By Matt Lefebvre

This post is a continuation of the teleological argument. Please see Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4 if you have not read them yet.

To read along with audio for this article, click here Teleo-Part5

2. It is not due to physical necessity or chance

“Any event or object submits to a few basic types of causal explanations: chance, necessity, design, or some combination of the three.” (The Privileged Planet, p.296).  When talking about chance as a cause, we are talking about an event that just happens without any rhyme or reason, and such that we would not expect it to happen regularly or repeatedly.  For example, if someone were to flip a coin 100 times, with the coin landing on a table heads up 46 times and 54 times tails up, that person might assume that this sequence was just brought about by chance.  If a skeptic of chance were to question this as the cause, the person could proceed to flip the coin 100 more times.  With this result showing 42 tails and 58 heads, the skeptic of chance is already on thin ice, but even more could be shown through the fact that the sequence of coin tosses was entirely different (5 heads, then 4 tails, 3 heads, 1 tails, etc.).  When talking about necessity, almost the reverse could be said, since such an event would be expected to repeat itself under similar conditions and to follow certain regulations or laws.  To return to the analogy of flipping a coin, though chance might explain the sequence of various coin tosses, the skeptic of chance would be right in affirming that chance would not be a good explanation of why, when the coin was tossed up in the air, it fell back down on the table every time.  If it was by chance, different results could legitimately be expected, but because the coin seemed to have to obey a certain regulation that restricted its movement on every toss observed, necessity seems to be the better explanation.  The question of design is one that can be defined on its own, but part of the identification of design actually has a lot to do with ruling out these other causal explanations.  Below I will present my reasons for taking design as the best explanation of why the universe is fine-tuned, but first it remains to be shown that neither chance nor necessity is adequate to the task.

Physical necessity

Though physical necessity may be an unfamiliar term, the concept is well established in our minds.  Physical necessity has to do with what might be called the laws of nature and is therefore what we expect based on our everyday experience.  When I kick a football, I expect that the force generated from my leg will be transferred to the ball, and subsequently, that the ball will travel in the direction I kicked it for a while until gravity and/or friction or another object or person stops it.  No matter how good I think I am at football, I would not expect that the ball would keep going forever or that it would go the opposite direction that I kicked it toward.  It is not as if there is a possibility of the ball just not obeying the laws of nature and taking off into space on a random trajectory.  The reason we expect submission to the laws of nature without thinking about it, is because this is our experience, even before we learned about it in science class.  Now, in general, we probably do not analyze a football game like this, but it is instead imbedded in our cognitive recognition, based largely on experience, but also being confirmed empirically by scientific experimentation.  The scientists make some observations and make predictions based on this new phenomenon which could confirm or falsify their theory.  Whatever the outcome, though, not many people are claiming that everything is random and there are no identifiable regularities within nature.  Though there may be anomalies (phenomena not currently explained by scientific theory), this does not undermine the general coherence of the observable universe, since anomalies of the past have often come to be explained and there is quite a lot about the world that can be claimed with certainty.

For our purposes, though, the question is not whether there exists physical necessity within nature, but whether that nature itself is the way it is by necessity.  Since we currently observe, as shown in premise one, that the universe is fine-tuned for the existence of life, attempting to explain this by appeal to physical necessity would mean that the universe is the way it is because it could be no other way.  “Now, on the face of it, this alternative seems extraordinarily implausible.  It requires us to believe that a life-prohibiting universe is virtually physically impossible.  But surely it does seem possible.” (William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, p.161).  Think of the firing squad again.  After the 100 trained marksmen line up, take aim at you, and fire, you observe that you are alive.  On this basis, you conclude that it could not have been any other way, when in reality, if even a few of those 100 bullets had not missed your heart, you would not be there to think about the implications.  To put it in cosmic fine-tuning terms, of all the places in the universe, you find yourself on the right planet, orbiting the right star, in the right galaxy, based on the right fundamental forces.  From this you conclude that it could not be any other way, when logically, any one of those factors (and numerous others that I did not mention) could have been different.

So, just as a plain assertion, to think that the universe had to be the way it is seems unsatisfactory.  The response to this has been to suggest that there is one unifying theory that explains every constant of the universe, also called a theory of everything (TOE), according to just one fundamental particle.  Paul Davies evaluates this approach as follows:

“Some scientists have tried to argue that if only we knew enough about the laws of physics, if we were to discover a final theory that united all the fundamental forces and particles of nature into a single mathematical scheme, then we would find that this superlaw, or theory of everything, would describe the only logically consistent world. In other words, the nature of the physical world would be entirely a consequence of logical and mathematical necessity. There would be no choice about it. I think this is demonstrably wrong. There is not a shred of evidence that the universe is logically necessary. Indeed, as a theoretical physicist I find it rather easy to imagine alternative universes that are logically consistent, and therefore equal contenders for reality.” (In God and Design, p.148).

