JR'S Free Thought Pages
            No Gods  ~ No Masters   

                                                            

                                      

The Anthropic Principle & the Finely Tuned Universe

Is this Evidence for God?

By Johnny Reb

Based on all we currently know about fundamental physics and cosmology, the most logically consistent and parsimonious picture of the universe as we know it is a natural one, with no sign of design or purposeful creation provided by scientific observations.- Victor Stenger

Footnotes indicated by *

The Religious Impulse

Has the universe developed and been finely tuned for the specific purpose of being inhabitable, observed and understood by intelligent beings, or is it just a matter of sheer chance that intelligent beings exist at all? After all, everything on this petty planet in a vast apparently desolate Universe seems just right (The Goldilocks Hypothesis) for the lives of creatures such as us. In his reply to the perennial optimism of Gottfried Leibnitz, who proclaimed that because of an omnipotent beneficent Christian God we necessarily live in the “best of all possible worlds”, Voltaire in his marvelous satire of Leibnitz titled Candide, quipped that the nose is perfectly designed to accommodate spectacles, especially those that are rose-tinted.*

* Among his many philosophical interests and concerns, Leibnitz took on the problem of evil: if God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent how do we account for the gratuitous evil, suffering and injustice that exist in the world? Historically, attempts to answer the question have been made using various spurious sophistical arguments, for example, by explaining away evil or reconciling evil with good. The problem of evil poses a very awkward ques­tion for anyone who wants to assert, literally, the full traditional set of theistic doctrines. In philosophical circles, this exercise in sophistry is called theodicy. Not surprisingly, their agonizing apologetics and twisted logic have never managed to convince religious skeptics or adherents to competing religious traditions. What would the Greeks, Romans and Vikings who believed in Gods such as Thor, Zeus and Odin, deities who are no longer believed in, think of these special pleadings? It's not surprising they have no effect – their arguments even barely manage to convince believers. The attempts of Christian apologists to answer the argument from evil, beginning with the theodicy of Leibnitz, have been subjected to a barrage of satirical critiques from the likes of Voltaire to com­pelling counter-arguments from contemporary analytic philosophers such as J.L. Mackie, Antony Flew and Kai Nielsen. Furthermore, if a successful rebuttal to the argument from evil cannot be made, a posteriori arguments like the cosmological and design arguments become super­fluous. What good would it do to prove the existence of an Uncaused Cause or Great Designer so long as evil remains appar­ently unjus­tified? In such a case, these argu­ments, instead of being arguments for the existence of a God that’s worthy of adulation, would seem to support the existence of something like Descartes' evil demon. For my own personal account of this conundrum see The Underachieving Christian God.

The Anthropic Principle

Brandon Carter, in his 1973 paper, The Anthropic Principle, defined the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) as follows: "we must be prepared to take account of the fact that our location in the universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers." Note that for Carter, "location" refers to our location in time as well as space. He also proposed the Strong Anthropic Principle (SAP), defining it as: "the Universe (and hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends) must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage. To paraphrase Descartes, cogito ergo mundus talis est." The Latin tag "I think, therefore the world is such [as it is]" makes it clear that "must" indicates a deduction from the fact of our existence; the statement is thus a truism.

The only book I have personally read on this topic I did so many years ago. It’s the excellent 1988 publication by John Barrow and Frank Tipler called The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. The authors of this book depart marginally from Carter and define the WAP and SAP as follows:

Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP) (Barrow and Tipler): "The observed values of all physical and cosmological quantities are not equally probable but they take on values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where carbon-based life can evolve and by the requirements that the Universe be old enough for it to have already done so." Unlike Carter they restrict the principle to carbon-based life, rather than just "observers." A more important difference is that they apply the WAP to the fundamental physical constants, such as the fine structure constant, the number of space time dimensions, and the cosmological constant, topics that fall under Carter's SAP.

Physicist Victor Stenger sums up the Anthropic Principle this way:

... earthly life is so sensitive to the values of the fundamental physical constants and properties of its environment that even the tiniest changes to any of these would mean that life as we see it around us would not exist. This is said to reveal a universe in which the fundamental physical constants of nature are exquisitely fine-tuned and delicately balanced for the production of life. As the argument goes, the chance that any initially random set of constants would correspond to the set of values they happen to have in our universe is very small; thus this precise balancing act is exceedingly unlikely to be the result of mindless chance. Rather, an intelligent, purposeful, and indeed personal Creator probably made things the way they are.

The Tautological Religious Distortion

Christian fundamentalists have not failed to notice how this theory can be conveniently twisted into a Procrustean bed in order to lend scientific credibility to their religious doctrine of Creationism. The latest incantation of creationism has been reformulated as intelligent design, an attempt to sidestep the obvious religious character of their circuitous teleological arguments based on the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. But as the bumper sticker says: “Intelligent design is neither.”

