Is the Universe Fine-tuned For Life

fine-tune1The fine-tuning argument is an argument from design or purpose (aka teleological) just like biological irreducible complexity is.

If I was rating arguments for God in previous years I would have initially put this argument at the top of the list, but after doing some more research it has fallen way low on the list and has even fallen below irreducible complexity (which is already low due to the fact that consensus among experts in the relevant fields of study is that irreducible complexity has no basis scientifically.)  It turns out the fine-tuning argument suffers from way more than just the possibility of the multiverse, and I was surprised to find out that some of the most coherent arguments against it are explained by evangelical Christians, and most skeptics are not even aware of those arguments.

First the facts: there are several constants in the equations of physics that if modified by very small amounts would cause a universe that would be dramatically different from our own.  The claim is that those universes would not be life permitting, but there are some who contend that this second claim is not actually a proven fact.  If you want the details for the positive claims you can hear them very clearly in practically any debate on God with William Lane Craig in it.

Do We Know The Probabilities?bell-curves

The first and probably the toughest issue for fine-tuning is explained very well by mathematician William Dembski (a Christian apologist who believes design can be found in biological irreducible complexity):

In layman’s terms, the issue is that even though the constants might sit within a tight range we have no way of figuring out what the probability distribution of those constants are because we don’t have empirical access to universe generators.  As a result we have no way of finding out what the probability is of the constants being in that tight range.  For all we know the probability that they sit in the range they do could be high.  Without access to universe generators we cannot know.  The discussion with Dembski goes longer and he explains himself more – you can see it here.

This along with other probability issues are explained in mathematical terms in this paper by Timothy McGrew, Lydia McGrew, and Eric Vestrup, all of whom are Christian apologists.  Eric Vestrup is a mathematician and the McGrews are epistemology philosophers.  It gets a little technical but overall it’s not too bad, and if you truly want to understand the issues involved with fine-tuning you need to understand their paper.  Lydia McGrew explained some (not all) of the issues described in the paper starting at time “51:00” in this interview with Luke Muelhauser.  Here is a very short clip of Lydia expressing her misgivings about the concession:

A short summary of the paper in my own words:

– Page 203: If we assume a uniform probability distribution, since the range of values for the constants are infinite, no matter how we break them up into pieces the sum will always be infinite.  However, for probabilities to make sense the sum of all possible alternatives must add to 1 (i.e. 100%).  This is called the “normalizability” problem, and it means we have no way of assigning probabilities to the range of the constants.

– Page 205, paragraph 2: The above assumes a uniform distribution, so to get around it we can assign a different kind of probability distribution.  But what distribution do we pick?  This is exactly the problem that Dembski described.  There is currently no valid way to know what to pick.

– Page 206, paragraph 1: Here they allude to important questions related to fine tuning that I have always wondered about.  How do we know that there cannot be other constants or forces in possible universes?  Put another way, we are so fixated on varying the constants that are in the equations we’ve found, but what about varying the equations themselves?  What is the evidence that causes us to think that the constants can be changed while the equations cannot?  It seems like the only reason for this very well may be psychological – the constants seem to be the easiest thing for our brains to ponder varying.  In summary, given this infinite possibility of varying equations, “we may not be in any position to speak of the life-friendliness of universes”.

– Page 207: They essentially say what Dembski said.

This direct quote from the article summarizes things well: “The point of the argument was supposed to be that objective results in modern cosmology virtually compel disbelief in a chance origin of the Universe. If, at a critical point, the argument turns on a subjectively variable sense of which assessments of probabilities are reasonable, a sense that cannot be adjudicated in terms of any more fundamental criteria, then the FTA is effectively forceless. To retreat to the point where the argument rests on unargued intuitions is to deprive it of anything more than devotional significance.”

SC_WLCAn Enlightening Debate

This debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll was very educational:

Craig gives his pitch for fine-tuning starting at 38:48, and Carroll gives his response at 54:17.  It comes up several other times in the debate (at 1:12:12, 1:21:47, 1:42:31, and 2:35:28).  Here are some issues that Carroll brings up:

– The conditions under which life can exist, and what life is, have not been clearly defined enough to prove the fine-tuning argument.  While our human form of life may not be common after varying parameters, some kind of conscious minds could exist in many other different universes.  While he may very well have a point I believe he is currently in the minority on this point, perhaps because varying some of the parameters often results in very short-lived universes not allowing for complex beings to arise.  I’m not sure about this one, but I think it’s at least valid to question how thoroughly this has been defined.

– The next objection is a bit more philosophical in nature and while I find it a bit confusing to think through it may very well be a valid objection.  Carroll says: “in theism life is not purely physical, it’s not purely a collection of atoms doing things like it is in naturalism.  I would think that no matter what the atoms were doing God could still create life.  God doesn’t care what the mass of the electron is, He can do what he wants.”  (please don’t say something silly like “I thought Sean didn’t believe in God, but now he is talking about Him”).  This is an interesting conundrum for the fine tuning argument itself.  Theism posits a certain view of God, but then the argument doesn’t seem consistent with that view.  Sean’s final statement here may also shed some light on this: “the only framework in which you can honestly say that the physical parameters of the universe must take on certain values in order for life to exist is naturalism.”  I’d like to add here that Lydia McGrew also mentions this as an issue in her interview with Luke Muelhauser (above), and apologist Hans Halvorson (see link below) concedes it as well in his debate with Carroll.

