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Addressing and Refuting the Cosmological Fine Tuning Argument for Design

By psychman 33 ~

I wrote this for a Facebook forum I frequent. But I think that it may be of some use here.

Due to the fact that this argument keeps being advanced, despite being addressed and shown to be deeply flawed, I have decided to create a document that will gather all parts of this issue into one place. This will serve to keep the separation of time and space from allowing people to forget and disavow that these arguments have been addressed, as it will be here and accessible to all.

The formulation of the fine-tuning argument (FTA) is sometimes presented in a Bayesian form of probability. I will not present this form, as it will only serve to cloud the issue, and render this treatment unfriendly to the average reader. If anyone wishes to discuss the Bayesian inference argument, I’m more than willing to do so in the comment section, however. Throughout this document I am going to try to avoid being too technical, though some technicality is inherent in the argument.

The Argument

FTA is basically the following argument: The universe that we inhabit appears to be finely tuned to produce the complex structures, such as stars, galaxies, the heavier elements, all of which are necessary to produce life. This fine-tuning is a result of either, chance, necessity, or design. It is highly improbable that this is due to chance or necessity. Therefore, the most likely conclusion is that this fine-tuning is the result of design.

The appearance of fine-tuning comes from the observance that physical parameters, such as the mass of the proton, neutron, and electron, are values that work together in a very delicate balance, such that changing any one of these parameters by a very small amount would render the formation of matter, the structure of the universe, the formation of stars, and the emergence of life impossible.

I feel that I’ve presented the argument with explanation fairly and neutrally. Of course, if anyone has a suggested revision, addition, or subtraction from this argument, once again, address it in the comments section. From this point on, I will be addressing what I see as flaws in this argument.

Scientific Objections to FTA

Probability Is Not Applicable

When this argument is presented, the language of probability is used, and as I mentioned above, even the Bayesian formula for inferring probability is used. Saying something is probable or improbable gives it a force of sounding technical and “sciency”. The problem with using this language, calling the likelihood of chance or necessity being the explanation for the universe we observe improbable, is that probability cannot be applied to the argument according to the most basic rules of probability1. When a normal six-sided die is rolled, the established rules of mathematical probability state that the probability of rolling any particular number is 1/6. Thus, the added probability of rolling each of these numbers equals 6/6 or 1. In probability calculation, the sum probability of all possible outcomes must equal 1, as probability values are always between 0 and 1 (1 = 100%). The value of any given physical parameter is not limited by any logical argument. This means that the possible values of any and all physical parameters can be and may be infinite. If that is the case, then figuring probability from an infinite set cannot be summed to a total probability of 1, as the sum of all possible outcomes in an infinite set is infinity. Thus the probability of these values being what they are is not calculable. What this means in layman’s terms is that “we do not have enough information about how possible universes may vary”. The possible parameters from an infinite set have an infinite number of possibilities, and so the likelihood of any set of parameters producing a universe friendly to life is inscrutable. This means that FTA is not a formalized scientific argument; it is an intuitional argument. This is all a mathematical treatment that points to the fact that our level of ignorance concerning universe formation is woefully high, so high that we can’t say how likely any of it is, formally or intuitionally 2 & 3.

The Coarse-Tuning Argument

Some may argue that this is just a mathematical trick. However, it should be noted that math is a language that is used in physics to describe reality as closely as possible. In other words, that probability isn’t applicable likely means that it is not a valid argument, in terms of establishing a prior probability. There is a counter-argument that puts the one who argues to somehow rescue the probable statement of the FTA in an uncomfortable position of having to admit that the appearance of coarse tuning would not suggest the need for any intelligent design. This is uncomfortable because the probabilistic representation of either argument is indistinguishable from the other, and thus any inference drawn by one argument has a corresponding inference in the other. Fine-tuning has already been explained as physical parameters that couldn’t vary by much to produce a universe similar to our own, that could lead to complex life. Coarse-tuning, on the hand, describes physical parameters that could vary by quite a lot, and still produce similar universe to what we observe. Following, I post a link to a paper discussing this argument for you to read. Behind this argument is a basis of probability and mathematics that is beyond most math and physics laypersons. Hopefully by posting this discussion, you can get a better understanding of the mathematical basis.