All teleological arguments vary slightly in form but all attribute the perceived “purpose” behind the complexity of nature to a divine creator. The basic structure of such post-hoc inductive arguments follows a form similar to the following:

1.     The diversity and complexity of life-forms is far too complex and finely tuned to perfection to have arisen by random forces or sheer chance.

2.     This occurrence must have been the work of an omnipotent Creator.

3.     Therefore the Christian, or some other omnipotent God, exists.

Is this argument sound? First, the two premises of the argument are dubious and surely far from obvious. Second, assuming the truth of the two premises, the conclusion does not necessarily follow from them. Moreover, the fact that a given complex phenomenon is explained by another that is even more improbable and complex than what is being explained does not seem to bother the religiously inclined. Life’s complexity does however have an explanation universally accepted by all reputable scientists. It’s called Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection or The Theory of Evolution. Darwin’s brilliant theory has been improved, tweaked and confirmed by the mind-blowing work in genetics during the past 60 years. The rejection of this theory among North American and 32 European countries, including Japan is only prevalent in the Republic of Jesus, aka The United States of America. Only Turkey has a higher percentage of its citizens rejecting Darwin. In most Western European countries, evolution is generally accepted by the majority of people. It’s a disturbing fact that more Americans believe in horoscopes* than they do Evolution.

* [Over 2500 years ago] Pythagoras refuted astrology by the simple means of pointing out that identical twins do not have the same future. I further know that the zodiac was drawn up long before several of the planets in our solar system had been detected, and of course I understand that I could not be "shown" my immediate or long-term future without this disclosure altering the outcome. Thousands of people consult their "stars" in the newspapers every day, and then have unpredicted heart attacks or traffic accidents. (An astrologer of a London tabloid was once fired by means of a letter from his editor which began, "As you will no doubt have foreseen.") God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens, p.74

Apologists for intelligent design often cite the fine-tuning observations that in part preceded the formulation of the Anthropic Principle by Carter as a working hypothesis for an intelligent designer, more specifically the Christian variety. Opponents of intelligent design are not limited to those who hypothesize that other universes exist, they may also argue, contra the Anthropic Principle, that the universe is less fine-tuned than often claimed, or that accepting fine tuning as a brute fact is less implausible than the idea of an intelligent creator. Furthermore, even accepting fine tuning, others have argued that the Anthropic Principle as conventionally stated actually undermines the notion of an intelligent designer. This is the position I will attempt to defend.

To recap, the Anthropic Principle is the belief that it is virtually impossible that a number of factors in the early universe, which had to be coordinated in order to produce a universe capable of sustaining advanced life forms, could have happened by chance. Notwithstanding conceptual difficulties and the problem of infinite regress, this belief is taken by some as compelling evidence that the universe was conceivably created by a very powerful and intelligent being such as the God of Abraham or Allah. If the mass of the universe and the strengths of the four basic forces of electromagnetism, gravitation, and the strong and weak nuclear forces were different or weren't sufficiently "fine-tuned" to work together the way they do, the universe and our earth as we know them would not exist. A delicate balance of physical constants is necessary for carbon and other chemical elements beyond lithium in the periodic table to be cooked in stars. In short, a lot of things had to happen in concert for us to exist (the so-called "Anthropic coincidences"). Some physicists find it odd, apparently, that we exist only at a time in the history of the universe when we could exist. But these same physicists do not find it odd, apparently, that most of the universe that we know is inhospitable to life. Some might wonder: If everything is so fine-tuned for life, how come the rest of the universe isn't teeming with life?

The celebrated Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion, explained it this way:

It is a strange fact, incidentally, that religious apologists love the Anthropic Principle. For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their case. Precisely the opposite is true. The Anthropic Principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence. I think the confusion arises in the religious mind because the Anthropic Principle is only ever mentioned in the context of the problem that it solves, namely the fact that we live in a life-friendly place. What the religious mind then fails to grasp is that two candidate solutions are offered to the problem. God is one. The Anthropic Principle is the other. They are alternatives. (p. 136)

We wouldn't exist and be conscious of the world around us if the world around us wasn't compatible with our existence. Or, as physicist Bob Park put it: "If things were different, things would not be the way things are." In this sense the Anthropic Principle is reduced to an empty tautology.

