“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.
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.
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.
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.
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?