Friday, 8 March 2013

The Finely Tuned Fallacy

One of the strings in the theists bow is the argument that the Universe is 'fine-tuned' for the existence of intelligent life in it. It takes many forms from the frankly childish to the scientifically sophisticated but the conclusion is invariably the same - so obviously [insert desired god] did it. It is also one of the hardest for Atheists to counter because the more sophisticated arguments normally take place in the specialist realms of physics and higher maths that few lay people understand well enough to mount a competent rebuttal.

Mind you, it is also one of the hardest for the normal scientifically illiterate Creationists to defend too. It can be quite funny, when they rush excitedly into social media like Twitter announcing that the fine-tuning of the Universe proves their particular favourite god, to ask them why they would expect the values of the 'parameters' to be anything different to what they are. Chances are they won't know what the 'parameters' are, what their values are, or how they have any bearing on the existence of life. Many of them will be hard-pressed to explain what a 'parameter' is, exactly.

The fact that it can with equal validity, be used for any god of your choosing, or for fairies, pink unicorns, or leprechauns, for that matter, should be enough to tell Creationists with a specific agenda that there is something wrong with their logic just as there always is with any 'God Of The Gaps' argument. However, the strategy of more sophisticated theist apologists seems to be merely to make an argument for the existence of a god of some sort and to leave it up to the parochial ignorance and cultural arrogance of their marks to make the leap across the biggest gap and assume there is only one contender god in the frame - the locally popular one, or at least the one mummy and daddy believe in. The strategy seems to be just to get people to believe in a god - any god. We can worry about which god they believe in later on.

The Christians are confident it will be their god and people will realise they need to go to church, give the priests lots of money, do what the clergy tell them, vote for who they're told to vote for - and then Jesus will save them from it. Meanwhile the Muslims are confident it will be their god and people will realise they need to go to Mosque, give the imams lots of money, do what the clergy tell them, vote for who they're told to vote for, and then they'll be saved from it.

The most childish argument is, appropriately, named after a children's story - Goldilocks. This says that Earth is 'just right' for human life to exist, being just the right distance from the sun for water to exist in all three phases - solid, liquid and gas - being tilted on its axis of rotation to give seasons, and having a large moon to give tides, which some argue was necessary for life to evolve.

As we learn more of the Universe with instruments like the Hubble telescope we are discovering that the Universe is almost certainly teeming with planets occupying the 'Goldilocks zone' around their respective suns, so Earth-like planets are almost certainly commonplace rather than unlikely in the Universe.

The argument that Earth is 'just the right distance' from the sun can be easily dismissed by noting that Earth has an elliptical orbit so, in the course of a year, its distance from the sun varies with little or no effect on life's ability to exist on it. Additionally, it's not at all apparent that seasons or tides are essential for the evolution of life. Undoubtedly, life on Earth is adapted to living on a planet with seasons and tides, and one which has an elliptical orbit around its sun because that is exactly what we would expect of life which evolved on a planet with those conditions, but there is no reason to suppose that life would not evolve on a planet without them. In fact, life is fine-tuned for Earth and the tuning mechanism is evolution by natural selection, which is why life has continued to exist on a planet which has changed considerably over time and why life on Earth is different now to what it was a couple of billion years ago.

"Goodness me!", said the puddle. "Look how perfectly the hole I'm in fits me! I must have been intelligently designed and the Designer created the hole just for me! How special am I?"
The notion that the Universe is fine-tuned for Earth life can be easily dismissed by the fact that the conditions in all but a tiny fraction of it is are immediately lethal to Earth life, with the possible exception of a few quasi-living viruses. Even most of the planet is quickly lethal to human life without special equipment, and much of it without simple tools like clothes. Almost all living species on Earth can only survive in a very narrow range of conditions. For most life, most of Earth is uninhabitable.