Another way of framing it is popular among those who wish that science will quit slamming and denigrating their faith:

Physicists have stumbled on signs that the cosmos is custom-made for life and consciousness. It turns out that if the constants of nature - unchanging numbers like the strength of gravity, the charge of an electron and the mass of a proton - were the tiniest bit different, then atoms would not hold together, stars would not burn and life would never have made an appearance. (Sharon Begley, Newsweek, July 1998)

Yes, if things had been different, we wouldn't be here. But they weren't and we are. Anyway, perhaps if a few neurotransmitters travelled north instead of south in my brain, I'd be proclaiming that physics proves Muhammad is God's prophet or that Larry, Moe and Curley Joe represent the Holy Trinity. But they didn't and I'm not. Still, if things were different, they'd be different. Anyway, for someone to claim the improbability of something that's already happened is tantamount to flawed post hoc reasoning. It’s also a tad misleading and, ultimately, meaningless. As Mathematician and specialist in Probability Theory John Allen Paulos says:

... rarity by itself shouldn't necessarily be evidence of anything. When one is dealt a bridge hand of thirteen cards, the probability of being dealt that particular hand is less than one in 600 billion. Still, it would be absurd for someone to be dealt a hand, examine it carefully, calculate that the probability of getting it is less than one in 600 billion, and then conclude that he must not have been dealt that very hand because it is so very improbable. (Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences)

It would be even more far-fetched and asinine to declare that a “miracle” must have happened and that an intelligent force of supernatural dimensions must be at work behind every poker or bridge hand. It’s the same sort of implicit reasoning used by religiously inclined professional baseball players who point to the heavens as they round the bases following a home run. Or even more perverse than the logic of athletes is the degraded reasoning of a sole survivor of an airplane crash or Tsunami that Jesus was with him. Not surprisingly, this spurious reasoning is conspicuously absent when accounting for the same baseball player hitting into a double play or providing a rationalization for the death of all the others in the airline or Tsunami disaster. These events are the will of God we’re told by the devout, but surely God has better things to do (like healing a child with leukemia or a war veteran who’s had his legs blown off) than concerning himself with frivolous sporting events. I suggest to God who were told works in mysterious ways that a simpler solution to the endless gratuitous evil and suffering in the world might be to prevent them from happening in the first place.

There are several variations of the Anthropic Principle, including a version that seems identical to classical philosophical idealism: the universe only exists because we perceive it. This may be true in a trivial sense, but it’s enormously counter-intuitive and more or less equivalent to the age old conundrum “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to experience it, did it happen?” Of course, since 99% of all species that have existed on earth are now extinct, we humans are destined to the same fate, and since we’re rapidly destroying our own environment to accelerate our extinction, it’s perhaps more immanent than we care to admit. And when that happens there won’t be anyone left on the planet to ponder on such philosophical conundrums. When humans become extinct (and we will), their Gods will disappear with them just as Zeus, Thor and Odin have become historical oddities because the cultures that invented them have died out and there’s no one left to believe in them. But for many Christians there’s the Rapture, a glorious event in which the Christian God will send Jesus on another suicide mission to save them once again. Because of the “Believe or Burn” rule, the rest of us non-believers in Christ and his Deadbeat Dad we’ll be thrown into his celestial ovens to roast for eternity.

Christians never seem to ask the question as to why God would design a parasite that needs to burrow into the stomach of an animal cow or sheep to live or even design animals so they have to kill and devour other animals to survive. And just to amuse himself, he designed a female praying mantis that eats her mate after making out and a female black widow spider that bites the head off her lover after a roll in the sack. Then I’ll design a platypus, a blind mole and a bird with wings that can’t fly. The list of cuddly warm and fuzzy stories about nature is seemingly endless. But when God, Larry, Moe and Curly Joe got around to designing the human body they really must have been enjoyed a good mischievous laugh.

 In an article in Scientific American titled "If Humans Were Built to Last," S. Jay Olshansky, Bruce Carnes, and Robert N. Butler have looked at the seemingly endless flaws in the human body and shown how a competent engineer might have addressed these defects to enable us to live far longer and healthier life than most of us do. Some of the myriad of flaws the Scientific American authors identified in the human machine point away from any kind of near-perfection in design. To mention a few; in our severely flawed bodies our bones lose minerals after age thirty, making them susceptible to fracture and osteoporosis. Our rib cage does not fully enclose and protect most internal organs. Our muscles atrophy. Our leg veins become enlarged and twisted, leading to varicose veins. Our joints wear out as their lubricants thin. The retinas of our eyes* are prone to detachment and the eye itself to numerous impairments and disease, thus requiring corrective lenses or surgery. The male prostate enlarges, squeezing and obstructing urine flow and all our other vital organs eventually deteriorate and fail – and we die. In some cases people fall prone to heart disease, cancer and a host of other ultimately fatal ailments often at a very young age. Most of these life-threatening impairments and flaws are genetically determined – so choose your parents well.

