Help me understand this anti-Intelligent Design argument

I’m putting this here, rather than in GD 'cause I’m looking for a specific answer/clarification: I don’t want to debate “Intelligent Design: Good or Bad?”, I’m just asking how one of the arguments is supposed to work.

Disclaimer: I don’t believe in Intelligent Design, I don’t think it’s science and I don’t think it should be taught in schools. That said, I’ve got a question about a standard refutation of ID from ‘my’ side.

I was reading The Science Of Discworld III: Darwin’s Watch (not bad, typical Ian Stewart mix of brilliant insights, lucid prose and occasionally witty writing with the occasional lapse into condescending “speaking to a retarded 3-year-old” speak. In other words, he needs a better editor)

ANYway, after spending some time dismissing the “blind watchmaker” theory, he gets to the ID point that it’s incredibly unlikely that given the billions and billions of variables that need to line up juuuuuust right to produce a universe capable of creating life, one occurred without some sort of intervention. It’s like taking a stick and stirring a junkyard and even in an infinite number of years, producing a working TV.

The book then gives the standard rebuttal I’ve heard: Well the only reason you’re here to ask that is that this is a universe that did allow intelligent life.

What? That doesn’t rebut the argument. It doesn’t even dodge it. It’s a non-sequitur.

To rephrase it as I understand it:
ID person: Look! A watch! I’ve found it sitting on a hillside! Given how unlikely it is that a watch would spontaneously be created by natural forces, I’ll posit that the watch was created by an intelligent creator.

Anti-ID Person: Heh. You’re only saying that 'cause if a watch wasn’t there, you wouldn’t ask the question.

Me: ? Wha?

Am I misunderstanding the argument? Can someone help clarify it for me, please?



“look!” exclaimed the puddle, “this hole in the ground is shaped perfectly to fit me, what are the chances of that happening?”

The point is that if the universe hadn’t been just right, we wouldn’t be discussing it; there aren’t any universes where the people are complaining about how the conditions aren’t quite right for them to exist.

I appreciate the response, but I’m still having trouble understanding the rebuttal (although I really liked the puddle analogy! :slight_smile: )–
“Because you woudn’t be here otherwise.” only answers "Look! The universe was made just for ME!"type questions and still doesn’t seem to me to respond to the question “Why did this single set of conditions occur instead of the far bigger set of “all condtions NOT equal to this” happen?”

If you’ve got an infinite stack of notecards with an infinite amount of numbers on them, and only by drawing a 237,432 will you win, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll draw just that one card. To respond “Yeah, but if the stack of notecards wasn’t there , you wouldn’t be drawing” doesn’t answer the question of why this one card and not the others.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding the ID folks argument: I read it as a “Why is there something instead of nothing”-type of argumement, while all the pro-science folks are reading/answering as though it was a “Why is the universe created to fit me, precisely” argument?

This argument is the weak anthropic principle. I agree with you that it’s not much of an answer to the blind-watchmaker argument. The better answer would be that natural selection isn’t a random processes.

We don’t know that they didn’t happen; we don’t know how many zillions of unsuitable universes may have sprung into existence; we only know that we live in one that is suitable (if ours was one of the unsuitable ones, we wouldn’t be able to be here to know anything).

Here’s another way to think about it:
Imagine a game a bit like Russian Roulette, but where the odds are very much more heavily stacked against the player; out of a hundred billion players, only one will survive. That one winning player is going to think it’s pretty incredibly amazingly remarkable that the chance fell to him. Why aren’t all the losers jealous of him?

But we’re talking cosmology, not evolution (I think): Why is gravity just strong enough to allow stars to form but not so strong that everything is just a humongous black hole? Why is the weak nuclear force such-and-such, when, if it were just a little off, matter wouldn’t stick together*. Why is Planck’s Constant so-and-so? We need, goes the argument, all these things lined up juuuuuuust right for life to form. How does natural selection figure in?


*made up example: I have the feeling that I’ve just posted gibberish–but you know what I’m getting at.

It’s the Pangloss explanation of the Universe. Pangloss was the philosopher in Voltaire’s novel Candide who believed that everything was for the best because that’;s how it was. It’s fortuitous, for instance, that we have a nose placed just right to hold up our spectacles. The obvious rebuttal is that that’s why we built them that way, and if we didn’t have a nose we’d hold them up some other way. And it would be much more convenient if we didn’t need the glasses in the first place. In other words, the argument that “this is the best of all possible worlds” isn’t true – it’s just that this is one of the possible worlds, and we could make the same arguments in any of the others.
To get to your case, if someone says that God or an ID must exist because otherwise how could we be here, it’s a perfectly fine rebuttal to say that if conditions weren’t exactly like this, then we wouldn’t be here having the discussion. Please note that it’s not either an infinitesimally small single chasnce that we exist vs. lots of chances that we don’t – there are the possibilities that the universe was put together in such a way that the beings having the conversation were dinosaurs, or intelligent gas clouds, or Robert Forward-like sea-dwelling creatures, or something else entirely. But creatures like that would e as ethnocentric (species-centric?) as us, and would be likely to say “Look at the conditions that gave rise tto us! Imagine if they’d been slightly different! We wouldn’t exist!” But, of course, some other sort of intelligence very well might in the new conditions.
Or the conditions could be such that no intelligent life were possible. In which case no one would be having the conversation, and the isue would never arise. To someone who doesn’t believe in ID, kit’s just a matter of probability that we’re here at all. It’s only to someone who believes that we *had[./i] to exist that the facvt that the probability of intelligent life existing seems very small is a troublesome thing that must be explained, since clearly we do exisdt.

