You are on page 1of 6

THE ANTHROPIC DESIGN ARGUMENT

‘Although I was once sharply critical of the argument to design, I have since come to
see that, when correctly formulated, this argument constitutes a persuasive case for
the existence of God.’
- Anthony Flew1

Dawkins recognizes that the most general, ‘anthropic’ version of the design argument
is particularly popular today, and I shall therefore pay particular attention to his
treatment of this argument. Dawkins notes that ‘Physicists have calculated that if the
laws and constants of physics had been even slightly different, the universe would
have developed in such a way that life would have been impossible.’2 There are,
according to Dawkins, two main explanations given for the fact that our universe
permits the existence of life. ‘The design theory says that God… deliberately set up
all the details for our benefit.’3 Bizarrely, according to Dawkins, the alternative non-
design explanation is the anthropic principle itself:

‘It is a strange fact… that religious apologists love the anthropic principle.
For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their
case. Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle… is an
alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free
explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to
our existence. I think the confusion arises in the religious mind because
the anthropic principle is only ever mentioned in the context of the
problem it solves, namely the fact that we live in a life-friendly place.
What the religious mind then fails to grasp is that two candidate solutions
are offered to the problem. God is one. The anthropic principle is the
other. They are alternatives.4

However, the ‘problem’ that needs to be solved is not ‘the fact that we live in a life-
friendly place,’5 as Dawkins says (we obviously couldn’t exist in a life-unfriendly
place), but rather the fact that a life-friendly place exists. The anthropic principle
‘provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a
situation propitious to our existence,’6 but it doesn’t answer the question of why a
situation propitious to our existence should exist in the first place.

As Thomas Woodward explains, sometimes ‘the name anthropic principle is brought


in as a quasi-synonym for fine-tuning.’7 When this substitution happens, as in The
God Delusion, one obviously cannot appeal to the ‘anthropic principle’ to explain ‘fine
tuning.’ That would be like using the concept of ‘bachelors’ to explain the existence of
unmarried men! This, in effect, is precisely what Dawkins attempts to do, deploying
the anthropic principle as an explanation for the observation of fine tuning, when it is
in fact a restatement of the observation: ‘It follows from the fact of our existence that
the laws of physics must be friendly enough to allow life to arise.’8 Of course it follows
from the observation that we exist that the laws of physics are compatible with our
existence, unless one assumes that the existence of humans is a necessary truth
about reality! Dawkins’ anthropic ‘explanation’ flounders by equivocating over the
meaning of the term ‘must’; and by treating the data to be explained as an
explanation of the data to be explained. As Jimmy H. Davies and Harry L. Poe
explain, ‘The Weak Anthropic Principle is a tautology; it states the obvious. If the
universe was not fit for life, then we would not be here.’9 This tautology does nothing
to explain the surprising existence of a life friendly universe.

Dawkins actually repudiates his false claim that the anthropic principle is an
‘explanation’ of fine tuning, referencing John Leslie’s analogy of a man sentenced to
death by firing squad who survives being shot at to muse, ‘Well, obviously they all
missed, or I wouldn’t be here to think about it.’10 Dawkins admits that ‘he could still,
forgivably, wonder why they’d all missed, and toy with the hypothesis that they were
bribed… [i.e. missed by design].’11 The prisoner’s observation that his continued
existence depends upon an unlikely set of preconditions (the squad missing) does
nothing to explain his continued existence, exclude the hypothesis of intelligent
design, or guarantee the truth of a non-design explanation. Noting that the sentenced
man wouldn’t exist if the firing squad hadn’t missed doesn’t explain why they missed.
Likewise, noting that human beings wouldn’t exist if the laws of nature weren’t fine
tuned doesn’t explain why the laws of nature are fine tuned. As Guillermo Gonzalez
observes:

The [anthropic principle] has been acknowledged for about a quarter of a


century, but it was not until John Barrow and Frank Tipler published their
massive technical work The Anthropic Cosmological Principle in 1986
that it was widely discussed. The Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) is the
most basic version – the simple recognition that the parameters we
observe in our environment must not be incompatible with our
existence… We should not be surprised to observe, for example, that we
are living on a planet with an oxygen-rich atmosphere, for the simple
reason that we require oxygen to live. The WAP ‘explains’ why we should
not observe ourselves to be living on, say, Titan, but it fails to account for
the origin of the oxygen in our atmosphere… Barrow and Tipler… have
burdened the basic physical interpretation of the WAP with unwarranted
philosophical extrapolations. In considering the WAP with regard to the
observable universe, they claim that we ought not to be surprised at
measuring a universe so finely tuned for life, for if it were different, we
would not observe it. But as Richard Swinburne first explained and as
William Lane Craig and John Leslie later argued, we should indeed be
surprised at observing features of the universe that are highly improbable
and are necessary for our existence…’12

