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Fine-tuning and the “Fruitful Universe”

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June 1, 2012 Tags: Design

Today's video features John Polkinghorne. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Note: The conversation this week between Dr. James Dew and Dr. Ard Louis addressed aspects of natural theology, the anthropic principle, and fine-tuning of the universe. This is a topic that the renowned scholar Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne explored at length in a lecture on the campus of Point Loma Nazarene University, delivered on November 15th, 2010. The entire lecture, entitled “Natural Theology”, is available for download here.

Today’s post is an excerpt from that lecture that explores the question, “Why is the universe so special?” To illustrate this point, Dr. Polkinghorne presents several examples of how the universe is fine-tuned for life. The potentiality for life, the fruitfulness of the universe, as he calls it, is accepted throughout science. The contentious question that remains, however, is what is the significance of this fine-tuning?

We provide a written transcript of the talk to make it easier to mull over Dr. Polkinghorne’s ideas while you listen.

I ask the question, “Why is the universe so special?” Now scientists don’t like things to be special; we like things to be general, and our natural anticipation would have been that the universe is just a common or garden specimen of what a universe might be like.

But we’ve come to understand a lot about the history of the universe. We know that our universe started 13.7 billion years ago, and it started extremely simple, just an almost uniformly expanding ball of energy, about the simplest physical system you could possibly think about. But a world that started so simple has of course become rich and complex. With you and me, in fact, the most remarkable and complex consequences are its history, at least of which we are aware. The human brain is far and away the most complicated physical system we have ever encountered anywhere in our exploration of the universe.

That fact itself might suggest that something has been going on in cosmic history rather than just one thing after another. But we’ve also come to understand many of the processes by which this rich fruitfulness has come to birth. As we’ve come to understand these, we’ve come to see that though these processes are of course evolving processes, they took long periods of time – the universe was 10 billion years old before any form of life appeared in it, at least as far as we know anyway – and life of our complexity only appeared yesterday.

Nevertheless, the universe is pregnant with life, pregnant with the possibility of life, essentially from the beginning onwards. By which I mean the given laws of nature had to take a very specific, very finely tuned form, if the universe was to have so fruitful a history.

That’s a very remarkable discovery, and let me give you some examples of why we believe that. If you’re going to have a fruitful universe, one of the first things you have to get right is that you have to have the right stars in the universe. The stars are going to have a very important role to play. First of all, you must have some stars that are going to be very long lived, live for billions of years, steadily burning, steadily producing energy which will enable the development of life on one of the encircling planets. We understand what makes stars burn in that sort of way very well, and it depends on a delicate balance between the strength of gravity and the strength of electromagnetism. Electromagnetism is the force that holds matter together. The seats on which you are sitting are held together by electromagnetism and in fact you are held together by electromagnetism.

If you alter that balance a little bit in one direction the stars will begin to burn intensely, furiously, just pouring out energy and they will only live a few million years rather than a few billion years. If you move it a little bit in the other direction they will burn so slowly they will be brown stars and they will not produce enough energy to fuel the development of life. So you have to have a very delicate finely tuned balance between the strength of gravity and the strength of electromagnetic forces in a fruitful universe.

Remember, science takes the laws of nature, takes the given strengths of gravity, the given strength of electromagnetism, uses that to explain processes in the world, how things happen, but it doesn’t explain where those laws of nature come from. They are just brute facts as far as science is concerned.

And the stars have another absolutely indispensible role to play. The stars are the place where the heavier elements essential for life are made in the interior nuclear furnaces. There are many elements that are necessary for life, of which carbon is perhaps the most essential. Carbon is the basis of the long chain molecules, which are the biochemical basis of life. The early universe only makes the simplest elements; it makes hydrogen and helium and it makes no carbon at all. Carbon only begins to be made when the universe, which started uniform, begins to condense and become lumpy and grainy with stars and galaxies. As the stars condense they heat up, nuclear processes begin again in their interiors. And it’s those nuclear processes in the stars that make carbon and the heavier elements. Every atom of carbon in your body was once inside a star. We are people of stardust made in the ashes of dead stars.

And that’s a very beautiful process that takes place in that sort of way. And one of the great triumphs of astrophysics and the second half of the 20th century was to unravel that process. One of the people who did some of the most important work on that was a senior colleague of mine in Cambridge called Fred Hoyle. And they were trying to figure out how to make carbon. They got helium, and if you can make three helium nuclei stick together that will produce carbon, but when you have something as small as a nucleus it is impossible to get three to stick together at one time, they’re just too small.

