Thursday, April 24, 2014


The Many Problems of the Fine-Tuning Argument

by Francois Tremblay

Science provides us with a sense of wonder about this vast universe. Perhaps the universe is being held together by a small number of physical laws, or maybe even one. For now, we know around twenty physical constants that are vital to our understanding of the universe (some scientists have proposed less). The speed of light and the mass of protons are two of these. At first glance, there is certainly a feeling that we are lucky to be alive and involved in this universe. Our lives are intertwined with these facts of physics.

The wonders of the universe, however, can be co-opted and perverted in the name of belief. The advantage for theologians is that they gain the credibility of science without being bound to its naturalist and empiricist methodology. In Christian apologetics, fine-tuning is seen as a more sophisticated, “scientific” kind of design argument. “Science finds God” is a common creed of these ideological thieves.

Atheist philosopher Theodore M. Drange wrote an article called “The Fine-Tuning Argument” in 1998. I will use his formulation of the argument, as well as a quote he gives from “New Perspectives on Old-Time Religion”:

In the last few decades a tantalizingly great number of exceedingly rare coincidences, vital for the existence of a minimally stable universe and without which no form of life could exist anywhere, have been discovered… However, the prevailing conjunction is not merely one of indefinitely many; it is also an instance of a virtually infinitesimally rare kind of universe: the kind capable of sustaining life. The hypothesis that it was produced by a Being interested in sentient organic systems adequately explains this otherwise inexplicably astonishing fact.

Of course the question immediately arises: how is the idea that a god popped the universe out of nothing a hypothesis at all? There is a sense in which this question is relevant, and we will examine it later. But the main point is that this befuddlement in the face of the facts of the universe is common amongst theologians. To quote William Craig in a debate against Pigliucci:

We now know that life-prohibiting universes are vastly more probable than any life-permitting universe like ours. How much more probable? ... The answer is that the chances that the universe should be life-permitting are so infinitesimal as to be incomprehensible and incalculable… There is no physical reason why these constants and quantities should possess the values they do. Source

Craig also wrote a long list of properties of the universe that he claims demand explanation. This list is available in ‘The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle’. It nicely shows the magnitude of the argument, although the assertion that all these laws and constants could be otherwise remains completely unproven.

The basic argument is that our universe critically depends on a coincidence of properties, and that such coincidence is only possible by supernatural design. Here is Drange’s formulation:

  1. The combination of physical constants that we observe in our universe is the only one capable of sustaining life as we know it.
  2. Other combinations of physical constants are conceivable.
  3. Therefore, some explanation is needed why our actual combination of physical constants exists rather than a different one.
  4. The very best explanation of the given fact is that our universe, with the particular combination of physical constants that it has, was created out of nothing by a single being who is omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving, eternal, and interested in sentient organic systems, and that he “fine-tuned” those constants in a way which would lead to the evolution of such systems.
  5. But such a being as described in (4) is what people mean by “God.”
  1. Hence [from (4) & (5)], there is good evidence that God exists.


    I. This befuddlement in the face of facts seems to be the extent of how Christians view science. They view science not as a tool of discovery, but as a source of insolvable puzzles (that is to say, insolvable by science). To the theologian, science does not exist to give answers, but only to provide questions that only he can answer – by invoking his favourite god.

    I have addressed this “befuddled” strategy in my article ‘Swinburne’s Justification for Naivete’, where I address a similar kind of argument. Swinburne, in this example, uses natural law instead of physical constants, but the principle is the same, as physical constants are part of the natural laws that we discover. Given that, explaining why the speed of light is the way it is, is no different than explaining E=mc2.

    My answer in both cases is the same. To ask why constants are this way or why laws are that way is to presume that there is an ultimate reason to be found, an ultimate cause underlying them, something beyond the material. But if the existence of the universe is necessary, then no reason or cause is to be found.

    The question of an ultimate cause or explanation for the way things are, is no more meaningful than to ask a theist why his god is the way it is. Given the necessary nature of existence, it cannot be the case that “some explanation is needed” for fundamental constants which are inherent to existence.

    We can also see the question as a scientific one, that is to say, look at the formation of the universe and how the constants arose from it. This is a scientific question, that Big Bang theory answers with symmetry breaks in the early universe. But in neither case is a non-natural explanation necessary, possible, or even relevant.


    II. To come back to the general argument, there is one gigantic objection, the kind of thing that does not seem obvious but seems that way after you understand it. That objection is simply that fine-tuning is not an argument for design, but rather an argument against design! The idea of an extreme fine-tuning beyond which the target cannot exist is indicative of a precarious natural system, not of intelligent planning.

