Atheist Luke Muehlhauser interviews well-respect cosmologist Luke Barnes about the fine-tuning argument, and the naturalistic response to it.
Luke M. did a good job explaining what was in the podcast. (I wish more people who put out podcasts would do that).
In one of my funniest and most useful episodes yet, I interview astronomer Luke Barnes about the plausibility of 11 responses to the fine-tuning of the universe. Frankly, once you listen to this episode you will be better equipped to discuss fine-tuning than 90% of the people who discuss it on the internet. This episode will help clarify the thinking of anyone – including and perhaps especially professional philosophers – about the fine-tuning of the universe.
The 11 responses to fine-tuning we discuss are:
“It’s just a coincidence.”
“We’ve only observed one universe, and it’s got life. So as far as we know, the probability that a universe will support life is one out of one!”
“However the universe was configured, evolution would have eventually found a way.”
“There could be other forms of life.”
“It’s impossible for life to observe a universe not fine-tuned for life.”
“Maybe there are deeper laws; the universe must be this way, even though it looks like it could be other ways.”
“Maybe there are bajillions of universes, and we happen to be in one of the few that supports life.”
“Maybe a physics student in another universe created our universe in an attempt to design a universe that would evolve intelligent life.”
“This universe with intelligent life is just as unlikely as any other universe, so what’s the big deal?”
“The universe doesn’t look like it was designed for life, but rather for empty space or maybe black holes.”
“Fine-tuning shows there must be an intelligent designer beyond physical reality that tuned the universe so it would produce intelligent life.”
Download CPBD episode 040 with Luke Barnes. Total time is 1:16:31.
There is a very good explanation of some of the cases of fine-tuning that I talk about most on this blog – the force of gravity, the strong force, etc. as well as many other examples. Dr. Barnes is an expert, but he is also very very easy to listen to even when talking about difficult issues. Luke M. is very likeable as the interviewer.
Note: even if you have heard Dr. Craig’s arguments before, I recommend jumping to the 48 minutes of Q&A time, which starts 72 minutes in.
About Dr. William Lane Craig:
William Lane Craig (born August 23, 1949) is an American analytic philosopher, philosophical theologian, and Christian apologist. He is known for his work on the philosophy of time and the philosophy of religion, specifically the existence of God and the defense of Christian theism. He has authored or edited over 30 books including The Kalam Cosmological Argument (1979), Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology(co-authored with Quentin Smith, 1993), Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (2001), and Einstein, Relativity and Absolute Simultaneity (co-edited with Quentin Smith, 2007).
Craig received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications from Wheaton College, Illinois, in 1971 and two summa cum laudemaster’s degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, in 1975, in philosophy of religion and ecclesiastical history. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy under John Hick at the University of Birmingham, England in 1977 and a Th.D. underWolfhart Pannenberg at the University of Munich, Germany in 1984.
Dr. Craig was in Scotland to lecture at a physics conference, but a local church organized this public lecture at the University of St. Andrews.
Here is the full lecture with Q&A: (2 hours)
Naturalism defined: the physical world (matter, space and time) is all that exists
Dr. Craig will present 7 reasons why naturalism is false
1) the contingency argument
2) the kalam cosmological argument
3) the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life
4) the moral argument
5) the ontological argument
6) the resurrection of Jesus
7) religious experience
Dr. Craig does mention an 8th argument early in the Q&A – the argument from the non-physicality of mental states (substance dualism), which is an argument that I find convincing, because a materialist conception of mind is not compatible with rationality, consciousness and moral agency.
Questions and Answers
He gets a couple of questions on the moral argument early on – one of them tries to put forward an evolutionary explanation for “moral” behaviors. There’s another question the definition of naturalism. There is a bonehead question about the non-existence of Jesus based on a Youtube movie he saw – which Craig responds to with agnostic historian Bart Ehrman’s book on that topic. There’s a question about God as the ground for morality – does morality come from his will or nature.
Then there is a question about the multiverse, which came up at the physics conference Dr. Craig attended the day before. There is a good question about the Big Bang theory and the initial singularity at time t=0. Another good question about transfinite arithmetic, cardinality and set theory. One questioner asks about the resurrection argument. The questioner asks if we can use the origin of the disciples belief as an argument when other religions have people who are willing to die for their claims. One of the questioners asks about whether the laws of nature break down at 10^-43 after the beginning of the universe. There is a question about the religious experience argument, and Craig has the opportunity to give his testimony.
