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.

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Some interesting (brief) videos on the topic:

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

  1. Travis,

    Are you saying that the values we get for these fundamental forces of nature may be arbitrary in the sense of the actual values we ascribe to them? Like it just so happens that integers are the most comfortable form of numbers that we like to work with. And we feel more comfortable working in multiples of 10 vs 7, or something like that. So if we had developed differently and broke our understanding of math and numbers out in a different way, those fundamental forces of nature might not seem to have such “random” values to us?

    Am I anywhere close to what you’re saying?

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  2. Nate,
    Not really. It’s certainly true that the values would be different if our foundational units were different, but I’m saying something else – namely, that the values may not actually map to anything concrete regardless of the units we employ. I think QM has been helping reveal just how inadequate our brains are for grasping the true nature of the universe. Our current best models employ “particles” that may very well not exist, but we act like they do for their pragmatic value. So the suggestion is that the free parameters are just the quantities that we need to put into the relevant models so that our brains can systematize the predictions for observing the universe. In that case they aren’t tuned, they just have the values they do because our comprehension requires numbers and those are the numbers that work.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. If God were real, and if he did create the universe, terms we use like, “best possible,” may be misleading – like Nate said, if that’s the best God could do, but it ain’t good enough, then he ain’t perfect.

    I guess an imperfect God could still create a universe, but if the Bible God, perfect and Holy, created the universe, he could have purposely created it to be imperfect for whatever reason. If God wanted people to live only a finite amount of time, then maybe creation must appear imperfect, or else we’d live forever. Maybe the other crap is just obstacles.

    Maybe God created a starting point and let the dominoes fall, where he only intercedes in a few select areas, like grooming a Bonsai Tree – where creation is shaped here or there, but otherwise allowed to grow and evolve on it’s own.

    Really though, the problem with this isn’t the terms, it’s that it’s not measurable and comes to us from a random and unidentified guy who wrote it down a long time ago… We could be discussing the probability of divine farts creating the universe had someone wrote it down , long enough ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Nate, just a brief, and somewhat repetitive (I’m sorry), comment on this statement:

    But like the two previous questions, I feel like this one treads too closely to an argument from ignorance.

    As your first video shows, this is a very carefully constructed logical argument, based on the idea that design, necessity and probability are the only possibilities. (That follows from the definitions of the concepts, and although I have seen many people argue that there may be other possibilities, I have never seen another plausible suggestion.)

    This then isn’t ignorance at all, it is the best possible cosmological science available, which says that chance is impossible, necessity isn’t likely on any cosmological hypothesis and design isn’t acceptable scientifically. So the answer must be the multiverse, which pushes the problem back to the cause of the multiverse and the same three possibilities. Luke Barnes cites literally hundreds of papers and more than 20 of the most eminent cosmologists agreeing on most of this, and Sean Carroll (your third video) is one of the few exceptions. So it is far from ignorance.

    So again I come back to me comment on your previous post – naturalism has no explanation, and probably can’t because it is hard for naturalism to explain the cause of the natural world. So until and if science can explain chance or necessity, naturalism is a hypothesis that is lacking at this point.

    To draw another parallel, imagine if you drew attention to the suffering in the world and asked “How could a good God allow all this?” and a christian said “I don’t know, but I’m not troubled by it.” Would you not think their worldview failed at that point? Again, there is a parallel. I think in these “challenge” posts you only escape the challenge by being inconsistent compared to the arguments you use against christianity.

    Happy days! 🙂

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  5. God is a basically a hypothesis, or at least an unproven claim.

    If the question was, “why is there suffering,” and someone answered, “I don’t know,” we don’t have the same problem as we would with, “Why is there suffering if God is good (or loves people, etc)?”

    The fact that we have suffering isn’t in question. God is what’s in question.

    Naturalism is real, proven and observable – how it is involved and exactly how it was in play at “creation” is the question.

    How did everything get here? what caused “creation?” God and nature aren’t on the same level as far as measurability goes. We’ve measured nature, we’ve seen it in action and we know how it works in many other instances – with God, we’re still arguing over whether he exists. He looks more like the imaginary than he does the tangible things of nature, so I think placing them on the same level in this type of questioning is misleading a fallacy.

    When engineers are designing a structure, they use known materials, with known qualities, that they can base their calculations on. They do not take a made up or an unknown material, which cannot be calculated, to use in designing things where they have to prove a certain threshold of strength.

