Home > Atheism > Why I’m an Atheist, Part Five: The Fine-Tuning Argument

Why I’m an Atheist, Part Five: The Fine-Tuning Argument

Here it is – the big one. The distilled essence of hundreds of years of theological and philosophical arguments for the existence of God. The ultimate challenge to atheism!

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field

All right, I’m being a bit melodramatic. The Fine-Tuning Argument, which you’re probably already familiar with if you’re reading this, is sometimes presented as a one-stop, knock-down argument for God’s existence, but most philosophers don’t see it that way. It’s a good argument, I’ll grant it that, but it isn’t some sort of atheism-killer.

First, let me go back to the Cosmological Arguent. One of its biggest problems is that it doesn’t really seem to answer anything. Theists will claim the the first cause or unmoved mover or what have you is God, but the standard atheist response (to which I have yet to see any good answer) is ‘Where did God come from?’ If we say that God always existed, then why couldn’t the Universe, in some primordial state, always have existed? And if we say that God created himself (which is not a common rejoinder, despite what some atheists think), how is that any more plausible than the Universe creating itself? You cannot simultaneously say that ‘everything must have been created’ and that ‘God is uncreated’, not without an injection of pure faith that ultimately draws its authority from your religion’s dogma. I’ll be hammering on this point much more in the future, but once again we see theists and atheists alike attempting to railroad the discussion in such a way that the only possibility on the table is the monotheistic God or no God at all – there are apparently no other options.

But anyway, back to the Fine-Tuning Argument. What theists need is some evidence that the cause of the Universe is also a cosmic designer, and arguments from the design of living organisms are no longer good enough. But the Fine-Tuning Argument seems to fit the bill, because it questions the conditions of the entire Universe. Here’s a version as presented in Philosophy of Religion: An Historical Introduction, which isn’t a great book but is the only one I have to hand at the moment:

(1) The Universe has a large number of life-facilitating coincidences between causally unrelated aspects of the physical universe. For example, the ratio of the density between an open university that goes on expanding for ever and a closed universe that collapses upon itself is extremely narrow, and the density of the universe is in that range. In addition, if any of the fundamental physical constants (strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetic force, electron charge) had differed even minutely from what they in fact are, the universe would not have supported life. Intelligent life could only have evolved in an extremely narrow range of possible universes.

(2) The probability that this could have occurred by chance is infinitesimally low.

(3) Therefore, it is much more probably that our universe was intelligently designed than that it occurred by chance.

The first thing to notice is that this is a probabilistic argument, which seem to be in vogue among philosophers of religion at the moment. It is not saying ‘Here is a deductive argument which proves that God exists’, but rather ‘given this, is it not more likely that God exists?’

The second thing I’d like to point is the rigid insistence on framing the argument in terms of life, and intelligent life at that. In virtually every formulation of this argument I’ve ever seen, humans (‘intelligent life’) are heavily implied to be the purpose for which the universe was created, as evidenced by the number of ‘life-facilitating coincidences’ found in its basic structure. Why the focus on intelligent life? Some people will claim that God, if he exists, must have desired to create intelligent life because he is all-good, but that’s just another example of the railroading I brought up a minute ago. There is no reason to assume that God would have desired to create us; we could just as easily talk about the number of star-facilitating coincidences in the universe, or the number of nubula-facilitating coincidences, or so on. The same physical constants that allow life also allow for everything else in the universe, and only in the midst of an anthropocentric fit  would we be justified in assuming that everything else in existence is here to facilitate our existence.

In fact, I would argue that such a conclusion is actually nonsensical. Theists frequently talk about design and purpose in the Universe as if both are self-evident, but I frankly don’t see it. (I suspect what they’re really talking about is design and purpose in their own lives, which is nothing special – people see design where this is none all the time.) Even the briefest acquaintance with cosmology reveals a Universe that is mind-bogglingly huge, old and, as far as anybody can see, totally devoid of purpose. The vast, vast majority of the Universe cannot sustain any sort of life we can comprehend and will almost certainly never be able to do so. It is by and large a lifeless place of inert matter, lethally cold or hot or airless or bathed in deadly radiation. That we can survive on a tiny fleck of rock in an unfathomably large void of certain death is precisely what one would expect if life was a natural process that arises only when the conditions are precisely right. Why is it so difficult for life to find a safe harbor in a place that was supposedly created just so that it could flourish?

We humans have been alive for only a tiny fraction of the time that the Universe has been in existence. Our entire written and archaeological history is laughably brief compared even with the physical history of our planet, let alone the Universe as a whole. Some theistic philosophers would say that consciousness is somehow special or takes a privileged place in the Universe, but I don’t see any reason to assume why this should be so. Even in a created Universe, it is entirely possible that we are merely the result of blind physical and chemical processes – as much as it might offend our sense of specialness to think so. If we’re being honest, we must admit that anything in the Universe could be a potential God’s true purpose, yet I doubt many theists will come forward to argue that God made the Universe so that Jupier and its 63 moons could fly about the Sun for billions of years. Why? Because they already know what kind of God they want to believe in.

