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Michael Hurben Univ

On Universes and Firing Squads

or “How I Learned To Stop Worrying About the Origin of the Cosmos”

Michael J. Hurben


“Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end of divine things.” – Hippocrates


The modern Argument from Design (AD), which is based on the so-called “fine-tuning” of the physical constants of the universe, is examined. It is argued that current knowledge of the origin of our universe is far too limited to lead to any demonstration of the existence of a “designer.” While some recent philosophical ruminations on this topic do allow us to draw a number of conclusions about firing squads, they do not necessarily provide much insight into the nature of the cosmos.


There is an ever growing volume of books and articles which assert that the existence and character of our particular universe are in some sense vastly improbable.[1] Exhibit A is usually an impressive, if somewhat tedious, list of “cosmic coincidences,” without which, the universe as we know it would be reduced to a sterile wasteland. What we are to make of this rather alarming array of figures varies from author to author. But in many cases, once we have been properly convinced that our universe was Too Unlikely To Be This Way By Chance, the trump card is played, namely, that only a Cosmic Designer could have fashioned it.

My thesis is that human knowledge of the cosmos, and in particular, knowledge of its origin, is too limited to allow any sort of demonstration that the existence of a “Designer” represents the best, or most reasonable, explanation for the existence and nature of the universe. This essay does not attempt to identify any one explanation for the observed characteristics of the universe. Instead, I aim to show that there is no basis for the conclusion that modern cosmology somehow points to the existence of some Creator.

The Watchmaker Who Tunes Constants

The modern AD is based on the premise that the fundamental physical constants of nature, such as Planck’s constant or the mass of the proton, for example, have such precisely “tuned” values that they could not have arisen “by chance.” In a nutshell, the argument is often formulated along these lines:

“Scientists have made many discoveries over the past century which demonstrate that the size, structure, and content of our universe all depend in very sensitive ways to a number of finely-tuned constants such as the speed of light, the electron charge, etc. Mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, in The Emperor’s New Mind [2] has calculated that the overall accuracy in choosing all of these constants had to be on the order of one part in 10^10^123 (ten raised to the power of ten raised to the power of 123). This number is so large that if you were to write it out, with each zero the size of a proton, it could not fit within the known universe.”

“Such figures are beyond human comprehension. We cannot help but wonder how these constants could have happened to have these values. Just a slight change, in even a few of these numbers, and atoms could not form. Stars could not shine. The earth and all its inhabitants could not even exist. The universe would just be an enormous junkyard of useless, practically inert particles, dead matter, and chaos.”

“If we suppose that the universe came about by chance, we must cling to the preposterous idea that our universe beat these overwhelming odds just by some freak accident. Surely no reasonable person would believe such a thing to be true. The only feasible explanation that can account for the improbable, incredibly delicate balance in nature is that an immense intelligence designed it for the express purpose of enabling life to exist. Our universe shows such fine-tuning that it is evidently the result of careful and meticulous planning. At least, that is the most obvious thing to conclude. One must recognize that this is not a strict proof of the existence of a creator, but is rather a demonstration that it is the most reasonable conclusion to draw.”

“This idea is nothing new, really. Theologian William Paley pointed out in his famous Watchmaker Analogy[3] that the intricate machinery of life requires a designer, just as the complicated mechanisms one would find in an ordinary pocketwatch point to the intelligence and design of a human watchmaker. While Paley used this argument in connection with the complexity of the human eye, it is just as applicable to the universe as a whole. The Cosmic Watchmaker explains our fine-tuned universe.”

“The evolutionary biologist can argue that a designer is not needed to explain the existence of eyes and bombardier beetles, but that is beside the point. The fact is, regardless of how life itself originated and flourished, via evolution or not, the physical foundation which makes life possible is best explained by an Intelligent Architect.”

The Anthropic Principle and the Firing Squad

This is a good time to interrupt our narrator and mention the Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP). Simply put, the WAP states that the we must expect to observe a universe which is compatible with the existence of intelligent beings. If this were not the case, then we would not be here to observe it. While this statement may appear a mere tautology, it is deeper than that. For example, the WAP predicts that the universe we observe be at least of a specified minimum age (namely, the age that provides enough time for intelligent life to develop), since we could otherwise not be here to observe any universe at all. And while some have argued that the WAP represents a return to pre-Copernican geocentrism or a kind of cosmic narcissism, it really suggests nothing of the kind. It merely asserts that observed properties of the universe which might appear somehow astonishing or unlikely cannot be seen in the correct perspective until one has accounted for the fact that certain properties of the universe are necessary, given our existence.

