Don’t Fall for the “Anything is Possible” Tactic
When discussing topics such as origins, evolution, and even the Bible’s authenticity, we may at some point concede to the skeptical challenger: “Well, anything is possible”—humbly admitting we don’t know everything.
Right, but “anything is possible” simply isn’t true.
Physics and math can show the near zero chances that the physical constants and ratios built into the Universe could be accidentally fine-tuned for the Universe and biological life to exist … but the skeptic responds, “Unlikely, yes—but still possible.”
We are tempted to say, “Well, anything is possible, but extremely improbable things don’t occur.” And the skeptic responds: “Okay, but you admit they are possible. We’re here—the Universe exists, and biological life exists. They were possible, and they did occur.”
First, we observe: “Anything is possible” is false in a critically important sense.[i] Naturally speaking, Abraham Lincoln is not possibly alive on Earth. And 2 cannot possibly equal 3. There is a limitless number of examples of logical and physical impossibilities that exist like these. The laws of nature, left to themselves, don’t allow Lincoln to still be alive on earth. And the laws of logic prohibit the number 2 from equaling 3.
In the Judeo-Christian worldview, God can do anything that is consistent with his nature, which includes anything logically, metaphysically, or physically possible. But that’s a theistic framework, where an omnipotent God really can do anything that’s not a logical contradiction. When the skeptic says, “anything is possible,” he isn’t talking about divine omnipotence but rather naturalism, with only natural causes at work.
Cross Examination Tactic
“Anything is possible” is a tactic. Lawyers use that phrase to weaken opposing witnesses in court. We lawyers can weaken a witness’s fact or opinion testimony by leading them to admit they aren’t certain about it. We can do this by pressing witnesses to admit ignorance and uncertainty, so they lose credibility in the eyes of the judge and jury. To fracture their testimony, lawyers get the witnesses to admit there are contrary “possibilities.”
Here’s how the method works. At a drunk driving trial, the prosecutor would present an expert witness to testify to the accused defendant’s blood alcohol level (BAC) just before the crash. After the prosecutor finished, the defense lawyer might cross examine the expert, Dr. Trask, about the BAC evidence:
Lawyer: Now, Dr. Trask, you testified that the Defendant’s blood alcohol level, his BAC, was .21 just before the crash, right?
Lawyer: You used a Breathalyzer to estimate the BAC, right?
Witness: Yes, based upon the Breathalyzer report.
Lawyer: The Breathalyzer isn’t 100% accurate, right?
Witness: No, not 100% accurate, but we commonly accept it as accurate.
Lawyer: If you used a Breathalyzer on a person who had just rinsed his mouth out with alcohol-based mouthwash, the Breathalyzer would report a BAC level, right?
Witness: That could happen.
Lawyer: In this case, the Defendant could have rinsed his mouth with something containing alcohol shortly before the Breathalyzer test, right?
Witness: Well, anything is possible.
Lawyer: Right. And it is also possible that the Breathalyzer wasn’t properly calibrated, so it could have been inaccurate all by itself, right?
Witness: That’s possible.
Lawyer: It’s possible that the BAC number you’re giving does not indicate the Defendant’s actual intoxication, right?
Witness: I trust the Breathalyzer data.
Lawyer: But it is possible there are problems with the Breathalyzer report, right? Even if you don’t think it happened here, anything is technically possible, right?
Witness: Anything is possible, I just don’t think it occurred here.
Once the witness has testified that “anything is possible,” the lawyer can argue the witness admitted that she wasn’t certain, her opinion could be wrong, and it’s possible that other factors make her opinion merely an opinion (not a fact/reality/truth).
This scenario plays out when we present the fine-tuning arguments for the design of the Universe, the Solar System, the Earth, and biological life forms. We show how mathematically unlikely it is that a fine-tuned universe exists by accident, or that undirected factors could create biological cells and systems. But the skeptic points out that the low probabilities are not certainties, and then lures us to say, “anything is possible.”