Ok, so let’s do it step by step. Stick two together gives you berylium. Helium 4 gives you beryllium-8, hope it stays around for a bit, another helium comes along, attaches itself, and bingo, you’ve got carbon-12. That’s the obvious thing to think about but it doesn’t work in the obvious way, and the reason it doesn’t work in the obvious way is that beryllium-8 is terribly unstable. It doesn’t oblige you by staying around long enough to catch that third helium, at least in an ordinary, straightforward way.

But Fred realized that it would be just possible for this to happen if there was a very large enhancement effect, in the trade we call it resonance, occurring in carbon at just the right energy, it has to be the right energy, which would enable that attachment process to catch that third helium much much more quickly that you might have thought, in fact so quickly that some of them would get caught before the beryllium-8 disappeared. It was a very good idea, and he must have felt pretty pleased with himself and he went off to just check in the nuclear data tables of this particular resonance’s energy levels, and it wasn’t in the tables, but he knew it must be there, he’s carbon based life like you and me.

So he rang up some friends in the States, a father and son team who were good experimentalists and he said, “Look, you missed something. There’s a resonance and energy level in carbon that you haven’t spotted, and I’ll tell you exactly where to look for it. I know exactly where this energy has got to be. You go look for it.” And they said, “No, no, we don’t want to do that, we have more interesting things to do.” But Fred was very determined and he bullied them into looking for it and they found it.

Now that’s a wonderful achievement, to predict an energy level in carbon on the basis of how it might have been made in the stars is a fantastic scientific achievement. But it’s more than that. Fred had a lifetime conviction of atheism, realized of course that if the laws of physics had been just a little bit different that resonance wouldn’t have been there, and the possibility of carbon-based life is too significant for it just to be a happy accident in his view, so he says in a Yorkshire accent that is beyond my power to imitate, he said that the universe is a put-up job. Fred didn’t like the word God, and so he said some Intelligent, capital “I” Intelligence, must have monkied with the laws of nature to make carbon production possible. What that could possibly be I don’t know, but the more sensible thing to say is that creation is ordained, that the laws of nature would be such, as to enable the fruitfulness of carbon-based life.

We’ll come back to evaluating that possibility in a minute, but before we do, let me give you two other examples of how specific, how special, our universe has to be for us to be able to be here today to think about. We live in a universe that is immensely big, beyond our powers to imagine really. There are a hundred thousand million stars in our galaxy in the Milky Way, of which our sun is just a common or garden specimen, and there are about a hundred thousand million galaxies in the observable universe, of which our Milky Way is a pretty common or garden specimen. So we live in a world that is unimaginably vast, and sometimes we might feel upset by that and think, “What could be the significance of us who are simply inhabitants of a speck of cosmic dust, as you might say, in this vast, vast universe?”

Nevertheless, if all those stars were not there, we would not be here to be upset at the thought of them. Because there is a direct connection between how big a universe is and how long it lasts, and a universe that is significantly smaller than our universe would not have been able to last the 14 billion years, which is the necessary time to produce beings of our complexity. So that’s another condition of the world that has to be right for human beings, or something like human beings, to be a possibility.

One final example, which is the finest tuning of all: quantum theory suggests that there should be an energy attached to space itself. In quantum theory the vacuum, so called empty space, is not just a void. There are things called vacuum fluctuations which occur in a continual sort of seething mass of things coming into being and going out of being all the time. So while there is nothing there that doesn’t mean there is nothing happening. That may sound strange and paradoxical but believe me that’s what quantum theory implies. And of course these happenings, these fluctuations, generate a certain amount of energy, we call it “zero point energy”, and that energy is spread out over the whole of space. So we expect there to be energy associated with space.

And just recently the astronomers have discovered something called dark energy which is driving the expansion of the universe, which is just such an energy associated with space. Well that’s very good, you might say. However, when we estimate, just from thinking about quantum theory, how much energy there should be in space it turns out to be a fantastically large amount, and when we see the amount of energy there actually is per volume in space, it turns out to be very, very small in relation to that expected size. In fact, it turns out to be smaller by a factor of 10-120. That means by a factor of 1 over 1 followed by 120 zeros. You don’t have to be a great mathematician to see that’s a fantastically small number. So some fantastic cancellation has taken place to turn that big number into the tiny number that we actually observe, and if it hadn’t taken place we wouldn’t be here to observe it because significantly higher energy would simply have blown the whole show apart too fast for anything interesting to happen. That’s the finest tuning that we know in the universe: one part in 10120.

