April 2009
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Weakening of the Teleological Argument

Wikipedia defines the Teleological Argument as “an argument for the existence of god based on perceived evidence of order, purpose, design, or direction — or some combination of these — in nature.” I’ve always found it a really tough one to battle. William Lane Craig used it in a recent debate with Christopher Hitchens. He set it up like follows:

  1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either law, chance, or design.
  2. It is not due to law or chance.
  3. Therefore, it is due to design.

I admit that my response was weak. I argued that the order perceived, is just that perceived! Unraveling this confusion leads us to curious and subtle reversal of naive logic. First, the anthropic principal states that we’d expect to see an ordered universe if order was a prerequisite for life. But the human mind works in such a way that we’d also have a solipsistic tendency to think that the presence of such order implies it was all designed ‘with us in mind’. But this reasoning is a bit flawed. It’s like a puddle waking up, and realizing that the pothole is shaped ‘with it in mind’.

A real understanding of the issue demonstrates what appears to be a reversal in logic. This is mostly why people fail to really understood the the evolutionary story. Daniel Dennett is fond of pointing this reversal out in his talks: “sugar is sweet because we like it” not “we like sugar because it is sweet”. It’s much easier for us to apply a naive logic and take the solipsistic path rather than the more subtle correct one.

None of this ever convinces the creationists though. They come biased with that solipsistic assumption, and pointing out the logical reversal never seems to raise the obvious flags of logical inconsistency or cause cognitive dissonance. It’s just too subtle a point it, it doesn’t adequately challenge the assumption that’s so deeply enmeshed in their understanding of the world as to be inviolate.

Now, though, some nice physicists have come up with some better measures on the amount of order necessary for life. Craig argued that if just one of the fundamental constants was off by as much as a millionth there’d be no life. I remain unconvinced, because I’m skeptical about what order is necessary for life. I don’t want to limit life to being ‘carbon-based’, or qualify the probabilities with ‘life as we know it’. But, the physicists have uncovered some robustness that hasn’t been talked about before. They argue that life, even life ‘as we know it’ may be a bit more flexible with regard to the fundamental constants, we don’t need as much ‘fine-tuning’ as is popularly believed. This is an excellent effort, because it attacks the Teleological argument right where it’s weakest: the underlying probabilities. Their argument also meshes with my personal belief that life, as an emergent property, finds a way!

4 comments to Weakening of the Teleological Argument

  • I don’t know why time couldn’t exist before the universe. More importantly, time is not constant. I concur that it has no beginning and no ending.

    Daniel C. Dennett. With two t’s in his last name.

  • Because, by definition, the Big Bang is the beginning of the universe, and with it the beginning of time and space. It simply doesn’t make sense to talk about space outside the universe, or time before it, because both are properties of/within the universe.

    And I fixed that typo, Good catch!

  • Budd Ruff

    “It simply doesn’t make sense to talk about space outside the universe, or time before it, because both are properties of/within the universe.”

    While it doesn’t make sense to you to talk about time and space outside the universe (as we know it,) it does not preclude time and space existing before, after, and beside (simultaneously.) I can’t accept the notion that there is only one universe. I can’t accept the notion that there are multiple universes. I simply don’t know. If, for sake of discussion, you assume there is only one universe, that is fine as long as we both accept this assumption.

    “1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either law, chance, or design.
    2. It is not due to law or chance.
    3. Therefore, it is due to design.”

    By what criteria can the universe be defined as “fine tuneable?” How can we tell? What do we have to compare it with?

    False or irrational premises result in misleading conclusions.

  • Usually I take Universe to be singular and all encompassing, by literal definition. If you accept the premise that time started with the beginning of the Universe, and the Universe start at the Big Bang, then anything that occurred ‘before the Big Bang’, also occurred ‘before the beginning of time’ and that’s just nonsensical.

    You’re right to be wary about the definition of Universe, as, in my experience, any absolutist terms quickly break down. Either you find a real exception that breaks the rule, or you find a second, equally compelling absolute concept that’s logically incompatible. It could very well be that “Universe = all of Space and Time” doesn’t hold up. But, so far, that’s been the definition that everyone uses, and it’s been pretty good so far.

    Ah, the fine-tuning. What do we mean by a fine-tuned Universe? Craig took this to mean, a Universe with fundamental physical constants with values set such that Humans can exist. But I think this is a circular definition on his part. At the very least its got the same queer logic that the Anthropic Argument has.

    To answer your question directly in a single sentence: We can tell the Universe is tunable because the model we’ve built that describes our universe allows for tuning, and we can tell it’s finely tuned because our model permits us to compare our own values with a large set of hypothetical values that make hypothetical Universes. In the word’s of Monty Python: “It’s only a model.”

    From here on, fundamental physical constants refers to things like the gravitational constant, an electron’s charge to mass ratio, the fine structure constant, etc.

    So the argument is that of all the values that the fundamental physical constants could have had they ended up with values that support Human life as we’ve come to observe it. But, there’s a nasty hidden assumption here: I think he assumes a uniform random distribution on each constant, which is a highly questionable assumption, as we don’t know what, if anything, would govern the setting of such values. So, in our current theories, such constants are parameters that we can set and get hypothetical universes totally unlike our own. But this might just be a feature of our mathematical models, there’s no logical reason to make the leap that other universes exist, or might have potentially existed in place of this one, simply because the model we’ve made contains these free variables that get determined by experimental observation.

    So Craig makes a suspicious argument that (a) we need the values to be the way they are to within 1 part in 10 million (or so) otherwise we wouldn’t exist, and that (b) this can only be because of (1) law (2) chance or (3) design.

    Assuming that he hasn’t set up a false or incomplete set of choices: he knocks out (1) by saying that the physical law studies in physics is about how the universe works, not about how it is set up. The law of gravitation governs what happens after the gravitational constant has been set. But this is really a claim about the scope of physical law, and doesn’t prohibit the creation of meta-law theory, that would seek to find out how the fundamental physical constants get set.

    He knocks out (2) because it’s too unreal to think that all the constants acquired their values by chance, it’s too improbable. They have to have very precise values, and if you choose randomly, it won’t happen. There are two very things wrong with this line of thought: (A) what if we are one Universe inside a Multiverse, it might be that the Multiverse contains an extremely large number of Universe’s such as ours, each with a different setting of the fundamental physical constants. Then, by the law of astronomically large numbers, one of them, with high probability, has the values that ours has, and permits Human life as we know it. (B) Shuffle some cards, deal them out, now argue that that particular arrangement has probability 1 in 52! change of being dealt. Yet it still happened. Any parameters governing the Universe might work similarly, they just get dealt randomly, and then either its suitable for life, and life evolves, or it isn’t and nobody’s ever around to observe it. So, he’s got the implication the wrong way ’round. It’s not that “fine-tuning therefore life” it’s “life therefore an agreeable tuning”.

    And hopefully now, I’ve convinced you that Craig’s last option (3) design, isn’t necessary, because he made mistakes in both (1) law, and (2) chance.

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