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Examining the Hidden Value Judgment of the Fine-Tuning Argument



The key premise in the fine-tuning argument (FTA) for the existence of God is the alleged improbability of the physical constants of the universe taking on values that fall within the very narrow range of life-friendly values. This paper examines whether this mere improbability is sufficient as a springboard for an argument for God’s existence. I conclude that the FTA proponent finds herself on the horns of a trilemma: she can either reject the argument for having a false premise, reject it for being circular, or accept it at the cost of rejecting the moral argument for existence of God.

Surprising vs. Unsurprising Improbability

It is important to distinguish between a surprising and an unsurprising improbable event. If one could objectively calculate that the origin of our universe was highly improbable, this improbability would not necessarily make its existence surprising or puzzling. For although the existence of our particular universe is improbable, one could say the same about any particular alternative universe. If we could reshuffle the physical constants to yield a hostile universe in which there’s nothing but gas, this universe would be no less improbable than the one that we actually inhabit.

Imagine that you flip a coin 1,000 times. No matter what sequence you get, the probability of that result was one in a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion. You could look at the result and say, “What are the odds? I could flip these coins for the rest of my life and never get the same result! This couldn’t possibly be the result of chance!” Surely, this level of amazement would be unwarranted. Any sequence of heads and tails would be improbable, but there’s a 100% chance that some sequence is going to turn up. In retrospect, you could always look back and say that the result of your coin toss was a miracle, but this would obviously be a mistake. Likewise, no matter what values the physical constants took, the sheer improbability of the result can be misconstrued as a miracle. Philosopher of religion Graham Oppy makes this very point:

If there was a ‘cosmic roll of the dice’ … then the objective chance that any given universe would result from that ‘cosmic role of the dice’ was astronomically small. That our universe arose is no more in need of further explanation than that any other universe should have arisen … after all, every universe will have many features that mark it out as very special in the group of universes as a whole.[1]

The Value of Life

So if every conceivable universe would be just as improbable as our own, why does our universe cry out for an explanation while the rest would not? Why is our universe surprising, but a universe filled with nothing but helium would not be? A theist might respond that it’s because there is something special about intelligent life that sets our universe apart from the rest. Even though those other universes would be just as improbable, the argument goes, there would be nothing surprising about their existence because they lack the special life-permitting quality of our universe. To use an analogy: although drawing any particular hand in poker is equally improbable, there’s something special about drawing a royal flush. Because a royal flush is valuable in poker, we are more surprised when someone has a royal flush than when they have a random assortment of cards. In order for the FTA to succeed, then, intelligent life would need to be valuable and significant in the same way that a royal flush is valuable in poker. Otherwise fine-tuning would exemplify the unsurprising improbable and so wouldn’t cry out for an explanation beyond chance.

Life is obviously valuable to us because our existence depends on it, but what matters here is whether life is valuable on a cosmic scale (assuming that that sort of value actually exists). In order for our universe to be surprising in a way that cries out for an explanation, intelligent life must carry value that actually makes the entire universe as a whole more special. Several philosophers have already taken note of this potential problem for the FTA. M. C. Bradley, for instance, points out that the FTA is committed to a particular form of moral realism that some may find dubious:

Life, especially of the human kind, is held to be something of supreme value. So (the argument runs) the realization of the remotely improbable conditions for this supremely valuable phenomenon should be regarded as signifying the activity of mind… [If the] value [of life] had a purely subjective character the realization of its necessary conditions would be merely the realization of certain conditions for human mentality, and there would cease to be anything distinctive about value to ground the argument.[2]

Christian philosopher Tim Mawson also acknowledges that “the improbable feature which one takes to be evidence of a fine tuner has to be special, special by reference to a standard objective.”[3] For the FTA to succeed, Mawson says, we must accept the premise that living beings “simply are more important than a similarly massive collection of non-sentient, unconscious, non-agents, for example a pile of rocks lying on the surface of a desert.”[4]

Philosopher Neil Manson has even suggested that the quest for multiple universes as a solution to the fine-tuning problem is motivated partly by a presumption of value on the part of cosmologists:

[Cosmologists] are committed to an absolutely startling position. They are saying that, before we came on the scene, back before there were stars, back before there were even galaxies, right back to the Planck time, an ethical proposition (‘Life is good’) was true. Whatever else the many-universe research programme entails, it requires that at least one value judgment be true prior to the existence of any human beings.[5]

Given the crucial role that value plays in the FTA, the FTA proponent faces a trilemma:

Option 1) Life is not valuable.
Option 2) Life is valuable, and that value depends on God.
Option 3) Life is valuable, and that value is not dependent on God.

