You Think You’re So Special?

This is a guest post, part of a series of guest posts addressing the question of whether we can discern purposefulness in the natural world.  As such the opinions expressed below are highly likely not to reflect my opinions, as you’re sure to hear in more detail later this week.


Today’s post is by March Hare, who has previously blogged at Reasonable Doubt.

You are a highly unlikely creature. The fact all your body works together is amazing, how is it all your cells know what to do and where to be? Not only that but half of you is one of millions of sperm that just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the other half of you was one of thousands that could have come down the correct fallopian tube at the right time. And the same goes for your billions upon billions of ancestors (not all human!)

The odds are truly astronomical.

Wow, you think to yourself, I am so unlikely that I must be here for a purpose. But then you realise you’re not. Had one of the other sperm reached the egg first, had it been a different egg, had your parents had sex a different night, it would have been someone like me, but not me, who would exist. Had that happened to one of your ancestors before humans evolved then something would be here but slightly different, maybe a similar simian, but not human? Or even further back maybe a reptile?

Why do you think that you are not here for a purpose in spite of the phenomenal odds of you being who you are? Because you understand the process. Because you see other people and they’re not you. You see other creatures and know that evolution goes many ways and we’re simply one of those branches but did not have to be.

How does this fit in to what Lukas has posited in the original thread? He thinks that because the universe is so unlikely, that all the universal constants are just perfect, that it must have been done by an agent with a purpose* in mind.

Is there any way to know what possible values the universal constants could have had? Is there some way of knowing whether any other combination might be able to produce life**, since life is what Lukas appears to believe the purpose of the universe to be? Are there other universes we can compare this one to, maybe there are an infinite number trying out all combinations of the universal constants? In short, how do we know that the universe is unlikely? We don’t because we are working with a sample size of 1, and we don’t know a heck of a lot about that 1 either.

What Lukas is doing is taking what is here already and looking back to see how unlikely it is that it would have happened this way. We have already seen by our own existence that a hugely unlikely event does not have to equal purpose once it has happened, however, had there been a prediction of what was going to happen, then we can start to assume purpose or agency. So telling me the day after the lottery what the numbers were it is unlikely that I’d think much of it, tell me the day before and I would start to investigate.

And that’s where we’re at. Science and non-theists notice that the universe has certain constants and they investigate what they are and why, people like Lukas notice the universe has certain constants and assumes they’re unlikely to have come about by chance and posits purpose and from purpose assumes agency. Since we don’t yet know if the universal constants could have been different, or if they’re part of a system of universes that is exploring all sets of universal constants, it is a real leap of faith to assume agency or purpose, regardless of the (unknown) odds of it having happened. After all, don’t ID people claim evolution is like a tornado going through a junk yard and leaving a 747? We don’t take that seriously because we understand the workings of evolution and we shouldn’t take this argument seriously either.

And that purpose is life, specifically human life. Never forget that they are arguing for this so they can extrapolate to a personal God.

**There is only one planet known to support life, but even if there were billions that number would pale into insignificance compared to the number of supernovae. Maybe the creator simply likes bangs and made the universe as it is to produce supernovae. Or maybe the creator has a thing for black holes, there are lots of those. Such hubris to assume this was all done for us.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • E

