MIT physicist explains the fine-tuning argument and the naturalistic response to it

Here’s the article from Harper’s magazine. The MIT physicist says that the fine-tuning is real, and is best explained by positing the existence of an infinite number of universes that are not fine-tuned – the so-called multiverse.


While challenging the Platonic dream of theoretical physicists, the multiverse idea does explain one aspect of our universe that has unsettled some scientists for years: according to various calculations, if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe were a little larger or a little smaller, life could not have arisen. For example, if the nuclear force were a few percentage points stronger than it actually is, then all the hydrogen atoms in the infant universe would have fused with other hydrogen atoms to make helium, and there would be no hydrogen left. No hydrogen means no water. Although we are far from certain about what conditions are necessary for life, most biologists believe that water is necessary. On the other hand, if the nuclear force were substantially weaker than what it actually is, then the complex atoms needed for biology could not hold together. As another example, if the relationship between the strengths of the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force were not close to what it is, then the cosmos would not harbor any stars that explode and spew out life-supporting chemical elements into space or any other stars that form planets. Both kinds of stars are required for the emergence of life. The strengths of the basic forces and certain other fundamental parameters in our universe appear to be “fine-tuned” to allow the existence of life. The recognition of this fine­tuning led British physicist Brandon Carter to articulate what he called the anthropic principle, which states that the universe must have the parameters it does because we are here to observe it. Actually, the word anthropic, from the Greek for “man,” is a misnomer: if these fundamental parameters were much different from what they are, it is not only human beings who would not exist. No life of any kind would exist.

It’s very important to note that life has certain minimum requirements, like stable stars, chemical diversity, universal solvent, etc. If we change the value of the finely-tuned constants and quantities, it’s not that we will get a different kinds of life instead of life that we have now. Changing the quantities and constants means that we have no life of any kind. Maybe we are in a universe that has re-collapsed, or contains only hydrogen, or contains no hydrogen. We don’t have the minimum requirements for the minimal functions of any living system. That’s what the fine-tuning argument argues for – conditions for life of any kind. Not conditions for human beings as we currently observe them. To find out more about this important point, check out this previous post featuring Dr. Walter Bradley.

More from the article:

If such conclusions are correct, the great question, of course, is why these fundamental parameters happen to lie within the range needed for life. Does the universe care about life? Intelligent design is one answer. Indeed, a fair number of theologians, philosophers, and even some scientists have used fine-tuning and the anthropic principle as evidence of the existence of God. For example, at the 2011 Christian Scholars’ Conference at Pepperdine University, Francis Collins, a leading geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health, said, “To get our universe, with all of its potential for complexities or any kind of potential for any kind of life-form, everything has to be precisely defined on this knife edge of improbability…. [Y]ou have to see the hands of a creator who set the parameters to be just so because the creator was interested in something a little more complicated than random particles.”

Intelligent design, however, is an answer to fine-tuning that does not appeal to most scientists. The multiverse offers another explanation. If there are countless different universes with different properties—for example, some with nuclear forces much stronger than in our universe and some with nuclear forces much weaker—then some of those universes will allow the emergence of life and some will not. Some of those universes will be dead, lifeless hulks of matter and energy, and others will permit the emergence of cells, plants and animals, minds. From the huge range of possible universes predicted by the theories, the fraction of universes with life is undoubtedly small. But that doesn’t matter. We live in one of the universes that permits life because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.

I thought I was going to have to go outside this article to refute the multiverse, but Lightman is honest enough to refute it himself:

The… conjecture that there are many other worlds… [T]here is no way they can prove this conjecture. That same uncertainty disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove.

Sound familiar? Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not. All we can do is hope that the same theories that predict the multiverse also produce many other predictions that we can test here in our own universe. But the other universes themselves will almost certainly remain a conjecture.

The multiverse is not pure nonsense, it is theoretically possible. The problem is that the multiverse generator itself would require fine-tuning, and, as Lightman indicates, we have no independent experimental evidence for the existence of the multiverse. So if you want to believe in the multiverse, then you are stuck waiting for evidence to confirm it. Meanwhile, the fine-tuning that we know about today is based on current evidence, and that evidence is best explained today by postulating a Designer.

Within the last 100 years, we have discovered that the physical universe came into being out of nothing 15 billion years ago, and we have discovered that this one universe is fine-tuned for intelligent life. Atheists are 100 years out of date, and they are hoping that all of this 100 years of progress will be overturned, so that they can go back to their comfortable belief that the universe is eternal and that the parameters of this universe are undesigned.

See it tested in a debate

To see the fine-tuning argument examined in a debate with a famous atheist, simply watch the debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens, and judge which debater is willing to form his beliefs on scientific progress, and which debater is forming his beliefs against the science we have today, and hoping that the good science we have today based on experiments will be overturned by speculative theories at some point in the future. When you watch that debate, it becomes very clear that Christian theists are interested in conforming their beliefs to science, and atheists are very interested in speculating against what science has shown.

10 thoughts on “MIT physicist explains the fine-tuning argument and the naturalistic response to it”

  1. Help me figure out how people think the multiverse explains fine-tuning. I do not follow. Here’s how I think of it…You’re playing poker and you get a royal flush. One of your opponents accuses you of cheating. You respond by saying that it’s National Poker Day and millions of people (multiverse) nationwide are playing poker, so it’s really not all that improbable that one would get a royal flush (fine-tuning). Do I have bad reasoning here? Isn’t this a direct analogy, revealing the absurdity of the claim that the multiverse theory solves the problem of fine-tuning? What do you think?


    1. No that’s correct. There is no evidence that it is National Poker Day, or that these trillions of other people are playing poker. So basically, the atheist is invoking unobservable entities to explain the fine-tuning away.


      1. Actually what I’m saying is the fact that lots of people playing poker doesn’t have any effect on the probability of me getting a royal flush in my isolated, unrelated, independent game of poker in my friend’s basement. It’s an unlikely event whether tons of other people are playing poker or we’re the only ones playing poker. Sure, it would be more likely to occur at all if there are many people playing poker, but it doesn’t mean that it’s more likely in any single, particular case. Likewise, postulating an infinite number of universes doesn’t solve the fine-tuning problem at all. You still have to look at the probability of the boundary conditions, constants, laws and material properties of that single universe we actually know exists and are observing. Does this make sense?


        1. “Sure, it would be more likely to occur at all if there are many people playing poker, but it doesn’t mean that it’s more likely in any single, particular case.”

          Their response is that among all the many universes, we just happen to be lucky enough to live in the one that’s fine tuned. Increasing the number of universes does improve the probability. So in that they have a point.

          However, as WK said, they must invoke things which are quite beyond the realm of science – supernatural things which are not governed by the laws of this universe.


          1. They are allowed to speculate about unobservable entities in order to keep their worldview, but when we line up piles of evidence for God, we’re called names.


      2. “So basically, the atheist is invoking unobservable entities to explain the fine-tuning away.”

        Wait! Stop the presses! I thought that they were the ones who just follow the evidence where it leads. Aren’t they the ones who proudly profess to withhold belief until good supporting evidence is found? Surely these fine, open-minded intellectuals wouldn’t be so non-skeptical as to believe in something like a multiverse which is completely beyond the realm of scientific investigation. Please, somebody tell me it’s not so.


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