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Response to Rayna: Fine Tuning

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Hello all!

Dave here. This will be the first in a series of posts addressing questions from my dear friend Rayna, who believes in Christianity. I’ve been having a series of online conversations with her, and received her permission to respond to them here, for the benefit of others interested in these things, too.


Have you studied the ideas of the fine-tuning of the universe as evidence for the existence of God?

First, let me say that I really appreciate your questions, Rayna, and I am grateful for our dialogue on these things.

Regarding the fine-tuning hypothesis, I have looked into it, although not as much as other hypotheses, for a very simple reason. To be perfectly honest, this hypothesis has several huge, obvious flaws, and most Christians I know who have looked into it no longer advocate it, simply because it’s so easy to explain why it’s wrong.

Here’s the argument, in 3 sentences:

“Our universe has a plethora of variables that, if any were slightly different from how they are, would preclude life from developing in the first place. The chances of all of these variables coming in at exactly the conditions necessary in order for us to be here are, forgive the pun, astronomical. The only plausible explanation is that God made the universe exactly as it is, specifically so that we could survive and, indeed, thrive here.”

Rayna, if I have misrepresented the idea in your view, please let me know!

So, there are dozens of reasons why this isn’t right (there are some links at the very bottom to more, if you’re interested), but here are my personal top 3 explanations of why this line of reasoning is not convincing to philosophers, astrophysicists, cosmologists, biologists, et al:

Firstly, the argument itself is based on a false assumption – that if any of these variables were slightly different than the way they are, this would preclude life from developing in the first place. Several astrophysicists have done independent simulations and found that changing these variables, in some cases drastically, would not actually change a universe’s capacity to develop long-lived stars and eventually life as well. In the words of physicist Victor Stenger, author of The Fallacy of Fine Tuning, “…a wide variation of constants of physics leads to universes that are long-lived enough for life to evolve…”.

It seems that this idea of “fine tuning” can be traced more-or-less to one guy, a mathematician named Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) who is also infamous for his rejection of The Big Bang, and also for his rejection of chemical evolution – he believed life originated not on Earth but somewhere in space, and was deposited here by a meteorite. Regarding fine-tuning, Hoyle calculated the chances of life evolving on Earth to be 1040,000 to 1, and based on this figure, he concluded that the only possible explanation is that an intelligent designer must have been responsible for manipulating the conditions.

This figure, known as Hoyle’s Fallacy, is universally rejected by statisticians and evolutionary biologists because, to put it simply, he made a rather obvious error: He was calculating the odds that a modern cell, rather than a primordial one, could come together out of  non-living ingredients, which is a straw-man fallacy – that is, he was attacking a misrepresentation of the scientific view of the origins of life, a view that no evolutionary biologist actually advocates. Evolutionary biologists, by the way, do agree with him on this point – the chances of a modern cell coming together out of primordial ingredients is ineffably slim. But that’s not even close to what evolutionary biologists actually think happened, so in the end, it doesn’t apply.

Secondly, the universe, in fact, is not even remotely hospitable to life. Even just considering our own solar system – the bodies orbiting just 1 out of an estimated 400 billion stars in our galaxy, which is itself one out of an estimated 200-500 billion galaxies in the universe – is grotesquely inhospitable to life. Based on everything we know about astrophysics, biology, and the other planets in our system, Earth is thought to contain the only life here. I want you to take a moment to visit this webpage and get a quick idea of just how big our solar system is. What’s cool about that page is that it shows you, TO SCALE, the distance between the planets, and the size of the planets relative to the sun. I’m willing to bet that you can’t even find Earth on your first try, let alone point out the places on it where life could survive (see next paragraph). In all the rest, physics has “fine tuned” things such that life cannot survive there. Tip on using the site: You’ll have to do a lot of horizontal scrolling (to the right). Have fun; I did! 🙂

Earth to scale, relative to other planets (and Pluto)

Earth, relative to the larger planets in our system

The planets of the Solar System, relative to our star - Earth is front row, fourth from right. Earth, nearly invisible at this scale, is the only place in our system that is hospitable to life - and most of Earth isn't habitable, either!

Even Earth, itself, is terribly inhospitable to life on most of its surface. It is only because of technology that humans are capable of surviving in many parts of the world. A full 70% of the Earth’s surface is salt-water – and that’s just the surface! And even within the parts that are land, without the invention of things like clothing, igloos, houses, bottles to carry drinkable water, etc, we would still be stuck in Africa, and not just the whole continent, but within a very narrow range within walking distance of fresh water.

