This essay is a bit of a rehash of an argument that I saw in Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial concerning an argument originally made by Richard Dawkins. Many of my essays are rehashes of things I have learned from other people over the years. I write them down because it is my ambition to create an electronic catalog of interesting tidbits and because I think I have something valuable to add.
In his book, The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins decries what he calls the “Personal Incredulity Argument”. According to Dr. Dawkins, many people look at the products of evolution and come to the conclusion that there is no way that such a thing could have evolved step by step over millions of years. This argument is invalid, according to Dr. Dawkins, because there are many things that are true that will not make sense to us as human beings with a limited understanding of reality. Despite the fact that I disagree with Dr. Dawkins on any number of issues, this is a valid point. Our limited understanding does mean that some things that are true will seem incomprehensible to us.
In his book Darwin on Trial, Phillip Johnson turns this argument against Dr. Dawkins by arguing that if personal incredulity is to be dismissed as an argument against evolution it should also be dismissed as an argument against the existence of God. He talks about the use made by evolutionists including Dr. Dawkins of what Johnson characterizes as the “God wouldn’t have done it that way” argument and notes that this is the “Personal Incredulity Argument” dressed up in another guise. If the argument from personal incredulity is invalid with regard to evolution, then it is also invalid as an argument for atheism. Another valid point.
What I think Dr. Johnson failed to point out is that the “Personal Incredulity Argument” is a great deal more valid when applied to unintelligent processes than when it is applied to an intelligent agent. Dr. Dawkins was not only wrong to use the “Personal Incredulity Argument”, he got it exactly backwards. Intelligent agents have a much greater capacity to defy our predictions than unintelligent processes. Let us consider a simple example concerning the motion of a body.
If I fire a gun and the bullet goes straight for a certain distance and then makes a sharp left turn, it would be quite understandable if I expressed a certain degree of surprise. Bullets going in a straight trajectory have no business making a sharp left turn and this would be an extremely unusual occurrence. If I am following someone’s GPS signal and I know that they are headed to a certain location, on the other hand, an expression of surprise at a sudden detour would be altogether inappropriate. Maybe they spotted an accident and wanted to avoid the traffic? Maybe they realized they had another errand and decided to hit two birds with one stone? Maybe they realized they were out of gas and detoured for a refueling stop? The intelligent agent driving the car is not doing what I might expect it to do, but this should not be surprising because that person is aware of facts of which I am ignorant. In this way, intelligent agents have a much greater capacity for being incomprehensible then purposeless processes.
This difference in the validity of the personal incredulity argument is only increased when one considers an intelligent agent vastly superior to one’s self. As I pointed out in a previous essay, there is here a significant analogy to the famous quote by Arthur C. Clarke. He said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Likewise, the results of the thinking process of a sufficiently advanced intelligence with a vastly greater store of knowledge than we have access to is likely to be pure gibberish to us.