philosophy, The Teleological Argument

The Past, Probability, and Teleology

This post has been expanded, edited, and published in the journal Hope’s Reason. View it in full here.

I have run into the idea more than once recently that we should discount things like the teleological argument due to the fact that it happened in the past. The thinking goes that, because an event (the existence of the universe, for example), has happened, the probability of that event happening is 1/1. Thus, people like Dawkins can say, “The fact of our own existence is perhaps too surprising to bear… How is it that we find ourselves not merely existing, but surrounded by such complexity, such excellence, such endless forms so beautiful… The answer is this: it could not have been otherwise, given that we are capable of noticing our existence at all and of asking questions about it” (here).

There are a number of ways to take such sentiment. The first is quite trivial. Of course, if an event e happened, the probability e having happened is 1/1. That’s, as I said, trivially true.

The problem is when people try to use this thinking against something like some forms of the teleological argument. Statistically, some people assert, the odds that the universe would be life-permitting (like the one we observe) must be 1/1, because, we are here, after all, to observe it!

Now, imagine the following:

d: The chances of any one side coming up are (granting a fair die and surface) 1/6. I toss a die (I really just did here) and get a 1.

Now, the equivalent claim of saying that the universe must have been life permitting because we are here to observe it is saying that d must happen, given that it is what did happen. Some people have no problem with asserting this, and indeed say that this should be the case. The fact that something is true, they may argue, means that the probability that it would happen was 1/1.

We can, in fact, reduce this whole discussion to symbolic logic. It is the case that:

□(pp)

Which tells us that, if p is the case, then necessarily p is the case. Those who are arguing as above, however, need a much stronger conclusion, namely, □p. But this simply doesn’t follow from reality. It is the case that p, therefore, necessarily, p. But it is not the case that necessarily p.

The distinction is a simple de re verses de dicto fallacy. It is an elementary error philosophically, but it is easy to commit. I’ve done so in the past (see here for a post in which I caught myself in this confusion). Now, de dicto necessity is “a matter of a proposition’s being necessarily true” while de re necessity is “an object’s having a property essentially or necessarily” (Plantinga, v). De dicto necessity ascribes necessity to a proposition, while de re necessity argues only that each “res of a certain kind has a certain property essentially or necessarily” (Plantinga, 10).

Returning to the idea of past events, such as the universe coming into existence or rolling a die and having it come up as a 1, we can see where this error occurs. Those who deny with Dawkins that we can work out the prior probabilities of the universe being life-permitting because “it could not have been otherwise” are actually committing this basic error. They have assigned the proposition that the universe exists de re necessity, when in reality it is only a de dicto necessity. It is, in other words, true that whatever has happened, necessarily has happened. It is not true that whatever has happened has happened necessarily.

(This post is a very miniature version of a journal article I have under review for Hope’s Reason right now.)

Sources:

Plantinga, Alvin. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford University Press. 1979.

Image: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:God-dice.jpg

Thanks to Dr. Timothy Folkerts and Dr. Stephen Parrish for some enlightening correspondence on the above points.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

16 thoughts on “The Past, Probability, and Teleology

  1. I’m not sure Dawkins is saying what you interpret him as saying. The statements you quote (from The Greatest Show on Earth) are in the context of an argument about natural selection and the conditions for life – given that we are capable of noticing our existence at all and of asking questions about it. I think it’s intended as a biological argument, not a metaphysical argument about necessity. I’m not even sure it’s arguing the anthropic principle.

    The last sentence you quote is immediately followed by:

    It is no accident, as cosmologists point out to us, that we see stars in the sky. There may be universes without stars in them, universes whose physical laws and constants leave the primordial hydrogen evenly spread and not concentrated into stars. But nobody is observing those universes, because entities capable of observing anything cannot exist without stars. Not only does life need at least one star to provide energy. Stars are also the furnaces in which the majority of the chemical elements are forged, and you can’t have life without a rich chemistry. We could go through the laws of physics, one by one, and say the same thing of all of them: it is no accident that we see… [Ellipsis in the original]

    The statement ‘It is no accident… that we see stars in the sky’ is not another way of saying ‘It is no accident… that there are stars in the sky’. He is saying that, given that we do exist, it is no accident that we exist in a universe with stars in it, rather than a universe without stars.

    There may be universes without stars in them: this is significant. If there could be universes without stars, then there could have been only universes (or only a universe) without stars. So the universe we are in did not have to exist as it is. We did not have to exist as we are, or at all. But given that we do exist, the universe we evolved in has to exhibit, and has to have exhibited, certain features which enable the existence of beings like ourselves.