– The third objection is more technical and I believe is a valid one: the “apparent” fine-tuning of some constants actually disappear on closer inspection.  The example Carroll gives is the common example of the early expansion rate of the universe.  Claimed to be fine-tuned to 1 part in 1060.  But after doing a correct, rigorous derivation of the probability using the equations of general relativity you find that the probability is 1.  You can read further on this example here.  Craig used to use this example in his debates and took Hawking’s statements out of context.  To be fair he has corrected himself and no longer does that.  It’s important to keep in mind the following statement from Carroll to get some balance to this objection: “I can’t say that all parameters fit into that paradigm, but until we know the answer we can’t claim that they’re definitely fine-tuned.”  The debate over this objection that I’ve seen usually lies in questioning that last sentence of Carroll’s – the claim is that many cosmologists have thrown their hands up at this point and given up on getting answers that explain the apparent fine-tuning of many of the constants.  A lot of cosmologists do seem to indicate this but I’ve seen some interviewed who have not given up.  Either way though one could argue that this is still a God of the gaps argument because as we’ve seen many times in the past, not having answers to tough problems does not mean they are unsolvable with naturalistic explanations.

– 4th is the most common explanation among naturalists – the multiverse.  I think this is a perfectly valid objection to fine-tuning and none of the responses to it have moved me.  The idea is that there are many universes out there with many different constants and we just happen to be living in one of them.  The perfect analogy is that we used to think the conditions of our planet were finely tuned for life to exist, but once we became aware that there are tons of planets in the universe this conundrum was gone.  This is known as an “observer selection effect”.  Craig’s response is that universes with boltzmann brains are more likely than universes with embodied living beings, so he claims that means the observer selection effect is nullified.  But it is still agreed that with a multiverse there could be universes that have embodied living beings, and so the selection effect is still valid – we happen to be in one of those universes.  Just because there are lots of other universes with other types of observers doesn’t nullify that.  Also, Craig seems to misrepresent the hypothesis by saying “in order to rescue the alternative of chance it’s proponents have therefore been forced to adopt the hypothesis that there exists a … multiverse” (40:47), and then “now comes the key move” – as if it’s some sort of tactic.  My understanding is that the multiverse is actually a prediction of physical theories (mainly inflation).  And as I’ve seen written by some cosmologists, this is “indirect” evidence for the multiverse.  The hypothesis is not created as a “rescue” for an objection to fine-tuning.  And frankly even if it was I don’t see why that would really be an issue anyway.  This could be a valid hypothesis on it’s own.  Where is the need to add ideas of supernatural when cosmologists have never had any confirmed empirical evidence for that?  Carroll responds to other objections to the multiverse here.

– His last objection is that even if we grant that the constants are fine-tuned theism is a poor explanation.  I’ve gone way too long, so you can watch at (59:38).

Links to More Objections

– Hans Halvorson (Christian apologist) explains why he agrees with Carroll that the fine-tuning argument is not convincing – at time 28:41 in their debate.  It’s worth a listen.

– While inconclusive, Don Page (an evangelical Christian) has a paper explaining that different values of the cosmological constant would have produced universes which were way more life permitting than the one we are in.  It is at least another hint at the fact that the constants may not be tuned for life.

Keith Parsons describes a good philosophical point that comes up a lot.  It is the same objection that I have to the Cosmological Argument (mentioned here) and I haven’t figured out a good reason why the objection does not make sense.

– This is a link to a long list of objections to fine-tuning which is worth looking over.  It is important to note that the strength of these objections span the map and several of them are very poor.

Links in Support of Fine Tuning

Luke Barnes (agnostic who who seems to lean toward theism) is one of the better expositors for fine-tuning.  You can also listen to an interview he had with Luke Muehlhauser here.

Robbin Collins is another educated proponent for fine-tuning.  His form of the argument is more polished than William Lane Craig’s but it’s also a weaker form of the argument.

I give more links in support as well as criticism of the argument on my companion page.


Given all of the issues, some of the strongest of which are even brought forth by theists, the fine-tuning argument does not look to me like a very convincing argument.  And it surely cannot be claimed that those skeptical of it are doing so only because they don’t want to believe in God.  While I would never say that everyone should give up trying to find out if this argument can really fly (certainly further research and study could possibly resolve objections), it seems to me that this one is a bit of a dead-end.  On my companion page to fine-tuning I give references both for and against the argument so people can research further to try to form their own conclusions.

In Search of Gods

storyI’d like to continue the theme of explaining why I don’t believe in gods.  But at this point I’d like to simply relay parts of my own story of my search for gods.  As I’ve said several times anecdotal stories rank low for me when it comes to evidence, but we all share our stories because it is at least a small part of what makes us who we are.  This is my story which means that it’s not yours and so there is no pressure from me whatsoever to suggest that you should change your views based on my story.  You can take it or leave it as you like – perhaps you’ll relate, perhaps you won’t.  Also note that this is not a full story of my experiences with ultimate questions – there are other details sprinkled about my blog.  A full story would be too long.

