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The Anthropic Design Argument - an extract from 'A Sceptic's Guide to Atheism,' by Peter Williams

This article is an extract from A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism, by Peter S Williams (Paternoster, 2009), pp. 191-197, used with kind permission of the publishers.

‘Although I was once sharply critical of the argument to design, I have since come to see that, when correctly formulated, this argument constitutes a persuasive case for the existence of God.’ - Anthony Flew [1]

Dawkins recognizes that the most general, ‘anthropic’ version of the design argument is particularly popular today, and I shall therefore pay particular attention to his treatment of this argument. Dawkins notes that ‘Physicists have calculated that if the laws and constants of physics had been even slightly different, the universe would have developed in such a way that life would have been impossible.’[2] There are, according to Dawkins, two main explanations given for the fact that our universe permits the existence of life. ‘The design theory says that God... deliberately set up all the details for our benefit.’[3] Bizarrely, according to Dawkins, the alternative non-design explanation is the anthropic principle itself:

‘It is a strange fact.. that religious apologists love the anthropic principle. For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their case. Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle… is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence. I think the confusion arises in the religious mind because the anthropic principle is only ever mentioned in the context of the problem it solves, namely the fact that we live in a life-friendly place. What the religious mind then fails to grasp is that two candidate solutions are offered to the problem. God is one. The anthropic principle is the other. They are alternatives.[4]

However, the ‘problem’ that needs to be solved is not ‘the fact that we live in a life-friendly place,’[5] as Dawkins says (we obviously couldn’t exist in a life-unfriendly place), but rather the fact that a life-friendly place exists. The anthropic principle ‘provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence,’[6] but it doesn’t answer the question of why a situation propitious to our existence should exist in the first place.

As Thomas Woodward explains, sometimes ‘the name anthropic principle is brought in as a quasi-synonym for fine-tuning.’[7] When this substitution happens, as in The God Delusion, one obviously cannot appeal to the ‘anthropic principle’ to explain ‘fine tuning.’ That would be like using the concept of ‘bachelors’ to explain the existence of unmarried men! This, in effect, is precisely what Dawkins attempts to do, deploying the anthropic principle as an explanation for the observation of fine tuning, when it is in fact a restatement of the observation: ‘It follows from the fact of our existence that the laws of physics must be friendly enough to allow life to arise.’[8]

Of course it follows from the observation that we exist that the laws of physics are compatible with our existence, unless one assumes that the existence of humans is a necessary truth about reality!  Dawkins’ anthropic ‘explanation’ flounders by equivocating over the meaning of the term ‘must’; and by treating the data to be explained as an explanation of the data to be explained. As Jimmy H. Davies and Harry L. Poe explain, ‘The Weak Anthropic Principle is a tautology; it states the obvious. If the universe was not fit for life, then we would not be here.’[9] This tautology does nothing to explain the surprising existence of a life friendly universe.

Dawkins actually repudiates his false claim that the anthropic principle is an ‘explanation’ of fine tuning, referencing John Leslie’s analogy of a man sentenced to death by firing squad who survives being shot at to muse, ‘Well, obviously they all missed, or I wouldn’t be here to think about it.’[10] Dawkins admits that ‘he could still, forgivably, wonder why they’d all missed, and toy with the hypothesis that they were bribed... [i.e. missed by design].’[11] The prisoner’s observation that his continued existence depends upon an unlikely set of preconditions (the squad missing) does nothing to explain his continued existence, exclude the hypothesis of intelligent design, or guarantee the truth of a non-design explanation. Noting that the sentenced man wouldn’t exist if the firing squad hadn’t missed doesn’t explain why they missed. Likewise, noting that human beings wouldn’t exist if the laws of nature weren’t fine tuned doesn’t explain why the laws of nature are fine tuned. As Guillermo Gonzalez observes:

The [anthropic principle] has been acknowledged for about a quarter of a century, but it was not until John Barrow and Frank Tipler published their massive technical work The Anthropic Cosmological Principle in 1986 that it was widely discussed. The Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) is the most basic version – the simple recognition that the parameters we observe in our environment must not be incompatible with our existence… We should not be surprised to observe, for example, that we are living on a planet with an oxygen-rich atmosphere, for the simple reason that we require oxygen to live. The WAP ‘explains’ why we should not observe ourselves to be living on, say, Titan, but it fails to account for the origin of the oxygen in our atmosphere... Barrow and Tipler... have burdened the basic physical interpretation of the WAP with unwarranted philosophical extrapolations. In considering the WAP with regard to the observable universe, they claim that we ought not to be surprised at measuring a universe so finely tuned for life, for if it were different, we would not observe it. But as Richard Swinburne first explained and as William Lane Craig and John Leslie later argued, we should indeed be surprised at observing features of the universe that are highly improbable and are necessary for our existence...’[12]

