Eric Kemp (he of the rather poorly named ‘Intelligent Science’ blog) has posted a foundational description of the fine-tuning argument for the existence of God. If you don’t know what that is, read Eric’s explanation, because it covers all of the basic points nicely.
Rather than reply directly to that, I’d like to point out what I believe is wrong with most atheistic replies to the fine-tuning argument before suggesting a slightly different way of looking at the supposedly ideal Universe that we live in.
Perhaps the most compelling component of the fine-tuning argument are the cosmological constants, funamental forces of the Universe which are ‘set up’ just right for our kind of life to evolve. The most obvious rebuttal to this is that our kind of life might not be the only kind possible, but there are other replies that I don’t find quite so convincing.
1) The Anthropic Principle. People tend to phrase this as ‘we’re here, therefore it’s possible for us to exist, so we don’t need to explain anything’. (More or less.) Obviously that isn’t really what the Anthropic Principle states, but a lot of atheists don’t seem to get that. One less nonsensical version simply points out that, if there are a range of conditions over time in which life is possible, it follows that we must find ourselves within one of those windows of oppurtunity and so be witness to the illusion that this time and place was ‘designed’ for us. However, while some of the ‘constants’ or prerequisites for life (main sequence stars, for example) change over time and space, several of the fundamental forces do not. Unless I’ve got the wrong idea, this version of the anthropic principle would seem to require multiple universes. Which, of course, is the second unsatisfying reply.
2) Multiple Universes. It’s entirely possible that there are many (or infinite) universes, and this would pull the rug out from under the fine tuning argument in an instant, but some atheists seem to think that the existence of a multiverse has actually been proven. It hasn’t, making this reply interesting but invalid (for now).
That’s all I’ll say on the fine tuning argument itself, because I’d rather move on to my own counter-argument. There are dozens of attempted refutations of the fine-tuning argument out there already, so if you’re interested, look them up.
The Coarsely-Tuned Universe
Did a god create the Universe just for us? Many religions certainly think so, from the Genesis account to tribal legends, and at first glance it might seem that way; after all, we live on a planet which, alone among all of its brethren in the solar system (and all of those we’ve detecteed in other solar systems), is capable of comfortably supporting us. Looking further afield, the Universe itself seems to have been designed with life in mind – an illusion that becomes all the more striking when you consider the stellar evolution required to make the basic components of life in the first place. It is not difficult to imagine a Universe in which nothing exists but elementary particles.
But our fortiuitous placement within the Habitable Zone of our star actually is easily explainable by invoking the anthropic principle. Although a recent simulation has suggested that life-supporting planetary systems such as our own are probably very rare, the Universe is likely so full of them that this is no barrier to life developing somewhere, at some point. The fact that we’re here is proof that the odds can be beaten (barring the discovery in the future of some great impediment to abiogenesis and the like). The ‘Goldilocks Enigma’ isn’t much of an enigma at all, nor do we need to suppose a divine creator to explain Earth’s idyllic properties.
But could our planet be evidence against a fine-tuning deity? The ‘problem of evil’ has been endlessly discussed, but usually in relation to human evil; God’s own apparently sadistic nature is frequently left unconsidered. While there is no reason to suppose that a god would need to create a truly ideal world for us, there is also no reason to suppose that a god would intentionally make our world less hospitable than it needs to be. At this point some theists might point to ‘sin’, but how exactly does that explain the need for, say, volcanoes? A fairly significant portion of humanity lives in danger of being buried under a pyroclastic flow or smothered in a cloud of hot ash, while a truly cataclysmic eruption (of a ‘supervolcano’) could have disasterous consequences for our civilization and species.
If we assume that a god made the Earth knowing that volcanic activity would pose a serious threat to its living creation(s), we must then ask ‘why?’. This is one of the major problems with arguing for an intelligent fine-tuner: you cannot ignore the question of its intent. Most theists sweep this under the rug and talk about some sort of nebulous ‘Plan’, but this is a pretty weak defence. What possible reason could a god have for creating death traps that it knew would kill hundreds of men, women and children? And when are we going to see an example of this plan actually paying off?
