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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God Bless Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury passed away on Tuesday, June 5, 2012. I only met him once, in the spring of 2007, plus we exchanged a few letters and a phone call over the years. But his impact on my life was immense. I would probably not be a writer today if not for the influence of Ray Bradbury. I have spent countless hours, from my boyhood to the present day, reading his stories and exploring his imagination.

One of the themes of my life and my writing is that science and religion are fully compatible fields of inquiry. They are NOT (as Stephen Jay Gould has called them) “non-overlapping magisteria,” mutually exclusive domains. Science and religion should support and empower each other in the search for truth, knowledge, meaning, and an understanding of who we are, where we came from, and why we exist in this universe. Many of my favorite writers have written on this theme (from a wide variety of viewpoints), including C. S. Lewis, Walter M. Miller, Jr., James Blish, Madeleine L’Engle, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert J. Sawyer, David Brin—

And, of course, Ray Bradbury. Here’s a brief passage from my favorite Bradbury novel, The Martian Chronicles:

The captain nodded. “Tell me about [the Martian civilization],” he said, waving his hand at the mountain towns.

[Spender replied:] “They knew how to live with nature and get along with nature. They didn’t try too hard to be all men and no animal. That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.

“We succeeded pretty well. We lost our faith and went around wondering what life was for. If art was no more than a frustrated outflinging of desire, if religion was no more than self-delusion, what good was life? Faith had always given us answers to all things. But it all went down the drain with Freud and Darwin. We were and still are a lost people.”

“And these Martians are a found people?” inquired the captain.

“Yes. They knew how to combine science and religion so the two worked side by side, neither denying the other, each enriching the other.”

Beautiful thoughts, profound insight. I agree with Ray’s Martians, of course. Here’s something else Ray Bradbury once said—and though I don’t know that he intended this particular interpretation, I take these words as Ray’s intuitive affirmation of the fine-tuning (anthropic) argument for the existence of God:

“We are an impossibility in an impossible universe.”

Yes we are. We live our impossible lives inside a universe that defies explanation. Every human life is a miracle of rare device—and Ray’s life was more miraculous than most. It’s going to be a lot harder living on this planet now that Ray Bradbury is no longer on it. A lot harder.

Thank you, Ray, and God bless you.

Lament for an Atheist (Part I)

In June 2010, I heard that Christopher Hitchens was scheduled to do a talk and book signing at a Borders bookstore in San Francisco. I considered going and having him sign a copy of his book Hitch-22, then hand him a copy of my 2001 book Answers to Satisfy the Soul. But just days before he was to appear, he canceled his book tour without explanation.

A couple of weeks later, I was saddened to hear that Hitchens had been diagnosed with cancer. He died two months ago, on December 15, 2011. His death was due to pneumonia, a complication of esophageal cancer.

I have admired Christopher Hitchens for years. It took great moral courage for him to shelter novelist Salman Rushdie in his home in 1993 after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. And it took great physical courage for Hitchens to voluntarily undergo waterboarding so that he could write about the experience in Vanity Fair. Unfortunately, Hitchens got it wrong about God and the soul.

After the publication of his book God Is Not Great, I frequently found myself in the odd position of defending the razor-tongued atheist from some of my devoutly religious friends who were exasperated with his views. I’d ask them, “How can you be angry with Hitchens for believing what he feels compelled to believe, based on the evidence he’s seen?”

And then my friends were exasperated with me!

Hitchens formulated his views on God in much the same way he arrived at his political views. He observed, read, and debated great minds. He’d follow logic and evidence wherever it led. Whenever I watched Hitchens debate, I came away convinced he was daring his opponents: “Prove me wrong.”

But as near as I can tell from his writings and speeches, Hitchens was completely unaware of the evidence I present in my book God and Soul. Though I didn’t agree with him on the question of God and soul, I genuinely liked him. I enjoyed reading his work and hearing him speak. I wanted him to live, and I’m very sad that he’s gone.

In God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens blamed much of the evil in the world on religion. And it’s true that many atrocities, savageries, and cruelties have been committed in the name of religion: The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, the execution of Giordano Bruno, the Albigensian Crusade, Martin Luther’s rabidly anti-Semitic treatise On the Jews and Their Lies, the Salem Witch Trials, the 1066 Granada Massacre and other pogroms, the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the Lebanese Civil War, the Israel-Palestinian problem, Jonestown, India versus Pakistan, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jihad, 9/11, and on and on—all of these evils were rationalized on religious grounds. But does religion really poison everything? It depends on how you define “religion.”

If, by “religion,” we mean a tribalistic social unit organized around certain beliefs, rites, rituals, and traditions, defended by figurative or literal “holy wars,” then yes, that sort of religion has a distinctly poisonous history. (And by tribalism, I mean any social structure that demands philosophical conformity within the group and that practices hostility toward those outside the group.)

But if, by “religion,” we mean a commitment to live according to the teachings of, say, the Sermon on the Mount—teachings that cut across the grain of our tribal instincts by commanding us to love our enemies, forgive those who sin against us, and pray for those who persecute us—then Christopher Hitchens was simply wrong. That kind of rational, selfless religion has never poisoned anything.

In fact, another prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins, writes in The God Delusion, “Jesus, if he existed . . . was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His ‘turn the other cheek’ anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years.” In other words, the Sermon on the Mount is the sort of religion that even an atheist can endorse.

So Hitchens’ blanket statement that “religion poisons everything” couldn’t be more wrong. The Crusades and the Inquisition and the pogroms weren’t caused by the Sermon on the Mount or anything else said by Jesus of Nazareth. As physicist Freeman Dyson explains, “We have seen terrible wars and terrible persecutions conducted in the name of religion. We have also seen large numbers of people inspired by religion to lives of heroic virtue, bringing education and medical care to the poor, helping to abolish slavery and spread peace among nations. Religion amplifies the good and evil tendencies of individual souls.”

When evil people want to do evil things—when they want to commit acts of murder, genocide, oppression, or terror—they will grab any rationale to make their evil seem “good.” If it weren’t some twisted pretense of religion, it would have been some other excuse. But the evil would have happened in any case.

There is no evil in the Sermon on the Mount. The evil is in people—in human nature itself. That’s what poisons everything.

Next, in Part 2: How Hitchens Got It Wrong About God.