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Baseball and the Fine Tuning Argument

James R. Henderson

Suppose we went on a mission to Mars, and found a domed structure in which everything was set up just right for life to exist. The temperature, for example, was set around 70° F and the humidity was at 50%; moreover, there was an oxygen recycling system, an energy gathering system, and a whole system for the production of food. Put simply, the domed structure appeared to be a fully functioning biosphere. What conclusion would we draw from finding this structure? Would we draw the conclusion that it just happened to form by chance? Certainly not. Instead, we would unanimously conclude that it was designed by some intelligent being. Why would we draw this conclusion? Because an intelligent designer appears to be the only plausible explanation for the existence of the structure. That is, the only alternative explanation we can think of--that the structure was formed by some natural process--seems extremely unlikely. Of course, it is possible that, for example, through some volcanic eruption various metals and other compounds could have formed, and then separated out in just the right way to produce the "biosphere," but such a scenario strikes us as extraordinarily unlikely, thus making this alternative explanation unbelievable[1]

So begins Robin Collins' argument for the existence of god based on the "fine tuning" of the physical laws and constants of the universe. Collins claims the universe is analogous to the biosphere because it, too, appears designed. To bolster this idea, he lists several well-known statistics about the universe, such as "Calculations by Brandon Carter show that if gravity had been stronger or weaker by 1 part in 10 to the 40th power, then life-sustaining stars like the sun could not exist. This would most likely make life impossible."[2] In doing this, Collins argues the physical laws, constants, and initial conditions that determine the structure of the universe and make it fit for supporting life are extremely unlikely. According to Collins, it is overwhelmingly more likely for a universe with randomly generated laws and constants to be lifeless. Our fortunate happenstance, the apparent fine tuning of physics to generate a universe capable of giving rise to living organisms, Collins concludes, is in need of explanation. His conclusion, that god fine tuned the universe for life, relies on his Prime Principle of Confirmation: "[W]henever we are considering two competing hypotheses, an observation counts in favor of the hypothesis under which the observation has the highest [sic] probability."[3]Thus, Collins has the fine-tuning data supporting the theistic hypothesis over the atheistic hypothesis. Because the fine tuning of the universe is so much more likely in a theistic universe as opposed to an atheistic one, Collins goes so far as to claim that "the fine-tuning strongly supports theism over the atheistic single-universe hypothesis."[4] He then provides support for his two premises (that the fine tuning under the theistic assumption is likely and that under the atheistic assumption it is unlikely). His claim that fine tuning is likely under a theistic worldview seems uncontroversial. Whether fine tuning is unlikely given an atheistic worldview seems to be a question that requires more information than we currently have; I will ignore the fact that Collins is presenting an argument from ignorance with respect to his second premise. Finally, Collins argues against objections to his position, including, among others, the "Who Designed God?" objection and an argument for a multiverse (later we will see that because of the permissiveness of his Prime Principle of Confirmation this will be a difficult objection to sustain).

I will spend very little time quibbling with Collins over the details of his argument. In fact, for the sake of discussion I will grant every one of his points. It will be shown that even given this generous attitude, his argument simply doesn't hold water. To do this, I start with a story that, while different in content, will be of a similar structure.

Suppose there were an annual event contested on seemingly fair terms (with one exception) which one contestant never seemed to win. The event has been contested for a very long time under varying rules, conditions, and between varying numbers of contestants since the inception of the contest. The contestants are actually teams, and all teams are given equal access to sign any members of the player pool. The make up of this player pool has evolved considerably over time, and the style of play has gone through many changes throughout the history of the contest. There is one inherent advantage given to some teams, not by the league, but by the geographical location of those vying in the competition. Interestingly, the team that cannot seem to win, the team with which we are concerned, is one of the greatest beneficiaries of this large advantage. Yet, generations come and go and the supporters of our unlucky squad are always forced to say, "Wait till next year." Next year always arrives right on schedule, but no matter how heartbreakingly close our team may come to bringing home the championship, they always lose. Always. What conclusion would be drawn from this situation? Would an objective analyst say that the incredible run of futility is merely the result of chance and bad luck, or would she say that the event is somehow fixed?