So we live in a world that is very remarkably finely tuned, and we have to consider that. And all scientists would agree about what I have been telling you; this is non-contentious. Where the contention comes in is what we might make of that, what is the further significance of it.

In the conclusion to Dr. Polkinghorne’s lecture, he looks at two explanations for the "fine-tuning" principle -- the multiverse theory and the existence of a divine intelligence -- and explains why natural theology alone is not sufficient to make the case for a God who interacts and cares for his creation. To make the case for theism, he argues, we need revelation, God's self-disclosure. This is manifest in various ways, including that which we experience personally, including ethics and aesthetics.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne, a British physicist and theologian, is widely regarded as one of the most important scholars in the science/religion discussion today. He worked in theoretical elementary particle physics at Cambridge University for 25 years before becoming an Anglican priest in the early 1980’s. Polkinghorne has written many books on issues in science and theology, including Science and Christian Belief, Belief in God in an Age of Science, and Questions of Truth (with co-author Nicholas Beale). Among his numerous honors, Polkinghorne was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and he was awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize in 2002.

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Tim - #70217

June 1st 2012

Why the universe has the constants is as of yet an unanswered question.  We simply don’t know.

What we do know, however, is that our current physical theories do not fully describe the fundamental nature of the universe.  There is a more comprehensive explanation out there, but we just don’t have it yet.  When we do, will it inform us as to why the constants are what they are?  Perhaps not quite arbitrary but more necessary consequents of the underlying fundamental physics of the universe?

Again, we don’t know.  We just don’t.  And we should be honest enough to admit that.

Now, two hypotheses that often compete with eachother are the multiverse + anthropic principle hypothesis and the fine tuning hypothesis.

Could either be right?  Sure.  Maybe.  But could both of them be wrong?  That’s quite possible as well.

Again, we just don’t know.  And until we have evidence that favors one explanation of another, we should all speak in very cautious terms.  Ignorance on these matters may not be bliss, but there is a confmort to be had in knowing that at least you’re being intellectually honest with yourself.

Tim - #70218

June 1st 2012

1st sentence should be, “Why the universe has the constants it has is of yet an unanswered question.”

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70220

June 1st 2012

We have a very serious question here that no one wants to address, and this is, “Does the the universe and life itself have meaning and purpose?” 

Now physicalism or materialism, which is the supposed basis of science, says that life has no meaning and purpose.  Its logic is clear and persuasive.  Nature is monistic, that is made up solely of matter/energy.  Matter/energy cannot think, so therefore since meaning and purpose requires thought, the universe and life have no objective purpose. 

The only problem with that is that it makes human life irrational.  Whereas other life forms do not have the ability to determine whether life has meaning or not, humans do.  Living for the sake of survival is not rational.  Life that has no rational purpose is not worthwhile.  Thus if the universe has no meaning or purpose then living is objectively irrational.   

Thus the question as to whether the universe is monistic matter/energy is really not a scientific question, but an existential question, and people by their lives say that life has meaning and purpose and thus the universe is more than matter/energy.   

However finding naturalistic monism wanting does not solove the problem.  The alternative to monism, Western dualism, has not scientific support and I hear almost no one supporting it philosophically.  Thus Scientism wins intellectually by default, which would be a disaster to our culture, or we find an alternative world view to monism and dualism which reconciles science and theology. 

Faith allows us to live in a world of unresolved conflict, but it does not necessarily resolve the conflict.  We need to use our minds and our theology to find a new intellectual foundation for Western civilization and culture or face the chaos of the vacuum.     

Chip - #70221

June 1st 2012


Now, two hypotheses that often compete with eachother are the multiverse + anthropic principle hypothesis and the fine tuning hypothesis.

