The Fine-Tuning of the Universe:
The Teleological Argument
The Teleological Argument is potentially even older than the Cosmological Argument, with many believing that it arose with Plato’s teacher, Socrates. The argument can be simply summarised in six words: the universe appears to be designed.
Physics has discovered that the universe is governed by a plethora of universal physical constants and quantities (e.g. the speed of light, the gravitational constant, Planck’s constant, etc.). These constants all fall within a literally incomprehensibly narrow range of life-permitting values. I’ll provide two brief examples, but of course the list is very long.
The weak nuclear force is the force that prevents atoms exploding due to the electrostatic repulsion between positive protons in the nucleus. The weak nuclear force is so finely tuned that an alteration is its value by 1 part in 10100 would prevent the formation of stable atoms. This would obviously lead to a universe that does not permit the existence of life.
Another universal constant is the cosmological constant which drives the acceleration of the expansion of the universe. An alteration of the cosmological constant by 1 part in 10120 would cause the universe to expand either too quickly or slowly. Both would prevent star formation and the universe would be rendered life-prohibiting.
As the acclaimed philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig summarises:
“The range of life-permitting values for the constants and quantities (of the universe) is extremely narrow. If the value of even one of these constants or quantities were to be altered by a hair’s breadth, the delicate balance required for the existence of life would be upset and the universe would be life-prohibiting.”1
Imagine, by some bizarre and worrying turn of events, I was playing a game involving a lottery machine and a handgun. The lottery machine contains 99 identical black balls and 1 white ball, and after jumbling the balls, one is selected at random. If the white ball is selected, nothing happens; however, if a black ball is selected, I get shot. Imagine the ball is drawn and to my surprise and relief, the white ball is chosen. After mopping my brow (and probably changing my underwear), it would undoubtedly dawn on me that the lottery machine was possibly rigged for my survival. I would not be certain, but the improbability of my survival would definitely raise my suspicions of cheating (not that I would launch a complaint on this occasion).
Imagine now, that the game described above was actually 1 round of 100, and each time the process was repeated with 99 black balls and 1 white ball. And 100 times, the lottery machine was jumbled, and the white ball was “randomly” selected. After the 10th time the white ball was selected, I would be pretty certain that the machine was rigged for my survival, and after the 50th round, I think I would probably start to get quite comfortable with the game.
This is the situation we find ourselves in when we analyse the physical constants of the universe. Each constant seems finely tuned for our survival, and the probability of every constant being fine-tuned for permissibility of life is so astronomically small that it seems logical to deduce that the universe has been rigged for our survival. However, in order for the universe to be rigged, it requires a rigger who wants us to survive. A universe rigger who desires our survival sounds very much like the definition of God.2
Before we turn to some common objections to the Teleological Argument there is a point that needs to be made regarding objections.
Imagine that a man and his son are walking down a sandy beach at dusk. There is no-one in sight and all that they can hear is the sound of the waves. They turn a corner made by a little out-pouching of the cliff-face, and they see, written in the sand, the word “sternocleidomastoid”. If you are a biologist, you will probably know what this word means3. However, they, like most people, do not recognise the word. The father and son look at the writing, and start to ponder to each other. What does it mean? Who wrote it? Why did they write it? How did they write it?
However, one thing is unquestionable in the pair’s minds: somebody wrote it. Perhaps someone could argue that it is possible (albeit astronomically improbable) that the word came to be there by the random deposition of sand by the waves that so happened to create a word that means something to a small group of people. This may be possible as an explanation of the word in the sand, but would one really describe it as logical?
Many objections that I have heard to the Teleological Argument stem from the notion that “improbability” does not mean “impossibility”. However, such advocates often find that they are kicking against their own logical mind, in order to avoid what is, in my view, the most logical explanation to the fine-tuning of the universe: a cosmic fine-tuner.
Commonest Objections to the Teleological Argument
#1 Doesn’t the Anthropic Principle give a reasonable explanation to the fine-tuning of the universe?
The Anthropic Principle was developed with respect to the fine-tuning of the universe, by the eminent cosmologists John Barrow and Frank Tipler in 1986. They summarised their position as the following:
“Our existence imposes a stringent selection effect upon the type of Universe we could ever expect to observe and document. Many observations of the natural world, although remarkable a priori, can be seen in this light as inevitable consequences of our own existence”4.
