Mental floss for the discerning
14 December 2017 21:01 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jarred Cinman

Is the universe ‘fine-tuned’ by God?

  • Jarred Cinman
    Jarred-Cinman.jpg
    Jarred Cinman

    Jarred Cinman is a digital native – quite literally in that he is the MD of NATIVE VML, one of the most important new local ad agencies. He is also the Chair of the IAB South Africa, the industry body that seeks to drive digital forward.

    In 2015 he will have been in the digital industry in South Africa for 20 years. Among his defining traits are that he is a troublemaker, a vegan, an anti-theist, a writer and a musician. He has lived in Johannesburg his whole life.

There has been a recent resurgence in the news regarding apparent scientific “proof” in the existence of a god. These reports are, at the very least, greatly exaggerated.

A spate of recent articles (like this one on Alec Hogg’s Biznews) has led to a resurgence in the religious idea that the universe is too “finely tuned” for it to be the result of an accident, or a natural occurrence. These pieces further state that that “science” “now endorses” this to be the case.

I have put in quotation marks the weasel words in the above sentence. Which scientists? How many? What do they endorse? Have they all come to exactly the same conclusions?

This is to say nothing of the irony that religious people invoke “scientists” every time they seem to agree with them, and reject large tracts of scientific thought (say, evolution) when it presents a problem.

So, what is this “new” argument for the existence of God all about?

For starters, it’s not new. The idea of the universe being “fine-tuned” for life dates largely from the mid-1980s and the work of Barrow and Tipler. In their work they argue for the Anthropic Cosmological Principle – in essence, the idea that the universe is fine-tuned for life.

What is new is our greater understanding of many of these cosmic variables, and how exactly they seem to support life as we know it. There are many fine details that were they to change, even slightly, would negate life and perhaps all matter in the universe as we know it.

As a knee-jerk, this may seem to suggest a creator. How, you may ask, could all of these minute forces and parameters have ended up “just so”? Surely the odds are staggeringly high against that outcome. That we are here commits us to accept that someone, someone intelligent, put us here.

There are three reasons why this seemingly rational argument is actually irrational garbage. I will go on to explain them.

Before I do, one last point on the scientists in the above quotation marks. Just because some people in the scientific community hold religious beliefs does not, in itself, give credence to those views. Their job is no more relevant to the veracity of their beliefs than a priest’s is to theirs. They have no special access to the truth.

What they may be in a unique position to do is to present scientific evidence in support of their beliefs – in which case we can test that evidence and attempt to prove it right (or wrong). If there is no evidence then, scientist or not, they are simply expressing a matter of personal belief that is irrelevant to this discussion.

Reason 1: Non-random is not God

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that in fact the universe was fine-tuned in the way intelligent design advocates like to argue. The atomic forces were set in place, gravity was invented and so forth. What does that allow into the world?

Some kind of force, being, entity or other unimaginable process that set the universe in motion. That’s it. It’s called “deism” and is the kind of “belief in God” that many intellectuals held in the 17th and 18th century. It has nothing to do with the Christian, Jewish, Hindu or other gods that the religious are trying to let in the door with this argument.

It is, if any, the only kind of belief poor Einstein held – and which enables him to be endlessly misappropriated by religious people.

Even if this were true – and as I will argue, there is no reason to think it is – it should give fundamentalists no comfort. In fact it should give no-one any comfort. This first mover who set the universe in motion could be, and would be, as uninterested in your life and as inaccessible to you as the force of gravity or the Milky Way.

So much for God.

Reason 2: Anthropic, yes; designed, no

The most widely accepted argument against tying the anthropic principle to a creator is simply to point out that whatever the odds against the universe coming into being were, this universe clearly beat them. Because here we are.

If someone wins the Lotto we may argue that their odds of winning were vanishingly tiny. Which is true. On the odds, entering the Lotto is irrational. But when you have the winning ticket you no longer care about that. From the vantage point of the victor, everything is possible.

In precisely the same way all we need to say is yes, we agree. The universe seems particularly hospitable for our kind of life form to live in on planets made of the kind of matter we find so propitious. Good job that it is or we wouldn’t be here to be having this discussion.

Do we need to explain how we beat the odds? Would be nice. Does the fact that we can’t exactly explain it mean that there had to be a designer – a contact in the Lotto company – making it happen? Of course not. The only conclusion we can draw from us being here is that the universe does, in fact, meet the conditions necessary for us to be here.

Deism may be true but, in fact, we don’t require it and it certainly doesn’t follow from the facts of nature.

Reason 3: The Multi-verse

Despite the fact that I believe Reason 2 to be sufficient to knock down the “fine-tuning” argument I will offer a third reason for good measure. In some senses it is a refinement on Reason 2, one of the current scientific stabs at what might have happened.

Religious people are fond of creating a false dilemma argument against atheists and naturalists. Either the universe was designed and created by God, or it was a random accident. If they can show, they imagine, that it is non-random then they have their creator.

To break the dilemma, let’s look at something a little closer to home: the way in which intelligent life arose on earth by the mechanism of evolution through natural selection.

To formulate the natural selection theory in its simplest form: life evolved in response to the conditions in which it found itself after millions of trials and errors called mutations. The successful mutations survived because they allowed the organism greater success in its environment.

In this simple but devastating insight, Darwin and generations of evolutionary biologists explained how apparently “designed” bodies and organs could arise with no designers guiding them.

All this theory takes to work is proof that an organism proceeds through many “attempts” before it succeeds. From the fossil record on earth we can state as a proven fact that this has happened over millions of years. We have the remains of creatures who could not adapt and went extinct. And we have examples of the intermediate stages of, for example, the eye which clearly demonstrate that incremental progress by natural selection can and did happen.

Expand to the size of the entire universe and allow something similar to occur. Many “attempts” for a universe with the right parameters to arise. There will be many failures, in which the universe will immediately collapse or expand too fast to form matter. But every now and again a stable universe will result. Those universes will, by definition, have the “fine-tuned” variables in the article title.

I don’t pretend to understand this cosmic “natural selection” and neither should anyone else for the time being. One day we might. Or perhaps it will forever exceed our intellectual grasp. But in this “multiverse”, in which many different universes with different scientific laws and forces co-exist, our universe is not unexpected, it is inevitable.

It requires no design. It simply requires a lot of tries. And one 'success'.

The fine tuning argument is nothing more than a re-formulation of the old “argument from design” which was attractive up until Darwin demonstrated its childishness and irrelevance. We can all agree that the universe is fantastically complex, beautiful and at least partially hospitable. We may all express our gratitude for the laws of nature being such that we may exist. But there remains no good argument to suggest that a creator is the most reasonable explanation for how it got here. DM

  • Jarred Cinman
    Jarred-Cinman.jpg
    Jarred Cinman

    Jarred Cinman is a digital native – quite literally in that he is the MD of NATIVE VML, one of the most important new local ad agencies. He is also the Chair of the IAB South Africa, the industry body that seeks to drive digital forward.

    In 2015 he will have been in the digital industry in South Africa for 20 years. Among his defining traits are that he is a troublemaker, a vegan, an anti-theist, a writer and a musician. He has lived in Johannesburg his whole life.

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