Richard Swinburne famously used the example of a card-shuffling machine to advance the design argument from cosmic fine-tuning:

Suppose that a madman kidnaps a victim and shuts him a room with a card-shuffling machine. The machine shuffles ten decks of cards simultaneously and then draws a card from each deck and exhibits simultaneously the ten cards. The kidnapper tells the victim that he will shortly set the machine to work and it will exhibit its first draw, but that unless the draw consists of an ace of hearts from each deck, the machine will simultaneously set off an explosion which will kill the victim, in consequence of which he will not see which cards the machine draws. The machine is then set to work, and to the amazement and relief of the victim the machine exhibits an ace of hearts drawn from each deck. The victim thinks that this extraordinary fact needs an explanation in terms of the machine having been rigged in some way. But the kidnapper, who now reappears, casts doubt on this suggestion. ‘It is hardly surprising,’ he says, ‘that the machine draws only aces of hearts. You could not possibly see anything else. For you would not be here to see anything at all, if any other cards had been drawn.’ But of course the victim is right and the kidnapper is wrong... The fact that this peculiar order is a necessary condition of the draw being perceived at all makes what is perceived no less extraordinary and in need of explanation. The teleologist’s starting-point is not that we perceive order rather than disorder, but that order rather than disorder is there. Maybe only if order is there can we know what is there, but that makes what is there no less extraordinary and in need of explanation.[13]

The fact that an event is a pre-condition of its being observed does not explain to occurrence of the event, or negate the obvious fact that ‘the victim is right and the kidnapper is wrong’ about design being the best explanation for the specified complexity of the event described (which Swinburne offers as a parallel to the fine-tuning of the cosmos).

Dawkins admits that the anthropic principle does not negate surprise at our existence:

The evolution of complex life, indeed its very existence in a universe obeying physical laws, is wonderfully surprising – or would be but for the fact that surprise is an emotion that can exist only in a brain which is the product of that very surprising process. There is an anthropic sense, then, in which our existence should not be surprising. I’d like to think that I speak for my fellow humans in insisting, nevertheless, that it is desperately surprising.[14]

According to Dawkins, ‘This objection [to the no-design hypothesis] can be answered by the suggestion... that there are many universes...’[15] It is important to note that Dawkins clearly accepts that the anthropic principle is not ‘an alternative to the design hypothesis,’[16] as he previously states, but is rather a description of the problem to which the design hypothesis is one answer and the many worlds hypothesis is another. As Gonzalez comments, ‘[Many worlds] advocates are obviously driven by the desire to avoid the ‘God-hypothesis,’ and, in adopting such extravagant and unnecessary assumptions, they are effectively conceding that the WAP has been impotent in discrediting the teleological interpretation.’[17] It is the ‘many worlds’ hypothesis that competes with the design inference (but not the design hypothesis)[18] to explain the observation of a ‘life-friendly’ universe, not the anthropic principle. The reason ‘religious apologists love the anthropic principle’ is not ‘some reason that makes no sense at all,’ as Dawkins opines, but the belief that design is a better explanation of the anthropic principle than the many worlds hypothesis.

Cosmic fine-tuning appears to be an example of specified complexity, and (as we saw in chapter six) Dawkins admits that specified complexity is a reliable signal of design. To avoid drawing a design inference from cosmic fine tuning, Dawkins observes that the specified lifefriendly tuning of the observed universe wouldn’t be complex (unlikely) enough to warrant a design inference if there were ‘many worlds.’ If there were many differently tuned universes, then it wouldn’t be unlikely that one of them would just happen to be lifefriendly. But even granting this premise, in order to validly reach the conclusion that the lifefriendly tuning of the observed universe isn’t complex enough to warrant a design inference, Dawkins must additional assume that there actually are ‘many universes.’ But why think that this crucial second premise is true? Given enough time, typewriters, and monkeys one might well obtain the works of William Shakespeare by chance: but in that case, why does no one actually explain Shakespeare’s works using the ‘many monkeys’ hypothesis? In the absence of independent evidence for the existence of enough time, typewriters and monkeys, the ‘written by design’ explanation is clearly preferable.[19] Likewise, even granting that given ’multiple worlds’ one could obtain the fine-tuning of our universe by chance, in the absence of independent evidence for the existence of ‘multiple worlds,’ the design explanation is clearly preferable.

