SCIENCE AND THEISM: FINE-TUNING THE RELATION

Caroline McLeod

’17 Covenant College

Abstract:

Peter Atkins makes the claim that scientific developments supposedly make it impossible to be both an informed person and a theist. On this view, science has made theism untenable. However, such claims fail to acknowledge that there is scientific evidence in support of theism. We will demonstrate that there is reason to hold that scientific findings can be used as evidence for God’s existence, as seen in cosmology and physics with the anthropic or fine-tuning argument.

Paper:

“Science and religion cannot be reconciled.” So says atheist, Peter Atkins, quoted by John C. Lennox, in his book, God’s Undertaker.[1] If one is to believe Atkins, on one side there is science, and on the other side there is religion, and never the twain shall meet. The two entities are completely incompatible with one another. In the view of many materialist scientists, the conclusions of science go completely against the major tenets of religion, especially the Christian religion: that mankind was created in the image of God, that the universe was formed with beings like us in mind. Supposedly, science tells us differently. Stephen M. Barr quotes Steven Weinberg asserting such a position in his book, The First Three Minutes:

It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a farcical outcome of a chain of accidents,… but that we were somehow built in from the beginning… It is very hard for us to realize that [the entire Earth] is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe… The more the universe seems incomprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.[2]

Lennox states their position much more bluntly: “Science…we are told…squeezed God into a corner, killed and then buried him by its all-embracing explanations. God has turned out to be no more substantial than the smile on a cosmic Cheshire cat…He is certainly dead.”[3] However, their position fails to acknowledge that there exists scientific evidence in support of theism. There is prima facie reason to hold that scientific findings can be used as evidence for God’s existence, as seen in cosmology and physics with the anthropic argument.

Over the course of scientific discovery, it has been found that the existence of life as we know it is entirely dependent upon a large number of what Barr calls “anthropic coincidences.”[4] These coincidences can also be called examples of fine-tuning – conditions of our universe that seem “finely tuned” for the existence of life. There is a large number of fundamental conditions of the universe that, had they not been almost exactly what they are, life would most likely be impossible.

Robin Collins gives several examples of fine-tuning in Reason for the Hope Within. Specifically, the strength of the initial explosion of the big bang was such that, had it been weaker or stronger by on part in 1060, the universe would have either collapsed back in on itself or expanded too rapidly for the formation of stars – rendering life as we know it impossible.[5] Life would have also been impossible had the force which binds protons and neutrons together, known as the strong nuclear force, been stronger or weaker by five percent. Life sustaining stars would not exist if the force of gravity were stronger or weaker by one part in 1040. If the ratio of protons and neutrons were not what it is, all protons would decay into neutrons or vice versa, also rendering life impossible. Finally, were the electromagnetic force only slightly stronger, “life would be impossible, for a variety of reasons.” In addition to these examples of fine-tuning, Keith Ward offers a couple more: the precise adjustment of the strong nuclear force allows for the abundance of carbon and oxygen found in the universe, which in turn allows for the production of the elements required for life.[6]

Additionally, the gravitational forces earlier mentioned have to fall within a very narrow range in order to form stable atomic and planetary systems. But let us not stop there. The weak nuclear force is such that it ensures that the hydrogen in stars like the sun burns slowly and evenly, which is necessary for the existence of life.[7] If two electrons could occupy the same space (which is forbidden by the Pauli Exclusion Principle), water would not be a liquid, there would be no carbon-based complex organic molecules, and there would be no hydrogen bonding between molecules. Hugh Ross provides thirty-four such conditions. Perhaps the most finely-tuned condition known today is the cosmological constant, governing the gravitational pull of empty space, which is smaller than 10-120 (10-120 can be expressed in decimal form as 0.0000000000000000000000000000000 00000 0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 0000000000000000000001).[8] Should any one of these several conditions have been different by just a bit, life would have been absolutely impossible. We provide all of these “anthropic coincidences” to show that it is not just one or two extremely exact numbers, but constant upon constant upon constant that must be almost exactly what it is for the existence of life to be possible.

