Transcript: Podcast 6- The Teleological Argument

4 June 2007

In this episode we are going to take a detailed look at the Teleological Argument, which is often also known as the Design Argument. For the book reviews we’re going to look at God and Design, a collaborative work edited by Neil Manson. This book will tie in real nicely with the topic for today’s show. But first things first, let’s look briefly at the news over the past two weeks.


There is not much for news this time, except to mention that Answers in Genesis, a Young-Earth Creationist organization, has now completed its 27 million dollar Creation Museum project. The museum presents the Young Earth view while denouncing evolution, including exhibits that show humans living with dinosaurs and depictions of the global flood. Obviously, the museum has raised a large amount of controversy, both from secularists and from Christians who reject this interpretation of the Bible.

Main Feature: The Teleological Argument

The main subject for today’s show is one of my personal favorites- The Teleological Argument for God’s existence. This argument is frequently referred to as simply the Design Argument, but there are many forms of this argument.

Some arguments from design focus on the design of earthly creatures, or even on human beings specifically. Other versions focus on the conditions of the planet earth, and point out that the earth is specially designed to support life. Still other versions focus on the supposed “beauty” of nature and the cosmos. I find most of these arguments to be persuasive to varying degrees, but they must be distinguished from the design argument I have specified here, which I will refer to as the Teleological Argument.

The Teleological Argument that I am defending in this show concerns the fundamental constants and starting conditions of our universe. It is based on scientific findings that the “laws of nature” which run the universe must be fantastically close to their actual value in order for life to even be possible. If the strength of gravity or electromagnetism were different, for example, then the universe would be utterly incapable of supporting life. This is often referred to as ‘fine-tuning’, meaning the the universe is finely tuned to allow for life.

The first order of business is to demonstrate that there really is extraordinary fine-tuning. I will just offer several good examples of fine-tuning that help to demonstrate the overall claim that the universe is highly fine-tuned for life.

1. The Cosmological Constant

The cosmological constant is a term in Einstein’s equations that acts as a repulsive force when positive and an attractive force when negative. We know that this constant is very close to, but not quite, zero, and that it has a positive value. This is why the universe is currently expanding at the rate it is. If the constant were too high, however, then the universe would fly apart extraordinarily fast, prohibiting the build up of matter necessary for planets, stars, or any sort of life whatsoever, if the value were negative, then the universe would collapse back in on itself, also clearly making intelligent life possible.

According to current physical theory, the room for error as far as the cosmological constant is concerned is very slim. Measurements and calculations show that the cosmological constant is tuned to one in 10 to the power of 53, which is a 1 with 53 zeroes behind it.

2. Gravity

Gravity is the most familiar of the four fundamental forces of the universe, and it turns out that it must be relatively close to what it is if life is to exist. If gravity were too strong, then any land based animals larger than a tiny insect would be crushed, prohibiting the development of truly intelligent life. Furthermore, long-lived stars could not exist if gravity were too large. Additionally, if gravity were zero or negative, no stars or solid bodies could exist at all, precluding life.

Compared with the total range of forces in the universe, gravity must therefore be tuned to a degree of one in 10 to the 36th power.

3. Entropy per Baryon

Baryons are subatomic particles made up of quarks, including but not limited to the famous proton and neutron. If the entropy per baryon parameter were much larger than it actually is, then galaxies would not have been able to form. Roger Penrose has estimated that the probability of the parameter being life-permitting, as it is in our universe, is approximately one to the power of 10 to the power of 123, an absurdly large number beyond all comprehension.

Note that any three of these cases is so absurdly improbable that by themselves the case for fine-tuning is solid. Imagine, however, the effect of considering them in accumulation. The improbabilities have to be multiplied by each other, producing a ludicrously large improbability.

These examples alone show that our universe is exceptionally fine-tuned for life. Using this evidence, I would like to formulate an argument for God’s existence using the following premises:

1. The universe was created by chance, necessity, or design.
2. The universe was not created by chance.
3. The universe was not created by necessity.
4. Therefore, the universe was created by design.

Since design implies a designer, this argument, if valid and sound, demonstrates that our universe was created by a Designer. This is clearly powerful evidence in favor of theism.

But what about the argument? The first premise seems to me quite clear. Chance, necessity, and design are the only logical possibilities for the universe’s creation. Anyone who denies this premise is going to have to come up with another option.

The second and third premises are much more controversial. We will now take a detailed look at premise 2- ‘the universe was not created by chance.’

The Universe: Created by Chance?

Particularly in light of the evidence presented earlier for the fine-tuning of the universe, how can the atheist possibly maintain that the universe arose by chance? There are actually three ways this can be attempted. The first method is to take the improbability at face value, and simply continue to believe that the universe arose by chance. The two final ways involve increasing the probabilistic resources. There are two types of such resources- specificational and replicational. The specificational resources have to do with the chance of an event occurring given one try. To increase the specificational resources would be like increasing the size of a bullseye on a dartboard. The bigger the bullseye, the more likely that it can be hit by chance. If the atheist could show that a life-permitting universe is really not all that unlikely, then the Teleological Argument would be destroyed.

