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Two philosphers in a pub: the argument from fine tuning

March 21, 2010

I recently attended an event hosted by St Jude’s Anglican Church, Carlton (in Melbourne) where two philosophers (one a Christian and another an atheist) staged a discussion in a pub. The event brought together many Christians and atheists in a spirited discussion. Both speakers had opportunity to present their cases, philosophically, for why they believe there is or isn’t a god.

I believe both speakers presented good points, yet I felt there were holes in each presentation. I’ll begin by discussing the weaknesses in the Christian’s case.

He presented an ‘argument from fine tuning’. This argument has proved to be persuasive for many, however I think there are some weaknesses in how it was presented. The Christian outlined various ‘probabilities’ for several important physical constants in the universe being precisely aligned in order to facilitate life. He then suggested that the probability of these constants being so finely tuned was so low – theism was a very real possibility.

However the weakness of this argument was bought out by one questioner who said, ‘given the probability of this universe existing is one, how does that affect the outcome’. The philosopher responded by saying, ‘if you win the lottery, the probability of you winning is one’.

Yet this is incorrect. The probability of winning the lottery is determined by the number of tickets sold, so if you win, the probability of winning is still 1 in 8 million, it’s just you’ve been very lucky. However the probability of the universe being formed in this way is one and can only ever be one, hence framing this argument in terms of probabilities is perhaps misleading and may create misunderstanding.

Of course there is more to say, but hopefully this is enough to stimulate some discussion

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