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Puddles, Black Holes & Fungi

Explain the ‘fine-tuning’ version of the teleological argument. Then argue for whether or not it supports the rationality of theism.


I shall argue that, while it might support the rationality of believing there is an explanation, the fine-tuning version of the teleological argument does not support the rationality of granting any particular explanation – e.g. theism – precedence.

Teleological arguments hinge upon certain attributes of natural phenomena being evidential of intentional purposiveness. Very crudely put; just as a painting must have a painter, so must the creation have a creator. Of course there is far between this simplistic reasoning and its more sophisticated kinship; most importantly, the replacement of question begging with a rationale for why said attributes are indicative of design.

One such common rationale is the improbability of an attribute emerging by blind chance as opposed to the greater likelihood of its emergence by conscious agency. This is the driving force of the fine-tuning version. The improbable attribute to be explained is the structured order of the universal laws. Particularly the emphasis is on their apparent finely tuned suitability to intelligent life.

When faced with this imposing list [of such “happy cosmic accidents.”], it’s shocking to find how many of the familiar constants of the universe lie within a very narrow band that makes life possible (Kaku, 2006, p. 247).


An existing universal lawmaker, who desired intelligent life, would be a perfectly reasonable explanation for why the laws allow it. Nonetheless, while certainly true, this immediately raises the question of why we should grant intelligent life the privilege of being such an end-goal. A much-used defence against the strong anthropic principle – stating that the universe had to permit the emergence of observers (Le Poidevin, 1996, p. 59) – is simply to turn it into a weak one. Perhaps most famously expressed by Douglas Adams:

[it] is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in – an interesting hole I find myself in – fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it! (Digital Biota 2, 1998)’

However, Adams’ quip contains more than the superficial banality of a mere weak anthropic ‘wherever you go, there you are!’ If the hole is analogous to the universe and its shape represents one possible permutation of its laws, then Adams is entertaining the notion of observer-emergence independent of any particular permutation – i.e. a puddle would form snugly in any hole. Granted, such speculation of alternative biochemistry – e.g. non-carbon based life – is unverifiable science fiction. However, while the atheist cannot claim hypothetical alternative life-permitting universes, neither can the theist claim its negation. Though the recent discovery of fungi living on gamma radiation (Calvo, 2002) leaves something to be said for the potentiality of unlimited strangeness in life, it is fair to say that the latter assumption might not be as speculative as the former. Then again, the former is not being used as a premise for an even more speculative conclusion.

By no means is the argument unsalvageable, however, since it is unclear why it should require the strong anthropic principle. After all, the improbable attribute under consideration is the ordered structure of the laws – not their alleged purpose. It is easily imaginable then that conscious observers are just a by-product of God’s true purpose for creation. Presumably if God desired a universe containing black holes then it would have to include matter dense enough to allow gravitational singularities and carbon-based life alike. It is perhaps not as intuitively comforting as to believe all to be for one’s own benefit. But who would presume certainty that a supreme being does not fancy black holes over humans?

Could we then explain the improbability of our universal laws by altering our newly formulated strong black hole principle into a weaker version as with its anthropic counterpart? It seems unlikely without invoking modal realism or fecund universes theory. Accepting the actual existence of many worlds in order to escape the existence of God seems arbitrarily discriminatory (unless you are a quantum physicist and therefore believe that there is bona fide evidence for a multiverse). However – as with our previous considerations of alternative biochemistry – it is not necessary to grant any veracity to these speculations. Their mere conceivability still acts as a wedge between the premises of the fine-tuning argument and its conclusion.

The theist could still insist on an inference to the best explanation. Yet it remains to be seen why God’s agency is any better an explanation than the rest. The accuracy of such an inference depends on our knowledge of (i) preferably all – or at the very least most – of the possible explanations and (ii) the conditional framework in which they are competing to assess them against. We do not know (i) because it could be almost any imaginable or unimaginable thing. Neither do we know (ii) because we are attempting to explain the origin of the very framework with which we normally assess such matters.

One could say that the best explanation is the most probable one. However – as Le Poidevin argues in Arguing for Atheism (1996, pp. 49-54) – this is amenable to exactly the same critique:

[…] if the probability of events is determined in part by the laws of physics, what can it mean to talk of the probability of the laws of physics themselves? (loc. cit.)


