Fine-tuning and underwater monsters: score one for Behe

A discussion between Michael Behe and a Christian evolutionist critical of ID, Keith Fox, took place on this week’s Unbelievable? It covered a lot of tired territory, but had a few points of interest.

For one, I didn’t realize that Behe not only maintains the validity of the bacterial flagellum as an argument for design but even goes so far as to say that the evidence for design in that feature is harder for Darwinists to account for now than ever! Naturally, there was no time for exposition of this. Does anyone else know what he’s talking about?

Another thing that caught my ear was Behe’s interpretation of Lenski’s famous E. coli experiment, lauded by many as an example of evolution observed in action. Behe argued that this was essentially a perfect example of what sounded like the creationist “no beneficial mutations” meme, since apparently the “best mutation he found” in that experiment was the elimination and not the addition of genetic material. Fox’s response was that we should hardly expect to see as wide a variety of selective pressures as are at work in the wild within Lenski’s controlled laboratory environment of a single isolated species (which Behe dismissed as a “rationalization”).

But the most interesting thing to me in the show was when Behe responded to Fox’s critique of Intelligent Design as based on what is not known, as an argument from ignorance and a science-stopper. He asked Fox what he thought of the various fine-tuning arguments for the universe that many Christian scientists who accept mainstream evolution champion as, at very least, “pointers” to a Creator. Fox responded that although he wouldn’t place all confidence in it, “I find that a very convincing view.” To which Behe responded:

By “fine tuning” you can say the universe was much, much more finely tuned than you have agreed that it is; that it was fine-tuned not only in its laws, not only in the amount of matter it has, not only in the charge on the electron and physical things, but it was finely tuned so that certain events would happen in it so that, from the beginning, the universe was set up to unfold as we see it.

Fox then tried to distinguish fine-tuning evidence from the design inference by arguing that “physical fine-tuning is based entirely on what we know: we know those numbers, we know about them, we know how little they can vary.” He said this in contrast to the design inference, which he argues is based on what we do not know. But as Behe rightly countered, there is indeed an analogical correspondence between the “what we know” of the cosmological probabilities that some infer as evidence for fine-tuning and the “what we know” about the complexity of the flagellum that some infer as evidence for intelligent design. These are both interpretations of known facts, but as ID critics all point out, they are explanations of known facts that are only possible when embracing what is not known as a positive factor, i.e. as an argument from silence.

This is precisely why I cannot understand BioLogos’s fascination with those so-called “pointers”, even when their inconclusiveness is admitted. If we believe God is testified to in the universe, we must accept that this is done in each instantiation of each fact of the universe explained or unexplained, not in some nook or cranny that we haven’t been able to scope out fully yet. He is everywhere, or He is nowhere. He’s not some cosmic Nessie whose existence we are always suddenly more hopeful of whenever we find an unexplored underwater cavern. We don’t determine we are looking at a forest by finding some elusive type of tree: it is precisely the collocation of all the trees that actually are there that defines the forest. Our credibility as Christian evolutionists is sullied a bit when some of us harp on fine-tuning as a reason for theism — not least by having to admit that Behe is, even to a limited degree, right. Ouch.

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  • Very good points. And I love the Nessie analogy 🙂
    But if we ignore your point about everywhere or nowhere for one minute, there’s one crucial difference between the bacterial flagellum and the constants of the universe. Maybe we can call it a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one (which, I think, is what some Christian would like it to be). The fact is that at the moment, the bacterial flagellum has been explained with reference to evolution while the cosmological constants haven’t. This doesn’t help, of course, if you don’t want to argue for theism based on holes in science. But it does refute the bacterial argument, which I guess is something. Or maybe it’s nothing…

    • Thanks, Arni. I guess it could be said that the flagellum argument is one
      that has been defeated by further the examination of more facts, whereas the
      fine tuning argument is one that still awaits a similar defeat because not
      enough facts are in yet — but that defeat will probably come. So no, it
      doesn’t help much. 😉