By Matt Lefebvre

Please read the introduction to this series before reading this article.

To read along with audio for this article, click here Teleo-Part1


As I sit down at my computer and begin to type furiously away on the keyboard in front of me, a series of symbols appears on my computer screen.  Upon reading this series of symbols, you might conclude that I hit the various keys in a random sequence, having no intention of communicating any meaningful message.  Alternately, you might conclude that, since you find the sequence of the symbols largely comprehensible, I have actually been typing with a specific purpose in mind.  Well, in thinking about the existence of God, the teleological argument is somewhat analogous to bringing someone to the latter conclusion rather than the former.  The word teleological is derived from the Greek word for “design” or “purpose” and the argument attempts to point to the universe being brought forth purposefully by a designer.  There have been many different approaches in presenting the design argument focusing on various phenomena within the universe, but in this version of the teleological argument, I will be focusing on what has come to be called the “fine-tuning” of the universe.  What is meant by fine-tuning is that the universe in which we live appears to have various conditions that are just right to allow the existence of intelligent life.  Now, it is often pointed out that we could expect nothing less from our universe, because if the universe were somehow hostile to our existence, we would not be here to talk about it; hence, the universe in which we live is certainly hospitable for life.  However, the question that naturally follows is why this would be the case, as is evident in the amount of recent attention given to the topic of fine-tuning in various publications.  These writings discuss fine-tuning from a wide variety of angles, but I will be following the argument as laid out by Christian philosopher William Lane Craig in his book Reasonable Faith (p.161), as I consider it a fairly straightforward formulation:

  1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to physical necessity, chance, or design.
  2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance.
  3. Therefore, it is due to design.

At this point, I think it is worth taking a moment to be reminded of the place of this article within the series before delving into the truth of the premises.  The introduction to this series states that we are presenting a cumulative case for God’s existence, and in doing so, are attempting to show the existence of God to be a better explanation of all the evidence than any other hypothesis.  I have already presented reasons to believe that the universe had a cause and that the cause of the universe has many characteristics that are consistent with the Christian concept of God.  In arguing for design as the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe, I hope to add to the cumulative case for God’s existence.  Given the existence of God, the fact that we live in a universe that is compatible with our existence would not be surprising.  While the argument still remains to be expounded below, I think it is worth pointing out the intuitive nature of the proposition that there is a design in the universe, and therefore, a designer.  As scientist and theologian Alister McGrath states so succinctly,

“It holds that the general phenomena of fine-tuning is consonant with Christian belief in a creator God, arguing that the nature of things is such that the most appropriate outcome for a natural theology is to demonstrate that observation of the natural world furnishes conceptual resonance with, not deductive proof of, the Christian vision of God.” (A Fine-Tuned Universe, p.121).

So even though this article will not attempt to provide conclusive and undeniable proof of the existence of God, I hope the teleological argument will succeed in making more sense of the universe and join the cosmological argument in adding more weight to God’s side of the scale.

1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to physical necessity, chance, or design

 There is a Taoist story of an old farmer whose horse ran away one day.  When his neighbours heard about it, they said it was bad luck, but the farmer simply replied, “We’ll see.”  The next day the horse returned bringing three wild horses with him, and then the neighbours were happy for the old man, telling him how wonderful it was, but again he responded nonchalantly with, “We’ll see.”  The following day, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses, but was thrown off and his leg was broken.  The neighbours came to offer their sympathies over this misfortune, but the old farmer still said, “We’ll see.”  The next day, the military officials were coming through town drafting young men into the army, and upon seeing that the young man’s leg was broken, they passed him by.  When the neighbours congratulated the old farmer for his good fortune, he answered in a way that had become all too predictable by once again stating flatly, “We’ll see.”  I use this story to illustrate a crucial perspective in assessing the fine-tuning of the universe: do we, as humans, occupy a special place in the cosmos or not?  Well, at the risk sounding repetitive, “We’ll see.”

Where in the world are we?

While it is clear that we are here and occupy at least some place in the universe, some see it as a very insignificant place and others as a very privileged place.  At least some of the hesitation in recognizing the place of humans as a special place has to do with something known as the Copernican principle, as Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards bring attention to:

“According to this principle, modern science since Copernicus has persistently displaced human beings from the ‘center’ of the cosmos, and demonstrated that life and the conditions required for it are unremarkable and certainly unintended.” (The Privileged Planet, p.xi).