I thought that the questions from the Scottish students and faculty were a lot more thoughtful and respectful than at American colleges and universities. Highly recommended.
This lecture is special to me, because I bought a VHS tape of it just after I started working full-time, and watched it a million times. It changed my life. The lecture was delivered at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Dr. Bradley received his B.S. in Engineering Science and his Ph.D. in Materials Science from the University of Texas in Austin.
Dr. Bradley taught for eight years at the Colorado School of Mines before assuming a position as Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University (TAMU) in 1976.
During his 24 years at Texas A&M, Dr. Bradley served as Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University and as Director of the Polymer Technology Center, and received five College of Engineering Research Awards. He has received over $4,500,000 in research grants and has published over 140 technical articles and book chapters. He has also co-authored “The Mystery Of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories. He is a Fellow of the American Society for Materials and of the American Scientific Affiliation and serves as a consultant for many Fortune 500 companies.
He currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Engineering at Baylor University.
The lecture: (63 minutes lecture, 25 minutes audience Q&A)
At the beginning of the 20th century, people believed that the progress of science was pointing away from an intelligent Creator and Designer, and towards naturalism
A stream of new discoveries has shifted the support of science towards theism, and away from naturalism
Richard Dawkins, an atheist, says that nature only has the appearance of design, but that if you look closer, naturalistic mechanisms can account for the appearance of design
When deciding between design and apparent design (“designoid”), it matters whether you think there is an intelligence there to do the designing
Evidence #1: The Big Bang:
an eternal “steady state” universe is more compatible with naturalism, but a created universe is more compatible with a Creator
In 1929, Hubble used telescopes to observe that the light from distant galaxies was redshifted. The further away galaxies were, the faster they were moving away. Therefore, space is expanding in all directions, suggesting an explosive origin of the universe
In 1965, the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation matched a prediction of the Big Bang cosmology, and of the creation event
In 1992, the COBE space telescope allowed us to test four specific predictions of the Big Bang model, especially the predictions for light element abundances (hydrogen and helium), which matched the predictions of the creation model
Evidence #2: Simple mathematical structure of the physical laws
the simple mathematical structure of natural laws allows us to understand these laws, make discoveries, and engineer solutions to problems
early scientists saw the mathematical structure of the universe to mean that nature was designed by an intelligent to be understood
the fundamental equations of the laws of the universe can be easily written on one side of one sheet of paper
Eugene Wigner’s famous paper, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences” makes the point that this simple structure is an unexpected gift that allows is to do science
Evidence #3: fine-tuning of the physical constants and quantities
in order for any kind of complex life to survive, we need stars that provide energy within specific ranges for long periods of time
in order for any kind of complex life to survive, we need planets with stable orbits that will not suffer from extreme temperature swings as it varies in distance from its star
in order for any kind of complex life to survive, we need stable atomic structure
in order for any kind of complex life to survive, we need to have chemical diversity and correct relative abundances of each element
organic life has minimum requirements: process energy, store information, replicate, and you can’t fulfill those functions if there is only one element, e.g. – hydrogen
the energy level from the photons from the sun have to match the energy levels of the different elements in order to drive the chemical bonding needed for life
These requirements for life of any imaginable type depend on the values of the constants and quantities. The constants and quantities cannot vary much from what they are, or the universe will lose the characteristics (above) that allow it to support complex life of any imaginable time
For example, ratio of strong force to electromagnetic force:
– if 2% larger, then no stable hydrogen, no long-lived stars, no compounds containing hydrogen, e.g. – water
– if 5% smaller, no stable stars, heavy hydrogen would be unstable, few elements other than hydrogen
Evidence #4: initial conditions for habitability
Universe: expansion rate of the universe must be fast enough to avoid a re-collapse, but slow enough to allow matter to clump together and form stars and planets for complex life to live on
Planet: right distance from the star to get the right climate
Planet: right mass to retain the right atmosphere
Evidence #5: origin of life and information theory
It’s possible to explain every process in an automobile engine using plain old naturalistic mechanisms – no supernatural explanation is necessary to understand the processes
But the existence of engine itself: engineering all the parts has to be explained by the work of an intelligence
Similarly, we can understand how living systems work, but the existence of the living systems requires an intelligence
Even the simplest living system has to perform minimal function: capture energy, store information and replicate
Living systems are composed of objects like proteins that are composed of sequences of components complex such that the order of the components gives the overall structure function
Developing the components for a simple living cell is very improbable – even given the large number of galaxies, stars and planets in the universe, it is unlikely that complex, embodied life would exist anywhere in the universe
Evidence #6: more initial conditions for habitability
Location within the galaxy: you need to be away from the center of the galaxy, because the explosions from dying stars, and excessive radiation will kill life
Location within the galaxy: you need to be close enough to the center in order catch the heavy elements you need for life from the explosions of other stars
Location within the galaxy: the best location is between two arms of a spiral galaxy, where you can get the heavy elements you need from dying stars, but without being hit with explosions and harmful radiation
Star mass: determines rate at which the sun burns, determines the energy level of photons that are used to drive chemical bonding reactions, determines the length of time the star will be stable
Star mass: star mass must be the correct value in order to allow liquid water on the planet’s surface, while still preserving stable orbit
I wish there was more curiosity about science in churches, and young Christians understood how critical science is for grounding the rationality of the Christian worldview. We need to be training up more scientists who think about the big questions, like Dr. Walter Bradley.
