A Universe Fine-Tuned for Life

In recent years a flurry of articles and books from the field of cosmology have lent credence to intelligent design theory. Indeed, it has become fashionable in some academic circles to discuss parallels between cosmology and spirituality. The focus is on fundamental characteristics of our universe and planet that render it suitable for life, but appear very unlikely to have come about by random chance.  In a 2007 issue of The Guardian, physicist Paul Davies said, “Scientists are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth – the universe looks suspiciously like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves. For 40 years, physicists and cosmologists have been quietly collecting examples of all too convenient ‘coincidences’ and special features in the underlying laws of the universe that seem to be necessary in order for life, and hence conscious beings, to exist. Change any one of them and the consequences would be lethal.” (Davies, to be fair, is not saying God did it. But he nicely describes the problem that requires faith in a designer, multiplied universes, or unknown natural laws.) Not all intellectuals welcomed this trend. Professor Robert Jastrow summed up his book entitled God and the Astronomers this way: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. For the past three hundred years, scientists have scaled the mountain of ignorance and as they pull themselves over the final rock, they are greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” In his article “The Designed ‘Just So’ Universe” Dr. Walter Bradley outlines these fine-tuned characteristics, dividing them into three general categories:

1. The Remarkable Mathematical Form Nature Takes
Classical scientists noted that the natural world could be elegantly described by mathematical statements. Today we know that a mere handful of physics equations are able to describe all of the incredibly diverse phenomena we see in nature. Albert Einstein (1956, Lettres a Maurice Solovine) commented on the mathematical language of the world, “You may find it strange that I consider the comprehensibility of the world to the degree that we may speak of such comprehensibility as a miracle or an eternal mystery. Well, a priori one should expect a chaotic world, which cannot be in any way grasped through thought… The kind of order created, for example, by Newton’s theory of gravity is of quite a different kind. Even if the axioms of the theory are posited by a human being, the success of such an enterprise presupposes an order in the objective world of a high degree, which one has no a priori right to expect. That is the miracle which grows increasingly persuasive with the increasing development of knowledge.” Bradley builds on this argument, “…mathematical form alone is insufficient to guarantee a universe that is a suitable habitat. The particular mathematical form is also critical. For example, it is essential that the mathematical form provide for stable systems at the atomic and cosmic level. [Hamilton, Schrodinger, and MaxwellÂ’s equations] …It is clear that the specific mathematical character of our universe is essential for it to be a suitable habitat for life; yet the reason that nature has this precise mathematical form is problematic from a naturalistic metaphysics.”

2. The Mystery of the Cosmological ConstantsSeveral universal constants are an essential to our mathematical description of the universe. A partial list includes Planck’s constant “h”, the speed of light “c”, the gravity force constant “G”, the mass of the proton/electron/neutron, the unit charge for the electron/proton, the weak and strong nuclear force, electromagnetic coupling constants, and Boltzmann’s constant, k. When cosmological models were developed in the mid-twentieth century, it was naively assumed that the given set of constants was not critical to the formation of a suitable habitat for life. However, subsequent parametric studies which systematically varied the constants demonstrated that changes in any of the constants produces a dramatically different universe which is unsuitable for life of any imaginable type.

Just one of the many examples cited by Dr. Bradly involves the strong nuclear force: “…if the strong force which binds together the nucleus of atoms were just five percent weaker, only hydrogen would be stable and we would have a universe with a periodic chart of one element, which is a universe incapable of providing the necessary molecular complexity to provide minimal life functions of processing energy, storing information, and replicating. On the other hand, if the strong force were just two percent stronger, very massive nuclei would form, which are unsuitable for the chemistry of living systems. Furthermore, there would be no stable hydrogen, no long-lived stars, and no hydrogen containing compounds.”

Skeptics, dating back to Hume, have retorted that it is not surprising that everything is “just so,” otherwise we would not be here to observe it. (This has been called the anthropic principle.) In his book Miracle of Theism, the well known atheist J.L. Mackie declares the flaw in Hume’s reasoning: “There is only one actual universe, with a unique set of basic materials and physical constants, and it is therefore surprising that the elements of this unique set-up are just right for life when they might easily have been wrong. This is not made less surprising by the fact that if it had not been so, no one would have been here to be surprised. We can properly envision and consider alternative possibilities which do not include our being there to experience them.”

