Friday, March 1, 2013

The Fine Tuning Argument

On my blog here I've written several times responding to the Cosmological Argument for god's existence and the various moral arguments, but I've only once written about the Fine Tuning Argument head on. I want to take some time expounding on some of its implications and the problems I think it has in a bit more detail than I previously did.

The Fine Tuning Argument, another staple of my favorite punching bag Dr. Craig, generally states like this:

1. The fine tuning of the universe is either due to physical necessity, chance or design.
2. Fine tuning is not due to either physical necessity or chance.
3. Therefore, it is due to design.

The Fine Tuning Argument poses what seems to be another tough obstacle for the atheist. The probability that all the elements in the universe would be as meticulously fine tuned to unfathomable levels that would allow life as we know it, are incomprehensibly small. But as scientists tell us, events that are extremely improbable happen all the time.

1. First I always like to use the probability of me being born as an example of chance. What is the probability that I would've been born? Well first my father and mother had to meet, that took some chance. I then had to have been conceived from one particular sperm cell and egg. The chances of that are extremely rare when considering that every time a man ejaculates, as much as 100 million sperm cells are thrust outward and only one will fertilize the woman's egg - and that's if fertilization even happens at all. The chances of me being conceived just considering that one specific time when my parents tried to conceive a child, and not even considering all their other attempts, is about 1 in 100 million. When you factor in all the other attempts at conceiving a child, combined with the probability of the circumstances that lead up to their decision and attempt to conceive a child, already the mathematical odds are stupendous. 

Then you have to multiply this to the chances of each of my parents being conceived and the circumstances that lead up to that event, and then do the same to their parents, and their parents, all the way back literally to the very first form of life some 4 billion years ago. The odds of this happening are unfathomable. Everyone alive today is the product of an unbroken chain of births, billions of generations in the making. The chances that any one of my distant relatives would have had a different offspring that wouldn't have been one of my ancestors, would have always been much more probable. And yet of course if this had happened, I wouldn't have ever been born, and yet I exist and I'm real. What are the chances of that?

So events that are extremely odd can happen all the time even when the odds against them are much more probable. But even this answer doesn't satisfy all the critics, so let me give a few others.

2. The Fine Tuning Argument proponents sometimes point to the idea that there was just one chance for our universe to get all the right properties of its laws just so, so that matter and life similar to us could form. They've argued that in my example of chance above, there are a series of improbable events happening over time, not happening all at once, and this somehow dilutes the veracity of the argument. I personally believe my example in number 1 still stands as a testament to how improbability given unfathomable odds is still possible, just as our universe is, but I'm prepared to take them up on their continued challenge. 

In his book A Universe From Nothing, Dr. Lawrence Krauss explains that we live in a flat universe confirmed by triangular tests made by lasers against the cosmic microwave background. In a flat universe, the total energy output of all matter would amount to zero. The positive energy of matter is negated by the negative energy of gravity. A flat universe with a total energy output of zero not only can come from nothing, but moreover it in fact has to come from nothing. You can start with "nothing", and then quantum fluctuations can produce the universe. And by "nothing" I mean no matter, no space or time, and zero total energy - but the potential for something always exists because the laws of physics allow something from nothing. "Always" of course is a tricky term, because there was no time before time for it to exist. The idea of absolute nothing that doesn't even have the potentiality for something, like what some philosophers and theologians like Dr. Craig believe in, may in fact not exist in reality. It may just be a concept that we can think of in our minds like an infinite series of past events or a mythical deity like Zeus, but has no basis in reality.

Now, if universes can come from nothing as the laws of physics allow, why should it only occur once? If it can occur more than once, there ought to be a multiverse with a potentially infinite number of universes - a "world ensemble" as some call it. Only the universes with the same properties as ours - flat universes with zero total energy - will produce the kind of conditions favorable for life similar to us to exist naturally. Other universes with different laws of physics either collapse in on themselves immediately in Planck-times like virtual particles, or they'll expand so quickly that atoms and matter never have the chance to form, thus rendering them unable to produce life as we know it.

