A Life-Sustaining Universe Really Is Unlikely

There’s a good blog post over at the Beretta Blog pointing out the error in the argument of those who accuse others of falling into the “Lottery Fallacy.”  This group calls it a fallacy to argue for the existence of Divine design from the improbability of life-supporting universe, since this universe was no less likely to come into existence than any other universe.  Here’s an excerpt:

“One type of argument that some philosophers use in favour of the existence of God is the argument from fine tuning. …. The fine tuning argument starts with the fact, readily admitted by the scientific community, that the existence of a life-sustaining universe depends on an incredibly precise balance of many variables. The existence of a life sustaining universe thus calls for an explanation, and due to the absurdly high odds against the coincidence falling into place with nothing other than natural causes, the theist appeals to intelligence…

“The so-called “lottery fallacy” is said by some to be committed here by assuming that because an unlikely event occurred, it must have been the result of forces conspiring to overthrow sheer luck. Those who accuse theists of committing this fallacy might say that millions of different universes could have come into existence, and each one of those universes was highly improbable, but the fact is, one of them had to come into existence. Whichever one had come into existence would have been a universe that existed because of a finely balance set of circumstances. That ours came into existence therefore is an event as likely as any other universe coming into being, and consequently needs no intelligence based explanation at all.

In other words, any other universe that came into being would have equally specific, and equally unlikely, laws.  You can probably already begin to see why this does not actually address the point made by those arguing for a life-sustaining universe as evidence of purpose or design.

“The fine tuning argument is not driven by the improbability of just any universe coming into existence, like the probability of someone winning the lottery, which might be high. Instead the argument is driven by the specified probability of a life-permitting universe coming into existence. A useful illustration that’s sometimes used is that of a gigantic swimming pool, filled with hundreds of billions of white marbles (representing life-prohibiting universes or failed universes), but containing only one black marble (representing a successful and life permitting universe). While it is true that the probability of pulling out any particular marble is the same as that of pulling out any other particular marble and provided we are going to pull out a marble, then the probability of pulling out a marble is 1 (i.e. it is certain that it will happen), it is also true that the probability of pulling out a black marble is mind bogglingly lower than the probability of pulling out a white marble. Yes, a marble is definitely going to win this lottery, but that’s not the probability in question (incidentally, the marble illustration that is routinely used by William Lane Craig in debates on the existence of God). So it is, according to the fine tuning argument, with the probability of a successful life-permitting universe coming into being. It may well be the case that the probability of some universe coming into being was fairly high. But if there are millions upon millions of possible universes that would either fail or not sustain life, and almost none that would succeed and sustain life, then the probability of a successful and life-permitting universe coming into being is not at all the same as any other universe coming into existence. It is astronomically lower (pun intended, and now pointed out in case you missed it).

The point is that despite the many possible other universes, if you assume that they’re all some variation of possible laws of matter and energy, very few of them create the possibility of life.  That we would end up with one that does support life is far more unlikely than that one would be created which does not.  The “Lottery Fallacy” isn’t actually a fallacy.

As you’ll notice if you read the comments, I think there is at least one possibility that would support the use of the “lottery fallacy.”  As I wrote there, the lottery analogy makes sense if you assume some variation of the “many-worlds” view of reality.  If there are an indefinite number of universes that do exist, then it’s not miraculous that we find ourselves on the only one that supports life. To use the marble analogy, if all the marbles are picked, and only the black one contains self-aware beings (yes, I know that the analogy’s breaking down), the self-aware beings should not be at all surprised to find themselves on the one black marble out of a zillion white marbles.

That said, I don’t believe in an infinite number of universes, and I do believe that the existence of life, and especially human consciousness, is evidence in favour of a purpose in the universe.

About Coleman Glenn

Rev. Coleman Glenn is a minister in the General Church of the New Jerusalem, a Swedenborgian denomination. He lives in Bryn Athyn, PA, with his wife and two young kids. He blogs on various issues from a New Church (i.e. Swedenborgian) perspective.