Problems with the Fine-Tuning Argument

Here are some notes I made some time ago, based on various sources, some of which are linked below. Richard Carrier's book "Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism" provided an excellent backbone to the first set of points.

The methodological and other problems:

• The biggest and most fatal criticism is that it is a tautology. The universe has to be ‘fine-tuned’ for life. Life developed within the universe, and so life has to be evolved TO the universe. Life cannot develop dancing to the tune of another universe – this is nonsensical. Therefore, any life that starts in any universe, by definition, must be ‘fine-tuned’ by that universe and thus every life-permitting universe will appear to be fine-tuned for life.

• Black holes: our universe is full of them - trillions and trillions of them. It seems like the very purpose of the universe is to produce black holes (not life). There are more black holes than life bearing planets (a lot more). A lot more material in the universe is devoted to creating black holes (a lot more). The universe is almost entirely a vacuum, in which black holes, not life, thrive. We barely struggle along, having a very difficult time surviving, in brutal competition for resources on a microscopic island of life that will be melted by the sun in some time. If we're not wiped out by meteors or interstellar radiation before then. Life has a hard time starting and is very easy to get rid of. Black holes, on the other hand, are inevitable consequences of this universe. And then it's almost impossible to get rid of them. Black holes are right at home in this universe. 'God did it' in no way explains this, especially in context of everything else the god hypothesis claims. God could have made:

a) a geocentric universe
b) four or five fundamental particles
c) universe filled with breathable air
d) universe hospitable to life, with far less 'unnecessary baggage'

Even if god had some strange reason for making a universe almost entirely deadly to life, makes the arrival of life very rare and difficult, makes its survival even harder, in a universe far larger then it needs to be, providing only a narrow window of time in which life has a chance and so on - even if this is likely under god - there is no reason god would make a universe tailor-made for black holes. Smolin's idea, on the other hand, makes perfect sense of this. Even predicts it. The God hypothesis is smashed upon the rocks of explanatory scope and power. To smitherines.

• Aah, large numbers. Whenever large numbers and stacked odds are mentioned, God is invoked. I wonder what kind of world we would live in if every scientist simply turned to God in the face of something difficult or seemingly unlikely.

• If every star had a habitable planet around it, then only one billionth of one billionth of one millionth of one percent of the volume would be inhabitable. Not exactly fine-tuned for life.

• The percentage of time the universe can support life, assuming it is not cyclic and will keep on expanding is 0.0 to 86dp and then a non-zero. The cold dead universe is an accurate description. If the life of the universe was an epic movie, before the first frame of the film passes before your eyes, all the stars have burned out. Still fine-tuned for life?

• Chances of things happening the way they are 1 in 1 as they have already happened. Only relevant for chances before something happens. This is analogous to saying the chain of cause and effect probabilities that led to Rob talking are so astronomically small as to be impossible, yet here he sits talking.

• Does a universe without life therefore prove that God does not exist? No, so why should it work the other way?

• Amazingly unlikely events happen all the time. Any particular sequence is incredibly unlikely. No one thinks such distributions are miraculous. A particular sequence of just 3 cards in a pack of cards being dealt in any order is 140,000 to one. Any sequence over the course of a night in a casino would be astronomical. Yet theists would have to show that the probability of God being responsible is higher than the probability of a naturalistic cause. Because they cannot calculate either one, then the discussion about probability is meaningless.

• The talk of necessity for highly tuned constants to permit life is that they were TO permit life and more importantly, that life is at all important. This assumption is unwarranted. Why should it be fine tuned for life and not rock? Or, if you are talking about how life is very rare (which in itself is an argument AGAINST fine-tuning), then why is it not argued to be fine-tuned for an exceptionally rare element, or combination of elements that is rarer than life itself?

To understand this, an analogy may be useful. Suppose that our breathing was dependent on a specific level of oxygen in the atmosphere, and that any other level would cause suffocation. That would certainly count as “fine-tuning” in the sense given by the argument. The atmospheric composition in question would be the only one capable of supporting life, and this would therefore demand “explanation”. But even if that was true, how would this fine-tuning justify design explanations? A designer would not make it so that humans would constantly face the danger of suffocation! An intelligent designer would try, whether possible, to ensure that a given system could keep functioning under different conditions. Such is the case with humans, who can breathe in atmospheres thin or rich in oxygen. The precariousness of a system’s functioning is not evidence of design, but rather of natural law.

• Another objection to the fine-tuning argument is that we should not be surprised or befuddled that the universe is adapted to our needs, since we evolved within the universe and its parameters. Evolution tends towards adaptation of life to its environment. Therefore, we should no more be surprised of how well the universe fits us, than we should be surprised of how well a baked cookie fits its mould. This argument is also called the WAP.