But each of these options is problematic for the theist. Option 1 makes the FTA unsound, option 2 makes it invalid, and option 3 pits it against the moral argument for the existence of God. I will now explore each of these options in turn.

Option 1: Life is not Valuable

Christian philosopher Gregory Ganssle thinks that “our universe is more interesting than the vast majority of possible universes.”[6] But this view might merely reflect a biocentric bias on Ganssle’s part, for why should the presence of life increase the value of a universe? Those who don’t share Ganssle’s bias here might argue that life is completely insignificant in the context of the enormity of the universe, and it’s difficult to see how our absence would make a real difference to how cosmological evolution would unfold. Again, life is obviously valuable to living things like us, but to think that life plays a role in determining the value of an entire universe is a bit anthropocentric (or at least biocentric).

If we take option 1, then the FTA fails. For if life has no value, then there is nothing to set our universe apart from a hypothetical universe that contains nothing but gas, or a hypothetical universe that collapsed under its own gravity shortly after its Big Bang. These universes exemplify unsurprising improbabilities. For it’s improbable that these particular universes would be realized, but since there is nothing special about them, no one would point to the configuration of their physical constants as evidence that God exists. But if our universe is really no different (no more “special”) than these hypothetical universes, then our universe is also unsurprisingly improbable and thus doesn’t cry out for an explanation beyond mere chance.

Once we realize that the FTA presupposes that life is valuable in a particular sense of the term, we see that the FTA is really just a value judgment masquerading as a scientific argument. Maybe life really is valuable in some special way, but that is not the sort of thing that we could show with scientific evidence. It’s simply something that we feel deep down to be true. The whole point of the FTA, however, is to show that God probably exists based on scientific evidence, not to show this by exploring our intuitions about value. If one is going to allow intuition and feelings to play such a large role in the argument, then why not just save a lot of time by skipping all of the complicated cosmology and simply say that one “just knows” that God exists?

Biologist Richard Dawkins is one atheist who seems to opt for option 1 when he writes: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”[7] Many theists treat Dawkins’ perspective as a reason to resist atheism, for without God, we are not special, but merely chemical machines whose only purpose is to propagate DNA.

Given that Dawkins would likely choose option 1, it’s curious that he dedicates so much space in his book The God Delusion to refuting the FTA.[8] There he spells out various objections involving multiple universes and the anthropic principle when he could have simply said: “The FTA presupposes that life is special. It’s not. End of story.” Given Dawkins’ views on the subjectivity of value, this would have been an appropriate response.

Option 2: Life is Valuable, and that Value Depends on God

Option 2 is probably the option most appealing to the average theist. For in affirming that life has value, it doesn’t conflict with a theistic worldview right out of the gate in the way that option 1 does.

However, under option 2 the FTA fails on account of circularity. For under it the key premise of the FTA—that life is valuable—presupposes that God exists. Thus to affirm the existence of value under option 2 is to first affirm the existence of God, as one cannot exist without the other. But this makes the argument circular; in order to show that God exists, the FTA must first employ a value judgment that requires the existence of God. On option 2, in other words, the FTA boils down to nothing more than “God exists, therefore God exists.”

Consider the following comment from Christian philosopher William Lane Craig:

[O]n the naturalistic view, there’s nothing special about human beings. They’re just accidental byproducts of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust called the planet Earth, lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe, and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time.[9]

But as we can now ask, if theists really believe that atheism entails that life has no value, then why do they think that the FTA presents even the slightest problem for atheism? If the argument relies on a premise that they think an atheist should reject, then why would they expect nonbelievers to change their mind on the basis of the FTA?

Craig presents his FTA as a deductive argument that all rational and open-minded atheists should accept. But, at the same time, he also thinks that all consistent atheists should hold the view that life isn’t special. Do you notice the tension here? On the one hand, he thinks that rational atheists should be persuaded by his argument, but on the other, he expects them to reject the key premise of his argument.

Option 3: Life is Valuable, and that Value does not Depend on God

This last option avoids the pitfalls of the previous two. Unlike option 1, it affirms that life is special and so doesn’t outright reject the key premise in the FTA. And unlike option 2, it doesn’t render the FTA circular by making the existence of God a prerequisite for objective value. Thus option 3 at least has the potential to get the FTA off the ground.