There are also replicational resources, which have to do with the number of tries you have to achieve a certain outcome. If you are given a million darts, then it is not at all improbable for you to hit a bullseye; even if the bullseye were very small and you happen to be terrible at darts. In the present context, some have argued in favor of the so-called multi-verse hypothesis, according to which there are many universes.

First we’ll consider taking the improbability at face value. Is it fair simply to say that we happen to be lucky? After all, improbable events happen all the time. It’s improbable to win the lottery, but still people do win. The universe may be improbable, but that is no reason to rule out chance. But in the present case, it is certainly irrational to place our faith in blind chance.

To illustrate, let us consider a simple poker scenario. The odds of receiving a royal flush of hearts are 1 in 311,875,200. So, we would deem it extremely improbable to receive such a hand. Let’s say we are dealt a hand, and we receive a 2C, 10H, 6D, JD, and KS. We probably wouldn’t deem this event at all extraordinary, and we would probably toss our mediocre hand into the muck without a second thought. But, in actuality, we just experienced an incredibly improbable event! The odds of receiving exactly the cards we did is 1 in 311,875,200. When we reflect for a bit on probability, we realize that, indeed, every single possible hand is equally unlikely.

Using this type of thinking, a skeptic of the Teleological Argument can simply retort- ‘sure, this universe is improbable, but so is every other universe equally improbable! Why should we prefer one to the other? Improbability does not point us to a designer.”

However, there is an obvious problem with this line of thinking. There is clearly something special about a Royal Flush of hearts that makes it different then our mediocre hand. The obvious difference is that the Royal Flush is a good hand, unlike our seemingly random hand. Thus, the Royal Flush is not just improbable, it is also specified.

To illustrate this, suppose now that you enter into a dimly lit room, sit down at a poker table, and are forced to gamble for your life. You are informed that, unless you receive a Royal Flush of hearts in the first hand, you will be killed. Certainly, your prospects seem dim. Suppose however, that we are dealt five cards, and find to your incredible relief that you just received the necessary hand! Lest we be confused, we must remember that there is nothing particularly special about a Royal Flush, per se. For example, the same improbabilities would arise if, upon entering our risky casino, you are told that you must receive a 2C, 10H, 6D, JD, and KS. Since in both cases we are specifying the exact cards that must be received, it is extremely improbable for us to have a successful outcome.

In any case, at this point you should be highly suspicious of the game you just played. Should you really believe that you hit a 1 to 311,875,200 shot in the dark, or should you assume that the game was rigged?

The case with the universe is very similar. We look at the structure of the universe, and we realize that we’ve been dealt a hand far less probable than a Royal Flush of hearts. Should we simply assume that we are extraordinarily lucky, or should we expect the game was rigged? The answer seems clear to me. We cannot simply accept the improbability at face value.

What about the possibility of increasing the specificational resources? Recall that this means making the probability of success more likely, for example, by increasing the size of the bullseye on a dartboard. Well, we have seen that the skeptic will need to refute the evidence for fine-tuning that was provided earlier. This approach is problematic, however, because some examples of fine-tuning seem to be airtight.

Moreover, even if there are some uncertainties or problems with many examples of fine-tuning, the sheer number of factors points us to the conclusion of improbability. It is highly unlikely that every single case is completely worthless. In a court case, there might be slight problems or uncertainties about each individual piece of evidence, but a persuasive case can still be made if there are twenty or thirty converging pieces of evidence. Likewise, in the case of the universe, the huge number of examples gives us confidence in our overall conclusion even with some uncertainties in each individual piece of evidence.

The Multiverse

This brings us to the final, and perhaps the most notorious, method of overcoming the improbability of a life-permitting universe- the multiverse hypothesis. If there are trillions upon trillions of universes in the cosmos, then it may not be surprising that at least one has the necessary preconditions for life. But, before I get into the primary problems with the multiverse hypothesis, I would like to point out that, even if we grant the existence of a multiverse, it does not necessarily demonstrate that a life-permitting universe is likely.

1.) First of all, it’s quite possible that, even if there are other universes, there simply aren’t enough to make life probable. This possibility is rarely considered. If the probability of a life-permitting universe are 1 in 10^120, then we will need trillions and trillions of universes even to bring the possibility close to reasonable. Even if we grant multiple universes, why should we think that there are such a large number of universes?