You’ll probably have noticed by now that I haven’t refuted the central point of the Fine-Tuning Argument. That’s because I don’t know whether or not the Universe has been fine-tuned  by God or whether that fine-tuning is just a naturalistic illusion, as the appearance of design is in living organisms. Nobody does. However, what I am willing to state firmly is that the Fine-Tuning Argument is not necessarily reason to believe in God, and it is certainly not reason to believe in any specific God. I hope that in time we know more, in which case it will be science which sheds more light on the situation rather than philosophy, but I contend that the correct response to a mystery is not to immediately rush towards the solution with the least evidence available to back it up – which is precisely what theists would like us to do.

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Categories: Atheism
  1. The Vicar
    August 19, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    This argument, as presented, is just plain false, because it contains at least one false statement. It also makes several assumptions which cannot be verified and presents them as proven fact.

    The automatically false statement is that the density of the universe and the values of the various fundamental constants are unrelated. That is necessarily false in a universe that began with a Big Bang — the density of the universe is determined by the action of forces over time, and forces are governed by the fundamental constants. (If the value of the gravitational constant had been larger, for example, the universe would be denser.)

    But in addition:

    – We don’t know that life could not be supported in other types of universes. We can say with reasonable confidence that human beings couldn’t exist if you altered one of the constants, but as for life as a concept? It is entirely possible that life, under a general definition not tied to carbon-based chemistry, could arise in universes significantly different from our own. Two universes over, where supersymmetry broke the other way, there may be photon-based life forms which eat ultraviolet and excrete infrared, and interact by exchanging virtual sleptons. Maybe photon-based life is a lot smarter than we are. There is precisely zero experimental data on this subject; we can’t look into other universes to find out whether they contain life, nor can we manipulate universal constants in a laboratory.

    – We don’t know what the real range of possible universes could be, and therefore the probabilistic argument automatically fails. Our current understanding of physics is incomplete, and we know it. We know, for example, that the strong, weak, and electromagnetic forces are all manifestations of a single force. It isn’t that much of a stretch to suppose that ALL forces and constants in the universe are derived from some single constant. (That is, on some level the universe is defined by a single constant and a set of equations.) The derivations of those constants may put definite limits on the apparent constant values. (Just as an oversimplified example: in the equation “y = arctan(x)”, the value of y can never be more than pi/2 or less than -pi/2, no matter how much x varies. It’s entirely possible that, to a physicist with perfect knowledge, a universe with inverse square force laws automatically implies that the force constants will be within a narrow range because inverse square laws mean that some fundamental constant is put through a formula with a limited range of outcomes.)

    – There is even an extreme case: it is possible that what appear to us to be fundamental constants and which we imagine could have other values (such as the fine structure constant) have only one possible set of values, and the universe is determined entirely by a set of constantless equations. For an example of how this works, consider string theory: if string theory is true — and there’s no definite reason to assume it isn’t, Lee Smolin notwithstanding — then the interactions of particles merely minimize surface area over time, under the principles of higher-dimensional geometry, and much of what we assume are constants are just artifacts of viewing a higher-dimensional interaction in 4 dimensions. It’s possible that there is some string theory-ish ultimate simplification — which we may or may not ever discover — which would show that the properties of the universe have to be as they are because otherwise you can’t have a universe.

    – Furthermore, the values of nearly all the constants are dependent on units. It’s possible that to make a universe work, all constants are required to have a value of 1 in some unit system which we don’t know about, or know about and don’t use because it is ludicrously inconvenient for most human purposes. (Look up “natural units” in Wikipedia for some examples.)

    • August 19, 2009 at 4:53 pm

      Thanks for the in-depth comment! I intentionally didn’t discuss the factual accuracy of the quite regarding the physical constants, since I know little about physics and wouldn’t be able to say anything very reliable about them. (I also didn’t understand a lot of what you just wrote, unfortunately!) However, this isn’t the first time that I’ve seen people take issue with how they’re portrayed in the fine-tuning argument.

      You’re absolutely right that life could potentially arise in a diverse range of universes, but I didn’t mention that for several reasons. It’s the ‘standard response’, and although it is a perfectly valid objection, I wanted to (hopefully) introduce something a bit more novel into the debate. It would also be slightly hypocritical of me to accuse theists of pretending to know more than they can (with regard to the cosmological/fine-tuning arguments) while simultaneously resting my objection on something that’s equally speculative (the possibility of life under circumstances vastly different to those on Earth).

      Thanks again for stopping by!

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