And there we’ve needlessly surrendered to a tactic.
Rehabilitate the Witness Testimony
Returning to the blood alcohol level testimony at the drunk driving trial, the prosecutor had brought out the expert witness’s data and opinion, and the defense lawyer undermined the witness’s credibility and raised potential doubts. Now, the prosecutor needs to restore the witness’s credibility. “Redirect” examination does that by asking expert witness questions to reduce the doubts, such as:
- Did you see any evidence the Breathalyzer was inaccurate? (no)
- Is there any reason to think it wasn’t calibrated? (no)
- Is there any evidence Defendant had some source of alcohol to rinse his mouth? (no)
- Is there any evidence that outside factors affected the accuracy of the Breathalyzer test? (no)
With this redirect testimony now before the court, the prosecutor argues: “The Defense tried to raise doubts about the Breathalyzer but offered not a shred of evidence that any of his supposed concerns happened. Without showing any facts making it ‘possible’ the Breathalyzer was wrong, the Defense failed to raise any meaningful doubts about Defendant’s BAC.”
The doubts about the breathalyzer weren’t based on evidence or the facts of this case. Plus, relying on merely theoretical possibilities isn’t enough to produce responsible, evidence-based, well-reasoned conclusions. It’s easy to generate doubt if you aren’t really weighing the evidence. Anyone can doubt. That’s the easy part. It takes some effort, however, to follow the evidence where it leads, and that’s what reasonable judgments require.
Thinking like a trial lawyer, we can apply this lesson to the fine-tuning argument the next time skeptics try to use the “anything is possible” tactic. You can ask:
- Do we actually know that the supposed fact is naturally “possible”?
- Has the skeptic offered any evidence showing the “possibility” is in fact possible?
Taking an example from intelligent design advocates Douglas Axe and Stephen Meyer, the odds of producing a properly sequenced 150 amino-acid protein at random, assuming you could generate and try out endless different such sequences, is 1 in 1074 attempts. The chance of getting that protein on one try is over a trillion times less likely than finding one pre-specified atom on Earth. The skeptic replies, “so, it is unlikely but not impossible to get the working protein by random processes, right?” At that point, we shouldn’t say, “Well anything is possible, but…” Instead, we answer truthfully:
- I personally have no basis to think it’s possible at all.
- I have read that, even if all the materials were present and there existed a mechanism to “try” different combinations, the chances of success are infinitesimal.
- To support your objection, you must show the sequence of events that, in the real world, could lead to getting the protein by accident.
- Unless you can show that the required conditions would exist, and that the mechanism for trying different amino acid sequences is known, there is no reason to think it is possible.
- Saying “it must have happened because we have the protein now” does not substitute for explaining the cause-effect sequence that could have brought it into existence.
In summary: To deflect the skeptic’s “anything is possible” tactic, here’s what we should do:
- Don’t grant that an extremely unlikely event is “possible” (without God).
- Instead, explain why we believe the event is improbable even in the hypothetical case; and
- Ask the skeptic for the mechanism—the cause-effect sequence—which would produce that extremely unlikely event.
This approach helps clarify the different positions. Often, clarity is enough. The skeptics are left with “but it’s theoretically possible” claims that look rather like blind faith in the unknown.
[i] Metaphysically speaking, if God is omnipotent then anything logically possible is within his ability. In that way, Abraham Lincoln could be alive and walking around today because God can resurrect people if he chooses. That doesn’t make Lincoln’s resurrection probable; however, it makes it merely possible. The typical skeptic, however, is probably not willing to grant that God exists and that he’s omnipotent, just so he can use this “anything is possible” tactic. Naturally speaking, “anything is possible” is far too generous a concession unless both parties are willing to grant God’s existence and omnipotence.
Richard W. Stevens, an appellate lawyer, holds degrees in both computer science and law, and has authored four books and numerous articles on various subjects, including legal topics, the Bill of Rights, and intelligent design.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2024 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/how-to-call-the-skeptics-bluff