“There is for me powerful evidence that there is something going on behind it all … it seems as though somebody has fine-tuned nature’s numbers to make the universe. The impression of design is overwhelming.” ~ Paul Davies, physicist, agnostic
People who argue against evolution and especially for creationism of course are overwhelmingly coming from religious views. However, two arguments for a creator tend to be very attractive to the non-religious, including many in the fast growing “nones” category. These are the two main design conclusions which appear on the surface to be very intuitive and logical, sometimes due to a limited knowledge of nature.
First, the biological design view is seen in the arguments for Intelligent Design (ID). This occurs probably often due to ignorance of all the unintelligent adaptations that can only be rationally explained by natural selection. It is very difficult to defend a wise Great Engineer and Grand Architect designing for example men having breast tissue that leads to breast cancer in 3,000 American men per year, the crazy Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve route, the poorly designed vertebrate eye, baleen whales that grow teeth as a fetus, or why humans would have dead genes for making egg yolk. Rather, an honest view of nature without cherry picking reveals instead very often clumsy natural selection producing adaptations due to limitations and restraints. Copious examples mostly just for humans have been detailed in a blog and short video presentation. The appeal of intelligent design for the religious is often a result of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias, whereas for the non-religious it tends to be erroneous intuition due to a lack of adequate biological knowledge and testing for falsifiability. It is intuitive but wrong that we exist on a flat immobile planet at the center of our solar system when in fact we are spinning on a sphere at 1,000 mph and going around the sun at 67,000 mph. So also it is counter-initiative that the biological complexity and diversity we see now and in the fossil record is not the result of a Great Design but rather the result of evolution, leaving the theist and creationist only theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism as a viable species origin narrative. The problems with TE/EC as an answer to evolution are discussed elsewhere in this blog.
The second design view involves cosmology and is called Fine Tuning. Like Intelligent Design for biology, this also seems correct initiatively and is a very common argument for believing in some kind of entity behind our universe existing. Many people who reject religion still find this argument compelling. In this case, instead of biology people will turn to physics and cosmology to argue that certain parameters that we find in our universe are so finely tuned that they could not be present without a design or purpose.
The Fine Tuning Argument
Inherent in the Fine Tuning argument for cosmology is the question fine tuned for what? The answer is life, our planet’s life - us. What is claimed to be fine tuned? Our universe or even aspects of our planet. We could not be here unless the universe was found to have exact, inflexible parameters it is asserted. They could not have occurred by chance. Collins writes:
“The chance that all of these constants would take on the values necessary to result in a stable universe capable of sustaining complex life-forms is almost infinitesimal. And yet those are exactly the parameters that we observe. In sum, our universe is wildly improbable.” ~ Francis Collins, The Language of God… 2006. p. 74.
What are these constraints or parameters? The number varies by author but several are most commonly listed. The claim is that if any are changed even in the slightest, our universe could not support life or the evolution of life, or even be present. These values are thus delicately balanced and must be so exact that our universe must be designed to allow life, and any change in the slightest to any of then would make life impossible. This argument has been called the best argument against atheism by both atheistic philosophers and physicists, and of course theists. In my experience it is also very attractive to agnostics and persons holding to non-religious but spiritual views. Along with ID, the Fine Tuning argument is often the only two assertions left standing in debates after other arguments for a creator or design have been countered or dismissed. The physicists Barrow and Tipler outlined in 1986 a detailed discussion mathematically of the notion of a fine-tuned universe for humanity in their “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle”. There are two basic forms of the anthropic principle, called weak and strong. Anthropic refers to the existence of human life and in terms of cosmology refers to constraints on our universe.
Other physicists such as Dicke, Hoyle, and Davies are all scientists who have written that the universe seems fine turned for life (2). Theists who are strong proponents include the Christian apologists Hugh Ross of Reasons To Believe, Francis Collins who founded Biologos, the prodigious philosophical debater William Lane Craig and the theologian Richard Swinburne.
Cosmological Parameters often discussed
These parameters are observed and claimed that any deviation beyond a certain maximum value would either prevent our universe from existing or would make any form of life impossible. Some have listed more than 30 (1, 3). These appear to be more minor and include the earth’s axis, earth’s unique moon and it’s beneficial effects, Jupiter protecting earth from asteroids, and more.
The ones below seem to be the major parameters most often mentioned by physicists and cosmologists.
Ratio of Electrons to Protons 1/10^37
Ratio of Electromagnetic Force to Gravity 1/10^40
Expansion Rate of Universe 1/10^55
Mass Density of Universe 1/10^59
Cosmological Constant 1/10^120
Stenger addressed the above five parameters specifically in his book (1).
A. Electron/Proton ratio (chapter 10) - The number of electrons (-) and protons (+) should be the same because of charge observation as the total electric charge of the universe is neutral. This is a result that must be unchanged when you change reference frames or points of view. If physics “models are to be objective, that is, independent of any particular view, then they are required to have point-of-view invariance… physicists have no choice in the matter, or else their models will be subjective, that is, will give uselessly different results for every point of view” (pg. 82). His conclusion: there is no fine-tuning; the parameter is fixed by established physics and cosmology.
