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Some Questions About Design

June 26, 2011     Time: 00:18:59
Some Questions About Design


Questions on design and the fine tuning of the universe for life.

Transcript Some Questions About Design


Kevin Harris: Thanks for joining us. This is the Reasonable Faith podcast. I'm Kevin Harris in the studio with Dr. William Lane Craig. Got some questions at Reasonable Faith, Dr. Craig. These are on fine-tuning and the design argument, and so on.

Dear Dr. Craig, I've watched your debate with Christopher Hitchens and I've consistently heard you use the fine-tuning of the universe for life as an argument for the existence of a designer. Though you deny Christopher ever directly responds to that argument, in that very same debate I often hear him cite the fact that 99.9 percent of all life that has ever existed on earth has gone extinct, that the sun – like all stars – is destined to burn out in the future and cause life on earth to cease to exist, that at this moment the Andromeda Galaxy is on a collision course for the Milky Way, and that earth has only ever supported life on some of its surface some of the time. Do these points, in your opinion, not serve as a direct response to the supposed fine-tuning of the universe for life, given that a universe is so fine-tuned for life seems extremely, remarkably capable of ending it with a mere asteroid impact or exploding star, both of which happen all the time?

Now, this guy thinks that Christopher Hitchens answers the fine-tuning argument by saying, 'the universe ain’t so fine-tuned for life in that an asteroid could take it out, it's going to wind down and be nothing.' How does that bear on the argument, if at all?

Dr. Craig: You know, Kevin, the only way I can understand this question is if the listener thinks that fine-tuned is a synonym for designed, that the universe is designed for human life, or something. And so he's suggesting it's not because, look how fragile it is, and it's gone nearly extinct in the past, and it will go extinct someday, so the purpose of the universe cannot be human life. Now, if that is indeed his objection then it's simply based on a misunderstanding. The word fine-tuned as it's used in modern scientific discussion doesn't mean designed. What it means is that the range of life-permitting values of a constant or quantity compared to the range of possible values that constant or quantity might have had is infinitesimally small. So that if the value of that constant or quantity were to be altered by the slightest amount life would be impossible and would not exist. That's what it means to say that the universe is fine-tuned for life: it means that life in this universe is balanced on this razor's edge of incomprehensible fineness and precision, so that if the balance were to be slightly altered it would be upset and life would not exist. But that's to make no judgment whatsoever about the purpose of the universe, or to suggest the universe is designed for human beings, or anything of that sort. The word fine-tuning is a neutral term that just means that life is incredibly, incredibly, incredibly precarious in this universe.

Kevin Harris: So the theological ramifications of that do seem to be design, though, because . . .

Dr. Craig: Well, this is part of an argument for design.

Kevin Harris: Okay.

Dr. Craig: Because if the universe took its constants and quantities' values by chance alone, the chances are incomprehensibly more probable that it would be life-prohibiting rather than life-permitting.

Kevin Harris: It's like fine-tuning is not necessarily talking about a habitat that has been designed for us.

Dr. Craig: Right, it's not a synonym to the word design at all. And that's the way people sometimes take it. They think that to say the universe is fine-tuned means the universe is designed. If that were the case the argument would be clearly arguing in a circle—arguing from fine-tuning to a designer would just be trivial, it would just be by definition. But that's not the argument. Fine-tuning doesn't mean designed.

Kevin Harris: Perhaps there's a line of apologetic arguments that we use, and that is the human habitat-type arguments that we often get, that the earth is a perfect distance from the sun, rotating at a perfect rate, just right amount of oxygen mix, and things like that, because the ready answer in opposition to that is: well, if they weren't that way then you wouldn’t be breathing here, you wouldn't have evolved, you wouldn’t have happened, you wouldn't have been born.

Dr. Craig: That's sort of just rehearsing on a different level the same sort of anthropic principle arguments against the fine-tuning of the cosmos for life, [1] and I'm not ready to give up those arguments based on the finely-tuned conditions that must exist in our solar system and on this planet. But we shouldn't see those as independent of the cosmic fine-tuning, which has been the object of my discussion. We need to first make sure we have in place a grasp of the cosmic fine-tuning that exists for life before we also add that in order for life to exist on a planet like this you also have to have a bunch of additional finely-tuned facts.

Kevin Harris: I guess that's what I'm trying to say, Bill. Rather than lead with that there are arguments that are even stronger that bypass the question of evolution and conditions on the earth, and all this, and gets right to the initial constants of the Big Bang itself.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: You know—the initial conditions and constants and so on. Because I hear this all the time: you Christians say that earth is such a habitat for life; I bet that if I were to pick you up and drop you at random on someplace on earth 90 percent of the time you'd be dead—In the middle of the ocean or in Antarctica or in the Sahara Desert, and so it's not as fine-tuned as you think.

