Teleological Argument (part 1)

September 23, 2007     Time: 00:40:33

Most folks have thought, or the conventional wisdom is, that the argument from design really was destroyed by Darwin and his biological theory of evolution and the critiques of skeptics like David Hume. But in recent years this argument has come roaring back into center stage because of the discovery that the initial conditions of the universe given in the Big Bang itself had to be fine-tuned to an incomprehensible precision in order to permit the evolution and existence of intelligent life like Homo sapiens, like ours.

In fact, for intelligent life of comparable ability to ourselves to exist anywhere else in the known cosmos (anywhere in the universe) you had to have this elaborately set table in advance in these highly specified conditions in the Big Bang. What has happened is the design argument has sort of done an end-run around Darwin and gone back to the very beginning of the universe and discovered that even in order for evolution to take place – in order for Homo sapiens to evolve – you had to have this incredibly complex, delicately balanced system in place already right at the beginning. So even given the fact of biological evolution, you can’t escape the necessity of divine design and some kind of a cosmic intelligence.

So just in terms of strategy, this argument, I think, is extremely powerful because it just, as I say, completely avoids that hot potato of Darwinian biological evolution. You don’t have to run up against all of this social and emotional baggage that goes with trying to go against the Scopes Monkey Trial or introduce creationism into the schools or anything of that sort. You can just completely do an end-run around that by going right back to the fine-tuning of the universe. And if that requires a designer to even get the thing started then the additional need for design for the origin of life or the origin of mind or the origin of biological complexity simply adds layer after layer after layer of design on top of the initial design that you’ve demonstrated right in the initial conditions of the universe. It just shows that, for this to have happened by chance alone, you have improbability piled on improbability. It will only strengthen your argument.

What we want to do in this argument is look at the teleological argument – or the argument from design – based on the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. This can be reduced to three very simple steps:

1. The fine-tuning of the initial conditions of the universe is due to either law, chance, or design.

2. The fine-tuning is not due to law or chance. (You eliminate two of the alternatives.)

3. Therefore, the fine-tuning is due to design.

Basically you pose a kind of trilemma here and then you eliminate two of the disjuncts, and that leads you with the logically remaining alternative; namely, intelligent design.

I am not going to spend a lot of time on the scientific information pertinent to fine-tuning. Rather, what I think I can do as a philosopher is to set the philosophical framework in which this fine-tuning becomes significant by giving you the logical argument that draws out the significance of the fine-tuning.

What do we mean, first of all, under premise (1) by fine-tuning of the universe?[1] This is not a question-begging term. It does not mean designed. When one says the universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life you might think if it is finely tuned that requires a fine-tuner. So you’ve already built in the existence of an intelligence by the very label “fine-tuning.” But that is not what scientists mean by the word fine-tuning. It is not begging the question by defining fine-tuning to mean “intelligently aimed at a particular goal.” Rather, what is meant is – there are really kind of two definitions of fine-tuning going on today. I want to draw out the meaning of both of these.

This fine-tuning consists of basically two sorts of quantity of the initial conditions of the universe. One would be certain constants of nature. In addition to these constants, there are certain arbitrary quantities. Let me give some examples of each of these.

With respect to the constants of nature – when the laws of nature are expressed as mathematical equations, you find appearing in them certain constants which are the same across the board. Let me just give an example – Newton’s Law of Gravity where he calculates the gravitational force between two objects. Newton would say the force (F) is equal to a certain gravitational constant G, and then, suppose you want to figure out the gravitation force between the Earth and the moon, what you do is you take the mass of one of these bodies (say, the Earth) and then you multiply it by the mass of the other body (the moon). So you have m1 (which would be the mass of the Earth) and m2 (which is the mass of the moon), and then you take the distance between them squared (which we will symbolize as r2) and you divide that product of the masses by r2. That is the statement of Newton’s Law of Gravity. The gravitation force is the gravitational constant G times the mass of one object times the mass of the other object divided by the square of the distance between them. Obviously, these masses can vary. You might be thinking of an asteroid and the Earth. Or you might be thinking of the sun and Jupiter, and so forth. Their distance will vary. But this G is a constant. It stays the same – this gravitational constant. This is what we are talking about when we talk about the constants in nature – these certain factors that appear in the laws of nature in mathematical form that are invariable.

The interesting thing about these constants is that they are independent of the laws of nature. The laws of nature don’t determine what the value of G is. G could have any of a wide range of values. It could have any of these values, and the law would still hold. It would still be true that the force F is equal to that constant times the product of the masses divided by the distance between them squared. So the laws of nature don’t determine the values of these constants. That is very important to understand. There isn’t any kind of natural necessity or law that determines why these constants have the values they do. That is the first type of quantity that we are talking about – these constants in nature.