* The anatomy of the human eye, in fact, shows anything but "intelligence" in its design. It is built upside down and backwards, requiring photons of light to travel through the cornea, lens, aquaeous fluid, blood vessels, ganglion cells, amacrine cells, horizontal cells, and bipolar cells before they reach the light-sensitive rods and cones that transduce the light signal into neural impulses—which are then sent to the visual cortex at the back of the brain for processing into meaningful patterns. For optimal vision, why would an intelligent designer have built an eye upside down and backwards?

After Lance Armstrong survived testicular cancer and went on to win several Tours de France, he remarked, “If there was a God I’d still have both nuts.” In a similar vein, former slave Frederick Douglas said, “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I got off my knees and prayed with my legs.”

Since we don't have anything to compare our universe to, it seems presumptuous to assert that we know the statistical improbability of the factors occurring that were necessary for it to exist. What if there are many universes that have always existed? Ours could be quite common and not require fine-tuning of any sort. Or, ours could be one of a trillion billion universes of every type imaginable, many of which produce outcomes similar to ours from very different initial conditions. It’s vain and presumptuous to assume we know the answers to these conjectures. Also, it doesn't seem to imply anything about the existence of a designer to point out that we exist at the only time in the history of the universe when we could perceive the universe and if a number of factors had been different we would not be here now. Nothing is implied about a designer by the fact that billions of years ago we could not have existed and the universe was as much a pipe dream as we were then. Nor does anything seem to be implied by the fact that in a few billion years this planet will start to die and in a few billion years after that there will be no possibility of life here. However, to note this is to guarantee that one will not be awarded the Templeton Prize. On the other hand, to argue for some religious variation of the Anthropic Principle almost guarantees a physicist the prize, the largest prize that exists in the world for intellectual accomplishment.

Can you imagine the number of conditional probabilities that had to occur for a guy from rural Tennessee like John Templeton (1912-2008) to get into Yale and Oxford, make billions in the Mutual Fund business, and find scientists willing to accept a boatload of money from him for attempting to prove that science supports a pie in the sky mystical world of deities and spirits despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Yet, despite the unbelievable odds against such a thing happening, it did happen. And it doesn't seem odd at all that there should be some connection between the Anthropic Principle and the philanthropic principle because in this capitalist world of greed, if you have enough money, it translates into power – and you can buy just about anything - including scientists who will deny that smoking causes cancer or humans contribute to global warming.

Let's assume, for the moment, that the Universe is preset and perfectly amenable for life, including human life. I don't believe that at all and I'll get to that shortly -- but for the sake of argument, let's assume that it's true.

Does that imply the Universe was “created” with a purpose? In the next section I’ll attempt to show that it most definitely does not.

Probability Experiments

Consider a simple analogy. If I roll a single die 10 times (that's a six-sided die that has 6 equally probably outcomes), and come up with the sequence 5216224534. There are 610 (or 60,466,176) equally likely outcomes. These outcomes could, for the sake of argument, be the number of evolutionary paths an organism might take. But there is only one path it will actually take. The odds against that particular sequence coming up are astronomical - over 60,000,000 to 1.

To put this in perspective, consider the fact that many in Canada (most of whom cannot afford to gamble on a pipe dream) have played Lotto 6-49. Anyone with a freshman course in probability can determine the probability of winning the big prize. Roughly speaking, it’s the same probability as an Elvis manned UFO striking the Loch Ness Monster during an alien abduction of the Pope. Of course in the press we only hear of those who have won, not the hundreds of thousands who did not and almost everyone has spoken to at least someone who knew someone who won something (usually one of the minor prizes), a fact that is irrelevant to the probabilities.

Now let’s calculate the probability of winning the big prize in the multi-million 6-49 Lottery. There are a total of 13,983,816 different groups of six numbers which could be drawn from the set {1, 2, ...,48, 49}. To explain this we observe that there are 49 possibilities for the first number chosen, then followed by 48 possibilities for the second number, 47 for the third, 46 for the fourth, 45 for the fifth, and 44 for the sixth. Applying the “fundamental counting principle” we multiply the numbers 49 x 48 x 47 x 46 x 45 x 44 we come up with 10,068,347,520. So the probability is 1 in 10 billion if we neglect the order in which the numbers are chosen. Since each possible group of six numbers (called a combination in Combinatorial Theory) can be drawn in different ways depending on which number in the group was drawn first, which was drawn second, and so on (when order is considered in selecting elements from a set, it’s called a permutation). There are 6 choices for the first, 5 for the second, 4 for the third, 3 for the fourth, 2 for the fifth, and 1 for the sixth. Multiply these numbers together to arrive at 6! (6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 720). We then need to divide 10,068,347,520 by 720 to arrive at the figure 13,983,816 as the number of different combinations of six numbers selected. Since all numbers are assumed to be equally likely and since the probability of some number being drawn must be one of these, it follows that each selection of six numbers has a probability of 1/13,983,816 = 0.00000007151. This is roughly the same probability as obtaining 24 heads in succession (224) when flipping a fair coin!*

*To explain this via Combinatorial Theory formulae:

Here you must use the formula for computing permutations to figure out the size of the sample space, which consists of the number of permutations of size k that can be selected from a set of n objects:

                n!
P(n,k) = ---------
              (n - k)!