Dr. Craig: Oh, I don't think that's a persuasive response at all, Kevin.

Kevin Harris: Well, no, it's not.

Dr. Craig: I mean, to say that conditions on earth are fine-tuned for our existence isn't to say that you need to be able to live Antarctica or on the ocean.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, the earth is not one big shopping mall. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: No. But it is nevertheless absolutely true that there is a habitable zone with respect to the distance from the sun that we have to be in; that we have to have a moon in order to regulate things like tides and other features that help the planet have the right tilt on its axis; you need to have, for example, a Jupiter in the solar system that acts as a kind of cosmic vacuum cleaner that will attract comets and asteroids and other debris that would otherwise annihilate life on this planet. There are all kinds of factors that have to be in place in order to have a habitable planet. But, as you say, these are just the icing on the cake.

Kevin Harris: There are second or third level – third tier?

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's right—second or third level examples whereas the fundamental level will be the cosmic fine-tuning of these constants and quantities that characterize the universe and that must be in place for life to exist anywhere in the cosmos, not just here on this planet.

Kevin Harris:

Dear Dr. Craig, in response to question number 170 you said that Francisco Ayala was a useful name to drop when a lay apologist is in discussion with an atheist. [2] My question is, given that Francisco Ayala is a very outspoken critic of intelligent design and very critical of the claim that morals and ethics point to a designer/creator, how would alluding to Ayala's work be of any assistance to a defender of Christianity?

Dr. Craig: Well, as I recall this was in response to, I think, an atheist or agnostic who seemed to think that either evolution disproved the existence of God or that no scientists were believing Christians. And Ayala would be a great example of someone who at least claims to be a Catholic Christian and yet who is an evolutionary biologist of great eminence. So it would go to show that you can be a theist and believe in evolutionary theory, and it would also show that you can be a fine scientist and be a Christian theist, as well.

Kevin Harris:

Dear Dr. Craig, I was watching a show on the Science channel on black holes and they were referring to the inner horizon as being infinitely heavy, among many other things. Also they mentioned that there is a singularity at this inner horizon. So my question is, given that this is true, even though they have never seen a black hole but rather just calculated it, what would this mean to the theory of the Big Bang as it relates to theists? I'm just curious if this would hurt the logical view that the universe was created by God at the first singularity – the Big Bang – since there could be possibly millions of singularities or black holes in our universe. Lawrence Krauss was one of the interviewed physicists filmed for the show, and I could catch a hint of subconscious implanting from the scientists toward the idea that if there are millions of singularities in the universe then perhaps it could probably have been a mechanistic agent to start the universe. I'm not really sure whether my question is understandable, but that was the best I could do, coming from a non-physicist standpoint. I hope that you could help me grasp this better as a theist to enhance my understanding and guard conversations with others. [3]

Dr. Craig: It's not clear to me why the reader thinks that black holes would represent a challenge to the idea that the universe began to exist in a singular state before which it did not exist. If there are literally black holes in the universe these would represent in a sense the end of space and time in that region. So the end of the universe would, so to speak, be ragged; it wouldn't terminate in a single cosmological singularity, but it would terminate wherever there were black holes in spacetime, so that the end of spacetime would have a ragged edge, as it were. And these would represent the ends of spacetime. I just don't see any threat to the idea of the universe having a beginning here.

Kevin Harris: Well, in a sense he's talking about something that's already in the universe.

Dr. Craig: Right.

Kevin Harris: If there were no universe there'd be no black holes—right?

Dr. Craig: True; right. [laughter]

Kevin Harris: But does the Science channel want to look at some of the characteristics of black holes and say, well, this could give us a clue on there being multiple singularities?

Dr. Craig: The only thing that I could think that might be relevant would be if the implication were that maybe these black holes are portals to worm holes that lead to other universes, to other spacetime regions. And the thought might be that these would spawn baby universes out of ours, and we could similarly be a baby universe spawned by some other universe. But this, I think, is likely to be physically untenable. This was the subject of a debate between John Preskill and Stephen Hawking, which Hawking, I think, in 2004 admitted that he had lost. He points out that quantum mechanics requires that the information remains in this universe and that therefore it could not escape down a black hole and tunnel into another universe. And so he says, “I'm sorry to disappoint science fiction fans but there is no baby universe branching off. The information remains solidly in our universe.” So I don't see any challenge here to the idea of God's being the creator of the initial cosmological singularity.