However, the more sophisticated, scientifically literate 'fine-tuner' theists make a more educated claim - that there are certain fundamental 'parameters' underpinning the structure of the Universe which don't need to have any particular values for any fundamental scientific reasons but which need to be exactly right for the Universe to exist at all and for life to exist within it. They argue that these parameters are so unlikely to have the values that they have that there must have been intent behind them. By life, of course, they mean intelligent human life, based on long-chain carbon molecules. Even those who accept the evidence for the Big Bang and accept the standard models of particle physics, and even those who accept that life actually evolved, are still able to fit their god in this particular gap in their understanding and proclaim it as evidence.

But why would an all-powerful god need such tightly controlled, narrow conditions (if we accept for a moment that they are tightly controlled) in which to make its will work? An all-powerful creator deity would be able to create intelligent life in any conditions, otherwise it is itself constrained by something - which begs the question who fine-tuned the conditions in which this creator deity could operate?

In fact, the fine-tuning argument argues against an omnipotent creator, not for it.

But let's look at this from another direction.

Any understanding of evolution will show that, for example, the oxygen level in Earth's atmosphere is just right for the life currently living on Earth because evolution ensures it will be. Organisms which would need a higher concentration could not evolve and organisms which could make do with a lower level will be failing to take advantage of an opportunity to need to work less hard, so will lose out to those which do. In this way, organisms 'fine-tune' for the conditions on Earth. This process is called evolution.

Organisms could not exist on Earth in their current form unless the conditions were as they are, because the conditions produce and shape the current forms which adapted and changed as the conditions changed.

Similarly, the Universe could not exist in its current form unless the conditions at the Big Bang were what they were. Unless the Universe existed in its current form, stars and planets could not have developed and no planet could occupy the 'Goldilocks zone' so life could evolve in its current form on that planet.

And without life being in its current form on a planet in its current form in a Universe in its current form, we could not be considering the parameters underpinning the Universe and wondering why they are as they are.

The fact that we can ask that question guarantees the Universe is the way it is because it can only be asked in a Universe in which intelligent life could have evolved. That of course is the anthropic principle and I can't see how any theist can refute the simple logic of it.

Richard Carrier talking about Lee Smolin's hypothesis
But that still leaves the 'science' for materialists to deal with. Could those initial conditions in the Big Bang have been different and could the parameters have been different? If not, there is nothing to explain; the Universe is the way it is because it can't be any other way. We are talking about this Universe, by the way; not the infinite array of other possible Universes which could have also arisen in the Big Bang. We do not know and cannot know what those Universes are like. For all we know there may be an infinite number of Universes with intelligent life in them.

As theoretical physicist, Lee Smolin has pointed out, the Universe seems particularly good at making black holes. It is very probable that there are vastly more black holes in the Universe than there are habitable planets, and yet the same parameters which Creationists claim had to be just right for life to evolve also need to be just right for black holes to form. If we assume for a moment that the Universe was designed, it is more logical to assume it was designed for making black holes and that life is merely a fortuitous, very occasional by-product of making black holes.

One intriguing hypothesis is that new universes are produced in black holes and that somehow this ability to produce black holes can be inherited by baby universes, so those best able to produce black holes will give birth to more universes. This opens up the delicious possibility that universes evolve by Darwinian Evolution towards having the right parameters for life to evolve - by Darwinian Evolution. (See Darwin's Powerful Science - Universes)

Victor J. Stenger
But are these parameters 'tuned' in the first place? Here is how particle physicist Victor J. Stenger deals with it in The New Atheism - Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. This summarises Stenger's much more detailed rebuttal of the fine-tuning fallacy in his book The Fallacy of Fine Tuning:

Scientific Arguments

A list of thirty-four parameters that seem to be fine-tuned has been assembled by Rich Deem on the God and Science Web site [complete with the 'donate' button which seems to be traditional on Creationist Web sites]. His main reference is physicist and Christian apologist Hugh Ross and his popular book The Creator and the Cosmos, first published in 1993. Ross is the founder of Reasons to Believe, which is a self-described "international and interdenominational science-faith think tank providing powerful new reasons from science to believe in Jesus Christ. A long list of claimed "design evidences" can be found on its Web site.

