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.

Who Made God?

Here’s an excerpt from my book God and Soul: The Truth and the Proof, which presents the rational, scientific case for the existence of God and the human soul. This section addresses a question that is invariably posed by the New Atheists (Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Michael Shermer): “If God made the universe, who made God?” I think you’ll find that this is an answer you’ve never encountered before. The following excerpt from God and Soul is copyright 2012 by Jim Denney, and may not be reproduced without permission.


There is a question that all of the New Atheists ask in their books, their speeches, and their public debates. It’s a question intended to stump the believers, end the debate, and expose the theistic fallacy once and for all. It’s the simple question, “If God made the universe, who made God?”

Michael Shermer, in his book The Believing Brain, frames the question this way: “Who created God? God is he who needs not be created. Why can’t the universe be ‘that which needs not be created’?”32 Daniel Dennett puts it this way in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: “If God created all these wonderful things, who created God? Supergod? And who created Supergod? Superdupergod? Or did God create himself?”33 Christopher Hitchens, in God is Not Great, wrote, “The postulate of a designer or creator only raises the unanswerable question of who designed the designer or created the creator.”34 Likewise Sam Harris in Letter to a Christian Nation: “The notion of a creator poses an immediate problem of an infinite regress. If God created the universe, what created God?”35 Finally, in The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins makes it unanimous:

The whole argument turns on the familiar question, “Who made God?”, which most thinking people discover for themselves. A designer God cannot be used to explain organized complexity because any God capable of designing anything would have to be complex enough to demand the same kind of explanation in his own right. God presents an infinite regress from which he cannot help us escape.36

The question “Who made God?” is actually a question many children ask. Because it’s a childlike question, we should first make sure the question does not contain an underlying fallacy, such as a category mistake. A category mistake is a semantic or logical error in which objects of one kind or category are mistakenly presented as if they belong to another kind or category. For example, the question “What does red taste like?” is a category mistake because “red” belongs to the category of colors, not tastes. Something that is red may taste like raspberries or like blood, because “red” is not a taste.

The question “Who made God?” may be a similar category mistake because God may not belong to the category of created things, but to a separate category, such as “ground of reality” or “ground of being.” The anthropic principle [or “fine-tuned universe”] strongly suggests that the Cosmic Designer, being the Architect and Originator of the Big Bang, may not belong to the category of created things. If that is true, if God is the ground of reality, then Dawkins is mistaken and God does not present us with “an infinite regress from which he cannot help us escape.”

The Abrahamic religions assert that God does not belong to the category of created things, and that is why most theistic writers answer the “Who made God?” question in a dogmatic way. Here’s a typical theistic answer to that question:

Who made God? No one did. He was not made. He has always existed. Only things that had a beginning — like the world — need a maker. God had no beginning, so God did not need to be made.37

Of course, this “answer” doesn’t answer anything. It’s simply a dogmatic statement that erects a mental firewall against further inquiry. If the question “Who made God?” makes our brains hurt, then let’s just say, “God had no beginning,” and stop thinking about such questions.

I prefer to keep thinking.

The question “Who made God?” is a useful and interesting way to prod further thought and discussion. Unfortunately, the New Atheists try to use this question to end the discussion.

In order to honestly grapple with the question “Who made God?,” we need to have our consciousness raised — twice. Richard Dawkins has called Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “the ultimate scientific consciousness-raiser.” And it’s true — we do need to have our consciousness raised by the principle of natural selection. But we mustn’t stop there. We must also have our consciousness raised by the anthropic principle.

The problem with Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists is that they have only had their consciousness raised once. If they would raise their consciousness a second time by opening their minds to the anthropic principle, they might discover where the “Who made God?” question actually leads us.

If there is a Cosmic Designer who created a universe with the purpose of bringing forth intelligent life (as the anthropic evidence clearly, overwhelmingly suggests), then the Cosmic Designer would certainly welcome our intelligent inquiry. After all, we human beings are the “children” of the Cosmic Designer, and the raison d’être of the anthropic principle. The universe was called into being for the express purpose of bringing thinking beings into existence — so it seems to me that the Cosmic Designer would be pleased to know that the conscious, reasoning creatures of the universe have begun to look back and think deeply about such questions.

