Atheist Luke Muehlhauser interviews well-respect cosmologist Luke Barnes about the fine-tuning argument, and the naturalistic response to it.
Luke M. did a good job explaining the outline of the podcast.
In one of my funniest and most useful episodes yet, I interview astronomer Luke Barnes about the plausibility of 11 responses to the fine-tuning of the universe. Frankly, once you listen to this episode you will be better equipped to discuss fine-tuning than 90% of the people who discuss it on the internet. This episode will help clarify the thinking of anyone – including and perhaps especially professional philosophers – about the fine-tuning of the universe.
The 11 responses to fine-tuning we discuss are:
“It’s just a coincidence.”
“We’ve only observed one universe, and it’s got life. So as far as we know, the probability that a universe will support life is one out of one!”
“However the universe was configured, evolution would have eventually found a way.”
“There could be other forms of life.”
“It’s impossible for life to observe a universe not fine-tuned for life.”
“Maybe there are deeper laws; the universe must be this way, even though it looks like it could be other ways.”
“Maybe there are bajillions of universes, and we happen to be in one of the few that supports life.”
“Maybe a physics student in another universe created our universe in an attempt to design a universe that would evolve intelligent life.”
“This universe with intelligent life is just as unlikely as any other universe, so what’s the big deal?”
“The universe doesn’t look like it was designed for life, but rather for empty space or maybe black holes.”
“Fine-tuning shows there must be an intelligent designer beyond physical reality that tuned the universe so it would produce intelligent life.”
Download CPBD episode 040 with Luke Barnes. Total time is 1:16:31.
There is a very good explanation of some of the cases of fine-tuning that I talk about most on this blog – the force of gravity, the strong force, etc. as well as many other examples. Dr. Barnes is an expert, but he is also very very easy to listen to even when talking about difficult issues. Luke M. is very likeable as the interviewer.
By now, anyone who has had discussions about scientific evidence for the existence of God knows about the fine-tuning argument. In a nutshell, if the fundamental constants and quantities given in the Big Bang were even slightly other than they are, then the universe itself would not be hospitable for complex, embodied intelligent life.
Here is an article from The New Atlantis written by Australian cosmologist Luke Barnes.
Today, our deepest understanding of the laws of nature is summarized in a set of equations. Using these equations, we can make very precise calculations of the most elementary physical phenomena, calculations that are confirmed by experimental evidence. But to make these predictions, we have to plug in some numbers that cannot themselves be calculated but are derived from measurements of some of the most basic features of the physical universe. These numbers specify such crucial quantities as the masses of fundamental particles and the strengths of their mutual interactions. After extensive experiments under all manner of conditions, physicists have found that these numbers appear not to change in different times and places, so they are called the fundamental constants of nature.
[…]A universe that has just small tweaks in the fundamental constants might not have any of the chemical bonds that give us molecules, so say farewell to DNA, and also to rocks, water, and planets. Other tweaks could make the formation of stars or even atoms impossible. And with some values for the physical constants, the universe would have flickered out of existence in a fraction of a second. That the constants are all arranged in what is, mathematically speaking, the very improbable combination that makes our grand, complex, life-bearing universe possible is what physicists mean when they talk about the “fine-tuning” of the universe for life.
Let’s look at an example – the strong force. Not only must the strong force be fine-tuned so we have both hydrogen and helium, but the ratio of the strong force must also be fine-tuned with the fine structure constant.
The strong nuclear force, for example, is the glue that holds protons and neutrons together in the nuclei of atoms. If, in a hypothetical universe, it is too weak, then nuclei are not stable and the periodic table disappears again. If it is too strong, then the intense heat of the early universe could convert all hydrogen into helium — meaning that there could be no water, and that 99.97 percent of the 24 million carbon compounds we have discovered would be impossible, too. And, as the chart to the right shows, the forces, like the masses, must be in the right balance. If the electromagnetic force, which is responsible for the attraction and repulsion of charged particles, is too strong or too weak compared to the strong nuclear force, anything from stars to chemical compounds would be impossible.
