How the Fine-Tuning Argument Made Me an Atheist

How the Fine-Tuning Argument Made Me an Atheist

“The universe just seems to be so finely tuned.” “How can you look around at this world we live in and not believe that it was designed?” “Do you really believe that this all came about by chance?”

Whether you’re a theist or an atheist, it’s likely that you’ve either said or heard these things more times than you can remember. The argument for the fine-tuning of our universe is one of the most popular among apologists and counter-apologists, and for good reason. Not only can it include an appeal to emotion and experience, but the science of it all has fascinated great minds for centuries, including that of the late Stephen Hawking. So what really is the fine-tuning argument?

I was taught the argument to be the following:

1. There exists an extraordinary balance of the parameters of physics and the initial conditions of the universe.

Examples include:

1a. If the initial explosion of the big bang had differed in strength by as little as one part in 1060, the universe would have either quickly collapsed back on itself, or expanded too rapidly for stars to form. In either case, life would be impossible.

1b. Calculations indicate that if the strong nuclear force, the force that binds protons and neutrons together in the atom, had been stronger or weaker by as little as 5%, life would be impossible.

1c. Calculations show that if gravity had been stronger or weaker by one part in 1040, then life-sustaining stars like our sun could not exist. This would most likely make life impossible.

1d. If the neutron were not about 1.001 times the mass of the proton, all protons would have decayed into neutrons or all neutrons would have decayed into protons, and thus life would not be possible.

1e. If the electromagnetic force were slightly stronger or weaker, life would be impossible.

2. The best explanation of the existence of fine-tuning is that the universe was finely tuned by God.

3. Therefore, God exists.

I’ve heard in some places that the list from Premise #1 includes 30 and from other places that it includes 300 finely tuned factors. One of the greatest attributes of this argument is the power of numbers. The Christian apologist using this argument has a great advantage over those who have never heard it before, and that is that it deals with science, the universe, the microscopic and the gargantuan. It has a true shock factor. I think that apologists really see this as a case-closed syllogism which forces the atheist to concede her point in the name of scientific ignorance. The universe is absolutely mind-boggling, and no one is about to deny that.

I think that the problem with the argument of fine-tuning is really that it obviously isn’t case-closed. If it was, I would have stopped being an atheist before I began, and I wouldn’t be sitting here today writing this.

a photo I took of Grove City College's Pew Fine Arts Center

If you have ever read my second blog post, then you might know that it was a Grove City College philosophy/religion class that really got the wheels turning for me as to what I did and did not believe. I started my blog, and wrote that post, at the end of 2016, and I had taken the class from January-May 2016, as I was still figuring everything out.

Here, I am attaching my notes and the reading from the week when we focused on the fine-tuning argument. I typed my notes directly onto the professor’s PowerPoint presentation, and I think that reading what I was thinking as I was presented with this argument for the first time is very telling of my transformation. I haven’t changed anything that I typed back then, but I did highlight my own thoughts in blue to make it easier to distinguish what’s what.

The reading: A Scientific Argument for the Existence of God: The Fine-Tuning Design Argument by Robin Collins

The PowerPoint presentation

You see, I think that the downfall of the fine-tuning argument comes from the fact that it is just a small piece of such an expansive puzzle. The above syllogism is just the tip of the iceberg. In my notes from the lecture, it’s noted that there are quotes from both Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies, two atheist scientists, that the universe appears to be designed.

book cover of Stephen Hawking's Brief Answers to the Big Questions

I say, so what if it does? Do you have any idea how complicated the physics of cosmology can be? I’ve only ever read Hawking’s Brief Answers to Big Questions, and I can’t imagine how far over my head A Brief History of Time would go. As for how the Earth ended up being livable, or even how the universe came into existence, I think that both “God did it” and even “I don’t know” are so underwhelmingly pejorative as for what could begin to answer those questions, it’s laughable. There is so, so much more to it than “How crazy is it that this planet can support life? It must have been Yahweh,” that it’s barely even worth entertaining the thought, if that.

In this lecture, two alternatives were given to try to show the Christian class how an atheist might deal with the appearance of fine-tuning. (Which is more than any other professor ever did!) There was the atheistic single-universe hypothesis, and there was the atheistic many-universes hypothesis. I would say that the many-universes hypothesis is more popular among cosmologists, as it allegedly has more evidence than I used to think it had. At the time of the class, though, I was personally more satisfied by the single-universe hypothesis, which described the universe’s state as “a brute fact.” We’re here, and that’s all we know with certainty.

Today, I’ll admit that I don’t think I have the cosmological expertise to say how many universes there are. I mean, what communication major can? You’ve probably noticed that I’m not Stephen Hawking. Even if there is only one universe, and my best answer is “It is what it is, and I don’t know how it got here,” which, admittedly, sounds like the stupidest answer in the bunch, I don’t think it is. I wrote in my class notes:

“Brute fact: it is inexplicable. So this isn’t much of an explanation. But Christians say that God is a brute fact and doesn’t have much of an explanation. They also say that this explanation (where they call it a brute, inexplicable fact) is the stupidest. Coincidence that is similar to the Christians’ explanation of God? I think not.”