Even at the scale of the first of the 3 pictures above, we are too far away to point out any specific places humans could survive without technology (i.e. within walking distance of fresh water and in a climate that is habitable without clothing) – rivers are just too small at that scale. Without technology humans ourselves invented, winters are just too harsh for human life in virtually all of the rest of the world. And on much of the Earth’s surface, this is true not just in winter, but year-round. If you think the universe is fine-tuned for life, I dare you to go on a spacewalk sans one of these:

By the way, these babies weigh about 250 pounds (@ Earth gravity).

The third reason I’m going to talk about today for why the fine-tuning argument is not a good reason to believe Christianity is simply that the fine-tuning argument, even if the math was correct – putting aside the fact that 99.99999999999999999999999999999999+% of the universe is, in fact, not only inhospitable, but instantly lethal –  this hypothesis only gets you as far as deism. Under deism, God is viewed as the “Supreme Architect,” or “designer” of the universe’s initial conditions and forces (gravitation, strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, and electromagnetic force).

Like most arguments used as support for the existence of God, the fine-tuning argument is in fact not an argument for the existence of capital-G “God” (the god of the three Abrahamic religions), but rather, an argument for the existence of a god, aka an intelligent designer. It is unnecessary, under this system, for God still to exist (indeed there are some, notably Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert cartoons and author of the book “God’s Debris,” who speculate that whatever god there was committed suicide, and his/her/its debris is the universe).

Really, what the fine-tuning hypothesis postulates is not the existence of God, but the existence of some entity, whether still in existence or not, that tuned these forces. Like I said, there are dozens of ways to show that this hypothesis is flawed to the point of being unsalvageable , but even if it were correct, it’s important to note that this is not, to use your wording, “evidence for the existence of God,” but a hypothesis that there is/was something. The fine-tuning hypothesis is no more evidence for the existence of God than it is evidence for the existence of any of the other 100+ creator gods listed here, or any other god or gods we could care to imagine. One could just as readily support the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster using this reasoning 😉

On a personal note, Rayna, after I stopped believing in Christianity, I wasn’t immediately ready to let go of my belief that something exists beyond what we can see, hear, taste, smell, or touch. I, too, was persuaded by these types of reasons – e.g. personal religious experiences (of which I have had many), the transcendental argument, the cosmological argument, or any of the dozens of others – but as I asked questions and learned more and more about philosophy, biology, physics, history, textual criticism, etc, the more I realized that, in fact, each and every reason I gave for my belief had major problems. I realized that, the more I looked into it, there is a really good reason that less than 15% of professional philosophers accept or lean toward theism, and only 7% of National Academy of Science scientists believe in God. Over time, my belief in Christianity morphed into theism (belief in a capital-G “God”), and then deism (belief in some supernatural “force” or entity, but not a personal god), and then finally – when I started to learn more about evolutionary psychology, epistemology, and the anthropological origins of religions – atheism (the lack of faith in any god or gods). As an aside, it’s important to understand the difference between agnosticism and atheism, but that’s another post 🙂

Even today, I do believe there are things we cannot see, hear, taste, smell, or touch. You don’t have to be Christian to believe that. I believe that love exists, that beauty exists, and that morals exist. I believe that music and art have power beyond what we currently have the linguistic ability to describe – I’m a musician, for Zeus’s sake! Just because you don’t believe in gods doesn’t mean that you can’t find wonder in the universe. One of my favorite quotations comes from Richard Dawkins, in a BBC television special:

“Science and rationality are often accused of having a cold, bleak outlook.  By why is it bleak to ‘fess up to the evidence of what we know?  The word ‘mundane’ has come to mean boring and dull, and it really shouldn’t; it should mean the opposite, because it comes from the Latin ‘mundus,’ meaning ‘the world,’ and the world is anything but dull.  The world is wonderful.  There’s real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.”

The television special, called “Enemies of Reason,” is available on YouTube and, if you have the time, wonderful, and definitely worth watching, if you desire to learn more about these things.

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to your questions, and will post more about the others in the coming weeks. I hope this has been helpful, and if you are interested in more scientific responses, or just other people’s approaches to this question, I recommend the following starting places:

Theodore Drange – The Fine-Tuning Argument (Internet Infidels)

Victor Stenger – The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why The Universe is Not Designed For Us

JT Eberhard – The Twelve Basic Arguments for God #4: The Fine-Tuning Argument

Francois Tremblay – The Many Problems of the Fine-Tuning Argument

If you’d like even more, let me know and I will gladly see what I can find!

