XFiles Friday: Figure the odds

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 4)

Geisler and Turek’s next argument is the Teleological Argument, aka the argument from “design”. As has been recently established in court, the “design” argument is a credulous superstition rather than a body of scientific evidence. Nevertheless, Geisler and Turek plunge confidently ahead, hoping that the Anthropic Principle will be the crowning proof of their case for God. Speaking of the religious awe felt by some astronauts, they say,

The raw impact of their experiences reveals the intuitive nature of the Teleological Argument. You don’t need anyone to tell you that something beautifully designed requires a designer. It’s practically self-evident. Nevertheless, let’s state the argument formally again, with emphasis on what we’ve discovered in this chapter:

  1. Every design had a designer.
  2. As verified by the Anthropic Principle, we know beyond a reasonable doubt that the universe is deisgned.
  3. Therefore the universe had a designer.

There’s no plausible explanation for the Anthropic Principle other than a Cosmic Designer. Atheists must take extreme measures to deny the obvious.

Needless to say, Geisler and Turek are, shall we say, overstating their case. As with the Cosmological Argument, they build a fairly elaborate argument, but overlook a fundamental flaw in their premises. In the Cosmological Argument, they overlooked the fact that nothing happened prior to the beginning of time (i.e. at the Big Bang) because there was no time for it to happen in, and thus nothing caused the Big Bang. In the Teleological Argument, and the Anthropic Principle, they overlook the simple fact that constants are, well, constant.

According to the authors, the Anthropic Principle shows that the universe had to be designed, because there are some 122 fundamental constants, each of which must fall within a very limited range in order for human life to exist as we know it. (The authors forgot to qualify their claims by adding the expression “life as we know it,” but I’m sure they must have mean that, right?)

Astrophysicist Hugh Ross has calculated the probability that these and other constants–122 in all–would exist today for any planet in the universe by chance (i.e. without divine design). Assuming there are 10^22 planets in the universe (a very large number: 1 with 22 zeros following it), his answer is shocking: one chance in 10^138–that’s one chance in one with 138 zeros after it! There are only 10^70 atoms in the entire universe. In effect, there is zero chance that any planet in the universe would have the life-supporting conditions we have, unless there is an intelligent Designer behind it all.

Hang on. Before we jump to such an extremely superstitious conclusion, let’s check Ross’s math, shall we? The way you calculate the chances of something happening is to take one divided by the number of different possible outcomes. For example, if you flip a coin, there are two possible outcomes: heads or tails. The chance of either possibility happening is 1 in 2. A dice has 6 sides, so the chance of any one side coming up is one in six. There are twelve months in a year, so if you are guessing somebody’s birthday, you have a 1 in 12 chance of guessing the right month. And so on.

Now, how many different values can a constant take? By definition, a constant does not take on different values. Variables take on different values, but constants stay the same. What are the odds that the length of the diameter of a circle will be twice its radius? The ratio of radius to diameter is a constant, 2. That’s the only value that particular constant can take, so the number of possible outcomes is 1 in 1. Same for the ratio of the diameter to the circumference. The number of possible values is 1: the ratio is and can be only one thing: pi.

If we re-do Ross’s calculation, therefore, we find that the correct answer is that the odds of any group of 122 constants having precisely the value they do have is approximately 1 in 1, give or take zero. In other words, the odds are exactly one to one. We can mentally imagine equating different constants to different values–for example, we could agree to assume that the circumference is 7 times the diameter–but our imagined values are simply errors, not genuine possible outcomes.

Constants are what they are, and have been for all of time. No one has ever changed the value of any fundamental physical constant, nor has anyone ever observed a fundamental physical constant take on a new or changed value. We have sometimes discovered new constants whose existence we didn’t know of before, but they existed before we knew about them (people didn’t fly off into outer space just because Newton had not yet calculated the force of gravity, for instance). So Ross’s answer is close–he’s only off by 138 orders of magnitude!

Geisler and Turek have made themselves the apologetic equivalent of the inventive math student who insisted that 2 plus 2 equals 5 — for sufficiently large values of 2 and sufficiently small values of 5. Constants are called “constant” precisely because their values don’t vary. Thus, the number of possible values for a constant is very small (i.e. one), and therefore the odds of a constant having the value it has are 1 in 1. Where Geisler and Turek screw up is in taking the Anthropic Principle backwards (as many others have done before them), putting the effect where the cause ought to be and vice versa.

But we’ll talk about that more next time.

2 Responses to “XFiles Friday: Figure the odds”

  1. PalMD Says:

    I could have sworn the anthropic principle simply says the universe is capable of producing us, the proof being that we are here.

  2. The Professor Says:

    Apparently it depends on who you ask for a definition of the anthropic principle. 🙂

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