Yesterday, I happened to come across a highly critical review (New Humanist, Volume 124, Issue 2, March/April 2009) by the British philosopher Professor Anthony Grayling of a book titled, Questions of Truth: Responses to Questions about God, Science and Belief (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), co-authored by physicist Dr. John Polkinghorne, KBE, FRS, a former physics professor at Cambridge who is also an Anglican priest and theologian, and his long-standing collaborator, Nicholas Beale, FRSA. The book has a foreword written by Professor Antony Hewish, FRS (Nobel Laureate, Physics, 1974) and it was also endorsed by William D. Phillips (Nobel Laureate, Physics, 1997), but that did not stop Professor Grayling from dismissing the book as a “weak, casuistical and tendentious pamphlet.”
Polkinghorne and Beale on the cosmological fine-tuning argument
The book’s authors, Polkinghorne and Beale, provide evidence that the universe is “amazingly finely tuned to carry within it the potential for intelligent life,” and go on to argue that the cosmos is “a creation which has been endowed by its Creator with the potentialities that have given it so remarkable a history.” Professor Grayling is particularly scornful of this argument in his review, written for New Humanist magazine:
…Beale-Polkinghorne milk the tendentious version of the Anthropic Principle which has it that the constants of nature are fine-tuned in order that we can exist… As for the Anthropic Principle: well, it passes belief that it can still be trotted out in this guise. The argument that the universe exists for the express purpose of making the existence of humans possible has long since been debunked, and it is discreditable of Beale-Polkinghorne to try to pass it off on the unsuspecting.
Debunked? Grayling is bluffing here, and he knows it. Robin Collins, who is (like Grayling) a Professor of philosophy, is an ardent defender of the cosmological fine-tuning argument (see here), while the fact that a scientist of the stature of John Polkinghorne continues to defend the argument in a book that has been endorsed by two Nobel Prize winners, speaks for itself.
Professor Grayling’s breath-takingly bad “refutation” of the fine-tuning argument
But Professor Grayling is not finished yet. He then proceeds to give the silliest refutation of the cosmological fine-tuning argument that I have ever seen in print – and believe me, that’s saying something. He writes:
In case you need reminding, the point can be illustrated as follows: I would not be writing this on a laptop if computers had not been invented, but this does not prove that computers were invented so that I could write this.
I have to say that Grayling’s analogy is appallingly bad. But before I explain why, I’d like to make his analogy as fully explicit as possible. The invention of the computer is meant to correspond to the finely tuned laws and constants of Nature – and, one might add, the finely tuned initial conditions of the universe. The fact that I am writing this article on a laptop is meant to correspond to the existence of intelligent beings in the cosmos. Just as I would not be writing this article on a laptop were it not for the invention of the computer, so too, intelligent beings would not exist in the cosmos were it not for the finely tuned laws and constants of nature. Yet we would laugh at anyone who claimed that the computer was invented so that I could write this article on a laptop. Likewise, the notion that the laws and constants of nature were finely tuned so that intelligent beings could exist is similarly risible.
Why Professor Grayling’s analogy is a badly flawed one
Now, what’s wrong with Grayling’s analogy? Let me count the flaws.
1. Computers weren’t invented for me, but they were invented all the same. Using an analogy based on an invention in order to argue against the notion that the universe was invented for intelligent life is therefore a self-refuting method of undercutting the Cosmological Argument from Design.
2. It would be egomaniacal of me to claim that all computers were invented for me, but they were certainly invented for people. Likewise, the fine-tuning argument for the existence of a Creator of the cosmos does not claim that the cosmos was invented for any particular individual (such as myself), or even for the human race as a whole. What it claims is that the universe was created for the benefit of intelligent life. Grayling has badly mis-construed the fine-tuning argument.
3. Although computers were invented for people, it is up to people to decide what they want to use them for. Writing an article is one particular use to which I can put a computer; but there are many other possible uses. Grayling’s analogy falls down at this point, since the fine-tuning argument does not claim that Nature was designed in order to be used in a particular way by intelligent beings. Rather, the claim being put forward is that Nature was designed for the benefit of intelligent beings, but that it is up to them to decide how they are going to use the resources of Nature that were originally created for them.
4. Computers don’t make the existence of intelligent beings possible. Indeed, computers pre-suppose the existence of intelligent beings. The best that can be said of computers is that they enable intelligent beings to perform certain activities. The finely tuned laws and constants of Nature, on the other hand, do make the existence of intelligent beings in the cosmos possible. (Please note that I am not claiming that the laws and constants of Nature are a sufficient condition for the existence of intelligent beings.)
5. The only things whose existence computers could be said to make possible are the files that intelligent beings create, using computers – including the Wordpad file on which this article is stored. But even here, computers are a poor analogy for the finely tuned laws and constants of Nature. For while computers are necessary for the existence of articles that were created using a computer, they are not necessary for the existence of those articles per se. For instance, this article could still have been composed by me, even without the aid of a computer: I could have written it on paper, on a blackboard, on a whiteboard, on beach sand, or even on a strand of DNA, if I knew the techniques for recording information on DNA. On the other hand, if we take some intelligent being who exists in the cosmos – let’s call him Tom – it’s false to say that this being (Tom) could still have come into existence, even without the laws and constants of Nature. For without these laws and constants, Tom would not exist, period.