Thanks again for the opportunity to talk to you about these things, Rayna. A lot of Christians (well, a lot of people who believe all sorts of religions) decide what they believe at a rather young age and are happy never to bother looking at their reasons, let alone if those reasons have any good evidentiary backing. I am thrilled that we are friends and look forward to addressing many more of your questions in coming posts.

Take care,


(573) 424-0420 cell/text

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Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is

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26 comments on “Response to Rayna: Fine Tuning

  1. Josh
    November 17, 2011

    Great read, thank you.

  2. Fred
    November 17, 2011

    Brilliant reply. Thanks for the read.

  3. John
    November 17, 2011

    Just a small correction, Dawkins didn’t argue with BBC about the title “Enemies of Reason”, he argued about the title of another series, which he did before Enemies of Reason, named “The Root of All Evil?”

  4. Jay
    November 17, 2011

    What I never liked about this argument is that it’s like arguing that because winning the lottery is extremely unlikely, and you have won the lottery, it must be because someone fixed the results.

    • MU SASHA Administrator
      November 17, 2011

      I read a news item about one guy who has won the lottery 3 times, actually. And as I recall, the record for a-person-getting-hit-by-lightning-the-most-times is currently 7 (!)

      – Dave

  5. Zach
    November 17, 2011

    I like to illustrate this fallacy using a deck of cards. Theists often claim that the chances of life beginning spontaneously are so thin the more likely answer is that life was the product of a designer. I grab a deck of cards and shuffle it and tell them that there are 52 unique cards in the deck and that there is 52! (52 ! = 8.06581752 × 1067) different combinations of those cards. I spread out the deck face up and tell them that we are witnessing a 1 in 52! occurrence. There are billions of galaxies and as far as we know for certain, only one planet in one solar system in one galaxy has supported any form of life, intelligent or otherwise. It is all but certain that there is other life in the universe. Some of it will be no more than bacterial or single cell. Other planets may be covered in vegetation and no fauna. Still others may be on a similar path to us but millions of years behind or ahead of planet earth. Still doesn’t explain why a designer would bother putting Mars out there to float around as a lifeless red rock.

  6. Wingflier
    November 17, 2011

    Amazing read, what a fantastic job. Thank you for devoting your time and effort to such an articulate and lengthy response to a very common fallacy.

    In fact, being an Atheist for awhile now (after 19 horrible years of Christianity) I wasn’t even aware that the “fine-tuning” argument was fallacious (though I guess I should have known, most of them are). However, as you said, even if it WERE true it doesn’t prove “God”, especially not the Christian god since there are nearly limitless alternatives.

  7. Keenan Crow
    November 17, 2011

    Brilliant debunking of an argument I hear all to commonly. Bookmarked.

    • MU SASHA Administrator
      November 17, 2011

      Flattered, thank you! We are a daily blog, please feel free to subscribe if you’d like 🙂

      – Dave

  8. Will Lewis
    November 17, 2011

    Well said, Dave. The more friendly, intelligent, and comprehensive explainers we have out there as Atheists doing good deeds like this the better.

  9. The answer is very simple, if those variables were so different that life could not exist on planet earth, or for that matter our universe, we wouldn’t be here talking about this argument. Our observation is biased because we can observe those conditions only if those conditions are favorable to observation.
    It’s like staring into a mirror and observing that there’s a human figure looking back at you and it looks back at you every time you look at the mirror, you could conclude that the human is always there, but it is of course false, because the fact of your observation provides and demands that certain outcome.

  10. Greg Fish
    November 17, 2011

    “[Hoyle] believed life originated not on Earth but somewhere in space, and was deposited here by a meteorite.”

    Well, the theory of panspermia does have some merits because we can trace the chirality of molecules in amino acids and the amino acids and sugars living things need to meteorites, and we also know that bacteria can survive a trip through space and burning through the atmosphere on a big enough chuck of rock. However, there are all sorts of difficulties in proving that. Just thought I’d add this thought.

    Also, when it comes to the notion of the universe being fine-tuned for our existence, with the Earth being as warm and well-lit as it is, I like to imagine sapient crustaceans floating at the bottom of the ocean while pondering how their creator knew to make the world so dark, cold, wet, and heavy. To say that the universe is fine-tuned for you when you’re just one creature out of a species that lives in a few ecological niches of one planet without all that much knowledge of the trillions of trillions of planets orbiting trillions and trillions of stars just seems to self-absorbed…

  11. snark27
    November 17, 2011

    I am always perplexed by ‘atheists’ who fail to grasp their own understanding and then use that failed understanding to try and explain away other people’s views. The ‘agnostic’ definition you link to describes your definition of atheism rather than agnosticism. You believe there is no god, which is just as hard to prove as proving that god exists. An agnostic, on the other hand, is someone who says ‘there may be a god, but I’ve not seen enough evidence to be convinced’. An agnostic is not one who believes (either in god or in the lack of god–as you do) but is instead the one that admits we don’t know enough to make a definitive statement either way. Just because there is no evidence of a capital-G God, doesn’t mean that we have the answer to what the spark of life actually is, or where the universe got all of its mass, or even what the universe contains (as we are only aware of the part of the universe that we can see). Trying to claim that what we can see is the extent of the universe is hubris indeed.