Nicolaus Copernicus

Around the time of Nicolaus Copernicus, the commonly held belief about the movement of the heavenly spheres was geocentric (following the description of the universe according to Aristotle and Ptolemy), believing that the planets and the Sun revolved around the Earth, with the Earth being the center.  It was in this context that Copernicus proposed a radical idea.  “Published while he was on his deathbed, Copernicus’s mathematical model, On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres…proposed that Earth rotates around its axis and revolves around the Sun along with the other planets” (The Privileged Planet, p.231).  At this time, observations were not accurate enough to confirm his predictions, but it was a huge step in eventually displacing the confidence in geocentric models, attempting to solve anomalies in the movement of the planets that had long remained unexplained.  As time went on, however, it became clear that humans are situated far from the center of the universe, but even more than that, far from the center of the galaxy and even the solar system, which, as the name denotes, revolves around the Sun.  Looking at the picture this way, it has led some scientists to see the position of the Earth as particularly insignificant and to not put much stock in the claim that the way the universe is could actually be tailored to the existence of intelligent life.  There is a crucial assumption, however, that is made in the association of centrality with superiority, thereby connecting a non-central location with mediocrity (In fact, the so-called Copernican Principle has also come to be called the Principle of Mediocrity).  The thought is that if there was some cosmic design and the universe was actually meant for intelligent life, we would expect that form of life to be the star of the show and the center of attention.  Since what we can observe about the size of the universe and our place in it seems to contradict this idea, it is therefore the conclusion of many that the universe was not meant for intelligent life or anything for that matter.  However, there are those who look at the same evidence and come to the opposite conclusion.  On the one hand, astronomer Carl Sagan has written,

Earth photographed from the edge of the solar system

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.” (The Pale Blue Dot, p.7).

 On the other hand, theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson has stated that “the more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.” (Disturbing the Universe, p.250).  So what should we make of Earth’s place in the cosmos?  Well, I would like to suggest that the center need not be taken as the seat of most importance  and even when people did believe that the Earth was the center of the universe, it did not necessarily mean that humans were the center.  After all, as Gonzalez and Richards point out, “the pre-Copernican cosmology did not view the ‘center’ of the universe as the most important place.” and “There is no simple inference from central location to high status any more than a modern person would privilege the center of our Earth as the ideal terrestrial place to be.  Geocentrism did not imply anthropocentrism.” (The Privileged Planet, p.227, 244).  In other words, humans could be situated in the center of the universe, while still being considered insignificant.  The question then becomes whether or not Earth is situated in an ideal place for life, and at this point, my answer to such a question can only be, “We’ll see.”

Stacking the deck

A helpful example of fine-tuning is given by philosopher John Leslie, using the analogy of a firing squad (Universes, p.13-14), which is borrowed by William Lane Craig in an essay in the book God and Design (Edited by Neil Manson, p.170), a book for which Leslie also submitted an essay.  Say you are set in front of a firing squad and there are 100 trained marksmen ready to fire at your heart, in order to execute you.  You close your eyes because of fear, not able to watch.  After hearing the commander give the order to fire and the guns blast, suppose you suddenly realize that, contrary to what you might have anticipated, all of the shots have missed you and you are still alive!  It is at this point in Leslie’s illustration that Craig interjects two very similar sounding, though significantly different, observations about what has happened.  “Now while it is true that…you should not be surprised that you do not observe that you are dead, nonetheless it is equally true that…you should be surprised that you do observe that you are alive.”  Craig then interprets this in terms of the fine-tuning by proposing that “we should be surprised that we do observe that the fundamental features of the Universe are fine-tuned for our existence”.  In other words, the fact that we exist and are currently observing the universe balances perfectly with the fact that the universe is compatible with our existence.  However, this does not by any means tell us why the universe is in fact compatible with our existence, so just because we are obviously here does not make the way the universe is any less amazing.  Therefore, what I intend to do, in keeping with the analogy, is to add marksmen to the firing squad (claims of fine-tuning), and in so doing, to strengthen the need for explanation.  On that line of thought, I agree with Leslie’s suggestion concerning the individual claims.

“What is impressive, I suggest, is not any particular one of the claims about fine-tuning, but the large number of claims that seem plausible, and the consequent implausibility of thinking that every single claim is erroneous.” (In God and Design, p.57).

It could be that one marksman would not be as impressive as one hundred, but there would still need to be an explanation for the improbable event that a trained marksman completely missed the target.  In this way, it can be fruitful to talk about individual cases of fine-tuning by not assuming that all of them need to be accepted if fine-tuning is to be accepted.  Rather, there simply needs to be a recognition that the universe seems to be just right for our existence in different ways, in order to begin to take a step further in attempting to understand why.  In discussing this question, I will begin with aspects closer to home and finish with aspects of the very universe itself (I will finish each section by citing sources for the section as a whole, but will cite specific references periodically throughout the sections).  After all, before we can fully appreciate whether the universe is fine-tuned for life or not, we first need to know what the requirements for life would be.

Click here to see part 2 of the article


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