The second type of quantity that we are talking about is these arbitrary quantities.[2]

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: You are thinking of F here. That force will vary based upon how you fill in the values for this equation. But what I am saying is that this G has the same value whether [the masses] are a rock and the moon, or the sun and Jupiter, or Saturn and Uranus, and no matter how close they are or far apart, those things all vary. But the G will remain the same when you figure out what that tug is that we feel.

The laws of nature don’t determine what these constants are. They just appear. They are just sort of there. That’s just the way the world is. It has these constants.

The other type of quantity is what I call arbitrary quantities, or we can call them boundary conditions or initial conditions. These would just be arbitrary quantities that are put in at the beginning of the universe on which the laws of nature then operate. For example, remember we talked last time about the amount of entropy in the universe. We said that according to the second law of thermodynamics entropy is always increasing, always growing, as energy is diffused and the universe comes to equilibrium. What that means is that at the beginning of the universe there was just some arbitrary low entropy quantity put in as an initial condition. There isn’t any law of nature, and it is not a constant of nature. It is just a sort of arbitrary quantity that is put in at the creation, and then the laws of nature – like the second law of thermodynamics – operates on this quantity. Another example would be the ratio between matter and anti-matter in the early universe. What quantities of those were put in?

So you have constants of natures, and then you have arbitrary quantities or boundary or initial conditions that are just put in arbitrarily and the laws of nature than operate on these.

What scientists have been stunned to discover in the last thirty or forty years is that these constants and quantities have to be fine-tuned to an incomprehensible precision in order for the universe to permit the evolution and existence of intelligent life. Once upon a time, scientists thought that whatever the initial conditions of the universe were that eventually, given enough time, intelligent life like ours might evolve. But now we know that is false. In fact, our existence is balanced on a razor’s edge of incomprehensible fineness and precision. If these constants or quantities were not fine-tuned for our existence then the universe would be non-life-permitting. It would be a life-prohibiting universe rather than a life-permitting universe. If certain things like the force of gravity were to be altered just a little bit or if there had been a different ratio of matter to anti-matter in the universe then the universe wouldn’t even exist. There wouldn’t even be matter in many cases. There wouldn’t even be chemistry. So our existence hinges upon this finely tuned complex array of constants and quantities just given in the Big Bang.

I was going to say, before I launched into this, that there are two ways in which we can understand the term fine-tuning. When we say these constants and quantities are finely tuned, there are two different ways in which this could be meant.

Usually, what people mean is that if the quantity or constant were to be altered just a little bit either way – say it was a little more or it was a little less – then that would upset the life-permitting balance and life would be impossible. To give a couple of examples. P. C. W. Davies, a British physicist, has estimated that if you were to alter the force of gravity or the weak force which is in the atomic nucleus, by only one part out of 10100 the universe would be life prohibiting.[3] It would be impossible for the universe to permit life.

To give you an idea of what these numbers are like, if you have something that is one chance out of 1060 (which is inconceivably smaller than 10100) that would be like throwing a random dart across the universe twenty billion light years away and hitting a target one inch in diameter. That is what we are talking about when we say that these constants and quantities are fine-tuned for our existence. Imagine a random dart thrown twenty billion light years across the universe and it has to hit a target one inch in diameter in order for the universe to be life-permitting, if it was 1060, but in fact it is 1 out of 10100. And that just one quantity – gravity or the weak force. And you’ve got loads of these constants and quantities that all have to be precisely fine-tuned in that way or the universe wouldn’t be life-permitting.

There is one other way, however, in which we can understand this fine-tuning. The other way is in which we could imagine the possible range of values that these quantities and constants might take. [draws a diagram on the board] What you do is calculate the life-permitting range that the value would have to fall in. You can see that we are allowing that there is a good deal of latitude in the life-permitting range. It could vary. It is not as though if you just varied it by one part out of 10100 life wouldn’t exist. No. There is a range of values that would be life-permitting. But, nevertheless, when you compare the life-permitting range to the entire range of possible values, it is so small that the odds of this constant or quantity falling into the life-permitting range are next to infinitesimal. If it were just by accident that it were to have the value it does, it would fall somewhere outside the life-permitting range. So for example Robin Collins has compared the fine-tuning of some of these constants and quantities to a radio dial like before they had the digital radios. You used to have to tune the knob and line it up to be right on the bandwidth so you get the clear station. He said for you to dial in the station that would permit life to exist in the universe would be like having a radio dial that would be the breadth of the entire known universe and you would have to dial into about two-and-a-half centimeters in order to get into the life-permitting range. Just think of that. If these constants and quantities just fell into this range, the odds are astronomically more probable that it would fall somewhere outside of that narrow life-permitting range. If it were just by accident they wouldn’t all – all of them! - fall into those narrow life-permitting ranges.

