The Fine-Tuning Argument, Part I: Parameters that Make You Say, “Really?”

The Argument from Design, in its simplest form, states, “Observe that X has characteristics that are best explained as design. The presence of design implies a designer. Therefore, a designer of X exists.” I have already written on one of the main Arguments from Design, known as Intelligent Design. In the present essay I will begin to explore the other main Argument from Design, known as the Fine Tuning Argument.

The Fine Tuning Argument posits that a set of parameters about the physical universe have values that allow life, and that any other possible values outside of a narrow range would have prevented the emergence of life. The argument then concludes that since it is highly improbable that these parameters would have randomly taken on just those values that allow life to emerge, there must have been a designer that set these parameters to those specific values in order for life to appear. In short, the designer finely tuned those parameters in order to allow life to occur.

There are a wide variety of physical parameters that have been used as examples of this fine tuning. Here are some lists that have been proposed of such parameters:

On the surface, such a vast quantity of parameters that seem to be picked specifically to allow life seems to be overwhelming evidence in favor of design. However, these parameters fall into several different categories, each of which are addressable in a different way:

  1. Parameters that are derived from other parameters.
  2. Parameters that are a direct result of quantum mechanics.
  3. Parameters that are simply wrong or nonsense.
  4. Parameters that have no obvious connection to the emergence of life.
  5. Parameters for which there is known variation within the observable universe.
  6. Parameters that life has tuned itself to match.
  7. Fundamental physical constants.
  8. Initial conditions of the universe.

My response to this argument is unfortunately quite long, so I’m going to divide it into two essays. In the first of these, the present essay, I will deal with the vast majority of supposedly fine-tuned parameters, those that fall into the first six categories above. These will be the ones that, frankly, should be an embarrassment for theists to cite, because their refutation is so simple that it should be obvious. In the following essay I will address the remaining few supposedly fine-tuned parameters that remain after having dealt with the easy responses. That will be a more subtle and challenging discussion. Those parameters in categories seven and eight, of which there are only a handful, may be the strongest argument in favor of a cosmic designer that exists, but as we will see, even those examples fall far short of being convincing. Finally, in that second essay, I will also explore the combination of the Fine Tuning Argument and the Intelligent Design argument from the standpoint of formal logic. What we will find is that the two arguments make opposite assumptions about what observations constitute evidence of design, and thus it is logically inconsistent to believe both arguments simultaneously.

Let’s get started. I will take most of my examples for the following discussion from the first list I linked to, since it is the most extensive. But these will only be examples of each category. It will hopefully be relatively obvious to the reader which specific claimed fine-tuned parameters fall into each category. If it isn’t, then please feel free to ask in the comments and I will elaborate on any specific points of confusion.

Parameters that are derived from other parameters

Suppose you included on your list of fine-tuned parameters some value x, and also a parameter that is 3x. Only one of those two can be even theoretically fine-tuned, because if God had changed one to a different value, the other would have changed as well. These parameters are essentially duplicates on the list, padding its length. Some prominent examples from the lists above include:

  • The electromagnetic force constant and the gravitational force constant directly determines ratio of the electromagnetic force constant to the gravitational force constant.
  • Uniformity of radiation and homogeneity of the universe directly determine the magnitude of the temperature ripples in cosmic background radiation.
  • The relativistic dilation factor is determined by the speed of light.
  • The polarity of the water molecule (along with other properties that fall into the “parameters that are a direct result of quantum mechanics” category) directly determines water’s heat of fusion and heat of vaporization.
  • The location of clumpuscules determines the number density of clumpuscules.
  • The homogeneity of the universe is clearly determined the average distance between galaxies, the average distance between galaxy clusters, the average distance between stars, the average size and distribution of galaxy clusters, and the numbers, sizes, and locations of cosmic voids.

Removing redundancies of this type from the lists drops the number of listed quantities dramatically.

Parameters that are a direct result of quantum mechanics

Parameters such as

  • the ground state energy level for helium-4,
  • the carbon-12 to oxygen-16 nuclear energy level ratio,
  • the polarity of the water molecule, and
  • level of paramagnetic behavior in dioxygen

are derivable from first principles in quantum mechanics, and thus are not separately tunable.

Parameters that are simply wrong or nonsense

The “positive nature of cosmic pressure” is a meaningless concept. The closest meaning I can find is the pressure of a vacuum, which is small and negative, not positive.