Proposed Fine-Tuning Parameters

Covering all of these proposed parameters and arguments concerning them would require a book. It is therefore my intention to tackle these one by one as they are brought up in the comments section. I have not covered all of the proposed parameters arguments, though I’ve read quite a bit. A particularly interesting book on this is Victor Stenger’s “The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us4. In this book, Dr. Stenger, an eminent and respected physicist, explains how the very way that physics has developed shows that these parameters are not as finely-tuned as some purport. He goes on to suggest that many of these supposed fine-tunings are exaggerated and just plain wrong-headed, based upon misunderstandings and neglected facts. It’s a complicated set of arguments and ideas when one these arguments in the math and physics basis of their natural parlance. But if we are going to argue FTA, it is disingenuous to do so from any other basis. Then we simply appeal to popularity of ideas, or have dueling experts, instead of actually arguing ourselves.

The Weak Anthropic Principle (WAP)

There are various forms and views of the basic idea called the anthropic principle. I will only discuss the weak anthropic principle, as it is the only one that is part of the objections I am making in this document. WAP basically says that if the universe had not developed such that life like us would form, then either no life would be here to wonder and to ask the questions, or another type of life would have formed to wonder about its surroundings. This is not considered a satisfactory answer to the FTA on its own. Part of the reason for this is that WAP is basically a tautology, a statement that must be true, which offers no new conclusion or information. More than an objection or an answer, I think that the WAP is a means of framing or considering the FTA problem that highlights some of the assumptions involved.
One assumption of FTA proponents is that life like us is the only type of life possible. Even though we are the only type of life that we know, carbon based and earthbound, it may well be that other types of life may exist in other parts of our universe that are not carbon based. At heart, this assumption is about a lack of imagination and limitations of current knowledge. Just as there could be other types of life in our universe, there could be other types of universes capable of creating or supporting some type of life. For example, carbon is considered to be our basis for life because it is capable of forming complex bonds with itself and other elements. Silicon is also capable of making similar bonds. Scientists speculate that silicon is the most likely candidate to be a basis for types of life that are not carbon based. We should not assume that other types of life are not possible without reason to think so.

The most basic assumption involved in FTA, and what the WAP addresses most directly, is that the appearance of fine tuning necessarily means that it is fine tuned. It boils down to this question, which is closely related to the first assumption: if the universe were not fine-tuned to produce life, and yet we were here to observe it, how would it look different? In other words, the universe could very well be required to be as it is to produce us, though that is not a certainty (as I will discuss). But if that’s the case, then we should not be surprised to see that it is as it is, considering we are the ones observing it.

The universe that we inhabit appears to be finely tuned to produce the complex structures, such as stars, galaxies, the heavier elements, all of which are necessary to produce life. This fine-tuning is a result of either, chance, necessity, or design. It is highly improbable that this is due to chance or necessity. Therefore, the most likely conclusion is that this fine-tuning is the result of design.Another assumption implicit in the FTA is that the basic physical constants are static through time and space. Our universe is estimated to be 13.8 billion years old. It is also thought to have begun and expanded from a single point. This means that it has expanded for that entire time. Considering that space itself expands and the expansion is actually accelerating, it is estimated that our visible universe is about 93 billion light years in diameter. This is only the part of the universe that we can see. It is not known how large the entire universe may be, and that’s not even considering possible multiverse scenarios. Now, it is true that physical constants are assumed to be constant across both space and time. But this is an assumption, and not without its detractors. If constants do vary across space and/or time, then one can posit that the part of the universe that we inhabit has the right parameters for conditions to produce our kind of life because they have changed over billions of years, until they reached a point that they produced those conditions. This is more than just idle speculation. Webb et al. have discovered evidence in our observable universe that a physical constant called the fine structure constant varies depending upon which direction in space one looks.

Conceptions of Cyclic Universes and a Multiverse

I recommend viewing these two short videos to familiarize yourself with the subject before reading this section:

Up to this point, we’ve only considered objections to claims of fine-tuning following from the appearance of fine-tuning without appealing to the possibility of one or more multiverse models. However, whether the appearance of fine-tuning is actually evidence of actual fine-tuning or not, it’s certain that many respected physicists believe it to be true, and think that existence of a multiverse is required to explain this appearance. Therefore, we’ll briefly examine different types of multiverse models and evidence that supports that they may exist.

