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The Fine-Tuning Argument



Let us consider that version of the Argument from Design which appeals to the so-called “fine-tuning” of the physical constants of the universe. Call it “the Fine-tuning Argument.” It has many advocates, both on the Internet and in print. For some of the Internet articles, see the following web site: <http://www.reasons.org/resources/papers/>. One of the argument’s “print” advocates is George Schlesinger, who says the following:

In the last few decades a tantalizingly great number of exceedingly rare coincidences, vital for the existence of a minimally stable universe and without which no form of life could exist anywhere, have been discovered. . . . [G]iven any one of infinitely many universes, some conjunction or other of physical magnitudes will have to obtain. However, the prevailing conjunction is not merely one of indefinitely many; it is also an instance of a virtually infinitesimally rare kind of universe: the kind capable of sustaining life. The hypothesis that it was produced by a Being interested in sentient organic systems adequately explains this otherwise inexplicably astonishing fact. [NEW PERSPECTIVES ON OLD-TIME RELIGION, Oxford U.P., 1988, pp. 130,133]

A more precise formulation of the argument is the following, with premises indicated by “P” and conclusions indicated by “C”:

(P1) The combination of physical constants that we observe in our universe is the only one capable of sustaining life as we know it.

(P2) Other combinations of physical constants are conceivable.

(C3) Therefore, some explanation is needed why our actual combination of physical constants exists rather than a different one.

(P4) The very best explanation of the given fact is that our universe, with the particular combination of physical constants that it has, was created out of nothing by a single being who is omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving, eternal, and interested in sentient organic systems, and that he “fine-tuned” those constants in a way which would lead to the evolution of such systems.

(P5) But such a being as described in (P4) is what people mean by “God.”

(C6) Hence [from (P4) & (P5)], there is good evidence that God exists.

Various objections might be raised against this argument. For the sake of brevity, I shall just consider two objections to its premise (P4). They may be labeled “The Inadequacy Objection” and the “Alternate-explanations Objection.”


The explanation described in (P4) can be called “the God Hypothesis,” or “G” for short. I do not find that G is a good explanation, or even adequate, for the fact to be explained. First, it does not supply any information about how God is supposed to have created anything or how he is supposed to have “fine-tuned” the physical constants of the universe. It fails to address what Paul Edwards (in his book REINCARNATION: A CRITICAL EXAMINATION, Prometheus Books, 1996, pp. 301-303) calls the “modus operandi problem.” For that reason, it is an explanation that is grossly incomplete. And not only is creation out of nothing not described within G, but it is an idea that conflicts with the conservation laws of modern physics. It is also an idea which is hard to understand. We have no experience on the basis of which we might understand it. None of the acts of creation with which we are acquainted (such as by artists) involve creation out of nothing. Not only is G incomplete, but it is incomprehensible as well.

Second, we need some understanding of the properties ascribed to the being mentioned in G, which, on the basis of premise (P5), I shall refer to as “God.” What, exactly, does it mean to say of God that he is omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving, and eternal? Each of these properties is in need of clarification. What logical or conceptual restrictions, if any, are to be placed on an omnipotent and omniscient being? Can such a being make himself weak or ignorant? Can he avoid doing an action that he knows he will perform? There are many puzzles here. Presumably, in order to have created the physical universe, God must have existed prior to the universe. But then how could he possess the given properties with no physical universe in existence? For example, what sorts of actions did he (as an omnipotent being) perform in that prior period and what sorts of things did he (as an all-loving being) love? Advocates of G usually declare it to be simply a “great mystery,” but that is unsatisfactory in an explanation. We started out with a mystery (why the physical constants are what they are). Nothing has been adequately explained or illuminated if we end up with a still greater mystery (the nature of God and his activities). G is too obscure to be regarded as an adequate explanation of anything.

Third, according to G, God had an interest in sentient organic systems. Why, then, did he take so long to bring them about? And why did he confine his efforts to the planet earth? Science tells us that more than ten billion years passed from the Big Bang to the origin of sentient organic systems on the planet earth. Why did God allow the process to take so long? As an omnipotent and omniscient being, why didn’t he simply create the sort of systems in which he had an interest right from the start? And why didn’t he create them all over the universe rather than just in one insignificant section? It seems unreasonable to think that a being with the properties ascribed to God in G would have done the thing that G says he did. G is a poor explanation because it is unreasonable and counter-intuitive. It certainly cannot be said to adequately explain anything.