Defenders of the modern AD are well acquainted with the WAP, and they understand that it may diminish the need for a Creator to explain what we do or don’t observe about our universe. And while the WAP does not in any real sense defeat the AD, a number of theist philosophers, including Richard Swinburne, have posed arguments which attempt to weaken the explanatory power of the WAP.[4] One approach, used by William Lane Craig (based on an analogy he attributes to John Leslie)[5] will be used by our narrator, who continues:

“Some have tried to counter with the WAP, saying that we should not be surprised that we do not find features in the universe which are incompatible with our existence. This may be so, but it still does not explain the vast improbability of our existence. And it does not satisfy our desire to know why we exist. To demonstrate this, consider the following analogy:”

“Suppose you are dragged before a firing squad consisting of 100 marksmen. You hear the command to fire and the crashing roar of the rifles. You then realize you are still alive, and that not a single bullet found its mark. How are you to react to this rather unlikely event?”

“If we applied a sort of WAP to the firing squad scenario, we could state the following: ‘Of course you do not observe that you are dead, because if you were dead, you would not be able to observe that fact!’ However, this does not stop you from being amazed and surprised by the fact that you did survive against overwhelming odds. Moreover, you would try to deduce the reason for this unlikely event, which was too improbable to happen by chance. Surely, the best explanation is that there was some plan among the marksmen to miss you on purpose. In other words, you are probably alive for a very definite reason, not because of some random, unlikely, freak accident.”

“So we should conclude the same with the cosmos. It is natural for us to ask why we escaped the firing squad. Because it is so unlikely that this amazing universe with its precariously balanced constants could have come about by sheer accident, it is likely that there was some purpose in mind, before or during its creation. And the mind in question belongs to God.”

What, if anything, is wrong with the modern AD as outlined above? I believe that it has three problems which deserve attention. The first involves the ubiquitous reference to “fine-tuning” throughout the course of the argument. The second involves the careless use of probabilities and meaningless statistics. The third is an error common to arguments from analogy, where two entities which share some characteristics are therefore supposed to share some other, less obvious characteristic.

“Fine-Tuning” as a Smuggled Premise

“The apparent uniqueness of the Universe primarily depends upon the fact that we can conceive of so many alternatives to it.” – Charles Pantin

The first fallacy in the most modern versions of the argument comprises a sort of circular argument involving the use of the phrase “fine-tuned.” That the universe was “fine-tuned” is the conclusion the argument is trying to prove. However, this notion is almost always smuggled in at the beginning of the argument as one of the givens. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever demonstrated that any of the physical constants could possibly have any other values than the ones they presently do.

Yes, one can imagine that physical constants could possibly have different values. But this is hardly the kind of evidence which enables one to conclude that a “creator-less universe” is somehow vastly improbable. One can imagine a great many things that have absolutely nothing to do with anything real.

Yes, one can go on and on, as so many have,[6] about how even the most minuscule variation in this, that, or the other constant would wipe out the universe as we know it. But, unless one knows the likelihood of such a variation ever occurring, it is absolutely pointless to dwell on these numbers in and of themselves. It is a bit like being told that our universe is full of billions upon billions of incredibly massive, ridiculously hot objects hurtling through space at staggering velocities (which is true) and then deciding that it is an incredible coincidence that the earth is not being demolished by them.

How did all this “fine-tuning” business get started? I believe its popularity is due, in large part, to the writings (usually very good writings) of a number of scientists aimed at a non-technical audience. A typical example is A Brief History of Time, [7] in which Stephen Hawking writes:

“The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron. We cannot, at the moment at least, predict the values of these numbers from theory – we have to find them by observation… The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”

To the layperson, this can sound somewhat astonishing. But it is not nearly as profound as it first sounds. Of course we must find that the values appear this way, because if they did not, we would not be here to notice them. But to say that they “seem to have been very finely adjusted” implicitly assumes the existence of an “Adjuster.” But is this “Adjuster” (whoever or whatever it is supposed to be) really required? Hawking certainly makes plenty of references to God in his book, but he also points out that it may be that no adjusting is even possible. Which case is more likely? Has the actual improbability of our particular universe arising without the aid of an “Adjuster” ever been demonstrated?