Cyclic Universe

The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem shows that any historically expanding universe like ours must have a finite border of space-time from which it began. Some conveniently assume this means that nothing could have existed before this point. But that is not what the theorem says. There are various proposed scenarios that would allow for a cyclic universe. I don’t want, as I said to get overly technical in this paper. So I will leave any arguments on this idea to the comments section. However, I will post a paper discussing this idea 5. Suffice it for this discussion to quote Alexander Vilenkin in an interview with the Arizona Atheist:

If someone asks me whether or not the theorem I proved with Borde and Guth implies that the universe had a beginning, I would say that the short answer is “yes”. If you are willing to get into subtleties, then the answer is “No, but…” So, there are ways to get around having a beginning, but then you are forced to have something nearly as special as a beginning.
A similar statement was made to Victor Stenger by Vilenkin and reproduced in his book on FTA that I mentioned earlier in this paper.

One special circumstance to show that an absolute beginning may not be necessary has been to conceptualize the universe as a sphere or Mobius strip, in that is has no beginning and no end in itself, but is finite. Another proposed circumstance and visualization of a cyclic universe involves a symmetric representation of two universes on each side of a barrier conceived of as the “beginning” of each symmetric representation, wherein the arrow of time is opposite on each side of the barrier. This is just one general way to avoid the need for an absolute beginning. These ideas are not evidential in any way, however. These are sufficient means to achieve an infinitely existing universe that are not illogical or contradictory to any known laws.
There are other infinite cyclical universal existence scenarios that actually are somewhat evidential. The most interesting, and perhaps the latest one is based upon the standard model of quantum mechanics, including the mass of the recently found and confirmed Higgs boson. The calculations based upon this model suggest that the universe is inherently unstable, and that at some point in the future, a new universe will form within our existing universe, growing to destroy and displace it. These examples should suffice to illustrate the concept of a cyclic universe, though other ideas have been put forth in this vein.

Simultaneously existing Multiverse Conceptions

To explain various characteristics of our observed universe a phenomenon has been presented called inflation. Inflation is the idea that the initial expansion of space/time was much faster than any subsequent expansion. Inflation has been so helpful to explain what we observe that it has reached a consensus among most physicists as being the most likely explanation for how our universe behaved in the first few moments after the Big Bang. In addition to the fact that inflation could have produced some of the supposed fine tuning parameters as an artifact of the mechanism, it is also given as a possible source for a multiverse. In this scenario expansion would end at different times for different parts of the universe. This uneven expansion would result in many isolated bubble universes, possibly with different physical characteristics.
Recent data from the Planck Space Observatory supports the idea that a multiverse may exist. There are anomalies in the mapping of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) that suggest that there may have been gravitational influences on our observable universe from outside of it. These influences may be neighboring “bubbles”. This idea is not new. It was suggested based upon data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), which had mapped the CMB prior to the Planck mapping. The Planck data is more detailed than the WMAP data, which seems to confirm the anomaly.

Another concept of a multiverse is what is commonly referred to as the Fecund Universe or Daughter Universe hypothesis. It is a multifaceted hypothesis. The basic idea is that black holes spawn new universes, either containing the universe entirely within itself or being a conduit to a white hole, where the matter that is taken into a black hole is spewed out. Lee Smolin has suggested that the production of black holes is the real evolutionary mechanism of successful universes. If black holes are the key to spawning other universes, then the more black holes a universe produces, the more successful it is at reproducing “daughter universes”. Smolin has further suggested that elements produced at the formation of black holes are elements most necessary for life, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Carbon. From this observation, he says that it’s plausible that life is merely a byproduct of the important characteristics of a universe, formation of black holes. This is an interesting idea. But it’s entirely without evidence, and would be difficult to confirm or falsify. It’s a good example of the size of the gap of ignorance in cosmology, however, that such diverse ideas could all be put forth as plausible. This point figures prominently in the overall thrust of this discussion, which is treated in a section at the end.

Another concept of a multiverse known as Brane Theory is a result of an interesting fact concerning String Theory. String Theory (not really a scientific theory at all) is an attempt by physicists to unify Quantum Mechanics with General Relativity into a Grand Unified Theory. The mathematical equations of String Theory have been shown to have at least 10500 solutions. This means that the proposed extra dimensions that help determine the physical constants could be arranged at least this many ways, which suggests that there could be this many separate universes in the multiverse, all with their own physical constants.
The last major type of proposed multiverse is proposed as a consequence of a particular interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. This is known as the Many Worlds Hypothesis. This suggests that such anomalies as the wave function collapse appear to show that a particle exists in many different states at once, until observed. The act of observing it makes it resolve into one of many different possible states. The hypothesis suggests that it doesn’t simply resolve into one of the states, but that it resolves into all of the possible states in parallel time streams, only one of which is the stream of our experienced existence.

