A Christian and an atheist break down an argument for design

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I received a comment on a previous blog article of mine about the argument from design, and wanted to respond to it more thoroughly than a simply reply comment. Below is the submitter’s comment copied-and-pasted, with my full response.

Submitted on 1/25/2012 at 3:27 AM
Unklee writes:

Nice sounding arguments Dave, but which of the following premises do you disagree with?

1. The character of our universe is determined by physical laws and constants.
2. If these laws and constants had been different, life would probably not have arisen.
3. The laws and constants which led to this suitability for life must have been determined by either physical necessity, chance or design.
4. The laws and constants have not been determined by physical necessity.
5. The laws and constants have not been determined by chance.
6. Therefore our universe was designed.

Hi Unklee, thanks for your comment. I’m just going to address this one after another:

1. The character of our universe is determined by physical laws and constants.

- Physics “laws” are just observed patterns of interactions. I don’t think it’s accurate to say “determined by.” The universe has them, from what we can tell, but that’s all we can conclude from that directly. We don’t know if they’re constant everywhere and we don’t know if it’s always had them the way we observe them now. We don’t even know if our observations are ultimately correct, because the only way we can check our work is by repeating the same method we used the first time (i.e. by trusting that information from our senses is a reliable path to knowledge about objective reality, under the condition that this information is consistent or within acceptable margins of error on repeated experiment, otherwise known as science). Also, what do you mean by “character”?

This came up when I googled "character." I don't know why.

2. If these laws and constants had been different, life would probably not have arisen.

It depends on how different those constants had been. It’s certainly conceivable that life would have grown up differently or possibly even not at all, depending on the chemicals available, the amount of time (if a hypothetical universe were to exist for only a few seconds, it’s pretty unlikely life would be able to develop in it), and other factors. I disagree with using the word “probably” here, as we only have a sample size of 1 observable universe and one planet with life that we know of. Since we can’t see outside of our universe, we have no one way of knowing otherwise, and can only speculate.

Even on this single planet we have everything from bacteria and archaea to fungi, blue whales, pterodactyls, humans, beetles, and trees. One study published last year estimates that 86% of species on this planet have yet even to be named. Who knows what kinds of life could be on other planets or indeed other universes? Perhaps there is even non-carbon-based life waiting to be discovered even within our own universe. Just pulling straight from Wikipedia: “While the kinds of living beings we know on Earth commonly use carbon for basic structural and metabolic functions, water as a solvent and DNA or RNA to define and control their form, it is possible that undiscovered life-forms could exist that differ radically in their basic structures and biochemistry from that known to science.”

"ALF" stands for Alien Life Form, although suspiciously, he breathes air, gets around just fine in Earth gravity, and they apparently have cats on his planet, too.

3. The laws and constants which led to this suitability for life must have been determined by either physical necessity, chance or design.

- What’s the difference between physical necessity and chance?

4. The laws and constants have not been determined by physical necessity.

- Need an answer to #3 before I can respond to this one. Do you mean that our universe would not have existed or lasted as long as it has if the laws were vastly different? I agree with that. We don’t know why our universe displays exactly the patterns of behavior that we observe it does, or indeed if these patterns have always been constant or even if they are constant everywhere now. We simply have no way of knowing that.

5. The laws and constants have not been determined by chance.

- I don’t think we have any decent way of ruling this out, but I’m very interested in your reason(s) for thinking that we do, as it seems to be the crux of the design argument in general.

6. Therefore our universe was designed.

– While it’s a possibility, I think it is remote at best, and has the major flaw of introducing an even worse question: If our universe is designed by some intelligence, then where did that intelligence come from? Now we are really getting into ad-hoc territory, speculating about the origin of an entity for which we have only circumstantial evidence of its existence in the first place!

If we’re assuming design, we’ll need to address this question of origin regarding the designer, too: Either this intelligence created itself, has always existed, or was itself created. If it was itself created, than we’re back to square one. If it has always existed, then we are violating parsimony by adding an extra, unneeded step in our logic, rather than the more-reasonable solution: that the universe itself has always existed. (Side note: We have to be careful about using terms like “always existed,” because time itself doesn’t exist without the expansion of the universe, which didn’t start happening until the Big Bang).

The Big Bang (click to enlarge)

Since the always-existed hypothesis doesn’t agree with observation—the universe appears to be about 13.7 billion years old—we can more-or-less rule that out. So, the only answer that’s parsimonious, fits observation thus far, and doesn’t answer the question with an even bigger question, is the provisional belief that the universe “created” itself, although I prefer a term more like “originated” or “initiated,” as these are fittingly less anthropomorphic.

I think the best answer to the question, “Where did the universe come from?”, based on what we’ve covered here, is this one:

“We don’t know, and we may never have enough information to say with absolute, 100% certainty, but the answer that fits all our observations the best so far is that the universe simply came from nothing.”