Some atheists who don’t understand the fine-tuning argument like to assert that the constants and quantities that are fine-tuned to allow for the existence of complex, embodied life can be changed arbitrarily, and life would still exist as it does now. They say that maybe we would have a ridges in our foreheads like Klingons, or maybe we would have longer ears like Vulcans or maybe green skin like Orions. The evidential support for this view seems to be grounded in Star Trek TV shows, not peer-reviewed evidence. Are atheists right to ground their rejection of a cosmic Designer in science fiction television shows? What does the peer-reviewed research say?
The fine-tuning argument
First, let’s review the structure of the fine-tuning argument.
The argument goes like this:
The fine-tuning of the universe to support life is either due to law, chance or design
It is not due to law or chance
Therefore, the fine-tuning is due to design
Although each permutation of values for the constants and quantities is equally improbable, the vast majority of the permutations will not permit life.
Life has certain minimal requirements; long-term stable source of energy, a large number of different chemical elements, an element that can serve as a hub for joining together other elements into compounds, a universal solvent, etc.
In order to meet these minimal requirements, the physical constants, (such as the gravitational constant), and the ratios between physical constants, need to be withing a narrow range of values in order to support the minimal requirements for life of any kind.
Slight changes to any of the physical constants, or to the ratios between the constants, will result in a universe inhospitable to life.
The range of possible values spans 70 orders of magnitude.
The constants are selected by whoever creates the universe. They are not determined by physical laws. And the extreme probabilities involved required put the fine-tuning beyond the reach of chance.
Although each individual selection of constants and ratios is as unlikely as any other selection, the vast majority of these possibilities do not support the minimal requirements of life of any kind. (In the same way as any hand of 5 cards that is dealt is as likely as any other, but you are overwhelmingly likely NOT to get a royal flush. In our case, a royal flush is a life-permitting universe).
Now let’s see a specific example: carbon and oxygen formation.
Carbon is that element that can serve as a hub for larger molecules, and oxygen is also a vital element, since it is a component of water, which is required for life (universal solvent). Both are required for complex life of any imaginable kind.
Now for the study.
Here is an article on Science Daily about the fine-tuning argument.
Life as we know it is based upon the elements of carbon and oxygen. Now a team of physicists, including one from North Carolina State University, is looking at the conditions necessary to the formation of those two elements in the universe. They’ve found that when it comes to supporting life, the universe leaves very little margin for error.
Both carbon and oxygen are produced when helium burns inside of giant red stars. Carbon-12, an essential element we’re all made of, can only form when three alpha particles, or helium-4 nuclei, combine in a very specific way. The key to formation is an excited state of carbon-12 known as the Hoyle state, and it has a very specific energy — measured at 379 keV (or 379,000 electron volts) above the energy of three alpha particles. Oxygen is produced by the combination of another alpha particle and carbon.
NC State physicist Dean Lee and German colleagues Evgeny Epelbaum, Hermann Krebs, Timo Laehde and Ulf-G. Meissner had previously confirmed the existence and structure of the Hoyle state with a numerical lattice that allowed the researchers to simulate how protons and neutrons interact. These protons and neutrons are made up of elementary particles called quarks. The light quark mass is one of the fundamental parameters of nature, and this mass affects particles’ energies.
