MIT physicist Alan Lightman on fine-tuning and the multiverse

Apologetics and the progress of science
Christianity and the progress of science

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 fine-­tuning 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

10 thoughts on “MIT physicist Alan Lightman on fine-tuning and the multiverse”

  1. WK, as a matter of interest, have you read Robin Collins’ section on fine-tuning in The Blackwell Guide to Natural Theology?


    1. I have not! That book is above my pay grade. Maybe one day I can work my way up to it. Did you see the presentation he made at the Greer-Heard forum? That went right over my head.


      1. If you’re referring to the one after (?) the Craig-Carroll debate, then I don’t remember. I may have, largely because I’ve looked into a lot of the stuff on fine-tuning (including some of the scientific papers), but I honestly don’t remember. I find Collins’ presentations to be very poorly done. The man is a good philosopher, but a poor speaker. When it comes to fine tuning arguments, I prefer John Polkinghorne and Rodney Holder’s talks.

        If you ever read the book, take a look at McGrew’s argument from miracles. That section alone makes it worthwhile.

        I KNOW you have J.P. Moreland’s Debating Christian Theism (one of my favorite apologetics books), so you can also look at his formulation in that volume.


  2. The Christian should LOVE and embrace the idea of the multiverse when it is presented to him or her by the a-theist: it just makes our God that much bigger! The fine-tuning required so that the bubble universes do not interfere with one another makes the fine-tuning odds of our universe alone, 1 in 10 exp (10^123), (well beyond the odds of mathematical impossibility, 1 in 10^80), look highly probable by comparison with the odds in the multiverse. Plus, the multiverse itself is subject to the BGV Theorem, so appeals to the multiverse do not help the a-theist one whit with respect to Kalam.


  3. Excellent articles, both Lightman’s and yours. It seems a quibble, but the only critique I would have is that, at one point, you seem to share Lightman’s presumption that “faith” is groundless belief or acceptance, like Kierkegaard’s “leap” (though you do point out that we have evidence for God besides the fine-tuning of the universe). What atheists have is not “faith” (not in any Biblical sense) in a multi-verse but a baseless, grasping, and desperate credulity in an utterly abstract concept that not only has no empirical basis whatsoever, but has no conceivable way to be tested. Lightman seems to understand this lack at one level, but he doesn’t seem willing to admit that the “story” of multiple universes is not in the least bit scientific (despite the conceptual theorizing and allied mathematics it generates), but is rather the worst sort of vacuous metaphysical speculation–the kind that is concocted to explain away self-evident or well-evidenced truths that one does not want to accept. Since the positing and empirical verification of the “Big Bang” theory (a pejorative title attached by atheist astronomer Fred Hoyle, who did not like the theological implications of the theory), the real astronomical and cosmological evidence has increasingly substantiated what the apostle Paul wrote, that “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.” That there is a God, Paul asserts, is so obvious from the evidence surrounding us in the created world, that “men are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20). Of course, this does not stop us as fallen, rebellious humanity from continuing to generate self-justifying excuses for rejecting God, of which the multiple universe theory is just the latest, most sophisticated example.


    1. I dislike and oppose Kierkegaard so much that I would not even call him a Christian, and it’s because of his view of faith. However, I think that atheists do believe things without evidence, so that definition of faith applies to them, and only them.


  4. Good thoughts…multiversal cosmologies of all sorts require a leap from empiricism into metaphysics, and are really more akin to faith than most of their proponents would like to admit. The multiverse is also not at all antithetical to Theism. In fact, one might argue that it is even more amenable to theistic thought than our single spacetime, to the point where atheism ceases to be a coherent worldview.


  5. Something I wonder about: If a multiverse generator provided every possible set of physical constants and/or laws of nature would that guarantee consciousness/self awareness in one of the universes? Are proponents of the multiverse assuming that consciousness can be explained through natural processes? As a software engineer/EE, if I were given all the world’s resources, I wouldn’t even know where to begin to create consciousness. No computer program is self aware.


      1. Yes, and just so you guys know this: AI was “right around the corner” in the 1970’s. I know this because I was a Dennett fan as an atheist, and was waiting for AI to be all-but-finished by 2000. :-)

        It has been a colossal failure. Just saying.


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