Here’s the chart he’s referencing:
As you can see from the chart, most of the values that the constants could take would make complex, embodied intelligent life impossible.
We need carbon (carbon-based life) because they form the basis of the components of life chemistry, e.g. proteins, sugars, etc. We need hydrogen for water. We need chemical reactions for obvious reasons. We need the light from the stars to support plant and animal life on the surface of a planet. And so on. In almost every case where you change the values of these constants and quantities and ratios from what they are, you will end up with a universe that does not support life. Not just life as we know it, but life of any conceivable kind under these laws of physics. And we don’t have any alternative laws of physics in this universe.
By the way, just to show you how mainstream these examples of fine-tuning are, I thought I would link to a source that you’re all going to be familiar with: The New Scientist.
The fine-tuning of the force of gravity
So here is an article from the New Scientist about a different constant that also has to be fine-tuned for life: the force of gravity.
The feebleness of gravity is something we should be grateful for. If it were a tiny bit stronger, none of us would be here to scoff at its puny nature.
The moment of the universe‘s birth created both matter and an expanding space-time in which this matter could exist. While gravity pulled the matter together, the expansion of space drew particles of matter apart – and the further apart they drifted, the weaker their mutual attraction became.
It turns out that the struggle between these two was balanced on a knife-edge. If the expansion of space had overwhelmed the pull of gravity in the newborn universe, stars, galaxies and humans would never have been able to form. If, on the other hand, gravity had been much stronger, stars and galaxies might have formed, but they would have quickly collapsed in on themselves and each other. What’s more, the gravitational distortion of space-time would have folded up the universe in a big crunch. Our cosmic history could have been over by now.
Only the middle ground, where the expansion and the gravitational strength balance to within 1 part in 1015 at 1 second after the big bang, allows life to form.
Notice how the article also mentioned “the universe’s birth”, which is part of mainstream science.
When I’m writing to you about things like the origin of the universe, or the cosmic fine-tuning, I’m not talking to you about things that pastors found in the Bible. These discoveries are known and accepted by mainstream scientists. It’s amazing that people are constructing their worldviews without having to account for the birth of the universe and this cosmic fine-tuning. We all, as rational individuals, have to bound our view of the universe with the findings of science. Right now, those findings support the existence of a Creator and a Designer. So why am I seeing so many atheists who are just plain ignorant about these facts? Maybe we should tell them about this evidence. Maybe we should ask them why they don’t account for scientific evidence when forming their beliefs.
Here’s a debate with a well-qualified atheist and Dr. Craig.
Description from the Youtube upload:
This debate on “Does God Exist?” took place in front of a capacity audience at the Great Hall, University of Birmingham. It was recorded on Friday 21st October 2011 as part of the UK Reasonable Faith Tour with William Lane Craig.
William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, California and a leading philosopher of religion. Peter Millican is Gilbert Ryle Professor of Philosophy at Hertford College, University of Oxford and a noted scholar in studies of Hume.
The debate was hosted by the University of Birmingham Student Philosophy Society, and the debate was moderated by Professor Carl Chinn.
Dr. Millican proved to be an amazing debater, and that allowed Dr. Craig to show the full range of his talents in a way that he has never done before. This was a great debate – right up there with Craig’s two debates against Austin Dacey and Paul Draper. Dr. Millican is excellent at analytical philosophy, had studied cosmology and physics, and he came prepared to answer Craig’s arguments. There is NO SNARK in my debate summary below, out of respect for Dr. Millican. However, I haven’t proof-read it, so please do point out any errors. There is about 30 minutes of Q&A time at the end.
Dr. Craig’s opening speech:
There are good reasons to believe that God exists.
There are no good reasons to believe that God does not exist.
A1) The origin of the universe
The universe began to exist
If the universe began to exist, then the universe has a transcendent cause.
The universe has a transcendent cause.
The origin of the universe is confirmed by philosophical arguments and scientific evidence.
