Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Science

Difficult Questions for Atheists? Part 3: Fine-Tuning

You can find part 1 here.

As I said in the first post, my friend UnkleE gave me a series of questions recently that he believes present difficult problems for an atheist’s worldview. I had forgotten, but we’ve actually had similar discussions before, and you can find them here, here, and here (thanks for the reminder, Howie).

Now that the preamble’s out of the way, UnkleE’s third question was this:

Is the “fine-tuning” of the universe caused by design, chance or necessity?

Many people have written reams about this topic, so I won’t belabor any of the points unnecessarily. To keep things very simple, the fine-tuning argument boils down to this as I understand it:

There are certain fundamental qualities to our Universe that, had any of them been the slightest bit different, our Universe would have been so fundamentally different that matter could not have formed together, stars could not have formed, etc. Thus, life, especially as we know it, could not have existed.

What accounts for these specific values? The short answer is that we don’t know. Some people find the situation too convenient to be the result of mere chance, so fine-tuning becomes the backbone for their belief in a creator of some kind. Others suggest that just as there isn’t just a single planet, a single star, a single solar system, or a single galaxy, there’s no reason to think there’s a single Universe. If our Universe is just one of many, then it stands to reason that a Universe such as ours could form randomly. Others still point out that there’s an awful lot we don’t know about these fundamental forces — perhaps their values can’t be different from what they are. Or even if they can vary, perhaps the range is small. Or perhaps they depend upon one another to some degree so that if one changes, others must change to compensate. Because we can only observe one Universe, it’s hard to make definitive conclusions about any of this.

Some experts also argue that we shouldn’t be so quick to insist that this Universe is so perfectly attuned to us. After all, we can’t currently reach any planets beyond our own that would be capable of sustaining human life. Furthermore, the majority of our one planet is uninhabitable to us as well. We can’t breathe under water, and we can’t survive in outer space. From that perspective, it’s hard to argue that this Universe is so perfectly suited to us when the vast, vast majority of it would kill us in moments.

Personally, I find the fine-tuning argument interesting, and I’m curious about what ultimately accounts for our Universe having the conditions that have allowed life to form. But like the two previous questions, I feel like this one treads too closely to an argument from ignorance. And for a moment, let’s say we discovered that the Universe was actually fine-tuned with us in mind. We would know nothing about the agent that did the fine-tuning. There’s a huge gap between the fine-tuning argument and any specific deity.

Some interesting (brief) videos on the topic:


39 thoughts on “Difficult Questions for Atheists? Part 3: Fine-Tuning”

  1. In my mind, this may be a bigger “problem” for the believer. If God or gods created everything in the universe, with man as its special creation, and the earth as his singular abode, then why is there so, so much of everything else?

    100 Billion Galaxies, each with 100 billion stars, and most stars with their own solar systems… I mean, if God were behind it all and man was his biggest focus, then creation is the craziest Dr Seuss invention ever conceived… how is that perfect or precise? It’s the opposite of it.

    Now, if energy, or matter or information can never be created or destroyed, essentially eternal, and the laws of physics are just a matter of fact, and not a subject of creation, then a vast universe beyond earth and man make much more sense, in my mind.

    Liked by 6 people

  2. For me the question of fine tuning is more like being only aware of the solution that worked and not seeing the solutions that didn’t. Like walking up to a craps table where some people have all their money on 7, and then 7 is rolled and they win, then walking away and thinking “Well since 7 is the only number that could have won those people money, it must have been rolled intentionally. Not having any other idea of how much money they already lost in the past, and how much they will lose in the future, I am just going to assume they are winners and the roll was just right.

    For all we know the universe tried to form countless number of times before the right random roll of the dice came up and we had winner. But I also agree with your assessment that it’s also possible that there is more than one lucky combination as well, and it’s not exactly possible to conceive of those combinations, because such a universe looks quite different, with different laws. Maybe there is a universe where for every action there is a disproportionate reaction, or that entropy can quite happily reverse. Universes that don’t seem plausible under our physics, might be be plausible with different physical laws that we can’t possibly guess at.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. When Unklee sees this he is very likely going to cite Luke Barnes as an authority for F.T. It took me endless comments a while back for Barnes to even admit to a creator deity and then he qualified it by hinting at his god.

    He is a Christian, ( which is why Unklee loves to cite him when the opportunity arises) but he is so cagey about it that it was very difficult to get a handle on what he was trying to explain, quite apart from the fact the science would simply bounce off me.

    This argument will inevitably spiral down to, ”I don’t know” ( no matter how smart the individual) and this is where the god-botherers will leap for the gap and declare … ”Ah ha!”
    Enter William Lane Craig.

    It is a dishonest approach that is ultimately based on an a priori assumption along the lines of: Jesus the Nazarene did it ( while moonlighting in his Yahweh disguise).

    Nice to see you back, Nate.
    Hope all is well in your neck of the woods?

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Okay, first if the laws of this universe didn’t support life, then this conversation would be very, very weird. So, the fact that the laws of this universe support life, proves exactly nothing.

