Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit

Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit
Richard Dawkins originally proposed the gambit in The God Delusion.

The Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit is a counter-argument to the modern form of the argument from design. It was introduced by Richard Dawkins in chapter 4 "Why there almost certainly is no God" of his 2006 book The God Delusion.


Context and history

Richard Dawkins begins The God Delusion by making it clear that the God he talks about is the Abrahamic concept of a personal god who is susceptible to worship. He considers the existence of such an entity to be a scientific question, because a universe with such a god would be significantly different from a universe without one, and he says that the difference would be empirically discernible. Therefore, Dawkins concludes, the same kind of reasoning can be applied to the God hypothesis as to any other scientific question.

After discussing some of the most common arguments for the existence of God in chapter 3, Dawkins concludes that the argument from design is the most convincing. The extreme improbability of life and a universe capable of hosting it requires explanation, but Dawkins considers the God hypothesis inferior to evolution by natural selection as explanations for the complexity of life. As part of his efforts to refute intelligent design, he redirects the argument from complexity in order to show that God must have been designed by a superintelligent designer, and then goes on to present his probabilistic argument against the existence of God.[1]

Dawkins's name for the statistical demonstration that God almost certainly does not exist is the "Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit". This is an allusion to Hoyle's fallacy. Fred Hoyle reportedly stated that the "probability of life originating on Earth is no greater than the chance that a hurricane, sweeping through a scrapyard, would have the luck to assemble a Boeing 747."[2] The basic argument against empirical theism dates back at least to David Hume, whose objection can be popularly stated as "Who designed the designer?", but according to Daniel Dennett the innovation of Dawkins's argument is: first, to show that where design fails to explain complexity, evolution by natural selection succeeds and is in fact the only workable solution; and, second, to argue how this should illuminate the confusion surrounding the anthropic principle.[3]

Dawkins's statement

Dawkins summarizes his argument as follows.[4] The references to "crane" and "skyhook" are ideas from Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

  1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
  2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artefact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.
  3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a "crane," not a "skyhook;" for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.
  4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that – an illusion.
  5. We don't yet have an equivalent crane for physics. Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology. This kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck. But the anthropic principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.
  6. We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. But even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer.

A central thesis of the argument is that, compared to supernatural abiogenesis, evolution by natural selection requires the supposition of fewer hypothetical processes and thus, according to Occam's razor, a better explanation than the God hypothesis. He cites a paragraph where Richard Swinburne agrees that a simpler explanation is better but reasons that theism is simpler because it only invokes a single substance, God, as a cause and maintainer of every other object. This cause is seen as omnipotent, omniscient and totally free. Dawkins argues that an entity that monitors and controls every particle in the universe and listens to all our thoughts and prayers cannot be simple. His existence would require a "mammoth explanation" of its own. The theory of natural selection is much simpler than the theory of the existence of such a complex being, and thus preferable.[5]

Dawkins then turns to a discussion of Keith Ward's views on divine simplicity to show the difficulty "the theological mind has in grasping where the complexity of life comes from." Dawkins writes that Ward is sceptical of Arthur Peacocke's ideas that evolution is directed by other forces than only natural selection and that these processes may have a propensity toward increasing complexity. Dawkins says that this scepticism is justified, because complexity doesn't come from biased mutations. Dawkins writes:

[Natural selection], as far as we know, is the only process ultimately capable of generating complexity out of simplicity. The theory of natural selection is genuinely simple. So is the origin from which it starts. That which it explains, on the other hand, is complex almost beyond telling: more complex than anything we can imagine, save a God capable of designing it.[6]

Assessment and criticism

Theist authors have presented extensive opposition, most notably by theologian Alister McGrath in The Dawkins Delusion?, and philosophers Alvin Plantinga[7] and Richard Swinburne.[8] Another such negative review, by biologist H. Allen Orr, has sparked heated debate. Norman Levitt disagrees with Orr, asking why theologians are assumed to have the exclusive right to write about who "rules" the universe.[9] Daniel Dennett also took exception to Orr's review and the two had an exchange of open letters.[10] The philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny also considers this argument to be flawed.[11] Stephen Barr [12] responds as follows, "Paley finds a watch and asks how such a thing could have come to be there by chance. Dawkins finds an immense automated factory that blindly constructs watches, and feels that he has completely answered Paley’s point."