Richard Swinburne famously used the example of a card-shuffling machine to


advance the design argument from cosmic fine-tuning:

Suppose that a madman kidnaps a victim and shuts him a room with a
card-shuffling machine. The machine shuffles ten decks of cards
simultaneously and then draws a card from each deck and exhibits
simultaneously the ten cards. The kidnapper tells the victim that he will
shortly set the machine to work and it will exhibit its first draw, but that
unless the draw consists of an ace of hearts from each deck, the machine
will simultaneously set off an explosion which will kill the victim, in
consequence of which he will not see much cards the machine draw. The
machine is then set to work, and to the amazement and relief of the
victim the machine exhibits an ace of hearts drawn from each deck. The
victim thinks that this extraordinary fact needs an explanation in terms of
the machine having been rigged in some way. But the kidnapper, who
now reappears, casts doubt on this suggestion. ‘It is hardly surprising,’ he
says, ‘that the machine draws only aces of hearts. You could not possibly
see anything else. For you would not be here to see anything at all, if any
other cards had been drawn.’ But of course the victim is right and the
kidnapper is wrong… The fact that this peculiar order is a necessary
condition of the draw being perceived at all makes what is perceived no
less extraordinary and in need of explanation. The teleologist’s starting-
point is not that we perceive order rather than disorder, but that order
rather than disorder is there. Maybe only if order is there can we know
what is there, but that makes what is there no less extraordinary and in
need of explanation.13

The fact that an event is a pre-condition of its being observed does not explain to
occurrence of the event, or negate the obvious fact that ‘the victim is right and the
kidnapper is wrong’ about design being the best explanation for the specified
complexity of the event described (which Swinburne offers as a parallel to the fine-
tuning of the cosmos).

Dawkins admits that the anthropic principle does not negate surprise at our
existence:

The evolution of complex life, indeed its very existence in a universe


obeying physical laws, is wonderfully surprising – or would be but for the
fact that surprise is an emotion that can exist only in a brain which is the
product of that very surprising process. There is an anthropic sense,
then, in which our existence should not be surprising. I’d like to think that
I speak for my fellow humans in insisting, nevertheless, that it is
desperately surprising.14

According to Dawkins, ‘This objection [to the no-design hypothesis] can be answered
by the suggestion… that there are many universes…’15 It is important to note that
Dawkins clearly accepts that the anthropic principle is not ‘an alternative to the
design hypothesis,’16 as he previously states, but is rather a description of the
problem to which the design hypothesis is one answer and the many worlds
hypothesis is another. As Gonzalez comments, ‘[Many worlds] advocates are
obviously driven by the desire to avoid the ‘God-hypothesis,’ and, in adopting such
extravagant and unnecessary assumptions, they are effectively conceding that the
WAP has been impotent in discrediting the teleological interpretation.’17 It is the
‘many worlds’ hypothesis that competes with the design inference (but not the design
hypothesis)18 to explain the observation of a ‘life-friendly’ universe, not the anthropic
principle. The reason ‘religious apologists love the anthropic principle’ is not ‘some
reason that makes no sense at all,’ as Dawkins opines, but the belief that design is a
better explanation of the anthropic principle than the many worlds hypothesis.

Cosmic fine-tuning appears to be an example of specified complexity, and (as we


saw in chapter six) Dawkins admits that specified complexity is a reliable signal of
design. To avoid drawing a design inference from cosmic fine tuning, Dawkins
observes that the specified lifefriendly tuning of the observed universe wouldn’t be
complex (unlikely) enough to warrant a design inference if there were ‘many worlds.’
If there were many differently tuned universes, then it wouldn’t be unlikely that one of
them would just happen to be lifefriendly. But even granting this premise, in order to
validly reach the conclusion that the lifefriendly tuning of the observed universe isn’t
complex enough to warrant a design inference, Dawkins must additional assume that
there actually are ‘many universes.’ But why think that this crucial second premise is
true? Given enough time, typewriters, and monkeys one might well obtain the works
of William Shakespeare by chance: but in that case, why does no one actually
explain Shakespeare’s works using the ‘many monkeys’ hypothesis? In the absence
of independent evidence for the existence of enough time, typewriters and monkeys,
the ‘written by design’ explanation is clearly preferable.19 Likewise, even granting that
given ’multiple worlds’ one could obtain the fine-tuning of our universe by chance, in
the absence of independent evidence for the existence of ‘multiple worlds,’ the
design explanation is clearly preferable.
Indeed, according to cosmologist Paul Davies, the scientific ‘multiple worlds
hypothesis

