William Lane Craig and the appearance of design

First, watch this quick video of Dr. William Lane Craig, a Christian apologist whose arguments I've discussed a few times in this blog, talking about what he calls "specified complexity", an argument for the existence of an "intelligent designer":

You may have heard this kind of argument before. When ID "theorists" talk about the improbability of complex life arising from random mutation and natural selection, a common response is the "deck of cards" analogy — that if you shuffle a deck of cards, the probability of any one arrangement of the cards is one in 10^68, or 1 with 68 zeros after it. To give you an idea of how improbable that is, if you shuffled the deck every second, you could expect to repeat the same order once every 10^60 years. The current age of the universe, incidentally, is a little over 10^10 years. Yet you don't consider it miraculous or divinely designed every time you shuffle the cards, because you knew that some order had to arise. Dr. Craig is taking the argument a few steps further away from mere biology by suggesting that the universe itself is designed to support life, and that in itself must be extraordinarily improbable. It's not just the improbability of the universe's design, but that the design itself has a "specificity" to it in that it seems specifically designed to support life, that makes a designer seem a logical necessity. To use the deck of cards analogy, it would be like saying that if you threw the cards on to the floor, any given arrangement would be exceedingly improbable. But if it landed in a neatly ordered "house of cards", it would not be merely improbable, but have a specificity to it that makes it seem purposeful as well.

The argument certainly seems plausible, but Dr. Craig is making a number of critical errors in his reasoning.

The first problem is one that is the same error found in the Cosmological Argument — or, as Dr. Craig likes to use, the Kalaam Cosmological Argument, which goes like this:

1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause
2) The universe began to exist
3) Therefor, the universe has a cause

The problem is that causality is not something that exists independently of the universe, but rather a phenomenon that arises as a consequence of the properties of the universe. You need linear time, for example, to have causality — one event must follow another; cause, then effect. But if there is no universe, there is no linear time, thus no causality. Thus it's absurd to suggest that the universe required causality to come into existence. Assuming, of course, that it "came into" existence at all, a claim not supported by science. (The notion that the Big Bang theory marks the "beginning" of the universe is a misunderstanding of the theory.)

With his argument about probability, Dr. Craig makes the same error. We only know probability to exist as an outcome of the properties of the universe; if there is no universe, there is no probability. Thus it's absurd to suggest that probability has anything to do with the universe existing.

But Dr. Craig makes another error, which is his argument on the apparent "design" of the universe. Was the universe really designed to support life? There are essentially two possibilities — that the universe was designed for the purpose of supporting life, or that the existence of life is an improbable but possible outcome of the innate properties of the universe.

When considering these two possibilities, one thing is important to understand: that the appearance of design is not, in itself, evidence of design. As an example, consider the appearance of ordered patterns in clouds. If you look up at the clouds on a sunny day, you may see all kinds of complex patterns — faces, animals, objects, even scenery. But just because your brain is perceiving an ordered pattern in the clouds does not mean that the the pattern in the cloud is actually ordered. Intuitively, we know that the appearance of complex things in clouds is a random occurrence, not a design. Accordingly, the mere fact that the apparent order of the universe's laws allowed life to arise in what amounts to a tiny speck in the corner of one out of billions and billions of vast and hostile galaxies is not, in itself, evidence that the universe itself was deliberately ordered for that purpose.

Consider further the absolute rarity, as we know it, of complex and intelligent life. The universe is infinitely vast; most of it is too hot, too cold, or too riddled with noxious gases to support any kind of life at all, much less highly complex intelligent life such as ours. To our current knowledge, Earth is the only place where life exists. Scientists have speculated that some moons in our solar system may be able to support life, but they are not talking about little green men; they are talking about microscopic bacteria, perhaps like the extremophile bacteria that exists at the bottom of our oceans, in complete darkness, intense pressure and boiling heat. Moreover, even here, where life does exist, the universe is indifferent to it. A tsunami washes an entire culture from the face of the earth in an instant. Millions of people die of famine, exposure, or disease. Millions of children never survive into adulthood; untold numbers more never make it out of the womb. We are not unique in this regard; nature is indifferent to all life, not merely ours.  

Is this really what we would expect to see if the universe had been designed for the purpose of supporting life? It seems, rather, precisely what we would expect if life arose merely as a consequence of the innate properties of the universe; if the universe is not designed for us, but indifferent to us. As Carl Sagan queried, rhetorically: "If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?"


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