Harvard University astrophysicist discusses fine-tuning in the Washington Post

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

I’m pretty sure my readers already know about the fine-tuning argument, but it’s not every day you see it discussed (however briefly) in a far-left mainstream newspaper like the Washington Post. (H/T Carmen)

The author is Howard A. Smith:

Howard A. Smith is a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a member of the Harvard Department of Astronomy. His research emphasizes the origins of stars, stellar systems and galaxies, and he is an author on more than 250 scientific articles. Previously he was Chair of Astronomy at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum; he also served for three years as a visiting scientist at NASA Headquarters.

Here is some of what he wrote in the far-left Washington Post:

There was a time, back when astronomy put Earth at the center of the universe, that we thought we were special. But after Copernicus kicked Earth off its pedestal, we decided we were cosmically inconsequential, partly because the universe is vast and about the same everywhere. Astronomer Carl Sagan put it this way: “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star.” Stephen Hawking was even blunter: “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.”

An objective look, however, at just two of the most dramatic discoveries of astronomy — big bang cosmology and planets around other stars (exoplanets) — suggests the opposite. We seem to be cosmically special, perhaps even unique — at least as far as we are likely to know for eons.

The first result — the anthropic principle — has been accepted by physicists for 43 years. The universe, far from being a collection of random accidents, appears to be stupendously perfect and fine-tuned for life. The strengths of the four forces that operate in the universe — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear interactions (the latter two dominate only at the level of atoms) — for example, have values critically suited for life, and were they even a few percent different, we would not be here. The most extreme example is the big bang creation: Even an infinitesimal change to its explosive expansion value would preclude life. The frequent response from physicists offers a speculative solution: an infinite number of universes — we are just living in the one with the right value. But modern philosophers such as Thomas Nagel and pioneering quantum physicists such as John Wheeler have argued instead that intelligent beings must somehow be the directed goal of such a curiously fine-tuned cosmos.

It seems likely that exoplanets could host extraterrestrial intelligence. But intelligence is not so easy to produce. Paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee summarize the many constraints in their book “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe ” and show why it takes vastly more than liquid water and a pleasant environment to give birth even to simple (much less complex) life. At a minimum, it takes an environment stable for billions of years of evolution, plus all the right ingredients. Biologists from Jacques Monod to Stephen Jay Gould have emphasized the extraordinary circumstances that led to intelligence on Earth, while geneticists have found that DNA probably resulted from many accidents. So although the same processes operate everywhere, some sequences could be unlikely, even astronomically unlikely. The evolution of intelligence could certainly be such a sequence.

There is, moreover, a well-known constraint: the finite speed of light, which ensures that even over thousands of years we will only be able to communicate with the comparatively few stars (tens of millions) in our cosmic neighborhood. If the combined astronomical, biological and evolutionary chances for life to form and evolve to intelligence are only 1 in 10 million, then we probably have no one to talk to.

What is really strange is when I try to talk to atheists about this evidence, and they tell me about Star Trek and Star Wars and how the universe isn’t specially designed and there are aliens everywhere.  Atheists like the science fiction, they don’t like the science facts.

If you would like to hear a good lecture on the fine-tuning argument, this one with Robin Collins is very good. You can hear him debate the fine-tuning argument with Peter Millican here. And in this lecture Collins talks about his new research. Another discussion between Luke Barnes and an atheist is useful to understand how objections to the argument can be answered.

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