    There is at least one scientific way in which life has a kind of purpose in the Universe. Living things, and humans especially, are extremely effective in converting free energy into heat. (Just think of all the fossil fuels we are burning.) In this way we accelerate the build-up of entropy in the Universe. Thus it seems life is favored in any universe that is not in equilibrium, provided the second law of thermodynamics holds. This does not mean life is likely in any such universe, but it does mean that the likelihood of life increases with time. In this case, both theistic and atheistic reasoning favors life.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    "Since we don't yet know if the universal constants could have been different, or if they're part of a system of universes that is exploring all sets of universal constants, it is a real leap of faith to assume agency or purpose, regardless of the (unknown) odds of it having happened."Possibility #1 – There are many universes; there are so many that it is highly likely that one such universe is propitious for life.Doesn't this just take the problem back a step? Quoting the article I linked to in my post, "What types of universe exist and what types do not? That is not a question that the laws of physics can possibly answer, since each universe has ex hypothesi its own laws of physics. If some kinds of universe exist while others do not, it would seem to suggest that Someone has made choices." The appeal to many universes only takes the question back a step, since we may then ask, "why this set of universes rather than some other set?"Possibility #2 – There is only one universe, our own.If we knew this were the case, would it be easier to see evidence of a designer? If not, why not?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    E, without doing the maths I can confidently say that life in the solar system has less effect on entropy in a billion years than the sun does in a single year.The sun converts 4.26 million metric tons per second = 1.34*10^17 kg/yearBiomass on earth: 5.6*10^14 kgLukas,Possibility #1: You may very well say that, but is it more reasonable to suggest there is a fundamental reason for a given set of universes (or constants in this one) than to suggest an active mind making choices?Possibility #2: Even if I gave you a designer, there is no way to see what it was designing for – as I pointed out there are massively more supernovae and black holes than life forms, let alone humans. The universe is ideally suited to those and is incredibly hostile to life, so why would you ever say that humans (or life) are the ultimate aim of a given designer.Unless… you were starting out with the conclusion and trying to find some evidence to fit it. Is that what you were doing, Lukas? Did you start with a personal god and try to find something to make it seem less preposterous?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    "is it more reasonable to suggest there is a fundamental reason for a given set of universes (or constants in this one) than to suggest an active mind making choices?"My claims is that there are certain sorts of things that suggest purpose. The easiest example, which we all seem to agree on, is a message. When you see a message, you immediately infer that the message was created by an intelligent being. I think that saying the message 'simply is' and that you don't need any futher explanation for the message would be absurd. I think the same is true for the case of anthropic coincidences."Unless… you were starting out with the conclusion and trying to find some evidence to fit it. Is that what you were doing, Lukas? Did you start with a personal god and try to find something to make it seem less preposterous?"I think it is seldom helpful to speculate in this way. If I wanted to, I could speculate that you are attached to certain sins, and so you want to avoid the possibility of belief in a personal God. In the same way, you could speculate that I am weak and needy and because of this I am trying to use God as a means of comfort. You could further argue that I feel the need to feel myself reasonable, and so I'm latching onto this argument even though it's ultimately bogus.Back during my stint as a Catholic school teacher, I remember a student of mine telling me that atheists believed as they did because 'they didn't want their beliefs to have consequences' or something like that. I told him I disagreed, saying that there were many reasons people believe as they do and that he shouldn't generalize or judge people in that way. Please give me the same respect.