So that is two senses in which scientists speak of fine-tuning. They don’t always keep it clear which sense they are talking about. The one sense is you just consider the actual value the constant or quantity has and you show that if it were altered slightly one way or the other the universe would not be life-permitting. The other way is to consider the life-permitting range of a quantity compared to the range of possible values, and you show it is so infinitesimally small that the odds of it happening by chance alone are incalculably small – vanishingly small in fact.[4]

That is what is meant by fine-tuning. You can see that so understood it is not a question-begging term. Rather, it is simply saying that in order for intelligent life to exist these quantities and constants have to have very precise values or they have to fall into extraordinarily narrow ranges of values or otherwise the universe would not permit life.

Questions: How many constants are there?

Answer: I'm not sure.

[An audience member who is a scientist says, “There are probably about a dozen basic fundamental constants. The rest are derived from those.”]

This is an interesting question because it does raise the issue of whether we could find a kind of unified theory that would explain how some of the constants might fall out from a super-force or a theory of everything that some people might hope would eliminate all of these independent constants. But so far that has eluded grasp. I’ll say something more about that later on as well.

Question: [inaudible – asks about the multiverse]

Answer: You are thinking way ahead of us. You are way ahead of the curve. This is where the debate lies today. Really. This idea of the multiple universe hypothesis, or what I call a World Ensemble. We are going to get to that. This is the main way in which detractors of intelligent design try to escape the need for a divine designer of the cosmos – by positing a World Ensemble of invisible, undetectable, parallel universes. We will see how they attempt to elude design. Hang on to that. We will get to it.

With respect to the first question, fine-tuning would just mean for the existence of intelligent life at all at any time in the cosmos. Eventually, as you point out, if Christ doesn’t return, life would all perish in the heat death of the universe anyway. But for the universe to permit the evolution and intelligent life anywhere on any planet any where in the known cosmos is all going to be based on the fine-tuning of the initial conditions that were present in the Big Bang yourself.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: If you put it that way, yeah.

No, I wasn’t saying that. These are independent of each other. The constants are not determined by the arbitrary quantities. These are independent of each other. These are two examples of things that need to be fine-tuned – the constants of nature, and as we indicated in answer to this question and the previous comment, folks are still trying to explain how you could explain the constants and why they have the values they do.[5] Then there are these arbitrary quantities that are not law-like. They are just what are called initial conditions.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: This is a question that is always asked. It always comes up. So I think it would be good to address it here. What biologists mean by “life” is the ability of an organism to extract energy from its environment, process that energy so as to reproduce, and to beget after its kind. That is basically what you mean by life. The suggestion here is that without these constants and quantities being finely tuned, you wouldn’t have that anywhere in the universe. This is quite consistent with imagining forms of life that are very different from what we see and hear on Earth. Maybe jelly-like globs and alien beings and things of this sort. That is quite consistent with that. But that general definition of life requires this kind of fine-tuning of the constants and quantities in order to exist.

Somebody might say, “What about a universe that is governed by totally different laws of nature, not these laws of nature. Just totally different laws of nature. Then maybe you could have life exist that wouldn't require the fine-tuning of the constants and quantities.” We don't have to argue about that. We can say, yeah, that's possible if you want to think about universes that have totally different laws of nature. But those are not relevant to this argument because we are talking only about universes that are governed by our laws of nature. Let me give you an example of how this works.

John Barrow, who was a professor of physics at Cambridge University, says we can get a picture of the fine-tuning by doing this experiment. Let's take a big blank piece of paper like a whiteboard and put a red dot on it. And that red dot represents our universe. Now he says let's change some of these constants and quantities by these fractional amounts. That will give you a new universe. If that universe is life-permitting make it a red dot and if it is life-prohibiting make it a blue dot. Then do that again and again until your board is completely filled with dots. What you find out when you are done is you will have a sea of blue with only a few pin pricks of red here or there. So any universe within this sheet so to speak that is created by accident, by chance alone, it would be vastly more probable that it would be a blue universe rather than a red one.

To say what about universes that are governed by different laws, that is to consider universes that aren't even on the sheet. That is universes that are way out here somewhere off the wall because you are not even talking about the same laws of nature. Even if you could have life existing in those universes, the fact is that within our local group of possible universes any randomly thrown dart that hits the board is going to hit a blue one rather than a red one, even if a randomly thrown dart thrown over here might be apt to hit a red one rather than a blue one. We are concerned with the local probability here.