The Jewish God of My Youth

When I was a young boy I strongly believed that the God of Judaism that my parents had described to me existed.  It’s been too long to remember, but this probably lasted until very early high school.  There was no interaction that I ever had with this being.  It was simply a belief I had because the existence of this God was taught to me and I thought I had good reasons to trust the people who described this to me – after all my parents were honest, loving and caring people and a lot of my rabbis displayed these same qualities.

The Move Toward Doubt

But again no interaction at all with this being, so in my high school years I grew to doubt the existence of God (at that point in my life I didn’t really consider that polytheism was actually a “live” option, so the question was more about God than gods).  I began to realize that the only reason why I had believed God existed was because I had trusted those who told me.  As I met other people with many different beliefs I realized that this was not a good enough reason to say I believed it.  After all, I was unable to sense the existence of this being and the world seemed to go on without any influence from Him (yeah, “Her” or “It” weren’t even possibilities I thought about back then).  This was too long ago for me to remember details, but I do know that if I had been asked if I believed God existed I would have said that I was doubtful of it.

Becoming a Born-again Christian

Late in High School I met a very charismatic born-again Christian who tried to convince me of the evangelical Christian worldview.  We were good friends, but whenever that subject came up I fought tooth and nail with him on it.  I told him to give up because I wasn’t about to become a Christian and even doubted the existence of God anyway.  I got a break from his stubborn evangelistic efforts my freshman year of college, but the summer after that he convinced me to begin reading passages in the Tanakh that he suggested.  I was very surprised to read Isaiah 53, and Daniel 9:24-27 became very convincing to me as a prophecy of Jesus.  Long story short, a week or so before my 2nd year of college I prayed and believed that I had become “born-again”.  I still had my doubts, and felt no interaction with God, but my belief had been pushed past the line where I felt it was honest to say I believed.

I began to study more apologetics (especially prophecy) in that first year I was a Christian, and also heard several testimonies that impressed me greatly.  At some point in this first year I felt I was certain of my belief.  I was afraid of being disowned by my parents, and I decided to write a very long letter to my parents explaining the reasons I believed, and also that I still felt Jewish because I thought Christianity “fulfilled” Judaism.  I know there are some who see this as “tricky” but it was what I believed.  My parents told me that they still accepted and loved me but wanted to discuss these things with me.  At one point when my father asked me “do you think you may ever change your mind again?” I said emphatically “absolutely not, I am sure of what I believe and will never change.”  At this point he expressed his concern that I was brainwashed.

Fervently Seeking God

man in praiseThroughout my time as a Christian I found several different groups to fellowship with and followed advice from many on how to grow closer to God.  I truly believed that some kind of “relationship” was possible with God, even though I knew it was different from relationships with people.  But the problem for me was that no matter what I tried or even didn’t try (as some suggested I was trying too hard) this relationship never materialized in any way.

My doubts began to grow again as time went on.  I prayed “Lord I believe, help me overcome my unbelief” countless times, but that help never seemed to come, and the questions I had when I had first become a Christian never got answered in a way that made sense to me even though I had thought they would be resolved in time and with study.

A Trip To the Land of Milk and Honey

WesternWallWhen I had become a Christian I had felt I had found something truly wonderful, and the connection with my Jewish roots made me want to share this with other Jewish people, and even wondered if God wanted me to move to Israel to share this message.  In my last year as a Christian I had finally saved enough money to take a trip to Israel to seek “God’s will” in this regard.  After there was not a feeling or sense or any inkling of any kind on this trip I returned home and only lasted a few more months continuing at the church I had gone to.  I had held on a little more than 5 years, and I felt it was only fair to inform my pastor since I had been teaching some Sunday School classes at the time.

The Search Continues

At this point I had felt that I had found the wrong religion, but still felt like there was “somethiing” out there, and so my search continued in full force for about a year or so.  I was now open to any and all possibilities and spent time with Bahai’s, Unitarian Universalists as well as Mormon missionaries (I sought them out so no need for them to get on their bikes 😉 ).  Throughout this time I prayed to “any God or gods or forces or agents which represent true goodness” to reveal themselves to me, and I think it is clear by now what the results of that were.  Since that time I’ve felt it wiser to focus more on objective and rational reasoning to try and make sense of reality.  I’ve also come to grips with the fact that at this time in history a lot of our ultimate questions are simply out of reach and elusive.

I was told many times back then, and some still tell me today that they have either “met” Jesus, or have a relationship with God, and I think that was one of several things that gave me hope and kept me believing the Christian message and seeking Jesus for more than 5 years (without it I likely would have left earlier).  But at some point living vicariously through other people’s experiences just isn’t enough of a reason to take on a worldview.  I am aware of many of the answers that believers give to people who have experienced similar stories to my own and all of them seem only like possibilities.  But if I believed in all possibilities I’d believe in many a strange things.  That gods do not exist is the more likely conclusion for me in the light of these experiences as well as some of the other things I’ve written and will continue to write.