There cannot be an actual infinite number of past events, because mathematical operations like subtraction and division cannot be applied to actual infinities.
The Borde-Guth-Vilenkin (BGV) proof shows that every universe that expands must have a space-time boundary in the past. That means that no expanding universe, no matter what the model, cannot be eternal into the past.
Even speculative alternative cosmologies do not escape the need for a beginning.
The cause of the universe must be transcendent and supernatural. It must be uncaused, because there cannot be an infinite regress of causes. It must be eternal, because it created time. It must be non-physical, because it created space. There are only two possibilities for such a cause. It could be an abstract object or an agent. Abstract objects cannot cause effects. Therefore, the cause is an agent.
A2) The fine-tuning of the universe
The fine-tuning of the universe is either due to law, chance or design.
It is not due to law or chance.
Therefore, it is due to design.
The progress of science has revealed that the Big Bang was fine-tuned to allow for the existence of intelligent life.
Type 1: Constants like the gravitational constant are finely-tuned, and are not dependent on the laws of physics.
Type 2: Quantities like the amount of entropy in the universe, are not dependent on the laws of physics.
The range of life-permitting values is incredibly small compared to the possible values of the constants and quantities. (Like having a lottery with a million black balls and one white ball, and you pick the white ball. Even though each individual ball has the same tiny chance of being picked, but the odds are overwhelming that the whichever ball you pick will be black, and not white).
Not only are the numbers not due to laws, but they are not due to chance either. It’s not just that the settings are unlikely, it’s that they are unlikely and they conform to an independent pattern – namely, the ability to support complex life.
A3) The moral argument
If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
Objective morality does exist.
Therefore, God exists.
Objective moral values are values that exist independently of whether any humans believe them or not.
Michael Ruse, an atheist philosopher agrees that if God does not exist, then there is only a “herd morality” that is determined by biological evolution and social evolution. There no objective moral standard, just different customs and conventions that vary by time and place. Anyone who acts against the herd morality is merely being unfashionable and unconventional. On the atheistic view, there is nothing objective and binding about this evolved “herd morality”. However, people do experience objective moral values, and these cannot be grounded on atheism.
Furthermore, God must exist in order to argue that there is evil in the world. In order to be able to make a distinction between good and evil that is objective, there has to be a God to determine a standard of good and evil that is binding regardless of the varying customs and conventions of different people groups. Even when a person argues against God’s existence by pointing to the “evil” in the world, they must assume objective moral values, and a God who grounds those objective moral values.
A4) The resurrection of Jesus.
There are certain minimal facts that are admitted by the majority of historians, across the ideological spectrum: the empty tomb, the appearances and the early belief in the resurrection.
Naturalistic attempts to explain these minimal facts fail.
The best explanation of these facts is that Jesus rose from the dead.
A5) Religious experience
People can know that God exists through experience. In the absence of defeaters for these experiences, these experiences constitute evidence for God’s existence.
Dr. Millican’s opening speech:
Dr. Craig has the burden of proof because he claims that God exists.
The Christian God hypothesis:
An omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God created the universe.
This God cares about humans.
This God has acted in history though the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
This is a factual claim, and we are discussing the evidence for whether these claims are true or false. We are not interested in religious practice, or the consolation of religious belief, nor any other religions.
A1) Religious pluralism and epistemology
Human beings are purpose-finding creatures – we are prone to prefer explanations that involve purpose.
Human beings are pattern-finding animals – we tend to find designs in states of affairs.
Human beings have an interest in maintaining religious hierarchies because of the power it gives them.
Religious beliefs are not determined by rational considerations, but are determined by geographic location.
The same non-scientific method of generating religious beliefs (purpose-finding, pattern-finding, geographic location, parental teaching, charismatic speakers, praise songs and worship, religious education, ancient holy books) is being used in several religions, and it leads to different, contradictory truth claims. So at least some of those conflicting claims are false. And if the method is generating some false claims, then it’s not a good method, and it undermines all the religions that use those methods.