Some have suggested that any and all of these models could be true. If they were all true, then we’d have a truly staggering number of separate, different, universes. And if any of these are correct, then that makes the idea of fine-tuning in our universe to appear to be a ridiculous claim. It should be noted that apart from the evidence already noted-
  1. the success of inflation theory along with the likelihood of inflation ceasing at different times in different places due to quantum fluctuation
  2. the anomalies in the CMB
  3. the many solutions of String Theory
  4. the odd phenomena on the quantum level...
...that there is no experimental evidence for these ideas. Detractors often attack these ideas as being unscientific for this reason. This is a fair assessment, given the state of our current ability to test these hypotheses. It should be noted, however, that these detractors are often the ones who are most apt to push FTA as evidence of intelligent design, which is also not a testable scientific idea. Even if one were to accept that our universe was intelligently designed, how would that further our knowledge of the processes and characteristics underlying it? This is why the scientific method works from a basis of methodological naturalism: supernaturalism would not further understanding of natural processes. Also, it is feasible and even likely that in the not too distant future we will be able to test the existence of at least some multiverse models. I’m not certain how we’d test whether or not our universe is intelligently designed.

Closing Remarks

The main problem I see with the FTA is that it is a philosophical argument dependent upon an interpretation of scientific data. This data is part of a discipline that is shot with large gaps of ignorance and ad hoc hypotheses to shore up these gaps. Physics is a model that is intended to represent reality. But it is only a model, and an imperfect one. We have learned much and we probably have a great deal of true knowledge concerning cosmology. But to claim that the appearance of fine-tuning based upon this imperfect model shows that the universe must have been designed seems to be fallacious in a complimentary type of fallacy to that of appeal to ignorance. Appeal to ignorance says, “we don’t know, so my preferred explanation is possible”. This argument fails in that it fails to recognize ignorance. It overstates the certainty of the model that we use, and understates the gaps of knowledge that we have. This is the wide heading under which failures mentioned above fall.

Let’s suppose that we allow, for argument’s sake, that the universe is intelligently designed. There are things that we can infer from the past, present, and future of the observable universe that speak to what this designer may be like. First, the designer seems to have wasted a lot of space. The observable universe is approximately 93 billion light years in diameter, most of this is relatively empty space, with approximately 100 billion galaxies consisting of an average of 100 billion stars per galaxy. Many of these stars have planetary systems. Yet most advocates of FTA seem to think that we humans are central to the designer’s plan. If that is the case, one has to wonder why the majority of the universe would not support our life. Our planet in our solar system is just a tiny, tiny fraction of the universe that we can see. So, why is the universe as large as it is?

Second, our universe began about 13.8 billion years ago. From this beginning, it took about 9 billion years for our solar system to form. It took about 10 billion years for life to begin on our planet. It took about 13.5 billion years for humans to evolve. This incredibly long period of time for the supposed goal of creation to appear doesn’t seem to support the importance of our species to this designer.

Third, there are apparent imperfections in the design of life itself. For example, the sensory systems of humans are not optimized to accurately sense the environment around us. Our eyes have a hole in the retina, where the optic nerve travels from the eye back into the brain. We fill these holes in from the surrounding scene in the visual field during the perception stage. We are not even aware that these holes are there. To be able to articulate the sounds of our language, our risk of choking increased beyond that of most other animals, because the entrance of our esophagus and our trachea are so close together. There are other examples, but these should suffice.

Finally, the most problematic aspect of our experience for the type of designer that we’d like to imagine is the apparent fact that this designer is trying to kill us. Since the advent of life on Earth, there have been 5 major near extinction events, plus many other smaller but still devastating catastrophes. It is estimated that over 99% of all species that have existed have gone extinct. With the exception of plants, that get their energy straight from the Sun, life on earth must take energy from other life by eating plants and/or animals. This sets up a miserable existence of struggle and death for the majority of animals. Today, in our experience, we face many different natural disasters that take tens, hundreds, and even thousands of lives.
From the former body of evidence, it seems that any designer that may exist is wasteful in both space and time, inefficient in designing, and at best absent from its design or capricious, and at worst bloodthirsty.