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A Finely Tuned Universe

The argument, in brief, is that the conditions that allow life in the universe can occur only when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range.

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A Finely Tuned Universe

One of the more superficially plausible arguments for the existence of a Creator God is that of the Finely Tuned Universe. It is a variant of the argument from design, that the contents of the universe are so intricately connected that an intelligent being must have designed them. That argument originally focused on biological complexity, but Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection trumped it by accounting for biological design by natural causes rather than an intelligent creator.(1) The argument that the universe is finely tuned to provide a home for human life extends the argument from design from biology to the cosmos as a whole.

The argument, in brief, is that the conditions that allow life in the universe can occur only when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range. If any of them were only slightly different, the universe would not be conducive to the establishment and development of not only life, but the diversity of physical elements, astronomical structures, and even matter itself. The probability of these values all being just so is so small that an intelligent Creator God is a better explanation than pure chance.

The list of such constants varies among adherents of this view; among them are the following:(2)

Recently it has been suggested that the mass of the Higgs Particle, which is 17 orders of magnitude smaller than physicists would expect it to be were it “natural” (a technical term in particle physics, not the opposite of supernatural), is also one of these finely tuned properties of the universe. If it were what physicists would expect given other characteristics of small particles, there would not even be mass as we know it, let alone life.(3)

The Finely Tuned Universe argument asserts that the fact that all these values are set just so is highly, highly improbable. They have a Vanishingly(4) small chance of occurring just as they do by pure chance; so instead, an Intelligent Designer must have set them up that way. As a friend put it, what if you flipped a coin 100 times and it came up heads every time? Wouldn’t that be so improbable that we would suspect something other than random chance?

I think not. In rebuttal, let’s consider some points about probability and the anthropic principle.

Probability

The concept of probability applies only to that which has not yet happened, i.e., events in the future. The probability of an event happening is equal to the number of ways it can happen divided by the total number of possible outcomes. For flipping a coin to get heads there is one way the desired event can happen (it comes up heads) and two possible outcomes (it comes up heads and it comes up tails), so the probability of getting heads is 1/2 (0.5) or 50%. To find the probability of independent events that occur in sequence such as 100 heads in a row, you find the probability of each event occurring separately and then multiply the probabilities. That would mean 0.5 to the 100th power, which is indeed minuscule (7.88861E-31, according to Excel).(5)

But, after the events have happened, the concept of probability no longer applies! If you did indeed get 100 heads in a row, the probability, if you can call it that, would be 100%. Before you started, the probability of that outcome was minuscule. After you are done, that outcome is a certainty. It is no longer probable; it is actual.

So to say that we live in a highly improbable universe is bogus. It is certain that we live in the universe as it is.

That answer is unlikely to persuade most people. Yes, the universe is as it is, but before it got that way wasn’t it improbable that it would? My answer: Yes, it was quite improbable. But so was every other way it could have been.

Imagine, not a Creator God, but a Universe Generator. The Universe Generator is like a random number generator (except it does not have to be random) that generates universes, either all at once (the “multiverse”) or one at a time. Before any particular universe is generated, the probability of it turning out in a certain way is minuscule. The probability of a universe with different cosmological constants from ours, but each having a particular value, would be as minuscule as the probability of our universe with the values we find in it. At some point in meta-time our particular universe is generated. Then it’s a done deal, and here we are. That it was improbable before it got generated is nothing remarkable; so was every other universe before it got created.

I’m not sure the concept of a Universe Generator in meta-time actually makes sense, but it is a way of suggesting that the alleged improbability of our universe turning out just as it has is a bogus consideration.

Here is another way of looking at it. For simplicity, imagine flipping a coin, not 100 but only eight times. The probability of getting heads all eight times (HHHHHHHH) would be 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2, or 0.5 to the 8th power, which comes out to 1/256, or 0.00390625. That’s not Vanishingly small, but small enough to seem awfully improbable. Now consider the probability of getting some other result, say HTTHHTHT. Its probability is equally 0.00390625! Now matter how it comes out in the end, before you flip the coins the probability of any particular outcome is the same as any other. Similarly, that our universe was improbable is nothing remarkable. So was every other possible universe.

Anthropic Principle

Yes, one might object, but how come we get to be here and observe our world and think about it? Isn’t that strange? Not really. Consider the Anthropic Principle, the idea that observations of the physical Universe must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it. A variant called the Weak Anthropic Principle says that the universe’s ostensible fine tuning is the result of selection bias. Only in a universe capable of eventually supporting life will there be living beings capable of observing and reflecting upon any such fine tuning, while a universe less compatible with life would not be observed by anybody.(6) So it is entirely unremarkable that we are here to observe the universe. If the universe were such that it could not support life, we would not be there to observe and puzzle about it. There is no need to posit any sort of intelligent design to account for it. As physicist Stephen Hawking puts it, “Intelligent beings … should … not be surprised if they observe that their locality in the universe satisfies the conditions that are necessary for their existence. It is a bit like a rich person living in a wealthy neighborhood not seeing any poverty.”(7)

So What?

