Stargate Universe and the Inference to Design

Stargate Universe breaks the old formula of the sci-fi television franchise. It is edgier, grittier, and darker than what we’ve come to expect from the world first created by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. Since that modest film in 1994, two popular television spin-offs (SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis), and several direct-to-DVD films have explored the expanded universe and taken an ever-increasing fanbase along for the journey.

The new series is about an unprepared, under-equipped team of scientists and soldiers who must evacuate their base and step through an intergalactic Stargate. They find themselves several galaxies away from home and on a ship of Ancient design that has been traveling through the universe for thousands of millennia. In order to survive and find some way to get home again, they must work together and confront internal and external difficulties.

In one of the episodes, an astro-physicist is describing their predicament in a video-journal segment onboard the ship:

“The odds of coming out of FTL [Faster-than-Light] on the outer edge of a star-system are astronomical. Throw into the fact that there are three potentially habitable planets, plus a gas giant to act as a comet catcher on the outside of system, we’re talking miraculous. . . So, there’s a chance now that we’re gonna live. . . . though, our definition of habitable just means the surface temperature range allows for the presence of liquid water and since the primary’s a Red Dwarf the planets must have a relatively short orbital radius just to fall within that range, which means there’s a likelihood that at least one or two of them will be tidally locked, meaning one side will always be facing the star, which increases the prospect of geological instability due to tidal stresses, and I can’t stand earth-quakes. . . . but it might be nice.”

It’s a interesting statement and highlights some poignant points in the contemporary debate concerning teleology and the anthropic principle:

In the past, the Stargate writers have not bothered to explain the existence of so many life-hospitable worlds. Of course, this is their prerogative. Stargate is fiction and we can expect a certain amount of suspension-of-belief. In the past the scientific community assumed that there would be an abundance of planets able to support the existence of advanced life given the abundance of stars in the universe. But this speech reveals that the writers are aware that of late this assumption has been strongly questioned.

This character points out a handful of the many requisite conditions, all of which fall within very narrow parameters, for advanced life to be able to survive. Her speech emphasizes how very fortunate they were to have even a few of these requisite conditions fulfilled, yet how very far they were from an ideal scenario. The effect for the viewer is to understand that this was no coincidence or random circumstance, even though the result was less than optimal. Indeed, latter on other characters assume contrivance and deliberation is responsible for the extremely fortunate location of the ship when it exited FTL. The intelligence immediately suspected as responsible is the ships automated computers, and this is later confirmed – though not for the reason they first suspected. In short, the Stargate Universe writers had their characters and viewers make an inference to design.

My question is then, what makes this inference to design so very reasonable?

First, it was recognised that the high improbability of their location when they exited FTL was not sufficient to justifiably make the inference to design. There were also the multiple factors that multiplied improbability on improbability so “miraculous” was an apt description. Still, this extreme improbability would not have been enough had each of these factors together not fallen within specific narrow parameters that would allow for their continued existence.

Second, the inference to design could be made as the best explanation. In the absence of any good reason to think that the fortune of their location was due to other explanations, they were justified in accepting intelligent design as the best explanation. This is true when alternate naturalistic explanations, such as chance and physical necessity, are exhausted.

Third, the inference to design was made easier when they had an intelligence that could plausibly be responsible. The initial hypothesis was that when power failure was immanent the ship’s computer activated a program that told it to drop out of FTL at the nearest system with a habitable planet they had a chance of surviving on. The crew of the ship had an intelligence available that could explain their fortunate circumstance, so they could easily make the inference to design. Objectors to teleology sometimes accuse the proponents of design of circular reasoning – the only reason for accepting a designer, they say, is because one already believes there is a designer. The trouble with this response is; it is not the only reason. The First and Second considerations above are others. The point here is to emphasize that if one already has good reason to think there is intelligence capable of said design, then the inference to design is even more reasonable.

Yet even if there was no intelligence apparent to them they were still justified in suggesting some form of intelligence was responsible. That is, even if they could know nothing more of the nature of this intelligence, they would still have good reason to think that some agent with intelligence and causal potency exists. For even if the crew of the Ancient ship had known nothing of computers yet somehow been aware of their extremely fortunate circumstance, they would be justified in their inference to design. Similarly, if the ship were instead a translucent bubble with no apparent computer system, the crew would be justified when apprised of their fortunate circumstance in making an inference to some form of intelligence responsible.

The next question to consider is this: if the Sci-fy channel can appeal to this teleological intuition, why can’t Christian’s wishing to develop a teleological argument for God’s existence also do this, since the intuition seems so fully reasonable?

The planet that we occupy is suitable for the existence and the sustaining of advanced life. The conditions for any planet being suitable for the existence and the sustaining of advanced life are many and variegated, and each condition falls within narrow parameters, such that if any one fell outside that minute safety zone advanced life could not have come to exist nor be sustained. Because of the extreme improbability of finding conditions suitable for the existence and sustaining of advanced life, expectation of finding planets suitable for the existence or sustaining of advanced life is low, yet we find advanced life not only existing but also thriving on our own planet. We are in a position to understand at least some of the conditions and narrow parameters that earth fulfills to make possible advanced life’s continued existence. We have no reason to think such fortune would be physically necessary. Chance fails as a superior explanation when multiple independent conditions with high specificity render the description “miraculous” or else improbable in the extreme. We are therefore justified in making the inference to a designing intelligence responsible for the existence and sustaining of life on earth. This fits more naturally with a theistic worldview than an atheistic worldview.

2 replies
  1. Andre
    Andre says:

    Nice discussion. I was a fan of Stargate, I should get back into it sometime…
    Sometime too I’d like to have it clarified where things like the (very low) probability of the arrangement of atoms on a certain beach lie. I appreciate there’s a lack of “specificity” in such cases but I can’t quite figure how probability bounds, which are cited frequently, fit in to it all.

  2. Stuart
    Stuart says:


    Lets just take the sand granules on the beach as I can at least picture this in my mind, unlike atoms. That particular arrangement of sand on that beach is incredibly unlikely and will no doubt exceed the probability bound, which I understand to be an arbitrary number selected by mathematicians which if exceeded indicates an impossibility of occurring by chance. The trouble with the sand-on-the-beach situation is there is no one specific arrangement.

    If I were to somehow take all the sand on that beach, fling it up into the air and if it were to land in a specific configuration we had prearranged, as the probability of this happening exceeds the probability bound, we could rule out chance as a plausible explanation.

    I hope that clears up the question you have there.
    The chances of the sand landing in any old configuration however is highly likely. This therefore indicates the explanation is physical necessity, i.e. natural law, namely gravity. If the sand were to land in a way that spelled “John loves Mary” in perfect Times New Roman that is an arrangement of sand granules which has specificity and would indicate intelligent design as the best explanation.

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