Fine-tuning argument rebutted?

In this brief article on the fine-tuning of the universe, the “friendly Atheist” (aren’t they all friendly?) tells us that the fine-tuning argument has been “debunked so many times over,” and that it is, at heart, a fallacy (and an absurd one at that), and he also reminds us that Victor Stenger has written a 350 page volume refuting it. Rather than getting into details, he offers “the simplest response” which is, in essence, that every single person’s history is a series of unimaginably improbable coincidences because our lives could have taken so many different paths. Yet here we are on the one path that we took out of all the infinite paths we might have taken. Shocked? Not really. Same goes for fine-tuning. Clearly there is nothing interesting to discuss here. Move along, please.

It almost sounds like a reasonable response, doesn’t it? But there’s a problem.

At root this “rebuttal” fundamentally misunderstands the fine-tuning argument. But let’s start with what the author gets right. The author is perfectly correct to observe,

Our lives are nothing but a string of coincidences put together. Each one seems incredible on its own and it’d be impossible to predict it all in advance, but you have to travel down some path.

But the problem with his “refutation” is in the last sentence. We all had to travel down “some” path. This particular path is just one of a seemingly limitless number of alternative paths we could have taken. We might have ended up in a different career. We might have married somebody else. We might have lived somewhere else in the world. The list goes on.

Each of these alternatives, though, is more or less just different versions of the same thing. In all cases there is an overall “human history” and it either takes one form or it takes another form, but in all of the different possible forms of human history we are busily scurrying about our lives.

The fine-tuning argument for the universe as a whole, on the other hand, says that overwhelming majority of the conceivable alternatives to our present reality (as in, say, 99.9999999…% of all available options) are fundamentally different on one key point – there would be no life at all. It’s not really about a choice between living in Canada or living in Cancun; it’s about living anywhere at all, or not being alive in the first place. Rather than simply travelling down “some” path (as though it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other) the “some” path that we find ourselves on is stunningly remarkable in at least one sense; life exists in this universe.

Let me illustrate. Suppose, for instance, that my wife and I take a once-in-a-lifetime trip in a low-orbit spacecraft as part of the blossoming new “space travel” business. Just as we blast into space a giant – previously undetected – gas-packed meteor obliterates planet Earth behind us. The shock wave from the exploding gas-packed meteor propels us at astronomical speeds (pardon the pun) into outer space. All hope seems lost. But the direction we are propelled, combined with the gravitational pulls from passing planets, moons, meteors and what have you, send us directly to a previously unknown habitable planet just outside our solar system. A nearby moon provides precisely the right decelerating effect so we enter the planet’s atmosphere at just the right speed and angle, and the onboard control systems take over and we gently land in an open area; safe and sound.

My life could have taken an infinite number of alternate paths back on planet Earth. But from the rather lengthy list of alternative paths my life might have taken, how many of those paths would have resulted in my wife and me being on that spacecraft at precisely the moment that planet Earth was unexpectedly obliterated? Of all the possible directions we might have been propelled by the shock wave from the gas explosion, how many would have sent us to another inhabitable planet? It is a very, very narrow range of path alternatives indeed. And therein lies the problem with this “refutation” of the fine-tuning argument. The issue is not the difference between a wide range of more-or-less equal alternatives (career choices, spousal options, places to live, etc), but the difference between life *at all* and no life *at all*. And the odds of life *at all* are vanishingly small indeed, compared to the total list of conceivable options of what this universe might have looked like.

By the way, I would suggest the reader visit the link that the author claims will demonstrate that the fine-tuning argument has been debunked “so many times.” It lists the kinds of responses you can expect from folks who attempt to debunk the fine-tuning argument. Those responses are similarly flawed, but perhaps that’s a subject for another article.


About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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18 Responses to Fine-tuning argument rebutted?

  1. “The fine-tuning argument for the universe as a whole, on the other hand, says that overwhelming majority of the conceivable alternatives to our present reality (as in, say, 99.9999999…% of all available options) are fundamentally different on one key point – there would be no life at all.”

    Unfortunately that is not true. There would be no life that is identical to the life that exists now. For all we know, different kind of life could have arisen.

    That’s the problem with trying to come up with percentages with only one data point.

    • Paul Buller says:

      “Epsilon (ε), the strength of the force binding nucleons into nuclei, is 0.007. If it were 0.006, only hydrogen could exist, and complex chemistry would be impossible.”

