A reader, Hugo, and I have been discussing the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God in the comments section of another post. His most recent comment contained a number of interesting points, so I thought there was enough for a new post.
So here are Hugo’s comments, shown as blockquotes, with my responses. (I have tried to address all the points and take quotes that fairly represent the views expressed.) Please feel free to join in.
A quick summary
- The fine tuning argument is based on well established scientific facts about the universe – that had a number of constants in theoretical physics been just a little different, our universe would not exist in any form that would allow intelligent life to evolve. See Science and the design of the universe and The science of universal fine-tuning.
- These scientific facts are the basis of an argument for the existence of God. The argument begins with the statement that this fine-tuning must either be chance or design or physical necessity, then gives scientific reasons to reject chance and physical necessity, and hence conclude it most probably was designed.
Why think an argument like this can prove anything?
you seem to ‘need’ an answer to the question of fine-tuning, which could be generalized to a bias regarding the ‘need’ to explain existence in terms of something else that’s outside of it
Humans are curious. We like to find out things. We visit distant exotic places to experience what they are like. We use science to try to understand things. We try to work out who to vote for and values to live by. Why wouldn’t we try to understand if there’s a God or not?
The question is under consideration already. People think they have experienced God through healing, or visions or a loving reassurance. Religious ‘gurus’ like Jesus or the Buddha claim to be telling us about ultimate reality. Many people want to check out these ideas, and the science of fine-tuning may give us an insight. I can’t see any reason not to want to see what it may reveal to us.
I don’t think there is any conclusion to be drawn from the apparent fine tuning of the universe, and it’s certainly not ‘why’ people believe in God anyway. It’s a rationalization after the fact that excites rational believers who like to think about how God works and what signs of his presence we can find.
If it’s a rationalisation after the fact (and many neuroscientists and psychologists say that this is often how we think), then denying the argument and disbelieving in God is as much a rationalisation as acceptance of the argument and believing in God. So it may be true, but I don’t see how that gets us anywhere. There is still a logical argument and some scientific facts that we have before us, and still the truth to try to discover – if we want to know.
And it does actually convince people. Famous atheist Antony Flew came to believe in God near the end of his life to a large degree because of this argument. I have a relative for whom the science of fine-tuning was key in his coming to believe in God.
starting with ‘the observation that the fine-tuning must either be chance or design or physical necessity’ is already going too far, for no good reason other than to reach a pre-accepted conclusion beyond what scientific knowledge tells us
Again, I can’t see the problem. Why pre-judge the question? Why not examine the science to see what it may reveal?
Is it ‘wrong’ to use an argument like this?
I don’t think I can think of any other possibilities, but that does not prove there is none, and I also don’t agree with your dismissal of 2 of the 3 so that you can “justify” accepting the remaining one. It’s a very lazy way of explaining why your preferred option is the right one …. If you had really good reason for your conclusions, you would not ask this kind of ‘gotcha’ question about other possible options, you would just reason your way to your conclusion directly. But you can’t.
It is simply a logical argument based on scientific facts. And it is a common form of argument. If a detective is investigating a murder and has a list of suspects, he or she will try to eliminate suspects from the list to zero in on the most likely murderer. It’s a quite logical process.
It is no different here. We have three possible explanations. If two of them are extremely unlikely, that makes the third the best possibility.
Is the argument based on science, or not?
[re physical necessity] you, myself, and everyone else actually, simply don’t know. … you are not convinced yourself that ‘physical necessity’ is impossible, but you find it unlikely enough to reason ‘as if’ it was impossible.
Most cosmologists say they believe there is no physical necessity behind the fine tuning. For example, in ‘Just Six Numbers’ Martin Rees dismisses the idea, and Luke Barnes (referencing several famous cosmologists) says theoretical physics provides no evidence of an underlying physical explanation, and it is “almost certainly not true” for the latest string theories.
So we can choose to accept what the majority of expert cosmologists say, or we can decide to the contrary.
