The Lottery Fallacy Fallacy

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, 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.

Glenn Peoples


41 thoughts on “The Lottery Fallacy Fallacy

  1. So are you saying that those who point to a “Lottery Fallacy” are setting up a false scenario where there MUST be a winner, when in reality it’s a one ticket Lottery?

  2. No, I’m saying that those who appeal to the lottery fallacy are thinking of the probability that just someone will win the lottery each week, which is pretty high (imagine a scenario where all the possible tickets are sold every week). But it’s not a correct analogy, because the theist isn’t talking about the probability that just some universe would have come into being.

    The theist is really talking about the odds of one specific person winning the lottery as opposed to anyone else.

  3. The lottery analogy makes sense only if you assume some variation of the “many-worlds” view of reality (note: I know very little about this, so I’ll probably misrepresent it). If there are an indefinite number of universes that DO exist, then it’s not miraculous that we find ourselves on the only one that supports life. To use the marble analogy, if ALL the marbles are picked, and only the black one contains self-aware beings (OK, this analogy is breaking down), the self-aware beings should not be at all surprised to find themselves on the one black marble out of a zillion white marbles.
    That said, I don’t believe in an infinite number of universes, and I find the teleological argument for God pretty convincing.

  4. “It may well be the case that the probability of some universe coming into being was fairly high.”

    Going a little bit off Coleman’s argument, I’m not sure how anyone can make the above quoted argument as an argument as opposed to the granting for argument’s sake that Glenn did. I admire all the work cosmologists have done on mapping the first few nanoseconds following the big bang, but in all the scientific literature I’ve never seen a single explanation for what happened before the big bang. Even the infinite regression arguments have taken a hard hit the last decade or so in light of the fact that the cosmos seems to be bent on expanding forever.

    I’m going to go out on a limb and posit that the vast majority of nothings continue to produce nothings and rarely, sua sponte, decide to produce a something. Admittedly, my experience with nothing is limited since I inhabit a spacetime that itself is a something. But at any rate, we only have a sample set of one and thus cannot make any predictions on how probable it was that some universe come into being.

  5. Regarding the wealth of so-called “anthropic coincidences,” Lennox writes:

    Some scientists and philosophers maintain that we ought not to be surprised at the order and fine-tuning we see in the universe around us, since if it did not exist then carbon-based life would be impossible, and we would not be there to observe the fine-tuning. In other words they use the anthropic principle against the inference of design. However, as philosopher John Leslie points out, “that sounds like arguing that if you faced a firing squad with fifty guns trained on you, you should not be surprised to find that you were alive after they had fired. After all, that is the only outcome you could possibly have observed
    — if one bullet had hit you, you would be dead. However, you might still feel that there is something which very much needs explanation; namely why did they all miss? Was it by deliberate design?

    According to Leslie, the only way to avoid a theistic conclusion is to believe in some “multiverse” hypothesis. Here Swinburne has the right answer: “To postulate a trillion-trillion other universes, rather than one God, in order to explain the orderliness of our universe, seems the height of irrationality.” (Lennox, God’s Undertaker, p. 73)

  6. 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.

    But who says that the variables are, in reality, variable?

  7. Yes, this one just will not die. It’s often expressed as “There is nothing to be explained – improbable things happen every day!”

    For example – what are the chances that there would be that exact number of bubbles in my cappuccino foam?

    I think the poker analogy could be a good rebuttal. If I played poker with an atheist and got a royal flush every single time, we could expect the atheist to suspect ‘tinkering’. Would the atheist accept it if he were told “You’re committing the Lottery Fallacy! This arrangement of cards is equally probably with any other arrangement of cards, so there is really nothing to be explained here!”

    There is another issue which I think is interesting… the idea that there is a stage at which improbabilities functionally become impossibilities. For example, it seems to me that if you were to repeatedly roll a trillion dice, you would NEVER get all sixes. Ever. The monkeys never type Hamlet. How do those probabilities compare to those relevant to fine tuning?

  8. This is the first time I’ve had a chance to look at the blog since commenting to David last night – and haven’t we been busy! I don’t have time to comment further now (rushing out the door), but will do later tonight.