      If you can imagine a universe comprised exclusively of Hydrogen that is also teeming with life then your imagination is better than mine! And that’s just one of many examples listed of fine-tuned parameters of our universe.

      I suppose one could use the word “life” in such a broadly defined sense that any universe containing any matter / energy of any kind is a universe with “life” but then I think we’re not really having an interesting conversation at that point.

  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Paul, I am not, on principle, opposed to the fine-tuning argument, but I’m not convinced. I do not see how we can begin to meaningfully calculate probabilities for the creation of the universe as a whole. I tried to express my objections in this (hopefully winsome) article: Hitting a Royal Flush. I do not see how we can argue from “Look at all the conditions that had to obtain for life to emerge” to “There must be a divine Creator who created the universe ex nihilo.” I welcome your thoughts.

    • Paul Buller says:

      Fr Aidan Kimel,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I’ll do my best to offer a few points to further the conversation.

      1) That you do not find the argument persuasive is quite alright. There are several arguments for God’s existence that I don’t find persuasive either (ontological being one of them). But it is one thing to say “it doesn’t persuade me” and quite another to say, “it is false.” Many people attempt to do the latter, though I see you haven’t.

      2) How can we meaningfully calculate probabilities with respect to the universe itself? Good question. The argument hinges on what philosophers call “counterfactuals.” The basic idea being that, “if such-and-such would have been the case, then our present situation would be different than it is.” We do this all the time. If I would have driven 5 km/h slower than I did, I would have arrived at my destination later. If I would have spent Christmas in Hawaii then I would have a tan right now. There is nothing particularly remarkable or “tricky” about such line of reasoning; it is quite natural for humans to do this.

      With the structure of the universe it is not particularly difficult to model these counterfactuals. For instance, on planet earth the acceleration due to gravity is 9.81 m/s2. If an object is accelarating at that rate it will reach 1 m/s after about 1/10 of a second. If, on the other hand, the acceleration were only 5 m/s2 then it would take about twice as long to reach the same speed. It’s quite straightforward, mathematically. Take the same concept and apply it to the basic structures of the universe. If the speed of light were 3e7 m/s instead of 3e8 m/s then the relationship between energy and mass (E=MC2) would be different from what it presently is. That would impact other physical processes. And on it goes. It’s not particularly difficult for a scientist with the appropriate tools to take a reasonably good guess at how things would look under this counterfactual situation.

      3) You ask a very good question about how we go from “the odds against any universe being a life-permitting universe are unfathomably small” (not quite your wording…) to “therefore God exists.” I am inclined to follow the lead of William Lane Craig on this one. Three options seem to present themselves. First, dumb luck. Second, necessity. Lastly, design.

      I’m not a gambling man so I won’t go for the first option, especially when the odds against are so large they need to be expressed as powers of powers. There seems to be absolutely no logical reason to assume the physical constants *had* to be what they are so option two isn’t persuasive. So that leaves the third option, by elimination. And if one is willing to consider the possibility of a designer it would seem God is the most qualified candidate to hand in his resume.

      I took a look at your article. It seems to me you are leaning toward hanging your hat on “dumb luck.” If you find that intellectually satisfying then so be it, but I’m not convinced.

  3. vonleonhardt2 says:

    I’d debunk fine tuning on the fact none of those other realities DO exist. It’s not worth debating.

    I see it that it is a case where if any universe exist it is the same as this one; we know of no other functional universe model. The burden of proof lay on claiming there are other possible universes which is unprovable. So apply some positive logic.

    It would then follow earth and life are ontological necessities of a universe existing. For we know of no universe without them. And thus we experience them presently.

    • Paul Buller says:

      Please see my above comments about “counterfactuals.” This is a very straightforward way of approaching reality; we all do this all the time. The fact that there are no other universes does not present even a slight problem for imagining what the universe would be like if the physical constants were different.

      • vonleonhardt2 says:

        Yes you can imagine, but they cannot be proved or disproved.
        It is literally an untestable hypothesis.
        I can imagine unicorns of different colors, but it’s a null result because their color is zero > undefined for there are no unicorns. It’s a negative truth fallacy.

