3. The Teleological Argument

by Blake

In the last forty years, scientists have become increasingly aware of a truly amazing phenomenon.  They have been finding that many of the constants and quantities of nature are fine-tuned for the existence of life to a degree incomprehensible to the human mind.  There are about 24 such examples of fine-tuning – some improbable to a degree of 1 chance in 10; others improbable to a degree of 1 chance in 10123 (To give an idea of the immensity of these numbers, consider the fact that there are only around 1080 protons, neutrons and electrons in the known universe).  Each of these 24 examples of fine tuning is independent of the others and so their probabilities are compounded.  It is like if you had one chance to randomly pick the “winning” proton, neutron or electron from the known universe and you picked it correctly.  The improbability involved with the fine-tuning is far more improbable than even that.

One example of this fine-tuning is the constant of gravity.  Gravity has to be just strong enough to gather matter together in the early universe to form stars (and eventually our planet), but if it were ever so slightly stronger, the Big Bang would have quickly ended in a big crunch, effectively ending our universe right away.  Another example is the relative weights of protons, neutrons and electrons: neutrons are slightly heavier than protons, both of which are far heavier than electrons.  This relationship has to be just as it is to an incredible degree in order for atoms to even exist.  Could life exist in a universe without atoms?  There are dozens of such examples, some quantitative that we can put an approximate number on, and some are more difficult to define numerically, but it is virtually undisputed that this fine-tuning exists to an astonishing degree. The cosmologist and atheist, Fred Hoyle (who coined the term “Big Bang”) has said: “looking at the facts [of fine tuning], it is as if a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics.”  This is a pretty bold statement for an atheist to make.

If there’s no denying the fine-tuning exists, the question is why.  Why do we find our whole existence resting on a razor’s edge?  The three most common explanations are that it is because of:

A.  Necessity

B.  Chance

C.  Design

A.  Necessity  First, consider the explanation of necessity.  This is the idea that the fine-tuning we observe in the universe had to exist – that the various instances of fine-tuning had to each, individually be just as they are with this incredible precision.  As far as we can tell, there doesn’t seem to be any reason that the different constants and quantities of the universe couldn’t have had other values.  Some argue that there might be some underlying law causing these different values to be what they are.  There isn’t any law that we know of and given all the different kinds of fine-tuning we see, it seems unlikely that such a law could exist.

B.  Chance  This is the idea that if it is at least possible that the fine-tuning occurred by chance, then this is the best of the three explanations.   It is true that it is possible that the universe is fine-tuned just by chance.  Chance cannot be ruled out.  But chance could be used to explain anything.  What we are looking for is the best explanation and some things are so extremely improbable that chance is just not an acceptable answer.

Imagine you are walking down the beach and find a watch half buried in the sand.  You don’t know how it got there.  It is possible that the watch was formed by the effect of the wind and the sand shaping some random hunk of metal in just the right way over time.  Although this explanation is possible – that the watch was just formed by chance in this way – you would never believe that.  You would most likely believe that someone had designed this watch.

The common analogy used by proponents of the chance hypothesis is that of the lottery.  Each player of the lottery has the same slim chance of winning.  The fact that one particular person wins is no evidence that the lottery is fixed because after all, someone must win.  Similarly, the argument goes, although we may feel that this universe was specially designed for us, the fact is that the universe had to be some way and it just happened to be this way.  But there is an error in this analogy.

It is true that all the players in a lottery have an equal shot at winning and so they all share the same probability.  But with the scenario of our universe, it involves a probabilistic phenomenon known as “specified probability.”  This is a situation where not only is the event improbable, but it also conforms to an independently given pattern.

The fact is that many things in this world are actually improbable.  The biology involved in each of us coming into existence just as we are seems highly improbable – maybe this gene or that gene would be slightly different, making us a wholly different person.  But this is not evidence for anything.  When an improbable event becomes relevant is when it conforms to some independently given pattern.

Imagine you are dealt a hand of cards that is random and worthless, and I am dealt a royal flush. Disregarding the rules of any card game and just looking at the individual cards that make up the two hands, both hands – my royal flush and your worthless hand – have equal probabilities.  But the amazing thing about my royal flush is that it also conforms to an independently given pattern: the rules of poker.  (Incidentally, the improbabilities we are dealing with in the fine-tuning are far, far, far beyond that of the royal flush.  Its more like thousands of royal flushes in a row.  Proponents of the chance hypothesis would have you believe we are just lucky!)

Likewise, all possible universes with all different constants and quantities are all equally improbable, but the fact that our universe happens to also conform to an independently given pattern – those conditions that permit life – cries out for some explanation beyond chance.

Some would argue that the analogy of the lottery still does apply because the “independently given pattern” in that case is the specific person (you) having just the right lottery ticket.  But consider our universe in a line-up of all the different types of universes.  Our universe is life-permitting, but the universe on our left has a slightly stronger gravity.  The universe on our right has a little heavier proton, etcetera on down the line.  In this line up, there will be a very small number of universes that are life-permitting and an extraordinarily high number that are life-prohibiting.  The reason the lottery analogy breaks down is because the improbability lies not in the fact that our particular universe is the one that exists, but that the life-permitting type of universe is the type that exists.

Imagine once again that you are walking on the beach and this time you come across a key half buried in the sand.  Although you know it is improbable, you choose to believe that it was formed by chance, with the wind and the sand chipping away to form this perfectly etched key.  This is highly improbable, but you believe it.  You then walk back up to your house and on a whim, insert the key into your lock and find that it fits and opens your lock perfectly. This is not just an improbable event – it also conforms to an independently given pattern: your precisely designed lock.  It may be possible that it is just chance, but you would never believe that as a reasonable hypothesis.

C.  Design  If we have reasonably ruled out necessity and chance, then what we are left with is design.  Our world seems so improbably set-up because somehow, something engineered it to be this way.