Is the universe designed?

Possibly the most popular type of argument for the existence of a god (it would be a push to say God, since it’s rather generic), is the argument to design. The design (or teleological) argument comes in two basic forms, the complexity of life argument and the fine tuning of the universe argument.

Complexity of life

This argument has lost some popularity with the onslaught of Evolutionary Biology, since it claims to be able to explain the complexity of living things.

The argument basically looks at the complexity of even the simplest organisms, and claims that the only rational explanation is a designer. Arguments generally revolve around irreducable complexity and informed complexity, and the favourite example seems to be the bacterial flagellum. The claim is that the bacterial flagellum (and other organs) couldn’t possibly evolve through incremental processes, because all the parts a required in their current ordered state for the “motor” to function. There are certain organs similar to some of the parts of the flagellum, which has opponents saying it is not irreducibly complex.

Informed complexity relates to a specifically complex item that performs a function. A pile of sand emptied onto the beach is irreducibly complex, but there’s no information. This reveals the real crux of the Intelligent Design argument, DNA contains information, thus life is informed, and information doesn’t just happen, there must be something to inform.

This formulation of the argument often looks at the origin of life. Even if one accepts evolution, they can argue that the first life forms would have to be able to assimilate their own food, which would make them more complex than the simplest recognised life forms today. The simplest life forms today are incredibly complex, and the odds against them forming by chance are quite high, so the alternative is that they didn’t form by chance.

Universal fine tuning

The fine tuning argument is simpler and can push odds to extreme heights. Since evolution can’t answer this, and the anthropic principle isn’t that effective an argument, it is often more popular.

The argument basically takes all the physical constants in the universe, and argues that they are perfect for a universe to sustain life, and a slight adjustment to any of them would result in a universe that could not sustain life. Often the goldilocks zone is used. The goldilocks zone is the area around the sun in which Earth must be for life to be the case. We’re not only in an ideal place in the solar system, but in the ideal place in the galaxy. The anthropic principle argues that even if there was no designer, we would expect to be in the ideal place for life to exist, since if it wasn’t ideal, life wouldn’t exist. This is actually quite a good argument, but fails to answer the fact that the universe actually has goldilocks zones. Basically, if the gravitational constant was slightly stronger, the universe would likely have started it’s collapse already. If it were slightly weaker, the correct conditions wouldn’t have formed for life due to the expansion of the universe being to fast. Similar arguments would be made for other physical constants.

This post is basically a run down on the teleological type arguments. I’ll need to have future posts to cover counter arguments.

What other ways could you formulate these arguments? What are the weaknesses? How would you strengthen the arguments? How would you argue against them? Leave your comments below.

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7 thoughts on “Is the universe designed?”

  1. The problem with arguments concerning irreducible complexity seems to be that none of the examples given have been shown to be, in any reasonable sense, unavailable to evolutionary processes (as you note, the flagellum is similar to the type III secretory system, IIRC). IR arguments tend to ignore things like changes of function, scaffolding (parts which may have been required for earlier systems, but which no longer are and have been lost), etc.

    The problem with arguments concerning specified complexity (or, as you call it “informed complexity”), seem to be that natural evolutionary mechanisms have been shown to change the “information” content of DNA (for rigorous definitions of the term “information”, such as Shannon’s or Kolmogorov) and the definitions of “information” used by intelligent design theorists is vague, fluid and poorly defined.

    The problem with your statement “The simplest life forms today are incredibly complex, and the odds against them forming by chance are quite high, so the alternative is that they didn’t form by chance.” is that you don’t form any sort of probability that they didn’t form by chance – there is no proposed “design” hypothesis with which to compare, and at best we can say “We don’t know” (which is, as far as I understand it, the scientific position on the origin of life) 🙂
    Oh, plus your statement that happening by chance seems ignorant of abiogenesis research (which show chemical mechanisms by which many features if life could have arisen)

    The problems with universal fine tuning arguments are many:
    – We don’t know that the constants actually can take different values (we don’t know that there are knobs for our putative fine tuner to tune).
    – We don’t know that our form of life is the only form of life possible.
    – It appears that changes to one parameter can be compensated for by changes to other parameters.
    – Many of the so called finely tuned parameters aren’t as impressive when presented as “natural units” rather than the units we use everyday (ie. speed of light becomes 1 rather than 300,000,000m/s, strength of gravity becomes 1, etc).

    Now, none of the above are claims that these things shouldn’t be investigated, but are simply indications that people who make these claims as some sort of evidence against naturalism or in favour of theism/Christianity, are generally failing to make their case.

    1. Thanks for replying

      To be honest, I can’t really comment on the first two paragraphs, because a) I’m not a biologist, and b) I’m not myself convinced that the arguments are that useful. They seem to attempting to try to disprove evolution, and for me that closes down the usefulness of the argument. If an argument is going to work, then you need to do it on grounds that you’re opponents are likely to at least accept in principle, not by trying to prove something they believe to be a solid fact wrong. I’m not saying Behe and the crowd should stop what they’re doing, but they definitely need a lot more.