In new lattice calculations done at the Juelich Supercomputer Centre the physicists found that just a slight variation in the light quark mass will change the energy of the Hoyle state, and this in turn would affect the production of carbon and oxygen in such a way that life as we know it wouldn’t exist.
[…]The researchers’ findings appear in Physical Review Letters.
There are many, many other examples of fine-tuning of the constants and quantities to permit complex, embodied life. And, as we’ll see below, this evidence is admitted by atheists.
Atheists agree: the fine-tuning is a fact
Let me give you a citation from the best one of all, Martin Rees. Martin Rees is an atheist and a qualified astronomer. He wrote a book called “Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape The Universe”, (Basic Books: 2001). In it, he discusses 6 numbers that need to be fine-tuned in order to have a life-permitting universe.
In chapter 1, Rees writes:
Mathematical laws underpin the fabric of our universe — not just atoms, but galaxies, stars and people. The properties of atoms — their sizes and masses, how many different kinds there are, and the forces linking them together — determine the chemistry of our everyday world. The very existence of atoms depends on forces and particles deep inside them. The objects that astronomers study — planets, stars and galaxies — are controlled by the force of gravity. And everything takes place in the arena of an expanding universe, whose properties were imprinted into it at the time of the initial Big Bang.
[…]This book describes six numbers that now seem especially significant.
[…]Perhaps there are some connections between these numbers. At the moment, however, we cannot predict any one of them from the values of the others.
[…]These six numbers constitute a ‘recipe’ for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be ‘untuned’, there would be no stars and no life. Is this tuning just a brute fact, a coincidence? Or is it the providence of a benign Creator?
There are some atheists who deny the fine-tuning, but these atheists are in firm opposition to the progress of science. The more science has progressed, the more constants, ratios and quantities we have discovered that need to be fine-tuned. Science is going in a theistic direction. Next, let’s see how atheists try to account for the fine-tuning.
Atheistic responses to the fine-tuning evidence
There are two common responses among atheists to this argument.
The first is to speculate that there are actually an infinite number of other universes that are not fine-tuned, (i.e. – the gambler’s fallacy). All these other universes don’t support life. We just happen to be in the one universe is fine-tuned for life. The problem is that there is no way of directly observing these other universes and no independent evidence that they exist.
Here is an excerpt from an article in Discover magazine, (which is hostile to theism and Christianity).
Short of invoking a benevolent creator, many physicists see only one possible explanation: Our universe may be but one of perhaps infinitely many universes in an inconceivably vast multiverse. Most of those universes are barren, but some, like ours, have conditions suitable for life.
The idea is controversial. Critics say it doesn’t even qualify as a scientific theory because the existence of other universes cannot be proved or disproved. Advocates argue that, like it or not, the multiverse may well be the only viable nonreligious explanation for what is often called the “fine-tuning problem”—the baffling observation that the laws of the universe seem custom-tailored to favor the emergence of life.
The second response by atheists is that the human observers that exist today, 14 billion years after the universe was created out of nothing, actually caused the fine-tuning by going back in time and causing the universe to be fine-tuned. This solution would mean that although humans did not exist at the time the of the big bang, they are going to be able to reach back in time at some point in the future and manually fine-tune the universe.
Here is an excerpt from and article in the New Scientist, (which is hostile to theism and Christianity).
…maybe we should approach cosmic fine-tuning not as a problem but as a clue. Perhaps it is evidence that we somehow endow the universe with certain features by the mere act of observation… observers are creating the universe and its entire history right now. If we in some sense create the universe, it is not surprising that the universe is well suited to us.
So, there are two choices for atheists. Either an infinite number of unobservable universes that are not fine-tuned, or humans go back in time at some future point and fine-tune the beginning of the universe, billions of years in the past. I think I will prefer the design explanation to those alternatives.
This lecture is 29 minutes long, the Q&A is 15 minutes. I highly recommend this lecture to all audiences of all levels of ability, for the simple reasons that apart from the content, this lecture is a how-to clinic in the tone, body language, slides and so on for you to use when trying to be persuasive when making your case. Science is king in this lecture. The scientific method is defined and applied in a winsome way. Making science understandable should be the bread and butter approach to Christian apologetics, and this lecture rivals the Mike Strauss lecture at Stanford University and the Mike Strauss lecture at the University of Texas – Dallas as the ideal lectures for showing that. It’s not just the scientific material that makes this lecture by Collins work, it’s the narrative and the style that make the lecture work.