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    Lukas, my speculation may seem harsh or judgmental but that's because the topic is of, at best, incidental philosophical value unless you're a personal god theist – or a hard core atheist. This line of reasoning leads to deism at best, but once you start talking about purpose it actually leads to religion, and people who think they know the purpose of the universe (i.e. what the creator wants from us) are mentally unhinged and dangerous.I have pointed out other things that vastly outnumber lifeforms that this particular set of constants allows for, each of which is at least as likely to be the purpose of the universe (intentional or otherwise) and yet you maintain it must be for life – human life (or at least contemplative life) at that. Why is that?Is it not more likely that, even if the universe has a purpose, we are an anomaly, a free rider on the back of the state the universe has to be to achieve its real purpose? Are we not simply like damselflies who, upon finding a man-made hydro-electric dam think "how nice that this lake fits us so well, it must have been built especially for us"?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    "This line of reasoning leads to deism at best"Agreed."once you start talking about purpose it actually leads to religion"I don't see this. If this arguments leads a person to believe in God, they might then go on to consider to what extent any of the existing religous traditions were true."people who think they know the purpose of the universe (i.e. what the creator wants from us) are mentally unhinged and dangerous"I believe I have a limited idea of what the creator wants from us. I accept Christian revelation, so I believe that God wants us to love Him and to love our neighbors. That means I am mentally unhinged and dangerous?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    "…so I believe that God wants us to love Him and to love our neighbors. That means I am mentally unhinged and dangerous?"Yes. Not necessarily a clear and present danger, but anyone who believes they know the will of the creator of the universe is much more likely to follow other people's ideology unquestioningly or obey any voices they hear in their head.While modern Christians are mainly a warm and fuzzy bunch the fact they believe in The Bible as revelation means there is always a piece of scripture they can use to justify ANY act, good or bad.But you have not addressed my central problem with your general thesis that even if we could determine purpose why is it human-related rather than supernovae-related?When I build a bonfire it might appear just right for any passing hedgehog who might think I built it for him to hibernate in, but he is sorely mistaken and will find that out on November 5th (UK tradition of making a bonfire and setting off fireworks at that time.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    "obey any voices they hear in their head"I actually have a friend who is a Catholic and who believes most of the same things that I believe. He is also struggling with mental illness – he has numerous symptoms and sometimes he does hear a voice. He doesn't obey it."While modern Christians are mainly a warm and fuzzy bunch the fact they believe in The Bible as revelation means there is always a piece of scripture they can use to justify ANY act, good or bad."To some extent I agree – with enough effort you can twist any sacred text to justify anything you like. If your question is not, "what does the Bible teach" but rather, "how can I use the Bible to justify slavery," then you will be able to come up with an interpretation of the Bible which justifies slavery."But you have not addressed my central problem with your general thesis that even if we could determine purpose why is it human-related rather than supernovae-related?"I don't think purpose needs to be human-related. For example, suppose the force of gravity is just right, such that you get neither a big crunch (where everything in the universe collapses together) or a complete dispersion (where the forces are so weak that you don't get stars or anything). In my view, that could count as a purposeful thing, worthy of further consideration.