Simplicity of God and materialist assumptions

Both Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne raise the objection that God is not complex. Swinburne gives two reasons why a God that controls every particle can be simple. First, he writes that a person is not the same as his brain, and he points to split-brain experiments that he has discussed in his previous work, thus he argues that a simple entity like our self can control our brain, which is a very complex thing. Second, he argues that simplicity is a quality that is intrinsic to a hypothesis, and not related to its empirical consequences.[8]

Plantinga writes:

So first, according to classical theology, God is simple, not complex. More remarkable, perhaps, is that according to Dawkins's own definition of complexity, God is not complex. According to his definition (set out in The Blind Watchmaker), something is complex if it has parts that are "arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone." But of course God is a spirit, not a material object at all, and hence has no parts. A fortiori (as philosophers like to say) God doesn't have parts arranged in ways unlikely to have arisen by chance. Therefore, given the definition of complexity Dawkins himself proposes, God is not complex." He continues "But second, suppose we concede, at least for purposes of argument, that God is complex. Perhaps we think the more a being knows, the more complex it is; God, being omniscient, would then be highly complex. Given materialism and the idea that the ultimate objects in our universe are the elementary particles of physics, perhaps a being that knew a great deal would be improbable—how could those particles get arranged in such a way as to constitute a being with all that knowledge? Of course we aren't given materialism.[7]

Proceeding in this thinking, Plantinga concludes that the argument, to be valid, would require materialism to be true and, since materialism is a vision not compatible with traditional theology, the argument turns out to be a fallacy of begging the question – in order to accept the argument as valid and the conclusion of the non-existence of God, you must require His non-existence since the beginning, in the premise.[7]

In an extensive analysis published in Science and Christian Belief Patrick Richmond suggests that "It seems that Dawkins is right to object to unexplained organised complexity in God" but that God is simply specified and lacks the sort of real composition and limitations found in creatures, so the theist can explain why nature exists without granting unexplained organised complexity or the extreme improbability of God."[13]

Some, such as Stephen Law, have suggested that God is indeed complex because since he has a mind and created the universe and everything in it, he must have all the complexity of the universe in his mind in order to have done so, and therefore is complex.[14] God is in fact omniscient so in knowing everything he would have in his mind a huge amount of knowledge that was complex and therefore his mind is complex. Others have employed Kolmogorov complexity to show that God is complex.[15]

Necessity of external explanations

There are many variations on how to express this objection. William F. Vallicella holds that organized complexity as such does not need explanation, because when in search of an ultimate explanation, one must in the end accept an entity whose complexity has no external explanation.[16] Dawkins has stated that we should search for simple beginnings for explanations, like in evolution which moves from simple to complex, and so what we ultimately accept with no external explanation must be simple for it to be a good explanation.[17] And Plantinga writes that when not in search for an ultimate explanation of organized complexity, it is perfectly fine to explain one kind of complexity, that of terrestrial life, in terms of another kind of complexity, namely divine activity.[7] Dawkins addresses this point in his debate with John Lennox over The God Delusion, saying that it would be perfectly reasonable to infer from artifacts on earth or another planet that an intelligence existed, but that you would still need to explain that intelligence, which evolution does, while for God's existence there is no such explanation. [17]

Alister McGrath suggests that the leap from the recognition of complexity to the assertion of improbability is problematic, as a theory of everything would be more complex than the theories it would replace, yet one would not conclude that it is less probable. Dawkins has responded to this point in his debate with Lennox and at other times, saying that while physics is hard to understand fundamentally it is simple, unlike biology.[17] McGrath then argues that probability is not relevant to the question of existence: life on earth is highly improbable, and yet we do exist. The important question in his view is not whether God is probable, but whether God is actual.[18] In his interview of McGrath for The Root of All Evil Dawkins says in response that the existence of life on earth is indeed highly improbable, but that that is why we must develop an explanation for it that explains that improbability, such as evolution.[19] In the case of God, Dawkins says, there is no such satisfactory explanation. On the point of probability, Alvin Plantinga says that since according to classical theism, God is a necessary being, he is by definition maximally probable, and thus to show the improbability of God, one has to present an argument showing that there is no necessary being with the qualities attributed to God.[7] Eric MacDonald has pointed out that theists assume the coherence of their position when they make arguments for God when by Plantinga's standard they would have to present an argument that the concept of God is not logically incoherent before discussing other arguments.[20] Plantinga's objection would seem to apply to all atheist arguments that contend that God is improbable, such as evidential arguments about the problem of evil and the argument from nonbelief. But the reason why theists and atheists do not usually address this prior to making their arguments is because they want to go beyond merely discussing whether God is maximally probable or impossible.

