Universe’s Fine-Tuning vs. Anthropic Objection

By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, October 8, 2009)

Universe’s Fine-tuning vs. Anthropic Objection

Contemporary science tells us that the initial conditions of the universe’s coming into being are exquisitely fine-tuned for life, so much so that many thoughtful people conclude that this fine-tuning is evidence of a supernatural intelligent designer.

The idea is this: Because there are an astronomical number of conditions that have to be “just right” for life to exist, and because life (especially human life) has intrinsic moral worth, it very much seems that there is an orchestration of factors (instead of just a huge number of mere coincidences) aimed to bring about an end or value—and this smacks of intelligent design.

Thus, the universe’s fine-tuning for life provides one more sub-argument for a cumulative case argument for God’s existence.

However, some critics, such as Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion and professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University), object to the fine-tuning argument on the basis of what is sometimes called the Anthropic Principle.

According to this objection, it is not surprising that we observe the large number of apparent coincidences which make the universe’s initial conditions conducive to life. Why isn’t it surprising? Because, Dawkins and company point out, those conditions obviously constitute the set of conditions required for our existence. If those coincidences didn’t occur as they did, then we wouldn’t be around to observe them, let alone think about them.

Therefore (so the objection goes) there is no puzzle or mystery that suggests intelligent design. In fact, Dawkins asserts, the Anthropic Principle “provides a rational, design-free explanation.”

The objection sounds good and persuades many, but is it sound? That is to ask, is the objection rationally acceptable?

We should think not.

Consider the following thought experiment, set out by the philosopher William Lane Craig (in a debate at Queen’s University in the early 1990s): “You’re dragged before a firing squad of a hundred trained marksmen with rifles aimed at your heart; you hear the command; you hear the roar of the guns; and you see that you’re still alive, that they all missed [i.e., you see one hundred ‘apparent coincidences’]. You say: ‘That’s not surprising, because their missing is obviously required for me to be alive.'”

Now, Craig astutely points out: “The fact that you are making the observation is not surprising given that they missed. But the ‘coincidence’ of missing needs explanation!”

Similarly, the fact that we are observing the large (astronomical) number of “apparent coincidences” which led to life in the universe isn’t surprising given that these coincidences occurred. But the incredible life-sustaining/life-generating “coincidences” themselves still call out for explanation!

Craig adds (in an academic article on the same topic, apparently not read by Dawkins): “Certainly we should not be surprised that we do not observe features of the universe which are incompatible with our own existence. But it does not follow that we should not be surprised that we do observe features of the universe which are compatible with our existence.”

In other words, merely pointing to the conditions required for our existence, as Dawkins and company do, does not explain those conditions. The conditions that are favourable or “propitious” (Dawkins’ word) to our existence continue to call out for explanation. What is worse (for Dawkins and company), merely asserting that our capacity to notice these conditions is the result of some required favourable conditions doesn’t provide any explanation of the conditions themselves, let alone a “rational” explanation or a “rational design-free explanation.”

Here is the point: Dawkins and company confuse pointing to a condition with explaining that condition, but the former is not an instance of the latter.

Think about it. Yes, the conditions that are favourable or “propitious” to our existence are necessary for us to be alive and able to notice those conditions. But the question remains: Why do those conditions exist? Pointing out that the conditions are needed for life and observation is interesting, to be sure, but leaving it at that doesn’t account for their existence in the first place, which is the issue at hand.

Thus, the fine-tuning argument is untouched by the so-called Anthropic objection. The universe’s initial conditions, which are in fact exquisitely fine-tuned for life, continue to point to an intelligent designer.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba.)

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