One place to begin thinking about the question “Who made God?” is to remember that time began at the moment of the Big Bang. I know this is an impossible concept to fully grasp, but it’s true: There was no such thing as time “prior to” the Big Bang. In fact, the phrase “before the Big Bang” is about as meaningless an expression as can be ever be put into words. Time did not exist until the instant of the Big Bang, which physicists express as “t = 0.” The first moment of time, the first micro-tick of the cosmic clock, occurred approximately 13.7 billion years ago. Adolf Grünbaum (b. 1923), the founding Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Philosophy of Science, explained it this way (all emphasis is in the original):

[The Big Bang instant t = 0] … had no temporal predecessor. In this case, t = 0 was a singular, temporally first event of the physical space-time to which all of the world-lines of the universe converge. This means that there simply did not exist any instants of time before t = 0! But it would be (potentially) misleading to describe this state of affairs by saying that “time began” at t = 0. This description makes it sound as if time began in the same sense in which, say, a musical concert began. And that is misleading precisely because the concert was actually preceded by actual instants of time, when it had not yet begun. But, in the Big Bang model … there were no such earlier instants before t = 0 and hence no instants when the Big Bang had not yet occurred. [Astronomer Sir Alfred Charles Bernard Lovell] … is quite unaware of these facts when he speaks mistakenly of a “metaphysical scheme before the beginning of time and space.” Similarly, there is no basis for [cosmologist Jayant Vishnu Narlikar’s] … lament that “scientists are not in the habit of discussing … the situation prior to [the Big Bang].”38

There was nothing before the Big Bang. There was no space, no time, no matter, no energy, no gravity, no “before.” At t = 0, all of the life-giving, fine-tuned laws, constants, and forces of the universe were “baked in.” If there was no space and time “before” t = 0, then what “caused” the “effect” we know as the Big Bang? Who or what designed this amazing, delicately calibrated universe that gives us life?

Answer: A Mind — a conscious, purposeful, willful Designer.

Because we live within a reality that consists of three dimensions of space and one dimension of time, we assume that the ultimate ground of reality is space-time. But space-time can’t be the ultimate ground of reality because space-time is a mere 13.7 billion years old. Space-time did not exist until the Big Bang happened.

The universe is trying to tell us something: The universe is not primarily about space, time, matter, energy, and gravity. Those things are real, but they are not the most basic feature of the universe. At its most fundamental level, the universe is all about Mind.

(When I capitalize the word “Mind,” I’m not suggesting that “Mind” means “Supernatural Deity.” I’m trying to convey the fact that Mind is an entity distinct from the space-time universe of matter. The mind of God would be Mind, but the minds of human beings and other conscious observers also partake in this collective property I call “Mind” with a capital M.)

Before you dismiss these ideas as a lot of New Age tripe, like auras and spiritual vibrations, I want to state clearly that I don’t deal in mysticism. The integral role of the conscious mind in quantum physics has been an accepted scientific concept as far back as the 1920s, when Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg were noodling around with wavefunction mathematics.

Great scientists have considered the role of Mind in the structure of the universe at least since the day of astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). When he began to understand the laws of planetary motion that bear his name, Kepler exclaimed, “O God! I think thy thoughts after Thee!”39 The universe, Kepler realized, was designed by conscious, rational, purposeful thought.

Three centuries later, Stephen Hawking made a similar statement at the end of his book A Brief History of Time. Hawking concluded that if we could discover a complete “theory of everything” and find the answer to why we and the universe exist, “it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we should know the mind of God.” Hawking, an agnostic, used the term “mind of God” in a metaphoric sense — but his statement may be more literally true than even he intended.

Countless physics experiments clearly show that the workings of the universe are entangled with the workings of Mind — the minds of conscious human observers at least, and perhaps the mind of God. One of the fathers of quantum theory, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), expressed this view when he wrote, “The overall number of minds is just one. I venture to call [mind] indestructible since it has a peculiar timetable, namely mind is always now.”40 In other words, Mind is an indivisible unity, it cannot be destroyed, and it is timeless. Only a mind of the kind Schrödinger describes would be capable of formulating, coordinating, and fine-tuning all of the life-giving laws, constants, and forces of the universe at the moment of t = 0.

Schrödinger goes on to speak of the conscious mind that each of us thinks of as “I” or “myself.” He writes: “We do not belong to this material world that science constructs for us. We are not in it; we are outside. We are only spectators. The reason why we believe we are in it, that we belong to the picture, is that our bodies are in the picture.”41

Here, Schrödinger describes a picture of reality that is almost religious in nature — yet this picture of reality is derived from quantum physics, not some religious text or tradition. In Schrödinger’s description, Mind interacts with the material world but is not part of the material world. Mind is outside of the material world — a “spectator.” A mind housed in a human body tends to mistake the material body for the “I” or the “self” that is the mind. But while the body belongs to the world of matter, in Schrödinger’s view, the mind is separate from the material world.

This view parallels that of Australian neurophysiologist Sir John Carew Eccles (1903-1997), who won the 1963 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his pioneering work on brain synapses and neurotransmitters. Eccles came to the conclusion that consciousness and thought occur when the non-material mind acts upon the quantum “microsites” within the synapses of the cerebral cortex of the brain. He suggested that the non-material mind interacts with the material brain by means of quantum mental units called “psychons.” These psychons control the quantum jumps within synapses, causing them to emit neurotransmitters which account for such brain activity as thought, decision-making, and body movement. In Eccles’ view, the brain doesn’t give rise to the mind; rather, the mind is separate from the brain, and it activates the brain in order to control the body.