Why earthquakes or hurricanes or floods? A purely naturalistic worldview simply recognizes all of these things as unfortunate consequences of uncaring natural phenomena, yet they make a creator god guilty of wanton death and destruction. If God made Earth for us, why can its weather systems kill us?
The situation becomes worse if we turn our sights to the solar system at large, which is routinely visited by bodies travelling at speeds high enough to drive us extinct with a single impact. (The issue of the gas giants ‘shielding’ Earth is also explainable in anthropic terms; we never would have evolved on a planet that constantly suffered large impacts). There is no reason why meteors and comets need to exist – not if a god set things up originally, that is.
But the most inexplicable feature of our solar system must be the sun. We rely on it utterly, yet it is destined to destroy us. One billion years from now, the sun will have grown so hot that terrestrial life on Earth will be impossible (we won’t even survive to see it become a red giant). If we last that long (and I seriously doubt that we will, in any form), our only hope would be to escape to another solar system. Unfotunately, this is currently impossible, and is likely to remain so for the forseeable future. Even with highly advanced interstellar technology, moving every human on the planet would be unthinkable. It a god did set things up and wanted us to escape our fate, it made it incredibly difficult.
Again, we’re forced to consider what such a god was thinking. It could be planning some sort of ‘rapture’ like event, where the favoured will be saved and the rest will be left to burn (literally, for one unfortunate generation), but it seems rather unfair that everything else on Earth also has to die.
Our continued existence is far from certain, and all of these factors together paint a bleak picture: our days are numbered. Most of the events that could wipe us out are very unlikely, but they only have to happen once, and over long enough spans of time the likelihood of any of them occuring grows close to 100%. The sun’s death is both certain and inescapable, but we at least have a good idea of when that will happen; a meteorite could take us by surprise tomorrow.
It’s clear that Earth and the solar system are not quite as ideal as some would have us believe, and I cannot imagine why a god would create an entire Universe for us only to grant our particular region the means to destroy us. And speaking of ‘an entire Universe’, it really is mind-bogglingly huge. It’s impossible to imagine the distances between stars or the even greater distances between galaxies; what’s the point of it all? Us? Then why will we never see 99.99% of it?
This is not just a problem of space, but also of time, and the following is perhaps the aspect of the Universe where its coarsely-tuned nature is most obvious. For a long after the Big Bang, life was impossible. For the vast, vast majority of its future, it could be that life will be equally impossible.
The Universe’s ultimate fate is still speculative, but the most likely scenario is ‘heat death’. This is a graphical timeline of the Universe up until today, along with a hypothetical timeline of its future. Note how little of the timeline life on Earth occupies. Move up along the graph, and it’s not long before the matter that life consists of can no longer exist. At this point we will almost certainly be long gone, yet here again we rech an absolute limit on how long we can survive for. Under this model, the Universe reaches heat death and maximum entropy; it is essentially ’empty’ by today’s standards.
If the Universe is here for us, for life, what is the point of these billions upon billions of sterile years? Our existence, and even the possibility of our existence, could well a momentary anomaly, here and gone in the blink of an eye. This is not a problem for a naturalistic worldview – the Universe does not care about us, after all – but I find it hard to believe that a supposedly caring god would create a living space that seems designed to make sure that we don’t continue to live.
In both space and time, our planet is an island of life in a sea of cold, near-eternal death. If a god went out of its way to make it and us, why does it show so many signs of being created by the unfeeling hand of nature?
This mysterious god’s intentions are a massive question mark. Is it evil? That would certainly make sense, although I suspect that most theists reading this will reject that idea out of hand on emotional grounds. Does it not care? Same scenario: it makes sense, but isn’t appealing. Does it care for us, its special creation? Then why is our grip on life so tenuous, and why do we live in such an uncaring universe? Why does it not explain itself (or if it does, why does it do so through ‘holy’ books of dubious pedigree)? Why do the only signs of its existence apparently reside in the unknowable realms of death and the time before the Universe came to be?
This coarsely-tuned Universe does not bear witness to a god. Instead it tells us that it doesn’t care about us, and will continue to operate long after we’re no longer here to speculate about it. Gazing at the stars might inspire awe in us, but it provides us with no comfort or assurance – and yet, for all of that, I still say that we’re lucky to be here.