  9. An important question in these teleological arguments, perhaps the most important, is how we define “specificity”/”specified”. I agree it is reasonable to see ‘life-permitting’ as a specified trait of the universe, i.e. it corresponds to an identifiable pattern, but the hard-core sceptic will perhaps say that we are unduly privileging life/consciousness over non-life/consciousness. This is done in the marble illustration by making one black (obviously unique) – perhaps the other marbles could be considered various different colours, not just white. The fine tuning argument may not be effective for someone convinced that (human) life is of absolutely no more consequence/significance than the various alternative universes. (I wonder if such a sceptical position is somehow self-refuting as well, but that’s a dif issue.)

  10. Andre, yeah the other marbles could be other colours – if we were comparing them on some other basis where there were more than two possible outcomes. For example, a universe in which the core temperature of the earth is right now X degrees, or a universe in which the number of solar systems in the Milky way is X. Then there would be a very large number of possibilities, so we’d need lots of different colours to represent that. But if we’re comparing universes that are successful and life permitting vs those that don’t have that combination, then there can only be two colours.

  11. Yes, the key is to get people to see that it’s a binary. There are only two options – one successful, the other unsuccessful, and the odds are stacked inconceivably high against a successful outcome.

    Maybe this would be an analogy:

    There is an alien battleship with a laser pointed at earth preparing to destroy it (to make way for an intergalactic highway). However, they decide to give the earthlings a chance to save themselves by guessing a number which the aliens have displayed on a computer screen inside their ship (known only to the aliens). The number is one billion digits long, and the aliens will refrain from destroying the earth only if a perfect guess is made.

    The next day a message comes from a representative of earth with a guess at the number. To the alien’s surprise – every single one of the billion digits perfectly matches the number on their screen. The aliens suspect that the earthlings have hacked into their computer somehow.

    … At which point an atheist alien says “Hang on – you’re committing the Lottery Fallacy!” …

  12. Hi again,
    I asked a question a little while ago regarding whether these supposed ‘variables’ are able to be varied. It seems to me that we have no reason to believe that the constants we observe in the universe around us can be anything other than what they are. If this is true (and I’d be pleased to hear of an explanation to the contrary) then all discussions about probabilities and fallacies that follow would seem pointless. Yes?

    I’m not a physicist and am open to being put straight on this.

  13. “I’d be pleased to hear of an explanation to the contrary”

    Woland’s cat, I think what would be needed first is a good explanation of why we should accept the claim that the constants in the universe couldn’t be anything other than what they are. Failing that, no explanation of the contrary claim is needed. Prima facie, there’s no need to deny that they could have been different.

  14. Woland’s cat,

    Despite your dubiously worded comment, I’ll try and answer.

    Science is all about observing and theorizing as to why the physical world has the properties we find. It is not so radical to suppose invisible properties to our immediate reality. For example, gravity and electromagnetism for example aren’t completely explained by existing theory, so other possibilities are raised.

  15. I fear you have not understood the question Ropata. I was asking what reason we have to believe that the ‘constants’ we have measured are in any way ‘variable’. i.e. what leads you to believe they even can be anything else? Not how accurately we have measured them or whether we will find uniting theories.

    ‘Dubiously’ worded? Please explain.

    Glenn, all we have experienced or seen evidence of is that the constants are the way they are. Unless there is evidence to the contrary then parsimony requires that it is not me who needs come up with an explanation as to why your evidence-free hypothesis should be dismissed because all I have to claim is that it is evidence-free.

    So far I’ve not heard a single reason to suggest that the properties we observe in the universe can be tweaked like the knobs on a mixing desk or arranged at random in big-bang-like events.

    I’m interested; do you believe that it is also possible that absolute zero (merely a number we’ve chosen at which all atomic movement stops) could be anything other than what it is? Can that temperature be colder in ‘another universe’ than it is here? Surely you see how silly this sounds. It is silly because ‘atoms-not-moving’ isn’t really a number; it’s a physical observation where the unit used to measure it is a product of the description. The same holds for ‘bodies-attracting’. Gravity isn’t really a number; it’s a physical observation. The only problem is that the units we use don’t appear at this stage to be directly correlated and/or break down at the extremes (which suggests we are missing some important underlying force or factor) but, as Ropata helpfully pointed out, if a unifying theory is found then this really will be the same as asking whether ‘other universes’ could possibly have different values for absolute zero.

    Everything that follows from an assumption that physical constants might be variable will depend on there being a reason to believe that things can be this way in the first place. When you discuss the lottery fallacy fallacy I have to ask both proponents of the fallacy and of the fallacy fallacy what reason they have to imagine that the constants are variable. Otherwise it is likely to be pure fantasy.