Robin Collins (PhD, University of Notre Dame, 1993), is professor of philosophy at Messiah College, Grantham, PA specializing in the area of science and religion. He has written over twenty-five articles and book chapters on a wide range of topics, such as the fine-tuning of the cosmos as evidence for the existence of God, evolution and original sin, the Doctrine of Atonement, Asian religions and Christianity, and Bohm’s theory of quantum mechanics. Some of his most recent articles/book chapters are “Philosophy of Science and Religion” in The Oxford Handbook of Science and Religion, “Divine Action and Evolution” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (2009) “The Multiverse Hypothesis: A Theistic Perspective,” in Universe or Multiverse? (Cambridge University Press), and “God and the Laws of Nature,” in Theism or Naturalism: New Philosophical Perspectives (Oxford University Press, forthcoming). He recently received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to finish a book that presents the case for design based on physics and cosmology, tentatively entitled The Well-Tempered Universe: God, Cosmic Fine-tuning, and the Laws of Nature.
His thesis in one slide:
Thesis: the universe is more intelligible than we would expect it by chance
The regular fine-tuning argument says that complex embodied observers are very rare
But the number of highly-discoverable universes that have complex embodied observers is rarer still
Why do we exist in a highly-discoverable universe?
Can we quantify and test discoverability?
Yes: by varying fundamental parameters and seeing how it affects discoverability
Conclusion of his calculations: The Discoverability-Liveability Optimality range is an even smaller range within the Liveablity Optimality range of the standard fine-tuning argument
Fine-tuning #1: the fine structure constant, governs the strength of the electro-magnetic force
If larger, wood-burning fire becomes impossible because fires won’t stay lit, and therefore forging metals becomes unlikely
If smaller, wood-burning fires won’t go out, e.g. – from lightning strikes, so that wood would be less accessible
Other constraints: smaller value decreases effectiveness of light microscopes, drastically lowers efficiency of transformers and motors
Fine-tuning #2: the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR), radiation left over from the Big Bang
humans need to discover the CMBR in order to confirm the Big Bang creation out of nothing, and it depends on baryon/pothon ratio
his calculations show that the actual value of CMBR is exactly at the peak for detectability by humans
if baryon/photon ratio larger, CMBR is less discoverable
if baryon/photon ratio smaller, CMBR is less discoverable
Fine-tuning #3: parameters related to subatomic particles are fine-tuned for their discovery and usefulness, e.g. – the bottom quark, the charm quark, the tau lepton and the Higgs Boson
the lifetime of the particles affects their usefulness to scientists who want to investigate the Standard Model of physics
decay rates of these subatomic particles are related to several of the finely-tuned parameters
for example, the mass of the bottom quark is finely-tuned for its discoverability by scientists
the tau lepton and the charm quark are similarly fine-tuned for disoverability
the mass of the Higgs boson is finely-tuned for discoverability and for making further discoveries
Conclusion: the DLO thesis is strongly confirmed – this is an even greater degree of fine-tuning that the already astonishing probabilities of the fine-tuning for complex, embodied intelligent beings
The formalized version of the philosophical argument based on this evidence is impervious with some of the traditional objections to the standard fine-tuning argument
#1 multiverse/selection effect: it is not subject to multiverse / observer selection objections
#2 normalizeability: it is not subject to the McGrew-Vestrup objection because the range of possible values is finite not infinite
#3 falsifiability: it makes falsifiable predictions, and in fact Collins’ earlier calculations of the CMBR discoverability contained an error that falsified the thesis – until he found the error and corrected for it
#4 usefulness: it gives clues about the Creator’s purpose for us, namely that the universe was created for us to be able to do science and find evidence of the Creator’s existence – there is no expectation for us to exercise blind faith, trust in God is meant to be a plausible deduction from the progress of experimental science
Earlier, I blogged about a Robin Collins lecture on the fine-tuning that allows complex, embodied life to exist. Another must-see lecture. If you are looking for something to study in university, and you have funding, then physics, mathematics and philosophy are the best places to be for a Christian scholar.