Since such large numbers are difficult to grasp, let us provide some illustrations to help with this. First, Robin Collins provides the dartboard analogy:

One could think of the initial conditions of the universe and the fundamental parameters of physics as a dart board that fills the whole galaxy, and the conditions necessary for life to exist as a small one-foot wide target: unless the dart hits the target, life would be impossible.[9]

Second, Robert Spitzer says “the enormity of the differential between non-anthropic and anthropic values of our universe’s constant may be likened to a monkey typing out Hamlet (without any recourse to the play) by random tapping on the keys of a typewriter.”[10] Obviously, it is an understatement to say that the probability of hitting the one-foot target or the probability of getting a monkey to produce Shakespeare is extremely low. The same can be said of the probability of getting a universe hospitable to life.

Consider the example provided by Peter van Inwagen of a machine that produces universes (or cosmoi) with 20 to 30 dials on it. The conditions of the cosmos are set according to the position of the dials at the time the cosmos is created:

It seems to be the lesson of modern physics and cosmology that many statements like the following ones will be true: ‘The pointer on dial 18 is set at .008957834618711. If it had not been set at some value between .0089578346198709 and .0089578346198712, there would be no carbon atoms and hence no life’; ‘The pointer on dial 23 is set at 5.113446 and the pointer on dial 5 is set at 5.113449; if the values of the two readings had been exactly equal, there would have been no matter, but only radiation; if the two readings had differed by more than .000006, all stars would be of a type that would burn out before multicellular organisms could evolve on their planets.’[11]

It should now be clear that the existence of life in the universe is dependent upon constants which must be extremely delicately balanced (and even that is a gross understatement).

Let us make it clear that, at this point, we are saying nothing about theism. These coincidences, frequent though they may be, on their own, mean nothing. In fact, Barr states that “most of the scientists who take an interest in coincidences do not attribute any religious significance to them.”[12] However, these scientific findings can be applied to arguments for theism, as Robin Collins shows. For Collins’s argument to hold any weight, one must first explain the principle it employs, namely, the prime principle of confirmation. This principle simply holds that an observation can be counted as evidence for one hypothesis over another if that hypothesis makes the observation more likely to occur than the other.[13] Collins uses these examples of fine-tuning as support for his “Core Argument” for theism. The argument is produced below:[14]

Premise 1. The existence of fine-tuning is not improbable under theism.

Premise 2. The existence of fine-tuning is very improbable under the atheistic single universe hypothesis.

Conclusion. From premise (1) and (2) and the prime principle of confirmation, it follows that the fine-tuning data provide strong evidence to favor the theistic hypothesis over the atheistic single-universe hypothesis.

Consider again the galaxy-wide dartboard with the one-foot target. Collins now says “the fact that…the dart has hit the target strongly suggests that someone…aimed the dart, for it seems enormously improbable that such a coincidence could have happened by chance.”[15] The quantity of instances of fine-tuning in our universe is much more plausible under the theistic point of view as opposed to the atheistic one.

Collins anticipates and replies to four main objections to the Core Argument. The first objection is that there could have been some unknown fundamental law of the universe that states that the conditions of the universe must be exactly what they are.[16] This objection is easily answered by pointing out that it just transfers the improbability up a level. In other words, it transfers the improbability from having a universe with conditions fine-tuned for life to having a universe with a fundamental physical law that necessitates conditions fine-tuned for life.

The second objection raised is that the fine-tuning argument presupposes that all life forms must be like us.[17] Could there not be other forms of life that are possible under different physical parameters? The reply to this is that there are fine-tuned constants, such as the strong nuclear force, that make possible things as basic as the stability of atoms, or that the universe is not entirely composed of hydrogen. So the argument does not suppose all life forms must be like us, but that “intelligent life requires some degree of stable, reproducible organized complexity.”[18] It would have been very easy for the fundamental constants to have resulted in a universe that “only lasted a few seconds or in which there were no atoms or in which there were only hydrogen or helium atoms or in which all matter was violently radioactive or in which there were no stars.”[19] In such universes, not only would life similar to ours be impossible, but all forms of life would be impossible.

