23 Jan 2011

The Finely Tuned Universe

Religious 22 Comments

I took my son to a birthday party that was at the planetarium. We ended up watching a bunch of YouTubes on the solar system afterwards, including this cool one. (If you’re not “into” it from the get-go, then skip ahead to 2:25 and watch it through 3:45, which is the relevant section for this post.)

One of my favorite arguments for the existence of God is the “fine-tuned universe.” When we ask, “What are the chances that this is all a big coincidence?” it’s not simply the probability that intelligent life could emerge out of primordial soup on earth. As the video above showed, our existence on this vulnerable oblong spheroid is incredibly precarious. Not too many people ever stop and think, “Man, it’s a good thing Jupiter is out there, intercepting killer asteroids before they wipe out the human race.”

Reflecting on these issues also reinforces the idea that it’s absurd to fret over the things we do. For example, I’m very anxious about excess reserves in the banking sector. But in the grand scheme of things, who cares? There are a million-and-one other things that could snuff out all life, and I am blissfully ignorant of them. If God is taking care of that stuff, I can probably chill out about price inflation.

Finally: This is not a call to recklessness or apathy. On the contrary, when you worry about things, you paralyze yourself and lose the ability to actually prioritize properly. To drive home the spiritual point:

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

22 Responses to “The Finely Tuned Universe”

  1. Aristos says:

    Wasn’t it Feynman who posed something like, “What are the chances that a vehicle with that exact license plate passed before me at that exact time?”

    I’m not rejecting God. I just wonder at the argument. Many things that are quantifiably unlikely (if that’s even a reasonable expression) are possible and occur everyday.

  2. jimobject says:

    Evolution would not have happened if there were not celestial bodies out there playing defense for us.

    I have to guess that given the size and scope of the universe, there have been potentially life bearing planets that got wiped out before life could get off the ground. In infinity, the possibilities are endless.

    Eventually, someone has to win the lotto.

  3. James A. Donald says:

    It is a big universe, and we have evidence that over vast distances and vast times, what we think of as the laws of physics drift a bit, that physical constants are, for the most part, not all that constant.

    In a sufficiently large universe, there will be a few tiny little corners that are improbably favorable for life, and we will see one such highly improbable tiny little corner.

  4. W says:

    As the first commentator pointed out, arguments that god’s existence is more probable can’t actually prove his existence. I prefer the transcendental argument for the existence of god, which, proves his existence with absolute certainly. I also think the argument follows a Misesian-like method and should appeal to Austrians.

    A god presentation of the argument is below:



    • Matt J. says:

      Good man, W. 🙂

  5. Matt says:

    If God really wanted to make us safe from asteroids, why would he even put them there in the first place?

  6. Paul says:

    I just can’t help being agnostic (leaning more towards atheism than theism). Sure we have been incredibly lucky as a species, to evolve as we had and survive so far, but…I would bet that in the universe, there are plenty of species like us that also were this “lucky”. I think it is a bit of a stretch to attribute this luck to existence of God, at least until there is some factual evidence he exits.But that’s just my opinion.

  7. Daniel Kuehn says:

    I have to agree with the thrust of the previous two comments.

    If you believe in God, and take comfort in this, that’s great. Clearly if there is a Creator then the idiosyncrasies of the universe – particularly the useful ones for us – can obviously be attributed to him.

    But that’s very different from thinking about this as an “argument for the existence of God” as you do here. It’s nothing of the sort.

    We are complex organisms with an ability to interrogate and reason through our surroundings. The very fact that we are complex organisms with these abilities suggests that some confluence of forces came together to make us possible. You would never expect us to exist without such fine tuning. That’s the whole point. Conditional on a universe where we can exist, a universe that appears fine tuned is highly likely. If the apparent fine tuning wasn’t forthcoming, you’d have no one to reflect on it. You’re marveling at something that is essentially a certainty given that you have the ability to marvel at it. Does that make sense?

    You only mention the conditions of our solar system here, and as jimobject points out, that is a relatively banal observation. Out of all the billions of planets out there the conditions for life on many had to be just right. And it is on the planets where the conditions are just right that you’ll have organisms evolve to reflect on these sorts of things. Certainly we aren’t the only ones in the universe reflecting on these sorts of things right now – at this very moment.