To the best of this author’s knowledge, no one has actually performed a rigorous calculation of the probability (or improbability) of our particular universe existing. Since this rather key point is not discussed in books such as The Emperor’s New Mind (which is not even primarily concerned with the universe itself), it is tempting to construe Penrose’s mind-boggling figure of relative volumes of phase space as actually being the probability of our universe having the properties it has. As discussed below, Penrose’s figure and the probability of the universe are two different things. And while Penrose may have been kidding when he included a cartoon in his book of “the Creator” choosing the parameters of the universe, I think many readers would take that illustration quite seriously.

The image is similar to that of a deity, pointing to the prototypical particle and issuing the decree: “Thou shalt have a charge of 1.6E-19 Coulombs. Thou shalt have spin one-half… ” and so on. This type of thinking has been prevalent in science and philosophy for centuries, and is demonstrated by the use of the word “law” to describe both man-made restrictions or codes of conduct and the behavior of nature. The word “law” is at the heart of a rather weak version of the design argument which is heard from time to time. “Of course there is a god,” the argument goes, “because just as our traffic laws would not exist without people to write them, so the laws of nature would not exist without a supreme intelligence to write them.” The fallacy involved here is an equivocation of the word “law.”

Another example found in the popular science literature is The Edges of Science[8] by Richard Morris, which is fairly critical of the various anthropic principles, such as the WAP, because they are not falsifiable. Yet he, like so many others, takes it as a given that our universe is unlikely when he asks “What, precisely, are we to make of the fact that we live in so improbable a universe?” But the statement “our universe is improbable” is currently no more empirically verifiable or falsifiable than the anthropic principles which Morris denigrates.

A demonstration that the fundamental constants are in fact “tunable” is prerequisite to speaking of “fine-tuning.”

Probabilities and Probability Densities

Although one may not doubt that Penrose’s figure of 1:10^10^123 is a good stab at the relative volumes in phase space (that is, the collection of all possible universes), this value, in and of itself does not give us the probability that, given a random selection of points in phase space, ours would be chosen. Nor has it ever been demonstrated that the origin of the universe would include some sort of random processes whereby the values of the fundamental constants were determined.

Why should we not treat the Penrose figure as describing the improbability of our universe? Because any calculation of any probability requires a knowledge of the relevant probability densities. So, the calculation of our particular universe existing would require expressions for the probability densities for various universe scenarios. And I think it is safe to say that nobody knows what the probability densities are at this time, or even if the concept of “various universe scenarios” is at all meaningful.

To get a quick feel for the meaning and necessity of probability densities, consider this simple example, which involves a discrete random variable: Suppose you roll two fair dice simultaneously. The “phase space” consists of the numbers two through twelve. The actual value you roll will be just one value within that phase space, one of eleven possible values. However, this does not mean that all of the outcomes of a random toss are equally likely. For example, you are more likely to roll a six than a two, because there are more ways to obtain a six than a two. In other words, the outcome for the two dice has a non-uniform probability density, because some outcomes are more likely than others.

Another illustration demonstrates the same idea, but with a continuous probability density. Suppose you have a clock with only a minute hand, and that the minute hand has become disconnected from the inner mechanism and is now free to spin about. If the clock is lying horizontally and you give the hand a spin, it will go around a number of times and then settle on some number. What are the odds of any random spin resulting in the hand, or pointer, pointing, say, between the three and the four? Since there are twelve such intervals where it may stop, the probability, assuming that it spins smoothly, is 1/12. Here the probability density is uniform. The pointer is just as likely to point to any given spot as any other after a random spin. Now, consider what happens if you hang the clock back on the wall. What is the probability of obtaining a value between three and four now? Has the probability density changed? Yes, if you spin the pointer, it will now point to the six (straight down) with 100% (or close) probability. The probability density has been drastically altered, even though we have not changed the set of all possible outcomes and the phase space.