The third objection is the anthropic principle objection. This objection comes from the weak anthropic principle, which states that if the universe were not fine-tuned, we would not even be here to say anything about it.[20] In other words, the fine-tuned conditions of the universe should not come as a surprise because they can be inferred from the fact that we exist in the first place. This objection can be responded to with an analogy by John Leslie. Suppose a man is standing before a firing squad of fifty sharpshooters. After they have all fired their weapons, the man finds that he has not in fact been shot, but rather is still alive. Such a man’s reaction would not be to say “Well of course I’m alive, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to consider this.”[21] Rather, he would wonder at the improbability of all the shooters missing him, and most likely come to a conclusion something like that they really did not ever have the intention of killing him. Peter van Inwagen calls this response “one of the most annoyingly obtuse arguments in the history of philosophy.”[22] The objection is so frustratingly obtuse because it violates the following principle:

Suppose there is an n-membered set of inconsistent and exhaustive possibilities, A1, A2,… Ak, … An. (…If a set of possibilities is both exhaustive and inconsistent, exactly one of its members must be realized.) Suppose further that Ak is the member of this set that is actually realized. Suppose the number n is very, very large. (We can understand “n is very, very large” in this way: if a number between 1 and n has been chosen at random, it was very, very improbable before the random choice was made that that number would be chosen.) If we can think of a possible explanation of the fact that Ak was realized that is a good explanation if it is true, and if we can see that, if one of the other possibilities in the set had been realized, no parallel explanation could be constructed for the realization of that other possibility, then the fact that it was Ak… that was realized cannot be ascribed simply to chance.[23]

In other words, our existence does not explain the conditions that allow for our existence. Rather, the particularity of these conditions is an observation that requires an explanation.

Collins states that another objection to the fine-tuning argument is the “Who Designed God?” objection.[24] The objection claims that postulating God does not provide a solution to the issue of design, but only transfers the question of design to theology. Here we can use William Lane Craig’s response to such a statement. Take the example of artifacts found in the earth by archaeologists: should they discover things like arrowheads and pieces of pottery, “they would be justified in inferring that these artifacts are not the chance result of sedimentation and metamorphosis, but products of some unknown group of people, even though they had no explanation of who those people were or where they came from.”[25] We can infer that an intelligent designer exists without having to explain anything about the designer. Craig asserts that this is an “elementary point in the philosophy of science:”

In order to recognize an explanation as the best, you don’t need to be able to explain the explanation. In fact, such a requirement would lead to an infinite regress of explanations, so that nothing could ever be explained and science would be destroyed! For before any explanation could be acceptable, you’d need an explanation of it, and then an explanation of the explanation of the explanation, and then…. Nothing could ever be explained.[26]

Thus, the objection that postulating a designer only transfers the problem of design to the theological realm is not a good objection to the fine-tuning argument.

As a final objection to the fine-tuning argument, atheists have postulated what Collins names the “Atheistic Many-Universes Hypothesis” or what can also be called the multiverse theory.[27] According to such a theory, an indeterminately large number of universes exists, each with differing fundamental conditions and laws of physics. Now, should this be the case, the vast majority of these universes would not be life-sustaining, but some of them would, which suddenly renders the fine-tuning of our own particular universe no longer improbable. To better understand how this acts as an alternative to the fine-tuning argument, consider an analogy by Robert Spitzer:

It is like having a die with (1010)123 sides, and having to roll the die onto one particular side(say the side with number nine on it). The odds of accomplishing this in one roll are exceedingly low, and if this were to happen, one might strongly suspect that the die was loaded (designed for this outcome). But if one were given (1010)123 tries to roll a “nine” one could say that this highly unusual outcome would be expected to occur (though this may take a while).[28]

In other words, skeptics of the fine-tuning argument appeal to the idea of multiple universes in order to increase their probabilistic resources to make chance a better explanation.

The next issue that arises is exactly how there could be a vast number of universes. Collins discusses a mechanism through which such a number of universes could be actualized known as an oscillating big bang. With this scenario, the universes come into existence from indefinite repetitions of the big bang. According to the Standard Big Bang Cosmological Model, our universe came into existence about 13.7 billion years ago. With the oscillating big bang theory, the universe will eventually collapse back in on itself, which will then result in yet another big bang, which will in turn create an entirely new universe with entirely new fundamental laws of physics. This process continues indefinitely, with each collapse and big bang resulting in a new and different universe.[29]

Another proposal for multiple universes is known as an inflationary multiverse.[30] According to this theory, there is an expanding multiverse containing a number of “bubble” universes (of which ours is one). As the multiverse expands, the number of bubble universes increases. In the original formulation of the theory, there is the significant problem of the fact that bubbles would collide. The theory was reformatted, but in such a way that it entails the fine-tuning of the initial conditions of inflation.30 So, this theory is either disastrous in practice, or it necessitates the fine-tuning which it was trying to avoid.