Predictable as it may be, I think that this is all to say that God is not the simplest explanation, because he himself (or it itself) needs just as much, if not more, explaining. Collins proposes that some atheists supplement their belief in multiple universes by supposing that there is a “multiple-universe generator.” He refutes this idea by posing, “Where did this universe generator come from? It would need to be well-designed even if it were to produce a single universe, and we’re back where we started: with a Designer” [paraphrased]. Even back then, I didn’t buy this for a second. Maybe it’s my ignorance showing, but I don’t see how God would be any more plausible than this seemingly meticulously designed universe generator.

Ultimately, the fine-tuning argument meets the same fate as the cosmological argument: an infinite regress. If you say, “Where did the universe come from? A universe-generator. Where did the universe-generator come from? God,” why would you stop before saying “Where did God come from?” It’s so convenient to stop there, or to ask the question and only have the answer be “He doesn’t need a creator; he’s infinite; he’s existed forever; he’s outside of time; etc.” If that’s so, couldn’t it be so for this supposed multiple-universe generator just as well?

Personally, I think that the fine-tuning argument looks intimidating up front, but that after a bit of reasoning and a lot of saying “…..waaait a second….,” it breaks down. This argument really got me thinking and doubting before I truly identified as an atheist, and it still does to this day. What do you think about all of this?

0 thoughts on “How the Fine-Tuning Argument Made Me an Atheist

  • August 11, 2019 at 8:30 am

    Oh, boy … there is so much nonsense in this argument. For example … fine-tuned for life? WTF? If you go ten miles above Earth’s surface or ten miles below, very little can live, so it is only on this very thin surface that we can exist. Of the observable universe 99.9999% is vacuum, aka empty space, so the argument could be that the universe is fine-tuned for empty space. Of the physical stuff that isn’t empty space, 99.9999% of that is stars and black holes, which support life about as well as empty space does, which is not at all, so the argument could be that the universe is fine-tuned for stars or black holes.
    But if we turn all myopic and look just at the planet around us, it is only recently that life became comfortable for humans. Prior to that we had wild animals hunting us, diseases rampant (we no long have much plague, aka The Black Death, plaguing us, but we do have Ebola, AIDS, etc.), we cannot stay out in the sun too long because of the radiation damage to our skins, and many of the plants we eat are poisonous. We learned to make those plants nonpoisonous through cooking and you know how that went: we observed that family members died when they ate certain plants, but then we got so fricking hungry that we were desperate enough to see if we “cooked” that plant and then ate it whether it would kills us, too. While this planet is teeming with life, the life it teems with isn’t exactly benign with regard to us.
    And, if this argument is taken seriously, that the UNIVERSE is designed to support life, that means aliens, lots and lots of alien species are out there in the universe. Interestingly, the same people who make the “fine-tuning” argument also deny that any aliens could exist, let alone do exist.
    This argument is bogus. Its premises are turning out not to be true (studies show that substantial variations in many of those parameters would result in different life, but life nonetheless) and the proponents of the argument haven’t established that any of those parameters could be different.

  • August 11, 2019 at 10:31 am

    I thought about fine tuning as a child — but not with those particular words. And the explanation seemed obvious. It turned out that the explanation I had found was just the weak anthropic principle.
    Theists are mostly believers in a god-of-the-gaps. And the fine tuning gap is one of their favorites. But it really isn’t a gap at all. It’s a pseudo-gap.
    There are some real gaps.
    Who killed JFK; God did it.
    How did Jeffrey Epstein commit suicide when he should have been on suicide watch; God did it.
    We won’t accept “God did it” for real gaps. So it’s the pseudo-gaps that they always pick on. So fine tuning is really a “God of the pseudo-gaps” argument.

  • August 11, 2019 at 12:57 pm

    “Where did this universe generator come from? It would need to be well-designed even if it were to produce a single universe”
    Collins is wrong here. It would not have to be complicated because the early universe was not complicated. A universe generator could be, according to some scientists, just a super dense solid, parts of which occasionally go through a phase transition due to quantum, rapidly expanding then undergoing an evolution over a long period of time to produce what we see today. All sorts of universes could form with different properties, some that could support life. Colins is imagining some machine that assembles protons and neutrons and planets supposedly, which we know is not how it works.

  • August 11, 2019 at 6:49 pm

    So basically they (being certain Christians) think they can win an argument by confusing you with technical stuff, and then fill in any unknowns with ‘God’; and it’s not any God either. It’s THEIR God.

  • August 11, 2019 at 9:14 pm

    The BIG issue I have with the Fine Tuner God theory is that if it were so, then why does he turn into such a stunning dunce in his “inerrant document,” a.k.a. the Bible? Simply read Gensis 1-ff. and you realize quite soon that “fine-tuning” is the last thing on that guy’s mind.

    • August 11, 2019 at 10:11 pm

      He made plants before he made the sun which could sustain them, not very well thought out there God.

