Teleological Argument Refuted?

The Teleological Argument is a cornerstone of Christian apologetics and claims that the strong appearance of design in the universe indicates a divine designer.  One of the key evidences of the Teleological Argument is the low likelihood of such appearance of design having occurred by chance.  Given that this likelihood is statistically zero, the case for intentional design is strongly supported.

However, an online atheist who calls himself “Dark Matter” and runs a YouTube channel called “DarkAntics” has posted a video that he claims easily disproves this central tenet of the Teleological Argument.  Dark Matter describes how he recently witnessed an impossible event, with odds of over 19 trillion to 1 against it happening.  What is this event?  He saw a particular leaf fall onto a particular spot on the ground at a particular time.  Clearly this occurrence is not miraculous at all and that is his point.  The event only looks statistically impossible when we are trying, beforehand, to predict where and when a particular leaf will fall.  But after the fact, it’s no big deal since it was inevitable that the leaf would fall at some point.  Dark Matter claims the Teleological Argument makes the same mistake.  In his words, Christian apologists “mistake improbability with inevitability.”

While Dark Matter’s argument sounds sophisticated, it is actually quite sophomoric.  There are at least four challenges to his argument that we detail below.

The “Sniff Test”

First, we have to ask whether or not this argument passes the simple “sniff test.”  In other words, if it just doesn’t smell right it probably isn’t.  Is it likely that educated, experienced apologists like Dr. John Lennox, with a PhD in Mathematics, have committed such a basic misunderstanding of math?  To answer this question, let’s look at what the “hostile witnesses” say.

No less an authority than the late Dr. Stephen Hawking, who clearly understood math better than “Dark Matter,” believed this aspect of the Teleological Argument needed to be answered and was not a simple misunderstanding.  Hawking remarked that “Our universe and its laws appear to have a design that is tailor-made to support us and, if we are to exist, leaves little room for alteration1.”  Hawking invoked the necessity of a multiverse to answer the Teleological Argument, not a math mistake.

Dr. Richard Dawkins also agrees that the Teleological Argument needs to be answered.  He states living things have the “appearance of having been designed for a purpose2.”  Dawkins agrees with Hawking about the multiverse to explain cosmic “fine tuning” and believes natural selection explains the appearance of design in life.

Both of these authorities are massively more qualified to understand the math involved than “Dark Matter” and they do not make his argument.  While they do make other arguments, those have been repeatedly and effectively answered elsewhere on Logic & Light (and many other places).  Consequently, Dark Matter’s math trick explanation fails the most basic sniff test.

The Appearance of Design

In making his case, Dark Matter attacks the probabilities of random chance producing the appearance of design.  However, by focusing on the math, he doesn’t refute or even address the central point of the Teleological Argument.  There is no denying that the universe, and life, give a very strong indication of design.  Renowned scientists and atheist experts admit this fact:

“It almost seems as if the universe must in some sense have known that we were coming” – Freeman Dyson, theoretical physicist and mathematician3.

“Biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved” – Francis Crick, molecular biologist and co-discoverer of DNA’s double helix structure4.

Each of the millions of species on earth “independently displays a powerful illusion of apparent design5.”  – Richard Dawkins, biologist and atheist author

In the whole of human experience, complex design, what Dr. Douglas Axe calls “functional coherence,” only ever results from intentional, intelligent effort.  Since the entire universe in general, and life in particular, bear an unmistakable appearance of design, it cannot be so easily brushed aside.  Dark Matter must do more than make an erroneous math argument.  He has to actually explain the design.

Dozens of Factors

In seeking to explain how an “impossible” event is no big deal, Dark Matter commits another mistake.  He seems to try and simplify the Teleological Argument to that of a single event.  In other words, it appears he believes that by explaining one event (like his satirical leaf) the Teleological Argument fails.  However, there are actually dozens of factors (perhaps over 800)6 that defy the odds of probability and must be explained within the design of life and the universe as a whole.

Consider the following:

  • Gravity had to be finely tuned to one part in 1040 for the universe and life to exist7
  • The density of the early universe had to be precisely balanced to within 1 part in 1015 for it to survive and for life to develop8
  • If the ratio of the strong nuclear force to the electro-magnetic force had been different by 1 part in 1016 no stars could have formed9
  • The cosmological constant (expansion rate of the universe) must be finely tuned to one part in 10120 or galaxies, stars, planets, and life could not have formed.10

Furthermore, the odds of these factors occurring are completely different from those of Dark Matter’s leaf.  He is correct that it would inevitably fall and it had to fall into one of over 19 trillion potential time/space options.  But, as a comparison, the value of gravity was not simply an inevitable occurrence out of some preexistent range of potential options.  The value of gravity was set just once, and if it had varied by 1 in 1040 parts, existence and life would have been impossible.  This is an apples and oranges comparison.  It is Dark Matter that misrepresents the math.  And he vastly over-simplifies the odds stacked against him and ignores the dozens, if not hundreds, of statistically impossible factors required to refute the Teleological Argument.