I’ve always taken it from the context that “anything that can happen, does happen, sometime, somewhere.”

So, if there are multiple contemporaneous universes, or if ours is cyclical, being born and then dying, et cetera - all manner of universes might exist.

So - a universe capable of supporting life is bound to happen sooner or later - and a universe can only be observed if it has evolved to support life.

So, every universe we know (which is one) supports life. Big whoop.

Something highly improbable is no longer highly improbable once it has happened.

Another analogy I’ve heard is that of a particular deal at a game of cards. If you’re playing bridge and you pick up your hand of 13 cards from the table, no matter what cards are in that hand, the odds were 635013559599 to 1 AGAINST your being dealt that particular hand! Wow, how miraculous! How could that possibly have happened by mere random chance?

Easy. All the possible hands are equally unlikely, but if you’re sitting there playing bridge, you’re bound to get some possible hand out of the deal. That miraculously unlikely hand just happened to be the one of 635013559600 miraculously unlikely hands that you happened to get.

Similarly, the odds of randomly getting the physical conditions in the universe capable of producing what we know as “life”—in other words, the odds of getting the bridge hand that we currently happen to have—are indeed vanishingly small. But given that the universe was out there dealing bridge hands for billions of years—that is, continuously stirring its astrophysical shit—we had to wind up with something.

The fact that what we wound up with is an extremely specific and statistically unlikely type of “life”, with highly specialized requirements about oxygen and gravity and radiation and water vapor and all that, should no more surprise us than it should surprise a bridge player that s/he wound up with the extremely specific and statistically unlikely card combination of, say, S: A Q 10 2, H: J 8 5 3, D: A 2, C: K 9 8.

Now, it may be true that there’s really no other way of getting any kind of conditions capable of producing any form of “life” or “consciousness” other than the extremely specific and unlikely form that we got. In which case, it is rather remarkable that the one bridge hand that enabled us to play the game at all actually was the one that got dealt. However, it’s “remarkable” only in terms of our human perspective on it; that doesn’t mean it’s a significant result in statistical terms. Statistically, any other, non-life-producing, configuration of the universe would have been just as unlikely.

It’s like being dealt an ordinary everyday hand of cards. Then you look up the odds of being dealt that hand and it’s 1,235,128 to one, and you then conclude that you must not have been dealt that hand if the odds were that high.

It is not legitimate to use probability on an event that has already happened to prove that it is so unlikely that there must have been some supernatural cause for it.

Take any automobile accident. The probabilities are vanishingly small that it involved those particular cars selected in advance; occurred in that particular place selected in advance; at that particular time selected in advance; did that particular damage; that a particular hubcap selected in advance landed in that particular spot and bounced three time; and on and on with the various aspects of the event. It isn’t a correct use of the infinitesmal probability to try to prove that God must have had a hand in the accident.

My take on this argument is a little different. Yes, “Life As We Know It” requires a universe with the rules we have in place now. However, I can imagine an almost infinite set of “Life Similar To How We Know It” or “Life Very Different From How We Know It” which would be perfectly at home in a universe with different ground rules.

Any theoretical intelligent inhabitant of a universe with a gravitational constant which only allowed one large pseudo-star would be just as smug about his/her/its “personally designed” universe is the only set of conditions which would allow life. “How could Life exist in a universe where matter was all spread out into billiions and billions of really hot mini-stars?”

The classic rebuttal implies that there may have been or are any number of universes where no form of life could exist. BUT, the fact that there are thousands of islands in the oceans WITHOUT Tongan Giant Land Snails does not mean that Tonga was specifically designed as a home for gastropods of unusual size.

This isn’t quite the correct analogy. It’s a question in probability that has a pre-condition: for anyone to ask the question, intelligent life must have developed. Therefore the probability of any variable you like being suitable for intelligent life developing is one. It doesn’t pretend to address the question of why the odds fell that way, it merely says that this isn’t evidence of the presence or absence of a Creator because the question could not have any other answer.
You appear to be slightly confusing two different arguments about creation. One is about physical constants - things like the value of G, alpha, h-bar, etc. If any of these were varied, physics would be broken and AFAWK, life would not exist. It is the attempt to use this as an argument that there must be a Creator that is refuted with the weak anthropic principle.
The second argument is about complexity in natural systems. This claims, for example, that half an eye doesn’t do anyone any good at all, therefore the eye must have sprung into existence fully formed, therefore a creator must have been involved. I am not aware of any case in which this argument actually holds up - we have examples in the evolutionary record of the gradual development of beneficial features and modelling and common sense demonstrate that half an eye is useful, in just the same way that being short-sighted is considerably more useful than being blind.