A2) Absence of evidence is evidence of absence
There is no scientific evidence for God.
A3) Mental processes depend on physical systems
There is no scientific evidence for a disembodied intelligence.
Our universal human experience is that intelligence and mental operations require a physical brain.
The quality of our thinking depends on physical conditions, like being tired or on drugs.
But Christian theists believe that mental processes can exist independently of an underlying physical reality, unimpaired by the death of the physical body and the brain.
R.A1) The origin of the universe
1. There is no evidence that whatever begins to exist requires a cause. All the evidence we have of things beginning to exist are when something is created from rearrangements of other things that already existed.
The closest analog we have to something coming into being from nothing is quantum particles coming into being from nothing, and that causation is random.
There is no evidence that thoughts can bring about physical effects, and Bill is arguing for a mental cause to the origin of the universe.
Even if things that begin to exist IN the universe have causes, it doesn’t hold for the universe as a whole. Bill is committing the fallacy of composition.
Time begins with the universe, but our experience of causation is that it is a temporal process. So if there is no time “prior to” the universe’s beginning, then how can there be a cause to the universe?
It’s possible that there could be something outside our universe that is eternal.
It’s also possible that the Big Bang could be wrong, and this universe could oscillate eternally and not require a beginning.
2. There are cosmological theories that avoid the beginning of the universe by positing a prior period of contraction prior to the Big Bang.
The beginning of this universe depends on general relativity, and that theory breaks down at the level of quantum mechanics.
3. There is no evidence that minds can exist without an underlying physical system. So even if there is a cause of the universe, then it is neither an abstract object nor a mind. It would have to be something else, and not something we are familiar with – we are just not in a position to speculate of what it could be.
R.A3) The moral argument
Atheists do believe in a standard of morality that is not based on what groups of humans believe.
Utilitarians think there is a standard of moral values that is objective, because the measure of human happiness (for the greatest number) is objective, even if people are mistaken about what promotes that happiness.
Kantians have a rational process for determining which moral imperatives should be universalized.
Humeans have a system that is rooted in natural human sentiment.
Dr. Craig’s first rebuttal:
I do not have the only burden of proof. The topic is “Does God Exist?”. If Dr. Millican answers “no” then he has a burden of proof, otherwise we are left with agnosticism.
R.A1) Religious pluralism and epistemology
First, there is no single common method of adopting a religion.
Second, MY method this evening is logic and evidence and personal experience – which is the same as his method. So his comments about how people in different religions adopt their religion through parents, church, singing, etc. have no bearing on the arguments I will be making.
R.A2) Absence of evidence is evidence of absence
Absence of evidence is only evidence of absence if we can reasonably expect that there should be some evidence that is not present. He would have to show that there should be more evidence for God’s existence that the 5 arguments that I already presented – something that we should expect to see that we don’t see.
R.A3) Mental processes depend on physical systems
No response by Dr. Craig. (but see below)
A1) The origin of the universe
1. He says that there are speculative cosmologies like the multiverse that escape the need for a beginning, but that’s false, the BGV proof applies to them, and they do need a beginning.
He says that you can escape BGV by positing a contraction prior to the expansion. However Vilenkin says that any contraction phase is unstable and would introduce additional singularities that would hamper any later expansion phase.
He says that we need a theory of quantum gravity in order to describe the early universe. But Vilenkin says that the BGV proof is independent of gravity as defined by general relativity.
He did not respond to the philosophical arguments for a beginning of the universe.
2. He says that we don’t have experience of things coming into being except from material causes. However, it would be even more difficult to explain the universe coming into being on atheism since you can’t appeal to a material cause nor to an efficient cause. Even Hume recognizes that things can’t pop into being without causes.
He talks about how in quantum physics virtual particles appear out of nothing. But that’s false, because the quantum vacuum in which virtual particles appear is not nothing, it is a sea of subatomic particles and energy. Quantum physics is not an exception to the idea that things that come into being require a cause.
