Science & Faith
4/12/13 at 08:52 PM 311 Comments

Confusion about how Fine-Tuning Implicates Intelligent Design: British Atheist Philosopher A.C. Grayling

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In a recent debate between well-known atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling and Christian philosopher Peter S. Williams on a British radio program these two chaps addressed the subject of the fine-tuning of the universe's initial conditions to support complex life. First we will describe the kind of argument Williams made, and then we shall explain how Grayling's response was deeply confused. (Grayling is on the left in the photograph).

Williams argued that a fine-tuned cosmos points to an intelligent cause of the universe. Cosmic fine-tuning refers to a series of physical constants that are “just right” for life (many of them within extremely narrow parameters). This evidence supports the scientific theory of intelligent design. Intelligent design theory has religious implications that are supportive of theism and challenging to other worldviews, including atheism. Intelligent design is not a religious viewpoint, but it is scientific theory with religious implications that can be rationally evaluated through the method of comparing multiple competing hypotheses.

How are the laws, constants, and initial conditions of nature fine-tuned to make life possible? Here are some details:

Fine-Tuning (over 30 fine-tuned universal features are necessary for life)

Expansion Rate of the Universe

  • If faster: no galaxies would form because matter would be spread out too thinly in space.
    (In the absence of galaxies and other specific structural cosmic features, life is impossible).
  • If slower: the universe would collapse back on itself prior to star formation.
    (No stars would also mean that there would be no solar systems that could support life).

Gravitational Force Constant

  • If larger: stars would be too hot and would burn up too quickly and unevenly for life support.
  • If smaller: stars would remain so cool that nuclear fusion would never ignite, hence no heavy element production, which is necessary for life.

Electromagnetic Force Constant

  • If larger: insufficient chemical bonding and elements more massive than boron would not exist.
  • If smaller: insufficient chemical bonding, again, making life impossible.

The fine-tuning of the universe exhibits two features that lead us reliably to a design conclusion.

  1. Cosmic fine-tuning (dialing up those precise physical constants) is a highly improbable event.
  2. The result of fine-tuning is a meaningful pattern or functional outcome, in this case, life itself.

Whenever an event or state of affairs exhibits these two characteristics, we have good reason to conclude that it was designed by an intellence. For example, the probability of getting the sequence of letters in today's blog from random keyboard strokes is very low. Furthermore, all these letters are sequenced in a way that matches an independent meaningful pattern (the rules of English grammar and syntax) such that the have a communication function. That is, the letter sequence in the blog constitute a complex and functionally specified event, and thus we know it was designed (i.e., this is by far the best explanation among all possible known hypotheses). We call the joint presence of these two traits "specified complexity." Now lets apply this design dection method to the fine-tuning of the cosmos.

Getting one physical constant (e.g., the gravitational force constant) “just right” for life is vastly more unlikely by chance than dialing up arbitrarily the four numbers that open up a bicycle combination lock. When someone immediately opens a combination lock it indicates that this person had prior intelligent access to the correct code. Even more so, the existence of many “just right” physical constants for the possibility of life tells us that some intelligence selected those constants to construct a habitable (life-friendly) universe.

Biological life is a functional outcome made possible by the highly improbable fine-tuning of the universe. There are only a small number of ways to be alive biologically compared to the immense number of ways to be dead. Intelligence is the only cause we know by experience that is capable of generating highly improbable events that have such specific functional outcomes. In short, we have an evidence-based scientific argument that fine-tuning points to a fine-tuner, not chance or other explanations that involve unintelligent processes.

Early in his career, the famous cosmologist Sir Fred Hoyle was resistant to the big bang theory and its cosmic beginning. Later, when confronted by the evidence for fine-tuning, he began to sound theistic in his comments about the laws of nature: “A common sense interpretation of the data suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology.”