  16. Woland’s cat, I think you are simpyl mistaken to believe that we should affirm that things could not have been any different, absent evidence to the contrary. It is imaginable that things turned out differently, and to affirm that such would have been impossible needs reasons in order to be accepted.

    The fact that things are the way they are only proves that things could have been the way they are. But that’s a far cry from proving that they could not possibly have been otherwise. Parsimony doesn’t required us to concoct and then affirm what you are affirming. Such concoction and affirmation must look for actual support.

    I’m sorry that this isn’t more agreeable to your claim, but I cannot be moved to accept a claim about possibilities without any reasons.

  17. Glenn, you said,

    And to affirm that such would have been impossible needs reasons in order to be accepted

    Please don’t put words in my mouth. I’ve not said it is impossible. Simply that I’ve not been presented with any positive evidence. I was hoping for someone — anyone — to come up with some form of evidence that might lead me to believe that there might be the slightest bit of merit to discussing probabilities in a reality where ‘constants’ are actually ‘variable’ because I’ve been perplexed by this for some time. If you don’t really know the answer, just say so.

    However, if there are any physicists reading this and you know of some reason to believe this is the case that our universe (in the truest sense: all of reality, not just a bubble of it) might well have variable ‘constants’ then please feel free to chime in. I’m more than willing to be persuaded and I have absolutely no reason to dogmatically hold to one position or the other. Apart from evidence or a lack thereof.

  18. Oh it’s entirely possible as far as my limited knowledge of how the universe works is concerned. Lots of things are possible in the arena of the mind. However, it is evidence that I’m after in this particular instance. It seems that you have none and that’s ok; I just wish you’d said so earlier and saved us both some time. I’ve opened the question to those who might know one way or the other.

  19. Also, I would like to point out that it was you that said,

    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.

    You weren’t dabbling in mere possibilities there and so it seemed entirely reasonable to ask where these ‘facts’ came from and what evidence was there to support them.

  20. OK, so we agree that as far as either of us is aware, it’s possible. We basically agree then.

    You’ve quoted me as saying that the existence of the universe and its ability to sustain life depends on a precise balance of many variables. Surely you don’t doubt that this dependence is the case. What you doubt (or at least appear to doubt without wanting to directly say so) is that the factors involved could have been different.

    In any event, I think it might be clearest if I put it to you like this: Either it is a necessary truth that the many many factors are all exactly as they are, or they could in fact have been different. Stated more clearly like this, it will at once be clear that if there is a burden of proof here, it belongs to someone who makes the strong claim that they are necessary truths. I don’t want to make that claim.

  21. “I’ve not said it is impossible.”

    Well unless something is impossible, then it’s possible. So if you’re not saying that it’s impossible, then what are you saying?

    Remember, things are possible unless they are impossible. People are entitled to help themselves to something’s possibility unless and until there are reasons for those possibilities being deemed off-limits. There’s no merit in wondering “but what if it’s impossible.” If you have no horse in the race and don’t want to be dogmatic about it, then you’ve no objection to the thought that whatever hasn’t been shown to be impossible should be regarded as possible.

  22. WC,
    The cool thing about physics is that sometimes things previously thought to be constant turn out not to be. Mass changes as a particle is accelerated to speeds approaching c. Light does not always travel in a straight line, or even act as a particle. At conditions close to the Big Bang physical laws get strange, that’s why the Large Hadron Collider is so interesting.

    The gist of some string type theories of origins is that physical laws somehow coalesced from fluctuations in the first few seconds of cosmic existence. It is clear that if certain parameters such as the ratio of matter to antimatter were slightly different we would not be here. And there are many such parameters! So it’s not just “physical constants” that determine our existence it is many other factors which are hugely variable. The universal expansion rate. The distance of the Sun from the centre of the Milky Way. The distance of the Earth from the Sun. The possibility of abiogenesis. The evolution of the human mind.

    To say that “this existence is the only one possible” is called determinism, a rather fatalistic philosophy that is challenged very strongly by quantum physics.

  23. I think when people cite the lottery fallacy in this case they are actually saying life, or at least life as we know it, isn’t all that interesting from a cosmic stand point. Perhaps other configurations of the so called “free parameters” of the universe would have created equally unlikely physical phenomena, but if they had been that way there would be no reason to believe the universe was designed to allow them to occur.