Finally, even assuming that God was willing to wait a long time and to confine his interest to just a small bit of space, there is the question why he didn’t do a better job with evolution. He is supposed to be all-loving. Why, then, didn’t he set up evolution in a way which would cause less suffering to the organisms involved in it? One thing he could have done would have been to increase the proportion of beneficial mutations within the total set of mutations. Instead of having only about one out of a thousand mutations turn out beneficial to the organism and the species, why not have it, say, one out of five? That would certainly have speeded up the evolutionary process and eliminated much unnecessary suffering along the way. It is an additional bit of “fine-tuning” that one would expect from the sort of being described in G.

Furthermore, God could have arranged things so that the initial conditions on the planet earth were more stable and more conducive to the well-being of the sentient organic systems in which he is said to have an interest. For example, there could be fewer storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, droughts, etc., as well as a more favorable balance between the power of germs and the immune systems of the more advanced organic systems on the planet. G is incomplete and anomalous in failing to explain why God, who is claimed to love those more advanced systems, did not arrange things in the ways described.

For all of these reasons, G can be seen to be a very poor explanation for the fact to be explained. It is incomplete, incomprehensible, obscure, unreasonable, anomalous, and counter-intuitive. It also appeals to still greater mysteries than the fact to be explained, so it hardly qualifies as an adequate explanation. It fails to illuminate anything or to enlarge our understanding. This may be called the Inadequacy Objection. To be “the very best” among competitors, an explanation needs to be at least minimally adequate, but G does not qualify in that respect. Hence, (P4) of the Fine-tuning Argument is a false premise.


Another way to attack premise (P4) is to bring up explanations for the given phenomenon (the fact that our universe has the particular physical constants that it has) other than G. First, as a preliminary point, it strikes me as possible that there should be some physical theory that would explain why our universe had to have the particular combination that it has. It may be that scientists of the future will come up with a “theory of everything” that will show why other laws of nature and other combinations of constants (though conceivable) are not physically possible. No one has ever proven that such a theory will never be developed. Of course, Schlesinger could say that premise (P4) in the Fine-tuning Argument only appeals to actual explanations, not to merely possible ones, whereas the suggestion about a “theory of everything” only says there may come to be a certain explanation without actually providing one. Let us take him to be insisting that we confine our attention to actual explanations and to be claiming simply that the God hypothesis, or G, is the best explanation of all those that might be put forward today. It is worth noting, though, that advocates of the Fine-tuning Argument have never shown that alternate universes are physically possible.

The Alternate-explanations Objection is that there are other explanations for the given fact that might be put forward today and which are at least as good as G. One of them is that the combination of physical constants that we observe in our universe is sheer coincidence, meaning that it just is the way it happens to be and has no explanation beyond it being simply a brute fact. This could be called the “Brute-fact Hypothesis,” or B, for short. One advantage of B over G is that it does not have the defects mentioned above in the Inadequacy Objection. Another advantage is that B, unlike G, does not multiply entities beyond necessity. It seems to me that not only is B at least as good an explanation as G (which is all that needs to be shown for the given premise to be refuted), but it is clearly a better explanation.

Schlesinger might say that B is deficient in that it fails to account for the fact that our universe is “one of a kind.” But that is not so. Whatever combination of physical constants may obtain, it would be one of a kind. He would probably insist that the kind that our universe is (one permitting the development of life as we know it) is a special kind and that none of the other kinds would be special. But I see no reason to believe that. Assuming that other combinations of physical constants are physically possible, I see no reason to believe that all of them would result in a universe with less variety and complexity than our universe. For all anyone knows, maybe one or more of those alternate universes would have a lot more variety and complexity than does ours. There may not be life as we know it, but there may be other things going on in them that would be at least as interesting to us (if we could somehow peek in without being destroyed and comprehend what was going on) as the things which go on in our universe. The problem is that no one has any idea what sorts of things might emerge over time in universes having physical constants different from ours. There is no way for our science, at its present stage, to extrapolate that sort of information from what we know.

One point that should be made is that although we may be able to show that life as we know it could not possibly exist in any of the alternate universes, there is no proof that other forms of life with mind or intelligence could not exist. In fact, theists themselves believe that since God existed prior to our universe, it is thus possible for a life form with mind or intelligence to exist apart from the physical constants of our particular universe. Therefore, they should concede the possibility that some other combination of physical constants could, over time, produce a universe that contains mind or intelligence, even if it is in a form quite different from any life that exists on our planet. Schlesinger’s claim that only the particular combination of physical constants in our universe is of a special kind is totally unsupported. There is no reason whatever to believe it.

