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#161 Fine Tuning Argument

May 17, 2010

I've been thinking about the fine tuning argument, and while I like it and think it carries some weight, something about it bothers me. It seems to suffer from "life chauvinism."

In a poker hand a royal flush has intrinsic value and thus being dealt that hand is highly improbable and quite amazing. But that's because the rules of the game define a royal flush as having value before the hand is dealt.

What is the justification for asserting that life is the royal flush?

Life could be defined as an "amazing and improbable phenomenon" X1. Singing gas could be defined as "amazing and improbable phenomenon" X2. Rainbow planets with rings of fire could be X3. And so on.

Each phenomena is equally improbable and can only come about by a certain setting of the universal constants. Why assert that X1 has intrinsic value? Couldn't X2 "complain" that we are being phenomenonists by claiming that X1 is best?

It just seems to me that the rules about royal flushes are being made up only after the hand has been dealt.


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Dr. craig’s response


Design from fine tuning

This is a very good question, Martin, about which I'd like to think more. But here are some preliminary reflections.

It seems to me that the question of why we should single out (intelligent) life as an instance of design from fine-tuning may be less important for some versions of the teleological argument than for others. Take, for example, a version of the argument such as Robin Collins presents in our Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology formulated along Bayesian lines in terms of the probability calculus. Letting "FT" represent the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life, "T" represent theism, and "ASU" represent the atheistic single universe hypothesis (i.e., there is a single universe and no God), Collins argues that the fine-tuning is significantly more probable on theism that it is on atheism: Pr (FT/T) >> Pr (FT/ASU). Therefore, the observed fine-tuning confirms the hypothesis of theism.

On this version of the argument, it doesn't seem that your question is especially pressing. We can calculate the probabilities of other observations as well to see if they similarly confirm theism. Take rainbow planets with fiery rings (X3). Is Pr (X3/T) >> Pr (X3/ASU)? It doesn't seem like it. There's no reason to think that Pr (X3/T) is very high or that Pr (X3/ASU) is very low—unless you're thinking it to be naturally impossible, in which case such a miraculous phenomenon would be evidence of theism. —similarly, for X2, singing gas, whatever you mean by that! So it seems to me that on a Bayesian approach, one can plug in any sort of observation we have and ask if it's more probable on theism than on atheism, and if it is, then it confirms theism. Computing the comparative probabilities of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life would be a natural thing to do, given that we are intelligent, living beings.

Design from fine tuning – Life-permitting conditions create an independent pattern pointing to a Designer

Your question seems more pressing for an argument for intelligent design formulated along statistical lines such as William Dembski presents. According to this theory for detecting design, one looks for the conjunction of high improbability with an independently given pattern. For example, if you're playing poker and your opponent consistently deals himself the winning hand, you will suspect that he's cheating, not simply because of the high improbability of the sequence of cards he gets (any sequence is equally improbable!), but because that highly improbable sequence conforms to the independently given pattern of winning poker hands. As you say, "a royal flush has intrinsic value . . . because the rules of the game define a royal flush as having value before the hand is dealt." That same hand would be worthless were you playing some other game. But given that it is poker that you're playing, that pattern is significant.

As Dembski points out, however, the key factor here is not that the pattern is given in advance ("before the hand is dealt"), but that it is given independently of one's knowledge of the deal. The pattern doesn't need to be given chronologically prior to the deal, so long as it is specified independently of the deal. If we don't require independence, someone looking at the result of the deal can always concoct some game in which the hand dealt is a winner. Such a pattern is "cherry-picked," as they say, to fit the result and therefore is not significant.

Now in the case of intelligent life, the pattern of life-permitting conditions is given independently of and, indeed, long before, cosmologists' discovery of the fine-tuning of the initial conditions of the universe. So the fine-tuning seems to exhibit just that combination of enormous improbability and an independently given pattern that tips us off to design. Thus, in so far as fine-tuning is concerned, it is not the case that "the rules about royal flushes are being made up only after the hand has been dealt."

Design from fine tuning – Would any other patterns imply a Designer?

Now the question that you seem to raise is whether there are not other, independently given patterns which might be used to justify a design inference when applied to the initial conditions of the universe. The problem with your examples, however, is that these phenomena are not actually observed, and so there is nothing to be explained. What requires explanation is some actually given, independent pattern which is highly improbable. If it exists, Dembski would say that it does warrant a design inference.

Remember that a design inference does not inform us of the purpose for which the observed phenomenon exists. Dembski's design inference demands only an intelligence as an explanation of the phenomenon, but it doesn't presume to tell us the purpose that the intelligent designer had in mind in bringing about that phenomenon. So Dembski's design argument doesn't assert, for example, that the universe was made for the purpose of bringing about human beings. This fact is evident in that the existence of a lowly earthworm also requires an intelligent designer as its ultimate explanation, given its breath-taking improbability and its conformity to an independently given pattern, but we should not infer that the purpose for which the universe exists is therefore earthworms. The idea that the universe was designed for the purpose of man's existence is a theological claim, not a design inference. All the design argument asserts is that human life requires for its explanation an intelligent designer, whatever his purposes may have been, not that the universe was made for man.

Design from fine tuning – Intelligent life may be the subject of a “tidy explanation”

Still, one might wonder why we should focus on intelligent life as the pattern with which we're concerned. Why not the pattern required for the existence of, say, crystals? Here I think John Leslie's notion of a tidy explanation may be helpful. For Leslie, "tidy explanation" is a technical term: it is an explanation which, in explaining some phenomenon, reveals that there is something to be explained. Leslie gives a great many charming examples of tidy explanations. For instance, you are shopping in the bazaar, and the silk merchant is displaying for you a drape of silk. His thumb just happens to be covering the moth hole in the cloth. Now of course his thumb has to be somewhere, and any location on the drape is equally improbable; nevertheless—! That he is hoodwinking you provides a tidy explanation of why his thumb happens to be where it is. Or again, Bob, who was born on August 23, 1982, receives a car for his birthday from his wife with the license plate BOB 82382. That this plate number is the result of intelligent design is a tidy explanation of it. In light of the fact that it is Bob's birthday which is being celebrated, one is not being "Bob chauvinistic" in singling out his name and birth date as a significant pattern crying out for explanation. The presence of a tidy explanation of the initial conditions of the universe could similarly justify us in focusing on the conditions requisite for intelligent life as a phenomenon crying out for explanation.

- William Lane Craig