He mentions the fallacy of composition. But I am not saying that everything in the universe has a cause, therefore the universe as a whole has a cause. I am saying that non-being has no capacity to bring something into being. Non-Being doesn’t even have the potential to bring something into being.
3. He says that there are no unembodied minds, so the cause of the universe can’t be an unembodied mind. But the argument concludes that there is a non-material cause, and it can’t be an abstract object, so it would have to be a mind.
In addition, we ourselves are unembodied minds. This is because physical objects cannot have the properties that minds have, like the property of having feelings.
Material conceptions of mind don’t explain identity over time.
Material conceptions of mind don’t explain free will.
Material conceptions of mind don’t explain intentional states (thinking about something).
Material conceptions of mind don’t explain mental causation.
The best explanation for our own first person experience of the mental realm is a substance dualism. We are non-material minds, and we can cause effects in the physical world. And God does the same thing. He is a mind, and he causes physical effects.
A2) He gave no response.
A3) He says that there are atheistic theories of morality that don’t depend on the opinions of groups. But these theories all depend on the idea that human beings have instrinsic value – that they are the sorts of things to which moral considerations apply. Naturalism cannot ground this moral value – human beings are no more valuable any other animal.
Also, there are no objective moral obligations in naturalist systems of morality, because there is no one in authority to command them. Moral prescriptions require moral prescribers.
A4) He gave no response.
A5) He gave no response.
Dr. Millican’s first rebuttal:
R.A2) The fine-tuning argument
We have to be careful not to judge what counts as finely-tuned through our intuitions.
We have to be careful about reasoning for a sample size of this one observable universe.
We don’t really know about the full range of possibilities for these constants and quantities.
There might be other universes that we can’t observe that aren’t fine-tuned, and we just happen to be in the one that is fine-tuned.
The fine-tuning might be solved by future discoveries, like the inflationary cosmology removed some of the fine-tuning.
There might be a multiverse that we don’t have evidence for right now.
We need to be careful about using science to prove God because science might change in the future.
The universe is very big and mysterious.
This argument doesn’t prove that God is good. He could be evil = anti-God.
God created the universe inefficiently if his goal was to produce life.
God created the universe too big.
God created the universe too old.
God created too many galaxies and stars that are not hospitable to life.
If the universe were fine-tuned for life, then there should be more aliens.
If the universe were fine-tuned for life, then there are probably lots of alien civilizations. But then Jesus would have to appear to all of the aliens too.
R.A1) The origin of the universe
2. It’s not a big deal that you can get multiple solutions to equations involving subtraction of actual infinities. For example, the equation 0 x y = 0 has many solutions for y, but that doesn’t mean that multiplication doesn’t work in the real world.
A2) Absence of evidence is evidence of absence
I would expect that there would be more evidence than there is.
R.A1) The origin of the universe
2. The BVG proof might be overturned by future scientific discoveries. We have no reason to be confident in current physics.
I agree that the quantum vacuum is something and not nothing, but it’s similar to nothing.
We don’t have any reason to believe that things that come into being require causes – except for our universal experience that this is always the case.
3. As to the cause of the universe coming into being, you said that it could only be an abstract object or a mind, and it can’t be an abstract object because they don’t cause effects, so it must be a mind. But there are all sorts of things we’ve never thought of that it could be other than a mind.
I agree that mental properties are not physical properties and that epiphenomenalism is incorrect. Physical objects can have “algorithmic properties” as well as physical properties, it doesn’t mean that computers have minds.
Dr. Craig’s second rebuttal:
R.A2) Absence of evidence is evidence of absence
He expressed his personal opinion that there should be more evidence, but that’s not an argument.
God knows how people will respond to getting more evidence or less evidence and he has to be careful not to take away their free will to disbelieve by piling them up with coercive evidence. God’s goal is not just to convince people that he exists. God’s goal is to have people respond to him and pursue him.
A1) The origin of the universe
2. He said that multiple answers to equations are no problem. But the problem is that you can’t translate multiple answers into a real world context.
