False arguments? – the unfriendly universe

October 5th, 2011

In the discussions and arguments between believers and sceptics on the internet, you’ll find a number of arguments and statements recurring. Many of them are presented as if they are telling blows for their proponents, without necessarily ever being argued logically. I have discussed the Carl Sagan claim “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence“, and now I want to examine some other common arguments – try to put them into a set of propositions, and then examine their validity.

First, the argument that the universe is so unfriendly to life that God couldn’t have designed it.

I’m taking the argument as expressed by Steven on his blog Think That Through, not because I want to criticise him personally (he and I have been having an interesting discussion, and I appreciate his friendliness), but because it is topical.

How does the argument go?

99.99999999999% of the universe is completely hostile to life. If I were designing a universe, I’d make pretty much all of it like the nicest places on earth, if I was focusing on a life-friendly universe.

If we put this argument into propositions, it might go like this:

  1. God (as usually defined) has the qualities of being powerful and creative.
  2. God created the universe for human beings to live in.
  3. If God created the universe for human beings to live in, at least x% of it would be friendly to life.
  4. But 99.99999999999% of the universe is completely hostile to life.
  5. Therefore God doesn’t exist.

Evaluating this argument

Propositions #2 and #3 are the difficult ones.

  • Did God create the universe for human beings (#2), or are we just one of his purposes? Who can say? Perhaps there are other life-forms, or other purposes. This premise is doubtful and I can think of no reason to believe it.
  • How could anyone decide on the value of x in #3, and on what basis? If God is infinitely powerful and humans are finite in number, I can no reason why he couldn’t make the universe as big as he liked and have as much “unfriendly” space as he liked, as long as we have enough. In fact, granted that humans have proven to be somewhat unfriendly to our environment, confining us to one small corner is probably safest for the rest of the universe. And granted our human propensity to fight each other, if there are other life-forms out there, it might be best for their sakes if we are well separated.

So the argument may be formally valid (i.e. the conclusions follow from the premises), but its premises seem doubtful and unsupported at best. Is there any way to rescue the argument?

The only way I can see to make it ‘work’ would be to re-word it:

  1. God (as usually defined) has the qualities of being powerful and creative.
  2. It is possible that God’s main purpose in creating the universe was for human beings to live in it.
  3. I would expect that if God created the universe for human beings to live in, at least x% of it would be friendly to life.
  4. But 99.99999999999% of the universe is completely hostile to life.
  5. Therefore I have some difficulty in believing that God exists.

Is such an argument even worth presenting? I don’t really think so. Especially when the argument from design is so much more powerful.

4 Comments

  1. Just need to point out that my conclusion was not the same as you said it was in #5. I am assuming this was an accident, but the one outlined above really would be stupid and you are right to put it down. It was closer to the revised version, but that’s still way too big of a leap for me to make with only the above premises. I would alter it slightly more and simply say:

    5. Because the universe doesn’t seem to have been designed with sustaining life being one of it’s most important goals, the argument that the universe is merely capable of sustaining life does not constitute evidence that it was intelligently designed with us in mind.

    Thanks for the shout out and the continued civility! 🙂

  2. No it wasn’t an accident, it was an honest attempt to construct an argument out of what you said. After all you did also say: “For all we know, the creator …. is a blundering idiot” which is quite a strong statement. But I am glad to see that you didn’t mean your comments to form an argument of the form I suggested, though there seem to be many others on the internet who do argue that way.

    But to be pedantic, I can’t really agree with your “the universe doesn’t seem to have been designed with sustaining life being one of it’s most important goals”, which you presumably still make on the basis of it being 99.9999% unfriendly – I just don’t see how anyone can equate volume with importance.

    Thanks to you too for this conversation. Watch out for more of these “false arguments”. : )

  3. I think the conclusion I volunteered represents a better honest attempt at getting where I’m coming from, but I might be biased.

    Seriously though, I think an honest reading of what I said couldn’t lead you to your first (5). It could lead you to (5) number two, but only if there is only one argument for the existence of God, which there isn’t. All I can say is that the argument from fine-tuning does not support the god hypothesis. Refuting that argument doesn’t falsify the hypothesis on its own, but I was only talking about the one argument, so I would never say (5) number one after discussing it.

  4. “I think an honest reading of what I said couldn’t lead you to your first (5).”
    You were defending Harris’s statement about faith by arguing that there was no evidence for God in the fine-tuning of the universe. You used the 99.99999% unfriendly “fact” as part of that argument. I think it is quite reasonable to conclude that you thought this fact contributed to your overall argument, and so I addressed it. But we are both agreed that it wasn’t a valid argument, so we can leave it aside now.

    “argument from fine-tuning does not support the god hypothesis”
    That is your opinion, but it is not a fact. My opinion is that it does strongly support the God hypothesis. Where do we go from there? The only way forward I can see is to discuss why we conclude so differently – there must be a reason. What do you reckon?

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