The Problem with ‘Who Designed the Designer?’

In Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, his ‘central argument’ against theism is encapsulated in the question: who designed the designer? In Dawkins’ words:

“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.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 158).

While this is certainly a knock down argument against created gods who had an improbable beginning, very few people actually worship a god who was created. Monotheistic worldviews such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all hold that there is one God who created the universe, and that this God is himself uncreated.

And so to ask who created or designed such a being, is to misunderstand the very nature of the God one is inquiring about. It is quite literally a straw-god argument that constructs a god who is created, and then mounts an argument against him, without actually engaging with the God that Jews, Christians and Muslims actually believe in.

It is not difficult to conceive of a creator who himself is uncreated. However, it seems that some atheists would like (or even demand) for God to have the same creational properties as his creation: either both are created (and so they can ask who created the creator) or both are uncreated (and so there’s no need for a creator of the universe). But while a creation has a creator by definition, there is nothing intrinsic about a creator that requires one to be created.

At its heart, Dawkins’ move is a response to the cosmological argument. But it is one that fails to understand the cosmological argument, and therefore it flies right by it without actually addressing it. In its simplest form, the cosmological is as follows:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause/creator.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause/creator.

The first premise is that everything that begins to exist has a cause, but Dawkins (and many others) misconstrue it to be: everything that exists has a cause. If everything that exists has a cause, then the question of who designed the designer presents a serious problem to the cosmological argument, since the it argues that God exists.

However, insisting that everything that exists has a cause/creator, assumes the non-existence of an eternal creator in order to establish the non-existence of an eternal creator. It’s the logical fallacy of circular reasoning, not a counter-argument to the cosmological argument. The mere insistence that an eternal (uncreated) creator cannot exist, is not an argument against theism, it’s an unsubstantiated assertion.

Another move that Dawkins makes, is to attack the force of the second premise of the cosmological argument: that the universe began to exist. While (almost) no one doubts that our universe began to exist, Dawkins argues that the theistic ‘prediction’ of the universe having a beginning was a 50-50 guess: either the universe had a beginning or it didn’t, and theists just happened to guess it right.

Unfortunately, this misunderstands a relevant difference between theism and atheism. The theistic view that there is a creator of universe necessarily implies a creation event. However, the atheistic view that there is no creator of the universe necessarily implies no creation event. These differences are not arbitrary or a 50-50 guess, they’re intrinsic to the competing views of theism and atheism respectively.

In more recent years, Dawkins has followed Lawrence Krauss’ proposal of A Universe from Nothing. Krauss’ proposal denies the first premise of the cosmological argument by suggesting that even though the universe had a beginning, that does not necessarily mean that it has a creator. Perhaps it could actually have come from ‘nothing’.

While a number people are put off by the complexities of cosmology (or perhaps the intelligence of Lawrence Krauss), Krauss has articulated his thesis in a way that’s fairly accessible. The argument is essentially an argument by analogy: just as matter can come from non-matter (which we can observe at the edge of black-holes), why can’t space-and-time come from non-space-and-time as well? If the quantum field of empty space can produce matter, why can’t there be an equivalent field, say quantum gravity, which can produce space-and-time? As Krauss argues:

“As I have defined it thus far, the relevant “nothing” from which our observed “something” arises is “empty space.” However, once we allow for the merging of quantum mechanics and general relativity, we can extend this argument to the case where space itself is forced into existence... Remember that, in the quantum theory of electromagnetism, particles can pop out of empty space at will as long as they disappear again on a time frame determined by the Uncertainty Principle. By analogy, then, in the Feynman quantum sum over possible space time configurations, should one consider the possibility of small, possibly compact spaces that themselves pop in and out of existence?” (Krauss, A Universe from Nothing, 161-163)

While this is an interesting analogy, it falls down at the one place it needs to stand up in order to function as an argument. Matter doesn’t come from nothing; it comes from the energy of the quantum field of empty space. Perhaps the most famous mathematical equation is E = mc2, where c2 is a constant. This tells us that energy (E) is proportional to mass (m). Mass can be converted into energy (which is what happens in a star) and energy can be converted into mass (which we can observe at the edge of black holes).

However, this does nothing to explain the origin of mass-energy. If energy is depicted by an open hand, and mass is depicted by a closed fist, then Krauss’ argument is equivalent to saying: “just as fists can pop into existence because of hands, why can’t hands pop into existence as well?” The problem is, fists can only pop into existence because hands already exist. This does nothing to explain the existence of the hands themselves, which are required for fists to come into existence in the first place. As David Albert points out:

“Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states – no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems – are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff. The true relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical equivalent to there not being any physical stuff at all isn’t this or that particular arrangement of the fields – what it is (obviously, and ineluctably, and on the contrary) is the simple absence of the fields! The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings – if you look at them aright – amount to anything even remotely in the neighbourhood of a creation from nothing.” (Albert, ‘On the Origin of Everything’, New York Times Sunday Book Review)

Krauss’ analogy in A Universe from Nothing doesn’t explain the origin of the universe, and Dawkins ‘central argument’ in The God Delusion is the logical fallacy of a straw-man argument against created gods. The cosmological argument is yet to be refuted: either there is an eternal God or an eternal universe, and the scientific evidence suggests that the universe is not eternal.

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