It is helpful to understand that the multiverse theory was originally developed in the 1980s not to address the apparent fine tuning problem, but to address some of the problems explaining how cosmic inflation operates. The multiverse theory is hinted within the existence of dark matter and the mathematics of the laws of physics. We may never be able to definitively confirm the existence of other universes unfortunately, but if we can accurately describe them in mathematics, and if we can infer their existence using highly sensitive measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background, it will give us the confidence that they exist. No one to date has ever seen a black hole, or seen matter going into a back hole, but we can confidently infer they exist, because we can see their effects on matter and we can describe them in the mathematics of Einstein's general theory of relativity. In physics, being able to accurately describe something mathematically has yielded us with the knowledge of things before they've actually been observed.

Occam's Razor is another objection to the multiverse theory. A physicist by the name of Paul Davies said "Invoking an infinite number of other universes just to explain the apparent contrivances of the one we see is pretty drastic, and in stark conflict with Occam's razor." If the "God did it" hypothesis is true for everything, than any alternative explanation will always be more complex. One of the powerful forces of science and naturalism is that it offers realistic testable explanations to the existence of things that were once only explained by supernatural phenomenon. The evolutionary process for example is much more complex than the creationist idea that god created all life at once using his magic. So Occam's Razor, which says that the simplest explanation is the most likely one, is not some kind of absolute rule that applies in every situation, and we have many examples of its violation.

3. It is also important to mention that the apparent fine tuning of our universe is interpretive. The overwhelming majority of the universe is incredibly hostile to life as we know it. We exist on a knife's edge where any slight climatic change would spell our doom. The universe is also constantly trying to kill us. Our sun is bursting with deadly gamma rays and solar flares that would kill us all if it weren't for our protective atmosphere and magnetic field. The theist might then say "Ah ha. The Earth's protective fields are evidence for god. Look how generous he was for creating the protection that allows us to live." To this is reply, "Why would god create a sun bursting with deadly gamma rays and solar flares in the first place? It's almost as if god is shooting at us with a gun, but then he provides us with a bullet proof vest to save our lives. The theist focuses on the bullet proof vest, but I focus on why god had to shoot at us in the first place. In other words, why couldn't god have just created a sun that wasn't trying to kill us so we wouldn't need a protective field?"

Then there are supernovas, the largest explosions in the universe. Depending on their size, they could happen in as little as 3,000 light years away, which is to say our cosmic back yard, and they could destroy the protective fields around our planet which would allow the sun's gamma rays and solar flares to kill us. If such an event occurred, we'd have little to no protection from its affects. There are also comets and asteroids that have the potential for wiping out all or most of the life on Earth as we know it. These rare events seem to happen once every several hundred million years, but smaller impacts, like the one that hit Siberia just weeks ago and the kind that hit Tunguska in 1908, happen every few hundred years. They have the potential for eliminating small regions of Earth and killing tens of millions of people. I suppose the asteroid that hit Earth 65 million years ago that ended the dinosaurs and enabled mammals to dominate the planet was all somehow part of god's plan too. I can just imagine god tiring of dinosaurs after their 180 million year existence and getting impatient in how long it's taking humans to evolve and then deciding that hitting Earth with a giant asteroid that causes a world-wide mass extinction of 70 percent of all life would be the best way to speed that up.

All told, the circumstances allowing our existence to be actualized seems to be chance rather than design, however improbable that may seem. There are just too many events in history that bare the hallmark of chance over design, ranging from the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs to the continental impact of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates 50 to 30 million years ago that is said to have dried the climate of East Africa by thrusting up the Himalayan mountains, and which forced our tree dwelling ancestors to adapt to survive on the ground, leading to our evolution. So as I've explained earlier, improbable chance is always possible, and you and I are proof of that.

And finally, the future of life in this universe looks grim. Eventually, the power of dark energy will overcome gravity and electromagnetism and force apart the atoms that make up everything, including any life that exists, resulting in the "Big Rip". The universe will reach a state of maximum entropy where no galaxies stars or matter could clump together, and this will go on infinitely into the future. But, the good news is that we'll all be dead long before this happens.

4. The Fine Tuning Argument also hints at the idea that even god must conform to the laws of physics. I imagine god fumbling over an instruction manual on how to create a universe with just the right recipe in order to allow human life to develop. If god can do anything, or at least anything logically possible, why does he have to conform to the laws of physics? Couldn't god be able to create life in a universe that wasn't fine tuned for it? If we found that our universe didn't have the properties that allow life like us to exist and it still did, I find that that would be better evidence for god.