“Dioxygen’s kinetic oxidation rate of organic molecules” is not a single value. The oxidation rate depends heavily on which organic molecule is being oxidized, the temperature of the environment, and the concentration of the oxygen and of the organic molecule. These dependencies are well-understood, and are not in principle tunable. The most complicated factor in determining these rates is the energy of the transition state in the rate-determining step for the oxidation reaction, which can nonetheless be separately calculated for each organic molecule of interest by quantum mechanical calculations, and thus these rates as a whole are not tunable.

Parameters that have no obvious connection to the emergence of life

If a parameter doesn’t relate to the question at-hand, life’s emergence, then it can’t be part of the fine-tuning argument. Some prominent examples from the lists above include:

  • Epoch for star formation peak. Epoch for the formation of the first galaxies. Epoch for the formation of the first quasars. If these events happened later, then life could have emerged later; if they had happened earlier, then life could have emerged earlier. it wouldn’t prevent life from emerging.
  • The number and type of supernova and hypernova eruptions may affect the density of heavier elements throughout the universe, but if this changed, that would merely change when there were sufficient heavier elements for life to emerge, not its probability of happening.
  • It is far from clear how the self-interacting of dark matter would affect the emergence of life.
  • Sterile neutrinos, though predicted by the Standard Model, have not been detected yet, and have numerous properties that would need to be measured rather than predicted. Given this, how do we have any clue the extent to which the number of sterile neutrinos in the universe could affect the emergence of life? We don’t.

Parameters for which there is known variation within the observable universe

Let’s explore this category of parameter by looking at the last link to a list that I provided above, Joe Carter’s post. In particular, let’s look at his entries 7 through 18, quantities that he calls Local Planetary Conditions. For reference, these parameters are:

  • Steady plate tectonics
  • Right amount of water in crust
  • Large moon with right planetary rotation period
  • Proper concentration of sulfur
  • Right planetary mass
  • Near inner edge of circumstellar habitable zone
  • Low-eccentricity orbit outside spin-orbit and giant planet resonances
  • A few, large Jupiter-mass planetary neighbors in circular orbits
  • Outside spiral arm of galaxy
  • Near co-rotation circle of galaxy
  • Within the galactic habitable zone
  • During the cosmic habitable age

First of all, this list can be pared down significantly by eliminating parameters that fall into the first two categories. For example, right amount of water in crust is at least partially redundant with near inner edge of circumstellar habitable zone. If the planet were closer in, then it wouldn’t have the right amount of water in the crust. Near co-rotation circle of galaxy (which is expanded on in the link as being necessary because it “enables a planet to avoid traversing dangerous parts of the galaxy”) has no obvious connection to the emergence of life because it is not clear at all what is likely to be meant by “dangerous parts of the galaxy.” Further, since the galaxy as a whole is rotating together, and since stars are typically quite far apart from each other, the frequency of interaction between star systems is extremely low. The sun circles the galactic center approximately four times in a billion years. Since the age of the solar system is estimated to be 4.6 billion years, it has only gone around the galaxy a bit over 18 times, and most of the neighboring stellar regions have been moving with it. Think about traffic moving along an interstate. While you see some new cars appear, mostly you see the same ones, because they are traveling at a similar speed in a similar direction.

But, let’s suppose, just for the sake of argument, that some subset of these parameters are actually necessary for life to emerge. How surprising is it that Earth has those specific parameters? That, unfortunately for the argument, is the wrong question. Instead we should ask, how surprising is it that some planet somewhere in the universe has those specific parameters? As long as there is one planet with those parameters somewhere, that is where life will emerge. And therefore, that is the one that will have beings on it who will be asking about how amazing it is that their planet has conditions so perfectly tailored to life.

Suppose you have a stair-stepped mountain that is very tall, and that each stair-step has a pond on it. We seed all of the ponds up and down the entire mountain with a species of fish that requires a very specific average temperature in order to survive. Because average temperature correlates with altitude, at least one of the stair-steps will have the correct average temperature. The fish in all of the other ponds will die, but the fish in that one will survive. How amazing is it, at that point, that the fish happen to live in a pond that happens to have exactly the right average temperature? Not amazing at all.

So, let’s play with some numbers. Our solar system has eight planets (or more, if you count the planetoids like Pluto). Some of them are too far away from the sun to have liquid water. Some of them are too close to the sun to have liquid water. One of them is just right (and it appears that another of them, Mars, was just right for a while, so the habitable zone seems to be relatively wide). So, a solar system that has a bunch of planets will have a good chance of having one in the right zone.