This is no fantasy. The odds against the repeated failure of our team, the Chicago Cubs, are staggering if we are to assume the deck is not intentionally stacked against them. If we were to assign the Cubs a 1 in 30 chance of winning the championship at the beginning of every baseball season since 1909, the likelihood that they would have won at least once in the last 104 years is better than 97%. One should note, however, that 1 in 30 is a very generous estimate for the advocate of the "bad luck" hypothesis. Indeed, for 45 years the league had only 16 teams. For one year there were 18 teams, and for seven years 22 teams played. For another eight years 26 teams were involved in the contest, and for 16 years there were 28 teams. Only for 14 seasons have there been 30 teams. Given these numbers, a more accurate probability for at least one win for the Cubs is over 99%. This ignores the inherent advantage that the Cubs enjoy playing in the city of Chicago, which is the third-largest television market in the United States and Canada, the countries where the contest is held. Money generated by television broadcasts adds much to the coffers of the teams in the contest, and those with large markets can offer the best players more money than those in the smaller cities of, say, Pittsburgh and Kansas City. This advantage has been enjoyed by the Cubs for 73 years. It gets still more daunting for the bad-luck-hypothesis supporter, because for 19 of those years, Chicago had the second-largest television market of those represented in the league.

It may be argued, of course, that baseball simply cannot be played well in Chicago. This is somewhat buttressed by the fact that the Chicago White Sox have won the World Series only twice in the last 104 years. Still, it is difficult to maintain that "a" game cannot be played well in one location when the game has undergone such significant change over time. In 1908, baseball was in the dead-ball era, which was followed by the live-ball era starting in 1920, when rules benefitting hitters were enacted. Baseball was a game played exclusively in daylight hours for the first 27 years in our story. Thereafter, night games were played, greatly increasing television revenue, again favoring the Cubs (the move to night baseball was resisted by the Cubs until lights were installed in Wrigley Field 53 seasons later, but most of their road games were played at night). The player pool grew substantially after the integration of the game in 1947, allowing stars from the Negro League to play in the majors. The pitching-dominated era reached its apex in the late 1960s when, again, rules favoring offense were instituted. The power/steroid era of baseball occurred in the 1990s and 2000s. Finally, post-season play has changed over the years, going from one team from each league making the playoffs to two teams from each league, to four teams from each league, and finally to five teams. It seems unlikely in the extreme that not one of these versions of the game would have been well-suited to the lovable losers playing in the friendly confines.

It is not enough to say that because the odds against such a run of losing are fantastic that a fix must be in. Indeed, the odds against any particular array of cards in a well-shuffled standard deck are 1 in a little more (a lot more, actually) than 8.065∗1067. We do not say, when faced with a random ordering of the cards, that someone must have stacked the deck. No, we must find an alternative hypothesis under which the outcome is more plausible. Consider, then, the hypothesis that members of the world of organized crime have fixed every baseball season since the last Cubs' win, and fixed them in a manner so that those living on the north side of Chicago would never enjoy the sweet taste of victory. If the outcomes of the last 104 seasons have been preordained with Cub losses ensured, then none of what has been discussed above could possibly come as a surprise to anyone. Therefore, under the fixed-game hypothesis, an extraordinarily unlikely sequence of events becomes highly probable. Why, you may ask, would figures in organized crime be interested in fixing the outcome of a game? What possible motive could underworld crime bosses have to know who would win a game before it is played or who would win a championship before the season is actually begun? If one considers that there is widespread gambling associated with sporting events, the motivating force behind fixing games becomes clear: Money. Gambling under such conditions (it would hardly be gambling) would turn a slot machine into an ATM. A never-ending source of cash could be continuously mined as one winning bet after another was placed. For over a century wealth and power would be guaranteed since betting the field against the Cubs has been a winning proposition since before the inventions of instant coffee and the bra.