    The next paragraph is where he fleshes out the main point in his argument, which is that, given that we are capable of noticing our existence at all and of asking questions about it, it is no accident that we see around us the kinds of life-forms that we do. He is not saying our existence, or the existence of any of our features, were necessary. Or claiming that because we happen to exist, our existence was somehow necessary. He is saying that given that we do exist as the complex, sentient and intelligent beings we are, the most convincing explanation is one which also accommodates the complexity and variety of inter-related life-forms which we do see around us.

    Whether or not one agrees with him is another question. But I’m sure it’s a biological claim, not a metaphysical claim.

    Posted by Chris Lawrence | October 21, 2010, 12:05 AM
    • “It is no accident”.
      What does this mean?

      “We did not have to exist as we are, or at all. But given that we do exist, the universe we evolved in has to exhibit, and has to have exhibited, certain features which enable the existence of beings like ourselves.”

      What does this mean?

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 21, 2010, 8:51 AM
      • Thanks JW.

        ‘It is no accident’: these are Dawkins’ words, so I wouldn’t know for sure. But from the context I take him to mean ‘It is not surprising’ or ‘it is not inexplicable’ – relating to physical causation, not metaphysical necessity.

        I take his statement ‘It is no accident… that we see stars in the sky’ to mean that the thing that is no accident is not that there are stars in the sky, but that we see stars in the sky – given that we do exist as the beings that we are. Beings such as we are could only have evolved in a supportive universe. A universe without stars would not have supported our evolution. I don’t think he’s saying that our existence was necessary or that the existence of the stars was necessary. Or even that, given that we do exist as the beings that we are, it necessarily follows that the stars must have existed – in the sense that there is no possible world in which we exist as the beings that we are, but the stars do not also exist.

        So in a metaphysical sense there would be a possible world in which both we exist as the beings we are and stars do not exist. But from a standpoint of scientific knowledge, that possible world (in which we exist as the beings we are and stars do not exist) would be one very difficult to accommodate with the sum total of our scientific knowledge. It is a matter of inferring possible causes from actual effects.

        After a windy night we find apples on the ground under the apple tree. It was ‘no accident’ that the apples fell in the night because the wind was strong enough to blow them down. Perhaps the wind was so strong that the probability of at least some apples being blown down was almost 100%. But that doesn’t affect the probability of the windy night itself. If the probability of there being a strong wind on Tuesday night was 30%, the fact that we found apples under the tree on Wednesday morning doesn’t shoot that probability up to 100%.

        I take Dawkins’ ‘no accident’ in this sense, because the overall context is a scientific, biological argument.

        ‘We did not have to exist as we are, or at all. But given that we do exist, the universe we evolved in has to exhibit, and has to have exhibited, certain features which enable the existence of beings like ourselves’: these are my words, so I hope I can say exactly what I meant by them.

        I meant them in the same sense as the apples and the wind. The apple tree with its ripe apples did not have to exist. Nor did the strong wind. But given that the tree did exist, and there were apples on the ground on Wednesday morning which were not there Tuesday evening, it is rational to infer that something must have happened on Tuesday night which was a sufficient causal explanation of the apples falling down.

        In the case of the apples there may be other possible explanations – the tree was taken over by a troupe of monkeys, say. But if there are no monkeys in the area, and all other possible causal explanations have been ruled out, then we would say there must have been a strong wind on Tuesday night.

        Perhaps a simpler example is this: I did not have to exist. My existence is not a necessary existence. Nor was my mother’s. But given that I do exist, my mother must have existed. It is not strict logical necessity: there is a possible world in which it is true that I exist and also true that my mother did not exist. But in the actual world, the one addressed by the sum total of our scientific knowledge, it cannot be the case that I exist but my mother never existed.

        Hope this clarifies what I meant.

        Posted by Chris Lawrence | October 23, 2010, 10:31 AM
  2. What I like to point out regarding the Telelogical argument is that atheists believe the universe exists without it being created. It is self-existant. It either always was, or it came to be, and with no necessity or external will before it. We, as theists, simply believe that about God. Where we part from atheists is in the application of Occam’s razor. To an atheist, one can stop with the universe; adding God is an unnecessary complication. To a theist, God is just too obvious to ignore, making it simpler to acknowledge Him than ignore Him. With different sets of complications to slice through, it is what makes such dialog so difficult.