2.) Secondly, it’s also possible that every single universe in the multiverse has the same constants and fundamental make-up of our own. If multiple universes are being born out of some sort of ‘universe generator,” how do we know that this generator produces a wide variety of universes? The generator may well be like a machine in a factory. Although the machine may create billions of parts per year, all the parts it creates are virtually identical. Even assuming that there are multiple universes being created in some way, we have no way of knowing that the generator creates universes with the wide level of variety needed in order to overcome the Teleological Argument.

These two caveats aside, are there any problems with the multiverse hypothesis? Well, the first problem is that there is absolutely no evidence for multiple universes. Without any evidence in their favor, multiverse theories are simply desperate attempts to avoid the inference to design. In addition to lacking confirmatory evidence, many (if not all) multiverse models cannot even be theoretically supported or falsified. We have no true access to other universes- they are eternally closed off from us. Direct detection is virtually out of the question for all but the craziest theories. This puts multiverse theories firmly in the realm of philosophy and metaphysics.

Once we recognize that the multiverse is really just metaphysics, we can also see that it is inferior to the hypothesis of a designer. According to the principal of Occam’s Razor, we should not multiply explanatory entities unnecessarily. It seems obvious that a bloated cosmology full of trillions and trillions of universes is more complicated, less parsimonious, and more contrived than the hypothesis of a single Designer.

But we can let all of these objections pass and assume, in an act of extraordinary generosity, that there actually is a multiverse. As it turns out, even this will not allow us to escape the Teleological Argument. It does not solve the problem of fine-tuning; it merely moves it back one step because the multiverse, or, as I shall call it, the ‘universe-generator,’ would itself require a high degree of fine-tuning.

Think of what is required for a universe generator to work; it must somehow be able to create trillions of universes with fundamental constants that vary enough to allow for the range required to make a life-permitting universe probable. It seems obvious that any such universe generator would itself need to be finely-tuned. Indeed, if anything, such a wonderful machine would probably need to be more complex and tuned than a simple universe in the first place. A television is a complex and delicate piece of technology- but imagine the precision and design necessary to create a machine that, without human supervision or guidance, makes televisions (especially if this machine were capable of producing an extraordinarily wide variety of TVs).

As an example of this problem, Robin Collins points out the multiple facets of fine-tuning required for Andre Linde’s chaotic inflation multiverse. To quote Collins at length, he points out that this model requires;

“1) A mechanism to supply the energy needed for the bubble universes: This mechanism is the hypothesized inflaton field. By imparting a constant energy density to empty space, as space expands the inflaton field can act “as a reservoir of unlimited energy” for the bubbles.

2) A mechanism to form the bubbles: This mechanism is Einstein’s equation of general relativity. Because of its peculiar form, Einstein’s equation dictates that space expand at an enormous rate in the presence of a field, such as the inflaton field, that imparts a constant (and homogenous) energy density to empty space. This causes both the bubble universes to form and the rapid expansion of the pre-space which keeps the bubbles from colliding.

3) A mechanism to convert the energy of inflaton field to the normal mass/energy we find in our universe. This mechanism is Einstein’s relation of the equivalence of mass and energy combined with an hypothesized coupling between the inflaton field and normal mass/energy fields we find in our universe.

4) A mechanism that allows enough variation in constants of physics among universes: Currently, the most physically viable candidate for this mechanism is superstring or m-theory. Superstring theory might allow enough variation in the variations in the constants of physics among bubble universes to make it reasonably likely that a fine-tuned universe would be produced, but no one knows for sure.”

As a side note, I would like to point out that Collins has also made the generous assumption that Superstring theory is a viable candidate. Yet, string theory itself is not without problems, and it is widely acknowledged to be one of the most speculative, bloated, and overhyped theories in current physics. Lee Smolin, a prominent physicist and himself a proponent of a multiverse scenario, has argued in his recent book The Trouble With Physics that “string theory has turned out to be a ‘theory of anything,’ an ill-defined framework that lacks explanatory and predictive power, relies on excessive conjecture, and crowds out more promising lines of inquiry.” As of right now, to my knowledge, there is absolutely no confirmatory evidence for string theory other than the fact that the theory is, purportedly, mathematically consistent and elegant. So, by combining a speculative chaotic inflation model and a speculative string theory model, we see that the case for a naturalistic explanation of fine-tuning via a multiverse model requires an extremely charitable interpretation of reality.

Yet, as we have seen, even granting these speculations, fine-tuning is still required. In addition to the four points mentioned here, other background laws in the universe generator are required. For example, the Pauli-exclusion principle is required, otherwise electrons would occupy the lowest orbit and there could be no complex atoms. And if it were not for the principle of quantization, all electrons would be sucked into the nucleus and there would be no atoms.

We have seen, therefore, that the multiverse model is not successful in explaining the fine-tuning of the universe. Next, we will consider the third premise: “the universe was not created of necessity.” Is there any good reason to think this premise true?

The Universe: Created by Necessity?