6. Computers can thus be said to be finely tuned, relative to states of affairs like this one: “I am writing this article using a computer.” For here, if the computer were even slightly different – e.g. if it were missing even one vital circuit component – the article that I am writing on the computer would not exist. However, computers are not finely tuned relative to states of affairs such as the following: “I am writing this article,” or even: “This article exists.” The reason is that articles don’t have to be written on a computer. They can be written on paper, or on other media, as I mentioned above.
7. The whole point of Dr. Collins’ argument in his 2009 essay, The Teleological Argument: An Exploration of the Fine-Tuning of the Universe, was to argue that the probability of a universe in which intelligent life is capable of existing is much greater if the cosmos has a Creator who designed the laws and constants of Nature for the benefit of intelligent life than if there is no such Creator. (More precisely: a universe in which intelligent life is capable of existing is a very unlikely state of affairs if the cosmos is just a brute fact without any cause; however, a universe in which intelligent life is capable of existing is not at all unlikely if the cosmos has a Creator.) Using Grayling’s computer-article analogy, theproper parallel to the reasoning employed in Collins’ cosmological fine-tuning argument would be that the probability of a universe in which this article is capable of being written is much greater if the computer on which this article was composed has a creator who designed it, than if it doesn’t. (More precisely: a universe in which this article is capable of being written is a very unlikely state of affairs if the computer on which this article was composed is just a brute fact without any cause; however, a universe in which this article is capable of being written is not at all unlikely if the computer on which this article was written has a designer.) And now we can see why Grayling’s analogy fails: articles like this one would still be capable of being written if (per impossibile) the computer on which it was written had no designer, for the simple reason that articles like this one don’t need to be written on a computer at all. As I pointed out above, they can be written on paper, instead.
8. If, on the other hand, we impose an artificial “21st century” restriction, e.g. a new law stipulating that from now on, articles – indeed, messages of any kind – can only be written using a computer, and that the use of any other medium is legally prohibited, then it is true that a universe in which this article is capable of being written is a very unlikely state of affairs if the computer on which this article was composed has no designer; however, a universe in which this article is capable of being written is not at all unlikely if the computer on which this article was written had a designer. Why? Because if the computer on which this article was composed had no designer, then it would be astronomically unlikely that the computer would work at all – and hence, this article would never get written in the first place. But the modest anthropic inference which we are entitled to draw from this fact is not (as Grayling would have us believe) that:
(a) All computers were invented so that I could write this article on them;
or even that:
(b) This computer was invented so that I could write this article on it,
or even that:
(c) This computer was invented so that someone could write some article on it;
but rather, that:
(d) This computer was invented so that someone could use it as they see fit – whether to write articles, send email messages, create Web pages, surf the Net, or watch videos.
See? I told you it was a modest inference.
Since the same logic applies to each and every computer ever made, we can generalize the claim in (d) to read as follows:
(e) Computers are designed for people to use as they see fit.
A pretty non-controversial statement, don’t you think? That is all that Grayling’s analogy proves, when properly applied to a “21st century world” in which all articles have to be composed on a computer. Grayling has misapplied the logic of anthropic inference in order to create a crude caricature of the cosmological fine-tuning argument. His argument is unworthy of a man of his standing and erudition.
Professor Grayling’s failure to engage with religious belief
In his review of Polkinghorne and Beale’s book, Questions of Truth: Responses to Questions about God, Science and Belief, Professor Grayling states that “the painful experience of wading through this book gave me an epiphany: that religious faith is extremely similar to the kind of conspiracy theory that sufferers from paranoid delusions can hold: the faithful see a purposive hand in everything, plotting and controlling and guiding – and interpret all their experience accordingly.” It should now be clear to readers how comically wide of the mark this claim is.
What fine-tuning proponents claim is that the universe was created in order to support intelligent and sentient life, among other reasons. This is a generic claim, which in no way implies that each and every personal misfortune which befalls me has a purpose. (Some believers may happen to think this, but I have yet to see any evidence that Polkinghorne and Beale make such a claim in their book.) Once again, what we have here is a caricature of the way religious believers think.
Other things that Professor Grayling got wrong
Professor Grayling also laments what he describes as “the scandal that the Royal Society is allowing its premises to be used for the launch of this book,” ignoring the fact that that the book was endorsed by two Nobel Laureates and two other world-leading scientists, and that two Fellows of the Royal Society were happy to join the book’s authors and Professor Onora O’Neill (President of the British Academy) on the panel for this “scandalous” event – which was also attended by three Vice-Presidents of the Royal Society and about 40 other Fellows of the Royal Society and Fellows of the British Academy.
To add insult to injury, Grayling claimed in his review that Polkinghorne and Beale’s book was “apparently self-published.” In fact, Westminster John Knox is a highly respected US publisher which goes back to the 1830s and has about 1,600 books in print.
The take-home message here is that if you’re going to review a book, you should at least try to read and understand it charitably before you put pen to paper. Professor Grayling is the author of the recently published humanist Bible The Good Book. In his book, Grayling puts forward his own list of Ten Commandments, the tenth of which is: “Be courageous.” It takes courage to acknowledge a mistake, and even more courage to acknowledge several. I think that Dr. John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale deserve such an acknowledgement from Professor Grayling.