Several of Deem's and Ross's constants, such as the speed of light in a vacuum, c, Newton's constant of gravity, G, and Planck's constant, h, are just arbitrary numbers that are determined simply by the unit system you are using. They can be set equal to any number you want, except zero, with no impact on the physics. So no fine-tuning can possibly be involved, just as the number pi is not fine-tuned.

Deem does not actually mention h explicitly, but it comes in when he talks about the "magnitude of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle" being fine-tuned so that oxygen transport to the cells is just right. The magnitude of the uncertainty principle is simply Planck's constant, h (technically, h divided by 4π) We can safely assume that life evolved in such a way that the energy transport was just right, adjusting to the physical parameters such as they are.

I will focus on the five parameters that have the most significance because, if interpreted correctly, they pretty much rule out almost any conceivable kind of life without fine-tuning. Copying, with minor modifications, the table from Deem:

Table 4.1 Five parameters that seem to be the most highly fine-tuned for life to exist
ParamenterMax. deviation
Ratio of electrons to protons1 part in 1017
Ratio of electromagnetic force to gravity1 part in 1040
Expansion rate of the universe1 part in 1055
Mass density of the Universe*1 part in 1059
Cosmological constant1 part in 10120
*Deem says mass here but, based on his further discussion, I infer he means density.

Deem does not give any references to scientific papers showing calculations for the "maximum deviations" listed in the table. However, I will admit that the features a universe would have for slightly different values of these parameters, all other parameters remaining the same, would render our form of life impossible. Indeed, this extends to any form of life even remotely like ours, that is, one that is based on a lengthy process, chemical or otherwise, by which complex matter evolved from simpler matter. This is the main reason these parameters are significant. As we will see below, in all the other examples people give, some form of life is still possible, just not our form specifically.

Let me discuss each in turn. Note that the arguments all apply to our universe where we assume that none of the laws of physics are different. All that is different is the value of some of the numbers we put into those laws, so we are not making any assumption about other universes.

Ratio of Electrons to Protons

The claim is that if the ratio of the numbers of electrons to protons were larger, electromagnetism would dominate over gravity and galaxies would not form. If smaller, gravity would dominate and chemical bonding would not occur. This assumes the ratio is some arbitrary constant. In fact, the number of electrons equals exactly the number of protons for a very simple reason: the universe is electrically neutral-so the two, having opposite charges, must balance.

Here is a clear but slightly technical explanation for how this all came about in the early universe from a book by astronomer Peter Schneider:
Before pair annihilation [the time when most electrons annihilated with antielectrons, or positrons, producing photons] there were about as many electrons and positrons as there were photons. After annihilation nearly all electrons were converted into photons-but not entirely because there was a very small excess of electrons over positrons to compensate for the positive electric charge density of the protons. Therefore the number density of electrons that survive the pair annihilation is exactly the same as the number density of protons, for the Universe to remain electrically neutral.

So, no fine-tuning happened here. The ratio is determined by conservation of charge, a fundamental law of physics.

Ratio of Electromagnetic Force to Gravity

The source of the huge difference in strengths between the electromagnetic and gravitational forces of a proton and an electron, N1 = 1039, has been a long-standing problem in physics, first being mentioned by Hermann Weyl in 1919. If they were anywhere near each other, stars would collapse long before they could provide either the materials needed for life on planets or the billions of years of stable energy needed for life to evolve. Why is N1 = 1039? You would expect a natural number to be on the order of magnitude of 1.

But note that N1 is not some universal measure of the relative strengths of the electric and gravitational forces. It's just the force ratio for a proton and an electron. The proton is not even an elementary particle. It is made of quarks. For two electrons the ratio is 1042. If we have two unit-charged particles, each with a mass of 1.85 x 109 kilograms, the two forces would be equal!

So the large value of N1 is simply an artifact of the use of small masses in making the comparison. The force ratio is hardly "fine-tuned to 39 orders of magnitude," as you will read in the theist literature. The reason N1 is so large is that elementary particle masses are so small. According to our current understanding of the nature of mass, elementary particles all have zero bare mass and pick up a small "effective mass" by interacting with the background Higgs field that pervades the universe. That is, their masses are "naturally" very small.