merely shift the problem [of ‘fine tuning’] up a level from universe to
multiverse. To appreciate this, one only has to list the many assumptions
that underpin the multiverse theory. First, there has to be a universe-
generating mechanism… This mechanism is supposed to involve natural,
law-like processes – in the case of eternal inflation, a quantum
‘nucleation’ of pocket universes, to be precise. But that raises the obvious
question of the source of the quantum laws (not to mention the laws of
gravitation, including the causal structure of space-time on which those
laws depend) that permit inflation. In the standard multiverse theory, the
universe-generating laws are just accepted as given: they don’t come out
of the multiverse theory… Furthermore, if we accept that the multiverse is
predicted by string/M theory, then that theory, with its specific
mathematical form, also has to be accepted as given… the multiverse
theory [cannot] provide a complete and final explanation of why the
universe is fit for life…20

As philosopher Robin Collins argues:

even if [a] many-universe generator exists, it along with the background


laws and principles could be said to be an irreducibly complex system…
with just the right combination of laws and fields for the production of life-
permitting universes: if one of the components were missing or
different… it is unlikely that any life-permitting universes could be
produced. In the absence of alternative explanations, the existence of
such a system suggests design.21

Not only does the ‘many worlds’ hypothesis commit the ‘inflationary fallacy’ of
multiplying explanatory probabilistic resources without independent evidence, but as
Antony Flew complains, ‘If we are trying to understand why the universe is bio-
friendly, we are not helped by being told that all possible universes exist… The idea
of a multiverse replaces the rationally ordered real world with an infinitely complex
charade and makes the whole idea of ‘explanation’ meaningless.’22

Extract from A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism, by Peter S Williams (Paternoster, 2009), pp. 191-
197, used with kind permission of the publishers.
1
Antony Flew, There is a God (New York: HarperOne, 2007) p. 95
2
Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 141
3
Ibid, p. 136
4
Ibid
5
Ibid
6
Ibid
7
Tom Woodward, Darwin Strikes Back, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006) p. 160
8
Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 141
9
Jimmy H. Davies and Harry L. Poe, Designer Universe, (Nashville, TN: Broadman &
Holman, 2002), p. 110
10
Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 144-145
11
Ibid, p. 145
12
Guillermo Gonzalez, ‘Home Alone in the Universe,’
www.arn.org/docs/gonzalez/gg_homealone_.htm
13
Richard Swinburne, ‘The Argument from Design,’ www.mind.uscd.edu/sullabi/02-
03/01w/readings/swinburne-design.pdf
14
Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 366
15
Ibid, p. 145
16
Ibid, p. 136
17
Guillermo Gonzalez, ‘Home Alone in the Universe,’
www.arn.org/docs/gonzalez/gg_homealone_.htm
18
After all, the designer might have made more than one universe. Hence the existence of
multiple universes is logically compatible with the existence of a universe designer.
19
Nothing depends upon the traditional Shakespearian reference here – the argument works
just as well if we imagine unearthing an alien text on a distant planet.
20
Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the universe just right for life? (London:
Penguin, 2007), pp. 231-232, 237
21
Robin Collins, ‘Design and the Many Worlds Hypothesis,’
http://home.messiah.edu/~rcollins/finetune/Craig7.htm
22
Flew, There is a God, pp. 118-119. Brian Green, physicist and mathematician at Columbia
University, and author of The Fabric of the Cosmos, points out that positing unlimited
probabilistic resources in a science stopper: ‘If true, the idea of a multiverse would be… a rich
and astounding upheaval, but one with potentially hazardous consequences. Beyond the
inherent difficulty in assessing its validity, when should we allow the multiverse framework to
be invoked in lieu of a more traditional scientific explanation? Had this idea surfaced a
hundred years ago, might researchers have chalked up various mysteries to how things just
happen to be in our corner of the multiverse and not pressed on to discover all the wondrous
science of the last century? … The danger, if the multiverse idea takes root, is that
researchers may too quickly give up the search for underlying explanations. When faced with
seemingly inexplicable observations, researchers may invoke the framework of the multiverse
prematurely – proclaiming some phenomenon or other to merely reflect conditions in our own
bubble universe and thereby failing to discover the deeper understanding that awaits us.’
(‘The Multiverse,’ in John Brockman (ed), What’s Your Dangerous Idea? [London: Pocket
Books, 2006], p.p. 120-121)