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.