The apparent fine-tuning of the cosmos’s physical constants is an unusually strong argument for God’s existence. Below, I’ll set out the argument very concisely, try to make a plausible case for it, and see if anybody in the comboxes comes around to set me straight.
The fine-tuning argument derives from the observation, first laid out in book-length detail by the physicists Frank Tippler and John Barrow in the 1980s, that the cosmos appears to be anthropic. That is, just as a bedroom can be set up so that it’s grandma-ready—ready for a visitation from grandma—so the universe appears to have been set up so that it’s anthropic-ready (ready to accommodate carbon-based human life, and carbon-based life in general).
Put differently: in relation to carbon-based life, the universe appears to be in a well-ordered, low entropy state, very far from chance.
When I think of what it means to be in a low entropy state, I recall reading about Gregory Bateson’s daughter, who once asked her scientist father why he so often called her room “not clean.” His response was as follows:
Because there are so many more ways to call a room “not clean” than “clean.”
This was Bateson’s startling way of teaching his daughter the meaning of the word entropy (and of encouraging her to think about what it means to have a clean room). Entropy is the measure of information and order in a system. When entropy is said to be low, it means that the level of information and order is very far from a state of randomness and chaos. When entropy is said to be high, then randomness and chaos are quite obviously present.
Entropy measures departures from chance.
For humans, to bring a local system, such as a bedroom, into low entropy requires work and thought, and you don’t tend to find a clean or orderly condition anywhere—at least not for very long—if work and thought are absent.
Wherever we see low entropy in the human world, it provides presumptive evidence that energy and design have been put into it, and perhaps what applies to the human world applies to the cosmos as a whole. Maybe the universe itself required the input of energy and design from the outside to make it “human ready.” As Stephen Hawking once beautifully put it in his book, A Brief History of Time:
What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?
In other words, a physicist’s equations never directly make anything; they’re maps, not territory. They describe logically possible structures or entropy states.
An equation may provide a description of something that actually is, or be wholly fanciful (as string theory equations may prove to be). But an equation doesen’t turn water to wine, or nothing into something.
So Hawking’s question remains. Who or what made the equations of our human-habitable universe take fire and evolve into matter, then carbon-based flesh, then minds?
To feel the full force of this question, let’s imagine ourselves as Gregory Bateson’s daughter wandering into her home’s guest room, which has been prepared by her mother for a visit from grandma. The daughter—let’s call her Lia—notices the following:
- the electric blanket has been turned on and set at a toasty, but not too hot, level;
- the lamp on the bedstand has been plugged in;
- earplugs have been laid on a clean, white cloth;
- the bed has been freshly made;
- five bottled waters have been lined up in a neat row on the dresser; and
- grandma’s favorite book—Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—figures prominently on the letter-writing table, which has been dusted and provided with pretty stationary and a Yatze cup containing freshly sharpened pencils.
Lia, on noticing these things, would be rational to conclude that something is up: these are all very curious and specific departures from randomness—from what she might otherwise expect on entering a typically neglected guest room—and they converge on an overwhelming conclusion: grandma, or someone very like grandma, is on her way for a visit, and preparations have been made on her behalf.
The universe, in relation to carbon-based life and humans, appears to be like Lia’s family guest room: we can imagine many, many, many more ways our universe could be than it is. And the vast majority of these ways are simply not friendly to the presence of life and minds in them (at least, as we know them). The slightest variations in the cosmological constants get us whole universes that, in relation to us, are highly entropic (in no way prepared to accommodate the presence of carbon-based life and minds).
It is thus reasonable to think that our big bang universe is a put-up job (to echo Fred Hoyle).
In other words, like Lia’s conclusion about her family’s guest room, it’s not at all crazy to think that the room of our universe has been deliberately designed for a very particular sort of inhabitant: carbon-based life. Someone, it would seem, has made the bed for carbon-based life, and meant to put each of us up for the dark and mysterious night of our soul’s existence.
And, though not directly present in the room, God’s work and thought can be inferred by having a careful nose around (as Lia did in snooping about in the guest room, discovering evidence of her mother’s activity).