How does this relate to the problem at hand? How could we determine the probability densities for all possible universes? The direct, empirical method would involve looking at the statistics of a large number of universes. One could estimate the densities by examining the properties of other, diverse universes picked at random. Unfortunately, that method is clearly out of the question. We only have one universe to look at. Unless there is a theoretical model which predicts these probability densities (along with other results which can be tested), we have no reason to conclude they are uniform (as so many have done by default) or bell-curves or whatever. (Efforts in the field of quantum gravity and string theory may eventually yield the values of the fundamental constants as part of a theoretical framework, but this has yet to be seen.) And this means one should be wary of using the term “fine-tuned” to describe the values of the constants (just as one would be wary of the answer to a calculus problem when no limits of integration and no integrand were specified). If the probability densities for the fundamental constants were Dirac delta functions,[9] for example, then our universe would have come into existence with a probability of unity and the concept of tuning would clearly not even apply.

Or, to modify the biased analogy of the AD proponents, we don’t know if a firing squad of 100 marksmen or a single blind man with a musket is a better representation of the conditions surrounding the early moments of the universe.

So, the proper response to that favorite rhetorical question of the AD proponents, “Come on, what are the odds that those constants were tuned by chance?” is: “Yes! Indeed! What are the odds? What are the probability densities?”

Even More Probabilities

“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 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.” – John Allen Paulos

By introducing the idea of “tunable constants,” a number of related questions are raised. If the modern AD proponent is to regard fundamental constants as tunable, are not the equations themselves probably in some sense adjustable? For example, suppose that Newton’s Law of Gravity stated that force varied as distance, instead of the square of the inverse distance. This would clearly have strong implications for the possibility of life in the universe. Some AD proponents clearly accept such a notion, as they hold that physical laws were “written” by the creator and probably could have been otherwise, or that the universe might have simply been chaotic and ungoverned by laws. Richard Swinburne points to the “law-governedness” of the universe as being a stronger part of the design argument than the tunability of the constants. Although it may appear to score points for the AD proponent at first, this actually makes their argument less secure.

Why? Because now, the AD proponent must also be able to calculate the probability densities for all possible sets of laws to govern all possible universes. Before one may say that it is “unlikely” for the universe to arise by random with its particular set of laws, it is necessary to have some idea of the probability densities of all other possible sets.

Keep in mind that all of these probability densities may not be independent, which further complicates the calculation. For example, our probability calculation must account for any dependence between constants themselves (when I “tune” electron mass does that affect charge?) and between the constants and the equations (if I have a new equation to govern gravity, will this influence the values of the constants? What about new constants which might arise in those new equations, which we know nothing about?). What are the ranges over which all constants are tunable? Are constants such as pi tunable? What about 2? Would it be 2.0065 in some other universe? And so on.

Additionally, proponents of the modern AD also need to calculate the probability of life arising in any of these other universes, as exotic and non-carbon-based as that life might be. Why is that? Because their arguments often omit the fact that even if our particular universe is improbable, life itself may not be improbable.

One could possibly argue that it has been demonstrated that other life forms are indeed improbable. For example, in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, [10] Barrow and Tipler review many reasons why non-carbon-based life would be very unlikely. Hawking also writes: “…it seems clear that there are relatively few ranges of values for the numbers that would allow the development of any form of intelligent life.” However, since alternate universes can imaginably posses different laws and even different particles (or something else entirely), we have no way of judging the improbability of life in those cases. And if this line of argument seems far-fetched, remember it is merely an example of giving the AD proponents a taste of their own medicine. After all, if one can argue by making statements of the form “we can imagine so many possible universes where life could not exist” then it is fair play to propose exotic universes where life is abundant.

It is not known that a completely exotic universe is any more or less possible than a universe similar to our own but with slightly “de-tuned” constants, nor that life cannot occur in many or most of all possible or likely universes.

One can modify the firing squad analogy to account for these possibilities. Suppose, in the spirit of Leslie’s example, that there is only a one in a trillion chance that a particular prisoner can survive his scheduled execution “by accident.” But let us also suppose that the firing squad has the overwhelming task of executing a trillion and one prisoners, one after the other. In that case, no one would be surprised if one prisoner was not killed. (One could also modify this by considering N different firing squads firing at N different prisoners.)

The proponents of the AD often do not discuss the idea of many, many prisoners before the firing squad, because it ruins their entire argument. But there is no reason why it is any less appropriate an analogy.

Hawking and others seem to imply that if one does not accept a designer, then one must couple the Anthropic Principle with the notion that many different types of universes actually exist (or have existed or will exist). And while a multitude of universes may actually exist, one might also consider that other universes simply might have arisen with some probability. The universe ensemble may need only to be the ensemble of possible universes. The other universes do not necessarily need to exist, any more than one needs to throw a twelve at dice in order to also throw a seven.