If particle masses were not so small, we would not have a long-lived, stable universe and wouldn't be here to talk about it. This is an expression of the anthropic principle. But note that I am not invoking it-I am explaining it.

Several physicists, including myself, have done computer simulations where we generate universes by varying all the relevant parameters. In my case I randomly varied the electromagnetic force strength, the mass of the proton, and the mass of the electron by ten orders of magnitude around their existing values in our universe.11 The gravitational force strength was fixed. That is, I allowed the ratio of forces to vary from 1034 to 1044! These are a long way from 1039. I found that over half of the universes generated had stars with lifetimes of at least ten billion years, long enough for life of some kind to evolve.

In a more recent study I have also varied the strength of the strong nuclear force and placed further limitations on the characteristics of the generated universes. For example, I ensure that atoms are much bigger than nuclei and have much lower binding energy. I have demanded that planetary days be at least ten hours long and stars be far more massive than planets. I find that 20 percent of the universes have these properties.

My study was rather simple. More-advanced studies, which reach the same basic conclusion, have been made by Anthony Aguire, Roni Harnik, Graham D. Kribs, Gilas Perez, and Fred C. Adams.

Expansion Rate of the Universe

The fine-tuning of the expansion rate of the universe is one of the most frequent examples given by theologians and philosophers. Deem says that if it were slightly larger, no galaxies would form; if it were smaller, the universe would collapse.

This has an easy answer. If the universe appeared from an earlier state of zero energy, then energy conservation would require the exact expansion rate that is observed. That is the rate determined precisely by the fact that the potential energy of gravity is exactly balanced by the kinetic energy of matter.

Let me try to explain this in detail so that, once again, it is clear that I am merely stating a simple fact of physics. Suppose we wish to send a rocket from Earth to far outside the solar system. If we fire the rocket at exactly 11.2 kilometers per second, what is called the escape velocity for Earth, its kinetic energy will exactly equal the negative of its gravitational potential energy, so the total energy will be zero. As the rocket moves away from Earth, the rocket gradually slows down. Its kinetic energy decreases, as does the magnitude of its potential energy, the total energy remaining constant at zero because of energy conservation. Eventually when the rocket is very far from Earth and the potential energy approaches zero, its speed relative to Earth also approaches zero.

If we fired the rocket at just under escape velocity, the rocket would slow to a stop sooner and eventually turn around to return to Earth. If we fired it at a slightly higher speed, the rocket would keep moving away and never stop.

In the case of the big bang, the bodies in the universe are all receding from one another at such a rate that they will eventually come to rest at a vast distance. That rate of expansion is very precisely set by the fact that the total energy of the system was zero at the very beginning, and energy is conserved.

So, instead of being an argument for God, the fact that the rate of expansion of the universe is exactly what we expect from an initial state of zero energy is a good argument against a creator. Once again, we have no fine-tuning because the parameter in question is determined by a conservation principle, in this case conservation of energy.

Mass Density of the Universe

If the mass density of the universe were slightly larger, then overabundance of the production of deuterium (heavy hydrogen) from the big bang would cause stars to burn too rapidly for life on planets to form. If smaller, insufficient helium from the big bang would result in a shortage of the heavy elements needed for life.

The answer is the same as the previous case. The mass density of the universe is precisely determined by the fact that the universe starts out with zero total energy.

Cosmological Constant

This is considered one of the major unanswered problems in physics. The cosmological constant is a term that arises in Einstein's general theory of relativity. It is basically equivalent to the energy density of empty space that results from any curvature of space. It can be positive or negative. If positive it produces a repulsive gravitational force that accelerates the expansion of the universe.

For most of the twentieth century it was assumed that the cosmological constant was identically zero, although no known law of physics specified this. At least no astronomical observations indicated otherwise. Then, in 1998, two independent groups studying supernovas in distant galaxies discovered, to their great surprise since they were looking for the opposite, that the expansion of the universe was accelerating. This result was soon confirmed by other observations, including those made with the Hubble Space Telescope.