The problem is that you are subtracting an identical number from an identical number and getting contradictory results, and that cannot be translated into the real world, where subtraction always gives a definite single result.
He talks about how you can get multiple answers with multiplication by 0. But 0 is not a real quantity, it is just the absence of something, and that cannot translate into the real world, because it has no being.
He says that I am only using evidence from current physics. But that is the point – the evidence of current physics and cosmology supports the beginning of the universe.
3. He said that an umembodied mind can’t be the cause, but we are minds and we cause effects on our physical bodies.
In addition, the design argument supports the idea that the cause of the universe is intelligent.
A2) The fine-tuning of the universe
He says we should be cautious. Of course.
He says the probabilities can’t be assessed. But you can just take the current value and perturb it and see that the resulting universe loses its ability to support life, and you can test an entire range around the current value to see that that vast majority of values in the range don’t permit life.
He says that the current physics is not well-established, but there are so many examples of fine-tuning across so many different areas of science that it is not likely that all of them will be overturned, and the number of finely-tuned constants and quantities has been growing, not shrinking.
He says it doesn’t prove that God is good, and he’s right – that’s what the moral argument is for.
He says that God isn’t efficient enough, but efficiency is only important for those who have limited time and/or limited resources. But God has unlimited time and resources.
He says that the universe is too old, but the large age of the universe is a requirement to support intelligent life – (i.e. – you need third generation stars to provide a stable source of energy to planets, and those stars require that two generations of stars are born and die).
He said what about aliens, and theists are open to that, and God can certainly provide for the salvation of those beings, if they have fallen into sin.
Dr. Millican’s second rebuttal:
R.A1) The origin of the universe
3. Just because epiphenominalism is false, it doesn’t mean that substance dualism is true.
The majority of philosophers of mind do not accept substance dualism.
R.A3) The moral argument
The majority of philosophers are moral realists, but a minority of philosophers are theists. So that means that there must be some way of justifying morality on atheism, which I will not describe right now.
Atheists can express their opinion that humans have intrinsic moral value.
He grants that atheists can perceive moral values. But if atheists can perceive moral values, then why is God needed to enable that?
Atheists can express their opinion that humans are special. We can be rational, and that makes us special.
Atheists can express their opinion that it is good to care about other humans because they are of the same species.
R.A4) The resurrection of Jesus
We don’t have any reasons to believe i the supernatural.
The gospels are written late for the purposes of evangelism.
The gospels are not independent, e.g. Matthew and Luke depend on Q.
John is the latest gospel, and the Christology of John is the highest of all.
The four gospels agree because the early church rejected other (unnamed) gospels that didn’t agree.
Matthew 27 – the earthquake and the raised saints – is not recorded in any other contemporary non-Christian source.
Dr. Craig’s final rebuttal:
A3) The moral argument
He says that human beings are rational, and that gives them value. But atheists like Sam Harris prefer the flourishing of sentient life. He includes non-rational animals as having moral value. So without God, we see that the choice of who or what has moral value is arbitrary. And where would objective moral duties come from if there is no moral lawgiver?
The fact that most atheists accept objective moral values doesn’t mean that they can rationally ground those values on their atheistic worldview. You can’t provide a basis for moral values on atheism by counting the number of atheists who accept objective morality. It’s not surprising that atheists can perceive objective moral values IF they are living in auniverse created by God who grounds these objective moral values and duties that atheists perceive.
A4) The resurrection of Jesus
He cites Geza Vermes and Bart Ehrman as authorities on the historical Jesus, but both of them accept all three of the facts that I presented as minimal facts. Ehrman doesn’t accept the resurrection of Jesus because he presupposes naturalism. He rejects the resurrection on philosophical grounds, not historical grounds.
Dr. Millican’s final rebuttal:
R.A5) Religious experience
Religious experience is an unreliable way to test the claims of a religion, because lots of religions have them and they make contradictory truth claims. In the future, we may discover naturalistic ways of explaining religious experience.