The old Aristotelian geocentric model of the universe with the Earth in the center surrounded by different sized concentric spheres that the sun and each of the known planets revolved around prevailed for nearly two thousand years. It wasn't until Copernicus in the 16th century, that the West began to realize that the Earth actually revolved around the sun, and that the sun is just like the other stars only closer and therefore appearing larger. The belief that our sun and neighborhood of stars called the Milky Way galaxy was all that existed prevailed for several hundred more years until Edwin Hubble discovered it was but one of billions of others. We now know that there are as many as 100 billion other galaxies that exist in our universe and that our universe may actually be one of a potentially infinite number, each perhaps existing in its own dimension, and each with its own laws of physics. 

Our place in the universe, or should I say, multiverse, keeps getting smaller and smaller. If there are an infinite number of universes, that means it is inevitable that there are an infinite number of universes just like ours, with an infinite number of yous and mes. Before that thought blows your mind, it is important to dwell for a bit on the evidence for the multiverse. 

1. Inflationary theory, developed in the 1980s by Alan Guth, which is our best explanation of the big bang to date, naturally gives rise to multiple universes. String theory as well is complimented by the existence of the multiverse.

2. The multiverse gives us an explanation for the value of dark matter we've measured in our universe and the disappearance of energy produced by particle collisions made by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) whereby the missing energy may have escaped our universe into another. The indeterminacy of the positions of quantum particles can also be explained by the multiverse by inferring that the multiple simultaneous positions each occur in other parallel universes and hence there exists a multiverse.

3. Observing the multiverse might be possible because gravity from other universes might be able to pass between universes which can be measured perhaps with more sensitive space-based instruments such as the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) set to launch in 2014. LISA is a "gravitational wave detector sensitive at frequencies between 0.03 mHz and 0.1 Hz. LISA detects gravitational-wave induced strains in space-time by measuring changes of the separation between fiducial masses in three spacecraft 5 million kilometers apart" according to the NASA website. 

I'm not exactly sure if the infinite series of big bangs each resulting in a different universe happens at the same time or one after the other. If they happen one after the other, then we're stuck with a potentially infinite series of past events, an idea philosophers find impossible. If that is so, each universe may exist in its own dimension, causally unrelated to any other, where time and space arise only in that dimension. Or they could all arise at the same time, either in different dimensions or in the same one.

This is all admittedly speculative, as the existence of other dimensions are, but even if we never observe other universes to confirm what the math predicts, a solid mathematical model of the multiverse might be enough, just as it was in predicting the existence of black holes. In the future we might be able to see the effects of the multiverse by being able to observe impacts of other universes on our own, but the prospects of this are uncertain. Even so, the fine tuning itself is illusory. Every single event that happens in our universe is an extremely rare event because the probability of the event happening was much more likely not to have happened than to have happened. The laws of physics also allow something from nothing, and so it seems where ever intelligent life exists it will forever be forced to have to contemplate its existence.

Further reading on arguments against god:

The Kalam Cosmological Argument
Objective Morality Without God
Refuting William Lane Craig: "Is Good from God?" A Debate Review
Refuting William Lane Craig: The Moral Argument
The Logically Implausible God
The Logically Implausible God Part 2
God, Time & Creation: More Problems For William Lane Craig
The Ontological Argument: Putting the Absurd Where it Belongs


  1. This an excellent and very thorough rebuttal, and unfortunately it just shows how easy it is for theologians to create a mess. The Fine-tuning argument was three lines, and this very involved post was dedicated to refuting it.

    I always think of that when Craig uses the volume approach in his debates. Recently he used eight arguments, more than his already excessive norm of five, and of course he claims that the atheist has to refute each and every one to undermine the case for God.

  2. It's true, and that's evident by how much I had to write, just to rebut only one of the 5 common arguments for god. What I wrote is very hard to be condensed in a 10 or 15 minute speech, while also allowing time to address the other arguments. I've been trying to figure out ways the atheist argument can best be condensed so that it plays out just like how Craig makes his.



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