20 January 2015

The Fine Tuning Case AGAINST Theism

It has to be a set-up job. It can't have appeared this way by chance alone. The odds against it are 10^130 to one. If you vary just one of the initial constants of the Universe just a teensy little bit, stars, galaxies, planets, life and humans could not possibly have arisen. Therefore there must be an intelligent designer - a God - behind the whole thing. For these circumstances to have arisen without a designer stretches credibility to its breaking point. The most likely explanation of the exquisite degree of fine tuning we see in our vast universe is that God is real; (as philosophers rather quaintly put it) the Universe is more likely under Theism than under Naturalism.

So the most common variants of the Fine Tuning Argument (FTA) go. And, I have to say, I think it is a pretty good argument - at least at a visceral level. It feels right. There are of course numerous objections available to those of us who do not believe in gods. For one, we don't know what the distribution of life-permitting universes looks like within whatever parameter-space of universal constants we choose to set up. This makes it very hard to set probabilities based on a naive linear model. Maybe if you altered two or more universal constants (such as the speed of light and the strength of gravity) at the same time, rather than one or the other, you might slide to a place on the graph where life is back in business again. Maybe there are gazillions of life-permitting points or zones in this space, and "our" one is just a fairly small one among many. Or perhaps ALL possible universes "exist" in some vast hyperreality or multiverse (and there are good physics-based reasons for thinking this may actually be the case). Or (as many physicists now think) some of the constants are not independent, but constrain each other into a certain range. Maybe the rate of expansion of the universe is tied in some fundamental but undiscovered way to the speed of light, so the number of degrees of freedom a cosmic knob-twiddler would have to play with could be severely constrained. And there are more objections, some of which seem sensible to me, but others seem a little far-fetched.

However, in this little post I am going to take it as accepted that Fine Tuning is a real thing, however it is to be explained. And I am going to show that Christians who use the Fine Tuning Argument (FTA) are actually making a fundamental whopping error - they are undermining their own case substantially. By Christians, I mean those apologists who typically try to press the FTA into service as an argument for a personal God who intervenes in the world and impregnates virgins and sends his son to die for our sins and resurrects him and finds parking spots for believers and delivers nice weather for church barbecues. That sort of God. You know the type.

While I'm at it, I'm going to show that the crazier sort of Christian - the Young Earth Creationist - is so spectacularly undercut by the FTA that they really should step as far away from it as possible - they don't know it, but it's creationist kryptonite. Yet like little moths to the flame, they flutter closer and closer... It kills the other forms of creationism too, but more on that anon.

Let's look at the fundamental premise of the FTA. I haven't set this out as a formal philosophical argument - I'm not a formal philosopher, but I've played enough of 'em on TV to have a smattering. If I ever decide to write this up for a proper journal (ha!), I'll put in bullet points and specialist jargon, or maybe a nice philosophically literate person will do that for me. But I'm sitting on the sofa with a whisky (a very nice 12 year-old Glenfiddich) and I'm feeling relaxed. Anyway, the relevant premise is that the constants of the universe are arranged just so - from the beginning - that if they had been even a tiny tiny bit different, a life-permitting universe could not have formed, and we could not be here to wonder about it. Maybe the universe would have collapsed immediately after the Big Bang. Or it would have blown out too fast for hydrogen to form into clumps leading to galaxies or stars. Or gravity would have been too weak to allow galaxies to form - or too strong, resulting in a universe full of nothing but black holes. Or if the Strong Nuclear Force had been any different, everything would be neutrons. Or if the Weak Nuclear Force had been different, there could never have been carbon or oxygen.

If we accept that premise, we are in an interesting position. IF such fine tuning is true, then the arrangement of matter we find in the universe is a natural outworking of those initial constant or conditions. God did not have to intervene. Praise the Lord, our theists might say. He's a lazy bastard who doesn't like to do more work than necessary. Our creationist chums would do well to feel distinctly uncomfortable here, because this only works if the universe really is as old as scientists say it is - about 13.7 billion years. If the universe is, say, 6000 years old, as most creationists assert (including several members of the Stormont Assembly in Belfast, which it pains me to note), then they have a truly INCREDIBLE problem explaining how, if God made the world in 6 days at any time in the last few thousand years, the very cosmic settings they appeal to to prove the existence of God happen to fit exquisitely into cosmological models that point back 13.7 billion years - and only work if the Universe is indeed that old. If creationism were true (fantasise with me a moment here), it is utterly inexplicable why (say) the rate of expansion of the universe and the strength of gravitation should be so closely balanced. I'll perhaps develop this further in a subsequent post, but it should be immediately obvious that a creationist faced with the FTA is forced to resort to the most absurd and pathetic special pleading that can be imagined.

But let's leave Ken Ham and his creationist cronies - what about the more sophisticated theists who want to have this naturally-evolving universe with knobs on - those knobs being specific timed interventions by God that are outside the normal natural run of things? Interventions that we might term "miracles"? One theist I discussed this with suggested that perhaps there is no route to life existing, even in this lovely life-permitting universe, without God pinging it over the barrier and then letting it evolve. The evolutionary system needs to be set up by God for it to work.

But we can't let this slide - for one thing, we don't really know how life actually began, but we have some very good ideas that constrain our hypotheses. It is considered very likely by most biologists and physicists that conditions suitable for life exist on other planets, and that conditions suitable for the *origin* of life exist too. While it is entirely possible that we are the only intelligent life in our galaxy, there is nothing about life as we know it - at least at the bacterial level - that makes it seem inherently unlikely. However, let's assume they're right, and God needed to give life an extra kick over the line to get it going. And perhaps another kick to get it to evolve multicellularity. And another to get mammals. And another to get apes. And then another to make a Man out of an ape, in the image of the creator.

