Am I Being Dishonest About Fine-Tuning?

In recent discussions with atheists on Twitter, I’ve encountered objections to the term “fine-tuning.” This term refers to the fact that, according to physics and cosmology, the fundamental physical constants and forces of the universe (the strength of gravity, the strength of electromagnetism, the cosmological constant, the number of spatial dimensions, and so forth) all appear to be precisely “tuned” within an extremely narrow range—an incredibly delicate balance that permits the existence of life in the universe. There are dozens of these constants and forces, and if just one of them had a slightly different value—if it were altered by as little as one part in billions or even trillions—life could not exist.

I find that most of the atheists I encounter have never heard of fine-tuning or the anthropic principle. When I explain it to them, they are aghast and refuse to believe what I’m saying. They frequently accuse me of lying or ignorance.

Those who are more astute and well-read will frequently object to the term “fine-tuning” because they think that even using that term is stacking the deck. “‘Fine-tuning’ requires a Fine-Tuner,” wrote one. “The term ‘fine tuning’ is a conclusion disguised as a premise: the argument is truly, technically circular.”

To his thinking, the term “fine-tuning” implies intentional tinkering with the laws of physics by a deity. That’s not how the term is commonly used and understood within the scientific community. “Fine-tuning” is actually a values-neutral, secular, scientific term that describes the nature of the constants and forces of the universe. Physicists, cosmologists, and astronomers actually do observe the universe to be “fine-tuned” without regard to how it got that way. It’s a description of the state of the universe, and does not presuppose how the universe got that way.

Whether or not there was a “Fine-Tuner” (i.e., God), the universe is fine-tuned. It is certainly conceivable that the universe could have come into existence by random-chance processes—with all of its physical constants and forces balanced within that incredibly narrow range, and without the intentional intervention of a “Fine-Tuner.”

Let me say that again for emphasis: Even if there was no intelligent “Fine-Tuner,” the universe is undeniably fine-tuned.

Atheists who wrongly accuse me of trying to bias the discussion with the term “fine-tuning” are themselves guilty of trying to force the discussion toward their conclusion by taking a perfectly common, descriptive, and neutral term, and trying to rule it out of bounds. If you read the literature on cosmic fine-tuning and the anthropic principle, it becomes clear that the term is used by scientists as the best way to describe the condition of the universe, and without any hint or suggestion of theistic propaganda. Some examples:

In The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, physicists John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler write:

Hoyle realized that this remarkable chain of coincidences—the unusual longevity of beryllium, the existence of an advantageous resonance level in C12 and the nonexistence of a disadvantageous level in O16— were necessary, and remarkably fine-tuned, conditions for our own existence and indeed the existence of any carbon-based life in the universe.

These coincidences could, in principle, be traced back to their roots where they would reveal a meticulous fine-tuning between the strengths of the nuclear and electromagnetic interactions along with the relative masses of electrons and nucleons.

—John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (New York: Oxford, 1988) 253.

Barrow and Tipler aren’t using “fine-tuning” to promote theism. They are simply describing some of the fine-tuned conditions in the cosmos that make life possible. Similarly, cosmologist Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal (and definitely not a theist), also uses “fine-tuning” in a purely objective, scientific fashion:

These six numbers constitute a “recipe” for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be “untuned,” there would be no stars and no life. Is this tuning just a brute fact, a coincidence? Or is it the providence of a benign Creator? I take the view that it is neither. An infinity of other universes may well exist where the numbers are different. Most would be stillborn or sterile. We could only have emerged (and therefore we naturally now find ourselves) in a universe with the “right” combination. This realization offers a radically new perspective on our universe, on our place in it, and on the nature of physical laws. . . . If you imagine setting up a universe by adjusting six dials, then the tuning must be precise in order to yield a universe that could harbour life.

—Martin Rees, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 4 and 22.

