The Ant Argument

I received some great feedback in response to the article I wrote in December, “The (Unsurprising) Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” (read it here). Thank you everyone! Two comments in particular (one on this blog and another offsite) have prompted me to pursue the topic a little further, if for no other reason than to address their striking similarities. For the sake of clarity, I’ve pasted the relevant excerpts below:

“A bacterium (let’s call him Jim) that lives under my tongue could equally believe that the universe has been constructed precisely for his benefit. He doesn’t need to do any maths, because my saliva is just acidic enough to break down food into protein for Jim to eat, but not so acidic that it will dissolve him…” -Mr. T____

“I am sure the ant, if sentient, thinks the hill and the yard to be exquisitely fine-tuned. Drop him in Antarctica and see how quickly he loses religion. Similarly, move a human being even a few feet up or down and life is impossible (dying in caves, falling from a high perch)…” –Mr. C____

Both of these responses implicitly pose the same question. What’s so special about us? I’ll refer to this as “the ant argument”.

Firstly, the argument is itself somewhat self-defeating. Citing lower organisms like ants and bacteria as a means of challenging our place in the universe is akin to denying a large miracle by pointing to a smaller miracle. Or put another way, we can’t argue that the game of basketball wasn’t invented on the basis that my grandmother plays it less impressively than the L.A. Lakers.

Secondly, the ant argument reveals a misunderstanding of the Christian’s view of man and nature. Christians don’t claim that the universe is finely tuned for humans at the exclusion of other lifeforms. Man was created in God’s image, but the ultimate purpose of Creation is to glorify God…not us.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the ant argument doesn’t actually speak to the issue of our universe being finely tuned. Consider the four fundamental forces of nature (the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, the electromagnetic force, and gravity). If any of these forces were stronger or weaker by just a tiny amount, then life would almost certainly be unable to exist.

Or consider the exact amount of dark matter present in the universe. Of all the possible amounts of dark matter that could exist, the actual amount happens to lie in that infinitesimally small range that allows stars to form and life to exist. Just a little less or a little more, and the universe would have either rapidly re-collapsed or accelerated into oblivion.

Dr. Francis Collins, who once spearheaded the Human Genome Project and is currently director of the NIH, speaks to this issue as well:

“To get our universe, with all of its potential for complexities or any kind of potential for any kind of life-form, everything has to be precisely defined on this knife edge of improbability…You have to see the hands of a creator who set the parameters to be just so because the creator was interested in something a little more complicated than random particles.”

Francis Collins

I should stop here to make an important point. The size and age of the universe are irrelevant to the issue of our universe’s fundamental constants being finely tuned. This is the problem with arguments along the lines of, “the universe is so huge and so ancient that life was bound to eventually arise somewhere…therefore, fine tuning is most likely just an illusion.” This kind of reasoning might be applicable to a discussion on our planet’s ability to support life, but it fails to address fine tuning. It doesn’t explain why the fundamental qualities of the universe are the way they are. It’s analogous to claiming that enough hands of poker will eventually result in a royal flush…without actually answering the question of where the rules of poker came from, or what a “royal flush” even means!

This is precisely why so many physicists – unwilling to accept a Designer yet unable to explain the appearance of Design – have embraced the idea of a multiverse. But as I pointed out in my original post, a belief in multiple universes is by no means a more scientifically defensible position. In fact, using Occam’s razor, it can be compellingly argued that belief in a Designer is eminently more scientific. Proponents of a multiverse are, after all, proposing an infinite (or near-infinite) number of unobservable universes just to explain the existence of our own.

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29 thoughts on “The Ant Argument

  1. Right. I think your third point is the strongest. We aren’t arguing that Earth and Earth alone has the right special parameters, the right “tuning” to make life possible, but rather that the universe itself seems so tuned, a much more remarkable fact.

  2. Again, another brilliant discussion with cogent arguments pointing out the evasive tactics of agnostics that deny the possibiltily of a created universe. A pleasurable, informative article.

  3. Hi Matt. Perhaps it’s true that the probability of a life-friendly universe existing is low given naturalism. However, it does not follow that this is evidence that God exists. For that, we would at least need to know that the probability of a life-friendly universe existing is relatively higher given the existence of God. But such reasons are hard to come by.

    • Probability is not the problem. You’re looking at how likely it is that life would exist given the laws and principles in the universe. However, the greater concern should be that any laws or principles should even exist to begin with.

  4. Wow! I’m not sure I’m bright enough to comment intelligently on your post…but I thoroughly enjoyed it and can see that pondering your musings will give me food for thought as I await your next monthly muse.

  5. The problem with using the idea of a multiverse, which is a pretty interesting one I think, to prove that this universe is the way it is, because an infinite amount of universes would eventually strike this one, begs the question on why this universe SHOULD exist. You are absolutely correct in pointing out the logical flaw with the argument when you ask about the very rules of poker that should form the framework of the probability of every hand to be played.

    I think what’s more compelling about scientific explanations is not so much the evidence that we find in the universe, but rather that we COULD find evidence in this universe–that this IS a closed system should lead us to ask why the structure of the universe is even a structure to begin with.

    • Exactly. And the irony is that many of the same people who like to use Occam’s Razor as a weapon against Christianity fail to acknowledge how it might apply to a multiverse. Introducing an infinite number of alternate universes to justify the existence of our own is by no means “simpler” than appealing to the existence of a single Designer.