After being stripped of the persuasive lure of appeals to design or probability, the fine-tuning argument is left to fend only with measly demands of ‘…but surely the universe did not originate arbitrarily? Why precisely these laws?’ These are perfectly valid concerns and few people think the universe ‘just happened.’ But atheism does not commit to that. It is disingenuous to present the issue as if one must either accept arbitrariness or God.

It is true that if God exists then the likelihood of a human existence is greater than not. However, as we have explored the same is true for any number of speculative explanations – with the added worry of those we have yet to think of. Inasmuch as the fine-tuning argument supports the rationality of any belief, it can only support that there is an explanation. To go from there to the assertion of God as the explanation to the exclusion of other possibilities is a textbook example of a fallacious ‘God of the gaps’ argument.

I find it hard to believe that anybody would ever use the anthropic principle if he had a better explanation for something. I’ve yet, for example, to hear an anthropic principle of world history (Guth, Alan, cf. Lightman, 1990, p. 479).




Kaku, Michio, Parallel Worlds: The science of alternative universes and our future in the cosmos, (Penguin Books: London, GB, 2006)

Le Poidevin, Robin, Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, (Routledge: New York, US, 1996)

Lightman, Alan, and Roberta Brawer, Origins: The Lives and Worlds of Modern
, (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass, 1990)


Calvo, Ana M. Et al. “Relationship between secondary metabolism and fungal development”, Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews (September 2002) p. 447-459, Vol. 66, No. 3

Web Pages:

Adams, Douglas, “Is there an Artificial God?” (speech), Digital Biota 2 (September 1998), URL = < http://www.biota.org/people/douglasadams/>.

Ratzsch, Del, “Teleological Arguments for God’s Existence”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/teleological-arguments/>.

Lecture slides:

Lecture 7: Analyzing Teleological Arguments.

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5 Responses to “Puddles, Black Holes & Fungi”

  1. Paul irving says:

    Good! Fine tuned to H* by

  2. It’s sad to see system of thought trapped by it’s own motives and definitions.

    Does it not seem odd that the argument uses logic, which is a simple extension of the laws of physics to repudiate a hypothesized answer to a question of what shapes the laws of physics and thus logic?

    Any attmept to deconstruct this position amounts to using a word to define itself, that’s why you can’t prove an axiom.

    I grow weary of having words shove into my mouth.

    This is the atheist equivalent of “You’re only an atheist because you hate god.” equals “You only believe in a god because you don’t understand.”

    What if I DO understand? What if YOU don’t understand? What if you can’t? What if you won’t?

    To reiterate. It is not a god of the gaps argument if the gap can ONLY be filled by a force that could by definition ONLY be a god, and nothing but.

    “Oh but it’a not a god it’s just this thing that created existence and enforces every physical rule.” That’s a god, and clearl,y we have one, dress it up how you like.

    There is no analogy, there is no process of definition. It is axiomatic, and you either get it or you don’t. There is no proof that 1=1, it must simply be realized.

    The structure of all is what it is, and there are no real alternatives. Universe=Universe.

    Many people, regardless of reading, regardless of processing power and memory, simply can not grasp that, or I think on a deep psychological level, won’t, out of reluctance I expect to join what they see as the rank and file. (Those dimwitted theists.)

    Granted theism can be a mental infection, or a symptom of mental weakness, but not always. A careful claim of god which includes ONLY those traits which MAKE something a god, and yet ONLY fills the LAST gap, renders a thinking man a thiest by default.

    The speed of light is not up for debate, nor are the associated laws, yet we still have creationists, same thing here, accept it or refuse.

    As they say all achievement is a compensation for some other failing perceived or actual, conscious or sub, what happens when the very determination that’s gives birth to profound understanding recoils to its core at the idea of coming full circle?

    Enjoy the last word sketch, I’m done with this. I’m happy I could help with this article.

  3. Help with this article? What do you mean? I wrote this a great while ago before we discussed any of this. I just haven’t posted it until now. You seem…agitated?

  4. Thank you so much for your kind words, Ammy.

  5. […] a past essay of mine about the teleological argument I said that: Accepting the actual existence of many worlds in order […]

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