    I don’t think that’s a satisfying answer, but it’s not a fallacy either.

  24. WC,
    I find your comments “dubious” because you’ve made an unsupported statement and demanded evidence to the contrary, and then you criticised the evidence supplied. I still see no support for your dismissal of the standard scientific practice of forming hypotheses absent conclusive evidence.

    A much more logical approach [than the “firing squad survivor” anthropic principle] would be to seek out an explanation for why such an unlikely event occurred. A good scientific explanation satisfies curiosity, whereas this kind of explanation does nothing to offer any resolution.

    A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.
    –Fred Hoyle, Cambridge astronomer

  25. Um, how are positions in space constants? I suppose in the sense that they vary constantly – but that’s not the definition of a constant. Earth is in the Goldilocks position in the Milky Way – not too close to the center, not too far from the center but just the right spot relative to the center. Planetary position is anything but constant. So why is it so difficult to conceive of a different condition where Earth was too close or too far? Some of the supports for fine tuning are related to constants but some are not.

    I think the issue with fine tuning is more one of tolerances. It’s not so much that any given constant might have been different but the huge improbability of so many falling within such tiny tolerances where only infinitesimal differences would have destroyed the system. Improbable in any one event it strains credulity when so many improbable events stack up. Life has incredibly tight tolerances relative to the universe’s massive number of conditions. That all necessary conditions within those tolerances are met despite the ludicrous degree of improbability is at the very least worthy of serious investigation.

    Oh, and the chance of the lottery being won is never 100% unless 100% of the possible numbers are bought. That doesn’t usually occur – except when done deliberately by a consortia when the value of the lottery prize is sufficiently high to make the expense of the tickets and hiring the buyers worth it. Otherwise, a lottery that is completely sold out is exceedingly improbable.

    One of the reasons lotteries roll over is because it is so rare for them to be sold out – the other is that the winner fails to come forward which, oddly enough, happens more frequently than seems probable.

    The only way the lottery analogy works is if a consortia is involved – which kinda supports the theist rather than the atheist position…

  26. It seems to me that a key part of the “lottery fallacy fallacy” is the (generally unspoken and unadmitted) assumption that there is a lottery in the first place.

  27. Glenn

    Where do I say Christians commit the Lottery fallacy? Personally, I don’t think the fine-tuning/anthropic argument does commit that fallacy, and have said so several times. The book merely presents that objection for consideration, just as it does a bog standard response to the first-cause type argument. What you should do is attack my actual arguments, rather than my discussion and teaching materials, which inevitably select just a few points from among the vast number that might be made.

  28. Stephen, recall that I added:

    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.

    So I actually acknowledged what you’re now pointing out, and I added that it looks to me like you’re treating the objection favorably. I think that was a fair assessment.

  29. In Lotto 6 out of 40 balls have to be picked in no particular order.

    40!/(6!x34!) gives us 3,838,380 or odds of one in four million roughly.

    Since I’m fairly confident that more than four million lines of Lotto are sold each week the odds are actually pretty good that someone, somewhere will actually win. It is even conceivable that someone would win first division twice (although three times would be pushing credibility).

    However the probability of chance formation of a 30 base strand of RNA assuming all materials were available is one in 4^30, or one in 1,152,921,504,606,846,976. If we assume that the universe is 15 billion years old that’s 473,040,000,000,000,000 seconds, which is still an order of magnitude smaller… and that’s only 30 bases. The human genome has about three billion base pairs.

    The probability of the genome forming by chance is pretty small, and as knowledge increases we’re finding that it all has function which makes the entire sequence necessary for human life to exist.

    As our knowledge increases the more the universe looks like a put-up job.

  30. Although I am not particularly interested in defending the way I presented this argument 10 years ago, the “lottery fallacy fallacy” seems to be basically correct. It is not the final step in the discussion, to be sure, but it is a vital one.

    Step 1: the proponent of the anthropic principle tells us that our Universe is so unlikely that it is entirely reasonable to believe it to have been fine-tuned by an intelligence interested in the existence of life.
    Step 2: the opponent of the anthropic principle states that the proponent is committing the lottery fallacy.
    Step 3: the proponent adjusts or specifies his argument by telling something like the white marbles / black marble story that Glenn has given us in his opening post.
    Step 4: the opponent shows why this argument doesn’t work.

