Posted by: gcarkner | February 5, 2013

Is it a Fine-tuned Universe?


The Fine-tuned Universe is the proposition that the conditions that allow life in the Universe can only occur when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range, so that if any of several fundamental constants were only slightly different, the Universe would be unlikely to be conducive to the establishment and development of matter, astronomical structures, elemental diversity, or life as it is presently understood. The existence and extent of fine-tuning in the Universe is a matter of dispute, debate and lively conversation in the scientific community. The proposition is also discussed much among philosophers.

Noted Physicist Paul Davies asserts that “There is now broad agreement among physicists and cosmologists that the Universe is in several respects ‘fine-tuned’ for lifeIt is fine-tuned for the building blocks and environments that life requires.”  Astronomer and mathematician Sir Fred Hoyle at Cambridge University was in complete amazement when he discovered the resonance in the carbon atom, a basic building block of the biological life, and also discovered that carbon along with other heavy elements were made in the nuclear furnace of stars. His famous words were: “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology.” Among scientists who find the evidence persuasive, a variety of explanations have been proposed, including the Anthropic Principle: Did the universe somehow have human observers in mind in the events that occurred after the Big Bang and in the 40 or so physical constants that are key to modern physics and our very existence? Of course, this is really the only universe we know and examine. It is truly filled with wonder, giving us abundance and huge variety of life.

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In 1913, the chemist Lawrence Joseph Henderson (1878–1942) wrote The Fitness of the Environment, one of the first books to explore concepts of fine-tuning in the Universe. Henderson discusses the importance of water and the environment with respect to living things, pointing out that life depends entirely on the very specific environmental conditions on Earth, especially with regard to the prevalence and properties of water.

In 1961, the physicist Robert H. Dicke claimed that certain forces in physics, such as gravity and electromagnetism, must be perfectly fine-tuned for life to exist anywhere in the Universe. Fred Hoyle also argued for a fine-tuned Universe in his 1984 book Intelligent Universe. He compares “the chance of obtaining even a single functioning protein by chance combination of amino acids to a star system full of blind men solving Rubik’s Cube simultaneously“.

John Gribbin and Martin Rees wrote a detailed history and defence of the fine-tuning argument in their book Cosmic Coincidences (1989). According to Gribbin and Rees, carbon-based life was not haphazardly arrived at, but the deliberate end of a Universe “tailor-made for man.”

Martin Rees formulates the fine-tuning of the Universe in terms of the following six dimensionless constants:

The premise of the fine-tuned Universe assertion is that a small change in several of the dimensionless fundamental physical constants would make the Universe radically different. As Stephen Hawking has noted, “The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and the electron. … The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.” There are some 40 which need to be tuned to one another as well.

If, for example, the strong nuclear force were 2% stronger than it is (i.e., if the coupling constant representing its strength were 2% larger), while the other constants were left unchanged, diprotons would be stable and hydrogen would fuse into them instead of deuterium and helium. This would drastically alter the physics of stars, and presumably preclude the existence of life similar to what we observe on Earth. The existence of the di-proton would short-circuit the slow fusion of hydrogen into deuterium. Hydrogen would fuse so easily that it is likely that all of the Universe’s hydrogen would be consumed in the first few minutes after the Big Bang. However, some of the fundamental constants describe the properties of the unstable strange, charmed, bottom and top quarks and mu and tau leptons that seem to play little part in the Universe or the structure of matter.

Barrow, John and Tipler, Frank. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986. [Classic book dealing with almost all aspects of the anthropic principle, with extensive calculations regarding fine-tuning.]

Carr, B. J., and Rees, M. J. (April, 1979). “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle and the Structure of the Physical World.” Nature, Vol. 278, 12 April 1979, pp. 605 -612. [This is the first major article extensively discussing the way in which the constants of nature are set just right for life to occur.]

Robin Collins is an American philosopher. He currently serves as Professor of Philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania. His main interests include the relationship between religion and science and philosophical theology. He has a strong interest and expertise on the fine-tuning issue:


Paul DaviesPaul Davies classic quote on the subject:

Paul Davies (English physicist and philosopher, professor Arizona State University): “Scientists are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth – the universe looks suspiciously like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves. For 40 years, physicists and cosmologists have been quietly collecting examples of all too convenient “coincidences” and special features in the underlying laws of the universe that seem to be necessary in order for life, and hence conscious beings, to exist. Change any one of them and the consequences would be lethal. Fred Hoyle, the distinguished cosmologist, once said it was as if “a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics”.To see the problem, imagine playing God with the cosmos. Before you is a designer machine that lets you tinker with the basics of physics. Twiddle this knob and you make all electrons a bit lighter, twiddle that one and you make gravity a bit stronger, and so on. It happens that you need to set thirtysomething knobs to fully describe the world about us. The crucial point is that some of those metaphorical knobs must be tuned very precisely, or the universe would be sterile.Example: neutrons are just a tad heavier than protons. If it were the other way around, atoms couldn’t exist, because all the protons in the universe would have decayed into neutrons shortly after the big bang. No protons, then no atomic nucleuses and no atoms. No atoms, no chemistry, no life. Like Baby Bear’s porridge in the story of Goldilocks, the universe seems to be just right for life.”

