The Grain of Sand Argument for God’s Existence

Here are some famous lines from William Blake:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

It’s one thing to join William Blake in poetically seeing the world in a grain of sand. It’s another thing entirely to imagine that the whole universe as we know it quite literally hinges on one. It would be reasonable to think that anyone who seriously believes such a thing must be crazy.

But it appears to be true.


Here’s philosopher Vincent Torley writing at Uncommon Descent:

[Think about] the Planck time, when the universe was 10^-43 seconds old. If the density of matter at the Planck time had differed from the critical density by as little as one part in 10^60, the universe would have either exploded so rapidly that galaxies wouldn’t have formed, or collapsed so quickly that life would never have appeared. In practical terms: if our universe, which contains 10^80 protons and neutrons, had even one more grain of sand in it – or one grain less – we wouldn’t be here.

I know. Uncommon Descent is an ID website. But don’t shoot the messenger. Vincent Torley’s assertion of fact in this instance appears to be correct. You can verify it at this cosmology tutorial put up by UCLA professor Ned Wright here.

Of matter’s density, Wright writes the following:

Adding only 0.2 gm/cc to this 447 sextillion gm/cc causes the Big Crunch to be right now! Taking away 0.2 gm/cc gives a model with a matter density ΩM that is too low for our observations. Thus the density 1 ns after the Big Bang was set to an accuracy of better than 1 part in 2235 sextillion.

This is the butterfly effect with a vengeance.

A similarly improbable number adheres to gravity, most specifically to the cosmological constant. According to physicist Stephen Barr, the cosmological constant “tells how much gravitational pull is exerted by ’empty space'” (Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, University of Notre Dame Press 2003, pg. 129). That number is a decimal point accompanied by 120 zeros and a lonely little 1 at the end (10^-120).

That’s a dinky number. In relation to the matter in our universe, it’s not even a grain of sand. It’s half a grain of sand.

Here’s Stephen Barr again (129):

[W]hether the cosmological constant is exactly zero or just fantastically small, physicists are confronted by a very deep puzzle. In physics, if a number is either exactly zero or extremely small there is usually a physical reason for it. For example, the mass of the photon is believed to be exactly zero; that is understood to be the consequence of a fundamental symmetry of the laws of physics called ‘electromagnetic gauge invariance.’ So far, no one has been able to find the physical reason why the cosmological constant is small or zero. This failure is the so-called ‘cosmological constant problem,’ and is considered by many scientists to be the deepest unsolved problem of physics.

Barr notes that if the cosmological constant had been a positive number even just a little bit larger than what it is, our universe would have known a “ferocious eternal expansion”; if it was a measurable negative number, it would have known rapid expansion followed by rapid collapse. These are both bad conditions (obviously) for life (129-130):

It turns out to be a very fortunate thing for us that the cosmological constant is so small. If it were not, the universe would not have been able to have a nice steady existence for the billions of years required for life to evolve. . . .

In order for life to be possible, then, it appears that the cosmological constant, whether it is positive or negative, must be extremely close to zero—in fact, it must be zero to at least 120 decimal places. This is one of the most precise fine-tunings in all of physics.

So, is atheism done?

No. Atheists have their own grain-of-sand retort. Our big bang universe, they say, indeed hangs on a grain of sand analogy: our universe is akin to a grain of sand on a beach that contains a multitude of other grains of sand. Each grain of sand is a universe like our own in some ways, but unlike it in others. Each of these universes has its own uniquely set cosmological constants that give birth to baby universes through such things as black holes and eternal inflation. Those baby universes, in turn, vary from their parent universes.

This idea that universes are every bit as numerous as the grains of sand on a beach, and that they vary from one another, are what string theorists call the multiverse hypothesis. In the vast multiverse landscape, ours just happens to be one of those universes with cosmological constants perfectly suited to evolve life and minds. Time and chance happeneth to all. Ultimately, no logical arrangement of matter—including matter obeying cosmological constants conducive to the evolution of life and minds—goes unexplored by the multiverse. Sooner or later, the dice will roll to us, and they have. As aids to explanation, no non-material supernatural minds need apply.

So there.

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 ScientistDecember 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:

  1. 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
  2. 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).

In a way, the question is a figure-ground dilemma: when you go to the beach, should you see its grains of sand as a collective symbol of the multiverse’s power to eliminate God from the cosmic equation? Or is the beach a reminder of just how finely tuned God’s universe is—tuned for ultimately bearing the bittersweet fruits of life and minds?

Or should you just try to enjoy the beach and summer’s brief lease (Shakespeare), and not think too much?