    To understand this, an analogy may be useful. Suppose that our breathing was dependent on a specific level of oxygen in the atmosphere, and that any other level would cause suffocation. That would certainly count as “fine-tuning” in the sense given by the argument. The atmospheric composition in question would be the only one capable of supporting life, and this would therefore demand “explanation”.

    But even if that was true, how would this fine-tuning justify design explanations? A designer would not make it so that humans would constantly face the danger of suffocation! An intelligent designer would try, whether possible, to ensure that a given system could keep functioning under different conditions. Such is the case with humans, who can breathe in atmospheres thin or rich in oxygen. The precarity of a system’s functioning is not evidence of design, but rather of natural law.


    III. Another objection to the fine-tuning argument is that we should not be surprised or befuddled that the universe is adapted to our needs, since we evolved within the universe and its parameters. Evolution tends towards adaptation of life to its environment. Therefore, we should no more be surprised of how well the universe fits us, than we should be surprised of how well a baked cookie fits its mold. This argument is also called the WAP.

    A possible retort to WAP is that without the fundamental constants as they are, life simply could not evolve at all. But this is based on a misunderstanding: because we know only one possible way for life to evolve, does not mean that no other way is possible. Even the facts of carbon-based life are not a necessity. In many cases, life would have evolved differently, and we would be silicon life forms asking why the universe is so perfectly adapted to our existence. To think this way, without any scientific guidance at all, is nothing more than wish-fulfillment. We must start from the assumption that there is nothing special about the way we evolved, unless contrary evidence is presented.

    William Craig, in ‘Barrow and Tipler on the Anthropic Principle vs. Divine Design’, argues against this use of WAP by stating that:

    • “We should not be surprised that we do not observe features of the universe which are incompatible with our own existence.”

      Does not justify:

    • “We should not be surprised that we do observe features of the universe which are compatible with out existence.”

      He gives the example of a man who is shot by a firing squad, but all the shots miss. Such a man should not be surprised at not being dead, since he can still reason and thus must be alive. But, Craig continues, he should be surprised at being alive, given that he should be dead.

      I see Craig’s example as illustrating the fallacy of his argument. He misunderstands that which we should be surprised about. In the case of the firing squad, the survivor should not at all be surprised at being alive, but rather at the firing squad missing all their shots. The fact that he is still alive, in itself, should not at all be surprising. It is the underlying causal link that is surprising, not the fact itself. In the case of the universe, these causal links are not surprising at all, and therefore his argument fails.


      IV. We have good reason to object to a number of assumptions that are explicitly or implicitly held by theologians who use fine-tuning. The first assumption is contained in the following formulation:

      “2. Other combinations of physical constants are conceivable.”

      Now granted, some theologians do not explain this step at all, but they usually have no justification for their assumption that physical constants could be otherwise. So Drange’s formulation here is in fact a concession.

      At any rate, it is unclear why the fact that “other combinations of physical constants are conceivable” lead to the conclusion in (3) that:

      “some explanation is needed why our actual combination of physical constants exists rather than a different one”

      In fact, (3) implies that these “other combinations” could exist. But there is no way to deduce this from (2). The fact that something is conceivable does not make it possible! It only means that our imagination can encompass it. I can imagine plenty of things that are plainly impossible, such as alternate pasts. I discussed a similar “fallacy from the imagination” in my article ‘Conifer’s Refutation of Noncognitivism Examined’, refuting Steven Conifer’s assumption that something that is “clear” and “imaginable” makes it meaningful.

      The fact that something is conceivable does not make it magically possible. Possibility must be demonstrated with objective evidence.


      V. Two other implicit assumptions can be addressed simultaneously. These assumptions are:

    • Change in physical constants can be isolated.
  • Change in physical constants necessarily brings about states where life is impossible.

    The first assumption is committed by a lot of theologians, but our argument-type does not commit it. I will therefore only justify the second. I already noted that the assumption that our specific carbon-based evolution cannot be special in any way. We must assume that, given a sufficient lifespan for stars, some form of evolution is at least possible.

    With this in mind, physicist Victor Stenger developed a program called “MonkeyGod”. This program generates universes using four of the physical constants we have discussed. While this is not as convincing as analyzing the twenty physical constants that we know, MonkeyGod still demonstrates that long-lived stars “occur in a wide range of parameters”. Given this preliminary result, there is no reason to assume a priori that any change would result in the impossibility of life.


    VI. We have seen that the proponents of fine-tuning call divine creation a “hypothesis” or an “explanation”. And indeed, if it was not a hypothesis or an explanation, it would not answer the “problem” of fine-tuning at all.