Kevin Harris:

Dear Dr. Craig, I've scoured your works in search of a reply to the normalizability objection to fine-tuning arguments, but I've come up empty-handed. As you probably know in their influential article “Probabilities and the Fine-Tuning Argument” from Manson, God and Design, the McGrews and Vestrupargued that the particular use of probabilities in the fine-tuning argument makes it formally incoherent. This is because the field of possible values for the parameters of universal constants appears to be in an interval of real numbers unbounded at least in the upward direction.

Now, don't let your eyes glaze over, listeners, we're going to break this down.

There is no logical restriction on the strength of the strong nuclear force, the speed of light, or the other parameters in the upward direction. As a consequence the probability range is not normalizable, that is to say there is no way for each variable together to sum up to one. But normalizability is a necessary feature of coherent probability judgments. The closest to a response I've gathered from your work appears in Reasonable Faith page 160 and 161 when you suggest that the fine-tuning argument need not be stated probabilistically, but as an inference to the best explanation. But even so stated I take it that the McGrews and Vestrup are questioning the particular use of probabilities as datum in the argument, regardless of how the argument is formally presented. So it seems the normalizability objection would be an across-the-board objection to fine-tuning arguments. Like the so-called problem of dwindling probabilities, my intuition is that something has got to be wrong with the normalizability objection, but it's hard to say what. Are you aware of any responses to this objection?

Dr. Craig: Well, the problem is that you would say that the life-permitting range of values is part of a broader range that is infinite in scope, and that makes it impossible to talk about probabilities because no matter how big the finite region is of life-permitting values, compared to an infinite range it's always going to be infinitesimal compared to that infinite range. And the person who has dealt, I think, most effectively with this concern is Robin Collins. [4]  If you look at Robin Collins' work he will define a range that is finite for the range of possible values. And what he points out is that certain forces of nature that are the subject of fine-tuning cannot be, for example, increased or decreased infinitely. They, say, can go down to zero, or they can go up to a certain value, but then they can't get any stronger. For example, gravitation: once gravitation reaches a certain strength then it becomes physically impossible for it to get any stronger because everything just collapses into a singularity. So Collins will enunciate a finite range of physically possible values that the constant or quantity could take, and then he'll compare that to the finite range of life-permitting values, and you come up with this sort of fine-tuning estimates of fine-tuning for these different constants and quantities.

Kevin Harris: And that would give you a way to get some kind of normalizability?

Dr. Craig: Well, then you don't need to be worried about normalizability because you're not using infinite quantities anymore.

Kevin Harris: Okay.

Dr. Craig: You escape the problem by having a finite range of possible assumable values, and then that's contrasted with a finite range of life-permitting values, and you can see the proportion between the two.

Kevin Harris: Bill, I want to summarize this next question because we've gotten some questions at Reasonable Faith that kind of show a trend, and this trend is probably the result of video games, the computer revolution, and things like that. Philosophers and scientists are starting to write and speculate that life is nothing more than something similar to a computer simulation. Now, why, I'm wondering, are we starting to get these questions? Why are people starting to say, “This could be one big giant video game that we could manipulate and make into it particles and they're so unpredictable,” and things like that. I'm just wondering where this is coming from, and why our atheist friends are so excited about them. Is it another way to bypass God with the subject of alien manipulation, playing video games?

Dr. Craig: I don't know. There does seem to be a certain delight that unbelievers take in de-throning man as the crown of the cosmos. There's a certain delight in the Copernican revolution that took us out of the center and just made us one more planet orbiting the sun, and then the discovery of the universe and all its vastness trivializes our existence even further. And then now to suggest that we don't even really exist, that we're just simulations in a virtual reality, seems to go one step further in underlining our unimportance and insignificance. And there seems to be an almost sort of perverse delight in this on the part of some unbelievers, which I, frankly, just don't understand. I don't see the charm in it. They seem to find this attractive, and I don't understand that myself. I find it depressing rather than something that is attractive. And certainly I don't see any reason to think it's true. It doesn't seem to me to be an attempt to avoid God because, as you say, it only moves the question back a notch. There's something psychological going on here that seems to delight in, as I say, trivializing our existence and our being. Maybe it's people who are alienated or something that . . .

Kevin Harris: Or aliens. [laughter] Well, Bill, I have noticed a trend in these kinds of questions here, so we'll keep an eye on them and talk about them in future podcasts. Thank you for listening today to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. [5]