Probability and Perspectives

Probability and Perspectives February 5, 2015

Hement Mehta posted a rebuttal to the Fine-Tuning argument today. He spoke one line that stuck out in my mind. Paraphrasing, this argument is usually something like “If the conditions of the universe weren’t right for life, we wouldn’t be here to talk about it.

I agree, but I think it’s a point that will largely be lost on the intended audience. They’ll probably see it as superficial. Typically, I’d give the response when I get an argument like, “Well how do you explain that we happened to exist on a habitable planet?” It’s a silly question… because if it wasn’t habitable, we wouldn’t exist here. It’s a point they don’t seem to grasp.

That’s because people are generally pitiful at understanding probability. Throw in a bad perspective, and all hope is lost for getting it.


Not to make light of recent airplane disasters, but we’ll occasionally get someone claiming that God saved them from a doomed flight because his/her car broke down, and couldn’t make it to the airport (or similar). On the surface, it seems compelling. Air travel is one of the safest modes of travel (last I heard, anyway), and you’re unlikely to die in one. Combine that with the unlikeliness of getting a flat tire on a day to day basis (I’ve had to deal with one so far in my years of driving).

What the person will say is, it’s so unlikely that this string of events could have happened, it’s more likely that it was somehow orchestrated intentionally.

This perspective is very limited. Let’s look at it another way.

Unfortunately, airplane crashes are a fairly regular occurrence. Additionally, it’s very common that for each flight, people are both buying tickets at the last minute, or missing flights at the last minute (for a number of reasons). Statistically speaking, it’s just a matter of time before someone happens to miss a flight that crashes. The specifics are largely random, but the person is going to see intent in them anyway.

If you’re an atheist who wins the lottery, it may be tempting to think that God is trying to tell that atheist something. Then again, suppose atheists represent 10% of the population, and play the lottery roughly equally with theists. Suppose that lottery has a 1:100,000,000 chance to with the jackpot. If we have 10,000,000 people playing per week, atheists would represent 1,000,000 of them.

Just on statistical chance, we’d expect for an atheist to be winning about every 2 months. Who specifically happened to win isn’t important, even if that individual may think so.

That’s the difficulty – we keep imbuing our perceptions of reality with our own biases, agency detection and pattern recognition, and for many, permanently clouds their ability to accurately understand how reality is actually working around them.

The issue with that argument, “If the conditions of the universe…“, is the same problem that plagues many discussions between atheists and theists – that there’s an underlying set of hidden perspectives and premises that are required before the argument makes sense. Whenever I hear a theist say, “But if there’s no God then there’s no ultimate purpose for life“, I’m thinking “Okay… and?“, because I’m not operating on the premise that it’s important. The particular theist may be working on the notion that it’s a proven fact that life has an ultimate purpose, so there… your position as an atheist is demolished. I saw it as a meaningless statement.

The reason the “If the conditions of the universe…” argument makes sense to me is that I’m looking at the possibility of life from a different perspective. Like the lottery/airplane analogies above, if we determine that life has a probability of 1:100,000,000 for any particular planet, we’d still expect our galaxy alone to have many planets with life. The ones that do, will be looking around them, seeing the unlikeliness of it, and thinking “this is too improbably to have happened by chance!” They’ll (most) all think that, even if it’s a regular physical-laws-based occurrence in the universe.

So Hemant Mehta comes swooping in on his interstellar cruiser, to tell those extra terrestrials, “Well, if conditions on this planet weren’t right, you wouldn’t be here.” That makes sense to him, because he understands that there’s nothing particularly special about this planet, over another, having the proper conditions. But they, in their perspective, don’t see it that way. They think they’re special… like the lottery winner.

In particular, they tend to believe that they way things are, are the way they’re supposed to be. It’s similar to when theists site the beauty of nature as evidence for a god, and don’t consider that we grew up in that environment, therefore we find it beautiful. Are humans “supposed” to have two arms, two legs and eyebrows? Or is that just what we’ve come to expect as “normal”?

The major assumption that these fine-tuning arguments make is that this is the only universe, or in a broader sense, the only possible existence. I could see that would be compelling, on an intuitive, gut-level. There’s only one universe and it just happens to have life?

But we don’t know that this isn’t the only one. I have no evidence of it, but that’s not my problem. All they can do is say that there’s at least one, but if the argument for probability rests on a massive speculative assumption, they can’t even get the argument off the ground. If we assessed the statistical rate of planets with life based on our solar system (before we knew of any exoplanets, and before Pluto was re-categorized), we’d have a rate of 1:9. They’d rightly reject that this was accurate – that one in nine planets in the universe has sentient life.

That’s because our knowledge is limited. When it comes to the universe itself, we have 1 example, and we don’t have the faintest clue whether there’s any others. If there’s a 1:11 octillion chance that any particular universe can harbor life, we don’t know that we aren’t Universe #11 Octillion. That’s primarily why the fine-tuning arguments seem speculative to me, and a slam dunk to them.

Atheists get that. Apologists don’t. That’s why the argument will coast clear over their heads and into our ear-holes.


Hemant I think had some contextual clues, like an example of a randomly shuffled deck of cards – the chances of getting those 52 cards in that order is astronomically low, but it still happened. This “If the conditions of the universe…” argument I think was too early in the rebuttal. It’d need significant contextualization before they’ll understand what he’s getting at, but I don’t it really detracts from the other good points.

Sometimes, it does seem like counter-apologetics is some kind of Rube Goldburg machine, where one argument has to be exactingly and correctly executed, leading into another, trying to correct each misconception the person has along the way. Otherwise, you’ve got objects ineffectually flying off in random directions.

We know that the other side has a different world view than us, but I don’t think we’re appreciating the implications of that. It’s not just that they believe different things… we’re talking about a fundamentally different way of thinking about reality. We can’t just spit facts at them. We have to be more like ambassadors to a foreign country, who are better served by having an understanding of the culture and modes of thinking of the people they’re approaching.

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