    There are three problems associated with calling divine creation a “hypothesis” or “explanation”:

    Divine creation…

  • cannot be a hypothesis because its specificity is not supported by any observation. The facts of fine-tuning, even if true, only justify the existence of a supernatural process or entity, not of a divine Creator.
  • is not a complete hypothesis or explanation, and is not a proper working hypothesis or explanation.
  • as a hypothesis or explanation, is contradicted by many facts of the universe.

    The first objection is more specific, since it only pertains to god-as-hypothesis, and I will not get into it. For more on this topic, the article ‘Process-Based Noncognitivism’, which discusses the impossibility of positing a god’s existence as a hypothesis, may be helpful.

    The second objection is critical. If divine creation, as expressed by theologians, is nothing but hollow words without any substance, then it cannot serve as a hypothesis or explanation. Does it mean anything to say “a god created the universe” and can we explain this process?

    The answer is no. According to theologians, the only relevant elements of any divine action on the universe are that a god wills natural change, and that will becomes reality. But both these elements are meaningless.

    First, the idea that a god wills natural change contradicts its infinity. It therefore cannot be the case that a god desires to intervene in the natural world. This point is discussed as a strong-atheistic argument in ‘Apathetic God Paradox’.

    Secondly, if “a god’s will becomes reality” is to mean anything at all, then one must answer to the modus operandi problem, that is, how a supernatural being could possibly act in the natural world. Without an answer to this general problem, no instance of such a passage can be justified. And if no instance can be justified, then there is no meaning to discuss.

    The third objection is perhaps the heaviest. If divine creation is impossible, either due to the nature of divine creation itself or the nature of this universe, then it cannot be used as an explanation for fine-tuning.

    Many strong-atheistic arguments demonstrate the impossibility of divine creation. Here are links to some of them:

  • Materialist Apologetics – based on the necessary nature of various features of human understanding, which contradict the idea that divine creation makes everything contingent.
  • Problem of Evil – based on the existence of evil.
  • Atheistic Cosmological Argument – based on the inseparability of time and space.
  • Argument from Scale – based on the scientific facts about evolution and the size of the universe.
  • Big Bang Cosmological Argument For God’s Nonexistence – based on the nature of the Big Bang.
  • And of course the Apathetic God Paradox, which I have already mentioned.


    VII. Finally, fine-tuning arguments lack specificity. If we look at our argument-type again:

    1. Therefore, some explanation is needed why our actual combination of physical constants exists rather than a different one.

    2. The very best explanation of the given fact is that our universe, with the particular combination of physical constants that it has, was created out of nothing by a single being who is omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving, eternal, and interested in sentient organic systems, and that he “fine-tuned” those constants in a way which would lead to the evolution of such systems.

    But even if, for the sake of argument, we concede that C3 is true, there is no possible way to deduce that the explanation is “a single being who is omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving, eternal, and interested in sentient organic systems”. It is possible to imagine that a supernatural process or law causes the universe to come into existence, instead of a personal being. This would be perfectly in line with what we observe in our own universe.

    As I said before, imagination does not indicate possibility: but since we have no idea of what a supernatural process or entity would be like anyway, any discussion on its basis must necessarily be arbitrary. The assumption that a supernatural process can exist is not any more arbitrary than the assumption that a supernatural god can exist. In the end, any discussion of the supernatural is meaningless, but we assume that it is meaningful for the sake of discussing the argument.


    VIII. Carrier has proposed the objection that the claim:

    The fact that life can exist demands explanation.

    Displays a mistaken prejudice that life, or human life, is somehow special and requires explanation. If we see life as a by-product of the universe being in certain states, then there is nothing left that requires explanation. The existence of any universe will have temporal consequences, and life is one of those possible consequences. It requires no more explanation than the pattern of raindrops falling on the sidewalk.

    In this view, the fine-tuning argument assumes teleology in regard to life as a premise in order to prove teleology. It is, to a certain extent, a circular argument.

    To say that the fine-tuning argument is fallacious is a vast understatement. As generally expressed, it is false at its very core assumption – that fine-tuning, if it existed, would demonstrate design. Almost all of its other premises and assumptions are false in some way.

    It also demonstrates how pitiful the theological attempt to co-opt science for its own ends can be. From Biblical reinterpretation to design arguments, all that such arguments achieve is a complete misreading of both science and religion. The idea that the universe is fine-tuned should be especially offensive to believers who uphold intelligent design, as it is an egregious example of unintelligent design, at best.

    The more we learn about the universe, the more we observe the power of natural law in developing existence into complex and wondrous forms. We do not, however, observe any divine agency. “God’s fingerprints” are nowhere to be seen. The fingerprints of the eternal laws of nature, however, fill the heavens. Believers would do well to open their eyes and take a look.

    Last updated: 01/01/05