Was the universe designed?

January 9th, 2012 in clues. Tags: , , , , , ,

Crab Nebula

One of the enjoyable things about writing a blog is the things you learn when researching a topic. I have read a little on the big bang and the fundamental laws that underpin our universe and I agree with the suggestion that the universe didn’t get the way it is by chance.

But in preparing this post, I came across two new things that have made me feel this is a very strong argument for the existence of God.

The laws and numbers

Cosmologists have found that about a dozen fundamental universal laws and constants determine the broad shape and history of our universe – things like the strength of the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces), the ratio of the masses of the electron and the proton, the initial speed of expansion of the big bang, etc.

But even more interesting, they have found that if any of these had been even slightly different, the effects on our universe would be huge. It might have collapsed in on itself very quickly and no longer exist, or flown apart so that there were no solid objects. It might have been composed of nothing but hydrogen. And it almost certainly wouldn’t be capable of supporting life, any life, and certainly not complex carbon-based intelligent life like us. In fact the odds of this happening by chance are astronomically (groan!) long. You can check out the details in Science and the design of the universe).

This has led to much speculation of how this happened.

The teleological argument

These discoveries have given a new lease of life to an old philosophical argument for the existence of God – the teleological or design argument (teleology is the study of design or purpose). I came across a well-presented version of this argument in William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith and modified it a little. And here was my first pleasant surprise, for I found this formulation was very effective in bringing out the issues.

The formal argument

  1. The character of the universe is determined by physical laws and constants.
  2. If these laws and constants had been different, life would probably not have arisen.
  3. The laws and constants which led to this suitability for life must have been determined by either physical necessity, chance or design.
  4. The laws and constants have not been determined by physical necessity.
  5. The laws and constants have not been determined by chance.
  6. Therefore the universe was designed.

Analysis of the argument

All the premises (1-5) can be supported from the conclusions of the world’s most eminent cosmologists. Of course, not all cosmologists would agree with every one, but it seems most would. In particular, most agree that only an incredibly small number of possible universe would be inhabitable (premise 2) and that it is virtually impossible that our universe is the way it is by chance (premise 5).

The two most contentious premises are 3 and 4.

‘Physical necessity’ in premise 4 refers to the possibility that scientists discover an underlying law which explains the fine-tuning. It hasn’t been discovered yet and some cosmologists think the laws and constants cannot be explained this way. And if an underlying ‘theory of everything’ is discovered, it would still need to be explained. So premise 4 is likely to be true, but not certain.

The multiverse

Although they cannot prove it, many scientists believe our universe is but one of millions of universes that exist as part of a ‘multiverse’, and this is sometimes seen as the explanation of the fine-tuning – if the many universes all have different properties, then it may not be so unlikely that one of them is life-permitting universe. Effectively the multiverse becomes a fourth possible explanation in premise 3.

But (and this is the second new idea), the multiverse isn’t an explanation for the design, but part of the design. We can include it in the physical reality which we are seeking to explain – it too must be caused by necessity, chance or design. And it turns out that the improbability of the universe occurring by chance is so large that even if there were 10500 universes (the current estimate of the size of the multiverse), the odds are not significantly improved.


So it seems that the 5 premises are either certain (i.e. supported by the leading cosmologists) or probable. Which means the conclusion is probable, and this is a powerful argument for the existence of a designer. Of course the argument doesn’t establish that the designer is God, and certainly doesn’t establish if it is the God of any particular religion. But it is hard to think of any other way the universe could be designed except by God, so the conclusion is a big step.

The strength and clarity of this conclusion surprised me a little. You can read a full discussion of the premises and the counter arguments in The teleological argument.

One Comment

  1. There is a long tradition ihbend the cosmological arrow of time, going back to Boltzmann, and the question which Sean and his colleague attempt to address directly, namely, why did the universe start from such a low-entropy state really does go to the heart of the issue.The modern history of this subject dates from the Cornell 1963 conference (described in T. Gold The Nature of Time, 1967). This meeting is remembered for the presence of a Mr.X who, according to Hawking felt the proceedings were so worthless that he didn’t want his name associated with them. It was an open secret that Mr.X was Richard Feynman (cf. S.Hawking in Physical Origins of Time Asymmetry, eds J.J.Halliwell, J.Perez-Mercader, W.H. Zurek (1993), p.346). In my mischievous way I bring it up because Sean is fond of reminding us that he sits at Dick Feynman’s desk at Caltech:) This latter reference documents the second major conference on the subject in Mazagon, Spain in 1991. It’s an interesting read, with contributions from Wheeler, Gell-Mann and Hartle, Hawking, Zureck, DeWitt and Griffiths (of consistent histories fame) and others, along with a record of post-talk debates. But, as before, it’s very philosophical and I couldn’t extract any evidence that anyone was in the business of making scientific predictions. Instead, they appeared to spend a fair of time arguing over semantics, e.g. decoherence, consistent histories, what is reality etc.. Sean’s paper is very much in the tradition and style of such contributions, but I liked it because unlike many others it really tries to home in on the core issue why the initial low entropy.Ultimately however, most of this quantum cosmological palaver relies on Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the multiverse which flows from that.But as we know, there is no credible experimental mechanism to tell us whether the Copenhagen interpretation should be favoured over the Many-Worlds one (or any of the other stabs at this topic). David Deutsch, who filled in the gaps in Everett’s original arguments claims there is (Int. J. Theor. Phys. 1985), but other dispute this. All I ask is, show me a reasonable experiment capable of telling us which interpretation (if any) is favoured by nature. Until then, it’s just philosophy with a high-tech veneer.

Comments are closed.