    I’ll tell you what this universe was designed for … vacuum. There is more of it than anything else and it is inimical to life. The second largest component of the universe is stars and they are inimical to life. As for fine tuning, this is fucking pathetic.

    Not only is the universe set up to create vacuum, but it is being made in ever larger quantities. The universe is expanding, apparently now in an accelerated fashion. If this continues, we will be so far away from other galaxies that telescopes will show a night sky that is mostly black!

    Liked by 5 people

  5. Things are good here, Ark — just busy. 🙂 You’re doing well?

    And I agree with you wholeheartedly. We likely can’t conceive of all the possibilities surrounding this topic, and when it comes to hard science, that’s just not my field. I’d be taking a letter opener to a nuke fight. So while I might look stupid against someone like a Luke Barnes, I do know that this is not a settled issue among the experts. It’s just a whole bunch of “I don’t know.”

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Swarn Gill, thanks for the comment! I totally agree, and I really liked your craps table analogy. 🙂

    I don’t believe I’ve seen you around before, so welcome to the blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I very much agree with Williams observation that the immense size of the universe with its billions of suns does not sit well with Christian theology that implies ‘God’ is only interested in life on this planet. Jesus is said to be “God’s” only son and was said to die on earth so that makes it tricky for any folk on other planets. If there is no life on other planets then why make the universe so large? If Jesus died on many planets it rather makes a mockery of the Biblical story.

    It is so refreshing to hear folk like Sean Carroll. I really like how he is able to logically look at the fine tuning argument and I also appreciate how he is able to put forward his arguments in non confrontational manner. Whilst I find that Lawrence Krauss has much to offer, his more confrontational approach sours things a bit from my perspective, though I suspect that Ark would prefer Krauss’ more robust debating style.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Just a few minutes ago, I posted a comment on Holy Koolaid’s video about a particular mistake he made. I’m pasting it here below, if anyone’s interested.

    Holy Koolaid, at 7:20, that’s not how probability works.

    Let p = the probability that a universe generates (or is capable of generating) life. (You used p = 10^-24 for this.) And assume that p for each universe is independent of p for all others.

    Let n = the number of universes. You used n = 10^24.

    Then the probability of life occurring in at least one universe = [1 – pNoLife], where pNoLife = (the probability that life occurs in none of the universes). The probability that life doesn’t occur in *a particular* universe is (1 – p), so pNoLife = (1 – p)^n; that is, the product of the probabilities that every particular universe does not generate life.

    So, the probability that *at least one* universe generates life is *not* p*n (which you show as 10^24 * 10^-24 = 1). It is = [1 – (1 – p)^n], which is less than 1. If both my calculations and Wolfram Alpha’s are correct, using the numbers you gave, it looks to be about 63%.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think that the fine-tuning argument has the potential to be a compelling argument for design. But I also agree with the observations raised so far, and see two additional fundamental issues which haven’t been mentioned yet:
    1) How do we assess probabilities for the free parameters? The whole arguments rests on the improbability of our universe’s configuration but there is no background information by which to identify a scale and probability distribution, and it is impossible to define a uniform probability distribution with infinite bounds. Apparently Luke Barnes recently took a swipe at this. Looks like something I’ll have to take a closer look at.
    2) The values under consideration are numbers that maximize the accuracy of predictions made by models. To treat them as tunable quantities is to assign them a sort of ontological realism when the only thing we know is that they’re the values which happen to make the model’s math work. In other words, it seems quite possible that those numbers don’t actually map to anything concrete – unless you’re Max Tegmark and the universe is made of math.

    I think that both of these considerations might point us toward a fourth option to Eric’s (and WLC’s) question of “Is the fine-tuning of the universe caused by design, chance or necessity?” I find it quite possible that the answer is none of above, and that the observation of fine-tuning is a cognitive artifact of our attempt to describe the universe with mathematical models.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Chance ,design or necessity? I think chance is about the best bet for my philosophy . I rule out design after the Mexican Earthquake and why would any power great enough think it was a necessity to make us?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Let me say I’m a layman with no higher education but Mr Krause a scientific expert has written a book titled Everything from Nothing. I expect the text would quickly loose me but we can only look to the experts in the hope they know what they are talking about. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion they are often grasping at straws but it all we have unless we choose to believe holy texts. I console my self with the old wives saying ‘ The truth is often stranger than fiction ‘.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I think you raise 2 great points, Travis, and I agree with you completely. In a way, the fine-tuning argument seems to just take the limits of our imagination and try to use them as evidence for a god.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Thanks for the comments, Kersten!

    Yeah, I’ve read Krauss’s book (A Universe from Nothing), and I agree — much of it was over my head. Nonetheless, I can say that a lot of confusion surrounds the word “nothing,” and in a way, he’s playing with the term a bit. He points out that “nothing” isn’t really the absence of all things that we usually think of. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, even “empty” space isn’t really empty. And that’s what Krauss argues as well (his 9th chapter is titled “Nothing is Something,” in fact). He explains how the properties of gravity, coupled with the extremely rapid expansion rate of the Universe creates a “negative pressure” that dumps energy into space, rather than the other way around (p. 150).