George Ellis (British astrophysicist): “Amazing fine tuning occurs in the laws that make this [complexity] possible. Realization of the complexity of what is accomplished makes it very difficult not to use the word ‘miraculous’ without taking a stand as to the ontological status of the word.”

Arno Penzias (Nobel prize in physics): “Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say ‘supernatural’) plan.”

Stephen Hawking (British astrophysicist): “Then we shall… be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.”

Frank Tipler (Professor of Mathematical Physics): “When I began my career as a cosmologist some twenty years ago, I was a convinced atheist. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be writing a book purporting to show that the central claims of Judeo-Christian theology are in fact true, that these claims are straightforward deductions of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I have been forced into these conclusions by the inexorable logic of my own special branch of physics.”

Carl Woese (microbiologist from the University of Illinois) “Life in Universe – rare or unique? I walk both sides of that street. One day I can say that given the 100 billion stars in our galaxy and the 100 billion or more galaxies, there have to be some planets that formed and evolved in ways very, very like the Earth has, and so would contain microbial life at least. There are other days when I say that the anthropic principal, which makes this universe a special one out of an uncountably large number of universes, may not apply only to that aspect of nature we define in the realm of physics, but may extend to chemistry and biology. In that case life on Earth could be entirely unique.”

Sir John Polkinghorne (Cambridge micro-physicist and theologian) “When you realize that the laws of nature must be incredibly finely tuned to produce the universe we see, that conspires to plant the idea that the universe did not just happen, but that there must be a purpose behind it.” See also his essay called “God & Physics” in God is Great; God is Good: why believing in God is reasonable and responsible (eds. William Lane Craig and Chad Meister) IVP.

What do you think about Fine-tuning? Does it get you excited or make you nervous? How do you interpret this amazing anthropic phenomena? One author noted that even a multiverse has to be fine-tuned as well.

See also Alister McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: the quest for God in science and theology. WJK, 2009.

Featured UBC Visiting Scholar March 2013:Top American Research Professor of Philosophy Dr. William Lane Craig (a speaker of international calibre) will carefully examine the evidence for us at UBC on March 6, 2013 at 12:00 noon in the Norm Theatre in Student Union Building (SUB). He will be introduced by Dr Dennis Danielson, UBC English Professor, who has edited the important book on the history of astronomy called The Book of the Cosmos. Interpretation is definitely part of the picture and the debate. Dr. Craig’s talk is entitled: Does a Fine-tuned Universe Point to a Cosmic Designer?  The title is perhaps provocative for some of us, but we trust that based on his scholarly track record, it will be a very thoughtful examination of this late twentieth century great scientific discovery. See some other portals of information below. Be thinking of your tough questions on this vital subject of the nature of our universe.

 Dr. Craig’s talk at UBC Norm Theatre on March 6, 2013

Results: 400 people from various UBC disciplines came out to hear Dr Craig and to ask their tough questions. Three guys drove up from Seattle for the lecture. He also had a nice audience with the leaders of a number of Christian clubs over lunch after the lecture to encourage them. On a scale from 1 to 10, this was surely a 9.9. We’ll load the video on YouTube soon.

See Dr. Craig’s Credentials:

William Lane Craig

See also: University of Delaware Physicist Stephen Barr (worked with Stephen Hawking as a postdoc), Modern Physics and Ancient Faith; excellent work by physicist/theologian Sir John Polkinghorne (see blog post); DVD called Test of Faith. which interviews top Oxbridge scientists on the subject. Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies, Chapters 7 and possibly 8.

Jennifer Wiseman  NASA Astronomer who studies the formation of stars, Director of the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion for AAAS  Birth of the Universe from National Geographic uploaded 2010

Article by Waterloo Physicist Robert Mann The Puzzle of the Universe:

Pro-creator interpretation on Fine-tuning with Dr. John Bloom scientist from Biola University :

See the new Cosmos series on Netflix, especially the first on the birth of the universe.

See also Alister McGrath’s excellent book, based on Gifford Lectures, called A Fine Tuned Universe: the search for God in science and theology.

Other Key Questions Raised by Modern Physics:

  • Why is the universe intelligible and why is there such a mathematical fitness?
  • Is science compatible with philosophical Naturalism? Plantinga
  • Is there purpose behind the universe even if we can’t measure it with scientific instruments?
  • Why is there something rather than nothing? ~Leibnitz
  • How did all 40 physical constants coordinate with one another to provide life as we know it?

A star is born!

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