While I think your statment is a little unclear, fine tuning, per se, is not a hypothesis—it’s a fact.  Subsequent hypotheses seek to explain why or how it is so, not that it is so.  As Polkinghome says,

So we live in a world that is very remarkably finely tuned, and we have to consider that. And all scientists would agree about what I have been telling you; this is non-contentious

Tim - #70222

June 1st 2012


I think you’re parsing terms here.  By the fine-tuning hypothesis, I mean the fine-tuning hypothesis that posits an intelligent fine-tuner.  As to the fact that many of the constants must be relatively precisely what they are, I’m not disputing that or challenging that in any way.  Which again I think should be obvious from my comment.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70224

June 1st 2012


What should be clear is that humans do not know anything for sure.  Science is always changing.  That is why Christians live by faith, uncertain knowledge, and not by sight, certain knowledge.

Of course there is no definitive proof that God exists, and no one should expect there to be, untill we hopefully meet God face to face.  However God does reveal Godself through Jesus Christ and that is good enough for me.  

Bilbo - #70225

June 1st 2012

Polkinghorne:  “... the universe is pregnant with life….

Maybe.  Maybe not.  If the Rare Earth Hypothesis is correct, then not.

Bilbo - #70226

June 1st 2012

Excuse me.  I should have said, if the Rare Earth Hypothesis is correct, then the universe is not pregnant with animal life.  Is it pregnant with microbial life?  That depends on the probability of abiogenesis, and on how many planets God wanted to have microbrial life.

Joriss - #70232

June 2nd 2012

Is the fact that God wants to be on this earth in the new Jerusalem and that Jesus is the Bridgeroom that will live with his Bride here not sufficient evidence, that we live on a rare earth, or could there be another planet in the universum to be selected for such a highest purpose?

Bilbo - #70233

June 2nd 2012

Hi Joriss,

The Rare Earth Hypothesis is a scientific hypothesis that the planet we are living on is one of a very small handful of planets in our galaxy or even our universe that is capable of sustaining animal (as opposed to mirobial) life. 

Is our planet rare in the theological sense, as you specify?  I think so.  But it might turn out that there are millions of planets that are inhabited with animal life or even with unfallen rational/spiritual life.  And if those other planets contain fallen beings, has God redeemed them in a similar manner or different one?  Or is God’s one of act of redemption here on this planet working its way out to all the other planets, jus as waves in a pond work out from the pebble cast in its middle?  C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy is a good place to start for such speculations.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70239

June 2nd 2012


Yes, its interesting, but futile, just like speculation about the multiverse.

We really do not need any excuses for avoiding the serious problems we humans have right now on our planet.  

Bilbo - #70241

June 3rd 2012

Hi Roger,

One never knows when ET might drop in for a visit.  We might want to have our theology-of-extraterrestrials in order, just in case.

Bilbo - #70242

June 3rd 2012

That was a colon and a closed parenthesis.  I don’t know why it came out looking like a question mark in a blue box.  Let’s see what a semi-colon and closed parenthesis looks like: 

KevinR - #70285

June 6th 2012

We know that our universe started 13.7 billion years ago, and it started extremely simple, just an almost uniformly expanding ball of energy, about the simplest physical system you could possibly think about. But a world that started so simple has of course become rich and complex.

First off, the bible makes it quite clear that the earth is about 6000 years old. Now since according to the bible, earth was created before the stars, the 13.7 billion years is simply fiction.

Furthermore, in all of science we know that things left to themselves tend to go from complex to simple as far as energy state is concerned. So the complexity we see around us does not correspond with the fabulous idea of the big bang.

If one goes along with the big bang and ask of it’s adherents what they expect to see regarding objects that are supposed to be right at the limit of “time” they will tell you that they expect to see stars and galaxies in their primordial, young and immature forming stages. 

However, the latest actual, real, physical observations blows that prediction out of the water.

So far it’s being discovered that even the most distant, faintest and furtherst galaxy appears fully formed and mature - meaning lots of red stars, not overwhelmingly blue. To top that, the galaxies already contain billions of stars even at about a supposed age of 800 million years after the big bang.

So here we have the case where actual, real, physical observations completely contradict the theory. The question one has to ask is: Will the adherents abandon it or simply make more unjustified assumptions[read stories] to bring the observations back in line with theory?

An even more important question is - if one marries one’s theology to the whimsical science of man, does one need to be prepared for a rather ominous divorce soon?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #70290

June 6th 2012


You are right.  Even science must live by faith.

Does that make the Bible certain when it was based on the cosmology of its time?


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