You may be thinking that this is all very well, but do we really, really believe there are underworld bosses who would, even if they could, fix sporting events? Not only do we believe this, we know it to be true. Boston College basketball teams were involved in gambling scandals that involved fixed games in both the 1978-79 and 1996-97 seasons. In 1995, Tulane University basketball players shaved points, and between 1947 and 1951, at least 86 college basketball games were fixed by no fewer than 35 players from various teams. You may concede that college basketball games are susceptible to such shenanigans, but what about baseball? It may be hard to believe, but noted mobster Arnold Rothstein fixed the 1919 World Series, resulting in eight players being forever banned from professional baseball (ironically, it was the heavily favored Chicago White Sox, the Cubs' crosstown rivals, who threw the series). Thus, we can conceive of a situation where people would fix the outcome of baseball results, and these people would have the motive to do so. In addition, and this is very important to the point being made here, we know there are such people, and we know that they have actually engaged in this activity in the past.

It will not surprise you to learn that there are those who do not believe in the fixing of the last 104 baseball seasons. Let us call them "afixists." Afixists have theories other than bad luck to account for the Cubs' mind-bending string of agonies of defeat, uninterrupted even once by the thrill of victory. The most widely known of these theories holds that the Cubs are cursed (the hex is known by the rather charming name of "The Curse of the Billy Goat"). While it strikes almost all right-thinking people as ridiculous to seriously try to explain an unlikely occurrence (in sports, anyway) by appeal to the supernatural, one needn't merely point and laugh at those who seek to solve the problem in this fashion. The fact is that there is no reason to believe that there are curses of any sort, sporting or otherwise. Looking back just over the history of baseball, there have been many teams whose fans claimed were cursed. Among them are the Boston Red Sox (The Curse of the Bambino), the San Francisco Giants (The Curse of Coogan's Bluff), the Chicago White Sox (The Curse of the Black Sox), and the Philadelphia Phillies (The Curse of Billy Penn, the defeating of which is a particularly humorous story). It appears none of these teams were actually jinxed since each of them has won a World Series title after the "curse" was placed. Even if there is such thing as a curse, claims of curses are in any case much more numerous than actual curses, so simply as a matter of probability it is highly unlikely that the Curse of the Billy Goat is the cause of the Cubs' woes.

Another common afixist theory is that the team performs badly because the players are aware of the past failures of their antecedents. A moment's thought shows this to be a comically inadequate explanation. For this theory to be correct, the following must have happened: With one out in the top of the eighth inning and a man on first in the sixth game of the 2003 National League Championship Series, Cubs shortstop Alex Gonzalez, while preparing to field a tailor-made, inning-ending double-play grounder, a play that he had made thousands of times in the past, had to be thinking "The Cubs dropped three consecutive games to the Padres in the 1984 NLCS" or "In 1969 the Cubs blew a nine-and-a-half game lead in mid-August to the Mets." It is not possible to know what, if anything, Gonzalez was thinking right before his catastrophic error, but it is virtually certain he wasn't thinking about what was to him ancient history.

Before we proceed, it is necessary to acknowledge a point. The statistics quoted earlier regarding the probabilities of at least one Cubs championship are not merely oversimplified, but flatly incorrect. It just isn't the case that every team has an equal chance of winning at the start of every season. However, the exact numbers, even if they were computable (note that not all sports books agree on preseason odds of a championship for each team), are not relevant. The point is that the streak is incredibly unlikely. Imagine the odds against 104 straight failures from the viewpoint of late October 1908. It is the highpoint of a Cubs dynasty. They are three-time defending National League champions and two-time defending World Series champions, both unprecedented achievements. Two years earlier they had posted a winning percentage that is to this day the highest ever. It would have been inconceivable at that moment to think that the next 104 baseball seasons would unfold in the way that they, in fact, have. The best explanation for the unbelievable ineptitude of the Chicago Cubs, then, is a massive baseball fixing campaign carried out in complete secrecy (until now) by major figures in organized crime. In summation, it seems clear that if one accepts the notion that the fine tuning of the universe provides strong evidence in favor of the existence of god (and in fact "the best explanation of the organized complexity found in the world,"[5]) one must also, on pain of inconsistency, accept that the Cubs' long losing streak provides strong evidence for a century-long baseball fixing scandal and is best explained by it (actually, the baseball argument is stronger than Collins' argument since we know there are members of organized crime who occasionally fix sporting events and who have actually fixed a World Series, but we do not know there is a god--the point of Collins' argument is to give reason to believe that a god who fine tunes universes really does exist).