[re statistical probability] You draw conclusions where there is no conclusion to be drawn …. the problem is that you read into the numbers to see something that’s not there
I don’t read anything into the numbers – the cosmologists do that. Every cosmologist I have read (Rees, Susskind, Davies, Smolin, Penrose, Barnes plus quotes from another few in Barnes) says the fine tuning couldn’t have happened by chance (and Penrose was professor of mathematics at Oxford University, so he would presumably know about probability).
Again, we can choose to accept what the majority of expert cosmologists say, or we can decide to the contrary.
it’s actually quite easy to explain why the numbers are meaningless …. why would each universe be restricted to 1 ‘lifetime’ with 1 set of physical laws’ why can’t they possibly be “reborn” periodically with new variations? Why not 10^123 times each so far?
Why not anything? It seems more reasonable to me to start with what the best scientists conclude, and then ask what this tells us about the universe. They say:
- Fine-tuning is real.
- It couldn’t have happened by chance.
- It probably isn’t because of an underlying physical reality (and if it was, that reality is very finely tuned).
- The only scientific explanation they have is the multiverse, and some think this is likely, many think it is possible and some think it isn’t even science.
But as Davies points out, if the multiverse is the answer, it must itself be ‘finely tuned’ to produce the desired result. So we each make our choice – we accept there is no scientific explanation and quite likely never will be, or we take this as a clue that God may have been at work.
There is really no reason to support ‘design’ as an explanation for the way the universe is other than, ‘well, it’s big, complex, and ….
No reason? The cosmologists agree there is extraordinary fine-tuning and there appears to be no satisfactory scientific explanation. So the only explanation we really have is that God did it.
I find it interesting that sceptics who (quite reasonably) press christians for explanations of all sorts of odd facts about the world, the Bible and christian belief, suddenly argue they don’t need explanations about the universe. I think it is most reasonable to look for explanations for everything, and if there is only one explanation, however much we don’t like it, apply Sherlock Holmes dictum: “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
A universe from nothing?
I also think that this is yet another example of an argument from ignorance fallacy. We don’t know how a universe like ours could arise from some external, more basic, reality; hence, we conclude that it could not have been the case. …. who says that there is such a thing as ‘nothing’?
This is a separate question, about the origin of the universe rather than its design. But a similar argument applies – granted the science of the big bang, or the scientific speculation about the multiverse, we can say logically that the universe (by which mean everything composed of space, time, matter and energy) either (i) always existed and so doesn’t need a cause, (ii) had a cause external to itself, (iii) caused itself, or (iv) occurred without any cause.
It then becomes an assessment of each of those possibilities. (For more on that, see The cosmological argument.)
From fine tuning to God?
Even if we entertain the idea that the universe was ‘designed’ to look the way it does, I really think there is some escalation from that idea to God
The argument, if we consider it to give an insight into truth, only establishes that the universe was probably designed. But:
- What non-physical entity could design a universe except what we might reasonably call “God”?
- This is one of a suite of arguments that build to show that God probably exists. For example, the Cosmological argument suggests the world was created, this argument suggests it was designed, the moral argument suggests there is an ethical basis behind the universe, the argument from reason suggests there is a mind behind the universe, human experience suggests this mind is personal and interacts with us, and consideration of the history of Jesus confirms all the above, and more.
Is a non-physical mind possible?
In order to believe that a mind is behind the universe, you first have to accept the idea that a mind can exist without the material existence existing.
I think we only need to have an open mind on the question. And that isn’t much to ask. After all, we understand very little about our human minds – things like consciousness, qualia and free will remain mysteries to neuroscientists.
We surely don’t know enough to say that a non-physical mind cannot exist.
I think therefore that fine tuning forms a strong basis of an argument for the existence of God. We are each free, of course, to make our own minds up about our conclusions, but I feel many of the criticisms I have seen don’t really grapple with the scientific facts or the logic of the argument.
Diagram of the big bang by NASA, via SNAP.