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The Complete Irrelevance of the Fine-Tuning Argument

The Fine-Tuning Argument (FTA) maintains that if some or all laws or constants prevailing in our Universe had been different by only a few percentage points, the conditions for (human) life could never have arisen. Thus, continues the FTA proponent, it is extremely improbable that life in the Universe is just a lucky accident. It is much more reasonable to think that a supernatural, intelligent and powerful being fine-tuned the Universe in order for it to sustain life.

As famous theist Alvin Plantinga writes,

One reaction to these apparent enormous coincidences is to see them as substantiating the theistic claim that the Universe has been created by a personal God and as offering the material for a properly restrained theistic argument—hence the fine-tuning argument. It’s as if there are a large number of dials that have to be tuned to within extremely narrow limits for life to be possible in our Universe. It is extremely unlikely that this should happen by chance, but much more likely that this should happen, if there is such a person as God.[1]

Atheist thinkers have proposed a series of attacks on FTA, trying to show that we do not know whether the existence of life is really that improbable within a naturalistic framework. The Secular Web’s page dedicated to FTA[2] enumerates some of these objections:

  • The values of the various physical constants aren’t really “tunable” and thus couldn’t have been “set” to anything other than the values we find (Hurben, Drange);
  • altering the values of various constants does not, in fact, make the emergence of life particularly unlikely (Stenger); and,
  • the possibility of multiple universes entails that “fine-tuning” may be an illusion (Carrier, Drange).

In this article I shall operate under the assumption that all of the above objections to FTA fail. Thus, I will assume that our life-permitting/sustaining Universe is indeed improbable to the extreme under naturalism. Does it follow from this alone that the existence of a personal creator of the Universe is probable? Not really and this is why.

It seems to me that from:
     P: An extremely improbable and unique state of affairs X has occurred.[3]
it does not follow that:
     R: X was probably brought about by a conscious agent.

What does in fact follow from P is a much more modest claim:
     S: We should investigate to see if there is a conscious agent involved in the occurrence of X.

In other words, P has only the role of alerting us to the possibility that X could be caused or brought into existence by a personal agent. It is only if and after we find specific evidence that a personal agent was involved that we are entitled to conclude that X was probably (or very probably or certainly, depending on the strength of the evidence) caused by one or more persons.[4] The initial improbability of X taking place without the intervention of some volitional agent has no relevance in establishing this conclusion. P only indicates that we should be looking for the possibility of an explanation of X in terms of conscious intent, nothing more, nothing less.

On the other hand, let us assume that after numerous detailed and careful examinations, we find no plausible proof that a personal agent was involved in the apparition of X. Given the enormous initial improbability of X happening by chance and, thus, the low credibility of this hypothesis, we might want to continue searching for better explanations. However, the fact that X’s random instantiation is extremely unlikely doesn’t automatically mean that the competing hypothesis is more plausible. It will become credible only if and after we find good evidence in its support. Until we find the type of evidence we are looking for, the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that X arose by chance. This result might seem implausible or counterintuitive, but the fact is that while the probability of X happening by chance is almost zero (but above zero because it is logically possible), the competing hypothesis has also almost zero persuading power (it is above zero simply because it is also logically possible), since we couldn’t find any evidence to substantiate it. Occam’s razor (which says “select among competing hypotheses that which makes the fewest assumptions and thereby offers the simplest explanation of the effect”) justifies us in choosing the former.

Let’s imagine the following scenario: there is a lottery held just once, with a huge dollar prize. A billion tickets are printed, each containing a unique combination of a million random numbers. The winning ticket has to contain all the right million numbers, in precisely the right order. Smith buys one ticket, all the other tickets go unbought, and Smith wins. This is certainly astounding and grounds for suspecting that somebody rigged the lottery. But are we entitled to say “since the odds of Smith winning the lottery are astronomically small, Smith or somebody else (probably) cheated the lottery”? Are we justified in withdrawing Smith’s prize? Not at all. The next step should be to send one or more teams of experts qualified in gambling scams to identify any traces of fraud. If they find such evidence, then, of course, it follows that the lottery was (probably) rigged and we are justified in taking Smith’s prize away and prosecuting the person or persons involved in arranging the lottery’s result. But what gives us this right is only the evidence that the lottery has been tampered with, not the initial extreme improbability of the lottery being won.

Let us assume now that despite their best efforts, the aforementioned experts are not able to find any conclusive proof that the lottery was rigged. Given the initial imperceptibly small chance of winning the lottery, we might want to continue sending experts in the hope of an eventual detection of fraud. Nevertheless, if and until some form of intent is demonstrated, I see no good grounds for thinking the lottery was, in fact, manipulated. It is still logically possible for Smith to have won by chance. Moreover, the competing hypothesis, namely that someone has interfered with the results, has precisely zero support in its favor. It is just logically possible as well. Therefore, using Occam’s razor, we should adopt the “chance” explanation and conclude that Smith is entitled to his prize.

Finally, let us say that, for some reason, there is no possibility of verifying whether the lottery was rigged or not. Should we now believe that the lottery in question was rigged on the basis of the astronomically low probability of it being won by chance? I agree that on the face of it, it is tempting to do that. But this it is not what we should do. The fact is that the credibility of the “rigged” explanation is still zero: we have no evidence to corroborate it. It remains a simple logical possibility just as the competing one. Smith is perfectly entitled to insist “I was extremely lucky.” How are we supposed to reject his claim? By saying “you couldn’t be extremely lucky because the odds against you winning are incredibly high”? But this is exactly what “extremely lucky” means: accidentally beating enormous odds.

By now the relevance of our discussion with respect to FTA should become obvious. Assuming, as I did, that the existence of our Universe is improbable to the extreme given naturalism, all that follows is that we should investigate to see if there are any conscious, personal agents, namely one or more gods, involved in the apparition of our Universe. Only if and after we find evidence in support of this hypothesis we are justified in saying “there (probably) is at least one god.” The initial improbability of the Universe arising by chance bears no relevance in arriving at this conclusion. All it does is to encourage us to look more deeply into the matter.

As a result, Plantinga is mistaken in saying: “One reaction to these apparent enormous coincidences is to see them as substantiating the theistic claim.” The unlikelihood of the Universe arising by chance in no way increases, by itself, the likelihood of the competing, supernatural, hypothesis. What he should have said is “One reaction to these apparent enormous coincidences is to start searching for evidence in support of the theistic claim.” In case it turns out that such evidence is lacking, then theism is not substantiated at all, despite the enormous coincidences. If theists wish to convince us that there is a supernatural personal creator, they have to accomplish that without relying on FTA, even if we grant its core premise, namely that the probability of our Universe arising by chance is truly low.

If what I said above is true, then it follows that all FTA does is, at most, to invite us to search for proofs that some god(s) exist(s). But surely this is a moot point. Human beings have been looking for the existence of supernatural creators of the world for over two thousand years. FTA is just as “relevant” or “important” as an argument persuading us, today, to study physics or meteorology would be. We’ve been doing that for centuries already.

I conclude that FTA not only does not and cannot, by itself, increase the credibility of a supernaturalistic explanation of the Universe, but is completely irrelevant when it comes to practical considerations.


[1] Alvin Plantinga, “The Dawkins Confusion; Naturalism ad absurdum,” Christianity Today, March/April 2007.

[2] https://infidels.org/library/modern/theism-design/

[3] I say “unique” because this is the only Universe that we know came into existence.

[4] Keep in mind that, X’s initial improbability of arising by chance notwithstanding, we still have to present good, convincing evidence that a personal agent was involved in order to validate R.