Must one really consider all of these far-fetched scenarios with strange universes and exotic life? Yes, if one really wishes to speak of the improbability of life as more than just speculation. Just because it may be easier to imagine universes similar to ours but with de-tuned constants than completely exotic universes does not mean one can neglect the possibility of life in the latter. It is all too easy to reach the conclusion that life is improbable if one considers only alternate universes where life is impossible.

The question of the alleged improbability of our universe, or of life in general, is a very difficult and technical question with possibly enormous scientific and philosophical ramifications. On a matter of such import, one should avoid elevating strained analogies or speculations to the status of precise calculations. In other words, a “back of the envelope” stab at the likelihood of our existence should be treated as just that until a more confident estimation can be performed. And to even provide that “back of the envelope” estimation of the unlikelihood of our being here, the AD proponent will need to perform some kind of calculations which show just how improbable our universe really is.

Some Calculations

What kind of calculation must one perform in order to actually assess the improbability of our existence without the help of a creator? Below is the simplest calculation I could come up with. One may attempt to expand on this calculation, so that, for example, more than one universe can exist with a high probability, but for simplicity I will assume that the sum of the probabilities for all possible universes are one, which I consider a conservative assumption.

Let P(L) be the probability that intelligent life of any kind arises in any possible universe.

Let P(L(i)) be the probability that life arises in the ith universe.

Let N be the total number of all possible universes. This should include universes that are like our own, but with different constants, as well as all possible universes which involve other physical laws and constants. One then has

         P(L) =   >  P(L(i))                      (1) [11]
               i = 1 

         P(L(i)) = P(U(i)) * P(L(i)|U(i))         (2)

Here, P(U(i)) is the probability that the “ith” type of universe is created, and P(L(i)|U(i)) is the probability that intelligent life arises in the “ith” universe, given that the “ith” universe is the one that exists. In order that P(L(i)) remain less than or equal to one, I will take all of the P(U(i)) to sum to unity or less.

Equation (1) states that the probability that intelligent life of any kind will arise, i.e., not necessarily human, P(L), is a sum over N possible universes of the probability of that universe existing times the probability of life arising in that particular universe.

For ease in notation, our own universe will be denoted by the index i = 1. We will consider three particular cases that are consistent with Eq. (1).

Case (A):

P(L(1)) = infinitesimal,

P(L(i)) = 0 for i > 1.

In this case, one obtains

P(L) = infinitesimal.

This is the case the AD proponent usually uses by default. Under these assumptions, both our particular universe and any type of life in general are vastly improbable. In this case, it is argued, we should be surprised by our unlikely existence, and should look for some satisfactory explanation. This case would correspond to their analogy of a single firing squad of 100 marksmen.


P(L(i)) is on the order of 1/N, on the average, for all i.

Which gives, according to (1):

P(L(1)) = infinitesimal,


P(L) = value close to 1.

In this case, the probability of any one universe arising and containing intelligent life is still infinitesimal (1/N is quite small). However, the probability that life of some kind will arise can be quite large. In this case, we should not be surprised by our existence. This would correspond to having a very large number of firing squads – so many that one or more prisoners will walk away alive, even though the odds of any particular prisoner surviving are minuscule.

Case (C):

One reaction to Case (B) above would be the claim that most possible universes could not evolve life. However, even if this is true, it is not enough to rule out this kind of scenario. The claim that life could not evolve in most universes is equivalent to setting P(L(i)|U(i)) = 0 for almost all values of i. But this is not enough to cause P(L) to be diminished, because the probabilities for universes conducive to life could be more heavily weighted. Again, one needs to know the probability densities to make an assessment.

So here we could have:

P(L(i)|U(i)) = 0 except for several values of i, in which cases it is close to 1,

P(U(i)) is heavily weighted towards those certain i-values such that

P(L) = value close to 1.

Case (D):

P(L(1)) = 1,

P(L(i)) = 0 for i > 1.

Which leads to

P(L) = 1.

In this case, no other universes are even possible, because the probability density is so heavily weighted towards our particular universe. So, we are not surprised by the fact that our universe is here. Even more so than Cases (B) and (C) above, this possibility is avoided by the AD proponent. In such a situation, we should not be surprised by our existence. This case would correspond not to a trained firing squad, but to a single blind man with a musket which fires blanks. Which is the better analogy with the universe? Well, if one does not even have a sense of the requisite probability densities which enable one to calculate the probabilities of all possible universes, one cannot really say.