A few weaknesses of Collins' argument can be made explicit. The first is that the fine tuning of the universe also provides strong evidence in support of the conclusion that magical bunnies who like black holes and design universes to produce them in huge numbers exist (similarly, it could be argued that the struggles of the Cubs lend strong support to the idea that these bunnies also hate the people of Chicago, though this argument is not stronger than Collins'--it is only exactly as strong). In fact, the fine tuning of the universe can be made to offer strong evidence in support of any harebrained hypothesis that makes fine tuning likely. To illustrate this, one may imagine a race of superintelligent aardvarks that inhabit a bubble universe in a multiverse. These aardvarks are thrilled with the idea of a universe that contains mostly empty space, so they create one: ours. Given the assumption of these superintelligent aardvarks, it is no surprise that the laws and constants of our universe are as they are, and it is certainly more likely than our universe generating the laws and constants it has randomly. At a stroke, then, because of the Prime Principle of Confirmation we have a (harebrained) theory that is not only strongly supported by the fine tuning data but also one that involves a multiverse, a notion dismissed by Collins.

This observation brings us to the second of Collins' problems. If any hypothesis will do (as long as it makes the observed data likely), then part of the evaluation of the competing hypotheses must include comparison of the prior likelihood of the hypotheses. The mere consistency of a data set with a hypothesis, no matter how implausible, does not by itself confer strong support of that hypothesis. In the baseball case, how likely is it that a massive baseball fixing operation could continue for over a century and never, until now, be discovered? It is virtually impossible to keep such things under wraps for any length of time at all (one is reminded of Benjamin Franklin's "Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead"). Big, secret conspiracies don't stay secret precisely because they are big. This fact must be worked into calculations of the likelihood of the fixed-game hypothesis. Now, what is the prior probability of the monotheistic, omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent god Collins argues for? Collins does offer evidence in favor of god's existence: "[W]e have some experiential evidence for the existence of God, namely religious experience."[6] Yes, that's all he's got. He neglects to mention that in the unquestionably long history of religious experience of humans, it is a tiny minority of believers that have "experienced" Collins' version of god. The evidence, then (such as it is), argues against Collins' single, 3-O deity (to be fair, the data on religious experience do tend to make Collins' argument slightly stronger than the black-hole-loving-bunny and super-intelligent aardvark hypotheses after all; perhaps he can take some small comfort in this). I do not mean to say that there is no god as Collins views him, just that it seems, at this point, an impossible task to set a prior probability on a nonphysical intelligence of any kind, much less his god.

There may very well be solid evidence in favor of the existence of god or gods. It's just that this evidence won't be found in the fine tuning of the universe, at least not in the way Collins argues for it. Here is a final problem with Collins' argument (and many other design-style arguments as well): The analogy drawn between Paley's watch and the universe seems strong only if we fail to take into account that we know there are actual, living people who design watches and we do not know there is a god who designs universes. After all, if we did know this, there would be no need for the design argument to be offered in the first place. Once this observation has been made, one sees the need to consider the prior probability of the existence of the proposed god, and setting that prior probability requires its own argument for god's existence independent of any alleged fine tuning.

That, or Collins' god is simply a Yankees fan.


[1] Collins, R. The Fine Tuning Argument: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of God (1998)., (accessed 2 October 2012).

[2] Collins, R. The Fine Tuning Argument: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of God (1998)., (accessed 2 October 2012), quoted from Davies, P. Superforce: The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984, p. 242, retrieved 2 October 2012

[3] Collins, R. The Fine Tuning Argument: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of God (1998)., (accessed 2 October 2012).

[4] Collins, R. The Fine Tuning Argument: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of God (1998)., (accessed 2 October 2012). Emphasis added

[5] Collins, R. The Fine Tuning Argument: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of God (1998)., (accessed 2 October 2012).

[6] Collins, R. The Fine Tuning Argument: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of God (1998)., (accessed 2 October 2012).

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