But many theists will find option 3 unattractive since it forces them to jettison one of the most cherished apologetic arguments for the existence of God: the moral argument. As formulated by William Lane Craig, the moral argument runs as follows:

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.[10]

The key premise of this argument is that value of any (objective) kind is entirely dependent on God, and thus without him moral values are illusory. This is a ubiquitous sentiment in contemporary Christian apologetic literature. For example, in their book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, Christian apologists Norman Geisler and Frank Turek write: “[I]f there is no God and humans have evolved from the slime, then we have no higher moral status than slime because there is nothing beyond us to instill us with objective morality or dignity.”[11] C. S. Lewis similarly argued that atheism entails valuelessness:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I gotten this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?… I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently, atheism turns out to be too simple.[12]

The point here, however, is that under the moral argument for God, option 3 is impossible. For option 3 allows the existence of objective moral values independent of God, values that would exist whether God existed or not. But this directly conflicts with premise 1 of Craig’s moral argument (namely, that if God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist). But option 3 is the only option under which the FTA even stands a chance of succeeding.

Theists must therefore choose between the FTA or the moral argument. They cannot consistently advocate both, for in advocating the moral argument for God, proponents also advocate its entailment of option 2, which makes the FTA circular. Conversely, if a theist advocates the FTA, his only alternative (consistent with theism) is option 3, which is inconsistent with the moral argument for God.

Can a Theist Bite the Bullet?

A theist may respond to my argument as follows. So what? Even if I can’t offer both the moral argument for God and the FTA, I don’t need both. I can just toss out the moral argument and establish the likelihood of theism with the FTA. Or, if I want, I can toss out the FTA and use only the moral argument. I only need one good argument to show that God exists, so what’s the big deal?

Even if we grant that this “bite the bullet” approach succeeds, the force of my argument is not diminished. For the purpose of this paper is simply to explore the hidden value assumption of the FTA, not to present a knock-down refutation of theism. Recall that my conclusion was that a fine-tuning advocate must accept one of these three options:

  1. The FTA fails because life is not valuable.
  2. The FTA fails because value depends on God, making the argument circular.
  3. The FTA only succeeds at the cost of abandoning the moral argument for God.

Though a theist might choose to “bite the bullet” by rejecting either the moral argument or the FTA, doing so doesn’t undermine any of my conclusions. On the contrary, making such a move would seem to indicate that a theist was forced to accept my conclusions. While my argument does not (and does not aim to) undermine theism, it does undermine attempts to make a cumulative case for theism that appeal to both the FTA and the moral argument. A wide variety of theistic authors have attempted to offer precisely this sort of cumulative case, apparently unaware of the inconsistency between the two arguments.[13]

But perhaps the “bite the bullet” response isn’t so simple. While a theist may be able to salvage the moral argument by abandoning the FTA, it’s doubtful that she could salvage the FTA by abandoning the moral argument. Philosophers such as Stephen Law[14] and Peter Millican[15] have forcefully argued that design arguments do absolutely nothing to establish that the designer is morally good in any way. The FTA equally “confirms” the existence of a designer who is evil or morally indifferent. Craig himself is quite clear on this point: “teleological arguments say little or nothing about the moral character of the Creator/Designer.” So if the FTA leaves God’s character an open question, what reason does Craig have for thinking that God is good? Craig continues: “What many natural theologians, including myself, do to justify belief in the perfect goodness of the Creator/Designer proved by the cosmological and teleological arguments is to offer various moral arguments for God.”[16]

The truth comes out. Craig seems to be arguing that the FTA will only be useful to a theist if she is able to conjoin it with the moral argument for God. But this is precisely the maneuver that I have shown to be illegitimate. Without this maneuver, the FTA proves to be useless in making a case for theism. Arguably, it may provide a case against naturalism, but that is not the same as providing a case for the existence of God. As Millican aptly writes:

[W]hat makes the Supreme Being worthy of worship is not simply His power, but rather His moral excellence…. [A]ny argument which purports to establish the existence of God must do much more than prove the existence of a Supreme Being—it must also, at the very least, show that this Supreme Being is good, rather than evil or completely amoral.[17]