In our problem, we want to determine P(49,6), which is equal to:

                49!
P(49,6) = ------ = 10,068,347,520
                43!

Since only one possible ordering of the six numbers can win the lottery, there is only one favorable outcome. The sample space, however, is quite large because it is equal to P(49,6) which is roughly 10 billion. This means that the probability of winning the lottery is about 1 in 10 billion.

If we define the lottery in a slightly different way, the probability of winning greatly improves. Suppose you still pick 6 numbers from 1-49, but this time the order in which the numbers are selected doesn't matter. Now you can use the formula for combinations to figure out the sample space, which consists of the number of combinations of size k that can be chosen from a set of n objects:

                  n!
C(n,k) = -------------
               k! (n - k)!

In our problem, we want to find C(49,6), which is equal to:

                  49!
C(49,6) = ---------- = 13,983,816
                6! x 43!

At Chinese restaurants I’ve seen random 6-49 lottery numbers in fortune cookies. That’s likely because of superstition and the fact that many people surmise that one's choice of numbers should be randomized to increase the probability of winning. This erroneous belief is not unlike the "Gambler's Fallacy". A person would be none the wiser to choose 1,2,3,4,5,6 each time he plays since it has the same probability as any other six numbers such as 16,3,45,32,19,22 or any other six numbers you may generate at random every time you play. It’s just as probable as any other of the 49 different number sequences that one could select from the available 13,983,816 choices.

As an aside for those of you who play poker (TSN and ESPN have broadened the definition of “sport” so dramatically as to include this sedentary monotonous activity within its realm) and are interested in the probabilities of being dealt any particular hand need to first calculate the sample space (total possible outcomes) which is C(52,5) or 2,598,960 different poker hands. In forming a 4-of-a-kind hand, there are 13 choices for the rank of the quads, 1 choice for the 4 cards of the given rank, and 48 choices for the remaining card. This implies there are C(13,1 )x C(12,1) x C(4,1) or  13x12x4 = 624 four-of- a- kind hands. The probability of such a hand being dealt is therefore 624/2,598,960 or roughly .00024021 or about 1 in 4000. Since there are only 4 possible outcomes for a royal flush, the probability for being dealt such a hand is 4/2,598,960 = .0000015. For a full house there are C(13,1) x C(4,3) x C(12,1) x C(4,3) outcomes which when divided by the sample space of 2,598,960 yields a probability of .00144.

As a more dramatic illustration consider a normal deck of 52 playing cards. There are 52! (That’s 52x51x50x49x…x3x2x1) permutations (or orderings) of the 52 cards. That’s approximately 8.1x 1067 (8.1 followed by 67 zeros). Suppose you were dealt 52 cards in the order of first all hearts in the order from ace to king, then all diamonds from ace to king, then all spades from ace to king and finally all clubs from ace to king. The probability of this is miniscule: 1 in 8.1 x 1067 as is any other ordering of 52 cards you might be dealt.

Does all this mean that the particular sequence of cards or the sequence 5216224534 in the six rolls of a single die was destined to come up? It’s the same probability as any other sequence, including 3333333333. The probability of obtaining a “3” on the next roll of the die is still 1 in 6. Many people fall victim to the “Gambler’s Fallacy”, which is either ignorance or misunderstanding of the principle of what statisticians call “independent events” in a probability experiment. 24 heads in a row from 24 consecutive coin flips is just as probable as any other succession of heads and tails and after getting 24 heads in a row, the probability of getting a head on the 25th flip is still 50%. After all, the coin has no memory or agency and if you believe that then you are engaging in magical thinking. *

* The organizers of lotteries give maximum publicity to past winners, and of course say nothing about the vast majority who has won nothing. By publicizing winners, they make winners foremost in the minds of potential buyers of tickets and hence induce them believe that they are more likely to win than is actually the case. Psychologists refer to this faulty reasoning as the availability error; a distortion of reality based on what is made available to the subject. What becomes available to a subject is often a function of whatever produces an emotional response, dramatic effect or concrete image.  For example, a murder committed by the Pope would receive far more coverage by the media than Joe Six Pack? Why do stockbrokers advise their client to buy when the market is up and sell when it is down? Why do more people buy flight insurance when they hear of an air disaster?  Any escape from the mundane seems to be a motivating factor in beliefs such as these and often explain the appeal of the paranormal and the supernatural.