Lawrence Krauss recently wrote a book explaining why (and how) he believes the universe came from literally nothing, a position with which Stephen Hawking, Leonard Mlodinow, and many others agree. Seeing as they are all qualified astrophysicists, I’m inclined to take their word for it until or unless new evidence comes along that they’re incorrect, which is what I meant above when I said provisional belief.

I think ultimately, the argument from design boils down to what’s known in logic as an argumentum ad ignorantiam, or appeal to ignorance. This is a logical fallacy. Although the argument is generally stated something like, “The universe could not have come about the way it is unless some intelligence did it,” I think a more-accurate wording is, fairly, “I don’t understand how the universe could have come about the way it is, unless some intelligence did it.” In order to conclude that it must have been an intelligence, we would first have to rule out all other possibilities, including a conspicuously more-parsimonious one, which I don’t think we can do at this time.

I encourage you to read the book by Lawrence Krauss linked two paragraphs up, or watch him give this talk (see video below) about the same hypothesis. It should help you understand how the universe could have come from nothing. If, after watching it (or reading the book), you think that you have a way to disprove it, PLEASE post your reasoning in the comments below.

Something to note: As good scientists seeking the truth about how our universe works, we would never say that we accept a hypothesis, only that thus far, we have failed to reject it. This is because of the problem of induction. So even if we were able to absolutely rule out the a-universe-from-nothing hypothesis, that does NOT prove intelligence design nor even suggest it as the next-best possibility. All it would do is narrow down the possibilities from (at least) 3 hypotheses to (at least) 2. Our options are: 1) the universe originated itself through some natural, non-intelligent process 2) the universe has always existed 3) the universe was created by some intelligent entity. Again, there are problems with both #2 and #3: #2 doesn’t fit with observations and #3 just raises the bigger question of where that intelligence itself came from. Additionally, there could be even more hypotheses than these 3 that we haven’t thought of yet. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: Right now, we have a hypothesis that’s parsimonious, fits the data, and doesn’t introduce more questions than it answers. I think that’s about as close as we can get to knowledge in this area unless or until we find strong evidence that we’re wrong. Ball’s in your court, Unklee!

Aforementioned Lawrence Krauss talk:

Regards,

Dave

mail@davemuscato.com

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

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3 thoughts on “A Christian and an atheist break down an argument for design

  1. Dave

    Thanks for the detailed response. I cannot, in a blog comment box, realistically answer all that, so I will be as brief as I can and refer you to my own discussion of these issues at The teleological argument, Was the universe designed for us? and Science and the design of the universe.

    1. The character of our universe is determined by physical laws and constants.

    “Physics “laws” are just observed patterns of interactions. I don’t think it’s accurate to say “determined by.”
    I’m sorry, but I think this is a semantic and pedantic answer, though it does at least help me word the argument better. We could replace the first premise with “The physical laws and constants describe how our universe grew to how it is today.” and amend the second premise to “had it grown differently ….” etc, and the argument would be the same. Further, I find many scientists use terminology similar to mine – check out these references: Paul Davies and Dennis Overbye.

    “We don’t know if they’re constant everywhere and we don’t know if it’s always had them the way we observe them now.”
    I think most scientists don’t think this, otherwise how could they do the maths on the big bang? On the contrary, scientists think that electrons always have the same mass and charge, an amazing outcome when you consider that there are something like 10^80 of them at least! This study concludes: “We have been able to show that the laws of physics are the same in this galaxy half way across the visible Universe as they are here on Earth”.

    2. If these laws and constants had been different, life would probably not have arisen.

    “I disagree with using the word “probably” here, as we only have a sample size of 1 observable universe”
    This is not what most cosmologists say. Paul Davies says (ref above): “change our bylaws just a little bit and life would probably be impossible”. You have not taken account of the fact that most cosmology is done by mathematical modelling based on observations, and the universe, and all possible universes, can be analysed in this way.

    3. The laws and constants which led to this suitability for life must have been determined by either physical necessity, chance or design.

    “What’s the difference between physical necessity and chance?”
    They are the very opposite of each other. Physical necessity means it couldn’t possibly have been any other way, whereas chance means it could have been any number of other ways, but wasn’t.

    4. The laws and constants have not been determined by physical necessity.

    “Do you mean that our universe would not have existed or lasted as long as it has if the laws were vastly different?”
    That is part of premise 2. What I mean is that most cosmologists do not believe there is some underlying physical reality that shows that the universe could not possibly have been any other way – i.e. the laws and constants could not have been otherwise under any circumstances. I think Stephen Hawking has argued for something like this, but most cosmologists don’t agree. In fact, the multiverse hypothesis, which most cosmologists seem to lean towards, assumes that the laws are not necessarily the way they are.

    5. The laws and constants have not been determined by chance.

    “I don’t think we have any decent way of ruling this out, but I’m very interested in your reason(s) for thinking that we do, as it seems to be the crux of the design argument in general.”
    You need to read Was the universe designed for us? to see the reasons. Most cosmologists agree that the odds against a livable universe happening by chance are enormously high – beyond possibility in fact. That’s why some opt for the multiverse, but that only shifts the problem back to the design of the multiverse.