Spitzer discusses another possible way in which these multiple universes could come into existence: the Quantum “Many Worlds” Hypothesis. Paul Davies gives an excellent explanation of this hypothesis in his book, God and the New Physics:

All the possible alternative quantum worlds are equally real, and exist in parallel with one another. Whenever a measurement is performed… the universe divides into two. Both worlds are equally real, and both contain human observers. Each set of inhabitants, however, perceives only their own branch of the universe… the splitting [of universes] is repeated again and again as every atom, and all the subatomic particles, cavort about. Countless times each second the universe is replicated.[31]

To put it more simply, every time a choice must be made in the universe, the universe splits, with each path being taken between the two. Spitzer points out two main problems with this theory. First, it goes against Ockham’s Razor, or the principle of parsimony, which states that nature “seems to prefer simple and elegant causal systems (instead of esoteric, complex, and convoluted ones).”[32] Postulating an indeterminately large number of universes is the antithesis of simplicity. Of course, this does not make the theory necessarily wrong. Complex causal systems could still be true. But nature tends towards the simpler causal system, and this can be helpful in evaluating a hypothesis. Another problem with the quantum hypothesis is that it is completely theoretical, and can only ever be so, because by their very nature any quantum worlds cannot be observed by any other quantum worlds. Even if the theory is true, we will never be able to verify that this is so.

Collins provides some reasons for rejecting the atheistic many-universes hypothesis. The first reason for preferring theism over the many-universe hypothesis follows a general rule: everything else being equal, we should prefer hypotheses for which we have independent evidence or that are natural extrapolations from what we already know.[33] From our own experience, we know that minds produce “fine-tuned devices,” so posing God, a kind of supermind, as the explanation for a fine-tuned universe is an extrapolation from what we already know. In contrast, we have seen nothing like the many-universes hypothesis in our experience, and so it is difficult to see how this could be an extrapolation from prior knowledge.

For the second reason for rejecting the many-universe theory, one can look to the postulated universes themselves. Such a system – whether it be quantum fluctuations or the oscillating big bang – would itself have fundamental physical laws that govern it, the slight changing of which would result in the generator not being able to produce any universes at all. So, the generator itself would probably be designed.[34] In this way, the many-universes hypothesis just moves the theory of design up a level.

Third, theism explains other features of our universe which the many-universes theory cannot, such as the beauty and elegance of the basic laws of physics. Such things make sense if a divine mind constructed the basic laws of physics, but it is hardly what one would expect were universes the result of random generation. This is known as explanatory scope. Craig claims that “an explanation that has broader explanatory scope will be preferred to a rival explanation because it explains more things.”[35] To more forcefully make this point, let us look at a quote by physicist Paul Davies:

If nature is so “clever” as to exploit mechanisms that amaze us with their ingenuity, is that not persuasive evidence for the existence of intelligent design behind the universe? If the world’s finest minds can unravel only with difficulty the deeper workings of nature, how could it be supposed that those workings are merely a mindless accident, a product of blind chance?[36]

Davies uses the analogy of a crossword puzzle, which provides us with cryptic clues which, once solved, reveal a pattern of interlocking words. In the same way, the laws of nature interlock to produce a “remarkable orderliness” that leads to an “organized harmony.”[37] One never questions that the clues and placement of the words in a crossword puzzle are the product of some mind. So why do we question this with regards to nature? If the existence of an inventive mind explains the “remarkable orderliness” of the universe better than a theory of multiple universes generated by chance, should not the former be preferred?