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to The Grain of Sand Argument for God’s Existence

  1. Anonymous says:

    Let no man think it must be true because he believes it. Ultimate truth cannot be proven in its own existence. i came up with that just now because even as i believe in a creator and my friends believe in a perpetual existence neither one can absolutely be proven by direct observation within the realm of time. and what is a belief if it has never been acted upon? is it like the particular grain of sand that screams out in the midst of others saying i am different! cant you see? our beliefs are for ourselves to build our lives upon. Don’t say your belief is better than my belief because it is a mute point and it resolves nothing. instead find a group with similar beliefs and build a sandcastle for all to admire.

  2. Gato Precambriano says:

    Let’s see

    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.

    Now, I don’t know if I get this straight. You, following others, claim that the Universe is Fine Tuned to be life-friendly, right? But at the same time you came with the same old creationist bullshit about “entropy” making the “order” (including life) we see in the Universe unlikely? I’m asking this for real, because “entropy” is suposed to be, well, part of the “fine-tuning” of the Universe, isn’t it? So how exactly this goes?

    • santitafarella says:


      I see the irony in your point, and it’s a good one: why is there anything entropic and disorderly at work in the universe in the first place (on the premise that God might have created the universe)?

      Ultimately, we’re here because of symmetry breaking (which is a form of entropy). If God exists, (S)he started with some grand symmetrical Thing and blew it apart, breaking its symmetry into hydrogen atoms, which then cooled from there. Very strange. It’s as if you took a block of ice frozen into a bucket, placed it in a fire, and, as the ice moved from one phase state to another (from solid to liquid to gas), out bubbled stars, planets, bacteria, flowers, minds, and Shakespeare!

      What the hell?!

      But water is just hydrogen and oxygen, and so, if anything, the analogy fails only because to do such a thing with water is LESS absurd than doing it with just hydrogen alone. The universe started with just hydrogen super-heated. So that’s really how it goes: super-heated hydrogen, left to cool on its own, ultimately spawns us. We’re a phase state of what hydrogen does when it cools. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? It’s like looking at a lowly seed and being shocked to discover there’s a redwood tree in there.

      You can’t help but wonder if a Mind is behind the trick, however weird that Mind is.

      And it’s why I think the universe may be more akin to a seed bearing a blueprint to produce a tree that bears various “fruits” (branches, leaves, flowers, apples) than a rock quarry breaking its symmetry via a blind and random avalanche. As it grows out, the universe seems to be “apple-ing” stars, planets, life, and minds.


  3. Gato Precambriano says:


    Maybe I wasn’t clear. I didn’t meant to point to an irony. I was pointing to a contradiction: you cannot, logically, claim that “entropy” (I mean the creationist misinterpretation of the physical concept) makes life unlikely, and, at the same time that the Universe is Fine Tuned for life, as “entropy” (even the creationist misinterpretation of the physical concept) is suposed to be part of the claimed fine tuning. If “entropy” is not part of the claimed fine tuning, then the Universe is not Fine Tunned at all. You cannot eat the cake and have it at the same time.

    Very strange.

    Yes, very strange indeed from our very limited primate point of view. But if you make the effort to admit that this is just OUR point of view, you should recognize, IMHO, that the Universe itself, or Nature BTW, have no obligation whatsoever to be more or less “strange” or “paradoxical”.

    the analogy fails only because to do such a thing with water is LESS absurd than doing it with just hydrogen alone.

    I think ALL analogies fail at this point, because analogies are necessarily bounded by our experiences and our imagination. And Nature have already showed us that such experiences and imagination can be quite limited.
    That’s why I think it’s so futile to say that it should be a “MIND” behind the trick, as if we somehow knew what the fuck we are talking about. We don’t even know what the fuck we are talking about when it’s concerned to the only “mind” we know some shit about: our own. To call the solution for the Big Ontological Mistery, “MIND”, “God”, or “Jesus” is just a lousy trick to make a real Mistery sounds, or looks, less misterious, when it’s not. It’s just to call knowledge what it’s actually ignorance.

    So that’s really how it goes: super-heated hydrogen, left to cool on its own, ultimately spawns us.

    No. Not really. Even if we take for granted that the Universe is Fine Tuned (in it’s fundamental physics at least), we, if by ‘we’ we mean us humans, are not a direct and necessary consequence of such Fine Tuning at all.

  4. David Powell says:

    Thus speaks an atheist. They make everything unnecessarily complex. If such people examined the Bible with a truly open mind, they would discover that it contains wisdom far above anything a mere human can manage; and it contains the answers to those questions about life. But people, in their arrogance, don’t want to recognize a higher intelligence which always existed, they prefer to invent, theorize and propose all sorts of fanciful ideas which cannot be proved. A true believer [in God] does not blindly accept the Bible as true, God doesn’t want blind faith – real faith is built on proof, or at least the probability that certain things did, or did not, happen. The probability of life ‘evolving’ or developing from non-life is infinitely small. In fact, using the grains of sand model, the chances of finding a particular grain in a universe full of sand, is in the region of 1 to 90+ against; while the probability of life coming from non-life by chance [without intelligent guidance] is around 1 to 360.

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