Fine-Tuning and the Mistaken Atheists’ “God’s Eye View”


It’s been too long since I’ve done a good old-fashioned fisking. Today, though, I ran across an article by a pair of apparent geniuses writing about the fine-tuning argument for God, unfortunately without knowing anything of what they were writing about. So here goes.

These very bright gentleman are:

Jérémie Harris, a Ph.D. student in quantum photonics under the Canada Excellence Research Chair in quantum nonlinear optics, at the Max Planck University of Ottawa Centre for Extreme and Quantum Photonics. He holds a Master’s degree in biological physics from the University of Toronto. His work addresses foundational questions and paradoxes in quantum mechanics, and the creation of exotic structured matter waves.

Edouard Harris is a Vanier Scholar and Ph.D. candidate in theoretical and experimental biological physics at the University of Toronto. His research is aimed at applying Bayesian inference techniques to the design and creation of synthetic biological systems.

They co-wrote an article at Skeptic a couple years ago, titled “The Non-Fine-Tuned Universe: The Astronomical Failure of the Cosmological Argument for Theism.”

What Astronomical Failure?

Harris and Harris believe the cosmological fine tuning argument fails “astronomically” because:

They’re Appealing to the Unknown

One of the biggest problems with the fine-tuning argument is that the extent of fine-tuning is, at least presently, utterly impossible to measure. In order to estimate the probability that a given universe could sustain life, one needs at least two pieces of information: first, the number of possible universe configurations; and second, the number of such configurations that are conducive to the development of life, however one may define it. Since neither of these quantities is known, no discussion of fine-tuning can begin without a frank acknowledgement that the key premise of the fine-tuning argument is entirely speculative.

We do know that many constants and initial conditions fit into an astonishingly small chemistry- and life-permitting range. We don’t know the range of possibilities into which those numbers must be inserted to produce a valid probability equation. So they’re right: We don’t know how improbable it really would be to have a universe like ours without God.

On the other hand, if the range of possibilities is very small, and if some relatively proportion of those possible universes is life-permitting, then what fine-tuned that range of possible universes that way? One answer is God. The other answer is unknown and unknowable, for at least the foreseeable future.

Atheists are banking on that unknown. Is that really so wise? It might be if the rest of their argument was any good, but in fact it’s quite sadly the opposite. In fact it’s virtually ignorant.

They Miss the Point of the Argument (1)

Implicit in the theistic argument for fine-tuning is the belief that the universe was created with humanity in mind as its ultimate end product. Therefore, those advocating this view must not only make the case for a universe fine-tuned to allow for the existence of atoms, molecules, stars, and life; they must argue that the universe was tailored specifically for humans. Hence, the fine-tuning argument cannot be successfully made without simultaneously making a cosmological case for human exceptionalism. This is the ultimate hubris, and the deepest flaw in the argument.

Wrong. The fine-tuning argument says that we live on a knife-edge such that if anything changed in any of several constants or initial conditions, there would be no chemistry at all, no complexity of any kind. If the gravitational constant (for example) were different by 1 in 10^60, either higher or lower, the universe would either be completely collapsed into one sphere of near-infinite, undifferentiated density, or completely spread out in near-infinite emptiness everywhere: no stars, no planets, no nuclear fusion, therefore no physical mechanism for creating atoms heavier than hydrogen, nothing.

This is such a basic misunderstanding of the fine-tuning argument, one wonders what hubris could have led them to miss it so badly — or how Skeptic could have published it.

The Miss the Point of the Argument (2)

As well, humans account for merely one part in ~10^41 of the matter in the universe by mass, but even matter itself is far from being the dominant constituent of the cosmos. The universe is overwhelmingly made up of dark energy (~70%) and dark matter (~25%). Ordinary matter makes up a paltry 4-5% of the cosmos, and we, a less-than infinitesimal sliver even of that. The vast disparity between the human and cosmic scales hardly substantiates the notion of human exceptionalism that is endorsed by theists in the context of fine-tuning. It rather suggests that humanity is, at best, little more than a cosmic speck.

So what? Was there something about the fine-tuning argument that says the universe is fine-tuned for life in some large proportion of the universe? (Answer: No, that’s not in the argument. This is another very basic misunderstanding, another serious display of ignorance on their part.)

