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British Atheist Philosopher A.C. Grayling Is Confused About Intelligent Design

Jonathan McLatchie

The video above features a short excerpt from a debate between well-known atheist philosopher A.C. Grayling (famous for conveniently “forgetting” having debated William Lane Craig) and Christian philosopher Peter S. Williams. Their subject: the fine-tuning of the universe’s initial conditions to support complex life, bearing on the case for intelligent design. Williams articulates the argument from specified complexity, using the analogy of an ATM bank machine. A bank pin number is a very specific combination of four digits (some banks allow more), and there is a total of ten digits (0-9) on an ATM keypad. There is thus only one four-digit combination out of a total of 10,000 (10^4) combinatorial possibilities that will allow the money to be retrieved from the machine. Since ATM machines typically allow only three attempts before denying access to one’s bank account, it is vastly more probable than not that the machine will not be cracked by chance. This is analogous to the kind of specified complexity that is of interest to ID theorists.

Grayling’s response to Williams’ analogy is to point out that his own existence is immensely improbable, since it depends on very specific and improbable meetings of people down through the centuries (it also depends on, among other things, the fusion of specific gametes, specific recombination events and environmental factors). In making this argument, however, Grayling betrays his own misunderstanding of the concept of specified complexity. Chance can account for a myriad of very improbable phenomena. For example, any given sequence of 100 rolls of a fair die is, for all practical purposes, equally improbable at 1 in 6^100. This is why improbability on its own does not necessarily warrant a design inference. Rather, there are two criteria that have to be met to justify such an inference — improbability (factoring in the pertinent probabilistic resources) and specification. In other words, in addition to being immensely improbable, the phenomenon in question must also conform to some independently given pattern. For example, in the ATM analogy, the independently given pattern is the specific pin number needed to obtain money from the bank account. To take a biological example, the independently given pattern associated with proteins is the specific arrangement of amino acid subunits necessary to cause a protein to collapse into a stable and functional fold. Or, in the field of cosmology, the independently given pattern associated with the finely tuned constants and physical laws is the specific combination of values necessary for a bio-habitable universe.

In his book No Free Lunch, mathematician William Dembski explains the problem with Grayling’s argument:

Suppose an archer stands fifty meters from a large wall with bow and arrow in hand. The wall, let us say, is sufficiently large that the archer cannot help but hit it. Now suppose each time the archer shoots an arrow at the wall, the archer paints a target around the arrow so that the arrow sits squarely in the bull’s-eye. What can be concluded from this scenario? Absolutely nothing about the archer’s ability as an archer. Yes, a pattern is being matched; but it is a pattern fixed only after the arrow has been shot. The pattern is thus purely ad hoc.

What does it mean for an event to be “specified,” and why is a life-permitting universe “specified” but the birth of A.C. Grayling not so? Prima facie, a state of affairs is “specified” when it sufficiently resembles an independently given pattern; in other words, it is “recognizable,” or pattern-matching. The lower the odds of the state of affairs’s being recognizable in the relevant way by chance (i.e. the more ways it could “go wrong”), the more significant and surprising it is when it goes right. ID theorists call these specially recognizable chance-defying states of affairs “specified complex systems.” They leave us faced with an awkward coincidence that cries out for a non-chance explanation.

So, in the case of our universe’s laws, constants, and initial conditions, the “specially recognizable” feature is their amenability to permitting life. Setting up such a bio-habitable system is precisely the kind of thing an intelligent designer might plausibly do. All that’s left is establishing that this pattern is improbable (i.e., unlikely to be hit upon by chance), and we have “specified complexity. ” Sure enough, physicists and cosmologists unanimously agree that the universe possesses just this feature. There are far more ways for the universe’s constants and initial conditions to “go wrong” with respect to this independently existing pattern. (Note: It is important for the pattern to be independent, to preclude drawing the target around the proverbial arrow.)

Grayling’s existence is not analogous, because the features that make him unique do not constitute such a pattern. Every person in the world is unique — so possessing this quality does not single out A.C. Grayling. Had his parents or grandparents married other people than they in fact did and gone on to produce other children, those children would be no less unique than Grayling. Nothing makes us stand up, take note, and feel an urge to resolve a surprising “coincidence”: namely the birth of a unique individual. This is why so much ink has been spilled trying to explain the “problem” (for materialists) of fine-tuning, and no ink has been spilled on the problem of Grayling’s existence.

Jonathan McLatchie

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Jonathan McLatchie holds a Bachelor's degree in Forensic Biology from the University of Strathclyde, a Masters (M.Res) degree in Evolutionary Biology from the University of Glasgow, a second Master's degree in Medical and Molecular Bioscience from Newcastle University, and a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from Newcastle University. Currently, Jonathan is an assistant professor of biology at Sattler College in Boston, Massachusetts. Jonathan has been interviewed on podcasts and radio shows including "Unbelievable?" on Premier Christian Radio, and many others. Jonathan has spoken internationally in Europe, North America, South Africa and Asia promoting the evidence of design in nature.



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