In The First Three Minutes, Nobel-winning physicist (and atheist) Steven Weinberg writes about the fine-tuned nature of the cosmological constant:

There may be a cosmological constant in the field equations whose value just cancels the effects of the vacuum mass density produced by quantum fluctuations. But to avoid conflict with astronomical observation, this cancellation would have to be accurate to at least 120 decimal places. Why in the world should the cosmological constant be so precisely fine-tuned?

—Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 186-187.

In The Grand Design, physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow also write about the fine-tuning of the cosmological constant in Einstein’s general relativity equations, calling it “the most impressive fine-tuning coincidence” in cosmology. They go on to describe other fine-tuning problems in cosmology:

Most of the fundamental constants in our theories appear fine-tuned in the sense that if they were altered by only modest amounts, the universe would be qualitatively different, and in many cases unsuitable for the development of life. . . . The emergence of the complex structures capable of supporting intelligent observers seems to be very fragile. The laws of nature form a system that is extremely fine-tuned, and very little in physical law can be altered without destroying the possibility of the development of life as we know it. Were it not for a series of startling coincidences in the precise details of physical law, it seems, humans and similar life-forms would never have come into being.

—Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam, 2012), 160-161.

So, to answer the question “Am I being dishonest about fine-tuning?,” the answer is no. I’m using the term “fine-tuning” in exactly the same way physicists and cosmologists Barrow, Tipler, Rees, Weinberg, Hawking and Mlodinow use it. I’m not playing word games to force a preordained conclusion. I lay out the evidence, I tell you what I think it means, and you are free to draw a different conclusion.

One of the most annoying experiences I have on Twitter is when atheists who don’t understand my views accuse me of lying. Why would I lie? For one thing, I’m morally and ethically committed to the truth. For another thing, I’m convinced that the evidence stacks up on my side. I believe that if I honestly present the evidence, including the sources and footnotes, the evidence will speak for itself.

I hope you’ll examine the evidence rationally and skeptically. If you are intellectually honest, you’ll at least see that I have valid reasons for my views. You may not be persuaded. You may not agree with me. You may have some counter-arguments to toss my way. Please do. All I ask is that you think critically, challenge everything, demand evidence—then be willing to follow that evidence wherever it leads.

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9 Comments

  1. Well said Jim. – That the universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life is almost unanimously accepted. Scientists and philosophers of varying disciplines and worldviews agree on this. As Freeman Dyson famously said “The more I examine the universe, and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.” Denialists (like Victor Stenger) who would rather pretend that fine tuning doesn’t exist have been thoroughly discredited.

    Reply
  2. Many thanks, Stuart! I decided to write that blog to save time. I keep encountering atheists who dispute fine-tuning, and it occurred to me that it would be easier to simply send them a link instead of explaining it afresh with each new encounter. Stenger gnaws at the edges of the fine-tuning argument, yet his acolytes claim he’s demolished the entire edifice. Um, I don’t think so. Thanks again for your kind words. All the best.

    Reply
  3. Thanks Jim, really enjoy your posts. If ‘fine tuning’ is a myth, then why are so many respected scientists embracing the multiverse? “Advocates argue that, like it or not, the multiverse may well be the only viable non-­religious explanation for what is often called the ‘fine-tuning problem'” (Discover magazine 2008) – http://discovermagazine.com/2008/dec/10-sciences-alternative-to-an-intelligent-creator#.UWvWerV9vyg

    Reply
    • Many thanks, Stuart, especially for the link to that Discover article. I’ve sent that link to a number of atheists on Twitter, but atheist dogma dies hard. I’ve quoted Hawking, Rees, Barrow and Tipler, but they shrug it off as “quote mining.” Or they just change the subject. The universe IS fine-tuned, but atheist denial and delusion is so thick you could cut it with a chain-saw. Fine-tuning is simply a recognition and observation of the state of the universe. Yet atheists accuse theists of being blinded by irrational belief. Amazing. Thanks again. I value your insights and input.