R.A4) The resurrection of Jesus
Even if you can make a case for the resurrection based on these3 minimal facts, there are other stories in the New Testament like Matthew 27 that are quite weird and they undermine the 3 minimal facts that even Geza Vermes and Bart Ehrman accept.
R.A1) The origin of the universe
Bill hasn’t shown that there is any reason for thinking that things don’t come into being, uncaused, out of nothing.
A4) The problem of evil
Theists can’t explain what God’s specific morally sufficient reasons are for permitting the apparently gratuitous evil that we see.
If there is one thing that science fiction is good for, it’s for popularizing the phrase “carbon-based life”. Everyone has heard that carbon is essential for life. But do you know why carbon is so important? And did you know that the reaction that produced the carbon in our universe is actually fine-tuned, and therefore evidence for a Creator and Designer of the universe?
Now he starts off with a discussion of how the mass density of the universe needed to be fine-tuned in order to produce elements heavier than hydrogen from the (only) hydrogen that was present at the creation event. I’ve talked about that reaction previously, but I won’t repeat that here. Nucleosynthesis is one of the most important chemical reactions in science, and something every Christian should know and understand well enough to explain it.
You can’t make complex embodied intelligent creatures such as ourselves out of only hydrogen and helium, but you can’t make a life permitting universe without some hydrogen and helium. For one thing, you can’t have liquid water without some hydrogen.
But the element carbon is the center hub of all of the molecules inside of us that allow for the storage and processing of information necessary for life. And it turns out that the reaction that creates carbon from elements lighter than carbon is fine-tuned to an amazing degree.
But cosmic mass density is not the only thing that must have been exquisitely fine-tuned for the universe to contain any carbon. The nuclear resonance (or energy) levels for helium, beryllium, carbon, and oxygen also had to be exquisitely fine-tuned for carbon to exist. Here’s how that happens.
Stars fuse carbon and oxygen from helium through a series of reactions known as the triple-alpha process, in which three helium nuclei are combined to make one carbon nucleus. In the first step in this process, two helium nuclei (with 2 protons each) fuse together to make beryllium (which has 4 protons). Next, a helium nucleus fuses with a beryllium nucleus to make carbon (which has 6 protons). Then, some carbon nuclei fuse with helium nuclei to make oxygen (which has 8 protons).
The only reason that the triple-alpha process produces any carbon or oxygen at all is because in the first step, the ground state energy level (i.e., the state of an atom when all of its electrons are at their lowest energy levels) of the beryllium-8 nucleus (containing 4 protons and 4 neutrons) almost exactly equals the ground state energy level of two helium-4 nuclei (2 protons and 2 neutrons each). In the second step, the ground state energy level of a beryllium-8 nucleus plus a helium-4 nucleus almost exactly equals the energy level of an excited state of a carbon-12 nucleus (6 protons and 6 neutrons). In the third step, the ground state energy level of a carbon-12 nucleus at 7.65 million electron volts is just slightly larger than the ground state energy level of an oxygen-16 nucleus (8 protons and 8 neutrons) at 7.12 million electron volts.1
If it were not for the near equivalences or resonances of the nuclear energy levels of two helium nuclei relative to a beryllium nucleus, and of a beryllium nucleus plus a helium nucleus relative to a carbon nucleus, the universe would contain very little or no carbon and very little or no elements heavier than carbon. Life would be impossible.
Furthermore, unless the difference in the nuclear energy levels between a carbon nucleus and an oxygen nucleus were precisely 0.53 million electron volts, the universe would contain either a lot of carbon and no oxygen or a lot of oxygen and no carbon. Either way, physical life would be impossible in the universe.
In the early 1950s, astronomer Fred Hoyle and physicist Willy Fowler were the first to understand how critical the relative nuclear energy levels of helium, beryllium, carbon, and oxygen were for making life possible in the universe. Commenting on the highly fine-tuned nature of these nuclear energy levels, Hoyle wrote in an article he published in Engineering & Science,
A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion beyond question.2
The article continues to explain that there is an additional problem of carbon fine-tuning related to habitability.