This is not an exhaustive examination of all possible scenarios involving the above equations, but it does not need to be. I am certainly not claiming to know that cases (B), (C), or (D) are more likely than case (A). I haven’t a clue. The point is, neither do those who regard our existence as improbable. But the modern AD proponent usually disregards this, and merely asserts that the probabilities are infinitesimal, that our universe is “unlikely.” I maintain that there is no basis to do this.

Making Analogies About the Universe

In his classic treatment of mathematical illiteracy Innumeracy,[12] John Allen Paulos exposes the basic fallacy behind the AD, the one which some proponents don’t seem to understand. And that fallacy does not necessarily stem from any mathematical deficiencies or ignorance of probability densities, but from an inability to realize how inductive arguments can go wrong. Paulos gives a short discussion of the well-known parable of The Minuscule Probability Of A Monkey Writing Hamlet By Hammering Keys At Random. He writes: “This number [the probability] is infinitesimal-zero, for all practical purposes. Though some have taken this tiny probability as an argument for ‘creation science,’ the only thing it clearly indicates is that monkeys seldom write great plays.”

Or in our case, the only thing which is clearly indicated is that one will seldom escape death by a firing squad unless there is a conspiracy among the shooters. What this has to do with the nature of the universe has yet to be shown.

All of the calculations, probabilities, and “fine-tuning” aside, I contend that the biggest flaw in the modern AD is the one which was there from the beginning, the one that David Hume pointed out so long ago.[13] To argue for design is make an inductive argument, an argument by analogy, about the universe as a whole (of which there is only one, which we know of at least), and about its origin in particular, about which we know very little. One should be hesitant to draw many conclusions from a comparison of such dissimilar entities.

Arguments which utilize analogy become even more suspect when they attempt to link concepts such as causality, certainty, simultaneity, etc., concepts which are rather elementary to human reasoning, with the physical world. If the last century of physics has taught us anything, it is that we cannot always expect nature to behave in a manner which is intuitive, or even reasonable, to the human mind. To ascribe “design” or similar man-made notions to properties of elementary particles and forces is a rather dangerous game, in light of lessons learned from quantum mechanics.

It is quite likely that firing squads or monkeys with typewriters have very little to do with the origin of the universe. Maybe they do, but I don’t know, and frankly, you don’t know either. The universe is a unique object, meaning that induction does not provide a valid means for the determination of anything about it as a whole. Regardless of the analogy: firing squads, wasps on walls[14], pillars supporting roofs[15], etc., the connection is too weak and too superficial to enable strong conclusions to be drawn. And even if one buys into the notion that parts of the universe exhibit design, this does not extend to the universe as a whole (fallacy of composition). So if the AD proponents really want to keep their firing squad analogy, I suggest they employ a more honest version, one which is more in accord with what we really know (or rather, don’t know) about the origin of our universe:

You wake up one morning to find yourself blindfolded. You are led somewhere outside, but you are not sure where. Suddenly, you hear a deafening roar. What was it? It sounded like it could have been a number of rifles firing, but some of them may have been quite distant. Perhaps it was just a single shot. You don’t know for sure, you are not certain what happened. All you know is that you are alive. There are many explanations for this rather singular experience, but because you were blindfolded, you can’t say which was more likely. Was someone shooting at you? Were they near or far away? And what kind of firearm was used? Were there also other shots fired off in the distance? Were there other people blindfolded and who had a similar experience? Did they survive? Or was it a firing squad of ace sharpshooters aiming at you only, and they all missed? Are any of these explanations inherently better than any of the others? If so, why? And if not, then why should one advocate one theory in favor of the others?

Closing Thoughts

“He wrote the words L’Empereur Alexandre, La nation russe and added up their numbers, but the sums were either more or less than 666. Once when making such calculations he wrote down his own name in French, Comte Pierre Besouhoff, but the sum of the numbers did not come right. Then he changed the spelling, substituting a z for the s and adding de and the article le, still without obtaining the desired result. Then it occurred to him: if the answer to the question were contained in his name, his nationality would also be given in the answer. So he wrote Le russe Besuhof and adding up the numbers got 671. This was only five too much, and five was represented by e, the very letter elided from the article le before the word Empereur. By omitting the e, though incorrectly, Pierre got the answer he sought. L’russe Besuhof made 666. This discovery excited him.”

