Fine-Tuning: A Deeper Story?

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April 28, 2010 Tags: Design

Today's entry was written by the BioLogos Editorial Team. You can read more about what we believe here.

Intro: This video is the final entry in a six-part series from, entitled "God: new evidence." We strongly encourage our readers to explore the entire series.

A Deeper Story?

The claim that our universe is “fine-tuned” comes from the fact that certain physical constants in our universe are found to have precisely the right values to allow for the existence of life. If any one of these constants were changed to the slightest degree, life would not be possible.

Many believing scientists have taken hold of the fine-tuning argument as a “pointer” to the existence of a creator, while others argue that this phenomenon can be explained by the multiverse theory, in which there exist innumerable other universes. Such a high number of universes would increase the chances that one universe would happen to take on the values needed to develop life.

In this video, five notable scientists (John Polkinghorne, David Wilkinson, Rodney Holder, Peter Williams and Graham Swinerd) offer their perspective on the strengths and limitations of the fine-tuning argument as a pointer to God.

Each speaker emphasizes the importance of recognizing the limitations of the fine-tuning argument, and also the importance of seeing it in context. John Polkinghorne notes that fine-tuning is a useful tool—in particular, because “[it] puts the question of God on the agenda”. However, he also notes that it gives us limited insight into the nature of God. Rodney Holder agrees that fine-tuning is limited in what it tells us. Holder finds the argument persuasive, but not foolproof. “God doesn’t force us to believe in him”, says Holder, and the fine-tuning argument “doesn’t get you to the personal God who reveals Himself in Jesus Christ.”

Along similar lines, Wilkinson shares that while the fine-tuning and intelligibility of the universe serve as pointers to a “deeper story” about the universe, the details of that story come from his faith as a Christian. “At the heart of my Christian faith is the conviction and the experience that God has revealed himself, supremely, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And I know what the deeper story is about, because I’ve seen it in Jesus.”

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Michael Thompson - #11525

April 28th 2010

Interesting video. I believe! But couldn’t an atheist just say that instead of the universe being tuned for life to exist, that life tuned itself to survive in the universe through natural processes and no God is needed?

Michael Thompson - #11527

April 28th 2010

If the universe is tuned for life, wouldn’t there be a lot more life around? I am not denying there is somewhere, but you would think by this time we would have found some. instead we just find vast space that is hostile to life as we know it.

Karl A - #11529

April 28th 2010

Viewers, be aware this video does not really discuss what the fine-tuning argument is, just presupposes it.  The Resources on the right will give more basic information if needed.

At first I thought the video was produced by Focus on the Family!  Well, it doesn’t specifically mention evolution or an old earth…

Michael, a couple thoughts to your 11527.  One is that some scientists predict we will never move beyond our own solar system (we’re very close to the middle of it when you include things like the Oort Cloud which is predicted to be out there) let alone to other solar systems, just because the distances are so vast.  So even if there is plenty of life out there, we may well never meet it.  The second is that there may be some merit in the “Privileged Planet” hypothesis, that Earth is privileged in many ways, for example being at the outer edge of a spiral-armed galaxy rather than at the core.  How it got “privileged” and whether that fits with the fine-tuning argument I don’t know.

Glen Davidson - #11547

April 28th 2010

Seriously, fine-tuning is an observation.  That’s it.  If you can come up with an explanation for it, great.  Until then, it’s just an observation, and God is not some sort of default for whatever we don’t know.

Glen Davidson

BenYachov(Jim Scott 4th) - #11553

April 28th 2010

>But couldn’t an atheist just say that instead of the universe being tuned for life to exist, that life tuned itself to survive in the universe through natural processes and no God is needed?

I reply: That would depend on the specific “tuning” could we have life in a Universe where only Hydrogen existed or stars only lived millions of years and not billionsetc?  I think not.  Granted I could believe some form of life might have evolved on an Earth with no moon but an all Hydrogen Universe?  I think not.

Charlie - #11562

April 28th 2010

Aside from the multiverse or fine-tuning argument, here’s my theory.  It’s possible that there is one universe with constants, and life arose from those constants.  If the constants were different, life as we know it would not exist, but it’s possible some other form of life would exist.  Think of gravity.  We evolved to live in a world with a specific gravitational force.  We would not survive on an incredibly large planet with gravity so strong we couldn’t lift an arm up.  Ask yourself, is life not possible on that planet?  I see it as life adapted to the physical constants.

John VanZwieten - #11567

April 28th 2010


That’s a good explanation for some constants, but there are others that would preclude even the formation of atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, etc. 


It’s a scientific observation without much of a scientific explanation.  I agree with you that God is not the default for every missing scientific explanation.  On the other had, don’t you think the observation of suprising fine-tuning brings up interesting _metaphysical_ questions?  Can’t God be a part of those discussions that move beyond scientific explanations?

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #11569

April 28th 2010

Michael Thompson - #11527,

It depends on what is meant by fine-tuning.

A paper and pencil are evidence of fine-tuning adapted for the very general purpose of an outside agent producing anything he likes, on that piece of paper, words, doodles, equations, works of art.

It is not fine-tuned in the sense of only allowing one type of “art” or of self producing that art.

The ID people see the entire universe as paper and pencil.  Only here, did the author of Life see fit to pick up his “paper and pencil” and create his work.  The Privileged Planet argument adds that only here was the paper and pencil of sufficiently high quality to allow the artist the detail needed for life.

Biologos and theistic evolution tend to deny the paper and pencil analogy.


Charlie - #11583

April 28th 2010

John VanZwieten,

I used gravity as an over-simplified example.  I’m encompassing all constants when I speak of how our life adapted.  Life came to be as we know it because atoms form a certain way given certain physicial constants.  If these constants were different, atom would be different and life would be different.

