The Universe appears to be fixed, or so some Theologians say. Everything, from the PH Balance of our Oceans, to the length of our day, to the fundamental forces that underpin the physics of our Cosmos, it all seems to be crafted just as it must be to allow humans to live and prosper. It seems that the odds of such fine tuning having arisen through the chance course of naturalistic means is so miniscule, so infinitesimal, that it cannot be believed to have happened. Given these observations, the Theist will conclude that a Divine Architect of supreme power must have designed this Universe with human life in mind.
This is the Fine Tuning Argument, which stands as one of the most popular and commonly advanced modern Apologetic positions. This Argument is so popular and so often used because of how well it appeals to intuition, and how difficult it can be to address in front of an audience. Christopher Hitchens, when questioned about which Theistic Argument he found most persuasive, presented the Fine Tuning Argument as being the most difficult to deal with (although “most difficult” on a scale of arguments that are all deemed unconvincing may not be saying much).
The Fine Tuning Argument, at least in the form it is usually presented, is fairly modern, being less than a century old. It is only in our most recent epoch of Cosmology and Physics that we have gained an appreciation for how narrow the band of life permitting circumstances is, and how unlikely it may be for such a band to have existed at all. However, in many ways the Fine Tuning Argument is really a reformatted and greatly focused version of the Teleological Argument, also known as the Argument from Design, which is an old Apologetic standby. The Argument from Design seeks to point to order in the Natural World which seems both unlikely to have arisen by chance, and displays properties which we commonly associate with deliberate design. This approach, claiming that the design we see in Nature is more than just metaphor, is applied to the order and structure of our Universe to portray the Cosmos as being a machine of sorts, designed to generate a world for us.
The Fine Tuning Argument bears the features of the Argument from Design that fathered it. Each of the major refutations applying to the Teleological Argument also apply to the Fine Tuning Argument. I wish only to discuss the refutations that apply more uniquely to the Fine Tuning Argument, but will refer you to the article Arguments from Design: The All Natural Watch Maker for further information on the Teleological Arguments in general.
I do understand the intuitive appeal of the argument, and I find myself from time to time marveled and perplexed by the mechanics that allow molecules in motion to act in manner that seems willful, and in the case of the brains of conscious animals, can in fact give rise to will. It is mind boggling to consider that everything that has ever happened, is happening right now, and will every happen is entirely dependent the positive and negative charges of different atoms and molecules that Gravity has clumped together.
However, as I have discussed before, intuitive answers to complex questions often prove incomplete or false, and it is no different with this discussion. The Fine Tuning Argument fails on three levels. It is often used as a debate tactic in a very dishonest way, it serves as an example of extraordinarily twisted reasoning, and it serves as a cynical and disingenuous tool of conversion in almost every case.
The Fine Tuning Argument stands up so well in debate for a number of reasons, none of them commendable. The Argument can hardly be presented without reference to the cutting edge of chemistry, physics, and cosmology, often venturing deep into territory beyond the understanding, let alone refutation, of anyone other than a specialist. It is easy for an Apologist to ramble off a list of such facts, one after another, regardless of how well they actually understand the technical aspects of their points they are making. They will lead their audience along by their intuition towards a conclusion: The existence of an often oddly specific God. The problem is that the Apologist likely has no more of a grasp on the actual mechanics of the Astrophysics they cite than the audience does. They surreptitiously slide out of Science and into Theist Philosophy to claim evidence they don’t understand supports the conclusion they held in the first place. The problem is that, due to the incredibly technical nature of the points being made, the Atheist is often not qualified to refute the position, and even if they were, it takes far longer to erase bad science and replace it with a proper explanation that it does to advance a cavalcade of half-facts and misplaced theories.
The first secret to dispelling the Fine Tuning Argument is to understand that the part of the Argument citing numerous factoids and revelations of Science serve as a red herring. It is an attempt to dazzle the audience with science and establish unearned credibility towards an unrelated point. They rely on the audience having little to no understanding of the facts presented, and their opponent lacking the time or the expertise to properly refute them. Even failing those assumptions, at least their intuitive chain of reasoning is more superficially appealing than the dry and technical nature of the likely response. It’s not truth. It’s a stage performance. It’s drama.
Perhaps the most glaring problem with the Fine Tuning Argument, even if we grant the rather dubious conclusions of the Apologists, is that the entire Argument is hinged on one of the most twisted redefinitions I have ever encountered. When the Apologist says the Universe is Fine tuned for Life, they employ the phrase “Fine Tuned for” in an utterly foreign and mysterious way that is almost impossible to decode.
The Universe is vast, larger than we can fathom. Think of how small you feel in those rare and fleeting moments, standing on a lone pinnacle at night beneath the dome of the stars, when your get a whisper of the vast space between yourself and the Belt of Orion. Think of that mixture of fear and excitement that leaps into your chest and then scampers out again as soon as you try to grab hold of it, because your mind simply cannot grasp something so immense. Our Cosmos many billion times over larger still that what we can conceptualize even in these tiny visceral snapshots. There are a Billion Galaxies, and a Billion Billion Stars, each with an untold number of Planets, each Planet with and untold number of Moons. That space is massive, empty, cold, and dead. Only on the tiniest of planets, under the rarest of circumstances, in the most fleeting of times, can life arise. Of the life that arises on that planet, 99.8% of it goes extinct in the blink of an eye. Of the remaining .2%, a tiny fragment happens to be Human. Those Humans live on a world with vast portions of its climate being deadly. In those small climatically hospitable windows these humans still encounter plague and natural disasters which regularly wipe them out droves without even noticing.