    Anyway, he spends the book talking about how there really isn’t a “nothing” in the way that we typically think of it. It’s an interesting book, but I’ll have to read it many times before I could say that I really “get” much of what he’s talking about.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. First time post here, glad to join in the conversation . . .

    I used to find the fine-tuning argument an interesting conundrum, but I then came to the realization that the argument is actually somewhat putting God in the place of being subject to natural law or oddly enough being subject to the laws he just created (if you watched the Sean Carroll video, he mentions this). The net affect is that they are saying that it took an immensely intelligent being to actually be able to “fine-tune” the universe so we could exist. Are you really saying God is subject to natural law or any kinda of law? He’s God! To bring the cosmos into existence and then he has to fine tune it is basically a contradiction of the omnipotence of God. He created something imperfect and then had to “fine-tune” it! Really . . .

    Liked by 3 people

  15. Turne016

    I don’t think that’s the argument: rather the contention is that a Creator deity or Supreme Being is perfectly omniscient, which means that He has infinite knowledge of the full range of logical possibilities in terms of different universes and constants. He chooses to “design” a life-permitting universe with the right parameters out of this range of possibilities – “kick-starting” a particular “universe model”. He then leaves it to its own mechanistic cause-and-effect processes after He has willed it into being with the requisite fundamental qualities (so that it will function as a logically internally consistent complexity-and-life-permitting universe).

    I don’t see how the fine tuning argument makes the Intelligent Designer “subject” to any laws.

    Unless I haven’t understood you properly?


  16. Also, it should be noted that most religions do actually think that God created an “imperfect world” – but a finely tuned one nonetheless that enables complexity (i.e. stars, planets, galaxies etc.) and ultimately intelligent life arising from that material complexity, whereas if the constants were even slightly different this would not be the case.

    An example from one theistic faith:

    Catechism of the Catholic Church

    83 The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: “It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.”121

    284 The great interest accorded to these studies is strongly stimulated by a question of another order, which goes beyond the proper domain of the natural sciences. It is not only a question of knowing when and how the universe arose physically, or when man appeared, but rather of discovering the meaning of such an origin: is the universe governed by chance, blind fate, anonymous necessity, or by a transcendent, intelligent and good Being called “God”? And if the world does come from God’s wisdom and goodness, why is there evil? Where does it come from? Who is responsible for it? Is there any liberation from it?…

    But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world “in a state of journeying” towards its ultimate perfection. In God’s plan this process of becoming involves the appearance of certain beings and the disappearance of others, the existence of the more perfect alongside the less perfect, both constructive and destructive forces of nature.


  17. Travis,

    I find it quite possible that … the observation of fine-tuning is a cognitive artifact of our attempt to describe the universe with mathematical models.

    Couldn’t this fall under the “necessity” category? (Note: I haven’t read your link yet.)


  18. @ratamacue0,

    Couldn’t this fall under the “necessity” category?

    Do you mean in the sense that the parameter could only have the narrowly defined value in order to work in a model that fits with our cognition? I suppose, but I perceive that the objections to the claim of necessity (as in WLC’s video) are objecting to the necessity of something that is mind-independent. I haven’t seen that a necessity relative to our cognition is ever in view when the trichotomy is offered.


  19. I don’t think that’s what I meant. But let me change direction…

    On the one hand, “a cognitive artifact of our attempt to describe the universe with mathematical models” seems implausible to me, at least in this context. I don’t get how that could be possible.

    On the other, I’m not sure I fully understand the idea. So can you elaborate?


  20. I’m not sure I fully understand the idea. So can you elaborate?

    Sure. It’s a pretty abstract line of thinking, so I apologize in advance if this doesn’t help. The underlying question is whether “quantifiability” is built into the universe or is just part of how we perceive and understand the universe. If I’m holding two stones in my hand, we can take the folk empirical approach of treating those as two ontologically distinct items or we could take a quantum approach in which they are a particular state of the wavefunction. The free parameters in a fine-tuning argument are values which assume quantifiability based on the way we dissect the world into discrete items and properties when we make observations and then use those to build models.

    I’ve grown increasingly inclined to suspect that this innate tendency toward essentialism – wherein we breakdown the world into discrete items with discrete properties (sometimes to our detriment, as with people groups) – is primarily the consequence of our brains having evolved to optimize our interactions with the world. I don’t find that mathematical platonism is particularly compelling (though I neither find it particularly dubious), so it seems reasonable to me that mathematics itself (the system we use for this quantification process) is also the byproduct of this cognitive optimization rather than a reflection of an actual feature of the universe. A mathematical approach to the universe is pragmatic as hell, but it seems questionable whether that then translates into a corresponding ontology.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Drizzel and turne016,

    Thanks or the comments — I think I understand what both of you are saying. Let me give it a shot:

    Drizzel, I think you’re right that the typical arguments are that the Universe is “imperfect” for some purpose. And that the creator made the “best possible” universe. But I also think that turne016’s point is worth consideration, because he’s saying that “best possible” should be nonsensical in the typical view of God. So if God is limited to certain options in the kind of universes he could create, does that make him subject to the laws of nature in some way?


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