But how many solar systems have a bunch of planets? Well, let’s start to answer that question by looking at the number of stars there are in the universe. Our own Milky Way galaxy has around 300 billion stars in it. It appears that our galaxy is relatively typical of galaxies, and there are somewhere between 100 billion and 500 billion galaxies in the observable universe (we’ll go with a conservative 200 billion for our estimates here). That means that there are approximately 60 sextillion (or 60 thousand billion billion) stars in the observable universe.

Now, how many of those stars are “sun-like”? I’ll leave aside for the moment whether it is really necessary for a planet to be “sun-like” for it to be able to support life; we’ll come to that question in a little bit. For now, let’s be pessimistic and assume that a sun-like star is necessary for life. Most estimates put the fraction of stars that are sun-like at about 10%. So that means the universe has approximately 6 sextillion sun-like stars. How many of those have planets about the size of Earth that are bathed in an approximately equivalent amount of sunlight? A recent estimate based on the search for exoplanets within the Milky Way puts the fraction of stars that have such planets at around 22%. Therefore, over one sextillion stars in the observable universe probably have planets of the right size in the right orbit around them. How many of those are in the spiral arms of their galaxies? Well, about 15% of galaxies are spirals (I’ll leave aside the question of whether life could only arise in a spiral galaxy, even though that seems to be a horrible assumption), and about 2/3 of the stars are in the disk (spiral arms), that means 100 quintillion stars with appropriate planets are in the right places in spiral galaxies.

I hope by this point you are seeing the pattern. We could continue to pick supposedly-relevant parameters and narrow down how many planets within the observable universe have that combination of characteristics, but the number of such planets is so huge that we will still have an enormous number of planets that meet the supposedly-required criteria.

And to match the observation that life exists we only need one. Because wherever that one is, that is where the observers will be. Suppose that only one planet in the entire universe has the conditions necessary for life, just like the one terrace in the sequences of ponds on the mountain side. That one planet is us, because to observe that life exists, life has to exist. Even if only one exists, that is sufficient to explain our observation.

Of course, given the magnitude of the numbers we have been discussing, I sincerely doubt that there is only one such planet. I find it much more likely that there are at least trillions of planets in the universe with conditions sufficient for life.

This reasoning is a version of the Anthropic Principle, which states that any observation we make is predicated on observers being present. While it may be surprising that any randomly-picked star system would have life, it is not at all surprising that our star system has life; after all, if it didn’t have life, then we wouldn’t be here to remark on that fact. As long as life can exist somewhere in the universe, then it is not surprising that at those places life exists, there are observers who notice that life exists. We simply happen to be one of them.

What this means is that any parameter for which there is a range of values observed throughout the universe cannot be concluded to be fine-tuned.

Notice that the anthropic principle applies to time as well as location. In order for there to be an observer, there had to have been time within the universe for life to emerge. Therefore, parameters such as the age of the universe or the entropy level of the universe (which changes with time) fail for the same reason that the type of star fails. Not only will the observation that life exists be only made in a location where life exists, it will also only be made at a time when life exists. An observation requires an observer (it is a fascinating analysis to explore why this requirement works, whereas design requiring a designer doesn’t).

Parameters that life has tuned itself to match

A fundamental assumption behind many of the listed supposed “fine-tuned” parameters is that they must have the values they do for life as we know it to emerge. Change a parameter about the Earth, and life like we observe may not work, but that doesn’t mean that different life couldn’t emerge. How about a star that isn’t “sun-like”? Different life might emerge there too. Change a fundamental property of the universe in a way that screws up chemistry as we know it, and that means chemistry will happen differently, not that it won’t happen at all. Why should we assume that different chemical behavior would preclude life of ANY type? We shouldn’t. The life that we observe evolved within the universe and on the planet that has a certain set of characteristics, and the process of evolution optimized that life for those characteristics. But make no mistake… this is evidence of life tuning itself to the environment, not evidence of the environment being tuned for the emergence of life.

Status of the argument so far

Parameters that fall into any of the categories I have listed so far are trivial to eliminate as possible fine-tuned values. For the longer lists of parameters, such as the first set I linked to, this means that the bulk of the list is clearly invalid. What we are left with as potential candidates for fine-tuning are fundamental physical constants and initial conditions of the universe. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, these last two categories are significantly better arguments for the existence of a cosmic designer than are any of the previous categories. The next essay will address these two categories in some detail. Be warned, however, that the physics will get pretty heavy in that discussion.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: New Post: Fine-Tuning Part I | Convert The Atheist

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