We can't exclude all these little fine tuning tweaks or kicks or miracles or whatever we want to call them - at least not out of hand. However, here is the key problem. IF God (a "theistic" interventionist god, mark you!) is willing and able to make these little adjustments to the universe on-the-fly, then we are back to the same problem the creationists have - WHY are the *initial* constants so *ridiculously* fine tuned to mean that 300,000 years after the Big Bang electrons would be recaptured by protons to form hydrogen from the primordial plasma, and the gravitational force strong enough to form galaxies over the next few million years, but not too strong to collapse the whole Big Shebang back into a black hole or singularity? Why did those first stars burn for a few million years, and go supernova, spewing out their carbon and their oxygen and their iron etc into the interstellar dust clouds, only to reform into more stars and planets to recapitulate the cycle?

If we really *did* have an interventionist "theistic" God, we would have no need of such insanely delicate initial tuning - He would, as is his proposed modus operandi when it comes to life and messiahs and barbecues, fix it on-the-fly, and create life in a much larger array of universes that are more sloppily tuned. So why was the option of sorting out the carbon unavailable to God *during* the life of the Universe? Why could he not have created iron or oxygen in one of the (presumably millions) of other universe configurations available to him? Why choose to place Humans, the pinnacle of his evolved creation (because he uses evolution, remember), in the ONE configuration that didn't require any additional input from him after the Big Bang? If God is not constrained, why create a Universe that seems to show he *is* constrained? Surely the Sloppy Tuning Argument would be more convincing than a Fine Tuning Argument?

It should be clear from the above that it's not just creationists who are left flailing around by the FTA - theists are too. Of course, the most likely type of God *given* Fine Tuning is a deistic God - one who starts the whole thing off and then does not intervene. Once we postulate an interventionist God, we can't fall back on the ballistic FTA, because every additional action ascribed to God becomes hopelessly ad hoc, and suggests that the Universe didn't *need* to be fine tuned.

So Christians need to decide - IS the Universe Fine Tuned? If so, then a theistic interventionist God is highly unlikely. If not, then why are we even having this discussion? They should drop the FTA. If the God of Classical Theism exists, then the apparent Fine Tuning of the Universe is utterly inexplicable.

I, of course, don't think that any God exists. I don't think we need one. But Fine Tuning, if true, is an argument against the God of Classical Theism.

Comments welcome! I'm on Twitter as @shanemuk


  1. Very interesting article. Thanks Shane. The Fine Tuning argument has always struck me as being weak for two reasons; firstly, to say that the universe is a suitable environment for humans life is just plain wrong. Pretty much none of it suits us!

    Secondly, and more importantly, coming up with a figure for the very unlikely probability that our universe turned out to be suitable for life (impossible though that is to calculate, as you say) seems irrelevant to me. It's a bit like firing an arrow somewhere at random on the earth and hitting, say, an ant. To hit that particular ant is, of course, unbelievably improbable. But it's not at all surprising unless, of course, you assume that the arrow set out to land on that spot. And so, the flaw in the FTA, surely, is that it assumes that there was some prior intention for life to exist, and why should we think that?

    Or, put the other way around, and, perhaps, more succinctly, the probability of a universe containing only stuff that suit the conditions and constants of that universe is, well, 100%.


  2. Hi Ian, yes - those are valid responses to the FTA. I do tend to agree with the proponents that our universe does appear fairly finely balanced, but that degree has undoubtedly been vastly over-egged, and we don't know how many possible arrangements for universes there actually are (or, rather, the proportion of "possible universe space" can host life-permitting universes. We also don't know how many of these universes (perhaps all!) exist in the wider reality; the Copernican Principle should alert us to the fact that proposing that this *one* is the only universe is rather likely to be wrong; any time we have proposed such an exclusive notion in the past, it's been overtaken and destroyed by later discoveries. So even for that reason alone, it seems that a multiverse (situated beyond "time", which after all is just an internal property of *our* universe) has to be our default assumption until proven otherwise.

  3. Whisky does NOT have an 'e' in it - especially whisky of the Glenfiddich variety. I was so upset that I couldn't read any further! ��

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  5. It's your Scottish Facebook pal by the way :-)

  6. SirSaltire, you are indeed correct when referring to the fine whisky of your homeland (and that of many of my ancestors). This is a woeful error on my part, and I will correct it immediately, in order to allow you to read on :-)

  7. Thank you for being so humble as to admit to your error :-) I had in fact gotten over my upset and read on anyway. A very interesting and thought provoking take on the FTA. Thank you.

  8. I am at the moment privelaged enough to be on holiday in your fine homeland and lubricating my throat with a very pleasant Irish pear cider. But alas it seems to be slowing down my thought processes so I am unable to comment further on the subject in hand at the moment. :-)

  9. We welcome our Scottish brethren, coming over to help us celebrate the Glorious, Pious and Immortal Memory of some Dutch guy's victory over some English guy. However I do hope you graduate up from the pear cider (passable though it may be) to some of the harder stuff, where we are *so* hard, we spell it with an "e" ;-)

  10. It is not actually necessary that fine-tuning of certain parameters will have to be there for proving the existence of God, because existence of God can also be proved even if there is no fine-tuning. For this one can see the following link:


  11. No, the existence of God has not been proved. And the particular special case of the *Christian* god fares even worse.