cannot exist in the universe unless the physical constants have very specific values (out of all possible values, the majority of which will not support life) which are very improbable, and God explains that improbability: God intelligently designed the universe so it would allow life to exist.

For the sake of argument, let's pretend like it is has been conclusively proven that are form of life is the only kind that can exist, that our universe is the only one that exists, that only one extremely specific and improbable set of physical constants allows life even though many sets are possible (as far as we know). Let's suppose that the probability of a fine tuned universe occuring by chance comes out to 1 in 10^100. Now, would it be OK to infer God as the explanation of this phenomenon?

No. The chance explanation of the fine-tuning has an initial probability of 1 in 10^100, as we've said. But what is the initial probability of the existence of God? I'm inclined to think that it is very, very, very low. And if I am right then the fine-tuning argument for God cannot work because we cannot know whether or not the a priori probability of God is better than the a priori probability of a fine tuned universe coming about by chance, and so the argument from design cannot work. Here's an excerpt from an unpublished essay I've written which explains this:

"Consider the number of possible minds. Although I do not know the total number of possible minds, I think we can safely say that it is incredible high, based on the billions of unique human and animal minds that have existed and the possible minds of gods, spirits, and fictional characters that man has conceived of.

"Now, if we are considering positing a single spiritual mind as an inexplicable brute fact, what are the odds that this mind would be anything like the mind of God? I suggest that we apply the principle of indifference and assign each possible mind the same likelihood of existing uncaused. When we do this, it seems that the probability of God’s existence would be much less than one in ten billion (after all, there are six billion unique human minds in existence today, plus the minds of chimpanzees, gorillas, other intelligent animals, and fictional characters and invented gods that occupy the space of possible minds).

"There is another, more important worry: would this random, uncaused mind even be coherent and intelligent? I am very skeptical of the notion that it would be. I do not believe that coherency and/or intelligence is a feature of most possible minds. After all, the minds we observe around us are a very small subset of the total number of possible minds. Human and animal minds arise from brains that are non-randomly constructed from genetic material which has been fashioned by natural selection, which has surely tended to eliminate lack of intelligence and lack of coherency: the mentally disabled have a very low chance of passing on their genes. If you can imagine a mind that would result from a randomly constructed brain, you can understand my doubts about whether this mind would be coherent and intelligent. Of course, that is not an exact analogy, for a spiritual mind does not arise from a physical brain by definition. However, if you can imagine the mind that would result from a randomly constructed brain, if the mind in question was generated by a material medium like the brain, then my thought experiment should illustrate the same point.This leads us directly to the conclusion that the existence of God is a priori very improbable if it is admitted that God is a contingent and highly complex being."

Now, one could try to get rid of the improbability of God by defining him as necessary (I've talked a bit about that here). But then if you can simply assert that God is necessary or define him as necessary then why couldn't someone say the same thing about a life friendly universe?


josef said...

This is exactly right. Just as Luke missed the mark on Dawkins, the same is true of his critique of the atheist argument in general, and for the same reason.

If any atheist really holds that an explanation requires further explanation, that is indeed a wrongheaded. But if you take the full range of statements being made by any particular atheist (most believe there was a big bang, most believe there were self-replicating molecules that preceded life), you'll very quickly find that none of them actually believe that explanations themselves require explanation.

So the way to make the most sense of this argument is as a critique of a creator. By regarding complexity as a "problem" in need of a solution, adding a creator just worsens the problem. You never see atheists anywhere hold to the principle that "explanations must be explained". Otherwise they would be applying this principle in other contexts to other religious (and non-religious) arguments. But they don't.

The mistake here was that someone looked at a special argument with a directed criticism and tried to extract a hard and fast principle from it, and then criticize a principle that no one really adheres to. It's quite obvious why, too- Luke has said he's trying to make inroads with believers and doing this is essentially a performance to show them he relates to them.

Luke said...


You write about how the theist is not allowed to posit God without justification. That is EXACTLY what I said atheists need to complain about. They should NOT complain that God himself isn't explained, but rather that the theist can't give an account of why "God did it" is a good explanation.

AIGBusted said...


My point was that when atheists ask "Who Designed the Designer?" they aren't presuming that explanations require explanations as much as they are pointing out the inconsistency of postulating a really complex thing (God) to explain another really complex thing while insisting that God doesn't have an explanation but also insisting that complex things must have a designer.

I mean, if complex things require design, and God is a complex thing, then it follows that God had a designer. And that's the point of the question. God cannot (by definition) have a designer, but he needs to have one if the theist is going to be consistent.

Luke said...


As I wrote before, I don't think many theists are naive enough to assert that complexity requires an explanation. They are more likely to assert something more like "Physical complexity requires an explanation," which of course gets God off the hook. That may be sneaky, but it's not logically inconsistent, and it doesn't allow the objection you press against the theist.

AIGBusted said...

"I don't think many theists are naive enough to assert that complexity requires an explanation."

Of course they are. Complexity, in the sense that I discussed, is considered in need of explanation by people like WIlliam Lane Craig and Richard Swinburne. A fine tuned universe (if it can be shown to require fine tuning) would involve several constants being set to precise values. Pretty much everyone would agree that something like that needs an explanation beyond mere chance.

"They are more likely to assert something more like 'Physical complexity requires an explanation,' which of course gets God off the hook. That may be sneaky, but it's not logically inconsistent, and it doesn't allow the objection you press against the theist."

But the reasons that physical complexity require explanation are the same reasons that 'spiritual' or 'mental' complexity require explanation.

Badger3k said...

I've pretty much given up trying to see how much "common sense" there is with Luke. Sorry, but when you write this: "That may be sneaky, but it's not logically inconsistent, and it doesn't allow the objection you press against the theist." I see a distinct lack of sense (or else your arguments are not really based on reality, but are simple thought experiments).

Whether it is logically inconsistent is irrelevant - the argument is crap. The objection stands because they (a) have no leg to stand on trying to limit it to physical objects, and (b) they have no evidence.

If they want to press the physical aspect, ask them what about minds - are they solely physical. If yes, then does God have a mind? Must be physical then, or it's special pleading. If mind is not physical, then how do they explain that - if they want to claim a designer, then it falls under the same argument they are making - they can't limit it to physical things.

As to the evidence, we're still waiting for any. Arguments without evidence are useless. Not useless, they can help us form hypotheses, but without evidence to support them, we have no reason to consider them to be real.

But asking for evidence and consistency from theists is like looking for invisible pink dragons. Frustrating, and we're still waiting for both to appear.

D.L. Folken said...

I knew you would come I thought you were way off on your post thinking that every explanation needed an explanation.

The problem is that Darwinian evolution predicts the formation of Flagellum and the eye by mindless causes which on its face is rather absurd. The God hypothesis argues that life is designed by a mind which basically put it together either through natural causes which were directed or superintended by an intelligent agent.

The burden of proof is on the Darwinian to make their case; however, since Darwinian evolution has never been observed, it is much more rational to believe that a mind is responsible for the design that we see.