Indeed, according to cosmologist Paul Davies, the scientific ‘multiple worlds hypothesis

merely shift the problem [of ‘fine tuning’] up a level from universe to multiverse. To appreciate this, one only has to list the many assumptions that underpin the multiverse theory. First, there has to be a universe-generating mechanism… This mechanism is supposed to involve natural, law-like processes – in the case of eternal inflation, a quantum ‘nucleation’ of pocket universes, to be precise. But that raises the obvious question of the source of the quantum laws (not to mention the laws of gravitation, including the causal structure of space-time on which those laws depend) that permit inflation. In the standard multiverse theory, the universe-generating laws are just accepted as given: they don’t come out of the multiverse theory... Furthermore, if we accept that the multiverse is predicted by string/M theory, then that theory, with its specific mathematical form, also has to be accepted as given... the multiverse theory [cannot] provide a complete and final explanation of why the universe is fit for life…[20]

As philosopher Robin Collins argues:

even if [a] many-universe generator exists, it along with the background laws and principles could be said to be an irreducibly complex system… with just the right combination of laws and fields for the production of life-permitting universes: if one of the components were missing or different… it is unlikely that any life-permitting universes could be produced. In the absence of alternative explanations, the existence of such a system suggests design.[21]

Not only does the ‘many worlds’ hypothesis commit the ‘inflationary fallacy’ of multiplying explanatory probabilistic resources without independent evidence, but as Antony Flew complains, ‘If we are trying to understand why the universe is bio-friendly, we are not helped by being told that all possible universes exist... The idea of a multiverse replaces the rationally ordered real world with an infinitely complex charade and makes the whole idea of ‘explanation’ meaningless.’[22]

Extract from A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism, by Peter S Williams (Paternoster, 2009), pp. 191-197, used with kind permission of the publishers.


[1] Antony Flew, There is a God (New York: HarperOne, 2007) p. 95

[2] Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 141

[3] ibid, p. 136

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Tom Woodward, Darwin Strikes Back, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006) p. 160

[8] Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 141

[9] Jimmy H. Davies and Harry L. Poe, Designer Universe, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2002), p. 110

[10] Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 144-145

[11] ibid, p. 145

[12] Guillermo Gonzalez, ‘Home Alone in the Universe,’ www.arn.org/docs/gonzalez/gg_homealone_.htm

[13] Richard Swinburne, ‘The Argument from Design,’ www.mind.uscd.edu/sullabi/02-03/01w/readings/swinburne-design.pdf (original link is now out of date).

[14] Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 366

[15] ibid, p. 145

[16] ibid, p. 136

[17] Guillermo Gonzalez, ‘Home Alone in the Universe,’ www.arn.org/docs/gonzalez/gg_homealone_.htm

[18] After all, the designer might have made more than one universe. Hence the existence of multiple universes is logically compatible with the existence of a universe designer.

[19] Nothing depends upon the traditional Shakespearian reference here – the argument works just as well if we imagine unearthing an alien text on a distant planet.

[20] Paul Davies, The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the universe just right for life? (London: Penguin, 2007), pp. 231-232, 237

[21] Robin Collins, ‘Design and the Many Worlds Hypothesis,’ http://home.messiah.edu/~rcollins/finetune/Craig7.htm

[22] Flew, There is a God, pp. 118-119. Brian Green, physicist and mathematician at Columbia University, and author of The Fabric of the Cosmos, points out that positing unlimited probabilistic resources in a science stopper: ‘If true, the idea of a multiverse would be... a rich and astounding upheaval, but one with potentially hazardous consequences. Beyond the inherent difficulty in assessing its validity, when should we allow the multiverse framework to be invoked in lieu of a more traditional scientific explanation? Had this idea surfaced a hundred years ago, might researchers have chalked up various mysteries to how things just happen to be in our corner of the multiverse and not pressed on to discover all the wondrous science of the last century? ... The danger, if the multiverse idea takes root, is that researchers may too quickly give up the search for underlying explanations. When faced with seemingly inexplicable observations, researchers may invoke the framework of the multiverse prematurely – proclaiming some phenomenon or other to merely reflect conditions in our own bubble universe and thereby failing to discover the deeper understanding that awaits us.’ (‘The Multiverse,’ in John Brockman (ed), What’s Your Dangerous Idea? [London: Pocket Books, 2006], p.p. 120-121)

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