The component of the universe responsible for the acceleration was dubbed dark energy. It constitutes 73 percent of the total mass of the universe. (Recall the equivalence of mass and energy given by E=mc2.) The natural assumption is to attribute the acceleration to the cosmological constant, and the data, so far, seem to support that interpretation.

Theorists had earlier attempted to calculate the cosmological constant from basic quantum physics. The result they obtained was 120 orders of magnitude larger than the maximum value obtained from astronomical observations.

Now this is indeed a problem. But it certainly does not imply that the cosmological constant has been fine-tuned by 120 orders of magnitude. What it implies is that physicists have made a stupid, dumb-ass, wrong calculation that has to be the worst calculation in physics history.

Clearly the cosmological constant is small, possibly even zero. This can happen in any number of ways. If the early universe possessed, as many propose, a property called supersymmetry, then the cosmological constant would have been exactly at zero at that time. It can be shown that if negative energy states, already present in the calculation for the cosmological constant, are not simply ignored but counted in the energy balance, then the cosmological constant will also be identically zero.

Other sources of cosmic acceleration have been proposed, such as a field of neutral material particles pervading the universe that has been dubbed quintessence. This field would have to have a negative pressure, but if it is sufficiently negative it will be gravitationally repulsive.

In short, the five greatest fine-tuning proposals show no fine-tuning at all. The five parameters considered by most theologians and scientists to provide the best evidence for design can all be plausibly explained. Three just follow from conservation principles, which argue against rather than for any miraculous creation of the universe. They can be turned around and made into arguments against rather than for God.

Answers can be given for all the other parameters on Deem's list. Not a single one rules out some kind of life when the analysis allows other parameters to vary.

The same cannot be said about other compilations of parameters that appear at first glance to be fine-tuned. Even some of the most respected scientists have made the mistake of declaring a parameter "fine-tuned" by only asking what happens when it is varied while all other parameters remain the same. A glaring example is provided by Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal of the United Kingdom. In his popular book Just Six Numbers, Rees claims that a quantity he calls "nuclear efficiency," ε, defined as the fraction of mass of helium that is less than two protons and two neutrons, is fine-tuned to ε = 0.07. If ε = 0.06, deuterium would be unstable because the nuclear force would not be strong enough to keep the electrical repulsion between protons from blowing it apart. If ε = 0.08, the nuclear force would be strong enough to bind two protons together directly and there would be no need for neutrons and to provide additional attraction. In that case there would be no deuterium or any other nuclei containing neutrons.

But this all assumes a fixed strength of the electromagnetic force, which is given by the dimensionless parameter α, which has a value of 1/137 in the existing universe. In the first case, for any value of a less than 1/160 the deuteron will be stable because the electrical repulsion will be too weak to split it apart. In the second case, for any value of α greater than 1/120 the electrical repulsion will be too great for protons to bind together without the help of neutrons, so deuterons and other neutron-rich nuclei will exist. So stable nuclei are possible for a wide range of the two parameters ε and α and neither are fine-tuned for life.

Let me mention one parameter where the answer to the claim of fine-tuning is ridiculously simple. The masses of neutrinos are supposedly fine-tuned since their gravitational effects would be too big or too small if they were different and this would adversely affect the formation of stars and galaxies. But that assumes that the number of neutrinos in the universe is fixed. It is not. It is determined by their masses. If heavier, there would be fewer. If lighter, there would be more. Whatever the masses, the gravitational effects of neutrinos would be the same.

In short, there is no scientific basis for the claim that the universe is fine-tuned for life. Indeed, the whole notion makes no sense. Why would an omnipotent god design a universe in which his most precious creation, humanity, lives on the knife-edge of extinction? This god made a vast universe that is mostly empty space and then confined humankind to a tiny speck of a planet, where it is destined for extinction long before the universe becomes inert. He could have made it possible for us to live anywhere. He also could have made it possible to live in any conceivable universe, with any values for its parameters. Instead of being an argument for the existence of god, the apparent fine-tuning of the constants of physics argues against any design in the cosmos.

Victor J. Stenger. The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. (Kindle Location 985-1078). Kindle Edition.

