This is a famous argument made by Richard Dawkins in his 2006 best seller The God Delusion. In order for someone who isn’t familiar with this to follow me, it’ll need some background explanation.
First off, the credit for the Boeing 747 argument (explained below) is given to Fred Hoyle, (now known as Hoyle’s Fallacy) and is intended to be a knock-down argument against evolution. It goes something like this (I’m paraphrasing): “Evolution/natural processes producing something as complex as a human being, or even a single cell, is as statistically improbable as a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and assembling the trash into a perfectly functional Boeing 747.”
Needless to say, anyone using this argument does not have an accurate understanding of how evolution works. A full post could be filled explaining of the flaws, but I’ll restrict myself to two of the issues with it. One, (I would say “needless to say” but apparently it does need to be said) there are not random parts of organisms strewn about in nature ready to be slammed together. You don’t find fractions of organs or parts of animals just laying around, like you might find parts of a plane in a junkyard. Two, evolution is most emphatically NOT a random process. It does have heavy elements of randomness in it (perhaps much more than many of us are comfortable with) but it is guided by non random selection in nature. Beware of anyone who tells you that evolution is a random process.
Secondly, (I’ll do a full post explaining this later) the arguments for the existence of God… Well, they suck. Basically all of the arguments for any type of god crumble under the smallest amount of scrutiny. It’s an unfortunate fact for people who want to make their religious belief seem rational. The best argument (according to Dawkins anyway) is the argument from design. In short: “The world is complex. Complex things as we know them (cars, computers, airplanes, etc) come about by intentional design. Since things in nature are also complex (eyes, wings, brains, etc) it makes sense for us to assume that they are intentionally designed too.” To be clear, Dawkins doesn’t think this argument is solid, but he’s trying to build up his opponents argument to be as strong as it can be before destroying it, like a good rationalist should.
This argument goes back to antiquity, but was popularized by William Paley in 1802 with his famous Watchmaker Analogy. Basically, we don’t assume that complex things (like pocket watches) come about by chance in the same way that simple things (like rocks) do. To Paley, it is not unreasonable to assume that intelligent design goes into the creation of complex things in nature; in fact, it would be irrational to assume otherwise.
This idea, that intelligence is needed to create complexity, was devastated when a man named Charles Darwin discovered that there is a way for nature to produce complexity with no planning at all. He called it evolution by natural selection (I’m still trying to figure out a way to summarize evolution in a way that I like that will fit into a post, so no link yet). Evolution is stupid (that link is worth reading!) but it works. It is established fact with all of the iron clad certainty that we have to support other claims like “the earth is round” and “There used to be a Roman empire” that this is how complex life came about on earth.
This finally gets us caught up enough to discuss Richard Dawkins’ Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit, which goes something like this:
The question of “who created the creator?” goes all the way back to when the first rational person heard the argument from design. The new spiked knuckles on this knock-down rebuttal to the argument from design that Dawkins illustrates are that the only process we know of (and that has been reasonably postulated) that can produce complexity is evolution and that anything capable of designing a universe must be very complex indeed. I’ll close the post with his full version of the his argument, taken from the last page of Chapter 4 of the God Delusion: Why There Almost Certainly Is No God.
- 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.
- The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artifact 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.