  • August 11, 2019 at 9:43 pm

    If I was a god, I would create whatever universe or planets I wanted, not a planet to suit a carbon based bag of water that can only live there a few years, after I created it. If it is that complicated and so messed up, god must be severely limited. Or perhaps, god’s ways are a mystery to me.
    Conversely, neither the universe, existence, nor evolution have anything to do with my unbelief. Nor have they ever had anything to do with my belief or attempted belief.

  • August 12, 2019 at 3:16 am

    I recently read ‘A Brief History of Time’ and completely agree – it blew the top off of my head. It made me realise there is SO much more complexity than a simple worldview can account for, like Christianity. That we don’t hold the answers and that what we can observe are two theory’s (general relativity & quantum mechanics), that when taken to their furthest – don’t succinctly come together at their deeper levels.
    I was walking to work today and noticed that I was able to stay on the pavement the whole way, I noticed that my lungs took breath after breath which kept me going and that my eyes took in refracted light enabling me to see where I was going. Because God created this world for me? No.
    Fine Turning seems to be something that people of faith cling to as a pointer to a God who created it all, but it isn’t. Gravity, Oxygen & Light are all part of the fabric that we evolved within on our little blue planet, and so of course we would find them enabling our existence and lifestyle – they enabled humans to come about if the first place.
    I know we have spoken briefly about Cosmic Skeptic, Rebekah, and so I thought I would mention that I found this video very helpful on the subject:

  • August 12, 2019 at 8:22 am

    Isn’t the fine tuning argument just a convoluted way of saying “I don’t understand how the universe and life came into being, so it must have been done by a wizard”? (Am I allowed to say that, or is ridicule considered offensive ;¬])

  • August 12, 2019 at 9:05 am

    I’m an atheist. I believe whatever quantum fields, strings, fluctuations that were needed to eventually start a universe or universes, was already here and is the “something” that is eternal and has no beginning and no end. It just is.
    People say, well how do you get something from nothing? Well, to me, it’s because there is no such thing as true nothing. It’s an impossible state or now there still would be absolute nothing. We just have a hard time with the concept of something always being. Same difficulty with infinity.
    And cosmological constants would be thought of the same if you were a methane based creature on some other world that was much warmer or colder and did not rely on oxygen or carbon. You might think Oh it was fine tuned just for me. It’s an arrogance, really, making a species feel special or chosen somehow.
    It’s all pure science, folks.

  • August 12, 2019 at 10:58 am

    Having studied under Dr.Collins, I would like to point out that he is not so much a Christian apologist as a Christian Philosopher. He triple-majored in his undergraduate in Mathematics, Physics, and Philosophy and then studied Physics at the Ph.D level before transferring to a Ph.D in Philosophy at Notre Dame where he completed his dissertation on: Epistemological Issues in the Scientific Realism/Antirealism Debate: An Analysis and a Proposal. His dissertation received the highest possible honors and he received a Graduate Student award.
    I think it’s fair to point this out because he’s not just throwing numbers around. He’s the type of person who would be in their element reading a brief history in time and who has questions and responses to books like, “Brief Answers to the Big Questions.”
    I’m also curious where you got the argument you listed as Collin’s from. I have never seen him present it as a solid proof for God. Do you have a source?
    Finally, it would be more interesting to hear your response to the apparent fine-tuning of the universe rather than a straw-man critique of an argument you admitted to not understanding. Would you be willing to posit your thoughts on the matter?

    • August 12, 2019 at 5:10 pm

      Hi Steph! Wow, it has been so long since we’ve talked! I hope you’ve been well 🙂
      I think you’re onto something with this comment here, so I want to straighten out what it seems I missed in my post.
      The syllogism I presented as being from Collins’ is actually only from the PowerPoint presentation. I assumed it would have come from his paper, because I know the paper includes those examples that were included under Premise #1. Looking more at the reading as well as Lee Strobel’s interview with Collins in The Case for a Creator, it seems that Collins likes to mostly use analogies to “define” fine-tuning.
      The one that always sticks with me is how he would get such an overwhelming impression of intelligent design if he were to walk out in nature and find spelled out using rocks, “Welcome to the mountains, Robin Collins!”
      In addition to using examples like these, he also did use the syllogism:
      “Premise 1. The existence of the fine-tuning is not improbable under
      Premise 2. The existence of the fine-tuning is very improbable under
      the atheistic single-universe hypothesis.
      Conclusion: From premises (1) and (2) and the prime principle of
      confirmation, it follows that the fine-tuning data provide strong evidence to favor the design hypothesis over the atheistic single-universe hypothesis.”
      So while the syllogism I used in the post itself wasn’t directly from Collins, I think it does pretty accurately represent the argument, and my teacher must have thought so, too. Of course, I’ll edit that to not be misleading.
      What would you classify as an accurate fine-tuning argument? I never mean to straw-man anyone on purpose.

  • August 13, 2019 at 9:27 am

    I’m going to be that guy: Aren’t there copyright issues with posting the reading? I wouldn’t want you to get sued (although it’s probably not that likely).


What do you think?