    • Interestingly you ask the question along the assumption on the existence of God as you say “given”, as God’s attributes would necessitate structure. I am simply taking the existence of structure and wondering why there would be or should be structure at all? If a Designer or Creator exists, then the structure makes should and would too exist. Otherwise, structure is absurd without a Creator or Designer, for the very concept of organization and framework for anything at all requires by necessity a Creator’s mind.

  6. That would be compatible with any specified state of affairs, so it lacks explanatory power. But then, the lack of any specified structure is also compatible with the existence of God, which returns us to the question I asked earlier.

  7. God’s attributes may necessitate some structure internal to him. Or not; some theologians see him as perfectly simple. But God’s attributes do not necessitate him to create universes. He was free not to. To avoid a vacuous intentional explanation, we need some good reasons to think that God would prefer regularity to irregularity, and some specific structure (our universe) to another.

    • You’re right, God’s attributes don’t necessitate that He does anything at all. However, since God is love and He freely desires community, He freely decided and chose to create a universe–namely this one. Regardless, though, of what structure He chose, His creation demanded some sort of structure because His identity is itself organized in His own way–even if it may not make sense to us. It wouldn’t have mattered what structure was chosen, and for all we know God could have made different universes along with this one that work under different laws and principles. All we know is that we belong to this universe, structured according to the way we find it–as we ourselves have been given faculties that interpret our discoveries likewise. We find mathematics to work itself in the universe, as it is a system we as humans created, because the way our rationality was created whatever workable system we made would have been the way we understood God’s structure. God’s image upon humanity shows that our need for structure is satiated in our Creator…He designed us!

      http://unapologeticapologist.wordpress.com

  8. It seems to me that, when assessing what God would do, we require some objective grounds as to what a morally perfect being would do. For example, we cannot rely on God’s desire for community as the complete explanation, since the desire to interact with (as yet) uncreated creatures is itself specific and contingent in God, requiring in turn it’s own explanation. Thus, the question, “why is there a fine-tuned universe?” becomes, “why did God create a fine-tuned universe.” The naturalist’s appeal to apparently inexplicable luck is thereby shared by the theist; “how fortunate God happened to fine-tune a universe!” The only way forward, I think, is to appeal to God’s morally-perfect character. But to know that God would create the conditions necessary for sentient life to arise is, on this strategy, the same as knowing that the existence of biological life is intrinsically valuable. This requires a fairly robust form of non-naturalistic moral realism; it must be true that, prior to anything contingent existing, it would be better if there was biological life. But if an atheist is not a Platonist or even a moral realist, then they have no reason to think it’s true that God, if he existed, would be likely to create biological life, so the fine-tuning argument will not be compelling to them. Or, if they are a moral realist of the required kind, they may disagree that biological life has intrinsic value, and thus the argument still fails for them.

    Another complication for the argument is the ambiguity of atheism- if the multiverse or some other structure exists in the absence of God, for all we know the likelihood of specification required for life to arise might be quite high.

  9. Point 3 is your best.

    I don’t think any of the criticisms (at least not the ones you mentioned) are actually valid reasons to reject the first part of the argument. There you didn’t offer a “universe is right for life” argument (even if the second part of your blog post did this) – but said that the universe was describable by mathematics. That’s a brute prediction that people (Newton, Kepler, ect.) expected on the basis of theism. Remove that theism and there’s no reason to expect it. And yet, as Wigner points out so well, that’s exactly what we’ve seen (and continue to see) in science.

  10. Did your grandmother really play for the Lakers??? Cool. Seriously what a thought-provoking and well written article, with arguments (such as that one!) that most of us probably have not thought of before. Thanks Matt for your great and provacative writing.God bless.

  11. A well done article and a good polemic on the validity of I.D. Obviously this falls in line with the biblical account of Genesis. Rather than being a disparate argument to I.D. the biblical account clearly dovetails into the I.D. model.

    One of the arguments posited against a young age earth is that the expansiveness of the universe “proves” the universe is very old—I don’t think age necessarily follows expansiveness. I agree, as you pointed out in your blog that, “the size and age of the universe are irrelevant to the issue of our universe’s fundamental constants being finely tuned.”

    The Genesis creation account clearly demonstrates that Creation was designed with age “built in.” Adam and Eve did not crawl around looking for a breast to suckle and the plants and animals were not sprouts and cubbish.

    Then too one of the rules of hermeneutics is to understand who the audience is that the writer is addressing. The question arises, “how could Moses’ audience understand that the 7 day creation period was actually ‘long periods of time?’” I don’t believe they would, rather they would understand the 7 Days as a literal 7 days.

    Though the Intelligent Design proponents (of which I am one) often put a philosophical barrier between I.D. and Creationism it seems I.D. and Creation were designed to dovetail together nicely.

    It also seems to be the case that Creation must at some point; logically and ontologically follow from the I.D. argument.

  12. Reblogged this on catholicboyrichard and commented:
    Some brilliant musings from one of my first blog followers! And did I mention he is all of 22 years of age? I hope I am as smart when I hit 60! Good stuff.

  13. Reblogged this on luvsiesous and commented:
    I find it amazing that so many people assume a Christian is not smart. Merely because I believe in something I cannot see, or tangibly define.

    I cannot see the Universe around me. Scientists CANNOT see, or define, the dark matter they believe is necessary for the Universe to even exist.

    Our friend, Matt, addresses one of the arguments which he has run into. It is a discussion of design and worth your time to read.

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