Some arguments are like mosquitoes. They get slapped and well and truly squashed – unambiguously defeated in plain sight for all to see, obviously crushed. The smeared body is witnessed. But then as soon as you try to relax again, that familiar whining sound fades in again. You think, Didn’t I just squash you? Yes you did, and it’s back.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, objections to divine command theories of ethics are a good example of arguments like this. But they’re not alone. Another is the Lottery Fallacy Fallacy. I know, calling something a “fallacy” is a bit of a rhetorical device, but I use the term because the argument that I want to rebut – again – is one that trades on using that word for rhetorical effect, so my use of the word twice must surely double the effect!
The existence of a life sustaining universe thus calls for an explanation, and due to the absurdly high odds against the coincidence falling into place with nothing other than natural causes, the theist appeals to intelligence.
Let me first set the scene. One type of argument that some philosophers use in favour of the existence of God is the argument from fine tuning. I think this argument is best construed as a version of the teleological argument or the argument from design. The fine tuning argument starts with the fact, readily admitted by the scientific community, that the existence of a life-sustaining universe depends on an incredibly precise balance of many variables. The existence of a life sustaining universe thus calls for an explanation, and due to the absurdly high odds against the coincidence falling into place with nothing other than natural causes, the theist appeals to intelligence. The scenario would be like playing poker with a man in a tournament, only to see him dealt royal flushes in hundreds of matches in a row without exception. It wouldn’t take long to start suspecting that design, rather than luck, was the culprit! The point of this blog entry is not to spell out and defend the fine tuning argument but to address one response to it, so let’s turn to that now.
The so-called “lottery fallacy” is said by some to be committed here by assuming that because an unlikely event occurred, it must have been the result of forces conspiring to overthrow sheer luck. Those who accuse theists of committing this fallacy might say that millions of different universes could have come into existence, and each one of those universes was highly improbable, but the fact is, one of them had to come into existence. Whichever one had come into existence would have been a universe that existed because of a finely balance set of circumstances. That ours came into existence therefore is an event as likely as any other universe coming into being, and consequently needs no intelligence based explanation at all.
In other words – Someone had to win the lottery!
Back in August 2000 Victor Gijsbers made this response over at Positive Atheism.
Suppose that a huge number of universes were possible, and that when ours came into being one of these universes had to be selected. The probability that that universe would be ours is, if the probability density was more or less uniform, extremely small. Therefore, TAP concludes, there has to be an explanation for the fact that this happened. But this is false. Imagine a lottery with billions of participants. The chance that any individual wins the main prize is extremely small; yet the chance that someone wins the prize is 100 percent. Suppose the lottery is won by person A. TAP would now say that the chance that person A would win the lottery is vanishingly small; therefore, there must have been a plot to let him win. ‘Without any evidence, God is accused of fixing the lottery.’ The fact that person A won is not enough to warrant an accusation; the fact that our Universe won the cosmic lottery is not enough to warrant accusing God.
This is not an isolated case of the fine tuning argument being criticised this way. Over at the nigh-legendary infidels.org, Scott Oser critically reviews a book that endorses the fine tuning argument, saying in 2007:
An analogy with a lottery is helpful here. In any given lottery drawing, perhaps millions of tickets are sold, yet there may only be one winner. Nonetheless, if I happen to be holding the sole winning ticket, it wouldn’t be reasonable for me to think “Wow! It was really, really unlikely that I would win the lottery! This couldn’t have happened by chance–someone must have rigged the lottery so that I won.” Put this way, the idea seems silly. Yet if it is even possible that other universes could exist, then this scenario is no different than the fine-tuning argument’s scenario that God somehow “rigged” the universe to turn out as it has.
One more for good measure: The accusation of the lottery fallacy isn’t limited to websites and discussion forums. Stephen Law, lecturer in philosophy at the University London, wrote what is actually a very readable and informative introduction to a whole range of issues in philosophy called The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking (London: Review, 2003). On pages 70-72 he outlines the fine tuning argument (calling it the anthropic argument) and then offers the following response. In response to the argument for belief in God, he then adds a box with the title “Thinking Tools: The Lottery Fallacy.” After all, we can’t have people accept this argument for theism – they’ve got to use their thinking tools. It was interesting that while the expression of a rebuttal was deemed a thinking tool, the formulation of the argument was not. In any case, here’s the thinking tool that Law offered:
Proponents of the anthropic argument are often accused of committing the lottery fallacy. Suppose you buy one of the thousand lottery tickets. You win. And that your ticket should be the winning ticket is highly unlikely, of course. But that doesn’t give you any reason to believe that someone rigged the lottery in your favour. After all, one of the tickets had to win, and whichever ticket won would have been no less unlikely to win. So there’s no reason to believe that your win must be explained by someone or something intervening on your behalf – there’s no reason to suppose that you have been the beneficiary of anything other than spectacular good fortune. To think otherwise would be to commit the lottery fallacy.
Why suppose the anthropic argument involves the lottery fallacy? Well, the universe had to be set up in some way or other. Each of the different ways in which it might have been set up was equally unlikely. So the mere fact that it happens to be set up in this way, producing beings like ourselves, gives us no grounds to supposing that we have being anything other than lucky. To think otherwise is, allegedly, to commit the lottery fallacy.
Now it’s true that Law did use the word “allegedly” here, thus not committing to the claim that the lottery fallacy is being committed. But the refutation of this criticism is not mentioned at all, leaving the impression that this thinking tool should dissuade us from embracing the fine tuning argument.
It’s good practice in philosophy when presenting a rebuttal to a very well known argument to first check to see if anyone has offered that rebuttal in the past and whether or not it has been replied to, or at least to check whether or not the proponents of the argument you wish to rebut have anticipated your rebuttal and offered a response. This, in my experience, has not been done when the accusation of the lottery fallacy is made. It is a mosquito of an argument, having already been well and truly squished, yet continuing to intrude into the realm of good arguments with its annoying whining sound.
The fine tuning argument is not driven by the improbability of just any universe coming into existence, like the probability of someone winning the lottery, which might be high. Instead the argument is driven by the specified probability of a life-permitting universe coming into existence. A useful illustration that’s sometimes used is that of a gigantic swimming pool, filled with hundreds of billions of white marbles (representing life-prohibiting universes or failed universes), but containing only one black marble (representing a successful and life permitting universe). While it is true that the probability of pulling out any particular marble is the same as that of pulling out any other particular marble and provided we are going to pull out a marble, then the probability of pulling out a marble is 1 (i.e. it is certain that it will happen), it is also true that the probability of pulling out a black marble is mind bogglingly lower than the probability of pulling out a white marble. Yes, a marble is definitely going to win this lottery, but that’s not the probability in question (incidentally, the marble illustration is routinely used by William Lane Craig in debates on the existence of God). So it is, according to the fine tuning argument, with the probability of a successful life-permitting universe coming into being. It may well be the case that the probability of some universe coming into being was fairly high. But if there are millions upon millions of possible universes that would either fail or not sustain life, and almost none that would succeed and sustain life, then the probability of a successful and life-permitting universe coming into being is not at all the same as any other universe coming into existence. It is astronomically lower (pun intended, and now pointed out in case you missed it).
The appeal to the lottery fallacy is so common and yet so basically flawed that I’ve dubbed it The Lottery Fallacy Fallacy. This of course doesn’t mean that there’s no possible decent way to reply to the teleological argument. But if there is one, this ain’t it.