    Posted by Mike | October 23, 2010, 11:30 PM
    • Indeed. Except that the belief that ‘x exists without it being created’ could be different in the two cases.

      For many atheists it’s not so much that they believe the universe exists without it being created, but they can think of no good reason to believe that the universe – which they see all around them – must have been created by something which was not the universe . I don’t know if many theists would think the same about God – ie that they can think of no good reason to believe that God – who they see all around them? – must have been created by something which was not God.

      I would think a statement like ‘God is just too obvious to ignore’ would baffle many atheists.

      Posted by Chris Lawrence | October 24, 2010, 10:12 AM
      • Are you saying the universe is self-created?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 25, 2010, 5:11 PM
      • In reply to: J.W. Wartick (17:11:48) :
        Are you saying the universe is self-created?

        No, I was trying to add my 2c worth to what Mike said but probably muddled my double negatives!

        I don’t have any reason to think the universe is self-created. I doubt if I could even give an intelligible account of what it would mean to say the universe was self-created. But I wouldn’t want to rule it out by stating unequivocally: ‘I believe the universe is not self-created.’

        I was taking Mike as saying two things:

        (i) atheists believe that the universe exists without it being created; that it is self-existent; that it either always was, or it came to be, and with no necessity or external will before it.

        (ii) theists believe that God exists without being created; that God is self-existent; that God either always was, or came to be, and with no necessity or external will before God.

        It was the parallelism which didn’t seem quite right to me. And I think it’s because ‘atheist’ is ultimately a negative description whereas ‘theist’ is a positive description. A theist might therefore think something positively about God which an atheist might not necessarily think positively about the universe. Or conversely, an atheist might express something negatively about the universe which a theist might not express negatively about God.

        My suggestion was an example of the latter, ie an atheist can think of no good reason to believe that the universe must have been created by something which was not the universe. I wouldn’t want to claim that every atheist in the world would assent to that statement, but it seems to me pretty close to a defining tenet of ‘atheism’.

        But if you swap ‘God’ for ‘the universe’ I don’t think you get a statement many theists would be likely to express as a defining tenet, ie: a theist can think of no good reason to believe that God must have been created by something which was not God. Even if it is technically true, it seems a long way from a defining tenet of ‘theism’.

        Posted by Chris Lawrence | October 26, 2010, 1:57 PM
      • Thanks for your response, you’ve cleared it up very well.

        Do you think the universe is necessary or contingent?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 29, 2010, 9:48 AM
      • In reply to: J.W. Wartick (09:48:57 | 29/10/2010):
        Do you think the universe is necessary or contingent?

        There’s a question.

        I’m going to assume for the moment that the universe falls into the category of things of which it is true that either it is necessary or it is contingent.

        (I don’t know how sound that assumption is – it’s probably worth an essay in itself.)

        First option is that the universe is necessary. I don’t see how that can be true. I think that would rule out the Big Bang as even a feasible explanation of the origin of the universe, and I wouldn’t want to do that. Even if the Big Bang theory says that time also began when the universe began, so there was no ‘before the Big Bang’, I cannot see how ‘the existence of the universe is a necessary existence’ and ‘the universe began with the Big Bang’ can both be true.

        So that would be a reason for not thinking the universe was necessary.

        A classic formulation of contingency is in ‘possible worlds’ terminology. So a true statement s is contingently true if there is a possible world in which s is false. Conversely true statement s is necessarily true if s is true in all possible worlds.

        So if s is ‘the universe exists’, then to say this is a contingent rather than necessary truth is to say that there is a possible world in which the universe does not exist.

        But this seems odd to say the least. In this context at least ‘world’ and ‘universe’ are very close in meaning. It is almost to say: there is a possible world (and let’s call that possible world w1) in which world w1 does not exist.

        So I’m beginning to doubt whether ‘possible worlds’ terminology really applies in the case of the universe.

        There’s undoubtedly far more to say but I’m woefully underqualified to add much more…

        Posted by Chris Lawrence | October 29, 2010, 3:25 PM
      • Chris,

        Let me see if I can help you clarify your argument a little. I believe you are conflating the idea of a universe with that of its matter. The Big Bang is responsible for the universe’s matter (what I will refer to as a lower-case “u” universe), but is completely self-contained within what I will call the capital “U” universe.

        Physical laws confirm that time itself is within the universe, and quantum mechanics suggest that at the very beginning of the Big Bang, every possible “u”-niverse that could exist within the “U”-niverse did exist… but after a certain amount of expansion, classical mechanics took over, and so we see only our version.