John Leslie, a philosopher who has dealt most extensively with these considerations, gives this illustration that I think makes it very clear. He says imagine a fly resting on a large blank area of the wall and a random bullet is fired. The bullet hits the fly exactly and pierces the fly. He says even if outside of the large blank area the wall was covered with flies so that a randomly fired bullet would likely hit one, nevertheless, you would conclude that the bullet that does actually hit the fly is aimed, not randomly fired. Because if it were randomly fired within that large blank area it would be more likely to hit a blank spot than the single spot occupied by the fly.[6]

So we don't have to deny the possibility that were there other universes with other laws of nature life might evolve in them. The fact remains that in a universe governed by the laws of nature that do exist in order for life, as I defined it, to exist anywhere in those kind of universes you've got to have this kind of fine-tuning.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Not even with our universe. I want to make it bigger than that. Think of our board here. It is just with any universe governed by the same laws that govern our universe. So these are different universes because we are changing these constants and we are changing these quantities when we do this. So there are different universes. But they are all governed by the same laws. It is variations of the constants and quantities within the parameters of the laws of nature. That is all that the argument needs to consider. It doesn't need to speculate about supposing there were different laws of nature. That just doesn't come into the issue.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: You are actually right. I use the term “razor's edge” because it is an idiom, but a razor's edge when you are talking about this would be like a big flat plane – the razor's edge – compared to the fineness of the tuning that we are talking about here. It really is incomprehensible. You can't really understand it, it is so fine.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: That segues into our alternatives, right?

Some will still want to deny the fact of fine-tuning. They will say what you said is not really right. It is not really finely tuned. But those voices are becoming quite minority voices now, I think, because we have very solid evidence for fine-tuning.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Yeah, that is what I am saying we do. These are, I think, quite firmly established instances of fine-tuning. For example, if you were to increase gravity a significant amount then the universe would have re-collapsed into a hot fireball billions and trillions of degrees and there wouldn't be any life possible. Or if gravity were too small the universe would just expand forever and it would never coagulate into galaxies and stars so that there would never be any places for life to exist. So these are demonstrable examples scientifically of fine-tuning. That is why I say those who want to deny fine-tuning are becoming, I think, minority voices because the examples of fine-tuning seem to be very firmly established and probably aren't going to go away.

[brief off-mic conversation about a misunderstanding between gravity and the Earth's magnetic field][7]

Question: Do you conclude that there is only one universe? That multiple universes is against the design of God?

Answer: You are really jumping the gun here again. We are going to talk about that. Let's not rush into that because that is sort of the crowning issue. To talk about that now would make everything else look anticlimactic. We will get to the Many Worlds hypothesis, I promise.

The first premise basically states that there are three possible ways of explaining this fine-tuning. This gets back to an earlier question. Once you do concede that it looks like these requisite conditions for intelligent life are extraordinarily narrow and sensitive you are basically left with three explanations: law, chance, or intelligent design.

The first alternative (law) would be to say there is some unknown law of nature that would determine the values of the constants. Maybe there is a theory of everything that would show that the constants had to have the values that they had, or at least pretty near that. So it is not really arbitrary or chance. It is necessary. This is not a chance explanation. It is saying there is a kind of physical necessity that makes the constants and the quantities have the values that they do. That would be the first alternative.

The second alternative would be the chance hypothesis – this is just an extraordinarily lucky accident, and that we are just the lucky beneficiaries of this extraordinary improbability.

The third alternative would reject both of those in favor of saying that the reason the universe looks fine-tuned is because it is fine-tuned. It has been designed by an intelligence for the existence of intelligent life like ourselves.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Right. I think the intelligent design theorist is very open to the idea that the designer may have created other planets with life on them with maybe comparable intelligence or greater than ourselves. This says nothing about whether there are life on other planets. That would be more relevant to theories of biological evolution perhaps. How probable is it, given these initial conditions, that life would evolve? I think that if one were to get into that discussion what you would find out is that even given these finely tuned constants and quantities, the chances that it would evolve biological complexity of the sort that we see on this planet is extraordinarily improbable. But that is neither here nor there now. That would simply be to strengthen the argument by layering on more improbability.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: Yeah. I do. I don't know how to respond to that.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I think in that case what you would need to show is that the conditions for a planet to be life-permitting are extraordinarily improbable. Then to see that happen multiple times, that would increase the improbability. But I am not talking here of the improbability of this planet existing. That is a whole different fine-tuning argument. Notice when Hugh Ross talks about cosmological fine-tuning examples, he also talks about what we could call terrestrial fine-tuning – about the atmosphere of the Earth, the distance of the Earth from its star, the mass of the Earth, the presence of having a single moon. All of these things also contribute to making the Earth incredibly fine-tuned. But I am abstracting from that all together. That would only strengthen my argument if you lay all of that improbability on. But we are just confining ourselves, at least today, to this cosmological fine-tuning.[8]