Merv - #11585

April 28th 2010

Mere “adaptability” doesn’t really give answer to the fine-tuning argument at the cosmological scale since they are addressing the chances of any clumps of matter (stars & galaxies) of forming *at all*.  Apparently, constants such as the Planck constant or the strong nuclear force, or mass ratios of particles all have to be amazingly precisely close to what they are in order for there to even be a physical universe where anything like self-replicating molecules (let alone evolution) would ever have a chance to kick in. 

But your points are well taken, that adaptability can account for *much* of the “amazing coincidences” that are often spoken of.  Just like Adam’s puddle of water that wakes up and is amazed to find the the hole it is in fits it perfectly and how amazing a coincidence this must be.  The constants above, though, I don’t think are vulnerable to the same criticism, though.

Chris Massey - #11588

April 28th 2010

Charlie ...

I think if you look at the various constants that are part of the fine-tuning argument, many are required for any sort of life at all. If the universe can’t even form heavy elements, if it can’t form stars, if it collapses back in on itself, life of any sort has pretty much zero chance.

That said, I appreciate the caution with which each scientist approached the argument, recognizing that it isn’t an air-tight argument for a Creator.

Are there any alternative counter-arguments to the multi-verse theory?

Chris Massey - #11589

April 28th 2010

Sorry, I should rephrase:

Is anyone familiar with valid counter-arguments to the fine-tuning argument (other than the multi-verse theory)?

pds - #11592

April 28th 2010

Good confirmation of the value of design arguments, if used properly.

Merv - #11593

April 28th 2010

I think there may be a less-obviously religious motivation for postulating a multi-verse.  Scientific thinkers (virtually all of us) of recent centuries have become accustomed to having an automatic suspicion of anything smacking of privilege or of “special case”.  This is not just an anti-religious predilection.  We moved from thinking the world at the center to discovering we are not there, and furthermore there is no privileged “there”.  Then to add insult to injury, we discover that we are not stationary or the measure of all other “motion” as we had thought.  Not only are we not sitting still, but there is no “still” except as a relative concept.  We thought that living matter was somehow special or set apart from all non-living matter.  We come to find out that we are made of the same elements as everything else.  We have a long historical trajectory of being repeatedly evicted from our mindset of special status.  So this mental inertia is in our heads for very good reasons.  Hence I can see why scientists reflexively balk at the idea of a fine-tuned cosmos.  I don’t personally think that ALL special status we think we have is false.  But I do understand (and share in) a healthy suspicion of quick claims for it.

Merv - #11596

April 28th 2010

Chris (11589)  —I think the fact that science fiction and scientists cling so to the virtual assumption of a multi-verse is an indirect acknowledgment that the higher cosmological fine-tuning of constants must be pretty amazing indeed.  Otherwise they would be busy showing how there is nothing special about those constants.  There can never be any scientific counter-arguments to a multi-verse theory because it is unfalsifiable.  Worst case scenario is just that we never find evidence of a multi-verse existence which would just leave us inconclusive. 

All that said, I don’t mind playing around statistically/philosophically with a an argument that makes me suspicious of a multi-verse theory.

Jeffrey L Vaughn - #11601

April 28th 2010

Chris Massey - #11589,

Some string-theorists believe that string theory will eventually show that the ratios between various physical constants are fixed, that only one type of universe is possible.

Charlie - #11603

April 28th 2010

Ok well then ask yourself this, what would exist if the physical constants were different?  Are you so sure a different form of life would not exist? Because we don’t know what matter would look like or we don’t really know what anything would look like if a physical constant were different, how can you be so sure that life could not exist?  Life as we know it would not exist, but that’s about as far as we can take it.

Merv - #11605

April 28th 2010

A possible argument against one extreme form of the multi-verse:

I have heard it postulated that every possible universe that could exist does exist.  In other words, every point at which anything could have happened differently, a universe exists where it did.  So we have an infinitely branching and multiplying set of universes for every conceivable possibility complete with each one’s alternate future.  This is an extreme form of the multi-verse since it goes beyond claiming a mere infinite number, but that beyond that:  everything exists in that infinite number.  So much for the set up; now here’s my reaction to it.

I think even this fails to remove us from the dreaded “privileged position”.  Because it would claim that out there are universes in which the laws of physics are not so uniform as they are in ours.  Somewhere a person just like me just watched his pencil float off his desk.  In another one, my handkerchief just spontaneously burst into flame.  All these zillions of universes are out there where

Merv - #11606

April 28th 2010

all manner of spectacular and miraculous stuff is happening (although maybe in those universes it seems ‘normal’ if anything is sentient there to be able to give such an appraisal.)  But hold on;  If there are a baJillion universes out there with changing physical laws, then how come I won the lottery and live in the (boring) one where physical laws remain rock-solid constant?  What are the odds of that?  (I don’t personally claim that we know that our physical ‘laws’ actually are or always have been constant; but it is a scientific assumption and so I feel free to draw it in to my argument here.)  Anyway, this is just a philosophical game that to my mind, makes the extreme multi-verse hypothesis seem highly improbable.


Merv - #11607

April 28th 2010

The less extreme form could still have a plethora of universes each with its own slightly different constants, but that nevertheless remain constant over the time of that universe.  Then it seems much more logical that most of these universes would be “dry runs” where maybe even matter itself fails to materialize.  In this case, only a very narrow subset of “histories” may actually ever happen, even within an infinite domain of trials.  It’s fun to speculate about.  But in the end it just shows what people are willing to do to avoid having to come to any religious sounding conclusions.  A determined secularist will always have an answer or possibility to cling to no matter what happens or what is discovered.  Maybe that is the truly unchanging constant here.


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