The carbon formation problem is one of the best examples of fine-tuning, and as you can see, it’s even admitted by atheists. It’s not the easiest one to explain (because resonance levels are not familiar in every day life), but it’s worth knowing about all three of the fine-tuning topics in the post.
Keep in mind that the more science has made progress, the more fine-tuning problems we have discovered. The trend is very bad if you are a naturalist. But very good if you are a theist. Evidence matters, and scientific evidence is the best kind of evidence.
One of the best arguments for the existence of a Creator and Designer of the universe is the cosmic fine-tuning argument. The argument argues that individual constants and quantities in nature cannot be much smaller or larger than they are, because it would remove the ability of the universe to support life of any kind. Dr. Michael Strauss, an experimental physicist, explains some examples of the fine-tuning in a recent post on his blog.
I liken the finely-tuned universe to a panel that controls the parameters of the universe with about 100 knobs that can be set to certain values. If you turn any knob just a little to the right or to the left the result is either a universe that is inhospitable to life or no universe at all.
Consider the knob that controls the strength of the strong nuclear force that holds quarks inside the neutrons and protons and binds the nucleus of the atom together. If the strength were increased by 2%, the element hydrogen would be either non-existent or very rare. Without hydrogen there would be no water (H2O) or stars that burn hydrogen as their nuclear fuel like our sun. Without hydrogen there would be no life. If the strength of the strong nuclear force were decreased by about 5%, then hydrogen would be the only element in the universe. That would simplify the periodic table and make Chemistry class very easy, but it would render life impossible.
All known life in this universe is based on the element carbon, which is formed in the final stages of a star’s life. The carbon you and I are made of is the result of the nuclear processes that occurred as previous stars ended their lives. One nice recent study showed that if the mass of the quarks that make up neutrons and protons were changed by just a few percent, then the process that makes carbon as stars die would be altered in such a way that there would not be sufficient carbon in the universe for life. The masses of the lightest sub-atomic quarks are the precise value that is required for carbon to form and for life to exist.
Regarding the multiverse, let me just quote from MIT physicist Alan Lightman, writing in Harper’s magazine about the multiverse:
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.But even if there were a multiverse, the generator that makes the universes 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.
It’s very important to understand that if these values were any different, then it’s not like we would bridges on our foreheads, or have green skin, or have pointy ears, etc. That’s what science fiction teaches you. And many atheists form their view of science by watching science fiction entertainment. But the truth is that the consequences of changing these values are much more consequential: no stars, no planets, no hydrogen, no heavy elements, the universe re-collapses into a hot fireball. You’re not going to have complex, embodied intelligent agents running around making moral decisions and relating to God in a world like that.
Questions like the existence of God should be NOT decided by feelings and faith and superstitious nonsense. They ought to be decided by evidence. Specifically, scientific evidence. Everyone has to account for this scientific evidence for fine-tuning within their worldview, and they have to account for it in a way that is responsible and rational. Punting to the multiverse, without any evidence for it, is neither rational nor responsible. Holding out hope that the evidence we have now will all go away is neither rational nor responsible.
By the way, if you are looking for a good book on the cosmic fine-tuning, especially for evangelism and debating with atheists, you really need to get a copy of “A Fortunate Universe“. Although it is from one of the most prestigious academic presses, it is pretty funny to read, and the main points are made clearly, even if you don’t understand the science. Two astrophysicists wrote it – one who believes that God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning, and one who doesn’t. I really think that Christians need to get used to the idea that evangelism can be pretty easy, so long as you are arguing from peer-reviewed facts. When you get a good book on evidence for God that is not in dispute, then you are invincible. Everybody ought to believe in God in a universe with this much overt scientific evidence spilling out everywhere. Whether this Creator and Designer is the God of the Bible, who visited us as Jesus of Nazareth, takes more work to establish. Working through the emotional objections people have to God, and coaching them to take on the difficulties of living out a authentic Christian life (very unpopular!), is even harder.