The formation of the elements required for complex embodied life is fine-tuned

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

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 The evidential support for this view seems to be grounded in Star Trek TV shows, not peer-reviewed evidence.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:

  1. The fine-tuning of the universe to support life is either due to law, chance or design
  2. It is not due to law or chance
  3. 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.

Let’s review:

  • 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.

It says:

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.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

12 thoughts on “The formation of the elements required for complex embodied life is fine-tuned”

  1. You are Johnny-on-the-spot today, WK – I just had an atheist talk time travel with me. :-)

  2. After reading William Lane Craig’s ‘Reasonable Faith’ 2008 edition, I have been using Blaise Pascal’s ‘Wager Argument’ (‘If one wagers that God exists and He does, one has gained eternal life and infinite happiness. If God does not exist, one has lost nothing. If one wagers that God does not exist and He does, then one has suffered infinite loss, including being placed in the Lake of Fire, after the White Throne Judgement. Hence, the only prudent choice is to believe that God exists.’) with atheists. It works most of the time.

    Sometimes, I received a few, idiotic responses back: ‘I rather burn in hell, than be a servant forever.’ ‘God won’t put me in hell forever for not believing in Him for only the short time that He gives me here on Earth.’ Or my favorite response: ‘Oh well!’ Or ‘Whatever, I’ll take my chances!’

    1. There is another answer you will sometimes get from atheists: “You are presupposing Christian theism vs. atheism only. What about other gods – perhaps we will both end up in Muslim Hell?”

      So, that is where the Minimal Facts Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth will come into play – narrowing down theistic worldviews to Christian theism only. Then, it would seem that Pascal’s Wager is more valid.

        1. Haha – you got me there again! How about evidential arguments get us to the point where we can legitimately use good philosophical pre-suppositional arguments like Pascal’s Wager?

          BTW, I threw the new computer science work being done on Godel’s Ontological Argument at an atheist lately, and I think it stumped him. I know, I know, but still! :-)

          1. Since this is a blog largely about science and math, let’s get mathematical. The formula for the expected payoff of a decision is: (Reward if you’re correct)x(probability you are correct)+(loss if you’re wrong)x(probability of being wrong)
            If you assume Christianity and atheism are the only options, then the payout if Christianity is correct is infinite (heaven), and the loss if you’re wrong is nothing (you just die). As long as the probability of Christianity is above 0, the expected payoff of choosing Christianity is therefore infinite, so you should ALWAYS choose Christianity.
            But what if atheism isn’t the only alternative to Christianity? Let’s add Islam as a third alternative. This means that the expected payoff of choosing Christianity is:
            (Reward if Christianity is correct)x(probability Christianity is correct)+(loss if atheism is correct)x(probability atheism is correct)+(loss if Islam is correct)x(probability that Islam is correct)
            The reward if Christianity is correct is infinite (heaven), the loss if atheism is nothing (you just die), and the loss if Islam is correct is infinite (hell).
            WGC’s response was to say that evidential arguments can be used to take Islam out of the picture. Let’s assume that evidential arguments can be used to show that the probability of Christianity is 99.99%, and the probability of atheism is 0.005 and the probability of Islam is 0.005. In this case the expected payoff of choosing Christianity is (infinity)x(.9999)+(0)(.005)+(-infinity)(.005)=0. In this case, EVEN THOUGH the evidential arguments in favor of Christianity make Islam a mere logical possibility, the payoff of choosing Christianity is STILL zero because you stand to lose INFINITE value if you are wrong about Islam.
            The point here is that evidential arguments, by definition, can only lower the probability of theories, but they can never disprove them in a mathematical sense, i.e., lower their probabilities to zero. And that is what you would need to do in order to take Islam out of the equation for Pascal’s Wager. You would need to rule out Islam on logical grounds like incoherence. I think this can be done.

          2. Arnold, I basically agree with what you are saying here, roughly, but aren’t you violating math when you subtract infinities like that?!? It has been awhile since my degree in that field – 31 years actually – but seeing that subtraction set off red flags for me.

            Forgive me, in advance, if my comment is incoherent.

        2. I agree Islam can be ruled out on historical grounds, but that is an evidential argument using data from history, and no historical argument amounts to a mathematical proof. The conclusions of historical arguments are about probabilities, not mathematical certainties. The crucifixion of Jesus is a well established historical conclusion, but that means it is a HIGHLY probable conclusion. It is not 100% certain, and no historian would say that history can deliver conclusions with 100% certainty. This means that the crucifixion only renders Islam HIGHLY improbable, but not down to 0%. The only propositions with conclusions of 0% are contradictions. And in order to take Islam out of the equation for Pascal’s Wager, you need to show that it is incoherent, so it’s probability is zero. Remember, the expected value of choosing Christianity is (Reward if Christianity is correct)x(probability Christianity is correct)+(loss if atheism is correct)x(probability atheism is correct)+(loss if Islam is correct)x(probability that Islam is correct). The only way to offset the infinite cost of Islam being correct would be to multiply it by zero.

          I think this can be easily done. The God of Islam is supposed to be perfectly good, but the God is Islam also violates certain necessary moral truths. So the God of Islam is internally inconsistent. I’m sure there are other reasons why Islam is incoherent as well.

      1. My approach with atheists has always been to challenge them on their basic beliefs, facts, or truths. If they play the evidence card, and they have, then I have always responded to them with my George Washington Argument (You have no proof for GW’s existence, except for a piece of paper or what someone has told you. GW was not a god and there were never any assertions that he was a god. However, you believe in him for who he was and what he accomplished without any evidence except for a few pieces of rusty papers. So, you can’t call my Bible a book of fairy tales if you can’t even prove that GW existed. To this, I always receive the same response from at least one person: then what should we believe? To this I state: why not start with the most controversial figure in world history: Jesus Christ).

        With that being said, I have never had an atheists question me on which hell (Christian or Muslim) that I am referring to. Thanks for the heads up on this!

        However, I have utilized Dr. Craig debates and research on Islam (no independent historical text on the identity of the author of the Quran; differences in the love aspect of the a God of Christianity and the God of Islam; how the Quran erroneously states that Jesus never said that He was the Christ, even though there are non-Christian sources verifying that He did say that He was the Christ; contradiction in the text of the Quran about the Gospels-delineating how the Gospels are the best books every written, but they were tampered with by Catholics; the Quran was written 600 years after Chrsit, while the Gospels & the book of Revelation were written between 30-95 AD; the Quran states that Jesus was never crucified, even though non-Christian sources confirm that He was, etc) with a few Muslims.

        To which I was given the response: do you actually think that we’re going to believe you, a Christian, about our religion? I even told them to do the research yourself to see (I even provided them with a few websites and book titles. They just laughed it off, and the controversation ended).

        Which brings me back, in full circle, to the Pascal’s Wager Argument (when they refuse to look at the research or evidence): ‘If one wagers that Jesus is not the Christ, He will not return again, and He is the Christ and will return,again, then one has and will suffer infinite loss, including being placed in the Lake of Fire. Why take this chance?’

        Or am I now just ‘casting my pearls before the swine’ when they refuse to look and/or listen to the evidence?

        1. No, I am 100% onboard there – great arguments! You are not casting pearls before swine until the conversation continues to go around a few times, IMO. Also, if the “atheist” uses the “atheism means I lack belief in a god” definition, then you might be casting pearls before swine. But, first see if you can move them to agnosticism – I was able to do that rather quickly with an intellectually honest chapter president of American Atheists.

          But, if they are a say-so atheist who demands to use the “lack of belief” definition, I would move on. They are not going to be reasonable.

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