I agree with Davies in his assessment, but even if there could be a theory of everything in the future, I think it would still fail to explain why we are here.  While a scientist might be able to explain how the laws of nature fit together, such a theory would need to rely on specified initial conditions.  According to Stephen Hawking, “Even when we understand the ultimate theory, it won’t tell us much about how the universe began.” (Quoted in Reasonable Faith, p.162).  Though a theory of everything would explain interrelatedness, it would not explain origin, which is the crucial question that we are trying to explore.  “Theory of Everything” makes it sound quite extensive and all inclusive, but if the constants were not just right to allow our existence, it would not matter that they were all determined by the same fundamental principle.  Paul Davies writes about the implications of such an implicit admission of inadequacy.

“Nobody asks where the laws come from – at least they don’t in polite company.  However, even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith the existence of a law-like order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us.  So science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview.” (In God and Design, p.148).

Is the universe, along with its fine-tuning, necessary?  I see no reason to think that it is.  Will future evidence for a unifying theory change this assessment?  Again, I do not see how it could.  Though there is necessity within nature, it still needs to be set-up that way from without.


One of my favourite parts of the movie Dumb and Dumber is when Lloyd (Jim Carrey) is talking to Mary (Lauren Holly), telling her that he likes her.  He asks her to give him an honest answer about the chances of them ending up together.  She replies, “I’d say, not good.”  Lloyd asks in response, “’Not good’ like one out of a hundred?”  Mary then supposes that she will bring him back to Earth by telling him straight out, “I’d say more like one out of a million.”  However, after a brief moment without expression, Lloyd responds with, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.  Yeah!  I read ya.”  Then, a few moments later, after Lloyd learns that Mary has a husband, he exclaims, “Husband!?  Wait a minute!  What was all that ‘one in a million’ talk?”  The humour in this is that Lloyd is too stupid to understand that Mary is trying to say that they will never end up together, but Lloyd instead focuses on the fact that there is a chance.  So the question when applied to the purpose at hand is this: when is it okay to reject chance as an adequate explanation?

Some suppose that probability is enough to decide whether or not something happened by chance.  If something is sufficiently improbable, it would therefore follow that it did not happen by chance.  Well, first of all, it needs to be understood that just because a given event is improbable, does not mean it will not happen nor that it was not the result of chance.  To return to the coin, after flipping it 100 times, there will be a highly improbable sequence of results.  If you think it is not improbable, try flipping it 100 more times and getting the same result.  If you are still not convinced after getting that different result, which you will inevitably get, try one more time, just to make sure it was really a random sequence.  So here we have a highly improbable event that is also the result of chance.  So is chance then vindicated as an explanation for any given event, even the highly improbable ones?  Well, that may be a bit premature.

To return to the analogy of the firing squad, 100 marksmen take aim and fire at you, but somehow, you remain alive, so there must be some explanation.  It could be that the first marksman had a sudden back spasm right when the commander gave the order to fire, so his bullet went over your head.  Maybe marksman number two had a fly in his face, so that when he shot, the bullet went just to the right.  Marksman number three could have sneezed at the same moment, and so on down the line.  However, is it reasonable to believe that a multitude of chance occurrences came about at the precise moment when the commander gave the order to fire?  Well, frankly, we would expect that there would be another explanation.  Is the chance explanation possible?  Yes.  Is it plausible?  No.  So in order to rule out chance, we need more information than just improbable odds.

William Dembski

Mathematician William Dembski makes this point well when he states,

“Mere improbability therefore fails to rule out chance.  In addition, improbability needs to be conjoined with an independently given pattern.” (In God and Design, p.251).

Dembski then goes on to explain the concept of “specified complexity”, shown in highly improbable, independently patterned events.  It is not just that the fine-tuned aspects of the universe are highly improbable, because other arrangements of those same aspects with different values would also be highly improbable, considering all the possibilities of what they could have been.  It is the fact that the current arrangement of the aspects of the universe is compatible with the existence of life on Earth, whereas so many other possible arrangements are not.  If the universe could consist of any old group of properties, high improbability would be no problem, but since the properties are specified, this is an example of specified complexity.

So what are some ways to consider whether something would happen by chance, given enough time, or not?  Something else that Dembski describes is called probabilistic resources, or in other words, how many opportunities there would be for a given event to happen.  I will not go into the specifics of Dembski’s calculation of the probabilistic resources of the universe, because it is hard to assess probabilities for various events, attempting to consider all factors.  However, I did want to mention his work on probabilistic resources, because it does establish that it is not enough to just fall back on chance for any event, especially considering the fact that, even though chance can explain anything given enough probabilistic resources, sometimes physical necessity or design can in fact be the correct explanation.  This is useful for answering the objection to this premise, which I will discuss after quoting Dembski’s basic argument against it.

“It is never enough to postulate probabilistic resources merely to prop up an otherwise failing chance hypothesis.  Rather, one needs independent evidence of whether there really are enough probabilistic resources to render chance plausible.” (In God and Design, p.256).

Click here to see part 6 of the article


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