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!