      “The problem with your statement “The simplest life forms today are incredibly complex, and the odds against them forming by chance are quite high, so the alternative is that they didn’t form by chance.” is that you don’t form any sort of probability that they didn’t form by chance”

      Actually that isn’t the problem, I could fish out a figure, I think it’s usually given at about 1/10^103 or something in that region. This is probably incorrect anyway, because it assumes that only one of the possible 10^103 combinations of proteins and structures (assuming that’s the correct number) could produce a life form, which is a pretty big assumption to make. The real problem seems to be that this argument is negative, it only provides odds against a no creator not odds for a creator. Now this is probably an either or situation, either there is a creator, or there isn’t, so it would be tempting to say that we can just assume the other option, which is how I phrased it, simply because that is the thinking by most using the argument. My problem is this the odds for a creator haven’t been given. We have a limited amount of evidence, and thus we should attempt to compare the odds for one over the other, even if they both turn out to be low, we’d still have higher odds on one, and I’m not sure that we could teleologically give odds for a creator, it’s always a negative argument. Mathematically, p[life|~no creator] ≠ p[life|creator], which seems to be contrary to a fundamental assumption of any kind of teleological argument.

      “Oh, plus your statement that happening by chance seems ignorant of abiogenesis research (which show chemical mechanisms by which many features if life could have arisen)”

      Nope, not ignorant, I just don’t find them compelling, simply because it only proves chemical mixture, I can take a living thing, and kill it, everything that is chemically required for life is not only there, but it is all in the ideal position for life to be, but the creature is still dead, one might say that we have empirical data that correct chemistry doesn’t make life.

      “We don’t know that the constants actually can take different values”

      If there were some universal laws beyond our universe, then it is probable that the constants could only be one thing based on those laws. Since it’s unlikely that a universe beginning in a singularity even had laws to start with, it doesn’t seem to make sense to say they could only have been what they were.

      “We don’t know that our form of life is the only form of life possible.”

      I fully agree, the same as the issue I raised above with the origin of life argument, we really don’t know that life can only exist in one form, and couldn’t be, say, silicon based and ideally suited for Pluto. The only issue I have with this is that we only have evidence of one kind of life, and we could use the anthropic principle if we could say there are other universes with different laws, but then you may as well just stick with God, we have no reason to believe there are other universes, so however weak the reasons for believing there is a god, they can’t be worse than no reasons at all.

      Your last 2 comments on fine tuning, the first I can’t comment on, don’t know enough, but if you post a link I’ll read it. The second, I’m not convinced that there’s much useful about making the speed of light a measurement of itself, and not measuring it by the speed other things move. I have actually heard a really good argument against fine tuning which had me stunned by it’s simplicity, which I will be posting on in future, I just wanted to cover the basics and see what others said, so again, thanks for the contribution.

      I often feel the same way as you, that since Christians feel the case is settled, they aren’t doing enough to investigate whether these arguments are really valid.

      1. Regarding the changing of a single parameter being compensated for by changes to other parameters, I mainly know of it through Victor Stenger’s “The Fallacy of Fine Tuning”, and his associated “Monkey God” program.
        I’m sure there are criticisms of this work as well, though I’m not familiar with them in much detail (I’ve read some criticisms of Stenger’s earlier work on Monkey God, but haven’t seen responses to his “Fallacy of Fine Tuning” book).

        I’ll try to dig up some relevant quotes 🙂

      2. Thanks, I look forward to seeing that, I have another post in the pipeline specifically one fine tuning, and I’ve included your criticisms, with very brief comments.

  2. From the OP:
    Basically, if the gravitational constant was slightly stronger, the universe would likely have started it’s collapse already. If it were slightly weaker, the correct conditions wouldn’t have formed for life due to the expansion of the universe being to fast.

    Regarding the expansion of the universe, Hawking (in “A Brief History of Time”) states:
    “The rate of expansion of the universe would automatically become very close to the critical rate determined by the energy density of the universe. This could then explain why the rate of expansion is still so close to the critical rate, without having to assume that the initial rate of expansion of the universe was very carefully chosen.”

    So the expansion rate is due to the energy density of the universe.

    Regarding the energy density of the universe, Stenger (in “The Fallacy of Fine Tuning”) says:
    “According to inflationary cosmology, during a tiny fraction of a second after the universe appeared, it expanded exponentially by many orders of magnitude so that it became spatially flat like the surface of a huge balloon. This implied that the mass/energy density of the universe is now very close to its critical value in which the total kinetic energy of all its bodies is exactly balanced by their negative gravitational potential energy. In fact, this was a prediction of inflation that was not an established fact when the model was first proposed. If it had not turned out the way it did, inflation would have been falsified. The success of this prediction is one of several reasons cosmologists consider inflationary cosmology to be a now well-established part of the standard model of cosmology. The critical density depends on the Hubble parameter, whose inverse is the rate of expansion. The “one part in a hundred thousand million million” that Hawking and the apologists refer to is the precise relation between the density and the Hubble parameter that follows to at least that precision from the inflationary model.”