        Daniel Lewis and Stalnaker where not trying to make scientific statements but linguistic ones. I could spend all day running a Ramses test on the thing but I don’t think your argument is counter factual… it is a plain syllogism

        Yes you can imagine, but they cannot be proved or disproved.
        It is literally an untestable hypothesis.
        I can imagine unicorns of different colors, but it’s a null result because their color is zero > undefined for there are no unicorns.

        Daniel Lewis and Stalnaker where not trying to make scientific statements but linguistic ones. I could spend all day running a Ramses test on the thing but I don’t think your argument is counter factual just because you say it is… it is a plain syllogism:

        Axiom. There are 9 x10^infinity of possible universes where life as we know it is not possible
        Premise: We live in a universe with life that is infinity improbable
        Conclusion: God had to guide universe selection because this would cannot be randomly selected.

        Your Axiom is not empirical, it is imaginable. Universes are empirically observable.

        What you are really doing is putting in one unverifiable assumption in your axiom to make God (normally not verified) a verifiable part of your conclusion because you find the probability of multiple universe more probable. The Rhetorical move is too obvious.

        I’m no atheist and not a modern philosopher expert, but I can tell the argument is screwy.

        • Paul Buller says:

          With all due respect I’m not sure I understand your reply clearly enough to respond properly. I’ll have to leave the conversation here. Thanks for stopping by.

        • Sk says:

          You must not be very familiar with the mathematics of probability. One does not need to prove that some state or event exists empirically to assess the probability of it occurring

          • vonleonhardt2 says:

            I’m familiar, the thing is you have forensic probability and future. Future probabilities keep the .0001% because of unknowns. Forensic classes don’t really have any probabiltiy, more concurrency. Like in an experiment input a is concurent with output b (forensic) so you can claim probability of a repeat on a new experiment.

            No, counterfactuals rely on “reasonibility.” So they claim a tends to be concurent with b, so if a happened there’s a probibility b would. Seems reasonable, yet the base forensic “probability” of A in our world is 0 because the argument claims it didn’t happen. That’s why they have to imagine new universes etc. But an arguement that needs us to light another big bang is pretty unreasonable itself… and it only succeeds to say the past moment regains variability so they can posit probability. Aka, my point. Shift the was to a variable is or would be and you can say whatever and then switch back to forensic mode to make it seem sound.

            The discussion is also rhetorical (in the classic sense), math is a language and Godel, etc. proved it can be made to play word games too. There’s even philosophy of math. This discussion really is above even first order logic and not if 8 dimensions computes… It’s sophism (in the non negative meaning).

            • Paul Buller says:

              You have a very strange way of considering the issue. The fundamental point of the fine-tuning argument is the thought experiment that if the physical constants contained in the laws of physics were something other than what they are, then the laws of physics would behave differently. There really isn’t anything difficult or controversial about this thought experiment. To claim we would need to “light another Big Bang” is a bizarre claim. We have to do no such thing.

              In our universe E=MC^2 and C has a certain constant value. Now if, hypothetically, C were twice its current value then for any given mass we can easily and accurately calculate what the resultant associated energy would be. You know the answer just as well as I do. Yet I assure I am merely sitting at my laptop in my dining room, I am not in some science lab “lighting another Big Bang.” This is an elementary math problem and the reliability of our answer is beyond doubt. It is not based on “reasonability” [sic] or any such subjective assessment, but on established and reliable math.

              Hypotheticals like this are commonplace in our everyday human experience. There are five kids in my kitchen right now. If one of my son’s friends had been unable to play this afternoon, but the other friends were still able to play, and no additional friends were able to play (i.e. all else being equal) then there would only be four kids in my kitchen right now. I don’t need to travel back in time and “start another playtime” in order to learn this counterfactual truth. Counterfactuals are part and parcel of the common human experience and attempting to cast doubt on our ability to accurately perform these kinds of mental abstractions is not merely unconvincing, it is downright perplexing.

              And I have no idea how to interpret your comment reducing math to mere rhetoric. If you set out on a journey to a destination 100 km away and you maintain an average highway speed of 100 km / h then is it mere rhetoric to claim it will take pretty darn close to 60 minutes to get there? Is that calculation merely a “word game?” Does that have anything to do with 8 dimensions or first order logic? Is that sophism? Or is it an example of simple, straightforward, and perfectly accurate mathematical analysis that every human reliably utilizes on a daily basis?