The following, for example, is one of those hints that the universe may be designed for life (which I summarize from Robert Spitzer’s excellent book, New Proofs for the Existence of God, Eerdmans 2010): the carbon nucleus’s curious resonant frequency.
We all know that a sound pitched at a certain frequency can break a glass. Likewise, there are atomic resonances set at certain frequencies. But, rather than breaking things apart, these resonances cause things to come together.
To accomplish this coming together of properties, atomic resonances have to be set at exactly the right pitch to do so. Just as any old sound won’t do to break a glass, any old atomic resonance won’t do to bind certain atomic properties together.
And it just so happens that the resonance of the carbon atom, as Robert Spitzer puts it, coincides
. . . perfectly with the resonance of beryllium, helium, and oxygen. If this extremely remote coincidence had not occurred, then carbon would be extremely rare, and carbon-based life forms would not have emerged.
In other words, there are many more ways to call carbon’s resonant pitch “not life friendly” than “life friendly.” And—lucky us!—that pitch is in the right range.
Concerning carbon resonant pitch, Spitzer quotes physicist Owen Gingrich as writing the following (64):
I am told that Fred Hoyle, who together with William Fowler first noticed the remarkable arrangement of carbon and oxygen nuclear resonances, has said that nothing has shaken his atheism as much as this discovery.
And Hoyle himself wrote the following (quoted in Spitzer 73):
A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.
But Hoyle wrote this in 1981, long before multiverse speculation started trending among physicists. Maybe our big bang universe is the product of a vast and dicing history of trillions upon trillions of ancestral universes, thus giving atheists—with the assistance of dumfoundingly huge numbers—a way of escaping Hoyle’s conclusion. With enough worlds and time, anything’s possible, perhaps even inevitable, including a universe that contains carbon-based life forms—and us.
But what if the multiverse hypothesis is wrong? Then atheism is in trouble. As the famous string theorist, Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind, put it in an interview with Amanda Gefter in New Scientist, December 17, 2005:
If, for some unforeseen reason, the [multiverse] landscape turns out to be inconsistent—maybe for mathematical reasons, or because it disagrees with observation . . . [then] as things stand now we will be in a very awkward position. Without any explanation of nature’s fine-tunings we will be hard pressed to answer the ID [Intelligent Design] critics.
The reason for this difficulty, of course, concerns entropy: rooms for habitation don’t arrange and maintain themselves. We all know that randomness and chaos tend to accompany matter in the absence of telos, law, mechanism, thought.
And we don’t live in a chaos, but a cosmos.
So, to account for our very low entropic (and, therefore, highly improbable) existence, we have two basic choices:
- believe that we live in a vast and vastly ancient multiverse trillions upon trillions of years old and containing trillions upon trillions of unseen but really existing universes; or
- believe that the buck stops earlier than this, with an intelligent Ground of Being, good ol’ Charlie God (or whatever you wish to call Him or Her).
Of course, there’s potential for some middle ground here. God might, for example, still be needed as the necessary cause that got the first contingent universe of the multiverse series going. But William of Occam, of Occam’s razor fame, were he to be presented with the two broad options above, would certainly advise us to lean toward the single big bang universe and single God option. Don’t multiply causes unnecessarily, he would say.
And this sounds sensible to me. As an explanation for our universe’s curious ability to accomodate carbon-based life forms, it seems unwise to bet on the raw force of dicing time and chance to do the trick.
Can a bedroom create its own matter from nothing, then assemble and maintain itself?
See this blog post as a Wordle here.
“…….. see if anybody in the comboxes comes around to set me straight”.
I can’t resist nibbling at the bait.
Replace your provocative (to an atheist) “argument for God’s existence” with (more accurately) ‘argument for existence of a designer’ and your post is neat. Rational and persuasive. As far as it goes.
I think, however, it would be well to remember that, prior to Darwin’s “Origin”, very similar reasoning, pointing to the “obvious” designed-ness of animals and plants, would have been equally persuasive. Give physics another century and hopefully the designer will, with God, have been confined to much smaller gaps.
