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The Big Bad Wolf, Theism and the Foundations of Intelligent Design - Page 9

Dawkins and the Anthropic Principle

Dawkins notes that theologians who demure from arguments concerning "flagellar motors and immune systems" 97 may nevertheless advance arguments from "the origin of life" 98 because "The root of evolution in non-biological chemistry somehow seems to present a bigger gap than any particular transition during subsequent evolution." 99 Dawkins himself questions this assumption, noting that Mark Ridley "has suggested that the origin of the eukaryotic cell (our kind of cell, with a nucleus and various other complicated features such as mitochondria, which are not present in bacteria) was an even more momentous, difficult and statistically improbable step than the origin of life." 100

Dawkins also suggests that "The origin of consciousness might be another major gap whose bridging was of the same order of improbability." 101 Together with a growing number of scholars (David Chalmers notes that "at least three prominent materialists who have abandoned the view in the last few years" 102 ), I would question Dawkins' assumption that the quantitative concept of physical improbability is applicable to the origin of a reality of such qualitative difference. Dawkins notes that "Perceived hues - what philosophers call qualia - have no intrinsic connection with lights of particular wavelengths" 103 , but he fails to even ask whether the very existence of qualia and their reliable correlation with physical realities might not pose problems for a naturalistic worldview. 104

Nevertheless, the supposed spontaneous origin of life from inorganic chemistry does represent a significant and improbable historical change, and one that cannot be addressed in terms of evolution by natural selection, for as Dawkins notes: "The origin of life was the chemical event, or series of events, whereby the vital conditions for natural selection first came about." 105 Dawkins' handles the improbability of jumping the gap between chemistry and the specified complexity of life by stating: "The origin of life only had to happen once. We can therefore allow it to have been an extremely improbable event, many orders of magnitude more improbable than most people realize..." 106 Dawkins then introduces the anthropic principle:

The anthropic principle was named by the British mathematician Brandon Carter in 1974 and expanded by the physicists John Barrow and Frank Tipler in their book on the subject. The anthropic argument is usually applied to the cosmos, and I'll come to that. But I'll introduce the idea on a smaller, planetary scale. We exist here on Earth. Therefore, Earth must be the kind of planet that is capable of generating and supporting us, however unusual, even unique, that kind of planet might be. 107

Already, at this early stage, we need to sound several notes of caution. The fact that we exist does indeed entail that our planet is in fact the kind of planet capable of supporting us, however unusual (i.e. unlikely) that kind of planet may be. However, it does not entail that earth must be the kind of planet that is capable of supporting us if "must be" is understood to mean that it is a necessary rather than a contingent truth that a life-friendly planet exists. Moreover, the mere fact that we exist on planet earth does not entail that earth is (let alone must be) "capable of generating" our existence. To reach that conclusion one would have to accept the question-begging premise that our existence is not specifically dependent upon intelligent design.

Dawkins writes that "Around a typical star like our sun, there is a so-called Goldilocks zone - not too hot and not too cold, but just right - for planets with liquid water [a pre-requisite of life]." 108 In the very next paragraph Dawkins contradicts his incorrect statement that the sun is "a typical star", noting that "Our sun is unusual in not being a binary, locked in mutual orbit with a companion star." 109 Dawkins is right about both the unusual nature of our sun and about the existence of a so-called Goldilocks zone that the earth happily inhabits:

The sun is not a typical star; 95 percent of all stars are less massive than the sun. Less massive stars are less luminous, and thus a planet would have to be very close to the star to stay warm. But being close to the star is dangerous because of tidal effects. Also, at close distances the rotation of the planet becomes locked so that one side always faces the star... This rotational lock causes one side of the planet to freeze, the other side to burn. Stars much larger than the sun have life spans too short for life to occur. It is estimated that 70 percent of all stars are binary or multiple stars. Binary or multiple stars contain two or more stars orbiting each other. Stable planetary orbits are hard to imagine in such systems... A planet such as Venus, located closer to the sun than the habitable zone, would become too hot for life. A planet such as Mars, located farther from the sun than the habitable zone, would become too cold for life. With the earth at a distance from the sun of 1.0 AU (1 A.U equals 93 million miles), the width of the sun's habitable zone is from 0.95 AU to 1.15 AU. Thus, the habitable zone for the sun is very narrow. 110

There are, observes Dawkins, two main explanations that have been offered "for our planet's peculiar friendliness to life. The design theory says that God made the world, placed it in the Goldilocks zone, and deliberately set up all the details for our benefit." 111 Of course, ID does not say that God is necessarily the culprit, for the simple reason that to specify the designer requires further evidence than provided by evidence of intelligent design. Neither design theorists nor theists (and the two groups overlap without being identical) would necessarily argue that the designer set up all the details of planet earth, or did so solely for human benefit. But what of the alternative explanation? Bizarrely, according to Dawkins, the alternative non-design explanation is the anthropic principle itself:

The anthropic approach is very different... The great majority of planets in the universe are not in the Goldilocks zones of their respective stars, and are not suitable for life. None of that majority has life. However small the minority of planets with just the right conditions for life may be, we necessarily have to be on one of that minority, because here we are thinking about it. It is a strange fact, incidentally, that religious apologists love the anthropic principle. For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their case. Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence. I think the confusion arises in the religious mind because the anthropic principle is only ever mentioned in the context of the problem it solves, namely the fact that we live in a life-friendly place. What the religious mind then fails to grasp is that two candidate solutions are offered to the problem. God is one. The anthropic principle is the other. They are alternatives. 112

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