To bring out the point about special kinds of universe, consider an analogy. Suppose ten dice are rolled and we count the sum of them that comes up. It will be a number from 10 through 60. I want to maintain that whatever number it turns out to be, that number will not only be unlikely to have come up but it will have at least one unique and interesting property, not possessed by any of the other fifty numbers. For example, if it is, say, 25, then that number would be the only perfect square which is itself the sum of two squares (9 & 16) and is also the only odd number that is the square of its last digit. The number 27 is the only perfect cube of all of them. The number 28 is the only one that is the sum of all its divisors smaller than itself (1, 2, 4, 7, 14). The number 30 is the largest number X such that all numbers smaller than X with no divisor in common with X (other than 1) are themselves prime numbers. The number 32 is the smallest power of 2 such that the next number after it is not a prime (since the next number after 16 is a prime). The number 36 is the only one that is the product of two squares (4 & 9) and is the only even number that is the square of its last digit. The number 11 is the smallest palindromic number and 55 is the largest. The number 59 is the largest prime number. And 60 is that number which can be factored in more ways than any smaller number. I claim that every number from 10 through 60 has at least one unique and interesting property, especially if non-mathematical properties are included (such as 26 = the number of letters in the English alphabet; 29 = the number of days during February in a leap year; 31 = the most points that can be scored in a hand of cribbage, and so on). In light of this fact, no matter what number comes up as the sum of the ten dice, we could say, “How amazing: not only is that number highly unlikely to have come up but it is the only number such that…” and proceed to specify the interesting property or properties uniquely possessed by that number. Then we could ask: “What is the explanation for the fact that that number came up rather than some other number?” The correct answer is that it is just a coincidence (or brute fact) that that number came up, and whatever number had come up, it would have been unlikely to have done so and, further, there would have been some interesting property or properties possessed only by that number. It may be the same with our universe. It is simply a brute fact that it has the laws and physical constants that it has. And although it may be true that no other conceivable universe, with different laws and constants, would have permitted the development of life as we know it, whatever universe might have come about, it would have had some other unique feature(s) at least as interesting as the property of permitting life as we know it. From this perspective, there is NOTHING SPECIAL about our universe, and that makes hypothesis B a perfectly appropriate explanation for why it has the laws and constants that it actually does have.

Some writers have misunderstood B’s appeal to coincidence. This can be seen in the bad analogies that they sometimes employ. Consider, for example, Hugh Ross’s use of the sharpshooter analogy near the end of his essay “Astronomical Evidences for the God of the Bible” (which appears on the web site mentioned previously). In the example, a prisoner is to be executed by a firing squad consisting of 100 sharpshooters, but although they all fire their guns he fails to get shot. Two hypotheses are put forward to explain the remarkable event. One of them, which is supposed to be like B, above, is that all 100 sharpshooters missed by sheer accident. The other hypothesis, which is supposed to be like G, is that there was a plot to prevent the execution. Naturally, the plot hypothesis is more reasonable than the accidental-miss hypothesis, which is supposed to show that G is more reasonable than B. I find this to be a very bad analogy to the case of the universe’s physical constants. There is nothing in the case of the universe that corresponds to a scheduled execution by firing squad. We know perfectly well how firing squads operate, based on how they have operated in the past. We know that if they are intent on doing their job, then they simply do NOT all miss! But there is no corresponding information about the process by which universes might acquire their physical constants. We would need to be aware of some connection between the process of physical-constant formation and the presence or absence of life forms in the universe. But we simply do not have any such information, and that in turn destroys the analogy. Those who put forward such bad analogies are simply showing their confusion about the issue at hand.

There is another way to defend B against the charge that it fails to explain why our universe has the particular features that it has. It may be that there are regions of space-time that are completely outside our observational field and in many of those regions the laws and physical constants that obtain are different from the ones in our region. Thus, it would be illegitimate to assume that the only laws and physical constants that exist at all are the ones that we have observed. If there were to exist such other regions of space-time, then there would be nothing remarkable in the fact that we observe the particular physical constants that we do. It could simply be chalked up to coincidence.

