Design Argument III: Many Worlds or a Designer?

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This is the the twenty-second post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I looked at the fine-tuning design argument for the existence of God, along with an initial look at the many-worlds conjecture as a response to the argument. This post will spend some more time comparing that conjecture with the designer explanation for the fine-tuning of constants in physics.

Is this objection decisive? It's an alternative explanation, and we need just one alternative explanation to show that the argument original designer explanation isn't the only one. So we have two explanations to consider. Which should we prefer? Which is more reasonable, theism or all these myriads of cosmoi? Both explanations do seem to explain the surprising fact about the constants of physics, and they seem to account for this fact equally well, but how do you weigh the simplicity of each theory? It's not as if both agree on the core that everyone agrees on, and then one goes beyond that to postulate all this excess baggage. Both scenarios contain something that in their theory about ultimate reality beyond what a naturalist might want to say.

Theism, even the minimal sort necessary if you accept this argument, involves a designer or creator, which certainly goes beyond naturalism. Simplicity might nudge us to discount theism in favor of the many-worlds conjecture, since those worlds all seem to be additional parts of nature -- the kind of thing a naturalist already believes in. There are just lots more of them than the one we originally believed in. However, the many-worlds conjecture may require going beyond naturalism as well. Why do all the possible cosmoi (i.e. all the possible sets of constants) get generated? Is there some mechanism that generates these different universes, maybe all at once in different universes or maybe one after the other? What would this mechanism be? It's certainly not something you can just read off physics. There's no explanation offered why there would be such a mechanism. So it's not clear if this response really fits the naturalistic picture either. The many universes would be more of what we already believe in (though many, many more things), but the mechanism to get many universes is beyond the core theory. Yet theism involves a wholly different kind of thing, a designer, though just one thing and not very, very many. A theory can be simpler in terms of how many things it requires, and a theory could be simpler in terms of what kinds of things it requires. We have two theories. Each one is more complex than the other but in a different way.

Also, the many-worlds conjecture gives us a chance to pull the argument into a fourth step of the cycle, asking why the cosmos-generating mechanism exists. Maybe a designer is needed for that. Or is it necessary that all the possibilities occur (parallel to the necessary universe objection)? If so, why? We have no reason from science to think it would be. So questions remain for the many-worlds conjecture. Still, it does serve as an alternative hypothesis. It's just not clear if it should be accepted as the better one.

One argument has been presented that might lean us one way on this. Consider the following case. [I learned of this case from Roger White, but he got it from John Leslie's "Anthropic Principle, World Ensemble, Design" American Philosophical Quarterly 18 (1982): p. 150.] Suppose you're in front of a firing squad. They appear to be well-trained shooters with real guns, shooting at point blank range. They shoot. If you find yourself still standing afterward, you should be surprised. If you discovered that there were millions of firing squads, with just one person happening to survive, it might not be as surprising. But if you know about no other firing squads, does your survival give you any reason to think these other firing squads exist? Or is it better to think someone put blanks in the guns or told the shooters to miss? The many-worlds conjecture would explain why there's a universe allowing rational life, but does that give us reason to believe that explanation? It seems bad to conclude that the other firing squads exist. Why would it be better here to conclude that there are other universes? It's possible that this is a bad analogy. If so, some crucial element of this case must not apply to the design argument case. It's not clear what crucial element that would be.

One final thing to be aware of is that for many people a designer explains a meaning or purpose to the universe. There are some theists who find it intuitively obvious that there is such meaning to life, and thus they will be more inclined to believe in a designer. This argument parallels the moral argument (on which see the next several posts in this series), because this meaning or purpose basically amounts to believing in moral value of a particular sort. The universe itself (and our existence) has moral value, and some people don't think that's possible without a creator who created with that value in mind. Some people think this is merely wishful thinking. Some think we can assign value, but it's not there before we come along to do it. Some, finally, don't think the universe has that kind of value but don't want it to.

This, of course, might be subject to the same wishful thinking charge as wanting the universe to have value and thus believing it does. The question here is whether (1) we have some intuitive ability to discern such things, in which case we should expect our general intuitions to be right or (2) such values are merely our own projections. The answer to that seems to depend at least in part on whether the universe was designed, because if it was then perhaps the designer built such an ability into our very nature. So again this isn't a conclusive argument, but it's an issue worth thinking through, because people will sometimes use considerations like this as arguments.

In the next post I will move on to the moral argument for the existence of God.


Hello Jeremy. It's great to see the continuation of this series.

When you ask about the mechanism for generating universes, aren't you bringing in something like the cosmological argument into a discussion of the design argument?

