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Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology 4: The Teleological Argument


Collins is making the argument that the life permitting universe strongly supports theism over naturalism. He is not making the case that this deductively proves theism, nor that it makes theism more likely than not. It is simply an argument that given the fine tuning of the universe, such that life is permitted, the likelihood of theism is increased. In order to make a stronger case, Collins would have to assess the prior probability of theism vs. naturalism, and he doesn’t attempt to do that here.

Collins relies on a restricted version of the Likelihood Principle, which states that an observation is evidence for a hypothesis h1 over h2 if the observation is more probable under h1 than h2 (explanatory power.)

I have criticized this in the past, pointing out that any totally ad hoc hypothesis can totally maximize explanatory power. It is refreshing to see that my critique was fair, because Collins affirms this, saying that he must restrict the likelihood principle because of “potential counterexamples.” His restriction is to say that the confirmation only applies if the hypothesis proposed is not ad-hoc.

So this brings me to my first gap. What does it mean for something to be ad hoc? A straightforward explanation would be that it is a hypothesis that has no outside reasons for supposing it. It was created simply for this situation. Collins ads that it is not ad hoc if it was widely advocated before the confirming evidence. What do we mean by widely advocated? What if it was widely advocated as an ad hoc explanation for a lot of other things?

People have believed in evil, deadly spirits/demons for a long time, and it has been “widely advocated” in the past. So if a murder occurs, and we don’t have any evidence pointing to who did it, or how they did it, then couldn’t positing a spirit or demon be fair game? Would it be fair to say that by Collins’ standards, the observation of a puzzling, unsolved murder would be evidence for murderous demons? This would account for the unsolved murder, and would not be ad hoc.

This example is just off the top of my head, and probably isn’t very good. Maybe in time I can figure out a better one. It does seem to highlight the need to weigh in prior probabilities. That would appear to make spirits or demons as the murderers highly unlikely, all said. Perhaps that is one case against the teleological argument. The prior probability of a naturalistic explanation for fine tuning is much higher, given the existence of previously successful naturalistic explanations that won out over the supernatural ones.

Here’s the second issue: How likely is life given theism? If God is perfectly good, then he would seem to lack a rationale for creating life. There would be no reason. Collins even points out that a God would only have reason to do things if it contributed to the “moral and aesthetic value of the universe.” God is perfectly good (moral) and perfectly beautiful, so creating anything would at best lead to no gain. Therefore theism does not appear to make it more likely that life would exist. Fine tuning would be a better argument for a finite God or creator.

Third: life chauvinism. It may be true that life could only exist under very limited circumstances, but why give such weight to it? Each tinkering of the laws of nature would bring about different aspects of the universe, many unique, and which do not exist because of how the laws really are. Why draw the target around humans? Maybe the answer is that humans are “good” but we already showed that that doesn’t work, at least regarding a perfect God.

Fourth: At what point is it okay to accept the brute fact? Collins thinks that God is a good stopping point, but says that positing necessary laws of nature as a brute fact would transfer the problem up one step, since there could be any number of other necessarily true laws of nature. But wait, couldn’t there be any number of different Gods or creators? Maybe an evil one, or one that doesn’t like life, or that likes solitude, or doesn’t really think much about doing things. If we can’t use necessary laws to make our universe likely, then Collins can’t use God.

It might be fair to say that saying that the laws of the universe are necessary is ad hoc. Again, this brings up the question of how to weigh that stuff. It would also be something of an empirical question as to whether we have independent or previous reasons to believe that the laws of nature would be necessary.

Lastly, given that human beings already exist, isn’t it a little dubious to claim that we could in any way deduce, independent of the existence of humans, that God would create something like us if we were only given his properties? It seems like theism has simply been looking around, and saying “God wanted this, therefore it is here.” Which is in itself somewhat ad hoc. So given our existence, how is it not ad hoc to apply the same reasoning more specifically to the fine tuning of the universe? If the universe was full of life, the design argument could equally apply. People would deduce that God wanted the universe to be vibrant and healthy, and that there are a billion ways it could be not so. Since we already knew humans existed, these two possibilites seem to be the only open ones that are not ad hoc, but which ever one turned out to be the case could be equally used to justify theism via a fine tuning argument.

My argument is worth examining, and it is pretty untidy, but I do think there’s something to say for the fundamental ad hocness of theism. God has been a constantly changing hypothesis, all to comfortably fit what we see, with no independent verification, no new research inspired. This seems to harm its odds working within the framework of the teleological argument.

Kindle Notes:

My basic argument first claims that, given the fine-tuning evidence, LPU strongly supports T over the NSU (5462).

The core fine-tuning argument relies on a standard Principle of Confirmation theory, the so-called Likelihood Principle. This principle can be stated as follows. Let h1 and h2 be two competing hypotheses. According to the Likelihood Principle, an observation e counts as evidence in favor of hypothesis h1 over h2 if the observation is more probable under h1 than h2 (5465).

Because of certain potential counterexamples, I shall use what I call the restricted version of the Likelihood Principle, although I shall often refer to it simply as the Likelihood Principle. The restricted version limits the applicability of the Likelihood Principle to cases in which the hypothesis being confirmed is non-ad hoc. A sufficient condition for a hypothesis being non-ad hoc (in the sense used here) is that there are independent motivations for believing the hypothesis apart from the confirming data e, or for the hypothesis to have been widely advocated prior to the confirming evidence (5482).