Consider an analogy. Suppose sets of dice are being rolled in various parts of the universe. Each set contains 100 dice. If 100 sixes should suddenly come up on a single roll, the dice become conscious; otherwise, they remain unconscious. Given a sufficient number of rolls, it could be highly likely that 100 sixes should come up somewhere. Wherever they would then happen to come up, they would become conscious and raise the question “Why did we come about here?” The answer is that it is simply a coincidence that 100 sixes should come about there, but it is not puzzling that the event should happen at all somewhere, given the number of rolls that have occurred. It could be like that with the physical constants. In other parts of the universe, other physical constants obtain, but in our particular section, our constants obtain. If our constants had come about elsewhere, then in that place the resulting beings would ask, “Why here?” And the correct answer would be the same there as it is here and that is that it is simply sheer coincidence, which is another way of expressing the Brute-fact Hypothesis.

I conclude from this that the criticism of B in question, that it fails to explain the fact that only our particular universe is a special kind of universe, is an invalid criticism. First, since there is no reason whatever to believe the given alleged fact (that our universe is special), it is illegitimate to refer to it as a “fact.” Hence, there is no fact there that B fails to explain. And second, B does explain why the particular physical constants that we observe are as they are: it is simply sheer coincidence, and there need be nothing puzzling about that. I know of no advantages of G over B, but I do know of advantages of B over G (which were mentioned previously). I conclude that B is a better explanation of the given phenomenon than is G, which makes premise (P4) of the Fine-tuning Argument a false premise.

Of all the possible explanations for the fact that we observe certain physical constants in our universe, I regard B (the Brute-fact Hypothesis) to be the very best of the bunch. But there are still other explanations, different from both B and G, that are at least as good as G. One such explanation is that there exists a group of beings (let us call them “the fine-tuners”) who go around and make occasional adjustments to the physical constants of our universe. The fine-tuners are beings who are very powerful but not omnipotent, highly intelligent but not omniscient, and generally good-natured but not all-loving. Like God, they are eternal, but they may not have created our present universe out of nothing. I shall set aside the question regarding the origin of our universe, since the issue before us is a different one: why our universe presently has the particular combination of physical constants that it has. The explanation under consideration is that the fine-tuners did it, having had the power and motivation to make it that way. Let us say that they had an interest in the evolution of ants, especially as it occurs when confronted by nuisances such as anteaters and humans. The fine-tuners made just those adjustments to the physical constants that they foresaw would lead to the eventual extinction of anteaters and humans (the latter bringing about their own extinction through overpopulation, pollution, and the exhaustion of resources), which would produce just the sort of world that the fine-tuners were interested in: one in which the ants take over the world. We could call this “the Fine-tuners Hypothesis,” or “F” for short.

I think that B is a better explanation than F for many reasons. One of them is that F contains the unclear (perhaps even incomprehensible) notion of beings who are eternal. Another is that F does not explain how the fine-tuners do their work. The whole idea of a being or beings changing the physical constants of the universe is exceedingly obscure. F also seems to have the defect of introducing still greater mysteries. B, on the other hand, does not contain any such defects.

I think that although F is not as good an explanation for the physical constants of our universe as is B, and in fact could justifiably be called an “inadequate explanation,” nevertheless F is not as bad as G. First of all, G has all the defects of F mentioned above. Further, F does not have any of the obscurity that surrounds G regarding the properties of being omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving, because the fine-tuners lack those properties. Nor is F affected by the obscurity and incomprehensibility of creation out of nothing, for it does not appeal to that notion. Nor is there any problem for F about the long time that it took for ants to evolve or the fact that it is (presumably) only here on earth that such evolution occurred. The fine-tuners would have liked it to occur faster and in more locations, but they lacked the power and knowledge needed to bring that about. And finally, the enormous suffering that has occurred on earth through the centuries is not a problem for F. Either they did not feel bad about all that suffering (not being all-loving) or else they lacked the power and knowledge needed to prevent it. Thus, although G and F share several defects, and are both “inadequate explanations,” there are still many other defects possessed only by G and not F. Furthermore, there are no defects possessed by F that are not also possessed by G. For all of these reasons, G is a worse explanation than F, which again shows the falsity of premise (P4) of the Fine-tuning Argument. By appeal to alternate explanations for the facts in question, that premise is refuted, and thereby the argument itself is refuted.

Most other arguments for God’s existence are, like the Fine-tuning Argument, an appeal to the God Hypothesis as the “very best explanation” for something or other. I would attack all such arguments in the same way as indicated above: by means of the Inadequacy Objection and the Alternate-explanations Objection. They can all be refuted by one or both of those objections. There are other arguments of a different sort, such as the Ontological Argument, which would need to be dealt with in a different way, but all of them can also be refuted. Those are projects that I shall leave for another occasion.


For further material on this and related issues, go to: /library/modern/theism/design.html

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