The former of these two questions is (at least by most physicists, my field of expertise) held to be outside the bounds of scientific enquiry, for the same reasons listed above: if there were indeed nothing, we wouldn’t be here to think about it, therefore we are asking what the odds are of there being something instead of nothing given that there is something instead of nothing.

Part of it (for the [del]creationists[/del] proponents of ID) is the whole visceral/semiconscious thing of “wouldn’t it be awful if we lived in a universe where conditions were horribly unsuited to survival” - I mean, imagine if we had to try to live in a universe where, instead of condensing into matter, there was just a boiling mass of raw energy - how would we even breathe?

Billions and billions MY ASS. I’d call bullshit on any number above a few dozen variables that had to line up “just right” to produce life as we know it.

More relevant, as others have mentioned, those variables could have been slightly “off” and still produced intelligent life, though that life could be very different from us.

Anything related to the solar system or planets specifically, (like, say, life needs a large moon orbiting the home planet to act as an asteroid shield), is disqualified, because there’s hundreds of billions of stars to find such a unique setup. Examining this criteria more critically, I think we can identify where the ID argument has gone awry. Basically, they are saying “what are the odds of this planet being in a solar system exactly like ours with a star of the exact age of our sun blah blah blah.” The answer is “Who cares? It’s completely irrelevant. If not here, somewhere else.” I mean, ID may as well argue that the odds of Europe having the exact human population it does right at this moment is so astronomically small that it could only have been caused by ID. This argument would be cause for derision. (This paragraph, I think, is the best answer I can offer to the OP specifically. How could Europe have this exact population, when that number is so unlikely? It simply is. Any number is equally unlikely. Just the fact that there is a number is not justifiable cause to invoke ID. Said more succinctly, if it were any different, we couldn’t ask the question, rendering the question moot.)

As for the variables that affect everywhere, and so really truly do need to be “just so”, I again reassert that it’s ludicrous to count these as “billions and billions”, but rather as a couple dozen at best.

Imagine, for a moment, that “before” our universe, there were a hundred million universes that had too-strong gravity…these all collapsed into Big Crunches that caused subsequent Big Bangs to try again. Then came a couple hundred million too-weak gravity universes that (eventually) dispersed so completely that the limitless, perfect vaccuum spontaneously erupted into a virtual particle explosion on the order of a new Big Bang. After all these failed attempts, presto chango, we finally get to our current universe. Well, as many holes as there are in this paragraph, it still demonstrates a conceptual possibility of achieving the required perfect alignment of variables without needing any intelligence to direct it.

I wonder, though, at the whole assumption of finding the watch? It’s obvious that if there’s no fossil history of pre-watches that have evolved to the found watch that there must be some type of intelligent design behind it. Likewise if I came across a planet with no evidence that the current inhabitants evolved, I might assume they were created as-is (assuming there’s no crash site where the telephone sanitation workers arrived). Actually I may not make that assumption having come from from someplace where evolution was the reigning doctrine, i.e., even without fossil evidence I’d be compelled to believe they came from somewhere else.

But the watch – in the original workshop there ARE pre-watches in the form of prototypes. You can see where the watch evolved. It was created by intelligent design, and it evolved.

I tend to suspect that everything releated to ID and evolution is so black and white not because anyone really cares about the issue per se, but that they’re pushing their agendas (athiests vs. theists), without any regard for all of the intelligent people that truly are in the middle. But that’s for another area of the board…

It’s a similar smart-ass response to someone who is complaining about how much a movie strains reality: “Yeah, but no one’s going to make a movie about the guy who failed to jump 10 feet from one roof to the other.”

Or to sum it all up:
“If things were different, they’d be different”

To me, the argument described in the OP seems to be a way of saying – Look, you’re looking at it from the wrong point of view. It’s not about what you need. The universe was not created in order to make our existence possible. Our existence is possible merely as a byproduct of the characteristics of the universe.

When you have a long time line with a large number of variables, every specific outcome is extremely unlikely. However, there will be some outcome. You can’t stand at the end and say “boy, this was unlikely!” because every other outcome was equally unlikely.

I don’t know, I’ve often personally felt this about our universe. I complain, but does anyone listen? :slight_smile:

Somewhere there’s a universe where all is love and harmony, and you don’t have to get up in the morning before 10am. And those people are saying (around about noon, after a leisurely breakfast of tea, toast and a good newspaper); “What are the chances that the universe could turn out just so exactly perfect for life?” Cause they don’t realise how good they’ve got it, of course.

Erm, so what I’m trying to say is; if things were different, then you’d be different and you’d still think things were juuuust right. And if things were so different that you couldn’t exist, then they’d still be juuuust right. Just not for you.