Let's return to that recent debate to which I linked you above. Here is what the linked ENV article (which includes a video clip of the debate) says:

Williams articulates the argument from specified complexity, using the analogy of an ATM bank machine. A bank pin number is a very specific combination of four digits (some banks allow more), and there is a total of ten digits (0-9) on an ATM keypad. There is thus only one four-digit combination out of a total of 10,000 (10^4) combinatorial possibilities that will allow the money to be retrieved from the machine. Since ATM machines typically allow only three attempts before denying access to one's bank account, it is vastly more probable than not that the machine will not be cracked by chance. This is analogous to the kind of specified complexity that is of interest to ID theorists.

Grayling's response to Williams' analogy is to point out that his own existence is immensely improbable, since it depends on very specific and improbable meetings of people down through the centuries (it also depends on, among other things, the fusion of specific gametes, specific recombination events and environmental factors). In making this argument, however, Grayling betrays his own misunderstanding of the concept of specified complexity. Chance can account for a myriad of very improbable phenomena. For example, any given sequence of 100 rolls of a fair dice is, for all practical purposes, equally improbable at 1 in 6^100. This is why improbability on its own does not necessarily warrant a design inference. Rather, there are two criteria that have to be met to justify such an inference -- improbability (factoring in the pertinent probabilistic resources) and specification. In other words, in addition to being immensely improbable, the phenomenon in question must also conform to some independently given pattern. For example, in the ATM analogy, the independently given pattern is the specific pin number needed to obtain money from the bank account. To take a biological example, the independently given pattern associated with proteins is the specific arrangement of amino acid subunits necessary to cause a protein to collapse into a stable and functional fold. Or, in the field of cosmology, the independently given pattern associated with the finely tuned constants and physical laws is the specific combination of values necessary for a bio-habitable universe.

In his book No Free Lunch, mathematician William Dembski explains the problem with Grayling's argument:

Suppose an archer stands fifty meters from a large wall with bow and arrow in hand. The wall, let us say, is sufficiently large that the archer cannot help but hit it. Now suppose each time the archer shoots an arrow at the wall, the archer paints a target around the arrow so that the arrow sits squarely in the bull's-eye. What can be concluded from this scenario? Absolutely nothing about the archer's ability as an archer. Yes, a pattern is being matched; but it is a pattern fixed only after the arrow has been shot. The pattern is thus purely ad hoc.

What does it mean for an event to be "specified," and why is a life-permitting universe "specified" but the birth of A.C. Grayling not so? Prima facie, a state of affairs is "specified" when it sufficiently resembles an independently given pattern; in other words, it is "recognizable," or pattern-matching. The lower the odds of the state of affairs's being recognizable in the relevant way by chance (i.e. the more ways it could "go wrong"), the more significant and surprising it is when it goes right. ID theorists call these specially recognizable chance-defying states of affairs "specified complex systems." They leave us faced with an awkward coincidence that cries out for a non-chance explanation.So, in the case of our universe's laws, constants, and initial conditions, the "specially recognizable" feature is their amenability to permitting life. Setting up such a bio-habitable system is precisely the kind of thing an intelligent designer might plausibly do. All that's left is establishing that this pattern is improbable (i.e., unlikely to be hit upon by chance), and we have "specified complexity. " Sure enough, physicists and cosmologists unanimously agree that the universe possesses just this feature. There are far more ways for the universe's constants and initial conditions to "go wrong" with respect to this independently existing pattern. (Note: It is important for the pattern to be independent, to preclude drawing the target around the proverbial arrow.)

Grayling's existence is not analogous, because the features that make him unique do not constitute such a pattern. Every person in the world is unique -- so possessing this quality does not single out A.C. Grayling. Had his parents or grandparents married other people than they in fact did and gone on to produce other children, those children would be no less unique than Grayling. Nothing makes us stand up, take note, and feel an urge to resolve a surprising "coincidence": namely the birth of a unique individual. This is why so much ink has been spilled trying to explain the "problem" (for materialists) of fine-tuning, and no ink has been spilled on the problem of Grayling's existence.

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