War and Peace, Book Nine, Chapter 19.

The conclusion that the universe and our very existence are somehow vastly improbable, without the aid of a creator, has yet to be demonstrated. Listing the “cosmic coincidences” without the corresponding probability densities is about as useful an exercise as the numerology described by Tolstoy above.

Would it be possible to have a universe which was sufficiently complex to allow the existence of life without that same universe having some appearance of being “specially made” for living creatures, regardless of whether it was in fact specially made or not?

Would it be possible to have a universe which was sufficiently complex to allow the existence of life without the constraint that a number of physical constants had to lie within narrowly specified ranges? In other words, could a universe exists which did not appear “fine-tuned” and still support life? Could such a universe exist without having at least a few “cosmic coincidences” for the inquisitive yet ignorant inhabitants to wonder at?

I think these are very interesting questions, and I ponder them frequently. I invite proponents of the AD to ponder them as well. My efforts to come to grips with these ideas has led me to my own, tentative version of a sort of Anthropic Principle:

(I) All cosmological, physical, chemical, geological, ecological, and biological conditions which are necessary for the existence of intelligent life will, upon sufficient inquiry, be found to exist by those life forms.

(II) If we assume that intelligent life must be inherently complex, the number of conditions in part (I) above will be very large.

(III) Some fraction of this large number of conditions will probably appear unlikely, coincidental, or fortuitous to the intelligent life forms, especially if they have no knowledge of the requisite probability densities.

(IV) Moreover, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out, [16] it is likely that intelligent beings will intuitively determine what is probable or improbable based on the time and length scales which are characteristic of their own existence, and not the larger scales of the universe as a whole. When someone tells me that it is “intuitively obvious” that the universe is too unlikely to be this way by chance, I can only think of the many instances where human intuition has been applied to the realms of the very small or the very large or the very fast, and has been dead wrong.

Appeals to the alleged “fine-tuning” of the cosmos will have to wait until there is a compelling, definite reason to suspect that the existence of our universe really is improbable. Vague analogies with firing squads and arbitrarily selected probabilities may lead to some interesting speculations, but they do not point to any significant evidence for some kind of creator.


[1] See George Schlesinger, New Perspectives on Old-Time Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); references [7] and [8]; a collection of articles can be found at <URL:http://www.reasons.org/resources/papers/>; and Paul Davies, “Physics and the Mind of God” (<URL:http://www.origins.org/ftissues/ft9508/davies.html>, 1995).

[2] Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[3] William Paley, Natural Theology: or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearances of Nature, (reprint, Houston, Texas: St. Thomas Press, 1972).

[4] Wes Morriston has informally reviewed Swinburne’s argument. See his “Richard Swinburne on the Design Argument” (<URL:http://stripe.colorado.edu/~morristo/swinburne.html>, n.d.).

[5] William Lane Craig, “Barrow and Tipler on the Anthropic Principle vs. Divine Design” (<URL:http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/barrow.html>, n.d.).

[6] A particularly long list is given by Hugh Ross at <URL:http://www.reasons.org/resources/papers/designevidence.html> (spotted 12 Mar 98). See also reference [10].

[7] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988).

[8] Richard Morris, The Edges of Science (New York: Prentice Hall, 1990).

[9] A Dirac delta function is zero at every point except for one value of the independent variable, at which point the function is infinite in such a way that the area under the curve is unity. These functions are used extensively in quantum mechanics.

[10] John Barrow and Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[11] Note that for Equation (1) an assumption was made that the the L(i) are mutually exclusive. If this is not the case, it should be replaced by the following expression, which is involves the product of probabilities:


P(L)  =  1  –  —–     (1-P(L(i))     (1′)



where ∏ is Pi

[12] Paulos, J. A. Innumeracy (New York: Hill and Wang, 1988).

[13] David Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (<URL:http://www.utm.edu:80/research/hume/wri/dialogue/dialogue.htm>).

[14] See John Leslie, “The Prerequisites of Life in Our Universe” (<URL:http://www.origins.org/truth/3truth12.html>, 1988).

[15] See Mark Harpt, “Recognizing Design” (<URL:http://www.wwcw.org/design.html>, n.d., spotted 12 Mar 98).

[16] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 1986).

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