    6. Therefore our universe was designed.

    “While it’s a possibility, I think it is remote at best”
    It isn’t a matter of what you think, but of logic. If the other explanations are improbable, this is the only one left on the table. That’s why it’s such a strong argument.

    “I think ultimately, the argument from design boils down to what’s known in logic as an argumentum ad ignorantiam, or appeal to ignorance. This is a logical fallacy.”
    The argument is based on the latest science, and simply asks “why is it so?” which sounds like quite a reasonable and scientific question to me. I prefer to deal with the facts as we have them, and reconsider if the facts change – that’s also a scientific approach.

    So I don’t think you have really grappled with argument, or the scientific facts behind it, very much at all, and I invite you to read some more references and then respond. Thanks for the opportunity to reply.

  2. I wanted to also comment on something that is not part of the design argument.

    “I encourage you to read the book by Lawrence Krauss linked two paragraphs up, or watch him give this talk (see video below) about the same hypothesis.”

    I have watched the video previously, and found it very entertaining. But Krauss is conning you.

    Don’t take my word for it, but try this blog by physicist (and atheist) Luke Barnes: Of nothing, or read the cautionary words of eminent cosmologist Martin Rees: “Cosmologists sometimes claim that the universe can arise ‘from nothing’. But they should watch their language, especially when addressing philosophers. We’ve realised ever since Einstein that empty space can have a structure such that it can be curved and distorted. Even if shrunk to a ‘point’ it is latent with particles and forces – still a far richer construct than the philosophers’ ‘nothing’.”

    The fact is, Krauss is showing you how the universe could perhaps appear out of something that might look like nothing but is clearly very different to nothing.

    But note also this is a separate, but also powerful, argument. The cosmological argument argues that science cannot explain the origin of everything physical. You are talking in this post about explaining the design of the universe, whether we can explain its origin or not. I would be happy to discuss the cosmological argument too, but not in this post I suggest!

    Best wishes.

  3. So, I’m just going to butt in on this thing because, really, why not?

    1. The character of our universe is determined by physical laws and constants.

    “I’m sorry, but I think this is a semantic and pedantic answer…”
    I’d like to start off by saying that in any debate errors and inconsistencies in speech or other communications are detrimental to any point one is trying to make. Without proper grammar, spelling, word choice, and tact any argument can sound uninformed or fallacious.

    “I think most scientists don’t think this, otherwise how could they do the maths on the big bang?”
    Just because scientists have calculated the Big Band does not mean that they know that this is the true nature of the creation of the universe. They merely speculate based on the knowledge available to them. Ultimately, I believe what Dave is trying to convey in this section is that the possibility exists that reality does not conform to the same rules as the observable. Basically, we might understand the laws that govern our own little neighborhood, but elsewhere or in another time we cannot know for certain that our laws that we have discovered are applicable.
    Essentially, this means that while our universe is definitely controlled by physical laws and constants we can’t be certain that they are the same everywhere. We can only observe the universe, but on Earth we can experiment.
    As for the electron bit, scientists assume that electron are the same mass everywhere because they have experimented enough that they have no reason to doubt that it is untrue. This is the premise of science, act on what you know until you find something to contradict your current knowledge. The proofs of physical laws and constants are limited to Earth, but we know nothing else so we can only assume they hold true elsewhere.

    2. If these laws and constants had been different, life would probably not have arisen.

    This is not what most cosmologists say. Paul Davies says (ref above): “change our bylaws just a little bit and life would probably be impossible”.
    Despite the fact that some cosmologists might disagree, it is a statistical fact that a sample size of 1 is incredibly unlikely to predict and true value for a population. That means that we can’t assume that life only exists in our laws because we can only look at our laws. We don’t have another set of laws to observe or experiment on.
    So, Dave correctly questions your use of the word “probably” because we cannot reasonable estimate such a probability given what we know now.
    Also, the number of possible universes are infinite so there is no way to analyze them all.

    On a side note, I also disagree with the idea that life can only be defined as carbon-based and cellular. Life vastly different from our own might easily arise given other laws and constants, but if we limit life to Earth-Like life they we undermine what the word means.

    3. The laws and constants which led to this suitability for life must have been determined by either physical necessity, chance or design.

    The very first quote from a scientist on the site you refenced says, “To make the first 119 decimal places of the vacuum energy zero is most certainly no accident.” So clearly it can’t be an accident? I think not. The underlying argument in the section that hopes to disprove chance by the fact that the chance is low, but this is not a disproof. Low chances do not mean that it is not so, they simply prompt one to consider another cause. The argument presented is that the chance is low, therefore it must be controlled another way. Ultimately, the article reasonably points out that picking a side on the issue is not science but faith. I tend to agree. The argument is non-scientific, therefore scientific debate (especially by us unknowledgeable peoples) is needless. And so I end my spiel.

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