Dawkins's response to criticism in The God Delusion

Dawkins writes about his attendance at a conference in Cambridge sponsored by the Templeton Foundation,[6] where he challenged the theologians present to respond to the argument that a creator of a universe with such complexity would have to be complex and improbable.[21] According to Dawkins, the strongest response was the objection that he was imposing a scientific epistemology on a question that lies beyond the realm of science. When theologians hold God to be simple, who is a scientist like Dawkins "to dictate to theologians that their God had to be complex?"[22] Dawkins writes that he didn't get the impression that those employing this "evasive" defence were being "wilfully dishonest," but were "defining themselves into an epistemological Safe Zone where rational argument could not reach them because they had declared by fiat that it could not."[22]

The theologians, he writes, demanded that there must be a first cause, which can be given the name God. Dawkins responds that it must have been a simple cause, and he contends that God is not an appropriate name for it, unless God is divested of its normal associations. Dawkins wants the first cause to be a "self-bootstrapping crane" that slowly lifts the world to its current complexity. Postulating a prime mover that is capable of indulging in intelligent design is in Dawkins's opinion "a total abdication of the responsibility to find an explanation." He says that he doesn't require a narrowly scientific explanation, but what any honest theory that accounts for the complex phenomena of the natural world requires is a crane and not a skyhook.[23]


  1. ^ Michael Shermer (2007-01-26). "Arguing for Atheism". Science 315 (5811): 463. doi:10.1126/science.1138989. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/315/5811/463. Retrieved 2007-03-15.  Also available here, second review on page.
  2. ^ The God Delusion, p. 113
  3. ^ Daniel Dennett (2006-10-16). "Review of Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion". Free Inquiry 27 (1). http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/dawkinsreview.pdf. Retrieved 2006-12-05. 
  4. ^ The God Delusion, p. 157–8
  5. ^ The God Delusion, p. 147–149
  6. ^ a b The God Delusion, p. 151
  7. ^ a b c d e Alvin Plantinga (2007). "The Dawkins Confusion — Naturalism ad absurdum". Books & Culture, a Christian Review. http://www.christianitytoday.com/bc/2007/002/1.21.html. Retrieved 2007-03-02. 
  8. ^ a b Swinburne, Richard. "Response to Richard Dawkins’s comments on my writings in his book The God Delusion". http://users.ox.ac.uk/~orie0087/pdf_files/Responses%20to%20Controversies/Response%20to%20Dawkins%27%20The%20God%20Delusion%20(revised)_copy(1).pdf. 
  9. ^ Norman Levitt (2007-01-31). "What a Friend We Have in Dawkins". eSkeptic. http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/07-01-31.html. Retrieved 2007-03-19. 
  10. ^ The full exchange of open letters is in Edge
  11. ^ Anthony Kenny 2007 Presidential Royal Institute of PhilosophyAnnual Lecture, Published in Philosophy Volume 82 number 321 July 2007 pp381-397
  12. ^ Stephen M Barr (2003) Modern Physics and Ancient faith, ISBN 0268034710
  13. ^ Patrick Richmond "Richard Dawkins's Darwinian Objection to Unexplained Complexity in God" Science and Christian Belief Vol 19 No 2 pp99-106 (2007)
  14. ^ The Strengths and Weaknesses of the God Delusion, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3fGJq04rUc
  15. ^ Dawkins and the Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit, http://omnisaffirmatioestnegatio.wordpress.com/2010/06/12/dawkins-and-the-ultimate-747-gambit/
  16. ^ Vallicella's discussion with Wielenberg is here
  17. ^ a b c 'The God Delusion Debate: Richard Dawkins vs John Lennox', http://www.fixed-point.org/index.php/video/35-full-length/164-the-dawkins-lennox-debate
  18. ^ The Dawkins Delusion?, pp. 24–25
  19. ^ 'Root of All Evil? The Uncut Interviews', http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6474278760369344626#
  20. ^ Duking it Out Over the God Delusion, http://choiceindying.com/2011/05/18/duking-it-out-over-the-god-delusion/
  21. ^ The God Delusion, p. 153
  22. ^ a b The God Delusion, p. 154
  23. ^ The God Delusion, p. 155

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