In other words, we have to expect that the universe has life-permitting properties, because we are alive to observe them.
However, this argument is somewhat attacking a straw man. Let us go back to the lottery machine analogy. Imagine the lottery machine contains 100 balls, but instead of coloured, they are now each numbered from 1 to 100. I then take 100 volunteers and allocate them a number between 1 and 100, and tell them: “I will select one ball at random, and if the ball selected corresponds to your number, you will win a prize” (a far more enjoyable game!). So we proceed; I jumble the balls and randomly select the ball with number 37, and the person who has been allocated the number 37 wins the prize. It would be very bizarre for the person who won to then hypothesise that the machine was rigged for their winning- afterall, the probability of number 37 being selected was very small. This is the equivalent of postulating the Anthropic Principle; if all possible universes are equally probable, then it is certain that one will come out as life-permitting. We have been “drawn” the life-permitting universe, so we do not need to postulate a rigger- just chance.
However the Teleological Argument is not looking at the probability of our universe getting the life-permitting properties, over another universe getting them, like the person winning the prize over someone else. Rather, the argument looks at the probability of getting a life-permitting universe, over a life-prohibiting universe, like selecting the white lottery ball in the 99 black balls, repeatedly 100 times. Because we are talking about the (very) unequal probabilities of getting a life-permitting and life-prohibiting universe, the Anthropic Principle simply does not apply to this argument.
However, a more serious issue with the Anthropic Principle is that it relies on the Multiverse Hypothesis with an extra characteristic: a random universe generator. In order for the Anthropic Principle to be relevant to the start of the universe, we must presuppose some sort of mechanism that produces an infinite number of universes that all have different constants, in order for our universe to “come up”. However, a universe generator of this sort would still have to fulfil all the criteria of the cause of our universe mentioned in chapter 1; it must be immaterial, dimensionless, infinite, eternal and incomprehensibly powerful. This still seems to be a detailed description of God.
#2 Who designed the designer?
The atheist biologist Prof. Richard Dawkins described the above question as “the central argument” of his famous, religion-slamming book The God Delusion. He helpfully goes on to summarise the argument in a series of six bullet points5:
- One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.
- The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself.
- The temptation is a false one because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer.
- The most ingenious and powerful explanation is Darwinian evolution by natural selection.
- We don’t have an equivalent explanation for physics.
- We should not give up the hope of a better explanation arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology.
Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist.
As many people have pointed out, the conclusion “Therefore, God almost certainly does not exist” comes out of nowhere, and I have no idea how the conclusion follows the six premises.
However, more to the point “who designed the designer” is one of the most bizarre arguments a scientist can make. The reason is simple; in order to accept an explanation of an observation as the best, you do not need an explanation of the explanation. This is one of the most basic principles of the philosophy of science.
Let us go back to the beach writing analogy. I think everyone would agree that the best explanation of the word “sternocleidomastoid” written in the sand is that a human being wrote it. However, we do not need to have an explanation of who wrote, why they wrote, how they wrote it, or indeed what the word means, in order to accept the explanation that someone wrote it. By Dawkins’ logic, “someone wrote it” cannot be the best explanation of the writing the sand, because we do not have an explanation (as to the origin of the writer) of the explanation (that someone wrote in the sand).
In fact, this argument leads immediately to an infinite regress of explanations, and the total obliteration of science. Because before we can accept an explanation of any observation, we would first need an explanation of the explanation. But before we can accept the explanation of the explanation, we would first need an explanation of the explanation of the explanation. But before we can accept the explanation of the explanation of the explanation, we would first need an explanation of the explanation of the explanation of the explanation. And before we can accept… (you get the idea)6.
By putting forward this argument Dawkins needs to accept a principle that leads to the immediate demolition of the science that he and I base our careers on.
To accept a fine-tuner as an explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe seems to me to be a far more logical (and scientific!) position than to reject it by Dawkins’ reasoning.
- William Lane Craig, On Guard, 109
- Summary of argument by William Lane Craig, On Guard, 113-118
- In case you are interested, the sternocleidomastoid is a muscle in the side of the neck which contributes to the tipping and rotating of the head.
- John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford University Press, 1986)
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Transworld Publishers, 2006), 187-188 (emphasis added)
- Summary of critique by William Lane Craig, On Guard, 120-122