    It is of course possible to start at step 3; but if the discussion doesn’t start there, and it often doesn’t, step 2 is a good step to make. It’s not a fallacy if used as a counter-argument to step 1, though it would of course be a fallacy when used against step 3.

    Given that step 1, 2 and 3 have already been discussed in this thread, perhaps it is time to take step 4. The story about the white marbles / black marble is unconvincing because it falsely assumes that among all the possible universes, there is one special universe and a huge, huge number of non-special universes. (Actually nobody claims that there is one special universe, because nobody believes that there is only a single possible universe with life. But let’s follow the analogy and ignore the difference between “one” and “a small part of the entire set”.)

    Why is this assumption false? All the possible Universes are different from each other, and this means that each one of them will have certain properties that are very rare in the entire set. Some of them contain carbon-based life forms, some have purely deterministic laws, some contain only cubical objects, some spontaneously generate the complete works of William Shakespeare in a supernova explosion, some end after exactly fifteen seconds, and most of them will have properties so different from anything found in our universe that we do not even have the concepts to describe them. Every possible universe will be special in some way, perhaps even in an infinite number of ways.

    The fact that someone is able to point out one aspect in which the actual universe is special is thus hardly a proof that it must have been brought about by an intelligence interested in that special property.

    But hasn’t this objection already been dealt with in the thread? Andre already came up with the idea that perhaps the universes all have different colours, in which case taking the black one wouldn’t be “special”. Glenn and James responded to this by claiming that such an argument would work for continuous variables, but not for binary properties: in the case of a binary property, there is only black and white.

    But Glenn’s and James’s counterargument is flawed, and my story about every possible universe being special works just as well when we limit ourselves to binary properties. Every possible universe has binary properties in which it differs from the vast majority of other possible universes. To come back to our swimming pool: if we are wearing “life vs non-life” glasses, one ball will be black and the rest will be white; but if we are wearing “only cubic objects vs also other objects” glasses, it’s another marble that will appear to be black; if we are wearing our “pure determinism vs indeterminism” glasses yet another marble will appear to be black; and so on (and I would like to stress again that most glasses will be so bizarre and unexpected that we cannot even conceptualise them). For every marble, there will be a binary property such that it and only it will be black.

    If this is granted (and I for one don’t see a way around it), the simple conclusion would seem to be that since every universe is a black marble considered through the glasses of some binary property, the fact that our universe is a black marble considered through the glasses of some binary property does not need to be explained. It is a logical necessity.

    In order to rescue the anthropic argument, one would somehow have to show that the “life vs no life” property is more special than all (or at least most of) the other properties. But how could one do that, given that (a) we would need a non-probabilistic conception of “special” here; and that (b) we have the entire space of possibilities to compare it with?

  31. To which I would just like to add that some of the other thought experiments in this thread were set up in such a way that they indeed made one of the “special” properties “more special” than all the others. For instance, the story about the space ship and the aliens was set up in such a way that as reader, or as one of the people involved, you are interested in only one question: will this number have the property of being the one on the screen of the aliens? In fact, the explicit aim of the people creating the number is to make sure that the number has this specific property.

    It is of course unclear that anything analogous is true about the coming into existence of the universe. One way to argue that it is, is to state that the universe was created by a being interested in creating life — but that is exactly the conclusion the anthropic argument set out to prove, so it cannot use it as a premise. Is there any way to show non-circularly that life is special even among all the special properties? Again, it is hard to say how this could be done.

  32. Victor, I consider that your objection is already addressed by the way that I earlier pointed out that the option really is a binary one: Life permitting or not. There are not many shades of colour, only two, since these are the two outcomes of the universe in consideration.

    If this is the property we are thinking of, then we still have one black marble and billions of white ones, and every outcome is clearly not as likely as any other. One does not have to show that there is anything special about the black marble (or the life vs. non life issue) beyond this.

    This has already been sufficiently explained and nothing further is needed.

  33. “If this is the property we are thinking of, then we still have one black marble and billions of white ones, and every outcome is clearly not as likely as any other.”

    Of course — but my point is that for every possible Universe, there is a property such that if we are thinking of _that_ property, the Universe in question will appear as the single black marble between billions of white ones.