              If the only way to rebut the fine-tuning argument is to fabricate some “problem” with counterfactuals, or by attempting to cast doubt on the reliability of the field of mathematics, then the argument must be exceptionally robust indeed!

              • vonleonhardt2 says:

                Counterfactuals I’ve handled at another point, on my blog last month most recently are my issue rhetoric wise.

                Theologically it’s the fact it is a Molinism arguement against theopany turned apologetic.

                They are my main problem. Alan Hajak’s paper “most counterfactuals are False” is a good basic rebuttal you can simply google and read free; I’ve heard better ones.

                The forensic logic issue remains. Rhetoric has three basic modes forensic, ontological, and probabilistic (Aristotle does them a bit different).

                The issue is a big bang universe is forensic. It “was.” The hypothetical one never can be, it’s forensically excluded. In that mode of rhetoric the statement following the “not” is always true unless it counters the “was” hence it’s counterfact. The burden then is to show one counterfactual as “better” than another when thier truth value forensically is actually equal. “If nixion pushes the button…” the truth value of a fully irrelevant false statement, “the Cuban team wins the superbowl” is equally strong as “missles launch.” The arguement is which is less false. But forensic logic doesn’t have shades of false like that in first order reasoning. It did or didn’t happen.

                Other modes of rhetoric allow shades of true, like this “is” less true (diliberative). Yet, the things people try to say with counterfactuals they are trying to assign forensic truth rates to.

                Again, you seem caught up going to math, philosophy, etc. I’m pointing to rhetoric a different discipline, and counterfactuals are a rhetoric trick where you take logic from one mode and says it applies to another.

                I’d say saying “this might have happened” is so lose that anything fits… so its arguing about what’s the lest not true. Yet what’s true is still true, and until you falsify that the past can’t change or truth itself, then known facts are firm. There is no probibility of a true statement being false, and there is no ground to say the false (which by definition is not true) could ever have been true.

                Which is why counterfactuals get into things like multiple worlds which can’t be proven or disproven in the worst positive logic ways. If

                But hypotheticals still are logical and acceptable in other modes of rhetorical logic. I love how a future tense probability gets used to try and justify a forensic claim, that’s the very definition of sophism (negative sense). Witigenstein shoulda wrote on those. But risk aversion, hindsight, etc. are not forensic exercises, they don’t justify saying that the “might have been” has anywhere the same weight as the “was.” You can say it in a speech and be convincing yes, but I’d say not enough if your audience believes in any objective truths.

                But rhetoric is my interest. So if you want on the issue of math, we could get into priority monism of Einsteinian physics and priority pluralism of quantum physics and the issue of falling to create a unified theory being caused by cause-effect and change reasonings falling to harmonize, etc. That’s a rhetoric game I can’t figure at all how to solve.

                • Paul Buller says:

                  That’s all interesting philosophizing, but at the end of the day if you are seriously going to try and convince me that we cannot know how much energy would be associated with a certain mass if the speed of light were twice what it is in our universe then you are pursuing a lost cause. Scientists and philosophers on both sides of the discussion will at least agree that our thought experiments related to this argument are valid. Common sense and the weight of scholarly consensus don’t seem to be on your side.

                  But good luck with that.

                  Kindest regards, and thanks for the exchange.

                  • vonleonhardt2 says:

                    I’m of the opinion that you just totally ignored me, talked down, and can’t say I appreciate that at all. It’s not an exchange when you just want the other to say how right or wrong you are, and when one is approaching philosophy, etc. in a creative mode what good is parroting the knowns or accepted?

                    Live a little.

      • vonleonhardt2 says:

        Sorry, I took it as a given that if the physical constraints were different it would be a different “universe.” But the same argument holds for physical restraints.

  4. TJ says:

    I think that objection proves too much. If all probabilities are meaningless, how does one make inferences in regard to what is chance and what is not? Similar to what the author said above, I would suggest design is inferred when:

    something is highly improbable
    it fits another independent criteria (aka allows life to exist)

    Bill Demski’s design filter is the best I’ve seen on this particular subject.

  5. One of the most helpful contributions I’ve read on late of this (and which deconstructs/rebuts Stenger in considerable detail) is Luke Barnes, “The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life” = … It’s pretty technical, but a great resource.

    • nawdew14 says:

      Thanks for the link. I downloaded the paper and hope to make heads or tails out of it. Maybe those that posted here in opposition to the fine-tuning argument should take the time to read it as well.

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