    And if they had a new material in hand, they could run tests on it to find out it’s structural qualities so that they could utilize it next time. If they heard about a new material that they cannot get their hands on, and could not test, then suggesting the new material and the unknown/unseen material is almost ridiculous.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi unkleE,

    Again, sorry for the late response.

    For the most part, I’d have to answer this similarly to how I answered your comment in the other thread. I think it’s a mistake to be confident that those are the only 3 possibilities, and I think it’s a mistake to think the multi-verse poses the same problem. Nevertheless, I’ll look into this more deeply when I have some time — maybe I’m missing something.

    I do want to respond to this statement, though:

    To draw another parallel, imagine if you drew attention to the suffering in the world and asked “How could a good God allow all this?” and a christian said “I don’t know, but I’m not troubled by it.” Would you not think their worldview failed at that point?

    Yes, I would view that kind of response as problematic. The reason I see that differently than the fine-tuning issue is that we’re dealing with firmer parameters when talking about suffering: a supremely “good” god, a supremely loving god, a supremely powerful god, yet a world in which random tragedies and horrors happen all the time (kids with cancer, hurricanes, earthquakes, Trump, etc).

    However, the fine-tuning argument depends on a bunch of things we can’t know: how universes form, whether or not the constants we see in our iteration of the universe can vary, that true nothingness is the default state of things, etc.

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  7. Hi Nate, sure, suffering is quite clear, but how it can be objectively evil is complex (and without objective evil, the problem disappears). Likewise the scientific data and equations about fine tuning are clear but the possibilities are complex. I don’t see much difference in principle. And I still think a hypothesis that can explain things is better than one that can’t.

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  8. And I still think a hypothesis that can explain things is better than one that can’t.

    I have never come across a hypothesis for the creation of the universe where the basis for that hypothesis demonstrated in any intelligible way whatsoever how the biblical character, Jesus the Nazarene is the creator deity responsible.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. One of the points that seems to have been overlooked in such discussions about Fine-Tuning(sic) is the issue regarding the eventual demise of our sun, an event predicted to occur in about 5 billion years.
    This is a billion years (approx) after the Andromeda Galaxy collides with the Milky Way.
    However both of these events will go unnoticed on good ole Earth as we are due to be consumed by our own sun in about a billion years which really pisses me off as this is about the time when Liverpool will likely win the Premier League.

    I am curious if the religious contributors to Nate’s fine (tuned) blog would like to reveal, if they are willing or able, how Yahweh’s Plan of Fine-Tuning fits into this scenario?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Ark, if you watch a little more History Channel, you’d know that ancient aliens are really what were behind the bible, other religions, and all deities.

    Obviously, when the sun swallows the earth, it will fulfill what the NT writes about the earth being consumed with fire and fervent heat. The ancient astronaut , Jesus, will return to earth prior to that event so that he can rescue the people who were devoted to him.

    He will then conscript the survivors into his intergalactic naval war fleet, with the intention of slaying and smiting his extraterrestrial foes, as his kingdom is not of this earth. Amen. Selah.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I can agree that suffering doesn’t necessarily equate to evil, but if someone or something allows suffering, when it was in their power to stop it or prevent it, then could that demonstrate a lack of mercy or concern?

    With vaccinations or surgeries, we all agree that some discomfort and pain is necessary for a greater good or benefit.

    But a child suffering from cancer? Enduring pain after pain, surgery after surgery, only so that they can live ling enough to endure more pain and discomfort, before they finally succumb to that illness… This one is obviously harder to reconcile. It’s much more difficult to dismiss or find the benefit in…

    And then what about war atrocities? ISIS (or Israel) killing women and children, taking some of the women a slave brides?

    Are those types of suffering also subjective?

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  12. Many experts get lost in their own expertise and sometime their feet don’t touch the ground. We could ask an important question why not get on with pressing problems that will very soon demand answers and action, such as climate change and antibiotic resistance. Without a stable world we will have no experts only survivors.

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  13. This is one of the most honest and well articulated article on the fine-tuning of the universe, and I can only applaud you for the sentence “The short answer is that we don’t know.”
    —Indeed—this is the obvious. None of us know, and maybe we will never know.

    In any case, Conviction is not knowledge.

    I would like however to react to this:
    “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.”

    Yes, our Universe would have been fundamentally different, but we cannot say for certain that a version of another form of matter could not have formed together, stars could not have formed, or even life for that matter.
    We simply cannot know at this stage of our journey, with the tools we have.

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  14. Thanks Vince! I really appreciate the kind compliment. And yes, I think your observation is correct that we simply don’t know enough to make the kind of broad generalization that I gave in my summary of the problem. Thanks for weighing in!

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