The search for a so-called Grand Unified Theory or Theory of Everything is being pursued vigorously by physicists who hope to express the entire universe, its laws and constants, and all of reality in a simple, unifying mathematical equation. Is it possible then, at the end of the day, that the universe may simply be necessary? There are actually several problems with this view.

Physicist Paul Davies notes that, “Mathematics must be founded upon a set of axioms. Though the theorems of mathematics may be deduced from within the system of axioms, the axioms themselves cannot. They must be justified from outside the system. One can imagine many different sets of axioms leading to different logical schemes.” Moreover, Godel’s theorem entails that it is impossible to prove that axioms are consistent within the system of axioms. Davies concludes, “So the search for a genuinely unique Theory of Everything that would eliminate all contingency and demonstrate that the physical world must necessarily be as it is, seems to be doomed to failure on grounds of logical consistency.”

Furthermore, if quantum indeterminacy is actual, as most scientists believe, then the universe is necessarily contingent (meaning it necessarily could have been otherwise). Many examples of fine-tuning involve random symmetry breaking during crucial moments of the early phase of the universe. So, even if reality were completely reducible to a single mathematical equation, a life permitting universe would still depend upon the results of random symmetry breaking and would therefore remain extremely improbable.

But once again, we can see that these points are trivial because Theories of Everything, even if successful, do not solve the problem. Even if all the previous points are mistaken, the inference to design would not be damaged by a Theory of Everything. As Collins points out, “Even if such a theory were developed, it would still be a huge coincidence that the Grand Unified Theory implied just those values of these parameters of physics that are life-permitting, instead of some other values.” The postulation of a Theory of Everything, therefore, merely pushes the issue of design back one step. But the inference to design will not go away.

So the third premise is amply supported.

One Final Objection

One final objection to the Teleological Argument is certainly worth mentioning, especially because it once convinced me that the argument was flawed. It is an extremely simple response, and it basically says that there is no reason for us to be surprised that the universe exhibits fine-tuning that allows for our existence, because if it didn’t, we obviously would not be here to observe it.

This seems like a common sense response, but in actuality it does not solve our problem. Philosopher John Leslie has offered a persuasive analogy which demonstrates that, in actual fact, we should be surprised to see that we are alive in a hospitable universe.

Leslie asks us to imagine a firing squad of fifty well-trained marksmen. After being convicted of high treason, you are dragged in front of the fifty marksmen to be executed. Your body tenses up as the general counts down 3…2…1…BANG! All fifty marksmen fire their guns, and, to your absolute astonishment, you notice that you are still alive!

Now, it would hardly do to say; “Well, it seems unlikely that all fifty marksmen would miss me, but there is no reason for me to be surprised that I am still alive. After all, if I weren’t alive, then I wouldn’t be around to notice it!”

Clearly, it is appropriate for us to be genuinely surprised that we survived the marksmen, and at this point we are probably entertaining the possibility that the whole thing was a hoax or some type of cruel joke.

We see from Leslie’s example that, while it is true that we should not be surprised that we do not observe a life-prohibiting universe (since we would not be around to observe it), we still ought to be surprised to observe a life-permitting universe (since such a universe is extremely unlikely, just like 50 marksmen missing their mark at one time.)

With this final objection out of the way, we are ready to consider our conclusion.

Our Universe Was Designed

We conclude from our first three premises that the universe was created by design. This conclusion has obvious theistic implications. We have seen that the universe was created by an agent who purposefully designed it to support life. Not only does this demonstrate that a Creator exists, it also demonstrates that this Creator has an interest in intelligent life. Although this does not necessarily prove that the Creator cares about humans per se, it does give us a strong hint that such might be the case. Given this evidence, it is incumbent upon us to see if this Creator of the universe, who has organized the cosmos in such a careful fashion as to allow for life’s existence, has revealed Himself to us in any other way.

Book Reviews

God and Design

For the book review this episode, I would like to look at a book very relevant to the topic today; “God and Design”

This book, released in 2003 and edited by Neil Manson, is a collection of papers and other works from great thinkers about the design argument. The papers in this volume cover both the Teleological Argument as discussed in this podcast, and also more local design arguments such as those proposed by Michael Behe and other Intelligent Design theorists. The book is actually quite even-balanced with a fair representation given to both sides of the debate. There are contributions from great Theist philosophers, including Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, Robin Collins, and John Leslie and prominent atheist philosophers Elliot Sober, Michael Ruse, and Sir Martin Rees.

Most of the issues discussed in this podcast are given great attention in this volume- discussions of Leslie’s marksmen analogy, theories of the multiverse, and probability theory.

If you want to take a look at the state of the debate concerning the Design Argument for God’s existence, this volume is extremely valuable. With 19 papers from today’s top thinkers, God and Design is an excellent book. My rating: 5 stars out of 5.


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