    • Brian
      November 17, 2011

      An atheist is not required to believe that he knows, for certain, that there is no God. An atheist merely lacks a belief in a god. Being agnostic means that you do not know if there is a god. Being an Atheist means you do not hold a belief in any god. Most atheists are also agnostic. Many moderate/educated Religious folks are too. They don’t claim to know, in any significant sense, that God is real; they just choose to believe in the God that religion tells them about for various reasons.

      Atheism does not require that you actively believe there believing there is no god, it’s merely the fact of the matter that there are no real reasons to believe in a god. All of the arguments I have ever heard that claim there must be a god turn out to be fallacious. There is no evidence or legitimate reason to believe that I have ever seen. Therefore, I am an atheist. Again, it doesn’t mean that I actively believe that there is not/could not possibly be a god. It just means I see no reason to believe in one. I just don’t hold that belief. You don’t believe in Zeus, right? Why not? I wouldn’t imagine it’s because you can prove he doesn’t exist, more like just because you don’t see any good reason to/ never even thought about the idea that Zeus might be real.

      I couldn’t be more than, say 99.99% sure that there is no god, myself. Most self professed atheists wouldn’t put the probability any higher than that.

      The existence of God is a pretty extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Lack of belief is not the same as belief of lack.

  12. Jeremy
    November 17, 2011

    I don’t know where you get your information about the fine-tuning argument, but it’s sure not from contemporary philosophy of religion! In fact, a great many philosophers endorse the fine-tuning argument. Though, admittedly, it’s not the version you give. But that’s probably because your version is a straw-man.

    I’d refer anyone interested to Luke Barnes (a physicist at ETH in Zurich) and Robin Collins (a philosopher at Messiah College):


    • Brian
      November 17, 2011

      Really? I went and read your sources, they make substantially the same argument that this article refutes.

      Are you sure you understood what you read? Or perhaps your pastor just told you that this guy must be wrong and that the new fancy version 2.0 of the fine tuning argument is so much better.

    • Greg Fish
      November 17, 2011

      Oh hey, that’s funny, turns out I commented on the math of some of the references you listed a while back, primarily the abuse of Bayes’ theorem. And actually, they are very much the same arguments as are being addressed in the post, just worded differently. If you say “hey, look at the black cat” and “look, that cat is either dark grey or black,” you simply restated pretty much the same thing rather than introduced a new comment.

      The very idea of fine-tuning is a logical error in the first place and no matter how much math or how many metaphors you try to wrap round it, you will still be asking an illogical question since you know of only several intelligent living things in the universe, all of them on just one planet, and all of them genetically related. Unless you know every intelligent living thing in the universe, to start wondering how the universe allows for the intelligence we know to evolve at some point is like counting the leaves on one bush in the Amazon and saying that you now know enough to create a thorough summary of the Amazon’s entire ecosystem.

  13. Timmuh
    November 17, 2011

    Just more more point: If there is a god, and he/she is omnipotent, then there is no need for a fine-tuned universe in the first place. God could simply snap his/her fingers allowing us to live in a toxic universe. No?

  14. Dylan
    November 26, 2011

    Hey Dave, thanks for taking the time and effort to post about this. I having difficulty understanding a couple of your arguments:

    “It seems that this idea of “fine tuning” can be traced more-or-less to one guy, a mathematician named Fred Hoyle (1915-2001)…”

    Umm, I searched for several hours and failed to find any solid evidence that this idea can be traced to one guy. You seem to enjoy mentioning fallacies which are sometimes only remotely related to the subject matter at hand. Hoyle’s Fallacy doesn’t really appear to have all that much to do with current understandings of fine tuning.

    “But that’s not even close to what evolutionary biologists actually think happened, so in the end, it doesn’t apply.”