Returning to the subject of lotteries, there is a quite persuasive line of reasoning that argues to the conclusion that anyone who ever buys a lottery ticket or gambles is a casino is either crazy or stupid. This irrationality is a distressing conclusion, given the large number of people we’re referring to. When is a choice rational? Answering this question is difficult, but some philosophers have argued that thinking in terms of expected utility of an action can make progress towards an answer.

The utility of something for you is simply a measure of how much you like it. If you prefer X to Y, then X has more utility than Y. If you would trade two Y’s for one X, then X has at least twice the utility of Y. In some cases we might even be able to assign numbers to the utilities someone gives some things. Now we can say that the rational choice among alternatives is the choice that would give the person the greatest utility. If an action has multiple consequences, its utility is the sum of the utilities of each of the consequences.

But many choices are made when we are not sure what the results will be. Sometimes the outcomes of our action are a complete surprise, pleasant or otherwise. However, sometimes we can at least judge the probabilities of outcomes of our choices. When we know the probability of an outcome, we can calculate its expected utility or expectation by multiplying its utility by its probability. Suppose, for example, that there is one chance in 1000 you will win a lottery, and if you win you get $3000. The expected utility of this outcome is .001 x $3000 m= $3. There is a probability of .999 you will get nothing, the expected utility of which is .999 x $0 = $0.  So the expected utility of all outcomes is $3 + $0 = $3. But suppose it costs $1 to buy a ticket. Then the total expected utility of playing this lottery is $3 - $1 = $2. If you buy only one lottery ticket once, you are likely to lose, of course. But if you play many times, you can expect to come out ahead in the long run, by $2 per game played. Hence, it’s a good idea to play this lottery.

But suppose that same lottery costs $5 per ticket. The total expected utility of playing this lottery is now $3 - $5 = -$2, meaning that in the long run you will lose $2 per game. This is not a rational way to make money since each time you play it is equivalent to throwing $2 down the toilet. As a more dramatic illustration, determine the expected value of the $10 you spend on a Lotto 6-49 ticket. Your expected value is $10/13,983,816 or .00007 cents. Now you have flushed $10 down the toilet.

The games run by lotteries and casinos all work like this second lottery. They all offer players an average expected loss on each game. The reason is simple: they are running their games to make money and this means that the player must be put into a position of major disadvantage.

Now why would anyone play a sucker’s game such as this? Here are two possible reasons: (a) they are suffering from a psychological problem that forces them into such self-destructive behavior; (b) they do not understand the logic behind expected utility. Putting the matter succinctly, they are either crazy or stupid, or both. But before you sink into a major depression about the mental health and intelligence a large portion of the human race, consider two things people might say to explain why they play lotteries and gamble in casinos.

(1)  “I’m having fun.” What this means in terms of our calculations is that we have not calculated the overall utility of the second lottery correctly, because we have not factored in the enjoyment of playing. Suppose that the fun is worth, in monetary terms, $3 per game. Even though the average money loss will be $2, the fun value gain is $3; so all considered, you will be ahead, on average, by the equivalent of $1 each game. You will still lose money in the long run, but you will have enough fun playing the game to make it worthwhile.

(2)  “The five dollars I spend on the ticket means next to nothing to me, but if I won the prize it would be worth a great deal.” This again means that we have not calculated the worth of each game correctly. The calculation multiplies the utility - a measure of desirability - times its probability. Now we have merely stuck in dollar figures here. Using these implies that $3000 has six hundred times the value of $5, but this may not be the case. Here, in fact, what the person seems to be saying is that the worth of $3000 to him or her is greater than six-hundred times the worth of $5. Suppose, then that we assign (arbitrarily) a utility of 5 units to $5 and a utility of 10,000 units to $3000. This makes the calculation quite different: the average payoff is (001 x 10,000) + (.999 x 0) = 10 units. The cost of playing is 5 units, so we are ahead on average 10 - 5 =5 units per game.

The above analysis perhaps restores a morsel of faith in humanity’s sanity and intelligence. But then there’s the popularity of Extreme Fighting, Jerry Springer, Wrestle-mania, Oprah, Survivor, “Tractor Pulls”, 1-800 Psychics, Astrology and Fox News. I could bore you will dozens of other examples that litter our cultural wasteland, but I’ll spare you the depressing angst.

