TIA Tuesday: Imagine there’s no heaven

Last week, we left Vox cackling gleefully amongst the flaming debris of what he thought was the wreckage of Dawkins’s Ultimate 747 argument—an argument that Vox “demolished” by the unexpected strategy of admitting that Intelligent Design is a self-defeating sham. This week, he serves heaven as well as he has served ID, in his presentation of the anthropic principle.

As we saw before, the flaw in the anthropic principle, as an argument for an intelligent Creator, is that it fails to distinguish between imaginable alternatives and those which are actually possible in the real world. As Vox correctly points out, there is not—so far—any conclusive scientific reason for supposing that any other configuration of the fundamental physical constants of the universe could actually occur in objective reality.

Only by postulating a potentially infinite number of universes can our wildly improbable universe become mathematically probable. Of course, there are no signs of any of these other universes, nor did science ever take the idea of parallel universes seriously until the alternative was accepting the apparent evidence for a universal designer.

If, however, the total number of actual possibilities is limited to one, then it is at least an exaggeration to refer to the 1:1 probability as “wildly improbable.” By Vox’s own argument, the anthropic “problem” is not so much an improbability as a misperception.

There’s another problem with Vox’s use of the anthropic principle as an argument for the Designer: the “wildly improbable” combination of conditions is only considered to be improbable because the constants involved have the values they would need to have in order for intelligent life to arise naturally, without the intervention of a supernatural Designer. (I believe it was PalMD who first pointed this out to me.) Creationists ought to pick a horse and then ride it. Are the laws of nature contrary to what would be required for intelligent life to evolve, or are they, as Vox argues, exactly consistent with what Darwinian evolution would require?

Yet another problem with Vox’s attack on the multiverse concept is that it has theological implications. An alternate universe would be a realm somewhat similar to this cosmos, but independent of it and with different laws. Clearly, heaven and hell are not part of this cosmos, so if they did exist, they would have to be alternate universes. Though Vox does not realize it, his defense of the anthropic argument is not just an attack on Dawkins, it makes a mockery of heaven and hell as well. With his typical flair, Vox draws our attention to the fact of how “utterly non-scientific” it is (at this point) to claim to know that there are other realms besides this natural, material universe.

Perhaps the most serious error Vox makes, though, is when he claims, “The anthropic principle is an explanation for the great mystery of physics: the improbable coincidence of various fundamental constants being set at just the right levels in order to support life in the universe.” The anthropic principle, as Vox defines and uses it, is not an explanation but is instead merely a superstition. It does not describe a verifiable and specific chain of events from the proposed cause to the observed effect, it merely attributes the observed effect to some indetectable, arbitrarily-selected, and unverifiable cause, without showing any actual connection between the two, or even proposing what such a connection would look like if it did exist.

Vox’s anthropic argument is, in fact, a reversion to a very specific and primitive form of superstition known as animism. When an animist encounters a natural phenomenon he does not understand, he leaps to the conclusion that some kind of invisible, magical personality must have intentionally produced it. The anthropic argument “explains” how the cosmos got its constants the same way animism “explains” how evil spirits cause disease—by magical attribution instead of by scientific and verifiable explanation.

Vox argues that, if a Creator is improbable on the grounds that (as Dawkins points out) He would have to be more complex and improbable than His creation, then the multiverse concept is even more improbable. If there’s a one-in-a-million chance of one universe arising, then there would have to be a one-in-a-trillion chance of two. Of course, this kind of math assumes that God only created one of the many different universes, and that heaven and hell, for example, were not created. Otherwise Dawkins’s original argument would still apply. But I rather think that Vox’s math is way off, by failing to take into account that these alternate universes (a) would not necessarily have to produce intelligent life and (b) would likely arise as a result of conditions that would make a wide range of universes all but inevitable. (A full discussion of this will be left as an exercise for the reader.)

Vox mocks Dawkins for suggesting that “We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics” and for saying that “the relatively weak cranes we have at present are, when abetted by the anthropic principle, self-evidently better than the self-defeating skyhook hypothesis of an intelligent designer.” In particular, Vox picks out the adverb “self-evidently,” which he takes as an admission of lack of proof (instead of understanding Dawkins’s point as being that a weak argument is self-evidently better than a self-defeating one).

“Lacking any means of proving his conclusion, Dawkins simply throws up his hands and declares it to be self-evident! I ask you this, dear atheist reader, would you accept an argument this poorly constructed as conclusive and irrefutable evidence of the existence of God?” The difference, of course, is that Dawkins is precisely not appealing to the notion that his conclusion is self-evident. He made his argument for why Intelligent Design contradicts its own premise in arguing that complex things need a more-complex (skyhook) Creator, and in fact he argued his point so well that the only way Vox could dispute Dawkins’s conclusion was to reject the ID skyhook. Dawkins’s <i>conclusion</i> was demonstrated; the “self-evident” is merely referring to the superiority of a weak argument over a self-defeating one.

And that pretty much does it for this chapter. Dawkins made some brilliant arguments about how ID assumptions lead to untenable conclusions, and the only point Vox could find to dispute with Dawkins was that he could avoid those conclusions if he rejected the idea that complex things need intelligent (more complex) creators. Thus, Vox avoided being defeated in battle through the simple expedient of ceding the territory to the opposition and withdrawing before combat could be joined. True, the field is littered with carnage and destruction. But those were Vox’s allies—he slaughtered them on his way back from the front.

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Posted in Science, Superstition, TIA. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “TIA Tuesday: Imagine there’s no heaven”

  1. valdemar Says:

    Excellent summary of why VD is a bit pathetic. Instead of offering grownup arguments in rational debate he swaggers among toadies even more intellectually challenged than himself.

    And now Dr Dawkins gets to be on Doctor Who as the voice of science. I wonder what TV show might offer VD a cameo role? Something that involves pie throwing, screened well after midnight, I suppose.

  2. B8ovin Says:

    I should preface this by saying that I am not a physicist, philosopher or a professional in these realms in any way (probably evident at this point), but your posts have always made me think more deeply about issues involving my atheism. That said, here are some questions I have entertained (which could be treated as rhetorical or answered if anyone had the desire):
    Doesn’t the size of the universe argue against the anthropic principle? I would assume the anthropic principle would be valid only in a smaller universe where the conclusions would be more evident.
    Aren’t unknowns potential killers of the assumptions of the anthropic principle? It seems to me that the discovery of other forms of life that require markedly different resources and conditions would argue that the universe itself is adaptive and therefore the assumption of it being “programmed” or “fine tuned” would be found false.
    Finally, is the Earth itself really fine tuned? Given the age of life and the vast adaptabilities of forms and environments, can’t it be argued more reasonably that LIFE is fine tuned for the universe (the sample of Earth being our only laboratory)?

  3. jorgaba Says:


    Check out Victor Stenger’s “Is the universe fine-tuned for us?” :