If it moves in the direction of what might have caused the mechanism, it starts to sound more like the cosmological argument. But this is still design territory, in one sense. What's clear is that on either the many-worlds supposition or on the designer suppotion you have some ultimate thing beyond this universe. That is the conclusion of a design argument and has not yet entered cosmological argument territory. If you ask what caused that, whether it is necessary, and so on then you move into that domain. Just stating that there is something beyond this universe that explains why it appears designed in terms of fine-tuning is not yet venturing into cosmological argument territory.

When Peter van Inwagen discusses this, he calls that ultimate reality the Arche and then says metaphysics can't really tell us whether the Arche is a Chaos (i.e. something unintelligent that just leads to every possibility occurring somehow) or an Order (i.e. some intelligence selecting the constants in order to achieve a purpose such as the eventual result of rational life). But then he ventures into a nice discussion of what often prejudices people toward one or the other, and it's usually from a value commitment about what kind of universe we would like the universe to be. I've discussed that issue earlier in this series, in this post under the heading "Value differences and resistance to evidence or arguments". The point is pretty much the same.

It may be that the many worlds generating mechanism is part of the structure of Quantum Mechanics. I know that there are a number of QMers who think that when probability funcions collapse, they don't really "collapse" so much as the different possibilities "split off" into divirging universes. If this is the case, then generator for the many worlds is QM itself and requires nothing beyond naturalism.

I, myself, don't believe this, but I know there are other who do.

Naturalism as I'm understanding it is the view that the physical world that we are spatiotemporally connected with is all there is. If there is such a mechanism and it is just the structure of QM, then there are lots and lots of universes, cosmoi, or whatever you want to call them that are not spatiotemporally connected with our spacetime. It's naturalistic in one sense, since those other worlds are of the same kind as this one, but it's not naturalistic in the sense I mean.

What I mean is something that physics can tell us about, and I think this speculative scenario is not something you can just read off physics. In that way it's something like the design conjecture, which also can't just be read off physics. Both would explain something that we might find surprising, but neither is the sort of thing that we could just tell by studying the physical world. It's a philosophical postulate that we use in our metaphysical interpretation of what we can learn through science. That seems to me to go beyond what naturalistic methods in science can tell us. That's what I meant when saying it goes beyond naturalism. Methodological naturalism could never discover it to be true, even if one philosophical interpretation of something in physics does include it.

Wink, I've been discussing various ID-related issues with David Heddle, himself a physicist who endorses fine-tuning versions of the design argument form. In his latest post, most of which is unrelated to these issues, he says something that relates to the QM response you gave. Here is an excerpt:

As an aside, the idea of tying design to low probability (yes, I know it is not just low probability) is probably a mistake and certainly incomplete. The cosmological ID argument is not based on low probability at all. But suppose it were: suppose we had a theory that gave the distribution of the physical constants, and from that theory we concluded that the probability of a set of life-sustaining constants was 1 in 10500. Suppose on the basis of that probability we prove the universe was designed. Now suppose a new theory comes along that demonstrates that the constants were not random draws but that their values are determined. The design proof "crumbles" because a probability of 1 in 10500 has been replaced with a probability of unity. And yet Cosmological ID, at least as I view it, would live on precisely because it is not based on the (in actuality incalculable) probability of the values of the physical constants, it is based on the fact that if they were changed by a small amount the universe could not support life. Indeed, I would argue that this situation, in which the values of the constants are determined from a theory of everything, points a more elegant form of design.

If I'm reading him correctly, he's saying that you can frame the argument in a way that isn't affected if it turns out some more fundamental theory of everything in physics is what made the laws the way they are. Then the probabilities of these laws would not be really low, as they are the way I framed the argument. They would be 1. No other possibility could occur given the particular theory of everything that leads to the laws.

But the argument can still get going in that you might wonder why such an elegant theory in physics should be true. Isn't it surprising that things aren't messy? It's true that we like simple theories in physics, but do we have good reason to expect that nature is as pretty as we'd like it to be? Why should we? If it turns out to be, we might conclude that some mind is behind the elegance.

Now try the same argument with QM. What reason might there be for laws that require the trying out of every set of constants. Isn't it surprising that the laws happen to be the ones that require trying every possible set of constants such that the ones necessary for rational life might eventually get tried in some cosmos? Isn't that something that can be easily explained if a designer wanted intelligent life?

The arguments aren't parallel in every way, and I could see how you might try to resist them in different ways, but it seems to me to be an interesting enough move that some might find convincing enough to count as some reason to believe in a designer even given the theory of everything David discusses or the QM view you described.

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