    So the expansion rate of the universe isn’t fine tuned – it’s according to theory rather than a parameter to theory.

    1. I notice that in all that you left out Rees, who puts gravity as one of six parameters that are essential to having a life bearing universe. The density of energy and matter does influence rate of expansion, because the closer things are together, the higher the gravitational force, remember, it’s an inverse square, or close, it could have been an inverse cube, or any other typ of relationship, and the constants involve could have held an infinite number of values. These possibilities must be considered, to rule them out as non-possibilities is to assume something. I’m not saying that fine tuning is a good argument, I’m saying your counter isn’t a good one, since it assumes a number of things, not really in evidence. Since Hartnett’s bounded universe model agrees with all the empirical data, and since you’ve read A Brief History of Time you know that rejecting the bounded universe with the Milky Way at or near the centre is not due to empirical observation, but due to a philosophical concern of cosmologists. This could just be epicycles for modern cosmology, since those epicycles were making pretty good predictions prior to the adjustment of the Galileo/Copernicus model being adjusted to orbits that weren’t perfectly round. The real thing that separated the 2 models was the advantage Ptolemy’s model had with being around for longer, and thus more work was done on it. Honest science would have given both the Freidmand type model, and the bounded universe model equal attention, that didn’t happen, thus, even if the bounded model were correct, it would be difficult for it to compete against a model which has been supported and propped up for more than half a century. Hartnett’s model could turn out to be a better model if it were given the same amount of care. Sadly, the bias is obvious, various things like background radiation and the alleged dark matter could be interpreted in a number of ways, criticisms of Hartnett only focus on interpretations that support the currently accepted models, and don’t allow for other interpretations. It would really be tough to say there wasn’t a bias. I could say there was a conspiracy, but I don’t believe there is one, or that it is required to make my point, people don’t like being wrong, period (Krauss’ stupid remarks aside), and they are bound to have a bias, they are people after all, not emotionless machines. People will thus defend what they believe in a group without being part of an organised conspiracy.

      1. I notice that in all that you left out Rees, who puts gravity as one of six parameters that are essential to having a life bearing universe.
        I didn’t forget it, it’s simply not to the expansion of the universe, as my post indicated.
        The strength of gravity is usually compared with the strength of the electro-repulsion between a proton and an electron. The masses of these particles are tiny, which is why the strength of gravity is so small. If we compare the strength of gravity between 2 objects of Planck mass, with opposite electric unit charges, we find that gravity is massively stronger than the electric force.

        Also, the masses of fundamental particles are not fundamental properties of them – they seem to result from either the Higgs mechanism, or though interaction with the cloud of gluons and “virtual” quarks surrounding the particles.

        So, in some essential sense, the strength of gravity can be whatever we want it to be, since it is not fundamental.

        it’s an inverse square, or close, it could have been an inverse cube, or any other typ of relationship,
        It’s an inverse square because of the geometry of our spacetime. In fact, I believe measuring gravity is one of the ways which people have posited could demonstrate the existence of additional dimensions – if gravity doesn’t obey an inverse square rule, then that is an indication that some of the gravitational energy is “leaking” into other dimensions.

        and the constants involve could have held an infinite number of values.
        We don’t know they could have held any other values, and if they could, we don’t know what sort of distribution they might have. People who argue for fine tuning often assume uniform distribution, but there’s nothing to support that assumption.

        I’m saying your counter isn’t a good one, since it assumes a number of things, not really in evidence.
        I’m not sure what assumptions I made that you’re referring to here.

        Since Hartnett’s bounded universe model agrees with all the empirical data, and since you’ve read A Brief History of Time you know that rejecting the bounded universe with the Milky Way at or near the centre is not due to empirical observation, but due to a philosophical concern of cosmologists.
        This is the unnecessary assumptions thing – there’s no good empirical reasons to think that the earth is at the centre of the universe, nor to think that the universe is bounded (and, in fact, inflation gives us good reasons to think that the universe is unbounded, though perhaps finite).

        Honest science would have given both the Freidmand type model, and the bounded universe model equal attention, that didn’t happen, thus, even if the bounded model were correct, it would be difficult for it to compete against a model which has been supported and propped up for more than half a century.
        What reasons were/are given for not supporting the bounded model?
        Are they similar to mine above?
        Since, as you admit, the bounded model is formulated in such as way as to make it pretty much empirically identical to a non-bounded model, then parsimony and simplicity would suggest we go with unbounded until and unless we have some reason to think this is false.

        Sadly, the bias is obvious, various things like background radiation and the alleged dark matter could be interpreted in a number of ways, criticisms of Hartnett only focus on interpretations that support the currently accepted models, and don’t allow for other interpretations.
        What other interpretations are given these phenomena in the Hartnett model?

        It would really be tough to say there wasn’t a bias.
        You need to show not that there was/is a bias, but that the bias is unfair (for instance, physicists have a bias against Newtonian Mechanics in favour of Relativity).
        If the bias is due to empirical or philosophical concerns, and the concerns are valid, then the bias would appear justified (as in the case of Newtonian Mechanics, since Relativity is a more accurate/useful model).

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