You can readily find on the Internet numerous other objections to the Finely Tuned Universe argument for a Creator God as well as numerous theological arguments that purport to refute them. I have offered a few objections in the interest of clarity of thought, but I suspect that the whole debate is what the Buddha called “questions which tend not to edification.”(8) Who really bases their faith on such arguments? Both theists and atheists come to conclusions on emotional grounds and then find arguments to rationalize their positions, as do we all in many arenas of life.(9)

William James addressed the question over 150 years ago: “It makes not a single jot of difference so far as the past of the world goes, whether we deem it to have been the work of matter or whether we think a divine spirit was its author.”(10) In either case, the world is as it is. From a practical point of view, speculation about origins is futile.

But what does matter is our orientation to life in the future. James, a theist who struggled to find a way to reconcile his urge to believe with science and philosophy, asserted that theism is preferable to atheism because it gives us hope for the future. I have addressed this question before. When objective science fails to provide an answer, our subjective experiences of what we might call a Higher Power can be decisive, particularly if our relationship with that Higher Power provides us benefits. If, for instance, we are happier and function better with such belief than without it, then we are justified in believing.

In that vein, I offer a gentle speculation. Consider the unlikely result of flipping a coin mentioned above, HTTHHTHT. The same result can be written in binary code, the language of computers, as 01100101. That is the code (in ASCII, for those who know what that is) for the letter “e,” the most common letter in the English alphabet. If we examined a computer-encoded text, we would find that sequence, 01100101, far more often than we would expect if its genesis were purely random. Indeed, we would probably find it more often than any other sequence of eight bits. That finding would tell us that the text is not random, but has some other organizing principle.

We cannot inspect numerous universes to see if more of them are amenable to life than we would expect from sheer randomness. But, as a friend suggests, we can look around the world we do live in to see if we can discern evidence of a Higher Power that takes a benevolent interest in us, God’s fingerprints as it were.

And if we find such evidence, we try to formulate a coherent story of how it fits in with the rest of what we know. There are many such stories in the world’s religions. Here is another one. In the beginning, it is said, was the Word.(11) Perhaps the universe we live in is a story that God is telling, a story that isn’t over yet. We are characters in the story; and unlike characters on the printed page, whose actions are determined by the author, we get to co-create the story. We get to make decisions and exert our will to make things happen. Maybe our actions are only eight tiny bits in a sequence that is Vastly long, but those bits make a difference. And it is up to us what kind of difference we make.

Notes

(1) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Design Arguments for the Existence of God.”

(2) Wikipedia, “Fine-tuned Universe.”

(3) Veith, “A Christian Physicist;” Barr, “On the Edge of Discovery;” Barr, “The Large Hadron Collider.”

(4) Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 207.  “Vanishingly” (capitalized) means very, very small, but not infinitely so.  Its reciprocal is “Vast,” meaning very, very large, but not infinite.

(5) Aczel, Chance, pp. 5-12.

(6) Wikipedia, “Anthropic Principle.”

(7) Quoted in Iron Chariots, “Fine-tuning argument.”

(8) Buddhist Writings, Majjhima-Nikaya, Sutta 63.

(9) Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, pp. 13-17.

(10) James, “Some Metaphysical Problems,” p. 71.

(11) Christian Bible, John 1:1.

References

Aczel, Amir D. Chance: A Guide to Gambling, Love, the Stock Market & Just About Everything Else. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004.

Barr, Stephen M. “On the Edge of Discovery.” Online publication http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2008/09/on-the-edge-of-discovery as of 6 August 2014.

Barr, Stephen M. “The Large Hadron Collider, the Multiverse, and Me (and my friends).” Online publication http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/06/the-large-hadron-collider-the-multiverse-and-me-and-my-friends/ as of 6 August 2014.

Buddhist Writings, Translated and Annotated by Henry Clarke Warren. Vol. XLV, Part 3. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14; Bartleby.com, 2001. Online publication http://www.bartleby.com/45/3/201.html as of 15 November 2012.

Dennett, Daniel. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Design Arguments for the Existence of God.” Online publication http://www.iep.utm.edu/design/ as of 6 August 2014.

Iron Chariots. “Fine-tuning argument.” Online publication http://wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=Fine-tuning_argument as of 6 August 2014.

James, William. “Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered.” In Pragmatism and four essays from The Meaning of Truth. 1955. New York: Meridian Books, 1964. Online publication http://www.authorama.com/pragmatism-4.html as of 6 August 2014.

Veith, Gene. “A Christian physicist, the Higgs particle, and an anthropic multiverse.” Online publication http://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2013/06/a-christian-physicist-the-higgs-particle-and-an-anthropic-multiverse/ as of 6 August 2014.

Wikipedia. “Anthropic principle.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropic_principle as of 6 August 2014.

Wikipedia. “Fine-tuned Universe.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fine-tuned_Universe as of 6 August 2014.


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