        This means that statements about other “u”-niverses are really discussing what other dimensions have in common with ours, based on the very first moments of the big bang. Consequently, when we try and formulate such arguments, it is all the same “U”-niverse. That is why the arguments get so confusing and self-contradictory. We are applying capital “U” arguments to lower-case “u” situations.

        Once we make this distinction, we can therefore make statements that are necessarily true of every existing “u”-niverse without fear. For example, they all started with the same Big Bang, and the same mass. They may have progressed over time to developer different mechanical laws, but they still have in common the same quantum laws. These are “necessary” statements.

        As for the actual capital “U” universe that contains all of the lower case “u” universes, nothing we know of the Big Bang can tell us that ours had to exist. We can only say that it does exist; our “U”-niverse is a given, but does not appear necessary. As for other universes, do they exist or not? We don’t know, let alone whether or not they are necessary. We have a physical basis for considering other “u”-niverses, but not other “U”-niverses. Therefore, the existence of the capital “U” universe is contingent.

        If the universe is contingent, then it is reasonable to hypothesize the existence of God. If that is the God of the bible, and you believe that Christ died once for all, then it is reasonable to conclude that God created only this “U”-niverse, and probably even just this “u”-niverse, though all possible “u”-niverses could have been made… they just weren’t. But these are theological arguments, not physical ones.

        Posted by Mike | October 30, 2010, 11:40 AM
      • Thanks Mike (Chris, Let me see if I can help you clarify your argument a little…)

        I thought the ‘Big Bang’, however feasible and plausible, had only the status of a scientific theory? So if true, its truth could not be more than contingent truth?

        I also thought that speculation about multiple possible universes was then a consequence of the Big Bang theory. So statements about ‘u’-niverses contained within one ‘U’-niverse would themselves be contingent truths – if true.

        Statements about one ‘u’-niverse or some or all ‘u’-niverses would then only be necessary if they are taken as trivially true by definition – ie as definitional statements within the theory. So for example if an axiom of the theory is that the Big Bang did happen, and that in one extrapolation of that theory the Big Bang gave rise to multiple ‘u’-niverses, then within that extrapolation of the Big Bang theory it could be taken as necessarily true of all existing ‘u’-niverses that they all started with the same Big Bang. But that doesn’t mean that any or all the the ‘u’-niverses necessarily exist – and I presume you’re not saying that?

        Perhaps more fundamentally, I didn’t think there was any connection between (a) the possibility of there being (or having been) multiple ‘u’-niverses (as asserted by scientific theory) and (b) the philosophical concept of ‘possible worlds’ to characterise or unpack the modal status of propositions (eg a contingent proposition is true in some possible worlds and false in others).

        I think what you are saying is that, assuming the Big Bang theory is true, the ‘U’-niverse is ‘where’ the Big Bang happened (= the context within which it happened?), and the Big Bang then gave rise to one or multiple ‘u’-niverses?

        If forced to choose between (1) the existence of the ‘U’-niverse is contingent and (2) the existence of the ‘U’-niverse is necessary, I would choose (1). So to that extent I agree with you. But I do not see how this follows from:

        As for other universes, do they exist or not? We don’t know, let alone whether or not they are necessary. We have a physical basis for considering other “u”-niverses, but not other “U”-niverses.

        The question about whether there could be more than one ‘U’-niverse seems to me more a logical one. If there were more than one ‘U’-niverse, then there would be a sense in which there would be an even higher-level entity, the ‘UU’-universe, which all the ‘U’-niverses would be ‘in’. This could lead to an infinite regress, and an infinite proliferation of ‘U’-niverses, ‘UU’-universes, ‘UUU’-universes and so on. To say there is one and only one* ‘Universe’ is effectively to say that however many entities, however many infinite proliferations and proliferations of proliferations, there can only be one ‘thing’ representing that whole catalogue. It is ‘the total’ by definition.

        Of course, whether that ‘total’ is the thing or context within which the Big Bang happened (if it happened), or is itself the thing which the Big Bang gave rise to (if it happened), I have no idea.

        To say ‘there is one and only one Universe’ (* above) should be taken to mean ‘it is necessarily true that if there is a Universe, there is only one Universe’. (Using ‘Universe’ almost like ‘world’ in Wittgenstein’s The world is everything that is the case.) But it is not necessarily true that there is a Universe. As I said, I think I agree with you that the existence of the ‘U’-niverse is contingent.

