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Second Thoughts on Fine-Tuning

by Jeremy Patrick


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 23, Number 1.


The Intelligent Design movement’s so-called Fine-Tuning Argument is easy to follow and has tremendous rhetorical appeal. In its simplest form, it merely observes that we live in a universe conducive to the evolution of human life, and that, if the universe were changed slightly in any of a hundred different ways, it would not remain so conducive to human life. The inference, of course, is that such a universe could arise only from the mind of an intelligent designer. In the pages of academic writers it’s easy to get lost in the “GPC’s,” the “N1=1039’s,” and the “logarithms of stellar lifetimes.” When confronting the fine-tuning argument, however, it’s important to keep in mind some basic points.

1. Inferences. As stated, the primary inference of fine-tuning is that, out of all possible universes, we live in a universe that seems particularly conducive to evolving life. From a naturalistic point of view, however, this fact makes perfect sense. We would expect life to arise in such a universe, as opposed to elsewhere.

But suppose we lived in a universe that was not conducive to life (short-lived, ravaged by random bursts of radiation, or containing only small amounts of stable matter). If life somehow arose, the fine-tuning advocates would seize on that as evidence of a creator (“How terrible a universe we live in; if life began here, it must have been the work of a divine being!”).1

Furthermore, we must ask not only, “Is this universe conducive to the origin of life?” (and we should remember that we do not know how likely it was for life to evolve even in a universe such as this), but we must also ask: Are there possible universes even more conducive to life than this one?2  If the answer is yes, we must wonder why the “intelligent designer” didn’t create one of those universes, instead spending its time on an inferior universe such as ours.

2. Extraneous Hypotheses. A frequent naturalist rebuttal to the fine-tuning argument is that there may be an infinite number of universes, or regions of space and time separate from ours in this universe. If true, that would render the fine-tuners’ statistical calculations irrelevant: naturalists could simply argue that life arose in the few universes where it was possible for it to do so (including presumably ours).

But fine-tuners can respond that there is no independent evidence for the existence of these universes. The multiple-universes hypothesis seems an ad hoc argument crafted solely to respond to the fine-tuning argument. Because it is an extraneous hypothesis, they argue, it should be given no weight.

This is undoubtedly true.3 However, intelligent design theorists are exposed to the same objection. Their proposed “intelligent designer” was also crafted solely in response to the observation that our universe may be finely tuned for life; we lack independent evidence that an intelligent designer exists.4 Both the multiple-universe and intelligent designer hypotheses lack compelling evidence. We may have to remain agnostic on each count.

3. Creation. As others have pointed out, the hypothesis of an intelligent designer raises many more questions than it answers.5 One such question is “How did the intelligent designer arise, much less gain such universe-shaking power?” Perhaps it sprang from a universe that was not intelligently designed? Wait, we’ve already rejected the multiple-universe hypothesis as extraneous—did another intelligent designer design our universe’s intelligent designer? The next question is as obvious as it is unanswerable.

4. The Stakes. We must remember what is at stake in the fine-tuning debate. It should come as no surprise that intelligent-design proponents are “overwhelmingly Christian.”6 The hope, often implicit in their discourse, is that evidence that the universe was created by an intelligent designer can be used as an argument for a particular conception of God.

Logically, however, even if we were all to accept the intelligent design hypothesis outright, nothing in our daily lives should change. We wouldn’t know if the designer was a race of advanced extraterrestrials (which some intelligent design theorists believe), a sentient computer, a collection of gods, one goddess, a beneficent god, or a malevolent deity. In such a case, as Hume said, “[W]hat trust or confidence can we repose in them? What veneration or obedience pay them? To all the purposes of life, the theory of religion becomes altogether useless.”7

5. Egotism. At the very core of the intelligent design movement lies a subconscious egotism. Most intelligent design advocates assert that the very reason our universe was created was to foster the creation of intelligent life. But our universe contains an infinite number of complex and fascinating processes. Why is intelligent life so special? Perhaps the intelligent designer actually spent all of its time and effort in order to observe meteor showers, or as John Haldane remarked, simply to observe beetles?8 Fine-tuners are looking at an incomplete novel written by an anonymous author and attempting to discern what purpose the author had in mind when he, she, or it started writing the book. As any literary critic could tell you, you’re not likely to come to a definitive answer.

The intelligent design movement is important; it helps to point out flaws in our knowledge and forces us to ask more questions. But the fact that we have these unanswered questions is not a good reason to go looking for a divine being as the answer. The process of science is predictable: every answer we obtain leads to a dozen new questions that will have to be answered someday. We will always have these questions, and some theists will always try to fit “God” in as the only possible answer. As we’ve seen, however, the theories of the fine-tuners have their own problems, most of which, unfortunately, are not susceptible to empirical investigation.

Notes

1. The third possibility, of course, is a universe that is so hostile to life that it is simply impossible for it to arise: but in such a case, neither advocates or opponents of the fine-tuning argument would be around to argue about it.

2. Mark I. Vuletic, Destined for Greatness, book review, Philo 3, 2 (2000): 93.

3. Some naturalists will attempt to defend the infinite-universes hypothesis with that old line “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” But the burden of proof should be placed on the person making the existence-claim. If proponents of the multiple-universe theory cannot present any evidence for it, why should we credit it merely because it is a possible explanation for the fine-tuning argument?

4. Some fine-tuners will assert that they do have independent evidence of an intelligent designer’s existence, perhaps pointing to Philip Johnson’s work on evolution or Michael Behe’s book on molecular biology. This assertion, however, simply leaves the cosmological fine-tuning argument drifting while we move on to debate the credibility of these other claims.

5. Theodore M. Drange, The Fine-Tuning Argument Revisited, Philo 3, 2 (2000): 45.

6. Omaha World-Herald, January 22, 2001.

7. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, in Writings on Religion, ed. Anthony Flew (Chicago, Ill.:Open Court, 1992).

8. Mark I. Vuletic, Destined for Greatness, supra note 1, at 92.


Jeremy Patrick is a writer and legal scholar living in Toronto, Ontario.


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