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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!
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:
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:
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.
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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 http://www.DaveMuscato.com.
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