So, it looks like the 'Fine-tuned' argument is like Michael Behe's and William Dembski's 'intelligent design' argument - something given a gloss of respectability - creationism in a cheap tuxedo - by using scientific-sounding words, but from which real science is lacking, with claims made based on little or no understanding of the science or on a misrepresentation of it. And as always, there is the open hand and the ingratiating smirk...

There is nothing in the argument which proves a god exists or even requires one in the explanation. It is nothing more substantial than pseudo-scientific forms of the God of the Gaps Fallacy, the False Dichotomy Fallacy and the Argument From Personal Incredulity.

And the argument is essentially circular anyway. Having found what they think is a gap in scientific knowledge, creationists simply designate their favourite god as the cause then wave it as proof that it exists, but before you can designate anything as the cause of something else you first have to prove that thing exists. What you can't honestly do is use your conclusion as evidence for your hypothesis. If that were a valid argument you could use it to prove whatever you want with never any contact with reality at any pint.

This is, of course, simply another part of the 'Wedge Strategy' aimed at replacing established science with a fundamentalist Christian version based on the Bronze-age goat-herder 'science' in the Bible, and to use that to persuade the people that they should be governed by fundamentalist Christians with laws based on the primitive tribal laws of those same Bronze-age goat-herders. (See Why Creationists Lie To Us). The Wedge Strategy has no hesitation about creating artificial gaps where none exist, as it did with 'Intelligent Design'. It is not a strategy whose purpose is to demonstrate the honesty and intellectual integrity of fundamentalist Christianity nor does it have a mission to educate and inform. Its only objective is political power at any price; an objective which is pursued with the focus and dedication of the fanatic.

submit to reddit


  1. Take a look at this link. It is a paper by an actual physicist that blows up most of your arguments

    You don't discuss some the most dramatic cases of cosmic fine-tuning, such as the exact equality of the proton charge and the electron charge, which match to 20 decimal places -- necessary for our existence, and completely unexplained in the standard model.

    You can't sweep the cosmological constant problem under the rug by claiming "physicists have made a stupid, dumb-ass, wrong calculation that has to be the worst calculation in physics history." The calculation in question is a consequence of basic quantum mechanics, one of the pillars of modern science. In fact, many scientists do agree that the cosmological constant looks like it is fine-tuned to 120 decimal places. That's as dramatic a case of fine-tuning as you could hope to find.

    1. You're quite right. I didn't reproduce the entire book by 'actual physicist' Victor Stenger but gave enough links and references for people to do so it they wished.

      If you read it you will find he comprehensively refutes every single example of so-called fine tuning.

      If you read the extract above you will see that Stenger doesn't dismiss the cosmological constant by claiming "physicists have made a stupid, dumb-ass, wrong calculation that has to be the worst calculation in physics history" either.

      You might do better if you deal with what Stenger actually says rather than throwing ad hominems around and misrepresenting his arguments. I appreciate that might not suit your creationist agenda nor appeal to those who find the argument from ignorance, the god of the gaps and the false dichotomy fallacies convincing arguments.

      I'm afraid you are playing on a science playing field, not a theological one and the rules of science apply here.

  2. Insisting the Galaxy is "fine-tuned" for human life is just as idiotic as saying a pothole is "fine-tuned" for the water that fills it --the hole is the exact shape of the water!

  3. Fine tuning argument is not actually needed for proving the existence of God, because this can be proved even if there is no fine tuning. For this please see the link below:

    1. Straight to the comments section to reply to the title, eh?

      By the way, you seem to have forgotten to say which god you imagine you can prove the existence of. Is it just one or all of them? How do you know? Can I use it to prove the existence of fairies just by changing the word 'god' for 'fairies'? I've wanted to believe in fairies ever since I grew up to be too old to.


Obscene, threatening or obnoxious messages, preaching, abuse and spam will be removed, as will anything by known Internet trolls and stalkers, by known sock-puppet accounts and anything not connected with the post,

A claim made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Remember: your opinion is not an established fact unless corroborated.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Web Analytics