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What is the Fine Tuning of the Universe?—Summer Reading Group VIII

In their first 6 chapters, Giberson and Collins make the case that the findings of modern science, including evolution by natural selection, are compatible with religious belief, including a serious (though nonliteral) reading of Genesis. But by their own admission, much of this work can seem “defensive,” and may feel to religious believers, especially conservative ones, like backpedaling to accommodate modern science. However, in Chapters 7 and 8, they present “positive” evidence from contemporary science which they feel points toward a creator who had life in mind. Chapter 7 (“What is the Fine Tuning of the Universe, and How Does It Serve as a Pointer to God?”) notes many finely-balanced coincidences from physics that are crucial to the existence of carbon-based life. For example, if the balance among the forces that physicists regard as fundamental were off by the tiniest fraction, then elements heavier than hydrogen, such as carbon, would not be produced, and could not function as the basis for life. The authors also observe that if the density of the universe were even a wee bit larger or smaller, the universe would have either collapsed too early or expanded too fast for life to be possible. As they note, such findings caused the agnostic physicist Fred Hoyle to comment in the 1950’s: “A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.”

Since then, the coincidences have kept piling up. By the 1980’s, such fine-tuning principles had developed a name, “anthropic principles,” and physicist Paul Davies was led by the evidence to say: “Even if you dismiss man as a chance happening, the fact remains that the universe seems unreasonably suited to the existence of life—almost contrived—you might say a ‘put-up job.’” Even more recently, leading physicist Freeman Dyson put it this way: “The more I examine the universe, and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the Universe in some sense must have known we were coming.”

Perhaps we don’t need to go into further detail here, because even critics tend to agree that, if anything, the evidence over the last few decades has continued to build impressively along these lines. But there remain significant questions of interpretation: which big metaphysical picture—one that includes the natural world and whatever lies beyond—best fits the data? To believers like me, physicists’ anthropic findings come with a happy sense of surprise, confirming my faith. But curmudgeonly skeptics can grouse: maybe it’s like people in a rich neighborhood thinking that the whole world is rich (Stephen Hawking’s analogy); that is, maybe we feel at first “surprised” that the universe is conducive to life—but we needn’t be, because if the conditions were not hospitable to life, we humans wouldn’t be here to observe the empty blackness or fiery maelstrom.

The authors reply by using John Leshe’s now-classic analogy. Suppose you are to be executed by firing squad. Tied to a post and blindfolded, you hear all the guns go off, but you survive because every one of the marksmen missed. How would you think about this, later back in your cell? As you marvel at your good fortune in having survived all these expert marksmen shooting at you, will you be satisfied to tell yourself: “Of course all of the shots missed; otherwise I wouldn’t be here to notice that I’m still alive.” “This trivial response could satisfy only someone completely devoid of curiosity,” say Giberson and Collins.

To their credit, the authors consider some of the counterarguments from skeptics. Perhaps our universe is a mere part of a “multiverse”—other “universes” may exist, including the fiery or black ones without you or me to observe them. Or maybe scientists will someday discover deep principles that will make the “fine-tuning” coincidences look inevitable—maybe, say, they will find a “reason,” rooted in as-yet undiscovered aspects of nature, why the ratio of gravity to other elementary forces is so perfect. If scientists could do that, the firing squad analogy could be partly neutralized: if you could be convinced that, despite appearances, the guns inevitably had to misfire, then your “surprise” and the accompanying sense of remarkability could possibly be explained away. But the authors quite rightly point out the significant challenges that scientists have in making such moves: currently it is difficult to see how senses-based evidence for (or against) the multiverse is even possible, since communication between alternate universes is difficult to imagine, let alone observe; and, as the authors point out, attempts to pin down reasons for the key constants that currently seem “arbitrary” and “created” typically involve substituting yet other arbitrary and created constants,  or else involve inserting new factors (such as a varying “inflation rate” of the universe) at some other points in the theory, thus pushing back the problem, but not solving it.

The authors come down firmly on the side of creationism, where the universe is intelligently designed by a creator who is also currently involved, and think that science, on balance, is very supportive of Christian belief, despite their commitment to evolution as a key vehicle of God’s action. However, they distance themselves from Intelligent Design theorists (IDT’s), and I think that even religious conservatives who don’t agree with all of their conclusions would do well to ponder some of their arguments. First, a little background. IDT has done a good job, in my view, of distinguishing between methodological naturalism (to do science, you need to deal with facts verifiable by the senses) and full-fledged naturalism (the view that the only reliable route to truth and usable theories is through empirical observation, thus rejecting not only faith and revelation, but intuition, feelings, and hunches). There are many good reasons that religious conservatives should support methodological naturalism: by limiting the playing field to sense-based methods, atheists, Christians, Muslims, and Jews can all make mutual progress in science, because we share ground rules and methods, and have a good chance of minimizing bias. But—and the New Atheists pay far too little attention to this subtlety—that in no way implies that the only reliable avenue to truth is through “natural” methods. Consider this analogy: when police gather evidence to build a case against a suspected criminal, they cannot simply use their hunches: they must get a warrant, and they have to follow rules of evidence. This doesn’t mean they don’t trust those hunches—they just recognize that to remove bias from the system, “their hands are tied,” and for good reason: over time, we think that minimizing bias in the system works best for justice in the long run. But individual police officers’ reasonable conclusions are not confined to those they get through this strict process—they may have strong and well-grounded intuitions that a given criminal is guilty. Similarly, people who respect the rules of science on workdays need feel no reticence about following their spiritual hunches on evenings and weekends.

However, I, like Giberson and Collins, am uneasy to fully endorse IDT, because IDT claims to detect design within science, using scientific tools and claiming scientific levels of certainty. The authors have their own reasons—which will not be shared by biblical literalists—for criticizing IDT. Giberson and Collins clearly think that IDT’s candidates for “irreducible complexity”—structures such as the E. coli flagellum motor which have only a few simple parts which all must be present to function properly, and which IDT theorists say had no previous function which would have been preserved by natural selection—have or will soon have explanations involving natural selection. Collins, you may recall, oversaw the human genome project, and—despite the fact that he was converted to Christian theism by amazement at the intricate structures of the cell, including DNA—he feels that natural selection can someday explain how the basic structures of life evolved. That seems a tall order to me, though it’s way out of my fields of expertise. Closer to home, however, I am uneasy with IDT stalwart William Dembski’s “design inference” method, which I believe is based on an interesting but flawed mathematical and philosophical argument rooted in information theory. But as Collins and Giberson make clear throughout their book, religious believers don’t need to verify intelligent design within science anyway—it’s enough to observe that there’s room for reasonable belief in God outside of science’s reach.  Since religious people, especially biblical literalists, already think that faith is valid apart from science, proving God within nature is unnecessary and perhaps pointlessly risky.

By my lights, there is value in the authors’ commonsense approach—look for trends within science that “point” to God, but don’t put all your spiritual eggs in one scientific basket, because tomorrow scientific trends may head another direction. We can still be confident that there will always be questions which are well beyond the reach of scientific “methodological naturalism”: why is there something rather than nothing, why does the universe bother to exist at all? These are questions that our faith can address, without fear that we will be nabbed by the latest incarnation of the scientific police.

Roy Benton is Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy at Pacific Union College.

This is the eighth essay for the Summer Reading Group series on the book The Language of Science and Faith. Feel free to get the book, read it and join the discussion. Here is the first post: What is BioLogos? The second. The third. The forth. The fifth. The sixth. The seventh.

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