• A possible retort to WAP is that without the fundamental constants as they are, life simply could not evolve at all. But this is based on a misunderstanding: because we know only one possible way for life to evolve, does not mean that no other way is possible. Even the facts of carbon-based life are not a necessity. In many cases, life would have evolved differently, and we would be silicon life forms asking why the universe is so perfectly adapted to our existence. To think this way, without any scientific guidance at all, is nothing more than wish-fulfilment. We must start from the assumption that there is nothing special about the way we evolved, unless contrary evidence is presented.

• Inflation has led to many people rescinding claims of constants and certain figures (omega) necessitating fine-tuning. This also supports multiverses. The notion of multiverse can easily allow for life permission. Other constants have also been shown to vary within our own universe. Cyclic universes also allow for different constants.

• Loop Quantum Gravity, CCC model, multiverse theories, String theories, M-Brane – at least these are testable theories that offer some scientific justification, some chance of being testable. The God hypothesis does none of this. God did it is all.

• We simply do not know how many permutations could permit life.

• “I met Phil skydiving. Skydiving could not be achievable without a parachute, which would not work without Bernouilli’s principle of lift. Was BPL designed for skydiving or so that I could meet Phil? Was the wind designed for windsurfing? O~f course not, so why should we treat life any differently?”

• God could make life any universe possible, through perpetual miracles and omnipotence, so why this set of rules? Why are they evidence for God? It appears more likely that atheism is the root.

• Naturalism has always prevailed over supernaturalism in history up to now. No theory has succumbed to supernaturalism. Why bet against a horse that has one thousands of times before? Why have faith in something that has not been empirically tested or proven to exist?

The problems with the maths itself1:

1) They calculate the probability of the formation of a "modern" protein, or even a complete bacterium with all "modern" proteins, by random events. This is not the abiogenesis theory at all.

2) They assume that there is a fixed number of proteins, with fixed sequences for each protein, that are required for life.

3) They calculate the probability of sequential trials, rather than simultaneous trials.

4) They misunderstand what is meant by a probability calculation.

5) They seriously underestimate the number of functional enzymes/ribozymes present in a group of random sequences.

> And2:

Let's go back to our example with the coins. Say it takes a minute to toss the coins 4 times; to generate HHHH would take on average 8 minutes. Now get 16 friends, each with a coin, to all flip the coin simultaneously 4 times; the average time to generate HHHH is now 1 minute. Now try to flip 6 heads in a row; this has a probability of (1/2)6 or 1 in 64. This would take half an hour on average, but go out and recruit 64 people, and you can flip it in a minute. If you want to flip a sequence with a chance of 1 in a billion, just recruit the population of China to flip coins for you, you will have that sequence in no time flat.

So, if on our prebiotic earth we have a billion peptides growing simultaneously, that reduces the time taken to generate our replicator significantly.

Okay, you are looking at that number again, 1 chance in 4.29 x 1040, that's a big number, and although a billion starting molecules is a lot of molecules, could we ever get enough molecules to randomly assemble our first replicator in under half a billion years?

Yes, one kilogram of the amino acid arginine has 2.85 x 1024 molecules in it (that's well over a billion billion); a tonne of arginine has 2.85 x 1027 molecules. If you took a semi-trailer load of each amino acid and dumped it into a medium size lake, you would have enough molecules to generate our particular replicator in a few tens of years, given that you can make 55 amino acid long proteins in 1 to 2 weeks.

And then this3:

According to Reasons to Believe, the chance of life arising on a planet within the observable universe is only 1 in 10282 — or it would have been, if it weren’t for divine miracles. (Don’t tell them about there are 10500 vacua in string theory, it would ruin everything.) They get this number by writing down a long list of criteria that are purportedly necessary for the existence of life (“star’s space velocity relative to Local Standard of Rest”; “molybdenum quantity in crust”; “mass distribution of Oort Cloud objects”), then they assign probabilities to each, and cheerfully multiply them together. To the non-crackpot eye, most have little if any connection to the existence of life, and let’s not even mention that many of these are highly non-independent quantities. (You cannot calculate the fraction of “Sean Carroll”s in the world by multiplying the fraction of “Sean”s by the fraction of “Carroll’s. As good Irish names, they are strongly correlated.) It’s the worst kind of flim-flam, because it tries to cover the stench of nonsense by squirting liberal doses of scientific-smelling perfume. If someone didn’t know anything about the science, and already believed in an active God who made the universe just for us, they could come away convinced that modern science had vindicated all of their beliefs. And that’s not something any of us should sit still for.


2 Ibid.
3 Sean Carroll, “Reasons to Believe (that Creationists are Crazy)”  (retrieved 2/2/2011. It’s also worth checking out Luke Barnes’ “Any Claim Will Do: A Fine-Tuned Critique of Hugh Ross” (retrieved 2/2/2011)