      Reply
  4. Thanks for this thoughtful post, Jim. It sheds great light through its own fine tuning.
    As for those atheists calling you a liar, remember this: name-calling is the last refuge of a losing argument.

    Reply
    • I appreciate it, Sibella. I view hostility from atheists as a sign that a glimmer of light may be breaking through. As someone once said, “If you feel irritated or threatened by others’ beliefs, it’s a sign you’re experiencing crisis of confidence.” All the best.

      Reply
  5. Great post, Jim, and comments, all. Directly related to the topic, I highly recommend the book, “A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology” http://amzn.to/16KICSh by Alister McGrath.

    While Hawkings’, “The Grand Design”, actually has one of the best presentations of the cosmic fine-tuning I’ve read, including why only life in 3 dimensions (4 with time) is suitable and why carbon-chauvinists are justified in insisting that Si is no substitute for C, his conclusion on the matter merely states the scientific position which cannot go to the supernatural — that isn’t the job of science. Related recent comments from Hawkings are here http://science.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/17/17797756-stephen-hawking-lays-out-case-for-big-bang-without-god?lite .

    McGrath, on the other hand, after reviewing the history of natural theology and suggested revisions to it, discusses the various kinds of fine-tuning in detail and put the topic in proper perspective — how, while not proof of God, it resonates with and is consistent with theism and faith.

    A few years ago, I had the opportunity to give a copy to a long-time hardened atheist who had once been a Christian but then could not deny the evidence for evolution – having worked to develop enhanced strains of yeast by applying certain selective pressures. He was trapped by the FALSE-dichotomies that it is either science or the Bible & creation vs. evolution. A biologist, he had never heard of the cosmic fine-tuning that physicists discovered. He liked the book and has since ceased to be bitter against his son for marrying a Christian and the becoming one. He now sees that faith in God is at least rational. Its a start.

    What about a multiverse? This unobservable and essentially untestable hypothesis used to bother me. But, not longer. If the features of life, even humans, are predictable & even inevitable (see http://bit.ly/171mZxc, http://bit.ly/104A2Yk and Simon Conway Morris’, “Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe”, http://amzn.to/ZifUEn) through evolutionary processes that rely on random mutations, then why couldn’t God, who possesses foreknowledge & exists above or outside of space/time, have done the same with a multiverse, having created the conditions needed for that knowing it would inevitably produce the right kind of anthropic universe fine-tuned for complex life?

    If you’re into audio, these are other related resources you might want to check-out:
    – “Biology, the Anthropic Principle and Natural Theology”, by Prof. Alister McGrath;
    – “Cosmic Fine-Tuning: Discerning Purpose at the Limits of Science” by Prof. Tim
    O’Connor; and/or
    – “Cosmology and Fine Tuning: Three Approaches”, by Robin Collins,
    All are free at the multimedia site of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion out of Cambridge Univ., England http://bit.ly/WXOlBA.

    BioLogos.org has a great short article, “What is the “fine-tuning” of the universe, and how does it serve as a “pointer to God”?” http://bit.ly/169aj6Z

    Follow me on Twitter @EvoCreatn

    Reply
    • Thanks for that wealth of links and resources, Dr. Furman. Fascinating story about your biologist friend. It amazes me that the anthropic principle and fine-tuning have been known since Brandon Carter coined the term in 1973 (and in less formalized form, in the even earlier ideas of Robert H. Dicke), yet many bright, scientifically astute people seem completely unaware of the evidence. Mention it to them, and they immediately dismiss it as a “pattern recognition” illusion or as some other delusional state of mind. Or they argue against the term “fine-tuning” as stacking the deck toward a theistic conclusion, when it is simply a scientific description of the state of the constants and forces of the known universe. When you point atheists to the evidence, they recoil in horror.
      It’s great to connect with you and all the resources and information you have assembled. Keep in touch!

      Reply

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