Note: This is to answer my counter example objection.

Finally, given that we can establish the conclusion, what is its significance? Even if LPU counts as strong evidence in favor of T over NSU, that does not itself establish that T is likely to be true, or even more likely to be true than NSU (5520).

we shall claim that the evidence of fine-tuning significantly supports T over NSU; this, however, neither shows that, everything considered, T is probably true, nor that it is the most plausible explanation of existence of the universe, nor even that it is more probable than NSU. In order to show that any hypothesis is likely to be true using a likelihood approach, we would have to assess the prior epistemic probability of the hypothesis, something I shall not attempt to do for T (5528).

we must consider the reasons for thinking that a “God of the gaps” sort of explanation is in principle something to be avoided. The reasons partly depend on whether one is a theist or an atheist; and if one is a theist, it will depend on how one understands the nature of divine action (5954).

Note: Can we start from the null hypothesis?

One might object to this response by claiming that the history of science provides independent grounds for rejecting any appeal to God to fill in the apparent gaps left by science. The failure of such appeals, however, can be explained as well by the theist as the naturalist: for example, many theists would claim that Newton’s famous invocation of God to keep the planetary orbits stable implies a less than satisfactory picture of a constantly intervening God. The key question is how one inductively extrapolates from these historical incidences, and that all depends on one’s background assumptions (5968).

Note: Isn’t the Theist using an ad hoc explanation? This appears to be a fair line of reasoning to me.

even if the fine-tuning of the constants of physics can be explained in terms of some set of deeper physical laws, as hypothesized by the so-called “theory of everything” or by an inflationary multiverse, this would simply transfer the improbability up one level to the existence of these deeper laws (5978).

Note: Does positing God avoid this?

“clues heaped upon clues can constitute weighty evidence despite doubts about each element in the pile” (5990).

Note: How about “stacking cowpies doesn’t transform them into gold.”

Timothy McGrew, Lydia McGrew, and Eric Vestrup (2001) and, independently, Mark Colyvan, Jay Garfield, and Graham Priest (2005) have argued that if the comparison range is infinite, no meaningful probability can be assigned to a constant’s landing in the life-permitting region (6631).

These authors first assert that (i) the total probability of a constant’s being somewhere in the infinite range of possible values has to be 1 (since it must have some value), and (ii) if we assume an equiprobability distribution over the possible values – which they claim is the only nonarbitrary choice – the probability of its being in any finite region must be zero or undefined. Finally, (iii) they consider any arbitrary way of dividing up the entire range into a countably infinite set of finite, nonoverlapping regions, and assert that the total probability of its being in the entire region must the sum of the probabilities of its being in each member of the set (6634).

McGrew and McGrew (2005) have responded to these sorts of arguments by claiming that when the only nonarbitrary distribution of degrees of belief violates the axiom of countable additivity, the most rational alternative is to remain agnostic. They point out that one need not assign epistemic probabilities to all propositions (6659).

As Richard Swinburne has argued (2004, pp. 99-106), since God is perfectly good, omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly free, the only motivation God has for bringing about one state of affairs instead of another is its relative (probable) contribution to the overall moral and aesthetic value of reality (6764).

unless the atheist can show that it is highly improbable that God would create a world which contained as much evil as ours, it will still be the case that, given the evidence of the fine-tuning of the constants, the conjunction of the existence of evil and the fact that the constants have life-permitting values strongly confirms TSU over NSU. This means that theism is still confirmed when the strongest evidence that atheists typically offer for their position (i.e. the existence of evil) is combined with the evidence of the fine-tuning of the constants (6796).

Perhaps the most common objection that atheists raise to the argument from design is that postulating the existence of God does not solve the problem of design but merely transfers it up one level to the question (7203).

this objection would arise only if either T were constructed solely to explain the fine-tuning, without any independent motivation for believing it, or one considered these other motivations as data and then justified T by claiming that it is the best explanation of all the data. Our main argument, however, is not that T is the best explanation of all the data, but only that given the fine-tuning evidence, LPU strongly confirms T over NSU (7217).

If we do not treat these other motivations for T as part of a body of data for which we employ the strategy of inference to the best explanation, then the “who designed God?” objection largely evaporates. The existence of God is not a hypothesis that is being offered as the best explanation of the structure of the universe, and hence it is not relevant whether or not God is an explanatorily better (e.g. simpler) terminus for ultimate explanation than the universe itself (7235).

hypothesizing such a law merely moves the epistemic improbability of the fine-tuning of the laws and constants up one level, to that of the postulated fundamental law itself. Even if such a law existed, it would still be a huge coincidence that the fundamental law implied just those lower-level laws and values of the constants of physics that are life-permitting, instead of some other laws or values (7273).

Note: Doesn’t this objection work against God?

A similar sort of response can be given to the claim that fine-tuning is not improbable because it might be logically necessary for the constants of physics to have life-permitting values. That is, according to this claim, the constants of physics must have life-permitting values in the same way 2 + 2 must equal 4, or the interior angles of a triangle must add up to 180 degrees in Euclidian geometry. Like the “more fundamental law” proposal mentioned, however, this postulate simply transfers the epistemic improbability up one level: of all the laws and constants of physics that conceivably could have been logically necessary, it seems highly epistemically improbable that it would be those that are life-permitting, at least apart from some sort of Axiarchic Principle discussed in Section 8.

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