B. Electromagnetism/Gravity ratio (chapters 7, 13) - If the ratio were larger, no stars would form. If smaller no large stars would form and then no heavy metal production through explosions. Stenger ran a program where he could vary the electromagnetic force, electron mass, and proton mass and then observe the results. “In disagreement with the claims of fine-tuners everywhere, I find that when the parameters are varied by two orders of magnitude, 37 per cent of the universes simulated have the features needed for life similar to ours to evolve, where strict conditions were applied.” His conclusion: there is no fine-tuning; the parameter is in the range expected from established physics… This example also illustrates a major mistake made by most fine-tuning proponents.They hold all the parameters constant and just vary the one of interest. A proper analysis must vary all parameters at once, since a change on one can often compensate for a change in another." (Pg 280).
C. Expansion rate of the universe (chapter 11) - if it were larger there would be no galaxy formation. If it were smaller the universe would have collapsed before stars could form. This fine tuning argument is often cited from Hawking: “If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have collapsed before it ever reached its present size”. However, both Craig and D’Souza quote mined and failed to note what Hawking wrote 7 pages later for why no fine tuning was necessary - “The rate of expansion of the universe would automatically become very close to the critical rate determined by the energy density of the universe. This could then explain why the rate of expansion is still so close to the critical rate, without having to assume that the initial rate of expansion of the universe was very carefully chosen” (A Brief History of Time, pg. 121) Stenger’s conclusion: there is no fine-tuning. The parameter is fixed by established physics and cosmology.
D. Universe mass density (chapter 11) - if it were larger, there would be too much deuterium and stars would burn too rapidly. If smaller, there would be too little helium and too few heavy elements would form. However, the critical value we now measure was a prediction from inflation before it was actually measured. Conclusion: there is no fine-tuning. The parameter is fixed by established physics and the accepted inflationary cosmology that is a well established part of the standard model of cosmology.
E. Cosmological Constant (chapter 12) - according to Stenger the calculation producing the maximum number is wrong but the LHC should be able to confirm this. Evidently physicists have not reached a consensus on the question of this parameter. Stenger’s conclusion: “The standard calculation of this parameter is grossly wrong and should be ignored. Viable possibilities exist for explaining its value [ghost solutions of relativistic quantum field theory and holographic universe], and until these are ruled out, no fine-tuning can be claimed.”
Other objections to fine-tuning
1. Why fine-tuning arguments don’t work (8 min.)
Dr. Sean Carroll, theoretical physicist at Cal Tech; Debate with William Lane Craig.
1. We don’t really know that the universe is tuned specifically for life, since we don’t know the conditions under which life is possible.
2. Fine-tuning for life would only potentially be relevant if we already accepted naturalism; God could create life under arbitrary physical conditions.
3. Apparent fine-tunings may be explained by dynamical mechanisms or improved notions of probability.
4. The multiverse is a perfectly viable naturalistic explanation.
5. If God had finely-tuned the universe for life, it would look very different indeed. This part is perhaps his best part as he compares predictions of theism vs. naturalism.
Post debate comments by Dr. Carroll:
Full debate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07QUPuZg05I&t=1s (2hrs, 45min.)
Carroll’s response starts at 30:30. To Craig’s premise #1, if the universe began to exist, it had a transcendent cause. Carroll states the correct way to ask this question in cosmology is can I build a model of the universe that had a beginning and no transcendent cause? Yes, it has been done. Worse for this claim it appears there is good evidence that our universe may indeed be infinite. See Big Bang including a fantastic 10 min video.
2. The universe is not fine-tuned for life. The universe is about as inhospitable to life as one could imagine. Is it fine-tuned so life could exist? Then that’s a tremendous waste of space and volume as pointed out in the movie “Contact”. As one physicist has remarked if the universe has any purpose it is to make black holes. If anything the universe is configured for death and is overwhelmingly hostile to life which would make any creator malevolent or indifferent.
3. Life, Personal Observation & Reality. A universe in which life exists to wonder why the universe is suitable for life will be suitable for life. That can happen in either a fine tuned or non-fined tuned one.
4. The Multiverse. This idea is not something atheistic scientists made up to make theists angry and frustrated. It actually just falls right out of the equations for inflation which is well established for the Big Bang. Some theoretical physicists say it’s actually inevitable. See Part B in this blog. Probably a 10 minute read. If the multiverse turns out to be true, than there would be an infinite number of universe with different parameters and different forms of life could exist that would not need our specifics. It’s highly probable that some universes just by the shear number produced could support life.