Probability and Pie in the Sky

The whimsical fascination with seemingly unlikely coincidences, the appeal of the fantastic and emotional propensity to read significance into them becomes, particularly for the religiously inclined, indications that they must be the workings of their chosen Deity. For many others it’s a stimulus for hysteria and paranoia. With the popularity of New Age pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo promoted on endless television specials, on Oprah, within Numerology, I Ching hexagrams and in top-selling books such as The Celestine Prophecy and The Secret, I suppose these bizarre beliefs are not surprising. People who believe this rubbish are those with the same mentality who appeal to the prophecies of the Bible or Nostradamus. How many people have you heard mindlessly proclaim that “I don’t believe in coincidences”, “Everything happens for a reason” or “It was just meant to be?” The total ignorance of the mathematics of probability theory and tortured, twisted logic that was demonstrated in the ludicrous book The Bible Code* is representative of this fallacious magical thinking. Humans are pattern seeking creatures and will find design whether it exists or not. There is so much de-contextualized information floating throughout the media, especially within cyberspace, and so many ways in which numbers, names, events, organizations and how we humans can be linked together that it’s almost impossible that there not be all sorts of meaningless coincidences and fallacious predictions.

*The Mathematician and authority in Probability Theory John Allen Paulos deftly discredits and refutes the inane claims made in The Bible Code in one of his many excellent books including Irrelegion.

You can think of all these remote probabilities in the following novel way. Notwithstanding the improbability of life at all on earth or any of the other of the between 1 and 30 billion planets in our galaxy among the estimated 100 billion other galaxies in the Universe, what are the odds against me, personally being born? To put it mildly, they're beyond astronomical. The chances that, of my mother's hundreds of eggs and my father's hundreds of millions of sperm, a particular sperm and egg happened to hit it off to make yours truly, JR are mind boggling? It’s preposterously unlikely, especially when you factor in the odds against my parents being born...and against their parents being born...and their parents, and theirs, and so on ad infinitum. Think of the probability of a hippopotamus walking into your room or your home being bombed by an Islamic terrorist within the next five minutes. The probabilities are extremely small. But the chance against me, personally, having been born is infinitesimally smaller.

So what can it mean that I was destined to be born, as many New Age kooks and the religiously inclined believe? Like everything else, was it all part of God’s master plan for the Universe as the deluded determinists within Islam and Christianity believe?  Or do we need to concoct an entire new philosophy or theology to explain the often unhappy unlikelihood of anyone, including Attila the Hun, Adolf Hitler or Dick Cheney being born? 

Or does the fact that I’m here simply mean that I won God’s cosmic lottery? Does it mean that my existence is one of many wildly improbable outcomes of the universe - and if it hadn't happened, something else would have? Does it simply mean that some other precocious brat would have been born to my parents instead - a kid whose existence would have been every bit as unlikely as mine?

Yes, life on Earth is wildly improbable. And if it hadn't happened, some other weird chemical concoction would have arisen on Earth, one that didn't turn into life. Or life would have developed, but it would have evolved into some form other than our own. Or the Earth would never have formed around the Sun, but some other unlikely planet would have formed around some other star. If life on Earth hadn't happened, something else equally improbable would have happened instead. We just wouldn't be here to ponder over it.

The late Douglas Adams, who wrote the wonderful Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, outlined this extremely well in his renowned Puddle Analogy. He said: 

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!"

Yes, as a puddle, the hole fits me rather neatly. But does that mean the hole was designed to have a puddle in it? We evolved to fit in the hole that happened to be here. If the hole had been shaped differently, something else would have happened instead.

And how perfect is this hole, anyway?

Douglas Adams' puddle analogy doesn't end there. It continues: 

This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.

So just how perfectly fine-tuned for life is the Universe?

The best scientific estimates inform us that life on Earth has existed for about 3.7 billion years. Human life has only been around for roughly 200,000 of those years, depending on how you define "human". That’s about one-half of one percent of the total life of the earth. Interestingly over 98-99% of all the species that have existed on earth are now extinct, and we humans are inevitably destined for that fate too. Since the surface temperature of the Sun is rising, in about a billion years the surface of the Earth will be too hot for liquid water to exist - and thus too hot to support life as we know it. Of course we voracious polluting humans are greatly contributing to and accelerating this warming trend. The universe, on the other hand, is about 14 billion years old. Therefore, the current lifespan of humanity is a mere one 7,000th of the current lifespan of the Universe.

And after Earth and all human life have been vaporized into space forever, the Universe will keep plodding along – as Carl Sagan would say, for billions and billions of years. And so it goes. So how, exactly, does all that qualify as the Universe being fine-tuned to accommodate we egocentric vain humans? If that’s “God’s Plan”, he had better return to the drawing board.

