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Let’s Flog the Anthropic Mare!

I just found this magnificent case of bad philosophy on Youtube. (Yes, I know! Who would’ve thunk it, eh?) While I would flatter myself unjustly were I to fancy myself a philosophical equivalent of the Bad Astronomer, (I wish!) my website is hardly about debunking bad philosophy. However, it is a guilty pleasure of mine because it gives me something to talk about. Especially when it’s a topic I’ve written about before.

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I have no idea who these people are and I’m too lazy to research this in-depth. So pardon me if I judge them solely by the merits of this short conversation. The man doing most of the talking (hereafter ‘The Gambler’) seems intelligent enough as apologists go. Unfortunately he is not doing a particularly good job explaining himself. If you find this video hard to follow, no worries. I did too. Just blame The Gambler. John Ankerberg, the host, isn’t doing much to improve matters either. He clearly has completely the wrong idea about the topic being discussed and The Gambler is doing nothing to correct him. Quite the comical farce.

Let’s start with some of the misconceptions. As I understand The Gambler he’s talking about the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God. The argument deals with the well-known aspect of the universal constants (certain fixed quantities partly governing our universe’s behaviour) that had some of them been altered ever so slightly, then life as we know it could not have existed. To use a popular analogy, our universe is like a machine with a bunch of dials, many of which seem carefully tuned to “life.”

This concept is hopefully understandable even without getting into too much detail. We can leave aside what those constants are and why fiddling around with them would turn off “life mode.” In any case, it has nothing whatsoever to do with whether the age of the universe is sufficient time for “evolution to occur.” I’m not even sure what Ankerberg means by this. Given large enough reproduction rates any amount of time is sufficient for evolution to occur. Not to mention that evolution is entirely irrelevant. The driving force of fine-tuning arguments is usually the supposed improbability of life; not its diversity. Why would the laws of physics allow the existence of life at all, when they could have failed to do so even more easily?

The other main misconception is that the idea of multiple universes arises solely from the atheist’s discomfort with the improbability of life. Many philosophers, theoretical physicists, and quite a few authors have postulated multiple universes for all sorts of reasons. By all means let’s concede – as I did before – that:

Accepting the actual existence of many worlds in order to escape the existence of God seems arbitrarily discriminatory

This doesn’t in any way detract from the fact, that if you have independent reasons for believing in multiple universes (e.g. because they allow you to make sense of modality or because they allow you to retain determinism in quantum physics) then it dissolves the mystery of “fine-tuning” quite neatly into a weak anthropic principle at no added cost. That is to say, if you already believe we live in a multiverse for reasons nothing to do with theism/atheism, then you get to shrug your shoulders at fine-tuning and say “Well, I suppose there had to be life as we know it in one of them.”

Which leads us neatly into The Gambler’s critique of atheists, that we commit the Gambler’s fallacy. He likens it to tossing a coin repeatedly. The coin lands with ‘heads’ up improbably often. Atheists allegedly then conclude that the coin therefore must have been tossed prior to the ‘head’ run. The Gambler considers this conclusion fallacious because the coin might be double-headed. He is right in his assessment that what he describes is an example of Gambler’s fallacy. He is wrong about the dialectic.

This is closer to how the real dialectic goes:
Theist: “The universe is remarkably structured. If you fiddled around with some of its constants, life couldn’t exist.”
Atheist: “Surely you mean ‘life as we know it’ couldn’t exist? Maybe other possible “tunings” could support other kinds of life?”
T: “Alright, but that’s just speculation.”
A: “Sure. So the universe is unlikely. What’s your point?”
T: “So it must have been purposely designed! God obviously wanted life and therefore created a life-supporting universe!”
A: “She might have done a better job…”
T: “Excuse me?”
A: “Never mind. But hold on. Surely your premise, that the universe is improbably life-supporting, doesn’t support your conclusion that therefore a life-desiring creator exists.”
T: “How so?”
A: “Well, perhaps it’s just a massive coincidence or…”
T: “Yeah right.”
A: “Oh, I agree it probably isn’t. However, it’s still not ruled out by your premise and so invalidates your argument. Or maybe there are multiple universes.”
T: “Aha! That’s the Gambler’s fallacy!”
A: “It would be if I had tried to argue that there are, in fact, such universes based on nothing but the premise that it’s improbable that our universe should support life. However, I’m not the one arguing for a multiverse, you’re the one arguing for God.
T: “But surely God is more parsimonious!”
A: “Perhaps. But if you think I would have committed a fallacy in arguing for a multiverse, because the conclusion doesn’t deductively follow from our agreed premise, then surely you must admit that your God-conclusion is equally fallacious.”
T: “But concluding that a coin, which always lands heads up is double-headed isn’t a Gambler’s fallacy.”
A: “No, it isn’t. It is, however, an argument from ignorance. At least until you’ve ruled out other possible explanations for your improbable tosses. You evidently believe in God. Suppose God intervened in the coin tosses?”
T: “But the double-headed coin is analogous to God. What is ‘God’ then analogous to?”
A: “I honestly don’t know. Some other supernatural explanation for the universe being the way it is? Maybe humans will discover magical means to time-travel, go back in time, and design the universe.”
T: “That sounds perfectly ridiculous.”
A: “Not more so than your God does to me…”
T: “…”

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