    But beyond the solar system there is an even finer filter implicit in the apparent “fine-tuning” of the laws of the univese itself. The theists case gets stronger here, of course. As far as we know there is only one universe (while there are billions of planets). Still, the problem isn’t quite so problematic as it first appears. My understanding is that the seemingly “fine tuned” laws of physics don’t only allow for life – they also allow for the stabilitiy of matter in general. A universe that wasn’t “fine tuned” would have collapsed back in on itself fairly quickly, with the potential to recreate itself in another big bang. So the apparent singularity of the observed universe in all likelihood offers more selection mechanisms than we give it credit for. Failed universes fail. Apparently “fine tuned” universes survive, so its no wonder that we observe what appears to be a fine tuned universe.

    Some people also think that the universe we observe is not the only universe anyway. In that case, fine-tuning at the scale of the universe becomes akin to fine tuning at the planetary level. One of them is bound to be life-supporting. Life will emerge there and attribute far more significance to apparent “fine tuning” than is warranted.

    This is not an argument against God at all. But it’s certainly not an argument for God.

  8. Daniel Kuehn says:

    And I should say – that shouldn’t be troubling at all. Any God that could be justified, understood, or proved by our brains is probably not a God worth having.

  9. Brian Shelley says:

    The fine-tuned universe argument doesn’t do a lot for me, but my pre-Christian doubts arose from a different place. It’s really the social sciences where the world simply doesn’t make sense outside of the Christian worldview.

    • Daniel Kuehn says:

      Why not?

      • Brian Shelley says:

        When I apply evolutionary theory to how we come to believe what we believe, I was more than a little surprised to see that Christianity had already been there. Our desire for status/power can lead us to believe things that are not so because we fight for things that are directly or indirectly self-serving. It takes personal humility before we can over come many of our biases. Or to couch it in Christian-ese, only a man who has humbled himself before God can begin to see the truth in its entirety.

        • Daniel Kuehn says:

          You should read Matt Ridley. I’m not saying Christianity isn’t a viable answer to this sort of questoin – I just think you are mistakenly diagnosing its uniqueness.

          As for “Christianity had already been there”, the human mind is likely to have hit on truth lots of ways from lots of different angles at every point in history. We have minds that seek out truth. The chronological priority of Christianity over evolution has nothing whatsoever to do with any other sort of priority it may have.

          • Brian Shelley says:

            It’s taken me a number of years to get to this conclusion. Not kidding, I became a Christian after reading Richard Dawkins. I read Hayek and became more convinced of Christianity. Then Neitzsche, the same. I keep walking away from atheist authors who make great observations, but don’t connect the dots. Every time I read the Gospels and Romans, it’s hits as more brilliant than the last.

          • Brian Shelley says:

            I’ll look up Mr. Ridley, thanks.

  10. Daniel Hewitt says:

    Bob, you appear to be conflating Fine Tuned Universe with Rare Earth Theory. Jupiter’s existence in our solar system is a component of the rare-earth hypothesis, which when examined is not as compelling as the fine-tuned universe, but certainly thought provoking nonetheless.

    • bobmurphy says:

      Given that there are hundreds of Bob Murphys–just set up a Google Alerts on the name and you’ll see what I mean–it is to be expected that one of us would eventually conflate the Fine Tuned Universe with Rare Earth theories.

      • Daniel Hewitt says:

        It could be worse. If you believed in the “infinite universes” theory, somewhere out there, a universe exists where you are a partisan hack who writes for the NYT and thinks that ABCT is a half-baked “hangover theory”, and Krugman makes shirtless Youtube videos.

        • Daniel Kuehn says:

          Has your son had the pleasure of seeing THOSE youtube videos, or do you censor? 🙂

          • bobmurphy says:

            I don’t know if he’s seen that one, but in a Panera one time he yelled out, “Neo-confederate!” Liiiiiitle bit awkward.

          • Daniel Hewitt says:

            Daniel, there is even a universe somewhere where you are Bob Murphy’s son.

            BTW, whatever happened to “Bob Murphy’s Love Child” who used to post here?

  11. Zach Kurtz says:

    You seem to be overlooking anthropic principles. Yes, our existence is probabilistically unlikely, but if we weren’t around to observe our own existence our existence wouldn’t even be considered.

    The probability of human lives existing is low. The probability of observing human life if we know humans exist is quite a bit higher: we have strong evidence that humans exist!