Is there something about this that contradicts our view of God? Heavens, no! This part of their argument completely misunderstands the God for whom the argument is made. It rebuts some other god, not the Christian God.

They Rely on a Tautology

The inexorable increase in entropy is expected ultimately to result in the transformation of all matter in the universe into a disorganized mix of photons, electrons and neutrinos, whizzing about at random through a vast, and otherwise empty cosmos. There is no room for humans — or, indeed, for life, or interesting structures of any kind—in this terminal state. Yet this, the theologian will insist, is the picture of a universe fine-tuned with humanity in mind as its ultimate end product.

This is tantamount to saying that if Christian belief isn’t true, then it isn’t true. It’s that much of a tautology.

For if Christian belief is true, then God created the universe for a purpose, and his purpose includes a final state wherein there are “new heavens and a new earth,” and entropy’s increase will cease. If that’s not really going to happen, then the Harrises are undoubtedly right; that is, if God doesn’t create new heavens and a new earth, then something different will happen. In other words, if Christianity is completely wrong in one of its core beliefs, then it’s completely wrong in one of its core beliefs. How much thermodynamics do you have to know to figure that out?

If  God does create new heavens and a new earth, however, then predictions based on unbroken continuity from the current world are bound to be wrong. (Anyone with a minimum of knowledge could have guessed that, too.) And if God is real, no predicted future entropy condition counts as an argument against him. He created entropy and he can reverse it. What’s the problem?

This is an argument made in thorough ignorance of what it is they’re seeking to refute.

They Misunderstand the God They Don’t Believe In

It could be argued that the existence of solar systems other than our own might serve to test believers’ faith to some extent, but the presence of hundreds of billions of completely separate galaxies beyond the Milky Way appears superfluous.

Superfluous to whom? God? What if he made it simply to show his glory? (I must link here again.)

The history of the universe up to humanity’s appearance on the scene should also be much more brief—after all, an omnipotent deity could surely conjure a species into existence instantaneously, without consuming the eons of evolutionary time apparently required under the current plan.

Of course he could have. But if he didn’t, does that mean he doesn’t exist? Does he have a timer on him? What kind of god do they think they’re arguing against, anyway? Do they even know? The signs here indicate they have no idea.

They’re Flailing. Desperately.

If the universe had been fine-tuned for humanity, one might also expect the study of nature to cause scientists to incline more toward faith, not less.

Is that the best they have to offer? Have they never considered that there might be other variables in play there? Have they never heard of the correlation-causation problem? They’re scientists, aren’t they?

This is just desperate flailing on their part. Sure, they’ve identified one of the variables affecting scientists’ belief or disbelief in God, and it must be taken seriously as such, but on its own it means nothing more than the well-known correlation between ice cream sales and violent crime. Or less, actually, since that one’s well-explained with just a single additional variable (the weather).

So now they’re acting in ignorance of their own specialty, science!

They Don’t Know the History of Science, or What Common Sense Means

Too often we forget that the Judeo-Christian position, which was once generally accepted, placed the Earth at the center of the universe, with Heaven and Hell beyond a sphere of fixed stars.

Too often we forget that observational science made that same belief a very reasonable conclusion until relatively late in history. It wasn’t a “Judeo-Christian” position, it was a common-sense position. Christians adjusted their beliefs when everyone else did.

If they’re going to argue ignorance on the part of Christians, they’d do better doing it with some indication they know themselves what they’re talking about.

They Think God Has a Bean-Counter Chasing After Him

Finally, if the universe was fine-tuned for human life by a thoughtful designer, one must acknowledge the appalling inefficiency of the creation process.

Oh, yeah, I’m sure God had some bean-counter telling him he’d better use his resources more wisely: “Look out, God, you’re running short!!!”

No, efficiency is a concern to those who are dealing with limited time and/or material resources. It’s irrelevant to an infinite God.

They Take a Pagan “God’s Eye View” and Think They’re Rebutting Something That Matters

That said, the universe could well have been fine-tuned, but if so it was almost certainly designed without us as its final purpose. Taking a “God’s eye view” of the universe ironically reveals the astronomical scale of our insignificance.

That’s true only if significance is proved by size. There’s no reason to think God views it that way. If there’s anything true about Christianity at all, God is fully present in every minute point of his creation, and can value any part of it fully regardless of size.