And that doesn't even take into account the mind-numbing vastness of space, the greater part of which is not in the least hospitable to life. The overwhelming majority of the universe consists of an indescribable immensity of cold empty space - punctuated at rare intervals by comets, asteroids, meteors (some of which might be catapulting toward us, by the way, also negating the "perfectly designed for human life" idea), cold rocks, blazing hot furnaces of incandescent gas, the occasional black hole, and whatever other lifeless amorphous masses we haven’t discovered as yet. So, Mr. God:  what’s the point? And how did you spend your time before you decided to create this massive lifeless waste of space? Did you get bored?

If there was a beneficent omnipotent designer, why so much Why does the "design" of life (particularly the human body) include so much clumsiness, suffering, short-life span (our bodies often outlive our brains and sense organs such as eyesight and hearing, glaring inefficiency, "fixed that for you" jury-rigs, pointless superfluities, blatant omissions, laughable failures and appalling, mind-numbing brutality? As Woody Allen quipped in the movie Love and Death, the best you can say about God is that he’s an “underachiever”. In design engineering I’d give the Big Guy an “F “. In an essay I once wrote, I went one step further than Allen, referring to the Christian God as “The Deadbeat Dad of the Universe”.

So if the universe was "fine-tuned" for life by a perfect, all-powerful God, how could he have done such a piss-poor job of it? The job is a real cock-up, a botch job one step short of FUBAR. Why was the 93- billion-light-years-across universe created 13.73 billion years ago just so the fragile process of human life in one tiny solar system could blink into existence for a few hundred thousand years, a billion years at the absolute most, and then blink out again? Why could an asteroid or solar flare or any number of other astronomical occurrences eradicate that life at any time? There’s an endless supply of such embarrassing questions I’ll have for Mr. Big at the Peary Gates, assuming He changes the rules and allows skeptics like me to the door.

Atheists and humanists are often accused by religious believers of being arrogant – but arrogant of what- using their critical faculties and being skeptical of religious claims?  Skepticism is one of the intellectual virtues and cornerstone of all scientific thought, more akin to an intellectual humility than a supercilious certainty about something. If you examine it seriously, it’s hard to see any validity in the fine-tuning hypothesis at all. Religious believers are the ones who reveal their hubris by arguing that the Universe was created just so we humans could come into existence and that the immeasurable vastness of stars and galaxies far beyond our reach and even beyond our knowledge was still, somehow, put there for us. Maybe it’s so we could lay on our backs, starring into the vastness of space on a starry night and contemplate on these imponderable mysteries.

Yes, the existence of intelligent life on earth, and I use the word “intelligent” lightly in the post Bush world, was unlikely. But so is the existence of yours truly and the existence of the a galaxy 55 million light years from earth called the Messier 87 Galaxy, and the roll of a die in the sequence 3241154645. That doesn't mean these events were designed to happen. To use the example of the late Douglas Adams, we’re just a puddle that evolved to fit in a convenient hole. There is no reason to think that the hole was created for us as there is reason to think that it was not.

Richard Dawkins brilliantly summarized the intractable problems with “Design Arguments” in The God Delusion thus:

1. One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbable appearance of design in the universe arises.

2. The natural temptation is to attribute the appearance of design to actual design itself. In the case of a man-made artifact such as a watch, the designer really was an intelligent engineer. It is tempting to apply the same logic to an eye or a wing, a spider or a person.

3. The temptation is a false one, because the designer hypothesis immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable. We need a 'crane', not a 'skyhook', for only a crane can do the business of working up gradually and plausibly from simplicity to otherwise improbable complexity.

4. The most ingenious and powerful crane so far discovered is Darwinian evolution by natural selection. Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that - an illusion.

5. We don't yet have an equivalent crane for physics. Some kind of multiverse theory could in principle do for physics the same explanatory work as Darwinism does for biology. This kind of explanation is superficially less satisfying than the biological version of Darwinism, because it makes heavier demands on luck. But the Anthropic Principle entitles us to postulate far more luck than our limited human intuition is comfortable with.

6. We should not give up hope of a better crane arising in physics, something as powerful as Darwinism is for biology. But even in the absence of a strongly satisfying crane to match the biological one, 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. (pp. 158-59)

Read Dawkin’s most excellent book!

Then move on to Christopher Hitchen’s superbly written God is not Great.

Here’s Hitchens:

“Skepticism and discovery have freed Christians from the burden of having to defend their god as a footling, clumsy, straws-in-the-hair mad scientist, and also from having to answer distressing questions about who inflicted the syphilis bacillus or mandated the leper or the idiot child, or devised the torments of Job. The faithful stand acquitted on that charge: we no longer have any need of a god to explain what is no longer mysterious. What believers will do, now that their faith is optional and private and irrelevant, is a matter for them. We should not care, as long as they make no further attempt to inculcate religion by any form of coercion.” (God is Not Great, p. 96)

                                                           For Home: