MIT physicist explains the challenge of cosmic fine-tuning for naturalism

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.

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, so the multiverse doesn’t get rid of the problem. And, as Lightman indicates, we have no independent experimental evidence for the existence of the multiverse in any case. Atheists just have to take it on faith, and hope that their speculations will be proved right. Meanwhile, the fine-tuning is just as easily explained by postulating God, and we have independent evidence for God’s existence, like the the origin of biological information, the sudden appearance of animal body plans, the argument from consciousness, and so on. Even if the naturalists could explain the fine-tuning, they would still have a lot of explaining to do. Theism (intelligent causation) is the simplest explanation for all of the things we learn from the progress of science.

We need to be frank about atheists and their objections to the progress of science. 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. I don’t think it’s like that the last 100 years of scientific progress on the origins question are going to be overturned so that science once again affirms what atheists believe about the universe. Things are going the wrong way for atheists – at least with respect to science.

See it in action

To see these arguments 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 in order to maintain their current pre-scientific view. That’s not what rational people ought to do when confronted with evidence.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

16 thoughts on “MIT physicist explains the challenge of cosmic fine-tuning for naturalism”

  1. I’m going to mention something that was used to respond to the “fine-tuning” argument: First of all, one of the values that is so important is the bonding tendency of hydrogen.
    If it were a little stronger, there would be no hydrogen. If it were a little weaker, there would be ONLY hydrogen. But the values give were 0.6, 0.7, and 0.8 (I don’t remember exactly what unit the relevant force was in). Which means maybe it couldn’t be 0.1 stronger or weaker, but it COULD have been 0.000001 stronger or weaker without changing a thing.
    The Earth’s orbit around the sun is often mentioned, noting that if we were much closer or further away from the sun, we would burn up or freeze. No mention is made of the fact that not only is Earth’s distance from the sun not constant, the so-called ‘Goldilocks’ zone is so large that Mars passes very nearly into it on its own orbit. “A little further away” in this case means more than 10% further.
    So in at least two cases it’s “fine-tuned” from one perspective, but it ceases to be so when your perspective changes.

    But more importantly, even if the values were seemingly so perfect, and in such tiny margins, that “fine-tuned” seemed plausible, the correct response is:
    “DUH! You do realize we wouldn’t be here to observe and comment on it if the conditions of the universe were such that life could not arise, right? It’s not like we could be the winners of this cosmic lottery if it were otherwise.”
    It’s no different from winning a giant lottery; the odds against you winning are tremendous, and a small number of values have to be perfectly correct with 0 margin of error, but if you DO win, there’s nothing mystical or supernatural about it. After all, if enough people play, SOMEONE is going to win. There’s some talk in the astrophysics world that the universe eventually recycles itself, after some ridiculously long period of time (something like 10^100 years), but if any of those recycled universes couldn’t support life, no life arose to observe the time it took to recycle itself.


    1. The invisible multiverse is the problem. The problem with your cosmic lottery is that we don’t see all the other lottery numbers actually being played. Millions of other players (theoretical universes) now become the supernatural, mystical portion of the model. And that portion is a HUGE percentage.


      1. I’m not espousing a multiverse. I’m not suggesting that there ARE an infinite number of losers out there. I’m saying its not so remarkable that the universe is such that life can exist, given that we could not remark upon it if it weren’t.

        More importantly, my perspective doesn’t require concurrently existing universes; what we DO know about the Big Bang suggests that the laws of physics came into being as it occurred, meaning they could have been otherwise. What we do know about the expansion of the universe suggests that maybe existence collapses and Bangs out again every so often (there is also some evidence that it does not cycle, and this is the first and only incarnation of existence. Given the nature of this question, we may never know). Taken together, this may simply be the latest in an eternal cycle, and this one happened to win the cosmic lottery.

        Ultimately it makes no difference what the odds are; they are impossible to calculate. You cannot calculate the odds of something without some hard knowledge of what the alternatives were and what shaping forces were involved (that is to say, what forces there are pushing for particular outcomes), and we don’t have that data. NO ONE had that data, so it’s not even clear that it was an unlikely event at all.

        That’s the worst part: we simply don’t KNOW enough yet to know whether things simply HAPPENED to be as they are, or whether they HAD to be as they are. The universe that exists is non-random (at least on the macroscopic scale); if you could actually account for all the random forces involved (gravity, magnetism and such) you could build a computer program that could accurately project out into infinity what would happen in a lifeless universe (given a starting point). Causality holds up and down the chain of events, after all.

        So it could really be that the Big Bang ALWAYS happens the same way, that there is some even more fundamental law in this moment of “Creation” that prohibits the formation of universes inimical to life. Or not.

        It’s too early to weigh in.


    2. John Pryce

      I think you and your likes have deceivingly and deliberately down played the fine tuning argument.

      With regard to the hydrogen, perhaps you are talking about the nuclear force that governs the sticking of protons and neutron. If it is too weak then we will only have hydrogen as an element but if it is too strong then we will only have heavy element. Both condition would not permit life as we know.

      Now how weak can it be? no more than 2% than the current strength. How strong can it be? No more than 0.3% of the current strength. That is 0.02 and 0.003 out of 100 which is very precise indeed or “fine tuned”.

      Now this is only one of the parameter, couple that with distance to sun, the sun strength, the initial condition of universe so that life as we know may exist….that 0.0000000 will get even larger…

      So again I stressed the fined tuned is indeed fined tuned no matter what perspective you are looking at it.


    3. Duh!…And this is where the trick or point of contention is:
      ““DUH! You do realize we wouldn’t be here to observe and comment on it if the conditions of the universe were such that life could not arise, right? It’s not like we could be the winners of this cosmic lottery if it were otherwise.”
      It’s no different from winning a giant lottery; the odds against you winning are tremendous, and a small number of values have to be perfectly correct with 0 margin of error, but if you DO win, there’s nothing mystical or supernatural about it.

      “After all, if enough people play, SOMEONE is going to win.”

      The question then would be is there enough of universes to play this “create life” games? So then that’s why you posit the absurd and unprovable multiverse and “recycle universe” whatever that means to run away from the inescapable “fined tuned” argument?

      This chair that I am sitting has been fined tuned for me and the general human population. The fact that there are millions more chairs and that I am alive siiting on it to feel that it is “fined tuned” does not negate from the fact that it is “fined tuned”.


  2. The fine-tuning argument, contrary to what apologists indicate, actually dispels the notion of an omnipotent god that is at the origin…the fine-tuning of the universe has a compulsory element…so, was God compelled to create the universe in this fashion?…if so, then God does not possess omnipotent power, nor is God at the origin as the compelling properties must necessarily reside outside of God in the same manner as the physiochemical properties of the ingredients of bread or cake reside outside of the baker…the baker must follow the ‘rules’ to derive a proper bread or cake, and the ‘rules’ exist outside of the baker…so is God then merely a baker?

    Now one could argue that God chose to make the universe in this fashion (with this particular kind of physics), but could have chosen any other manner to construct the universe…but then the fine-tuning would not constitute a special case and can’t be used a logical deduction (i would be more convinced of a supernatural entity if there were no rules at all).

    For me, the fine-tuning actually makes sense if there is an unguided, probabilistic process at work…for any event (x) to occur there is a build-up of probabilities – any shift in the probability of an antecedent event will necessarily lead away from event x…if event x occurs then necessarily the probabilities would have worked out…we can look back and, if you are given to supernatural thinking, conclude that everything was organized-designed for event x (as John Pryce indicates in his comment) even though event x developed in a probabilistic space…

    Al lot of what I read from the apologetics indicates that the universe is fine-tuned by god for the creation of humankind…but why stop there?…why not conclude that the fine-tuning was there to create me or my dog or someone’s cancer or the Miami Dolphins winning the Superbowl (there is no God when it comes to that one)…after all these are lower probability events than the ‘creation’ of the human species


    1. A few mistakes. The fine tuning allows for the universe to be a stable structure. Even if there were no life you would have to explain how a lego building reality popped into existence. if you somehow witness the expansion of this Spacetime and saw particles that just happen to bind together via electromagnetism, and the strong force…which is essentially magic that protons glue together…I think you would wonder what the heck was behind this.

      2nd…you dont seem to be familiar with Gods hiddenness. God could go on CNN right now if he was interested in coercing us ..thus destroying our free will. We must be free to reject God or we would have a world of pretenders bowing to a God they could care less about. You reveal yourself by adopting any view that allows you to walk away from God. We have just enough evidence and experience to turn to God in faith and ask if Christ was who he said he was…Jesus said precisely this…turn to Him and you will have no more doubts if you truly want to be Gods child.

      Perhaps God designed the world to unfold in this way just for this precise moment in history– where the balance of doubt vs evidence may have started to shift for too many because of this current atheist movement. But the point is, your dog has no clue as to why he cant poop on your rug but you understand it fully. Is not God suppose to be infinitely smarter than us? Maybe this is the best of all possible worlds in which man is free to reveal his heart.


  3. Totally doesnt make sense to me….

    In this universe, you would assign a creator for “orderly” things…things that are fine tune….

    Now it is apparent that the universe is also “fine tuned”. In macroscopic level it is in orderly fashion…..What does that said about the universe?? What is a logical deduction from this fact?

    The universe is created…and that there is a creator….

    Why do you think your fellow atheist scientist like Stephen Hawking tried so hard to explain away the fine tuning with multiverse, recycle universe and so on….it is because of this precise reason..that the necessary logical conclusion of this fine tuning inevitably lead to the universe being created.

    I am not sure about others, but I do conclude “that the fine-tuning was there to create me or my dog or someone’s cancer or the Miami Dolphins winning the Superbowl”


    1. “In this universe, you would assign a creator for “orderly” things…things that are fine tune….” What does this mean? And who assigns the creator?

      Your deduction that an orderly universe necessitates a creator does not follow…a series of probabilistic events can lead to order

      so are you saying that god is a baker?


      1. if you find an “orderly thing” like a car…a house etc… Would you assign creator to it? Almost instantenously for most of us… I guess you would say that its a result of series of probabilistic event eh?

        “Your deduction that an orderly universe necessitates a creator does not follow…a series of probabilistic events can lead to order.”

        Yes I agree that an orderly universe does not necessarily necessitate a creator….however it is astronomically more probable than a series of random probabilisitic event as you inclined to believe.

        “so are you saying that god is a baker?”



  4. I thought the article was more fair than most. And Wintery’s comments, as well, have much merit, IMO.

    From the article…..

    1. “Intelligent design, however, is an answer to fine-tuning that does not appeal to most scientists..”

    Seems like a particularly unscientific stance: We don’t like it so we won’t consider it.

    2. “We live in one of the universes that permits life because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to ask the question.”

    Let me rephrase what he said:
    ‘The reason we live in a universe that permits life is because if we did not live in such a universe, we would not be here.’

    3. “Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not.”

    Well then this MIT professor seems to not understand the philosophical underpinnings of science. Science is based on many axioms which must be taken on faith.

    Wintery Knight said: “The multiverse is not pure nonsense, it is theoretically possible”.

    Yes, but there’s no end to the theoretically possible. When there is absolutely no evidence, Until proven otherwise, it falls into the category of absolute nonsense .


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