5. Fine tuning may be an illusion.
"The tuning required for some of these physical parameters to give rise to life turns out to be less precise than the tuning needed to capture a station on your radio, according to new calculations," says Miriam Frankel, who authored the FQXi report, which was produced with support from the John Templeton Foundation. "If true, the apparent fine tuning may be an illusion," Frankel adds… The report then outlines arguments that fine-tuning is an illusion, noting that life may take a very different form than naively imagined, and that if multiple physical parameters are considered to vary simultaneously, it could alleviate any apparent fine-tuning problems. This suggests that the universe may not be so finely tuned; it may be able to produce life under a much wider range of circumstances than first thought… But the equations of stellar structure may have more solutions than most people realize. "Stars can continue to operate with substantial variations in the fundamental constants," says Adams, whose work is featured in the report. "Moreover, if a particular astrophysical process becomes inoperable, then (often) another process can take its place to help provide energy for the universe.” (5)
6. Fine-Tuning implies an evil or incompetent God. As a believer, Halvorson submits similar to Carroll above that arguing that our universe is improbable would “disconfirm God’s existence”. Because "a benevolent God would want to create physical laws so that life-conductive universes would be overwhelmingly likely.” As Carroll noted in the short video above, listing all the attributes of nature near the end of his video clip soundly points to naturalism, not theism.
“An analogy here might be apt. Suppose that you’re captured by an alien race whose intentions are unclear, and they make you play Russian roulette. Then suppose that you win, and survive the game. If you are convinced by the fine-tuning argument, then you might be tempted to conclude that your captors wanted you to live. But imagine that you discover the revolver had five of six chambers loaded, and you just happened to pull the trigger on the one empty chamber. The discovery of this second fact doesn’t confirm the benevolence of your captors. It disconfirms it. The most rational conclusion is that your captors were hostile, but you got lucky.” (7).
8. Probability. There is a quote by Collins at the beginning of this article stating that the parameters we measure together that allow life are so improbable that he believes it can only be explained by having a designer, God, putting it all together. But what if we calculate the probability of our own existence? What’s the probability of a certain egg of the thousands and a specific sperm from 300 million getting together? That those specific adults would meet? That the zygote won’t break down due to genetic problems? That the embryo won’t implant? That the fetus won’t miscarry? That before modern medicine you would not die at childbirth? That before modern medicine you would not be the 50% of children born that died before age 5? It would probably produce an even smaller number than the fact of our universe or planet supporting life. Actually Collins, you, and I are proof that low probability events happen all the time. Your chance of winning a multi-million dollar lottery may be infinitesimally small, but the probability that someone will win it after several runs is nearly 100%. Once a low probability event happens their probability becomes 100%.
The fine-tuning argument is one of two major design arguments for a creator, and rests on cosmological and physics observations. Like it’s cousin intelligent design for biology it has great initial appeal as it is at first very intuitive. It is even attractive to the non-religious.
Intelligent Design has utterly failed in the biological sciences because it has been shown to be a religiously driven movement and it only takes some additional education in biology to see all the unintelligent designs that can only be rationally explained by evolution without the need of a creator. Evolution is an emergent property of the structure of life. In addition we now have fantastic evidence that shared DNA findings rise to the level of proof for macroevolution with more than sufficient naturalistic mechanisms only. For the simplist example see shared DNA breaks and unique repairs. There appears in life, in our DNA, and in the history of life in the rocks and fossils no ultimate goals or purpose to life. No personal Creator, Designer, or Engineer behind the origin of species.
Likewise, design assertions from cosmological observations also fail. The major parameters most often listed as so improbable that our universe must have been created for life by a super intelligent being can be shown however to be fixed by established physics and cosmology. On the contrary, a creator making the parameters so narrow that a universe is so improbable for life makes an all wise and loving creator evil or incompetent. The parameters are not so narrow as originally thought and if more than one is allowed to change at one time, often compensation from the others can take place. It appears that the multiverse is inevitable from inflation and an infinite number of universes means ours was certain to happen with the parameters it has and that life markedly different from ours could be in another universe. Lastly, our universe is not designed for life. It is an incredible inhospitable place of certain death for life anywhere in the vastness of the universe except in some minuscule areas. The incredible overwhelming volume of the universe contains mostly huge expanses that are death sentences for any life.
All design arguments when examined objectively and closely succumb to critical examination whether they be biological claims or cosmological ones.
Citations And References
1. Stenger, Victor. 2011. The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why The Universe Is Not Designed For Us. Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY. 345pp.
2. Fine-tuned Universe. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine-tuned_universe
3. Fine-tuning argument. Religions Wiki.
4. What is Wrong with the argument for fine-tuning? Reddit Debate thread.
5. Is the ‘fine-tuned universe’ an illusion?
6. The Fine-Tuning Argument. Manson, Neil A. University of Mississippi. Philosophy Compass 4/1 (2009); 271-286. https://home.olemiss.edu/~namanson/Fine%20tuning%20argument.pdf
7. Fine-Tuning Does Not Imply a Fine Tuner. Some think that fine-tuning is evidence for God, but in fact the opposite is true. Halvorson, Hans. 2017.