Monday, July 13, 2009

Chances are the world is not by chance

The “design argument” for God’s existence has a long history. From the ancients through the medievals the order (or “design”) found in the natural world was thought to demand some supernatural explanation. This line of thinking culminated in William Paley’s famous 18th-century “watch analogy”: just as you would conclude that a watch you found on a deserted beach was designed by some intelligent being, so too you should conclude that the world as a whole was made by an intelligent designer.

But then came Darwin. The apparent order in the biological world could in fact arise by random mutations and natural selection. No designer was needed to produce an eye or wing or anything after all. The “design argument” for theism was dead.

Until recently that is, Paul Davies observes--for it has now been revived in a new form immune to the Darwinian challenge.

For focus now not on the biological realm but on the laws and properties of physics itself. Unlike living things, these have not been subject to random mutation and evolution. If order or design is found on this level of the world then it simply cannot be explained by Darwin.

And it is.

That the world is governed by stable laws at all is itself remarkable; it could just as well have been chaotic or disorderly. But more importantly, the laws seem precisely fine-tuned specifically to produce life as we know it--including beings such as ourselves, with consciousness, rationality, and morality. For that life depends very sensitively on the precise form of the laws and on the specific values that nature has assigned to fundamental entities such as the masses and charges of various particles, the strengths of different forces, the speed of light, and so on. Each of these things could have had any of an infinite number of values. Gravity could have been ever so slightly stronger or weaker; the electron’s charge could have had been ever so slightly greater or less. Had any one of these been even slightly different then our world or anything remotely like it could not have existed.

The odds against all these variables simultaneously having precisely the one value necessary for this world are quite literally astronomical.

If your friend drew even two consecutive royal flushes in poker you’d immediately suspect him of cheating. Why? Because when something incredibly unlikely occurs it’s very difficult to believe it occurs by chance. Yet even vastly more unlikely is that precise combination of physical values, the only such combination, that would produce the world we inhabit. By parity of reasoning we should conclude that this world has not arisen by chance.

Sometimes people object as follows: of course the world we inhabit has these specific physical features, for otherwise we wouldn’t be here to discover them! Given that we are here it’s impossible that physics be any different, so we shouldn’t be so surprised at what we find.

But that misses the point. Of course given that we are here it follows that the world must be ordered appropriately. But what is incredibly unlikely is that we are here--that the one combination of fundamental physical values which would produce a world of any value is the one that occurred.

And when something incredibly unlikely occurs it is difficult to believe it occurs by chance.

(1) Paul Davies, The Mind of God (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1992), Ch. 8: “Designer Universe.”
(2) Paul Davies, Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).


  1. The discovery of pennecillin was pretty unlikely, remember?

    50 years ago, a black president was unlikely, remember?

    Unlikely does in no way mean that its impossible.

  2. Q1: Suppose the coincidence of precise values does require an explanation. Is design the the best one? Surely that does not follow from the fact that an explanation is required. Competitor explanations include, eg, multiple universes, or successive iterations/variations of one unverse.

    Q2: Suppose we establish a persuasive and complete causal account of the process whereby the universe, embodying those precise values, did come to be. Precisely what is it that requires more explanation? -- Sometimes, it has rained frogs: frogs have been lifted from a pond by smallish tornado-like winds, and then "rained" down some distance away. Suppose we had a complete meterological account of the wind phenomenon. Do we also need an explanation of precisely why the frogs were in that spot?

  3. When I read: "The odds against all these variables simultaneously having precisely the one value necessary for this world are quite literally astronomical," I think of the other side of that coin: The odds of ANY world existing over another one is astronomically small. All of those options as to how gravity works, how atoms behave, and so on, settled on one particular way, but it could have been ANY way. One way, however, must be settled on in this reality.

    Similarly, life happened to develop on Earth that required the physical properties of this world. But presumably, by Darwin, many other forms of potential life have attempted to form in the history of the world... but they did not survive because they would require other systems of physics to do so.

    It doesn't point out design that life requiring Earth's physics lives on Earth, any more that it's "design" that life requiring a great deal of light happens to live in very light places.

  4. Also: "that the one combination of fundamental physical values which would produce a world of any value is the one that occurred." But it's not the only one that occurred. We have seen millions of other planets in the universe, and so far none of them has life on it. Many worlds have occurred. That we know of ONE world out of the multitude of worlds in our universe that has life on it is not so odds-defying. That life managed to take hold on this one world but not on any of the others we've seen seems to be about right: if the odds are one in a billion (or something like that), then some planet has to be the "one" in that statement.

  5. Hi
    I think as Stanley Jaki, said that another 'possible' universe must be either a part of this one, or unknowable in principle. We have evidence of only one universe. I believe the antrhopic principle is vastly more likely to be true, and , after all, we live in a universe that designs designers. Slam dunk I think. A personal cause is what makes sense of a personal effect:us.