Eccles authored or co-authored several books with the intent to “challenge and negate materialism and to reinstate the spiritual self as the controller of the brain.”42 In How the Self Controls Its Brain, Eccles even went so far as to say, “In some mysterious way, God is the Creator of all the living forms in the evolutionary process, and particularly in hominid evolution of human persons, each with the conscious selfhood of an immortal soul. … Biological evolution transcends itself in providing the material basis, the human brain, for self-conscious beings whose very nature is to seek for hope and to enquire for meaning in the quest for love, truth, and beauty.”43

American physicist Nick Herbert, the author of Quantum Reality, has worked as a senior physicist in industry (Memorex, Smith-Corona Marchant) and in pure research (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Xerox PARC). Herbert is a strong proponent of the view that Mind is a more pervasive aspect of reality than matter and energy. While the standard view of reality is that the universe evolved consciousness (in the form of conscious beings like us), Herbert says that consciousness comes first, and that consciousness creates reality. He writes:

The first person to suggest that quantum theory implies that reality is created by human consciousness was not some crank on the fringes of physics but the eminent mathematician John von Neumann. In his quantum bible [Mathematische Grundlagen der Quantenmechanik or The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics] …, the most influential book on quantum theory ever written, von Neumann concludes that, from a strictly logical point of view, only the presence of consciousness can solve the measurement problem. As a professional mathematician, von Neumann was accustomed to boldly following a logical argument wherever it might lead. … His logic leads to a particularly unpalatable conclusion: that the world is not objectively real but depends on the mind of the observer.44

(Personal note: I lean toward a view which holds that the world is objectively real, but that Mind interacts with and shapes objective reality in more powerful ways than we normally suppose.)

Nick Herbert goes on to compare von Neumann’s view, rooted in mathematics and experimental physics, to the intuitive insights of George Berkeley (1685-1753), Bishop of Cloyne, Ireland. Describing Berkeley’s views, Herbert wrote:

Berkeley argued that mind is not a form of matter but quite the opposite: matter does not even exist except as the perception of some mind. Absolute existence belongs to minds alone — the mind of God, the minds of humans and other spiritual beings. All other forms of being, including matter, light, the Earth, and stars, exist only by virtue of some mind’s being aware of them. … Esse est percipi (To be is to be perceived) was the Irish bishop’s motto concerning matter: “All those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world have no subsistence without a mind.”45

So let’s bring this discussion back to the original question: “Who made God?” At this point, you may see where I’m heading. Nick Herbert’s suggestion (derived from von Neumann) that “reality is created by human consciousness” is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t account for all the facts. The universe has existed for 13.7 billion years. Conscious human beings (in the form of genus Homo) have existed for the tiniest fraction of that span of time, roughly 2.4 million years. Our own species, Homo sapiens, has existed for less than 200,000 years — a mere twinkle in the eye of the cosmos.

For the better part of 13.7 billion years, there were no conscious human minds in existence to observe reality and make reality real — but does that mean there was no conscious Mind at all in the universe? No. Mind was immanent throughout the universe from the instant of t = 0. As physicist Freeman J. Dyson has said, “God is what Mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension.”46

So what sort of conscious Mind existed during all those billions of years before human beings evolved? What sort of Mind directed the life-giving purpose of the universe at the moment the Big Bang? What sort of Mind selected, balanced, and fine-tuned the laws, constants, and forces of the universe at the instant of t = 0?

Everything that exists within the space-time universe is subject to the principle of causality. A cause always precedes its effect, and causes and effects always take place within the framework of space and time. But if Mind exists outside of the space-time universe, Mind is not subject to the principle of causality. If Mind is not an effect produced by some other cause, then Mind itself is the cause — and the universe is the effect.

If Mind is the ground of existence, and therefore not subject to the law of cause and effect, then the question “Who created God?” (in effect, “Who created Mind?”) can be seen as a nonsense question. It’s like asking “How big is blue?” or “What does seven taste like?”

To say that Mind is the ground of reality is not to say that space and time, matter and energy, are not real. They are definitely real. But it is Mind — the mind of the Cosmic Designer, the mind of conscious beings like ourselves — that makes reality real. To quote Freeman Dyson once more, “I do not claim that the architecture of the universe proves the existence of God. I claim only that the architecture of the universe is consistent with the hypothesis that mind plays an essential role in its functioning.”47

As the English mathematician-astronomer Sir James Jeans (1877-1946) concluded, “The universe appears less and less like a great machine and more and more like a great thought.”

End of excerpt.

For more information on the anthropic (fine-tuned universe) evidence for God (the Cosmic Designer), see my previous blog post, “Is Our Universe ‘the Ultimate Artifact’?”