So without the moral argument, the FTA is utterly incapable of contributing to a case for the existence of God. But could a theist establish the designer’s goodness through some other argument? Perhaps the ontological argument could be of some use here. Unfortunately, however, it is nearly universally rejected by philosophers, theists and atheists alike. As Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne writes: “The greatest theistic philosophers have on the whole rejected ontological arguments and relied on a posteriori ones.”[18]

Moreover, philosophers have long argued that the ontological argument can be turned on its head to “prove” the existence of a perfectly evil being. Consider the following parody of St. Anselm’s a priori reasoning:

  1. We can conceive of a maximally evil being.
  2. An evil being who exists only in the mind is not as evil as one who exists in reality.
  3. Therefore, by definition, this maximally evil being must exist in reality as well as in the mind.[19]

Regardless of whether this dubious argument is sound, it shows that the ontological argument won’t be of much help in establishing a cosmic designer’s goodness, given that identical reasoning could just as well establish such a designer’s malevolence.

Lastly, even if the ontological argument succeeded, it still couldn’t secure the FTA’s apologetic value. Indeed, a successful ontological argument would ensure the apologetic worthlessness of the FTA. How could this be so? Well, if God’s existence could be established on purely a priori grounds, then we would already have an iron-clad proof for theism in our arsenal. No further empirical evidence could strengthen the case for theism, given that it has already been established that God must exist out of logical necessity. What use, then, is the FTA?

In sum, it is highly doubtful that a theist can salvage the FTA by “biting the bullet” and tossing out the moral argument. Without the moral argument, the FTA is incapable of contributing to a case for traditional theism, given that fine-tuning fails to specify the moral character of the designer. And any attempt to substitute the moral argument with an ontological argument is bound to backfire—while a successful ontological argument could distinguish a good from an evil cosmic designer, it would also make the FTA superfluous. Hence, once we have fully grasped the hidden value assumption implicit in the FTA, we come to understand that the FTA simply cannot make any worthwhile contribution to the case for traditional theism.


[1] Graham Oppy, Arguing About Gods (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 223.

[2] M. C. Bradley, “The Fine-Tuning Argument.” Religious Studies Vol. 37, No. 4 (December 2001): 451-466, p. 454.

[3] T. J. Mawson, “Explaining the Fine Tuning of the Universe to Us and the Fine Tuning of Us to the Universe.” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement Vol. 68 (July 2011): 25-50.

[4] Mawson, “Explaining the Fine Tuning of the Universe to Us and the Fine Tuning of Us to the Universe.”

[5] Neil A. Manson, “Cosmic Fine-Tunings, ‘Many Universe’ Theories, and the Goodness of Life” in Is Nature Evil? Religion, Science, and Value , ed. Willem B. Drees (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), p. 145.

[6] Gregory E. Ganssle, “Necessary Moral Truths and the Need for Explanation.” Philosophia Christi (Series 2) Vol. 2, No. 1 (2000): 105-112, p. 111.

[7] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1995), p. 133.

[8] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Mariner Books, 2006).

[9] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (3rd ed.) (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008), p. 173.

[10] Craig, Reasonable Faith, p. 173.

[11] Norman Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), p. 189.

[12] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1952), pp. 38-39.

[13] See: Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist; Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God? (Dallas, TX: Word, 2004); Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence that Points Toward God; Strobel, The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001); Craig, Reasonable Faith; Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York, NY: Free Press, 2006).

[14] Stephen Law, “The Evil-God Challenge.” Religious Studies Vol. 46, No. 3 (September 2010): 353-373.

[15] Peter Millican, “The Devil’s Advocate.” Cogito Vol. 3, No. 3 (Autumn 1989): 193-207.

[16] Craig, “The ‘Evil god’ Objection.” Q & A with William Lane Craig (November 07, 2011). Reasonable Faith website. <http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-evil-god-objection#ixzz2Q68MHT2D>.

[17] Millican, “The Devil’s Advocate.”

[18] Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 9. For critiques of the ontological Argument, see: J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and Against the Existence of God (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1982); Graham Oppy, Ontological Arguments and Belief in God (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Jordan Howard Sobel, Logic and Theism: Arguments for and against Beliefs in God (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press); Oppy, Arguing About Gods; and the Ontological Arguments index on the Secular Web.

[19] Christopher New, “Antitheism: A Reflection.” Ratio (New Series) Vol. 6, No. 1 (June 1993): 36-43, p. 37.

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