By what conceivable definition of “Fine Tuned for” can anyone posit that this Universe is Fine Tuned for Human life? The overwhelming bulk of our Universe is instantly fatal to Humans if exposed to it. The overwhelming bulk of our own Earth is instantly fatal to Humans if exposed to it. The remaining tiny pockets that are not instantly fatal are still fairly fatal on a regular basis. It is only by an astounding twisting of reason that “Fine Tuned for” can mean “almost completely antithetical to”.
Now there are those Apologists that will claim this is a misrepresentation of the Fine Tuning Argument. The Argument, they will say, is that the Universe had to have been incredibly fine tuned into order for even that massive cold emptiness of space/time to exist, which then had to be further fine tuned to even allow for that minuscule environment and time for Humans to live. The idea is that existence itself, the vast whirling cosmos, and the bulk of the earth are essentially the fumes of the machine that generates a Human inhabitable environment. This seems to me to imply a rather inept and wasteful God. This position also places some rather arbitrary limits on the abilities of God, or else to simply appeal to the mysterious ways in which God works, in which case why bother why with the Science at all?
The second secret to dispelling the Fine Tuning Argument is to realize that when the Apologist says “Fine Tuning”, they are not speaking English. There is absolutely no other context in the language in which the phrase Fine Tuning could be used to describe a system so wasteful to implement and so bad as achieving its goal.
The thing that is most hollow and cynical about the Fine Tuning Argument is how disingenuous it is. One would think that the purpose of presenting a case such as this is to share with the unconvinced the kinds of things that you found convincing in your own intellectual journey. It is understood in most academic debates or honest and open discussions, that you are presenting your beliefs and your positions in good faith, and not merely advertising. Apologists so rarely do this. I have never encountered an Apologist for whom the Fine Tuning Argument holds even one iota of sway over their personal beliefs.
The Fine Tuning Argument appeals to the current state of Scientific understanding, but so what? Apologists appealed to the current state of understanding before it was where it is now. When the Universe was past-eternal, Apologists found a way to make that apparent fact support God. Once the Universe became past finite, the Arguments changed to match. When the Universe was perhaps a place that could easily support life, that fact was highlighted to show God’s design. Once Science revealed that life is incredibly unlikely, that fact became a centerpiece of God’s design. It doesn’t matter what Science says, the Apologist will always find a way to make it lead to God. What is more is that you will hardly find an Apologist who will deny this when forced to answer earnestly. Try to pry a Theist for a response to the following question: “So are you saying that if we had been born 80 years earlier, having this debate in a time when Science did not support the conclusions you are drawing, that you would be standing here saying Science refutes God?” The Apologist will likely attempt to avoid the question, but if pinned down and forced to answer, they will likely conceded that no, they would have found a way to make the science of the day support the same conclusions.
The Argument is presented cynically, as a means to appeal to the scientifically minded. This is how the Apologist transforms from a knowledgeable expert, to a salesman. They stop extolling the virtues of the Religion that are convincing and meaningful to them, and start telling you what they think will convince you to buy the product.
The third and final secret I have (although there are surely more to be discussed another day) to dispelling the Fine Tuning Argument is to consider whether or not the line of reasoning the Apologist is presenting would have any impact on the faith of the Apologist even if it were completely overturned and proved to be absolutely false. If the Apologist is feeding you an argument that has no sway over their own intellect, then it is more than a little disrespectful for them to think it will sway yours.
The Fine Tuning Argument will likely continue to be a common tool in debate. It is a hell of a tactic. It is intuitively appealing, cumbersome to refute in conversation, and relies heavily on the authority of an expertise that nobody in the debate is likely to be able to undermine. Hopefully good information will spread to the point that audiences are wise, and Apologists will learn that they cannot get away with presenting manipulative Arguments, twisting language beyond all recognizably definition, obfuscating their own beliefs.
Lastly, I want to highlight the curious way in which an Apologist cuckolds Science, and uses it to incubate and foster their own beliefs. If an Apologist is willing to rely on an incredibly detailed, step-by-step, mechanical processes to get them to, say, the finely tuned value for the Electro-Magnetic Force, and then abandoned all of that rigorous specificity and jump head long into “therefore God”, then they are being dishonest. If the Theist earnestly respects that meticulous process, then they will continue to demand the use of that process in defining the Hows, Whens, and Whys of God’s involvement. If they champion the rigorous standards of Science, then abandoned those standards as soon as it gets them to their jump-off point, then the facts were presented cynically and had little to do with their beliefs in the first place. In which case, why did they bother at all?
Because it’s what they think you want to hear.