    This leaves two options. Either the existence of any such property is enough to conclude that the Universe in question was probably designed. Or this is not the case. If the former, we must conclude that there is evidence for design in all possible Universes, and that is suspiciously like the lottery fallacy. (But notice that it is a fallacy on a higher level, and has _not_ been addressed in this thread.) If the latter, we have not shown that there is evidence for design in our Universe.

  34. “Of course — but my point is that for every possible Universe, there is a property such that if we are thinking of _that_ property, the Universe in question will appear as the single black marble between billions of white ones.”

    Well, if that one property is in fact not one property but a combination of a really huge number of properties which, are astronomically unlikely to all occur together in the right combination, then this response really doesn’t connect.

    See it’s not just one property like blueness or wetness. That’s not what generates this fine tuning argument.

  35. As I understand the anthropic principle, it says that we ought not to be surprised that we find ourselves in a universe that is hospitable to life, since we can’t observe our non-existence. Therefore, the atheist believes that the fine-tuning of the universe does not need an explanation. However, the lottery analogy doesn’t even come close to the unimaginable odds that all the constants of all the laws of nature just happen to fall in line to allow for intelligent life.

    The above mentioned quote about all the trained marksmen missing you from a short distance away would cry out for an explanation. The fact that you can’t observe that the firing squad did in fact (successfully) kill you… does NOT negate the need for an explanation for why each and every one of those trained marksmen missed you all at the same time. In that case, the prisoner would be justified in assuming they all missed on purpose.

    The incomprehensible odds against the big bang just happening to produce quantum fluctuations which resulted in the fine-tuning for intelligent life is more akin to winning the lottery every single day in your life. In which case we would all be justified in inferring that the lottery was rigged for that person to win every time. Of course that cheater could always expand their probabilistic resources to say that somewhere in this vast multi-tverse, someone is bound to win the lottery every single day of their life and thus escape any further investigation. This is “fallacious”.

    With this type of atheist reasoning, the stars could spell out “GOD MADE THIS”, and we would be told that we just happen to live in a universe where the stars happen to form this sentence by chance. This is exactly why no proof is good enough for an atheist to believe in a deity. They will simply expand their probabilistic resources to explain it away…just as they do with fine-tuning.

  36. What were the odds that you’d write this blog post? (from the simple perspective of your existence at all — that you’d exist this way?!)

    The marble example is most uninteresting.

    We could, for an incredible amount of scenarios, simulate your marble example.

    For example: Your life as a storybook(every unique moment in the arrangement that occurred) as represented by a unique marble. (amidst a sea of all other possible storybooks for life’s unfolding) We can define lots of unique marbles.

    So why aren’t you dumbfounded by your storybook? These are incomprehensible odds, that you see the story you do? Is this some intelligent plan?

    Of course not. Obviously one event led to another and another and the story, as unlikely as it may have been, was carved out.

    My point: we’re surrounded by — if we create the right sort of query — innumerable unlikely occurrences (incredible odds) that we don’t think twice about.

    Lets not get hung up on “incredible occurrences.” That’s not much of an argument.

    Apparently, since we exist, events led to us existing. All we can endeavor to do is understanding what these events were.

    So you could use a lottery type argument there, that it’s another incredible occurrence (if we frame the query a certain way) that doesn’t need divine explanation.

    We’ve observed what we’ve observed. Perhaps we’re observing a lotto winner, from a certain perspective. So what.

  37. For example: Your life as a storybook(every unique moment in the arrangement that occurred) as represented by a unique marble. (amidst a sea of all other possible storybooks for life’s unfolding) We can define lots of unique marbles.

    I’m not even sure how this comparison is supposed to work. Is this one marble unique just because it’s my life, while all the other marbles are the lives of other people – lives that are the same in many important ways (birth, aging, went through same developmental stages etc) but different in the details?

    If that’s what you mean then that’s not much of a parallel. All of the universes imagined here are still different from each other, but they all – except for the tiniest slice – have one major feature in common: they are not life permitting. It’s not that they are different from marble X just because they are not marble X, it’s that marble X is unique because it has something that none of the other marbles in the pool do.

    I can’t think of any features of my life that no other life has. Conception, birth, puberty, marriage, children… it’s all pretty common stuff. I really don’t think you’ve gotten the point of the marble illustration.

    By the way – if you’re going to reply, make sure you read the blog policy on the use of pseudonyms first. Thanks.

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