3. The Remarkable Requirements for Initial ConditionsThe cosmos is hurtling outward at a remarkably balanced velocity. In his fascinating work Beside Still Waters: Searching for Meaning in an Age of Doubt, Gregg Easterbrook discusses the concept. If the expansion were slightly less, the universe would have collapsed back onto itself soon after its birth. If it were slightly more rapid, the universe would have dispersed into a thin soup with no aggregated matter. The ratio of matter and energy to the volume of space at the birth of the universe must have been within about one quadrillionth of one percent ideal! After reflecting upon this unlikely scenario, Dr. Bradley notes that it “has been the impetus for creative alternatives, most recently the new inflationary model of the big bang. However, inflation itself seems to require fine-tuning for it to occur at all and for it to yield irregularities neither too small nor too large for galaxies to form. …Recently in Scientific American, the required accuracy was stated to be 1 part in 10123. Furthermore, the ratio of the gravitational energy to the kinetic energy must equal to 1.00000 with a variation of 1 part in 100,000. This is an active area of research and the values may change over time. However, it appears that the essential requirements of very highly specified boundary conditions will be present in whatever model is finally confirmed for the big bang origin of the universe.”

The book Rare Earth, released early in 2000 by Dr. Donald C. Brownlee (an astronomer from the University of Washington) and Dr. Peter D. Ward (a paleontologist specializing in mass extinctions) presents the view that the conditions required for the inception and survival of complex life are so complicated and unlikely that we are probably alone in the universe. In an interview with Science Times Ward stated, “We have finally said out loud what so many have thought for so long – that complex life, at least, is rare. And, to us, complex life may be a flatworm.” The book details a host of arguments: specialized atmosphere, right distance from the star to permit liquid water, plate tectonics to permit build-up of land, stable orbits in the solar system. It discusses many of the unique aspects of the our star, the importance of a large planet like Jupiter to clear out killer comets and asteroids, the preponderance of metal-poor galaxies, the necessity of proper amounts of carbon, and the critical placement of the earth within the galaxy. These newer findings show that the Drake Equation (used triumphantly by Dr. Sagan to estimate that there are a million alien worlds) is riddled with hidden optimistic assumptions.

4. A Privileged Place in the UniverseThis growing list of fine-tuning requirements is only part of the story. By itself, the skeptic might say we’re just the incredibly lucky recipients of a big cosmic lottery. But astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards argue in The Privileged Planet (Regnery Publishing, 2004.) that those conditions for habitability also provide the best overall conditions for doing science. In other words, the places where complex observers like us can exist are the very same places that provide the best overall conditions for observing. For instance, the most life-friendly region of the galaxy is also the best place to be an astronomer and cosmologist. A solar system like ours is much more helpful for doing science than many of the uninhabitable extrasolar systems we’re now discovering. And the atmosphere that complex, chemically-based living observers need also allows those observers (us) to study the distant universe. You might expect these kinds of “coincidences” if the universe were designed for discovery, but not if you were a card-carrying materialist limited to the resources of mere chance and physical necessity.

Over the years, science has provided naturalistic explanations for phenomena that were once mysterious or ascribed to the supernatural. Some scientists came to believe that everything from the appearance of life to the origin of matter itself would be explained by natural processes as more evidence came to light. Today that pendulum is swinging back the other way. From the logical mathematical language in nature, to the unique aspects of our universe and our planet; new discoveries augment the mounting evidence for special design. Michael Denton summarized it well in Nature’s Destiny: “…The cosmos appears increasingly to be a vast system finely tuned to generate life and organisms of biology very similar, perhaps identical, to ourselves. All the evidence available in the biological sciences supports the core propositions of traditional natural theology–that the cosmos is a specially designed whole with life and mankind as its fundamental goal and purpose, a whole in which all facets of reality, from the size of the galaxies to the thermal capacity of water, have their meaning and explanation in this central fact.”

Atheists respond to the fine-tuning arguments put forward by design theorists with the hypothesis of multiple universes (multiverse). By supposing that universes are regularly being produced (forever beyond our observation) with an infinite variety of laws and constants, it becomes slightly more plausible that a universe such as ours would happen along. “The anthropic principle kicks in to explain that we have to be in one of those universes (presumably a minority) whose by-laws happen to be propitious to our eventual evolution and hence contemplation of the problem.” (Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, 2006, p. 174.) The problem with multiverse is that there is no shred of empirical evidence…it is just blind faith completely outside of the arena of observable science. And it only pushes back the problem one step. For then we must ask who built the “Universe Generator”? It must be a fine-tuned apparatus that continuously produces universes cleanly & completely, varies the constants continually, and needs to maintain this process for trillions of tries!