  • E

    March, thanks for your response. Your math is interesting but misdirected. It is obvious that the Sun radiates much more heat than the Earth does, never mind Humanity. (The Sun is also much more massive than Humanity, of course.) But to determine whether life is favorable what matters is the sign of the free energy change, not its magnitude. The tiniest twitch of a beetle's wing must still be exergonic. This is the only way life can exist, and this is what makes the appearance of a life form increasingly likely with time in an equilibrating universe (whatever the exact set-up of physical constants) in contrast to, say, the appearance of a sun. Every breath you take does not contribute much to the entropy of the Universe, but it does its part. At least in that sense, then, you are by no means an anomaly or a free-rider: you pay your fare.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    "…and sometimes he does hear a voice. He doesn't obey it."Good, but my point was people like him are, "much more likely to follow … voices in their head." Heck, one of the greatest monotheistic stories is that of Abraham!Or, more recently: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/dec/15/nation/la-na-virgin-mary-20101215Some crazy woman had a vision of Mary (how do we know it was Mary? She had blond hair, as all Jewish women do!) outside a Wisconsin church while her two companions couldn't see it. The church has affirmed this as a genuine appearance. (How?) Nothing to do with the fact the church in Wisconsin is facing a child abuse scandal…"how can I use the Bible to justify slavery,"Erm, the Bible gives very precise details for how to treat slaves. It takes some very curious/selective reading to find a way to say the Bible is against slavery. But like I said, it is so self-contradictory you can justify anything."I don't think purpose needs to be human-related."Great. In terms of odds, I would suggest it is less likely to be human-related than not human-related."[perfect balance of gravity] In my view, that could count as a purposeful thing, worthy of further consideration."Okay, but who would be around to evaluate that purpose? You are in severe danger of going down the "pocket-watch on the dale" argument once used against evolution. The problem you have is that the universe is natural, even if created by supernatural forces, so it is nigh on impossible to see the hand of the maker.For example, while we may see the stamp of a maker on a watch, we cannot tell the difference between a genetically modified organism, one that has been selectively bred and one that has naturally evolved. There are plants that cure certain [human] diseases so effectively that it is almost impossible to think they could have evolved without us in mind, yet they have. What are we to make of these?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    Okay, now this is getting pretty far off topic. Obviously if you believe in the supernatural you are more likely to think that a voice is coming from God than if you don't believe in the supernatural. I don't know what steps the Church took to verify the apparition you link to – the article you link to doesn't explain. If you want a modern miracle with more documentation, try this: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/myrna-and-the-oil-an-everyday-miracle-how-does-a-woman-become-a-modern-saint-in-damascus-brigid-keenan-met-myrna-nazzour-and-saw-for-herself-1382838.html"the Bible gives very precise details for how to treat slaves"Are we talking Old Testament or New Testament? For the OT, the details on how to treat slaves are typically limitations on existing practices. This is a frequent theme in the OT – instead of saying, "no slavery" it says, "let them go after 7 years."For the New Testament / Church history on slavery, you might try this:http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14036a.htm"There are plants that cure certain [human] diseases so effectively that it is almost impossible to think they could have evolved without us in mind, yet they have."It's not impossible to think they could have evolved without us in mind – both you and I believe they evolved without us in mind. The mere fact that something appears purposeful isn't enough to ensure that it actually is purposeful, since purpose can also be the result of spontaenous order or evolutuion. Order can be an emergent property of systems, or it can be the result of an intelligent actor – it is only purposeful in the second case. However, I don't see how order can only emerge from a system if that system is already contains some degree of orderlyness. For example, evolution can only occur in a universe where you have the right sort of chemistry. The right sort of chemistry might itself be the result of some sort of spontaneous order, but that only pushes the problem one step back. These arguments are set out more clearly in the Anthropic Coincidences article I linked to in my guest post – did you read the section where the author responds to common objections? It doesn't seem to me that you really grasp the argument the author is making.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    Lukas – Myrna, really?http://garvarn.blogspot.com/2008/07/holy-crap-or-myrna-nazzour-miracle.htmlShe scratches herself with a crucifix! And the oil is obviously another piece of fakery.The article is nonsense. Let's start with some basic errors:"These same “nuclear fusion” reactions also produce the energy radiated by stars (including, of course, the sun), energy that is essential to support life."Well, no. Life can form anywhere where there is an abundance of available energy e.g. volcanic vents deep in the ocean."Physical principles could not have tied God’s hands, for the simple reason that He could have chosen some other principles upon which to base the laws of physics."This presupposes the existence of a god, which is poor reasoning. The point being made (which the author misses) is that if the fundamentals had to be as they are then there is no coincidence to explain therefore no need of a creator."In the context of present–day theory, it is not unlikely that there are an infinite number."Yes, actually it is exceedingly unlikely there are an infinite number of planets in a FINITE universe. Unless he's talking about in the multiverse, a concept he doesn't mention for another few paragraphs.But nothing in the article makes life seem important, as per my basic black hole/supernova argument, let alone human life.

  • http://thewarfareismental.wordpress.com/ thewarfareismental

    I see valid points from both sides here. It's true that we only have a sample size of 1, and that makes reliable probability statements seem elusive. On the other hand, the universe we do have is precisely the universe we would expect if there were a God who desired sentient beings. I treat the apparent fine-tuning of the universe not so much as a proof of agency, rather, acceptable evidence thereof.However, I also found at least one sentiment I do not share:"people who think they know the purpose of the universe (i.e. what the creator wants from us) are mentally unhinged and dangerous"Now that's interesting. I think people who make derogatory, sweeping generalizations like this are more likely to be mentally unhinged and dangerous – but that's just my opinion. Sure, in the set of all people who believe they know something of God's purpose, there are certainly going to be some who are mentally unhinged and dangerous, but guess what? In the set of all people who believe God's purpose does not exist, there are also going to be some who are mentally unhinged and dangerous.March Hare's "logic" here is nothing less than intellectual chauvinism, and deserves to be called out as such.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    thewarfareismental, it wasn't a "derogatory, sweeping generalization", anyone who thinks they know the will of the creator of the universe IS mentally unhinged. The fact that if enough people follow them they get a pass from society doesn't change the basic mental health issue.What you are doing is thinking I am talking about all religious people when I am actually limiting myself to those who have a direct line to the big man.The fact that many religious people listen to those who claim to have a direct line to god does NOT make them mentally unhinged or dangerous, but it does make me question their gullibility.


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