Arguments for God from teleology (the appearance of design in the universe) have existed for millennia. The Aposle Paul gives a vague formulation of teleology in Romans 1, and the Psalmist often argues for God’s existence from that which is made– including its beauty and complexity. Thomas Aquinas’ formulation is one of the most famous versions of this argument. However, in recent years, the teleological argument has been strengthened by evidence in biology and physics. In the case of the latter, the minute fine-tuning of various constants to permit life has astounded physicists– regardless of their religious beliefs.
To give just a few examples:
“…If αs [the strong force] were increased by as much as 1 percent, nuclear resonance levels would be so altered that almost all carbon would be burned into oxygen; an increase of 2 percent would preclude formation of protons out of quarks, preventing the existence of atoms. Furthermore, weakening αs by as much as 5 percent would unbind deuteron, which is essential to stellar nucleo-synthesis, leading to a universe composed only of hydrogen. It has been estimated that αs must be within 0.8 and 1.2 times its actual strength or all elements of atomic weight greater than 4 would not have formed. Or again, if αw [the weak force] had been appreciably stronger, then the Big Bang’s nuclear burning would have proceeded past helium to iron, making fusion-powered stars impossible. But if it had been much weaker, then we would have had a universe entirely of helium. Or again, if αG (gravitation) had been a little greater, all stars would have been red dwarfs, which are too cold to support life-bearing planets. If it had been a little smaller, the universe would have been composed exclusively of blue giants, which burn too briefly for life to develop.”
–God and Design: The Telelogical Argument and Modern Science (editor Neil A. Manson)
The fine tuning argument is not claiming that if the laws of our universe were different life could not exist. It is instead arguing that if the constants which exist within a universe containing our universe’s laws were changed, life– particularly intelligent life– could not exist.
But if we grant that these constants are fine-tuned, and that at incomprehensible odds, does this actually prove anything? A key consideration in the discussion of teleological arguments for God’s existence is the anthropic principle. This principle posits, fairly uncontroversially, that if beings are able to observe the universe, then the universe must be compatible with conscious beings capable of observing it.
The controversy surrounds how exactly one formulates this principle. A strong formulation (Strong Anthropic Principle, or SAP) claims that this is the case because the universe is somehow compelled for conscious life to emerge. This form is consistent with, though not necessarily equal to, a claim that a Creator is behind the universe. It does not require this interpretation however, because one could formulate the SAP to simply be saying that conscious human life is inevitable, though unintended. This would require one to believe that the emergence of human life is necessary– a brute fact. However, there is no reason to believe that this is so.
In contrast, a Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) tends to imply chance. According to the logic of this formulation, just because we seem to fit perfectly in this universe, that doesn’t mean we were intended to– after all, if we didn’t fit we couldn’t notice it because we wouldn’t be here. Humorist/novelist Douglas Adams supported WAP by using the illustration of a sentient puddle who, noting that it fit perfectly into a hole in the ground, supposed that the hole had been made expressly for it, as opposed to it being made for the hole. Atheist debater Dan Barker and comedienne Julia Sweeney used a similar example of a person’s hand fitting perfectly into a glove and them assuming that the hand was made to fit into the glove instead of the glove to fit around the hand. In other words, WAP asserts that the appearance of design is illusory. However, other philosophers have claimed that in the case of the universe’s fine-tuning, we are dealing with something qualitatively different:
“[Philosopher John Leslie] gives the illustration of your being dragged before a firing squad of one hundred trained marksmen to be executed. The command is given: ‘Ready! Aim! Fire!’ You hear the deafening roar of the guns. And then you observe that you’re still alive, that all the one hundred trained marksmen missed! Now what do you conclude? ‘I really shouldn’t be surprised at the improbability of their all missing because if they hadn’t all missed, then I wouldn’t be here to be surprised about it. Since I am here, there’s nothing to be explained!’ Of course not! While it’s correct that you shouldn’t be surprised that you don’t observe that you are dead (since if you were dead, you could not observe the fact), nevertheless, it doesn’t follow that you shouldn’t be surprised that you do observe that you are alive. In view of the enormous improbability of the marksmen’s all missing, you ought to be very surprised that you observe that you are alive and so suspect that more than chance alone is involved…” –Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics by William Lane Craig
The eminent biologist and not-so-eminent-to-some atheist thinker Richard Dawkins has stated on numerous occasions that the teleological argument has, for him, more weight than any other theistic argument. While he feels that evolutionary theory removes much of its force in the biological realm, he still finds it difficult to account for fine tuning in the realm of physics (see pages 157-158 of the first edition of his book The God Delusion). In other words, the Strong Anthropic Principle (that we are here because we were intended to be) has some apparent explanatory power according to Dawkins. However, he rests this troubling difficulty on a (dare we call it?) faith that science will one day find a naturalistic explanation in physics that is as impressive as Darwinism is for biology.
Many atheists, following this type of thinking, have argued that theistic arguments are based on filling in gaps of current knowledge with superstition that will eventually be filled in by natural explanations. If we are to be patient, we will see solutions compatible with the philosophical presupposition of atheistic materialism. Of course, even if natural mechanisms were found that helped to fine-tune universal conditions, this would still not undermine the force of the teleological argument or the Strong Anthropic Principle. God can certainly intend the universe to produce conscious beings while still using natural mechanisms to achieve this goal. Perhaps He has done just this. In any case, the force of the teleological argument is felt by nearly all of us. We see what looks to be the mark of intentionality throughout the universe. Evidence of fine tuning may not be totally conclusive on an evidential framework (what evidence is?), but like all evidential arguments, it raises the likelihood of its conclusion considerably. When we examine the odds of fundamental constants (gravitation, the weak force, the strong force, etc.) having the precise values that they do, and this precision being necessary for a life-permitting universe, it is difficult to say that this argument has no force or that it doesn’t provide good evidence for a Creator.