This “God’s eye view” of theirs comes from some pagan sort of god, not the God of Christianity, of whom — geniuses though they may be — apparently they know nothing at all. They can rebut paganism all they want, but I can’t imagine why that would seem so interesting to them. Western society took care of that long, long ago. Longer ago, even, than the birth of science. I wonder if they realize how far behind they are.

Image Credit(s): Wikipedia.

5 Responses

  1. BillT says:

    It could be argued that the existence of solar systems other than our own might serve to test believers’ faith to some extent, but the presence of hundreds of billions of completely separate galaxies beyond the Milky Way appears superfluous.

    More bad science from the scientists. This is another expression of the “why would God create a universe so huge just to have one teeny tiny planet that holds mankind.” The problem is that the universe isn’t so huge just to have one teeny tiny planet that holds mankind. The reality is that the universe is just about size it needs to be to create all the elements that are needed to form the building blocks of life. Those other “hundreds of billions of completely separate galaxies beyond the Milky Way” aren’t superfluous in any way. They’re a necessary part of the structure of a universe that can support life.

  2. sal says:

    I’ve often wondered if there could be other planets in the universe that contain God-created human life. I picture God sort of playing in the universe as a child plays in a sand box, building various finely-tuned sand castles just for the intrinsic pleasure of doing so. Whimsy, yes. But is there anything biblically or from science that precludes this?

  3. Tom Gilson says:

    Opinions vary on that. If God decided to do it, then nothing in science could preclude it. All God would have to do is to fashion another friendly environment for it. We haven’t found anything remotely looking like such a thing so far, but there are 100 billion galaxies too far away for us to tell.

    C. S. Lewis had an interesting thought on the theological question, which you’ll find I think in Perelandra. Basically (without ruining the story) it comes down to the conclusion that Christ’s death on earth had to be the saving act for all planets, if there are other planets, and if saving is needed there. Without death (“the shedding of blood”) there is no remission of sins, and since that reality is based in God’s character, it must be true everywhere in all creation. But it’s impossible to credit that Christ could have died twice, here and somewhere else. That means that we here on earth were privileged with the front-row seat, if there are any other rows, that is.

    So logically there are only three choices if there is intelligent, spiritually-significant life (life in God’s image) anywhere else. Either it has remained innocent and needs no salvation, or it is fallen and forever unsaved, or it is fallen and saved by Christ’s death, once for all — meaning really all — here on earth. The middle option is too unlikely to bother thinking about. The other two, though, are food for the imagination — as Lewis ably showed in his Space Trilogy.

  4. sal says:

    Tom, thanks so much for your information packed reply. That is a lot to ponder. I have read some Lewis but now I must also read the Space Trilogy. Also many thanks for your work on this blog!

  5. Physics and Metaphysics in a Trinitarian Perspective by John Polkinghorne:

    ….I do not think that the knowledge of the universe’s death on a time scale of tens of billions of years raises any greater theological difficulties than does the even more certain knowledge of our own deaths on timescales of tens of years. The fundamental question posed for us is whether we live in a world that is a cosmos or a chaos. Does the universe make total sense, both now and always, or is its history ultimately “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?” A naturalistic metaphysics will tend to agree with Steven Weinberg when he said that, in the light of eventual cosmic futility, the more he understood the universe, the more it seemed pointless to him. Naturalism faces these facts with a kind of heroic defiance. There is a certain nobility in that bleak point of view, but I do not believe that we are driven to embrace it.

    Death, cosmic or human, is real, but for the theist it is not the ultimate reality. The last word lies with God and it is to the everlasting faithfulness of the Creator that creatures look for the hope of a destiny beyond their deaths. If there is hope either for the universe or for us, it can only lie in the eternal faithfulness of God—a point that Jesus made clearly in his discussion of these matters with the Sadducees (Mark 12, 18–27). Of great importance here are the various New Testament passages that speak in an astonishing way of the cosmic significance of Christ (John 1, Romans 8, Colossians 1). Also important, I believe, is the witness of the empty tomb, for the fact that the Lord’s risen and glorified body is the transmuted form of his dead body speaks to me of the hope that in Christ there is a destiny not only for humanity but also for matter, and so for creation as a whole. It is in meeting the metaphysical challenge presented by this present world of fruitfulness and transience that the thickness of trinitarian belief, and credibility of the eschatological hope that it can sustain, is of the highest importance….