Alvin Plantinga points out another problem with the multiverse theory. It is true that if there are many universes, each with different fundamental parameters, it is more likely that there will be one with parameters fine-tuned for life. Nonetheless, the theory does not account for the fact that our particular universe is fine-tuned.[38] Plantinga makes his point in a truly delightful analogy:

Return to the Old West: I’m playing poker, and every time I deal, I get four aces and a wild card. The third time this happens, Tex jumps up, knocks over the table, draws his sixgun, and accuses me of cheating. My reply: “Waal, shore, Tex, I know it’s a leetle mite suspicious that every time I deal I git four aces and a wild card, but have you considered the following? Possibly there is an infinite succession of universes, so that for any possible distribution of possible poker hands, there is a universe in which that possibility is realized; we just happen to find ourselves in one where someone like me only deals himself aces and wild cards without ever cheating. So put up that shootin’ arm and set down ‘n shet yore yap, ya dumb galoot.” Tex probably won’t be satisfied.[39]

Regardless of the amount of possible poker games in existence, the probability of finding oneself in one in which the dealer gets the same hand every time without ever cheating is astronomically low. Tex’s suspicions are justified. For these reasons, one can see that the many-universes hypothesis posed by atheists has some serious weaknesses, although they do not altogether refute the hypothesis.

An observation made by Fred Hoyle (who was moved out of atheism by the fine-tuning argument) will demonstrate the argument’s force:

A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.[40]

Let us return to the positions stated initially: that science and religion are irreconcilable, that the more we know of the universe, the more pointless it seems, and the science has buried God. Just from the argument from fine-tuning discussed here, it can be seen that at the very least such claims may be in need of some serious reevaluation.

Bruce Gordon, in his postscript to Spitzer’s book, concurs:

When the logical and metaphysical necessity of an efficient cause, the demonstrable absence of a material one, and the proof that there was an absolute beginning to any universe or multiverse are all conjoined with the fact that our universe exists and its conditions are fine-tuned immeasurably beyond the capacity of any mindless process, the scientific evidence points inexorably toward transcendent intelligent agency as the most plausible, if not the only reasonable explanation.[41]


[1] John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion, 2007), 15.

[2] Stephen Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2003), 115.

[3] Lennox, God’s Undertaker, 8.

[4] Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith,  115.

[5] Michael Murray, Reason for the Hope Within (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), 49.

[6] Keith Ward, The Big Questions in Science and Religion (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation, 2008), 237.

[7] John J. Davis, The Frontiers of Science & Faith: Examining Questions from the Big Bang to the End of the Universe (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 132.

[8] Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, 129.

[9] Murray, Reason for the Hope Within, 50.

[10] Robert Spitzer, New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2010), 66.

[11] Peter Van Inwagen, Metaphysics (Boulder: Westview, 1993), 184.

[12] Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, 139.

[13] Murray, Reason for the Hope Within, 51.

[14] Ibid., 53.

[15] Ibid., 50.

[16] Ibid., 55.

[17] Ibid., 56.

[18] Ibid., 57.

[19] Van Inwagen, Metaphysics, 183.

[20] Murray, Reason for the Hope Within, 57.

[21] John Leslie, “How to Draw Conclusions from a Fine-tuned Cosmos,” Physics, Philosophy, and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding. (Vatican City State: Vatican Observatory, 1988), 304.

[22] Van Inwagen, Metaphysics, 190.

[23] Ibid., 191.

[24] Murray, Reason for the Hope Within, 58.

[25] William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010), 122.

[26] Craig, On Guard, 122.

[27] Murray, Reason for the Hope Within, 59.

[28] Spitzer, New Proofs for the Existence of God, 67.

[29] Murray, Reason for the Hope Within, 60.

[30] Spitzer, New Proofs for the Existence of God, 70.

[31] Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (Simon and Schuster, 1983), 116.

[32] Spitzer, New Proofs for the Existence of God, 69.

[33] Murray, Reason for the Hope Within, 60.

[34] Ibid., 61.

[35] Craig, On Guard, 123.

[36] Paul Davies, Superforce: The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 235.

[37] Ibid., Superforce, 236.

[38] Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism (New York: Oxford UP, 2011).

[39] Ibid., 214.

[40] Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Present and Past Reflections,” Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, 20.1 (1982), 12.

[41] Spitzer, New Proofs for the Existence of God, 103.

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