I think, also, that the first of your “two basic choices” is far too limited, given that really we are in the realm of speculative metaphysical philosophy.
Your choice #1 should surely include possibilities such as “fine tunings” which are not constant (outside of the instant in time for which we have been observing/measuring them), but mutate within a single universe which is infinite in time, so that trillions upon trillions of years is a blink of an eye. Or multiple (but not infinitely many) universes which have “evolved” to be congenial, along the lines speculated on by Lee Smolin. And so on.
I suspect that humanity is fated never to resolve the possibilities contained within #1 and to be faced, forever, with the option of opting for choice #2. Or its variants. Such as that we are computer simulations being run by more advanced entities. Cop-out choices, given that they do not address the problem of an infinite regress. But probably not harmful unless they lead to acting on notions of personal, revealed Gods.
Well, I guess that’s the issue (when you say that scientists will reach a greater explanation over the next century).
But the question is this: if you don’t have huge amounts of time to work with (that is, far more than 13.7 billion years), then you cannot get any kind of Darwinian answer to work for the cosmos as a whole. Darwin’s argument works because life has a natural history. All we know for sure with our universe is that we have a big bang from 13.7 billion years ago. To get the natural history requirement, you’ve got to have a multiverse hypothesis of some sort.
And even with that, do we presume that ours is universe number 300 or universe number 30000000000000000000000000000000000000?
You get the point.
How willing are atheists to stake their beliefs on the laws of gargantuan numbers, and what evidence do they actually have for them?
I think that this is why a lot of atheists simply default to the brute fact argument (the laws of physics are a brute fact; we don’t need the multiverse). I think this, however, is a failure to really wrestle with the problem.
things aren’t so linear. time is a construct. we perceive everything as having to come from something, when this is not the truth. there is no truth, because our understanding an of the complexity of the universe and way of perceiving it is a negligible number compared to the complexity of it.
Well, even if we say that time starts with the big bang (and I agree that it does), then you still have a causality problem if you phrase it this way:
1. All existence that we know of is conditioned by something outside itself (the condition for a dog is its cells; the condition for cells to exist are molecules; the condition for molecules to exist are atoms; of atoms, quarks, and so on).
2. For anything to exist, its conditions for existence must be met.
3. We exist. We know this. Therefore, there has to be, as a matter of logic, an unconditioned reality that starts the series (a reality that has no conditions prerequisite on its existence). Otherwise, nothing would exist at all (as something would be missing in the chain of conditions for existence). That unconditioned reality must be outside of time (since everything in time is conditioned). That unconditioned reality is probably god. In any case, it bears information of some sort (as the laws of physics are apparently quite complex and structured; not random).
Stepping back inside my own ego, though, i learned some interesting things from this article, though, which I will call “truths.”
Well, that’s kind of you to say. We’re all just trying to figure out what this crazy existence means, aren’t we?
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Great article. I came upon entropy as a means of lending credibility to God’s existence on my own a long time ago. Disorder or entropy is a natural phenomenon and God maintains it. The energy or effort comes from God.
Lia might observe that the guest room is perfectly laid out for grandma and deduce that it must have been created that way. However, if she gave it more thought, she would also note that the room’s arrangement would be exceedingly poor if a lizard, blue whale or unimaginable extraterrestrial lifeform were to drop by for a visit.
The mistake here, of course, is to look backward: “What are the chances that life as we know it could have come about through sheer chance?” the Intelligent Design proponent asks breathlessly, correctly concluding that the answer is “infinitesimally small”. The question that is not asked is “What are the chances that something similar — or, equally, something we cannot even imagine; something that you would not even call ‘life’ — might exist somewhere in the universe if the universe had developed in a slightly different manner?”. Pretty good, I’d imagine.
You differ from your approach to entropy, but truly only in the slight. I truly appreciate your article. Thank you for you energy put forth towards order.
My future thoughts will take yours into account.
Best wishes. Dave
Thank you. : )