    Is it possible that you could explain to me from your source what evolutionary biologists actually think happened? It is apparent from the information you cited that evolutionary biologists themselves appear to profoundly disagree with each other on what might have actually happened. Aside from this, that which is somewhat agreed upon can be shown to have insurmountable problems from a scientific and logical standpoint. Look at these for instance:

    John Horgan, a science journalist concluded that if he were a creationist today he would focus on the origin of life because this
    “…is by far the weakest strut of the chassis of modern biology. The origin of life is a science writer’s dream. It abounds with exotic scientists and exotic theories, which are never entirely abandoned or accepted, but merely go in and out of fashion (Horgan, “The End of Science”, 1996, p. 138)
    Even if we concede that just because something is extremely improbable does not mean it could not have happened, the field of abiogenesis can never be anything more than the result of pure and unadulterated imagination. When honestly and critically analyzed, it certainly cannot fall under the realm of science. In my opinion, this is the case for two reasons. First, any “experiment” utilized to test a hypothesis derived from abiogenesis will depend entirely on a manufactured environment based on the experimenter’s best guess regarding the supposed pre-biotic environment of early Earth. It should be obvious to anyone that these “manufactured environments” are specifically and intentionally constructed and organized to result in what the experimenters believe the original building blocks of life to be. Do you see the problems here? They imagine what a simple, self-replicating cell would have looked like back then. They do this because it is impossible for even the simplest of self-replicating cells in modern biology to be assembled naturally from non-living material. They then determine the environment and factors necessary for the assembling of this imagined cell, and imagine how this environment could have existed on early Earth. The result of all this backwards thinking is that there is now a gigantic bias when analyzing the actual evidence regarding the early Earth environment. The more scientific approach probably should have been to put any thoughts and theories about life from lifelessness out of our minds so that the actual, verifiable evidence we have regarding the pre-biotic environment could be examined for what it really was, not what we really wish it would have been (the term “science fantasy” comes to mind). By the way, I mentioned “manufactured environments” regarding the experiments used by evolutionary biologists above. It’s just too difficult to avoid pointing out the irony here. In these experiments, the scientists have to specifically design environments and variables that could yield potentially positive results. So “intelligent” people “design” the ideal environment for life to happen…sound familiar?

    The second reason I believe that the field of abiogenesis does not fall under the realm of science is more subtle, but by far more important. Evolutionary biologists look at the fact that there is life on Earth and conclude that there must have been a purely natural process ultimately responsible for the origins of this life. The only mechanism that they can come up with to fit this criteria is life from lifelessness by means of a totally random series of natural events over a very long period of time. It should be obvious to the critical observer that their conclusion is not an empirical one, but inherently a philosophical one. If it was an empirical conclusion, it would come from a current observation that life can come from lifelessness by means of a purely natural process. Since this is effectively impossible and cannot now be observed, abiogenesis requires a philosophical leap, or (more specifically) a metaphysical leap. The willingness of course to take this leap is largely influenced by a person’s world view. Unfortunately, the fact that most in the “scientific community” take this metaphysical leap has somehow resulted in their haphazard conclusions being heralded as empirical science. Ultimately, however, we cannot deny that at the root of all this for each and every scientist is a philosophy of science that is itself not derived from science. Now suddenly, these scientists are not so unbiased after all.

    “Even Earth, itself, is terribly inhospitable to life on most of its surface. It is only because of technology that humans are capable of surviving in many parts of the world.”

    I fail to see how this argument does anything to falsify the idea of fine-tuning. Essentially, you are just critiquing the finished product of this supposed fine-tuning (ie. if there was a god, he did a really poor job of tuning the Earth). Saying that much of the Earth’s surface appears un-tuned does nothing to question the overall validity of an idea about fine-tuning.

    For the record, I don’t consider myself an ID nor do I tend to use any ideas of “fine-tuning” when sharing my views. I’m just trying to share some thoughts in hopes that it can help you to honestly and thoughtfully critique different views you come across. Looking forward to any corrections or explanations you may have for me.

    • Dylan
      January 21, 2012

      Happy New Year Dave!

      Glad to hear that your recent operation was successful and hope you’re looking forward to good things this year.

      I just wanted to let you know that I’m still interested to hear any thoughts you might have regarding my reply almost two months ago. I noticed that you now have a new post running about this topic that specifically addresses the “anthropic principle”, and I do seem to think that there are some significant issues with it. But I’d rather not muddy up the waters on that post with what is being discussed on this post. Don’t feel obligated to reply…I know that you are constantly putting out new posts and replying to other folks on a weekly basis. Keep using these opportunities to pursue excellence.

  15. Pingback: The Blog for » An examination of the “fine-tuning” idea - fine-tuning of the universe as evidence for the existence of God

  16. Pingback: An excellent example of what’s wrong with the fine-tuning case for a creator-god « The Official MU SASHA Blog, Updated Daily

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