        But I still find it hard to square that with the ‘possible worlds’ formulation of modality. I cannot get my head round what There is a possible world in which there is no ‘U’-niverse can possibly mean. And as I said, I don’t see what light the multiple universes speculation from Big Bang theory sheds on that.

        I’m afraid your last paragraph rather lost me. If the universe is contingent, then it is reasonable to hypothesize the existence of God. I presume you mean, initially, ‘hypothesize the existence of something that created the universe’? OK, but don’t you need more even for this? There is also the hypothesis that nothing created it. (Just because something is contingent that doesn’t mean it must have been created?) Then we’d have to show that the hypothesis that something created it is more reasonable than the hypothesis that nothing created it… etc etc?

        Posted by Chris Lawrence | October 31, 2010, 4:25 AM
      • Chris, you followed my reasoning well enough, and your response is well reasoned. Given everything said, my main point is related to what it means to be contingent. If it means uncertain, then I have nothing to say, and suggesting God as the creator of all would beg the question of infinite regress as much as the universe does. If however contingent means dependent on something external to itself, then there cannot be an infinite regress. It must stop at something. The question is what is it?

        If a person has already discarded God because a god is scientifically unnecessary, then such a person must stop at the U-niverse, because nothing outside that is scientifically unnecessary, and unprovable. Yet, you agree that the U-niverse is contingent. So, does that point to mere uncertainty or outright dependency?

        If uncertainty, that does not help us… infinite regress again. So, move to dependency. What is it that everything is ultimately dependent upon? What is the one necessary thing? Well, it must be something that just exists, and leads to, in some fashion, absolutely everything else there is. The only question is whether that thing is God or some Ux-niverse (Ux meaning some string of U’s, with unknown length). Leading back to my opening formulation of the problem above, either God is self-existant of the Ux-niverse is. But with no scientific basis for making this choice, one generally retreats (whether or not they realize it) to Occam’s razor… which choice complicates things less? For Christians, the choice is God; for the atheist, the choice is the Ux-niverse.

        Your original response states it well, “For many atheists it’s not so much that they believe the universe exists without it being created, but they can think of no good reason to believe that the universe – which they see all around them – must have been created by something which was not the universe.” True enough. It complicates the things for them. For me, I can think of no good reason to NOT believe God created it… it would just complicate things for me.

        Posted by Mike | October 31, 2010, 4:47 PM
      • Oh… please excuse my poor grammar in the second paragraph of my last response! Too many negatives.

        Posted by Mike | October 31, 2010, 4:49 PM
    • Thanks again Mike ( Chris, you followed my reasoning well enough…)

      Ahah – by ‘contingent’ I mean purely the opposite of ‘necessary’. Yes, ‘contingent’ can include ‘dependent’ in its meaning but in this context I think that could introduce unwarranted assumptions.

      Way back, JW asked the question: ‘Do you think the universe is necessary or contingent?’ – which I took in the sense of: ‘Do you think the existence of the universe is necessary or contingent?’. And that’s the question I’ve been trying to respond to. If ‘contingent’ means purely the opposite of ‘necessary’ I don’t think we can assume that anything which is contingent in this sense is necessarily (!) dependent.

      Posted by Chris Lawrence | November 1, 2010, 3:04 PM
      • Okay, a little less serious now…

        Out of curiousity, I looked up contingent on thefreedictionary.com:
        1. a. An event that may occur but that is not likely or intended; a possibility.
        b. A possibility that must be prepared for; a future emergency.
        2. The condition of being dependent on chance; uncertainty.
        3. Something incidental to something else.

        1a – The universe occurred, so obviously it ‘may’. Was it likely? We can’t know. Was it intended? If God doesn’t exist, then ‘no’, and the univserse would be contingent.

        1a – a possibility? Well, obviously, the universe is possible, so by that definition, it is contingent.

        2 – Was it dependent on chance? If God created the universe, then no. If not, then we don’t know. So, by this definition, we cannot determine it to be contingent.

        3 – Incidental to something else? If God created it, then yes. If not, and there is no infinite regress, then no.

        So, if God created the universe, then the universe is contingent (def’n 3) and is not contingent (def’n 1); If God doesn’t exist, then the universe is contingent (def’n 1) and is not contingent (def’n 3).

        By your definition, if God doesn’t exist, then the universe is not necessary and so is contingent; but if God does exist and could have chosen not to create the universe, then the universe is still not necessary and is still contingent.

        What were we talking about again? ;)

        Posted by Mike | November 1, 2010, 8:27 PM

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