A “Brute Fact”

Dark Matter believes he can ignore these odds because the universe, and its features, was “inevitable.”  Therefore, no amount of theoretical statistical challenges matter.  This point is ultimately the center of his argument and he uses the leaf illustration to make his case.  One could just as easily use the odds of getting a particular hand in a game of 5-card poker.  Given a normal deck, the odds of getting any specific hand are 1 in ~312 million.  But it is inevitable that you will in fact get a five-card hand.  However, is this the right way to view the odds associated with the Teleological Argument?

One must ask, is the universe inevitable just like a leaf falling from a tree or getting a five-card hand in a game of poker?  Dark Matter confidently asserts this fact, but he provides no support.  That is because there is none.  There is no evidence that supports an inevitable universe.  In fact, all of the available evidence, as illustrated within the Teleological Argument, indicates the exact opposite.  The multiverse theory, which is the leading atheist answer to cosmic “fine tuning,” requires that the universe’s characteristics not be inevitable.  One can only believe the universe is inevitable if they accept it as a necessary “brute fact.”  But such a position will never be anything more than an unsupportable opinion because it cannot be proven, nor even tested, scientifically.  Since it cannot be proven from evidence, it must be accepted on nothing more than blind faith, despite the evidence!

Furthermore, Dark Matter’s “inevitability” assertion demonstrates that he doesn’t really understand the Teleological Argument.  His rationale is only valid if the Teleological Argument is concerned with the odds of getting this specific universe out of a practically infinite number of equally unlikely alternatives.  His point is that if there are enough theoretical options, any one of them will look exceedingly rare, but nevertheless, one of them will occur.  However, the Teleological Argument is not about the odds of getting this particular universe.  It describes the odds of getting any life-permitting universe at all.  Dark Matter totally misunderstands the situation.  The chances of any conceivable universe where life can exist is vanishingly small.  It is absolutely not inevitable.

Interestingly, Richard Dawkins rejects the “inevitable” universe hypothesis because it actually raises a troubling philosophical issue for atheists.  He acknowledges that it is plausible the universe could have only been one way but questions “why did that one way have to be such a set-up for our eventual evolution?  Why did it have to be the kind of universe which seems almost as if, in the words of the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, it ‘must have known we were coming11?’”  In other words, if an atheist contends that the universe had “no choice” but to exist and create human life, he or she starts to sound a lot like a creationist.

Conclusion

Ultimately, Dark Matter’s argument is an apples and oranges comparison.  To continue the five-card poker analogy, the question is not about the odds of getting a particular hand of five-cards.  Dark Matter is correct that it is inevitable one will get five cards if playing the game.  Instead, the Teleological Argument actually discusses the probability of the cards being able to exist at all and the game being invented in the first place.  Neither was inevitable.  And both of those factors required intentional, intelligent effort and could not have ever happened naturally.  Dark Matter has answered the wrong question.

As a final note, the use of a DarkAntics video in this article is not meant to imply that Dark Matter is a serious or challenging atheist apologist.  I have viewed several (5-6) of his videos.  The one discussed here is the best I saw.  Like many anti-theists, his arguments rely on misrepresentations or strawmen caricatures of Christianity and relatively weak reasoning.  They can be easily dismissed by an experienced Christian apologist.

Notes:

  1. Hawking, Stephen and Mlodinow, Leonard. The Grand Design.  New York, NY:  Bantam Books 2010.  162
  2. Groothuis, Douglas. Christian Apologetics.  Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press 2011.  298
  3. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Freeman_Dyson
  4. Groothuis, Douglas.   Ibid.  Pg. 298-299
  5. Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion.  New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin 2006.  167
  6. Ross, Dr. Hugh. Why the Universe is the Way it is.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Books 2008.  123.
  7. Groothuis, Douglas.   Ibid.  Pg. 252
  8. Collins, Francis S. and Gibberson, Karl W.  The Language of Science and Faith.  Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press 2011.  185
  9. Lennox, John C., PhD. God’s Undertaker.  Oxford, England:  Lion Books 2009.  70
  10. Groothuis, Douglas.   Ibid.  Pg. 252-253
  11. Dawkins, Richard.   Ibid.  Pg. 173

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plus