In an earlier article, we explained how there is a wide-reaching consensus among physicists that the universe is finely-tuned. Fine-tuning means that the universe’s initial conditions and physical laws permit life, while even tiny changes in their nature or calibrations would make it impossible for life to really get going. In that article’s conclusion, we saw that these findings are deeply relevant to theological debates over the existence of God, with theists arguing that fine-tuning is evidence of design by a Higher Power.
Atheists, unsurprisingly, disagree. They propose that fine-tuning can be explained by phenomena other than a designing mind.
This article will review these responses, especially focusing on the multiverse theory, and argue that only the purposeful will of a Conscious Intelligence can solve this cosmic enigma.
Fine-Tuning, What Fine-Tuning?
The first stop for some atheist critics of fine-tuning is to deny its existence. However, numerous atheist physicists admit that its real. Take outspoken atheist Steven Weinberg for instance, a Nobel-Prize winning physicist:
“How surprising it is that the laws of nature and the initial conditions of the universe should allow for the existence of beings who could observe it. Life as we know it would be impossible if any one of several physical quantities had slightly different values.”[i]
There are many others too who admit the existence of fine-tuning while not drawing any theistic conclusions from it. Among a few famous names are Martin Rees FRS, the Astronomer Royal and a recent president of the Royal Society; Paul Davies, the best-selling science-writer and professor of physics, and Leonard Susskind, the Stanford professor who was a pioneer of String Theory.
None of these scientists, and so many other researchers like them, derive religious significance from fine-tuning. They all however are honest enough to admit that the inference to design is strong. But they seek other solutions such as those described below.
Now if the consensus of scientists in the field agree that fine-tuning exists, even when it goes against their ideological instincts, we can be sure that the evidence is unassailable. For why else would they all unanimously agree to something that could so easily argue against their materialist worldview?
Moreover, the specifics of the fine-tuning examples, related previously, are difficult to refute. Few have tried, none have succeeded.
Another possible response to fine-tuning is to say that our universe is just plain lucky, and that if the universe was not finely-tuned, we wouldn’t be around to see it. However, the fact is that the improbabilities involved, covered previously, are startling. It would be ridiculous to claim that this was all coincidence when the coincidence is so extreme. Moreover, the fact that our observation of fine-tuning requires the pre-existence of fine-tuning is both painfully obvious and extremely irrelevant.
Another variant of this argument is to say that ‘improbable things happen all the time’. For instance, critics state that it is highly improbable that you are reading this article at this particular moment in time. If you had woken up slightly later, or decided to get some water now, or if any of your ancestors did not meet each other and reproduced precisely when they did, then you would not be here to read this article. And yet here you are. How improbable! Thus, the argument goes, our entire lives are spent doing improbable things, so we shouldn’t be surprised if the universe is improbable too.
However, this argument severely misunderstands the word improbable. Improbable does not mean that one outcome occurs when many other outcomes could have occurred. This is inevitable. Some things happen – others don’t. Rather, we call something improbable when a special outcome is selected from many other more ordinary outcomes.
For instance, if you see someone roll a dice three times and they get a 1, a 5, and a 2, you won’t be impressed. There’s nothing improbable about that – they’re just three random numbers. But if they said before rolling the dice that they would roll a 1, 5, and a 2, then (assuming there’s no cheating going on) getting these results would be rather improbable. As soon as the prediction is made, there’s a special value attached to these numbers which they didn’t previously have. Value can be extrinsic, as when assigned through a prediction, but it can also be intrinsic. For instance, if a dice was rolled 13 times in a row and produced the following mathematical sequence: 1,2,3,4,5,6,5,4,3,2,1, then this would be improbable, because that sequence is intrinsically special. It is a recognisable pattern, in this case following an ascending then descending order.
The same principles apply to fine-tuning. Out of all the possible universes that a roll of the cosmic probability dice could have brought into being, only a tiny minority of them are life-permitting. This is a highly special outcome, as life is infinitely more valuable than death. Thus, selecting a rare life-giving universe amidst a sea of death-dealing universes is certainly something that needs to be explained.
We Live in a Multiverse
By far the most popular alternative to the idea of a designing deity is the existence of a multiverse. Martin Rees FRS, who wrote one of the earliest popular books on the subject, said that appealing to the multiverse is the only way out of believing that fine-tuning is the result of Divine Design.
“If one doesn’t accept the ‘providence’ argument, there is another perspective, which – though still conjectural – I find compellingly attractive. It is that our Big Bang may not have been the only one. Separate universes may have cooled down differently, ending up governed by different laws and defined by different numbers.”[ii]
His approach has been widely followed ever since.
What is the multiverse? There are different versions of the theory, but in essence they suggest that running parallel to our universes are myriad other universes. They all make up one giant overarching cosmic space called the ‘multiverse.’ This multiverse has ‘meta-laws’ and ‘meta-constants,’ which allow the creation of smaller universes with their own ‘by-laws.’
One way to visualise this is by imagining a surging ocean. The universes in the multiverse are the foam bubbles that swim on its surface, all of a subtly different size and shape. In the same way, different universes within the multiverse might have very different laws and constants. In fact, in most of these universes, life would be impossible. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the chance of our universe having the physics it does, out of the possible physics it could have had, is 1 in 1040,000. If so, then the multiverse theory suggests that there is a multiverse with around 1040,000 universes. We just happen to find ourselves in the lucky life-permitting bubble.
We can really understand how this argument works by returning to our trusty cosmic dice. With an ordinary dice, there’s a one in six chance of getting a 6. But if you roll six dice together, then suddenly rolling a 6 isn’t unlikely at all. (It’s about 66.5% for the maths buffs out there). [iii]
Just as with the dice we reduced the improbability of a special outcome by increasing the number of dice being rolled, the multiverse theory inflates the number of universes being created to explain how an improbable universe is realised. Atheists assert that almost all of the other universes are dead and cold, with laws and constants that don’t permit life. If this is true, then the appearance of fine-tuning we see is inevitable in one of the universes simply because there are so many of them. We just happen to be in one such universe.
Thus, the multiverse theory attempts to dissolve the appearance of fine-tuning by vastly expanding reality’s probability space.
The Multiverse Cannot be Infinite
Whether this argument works depends crucially on the nature of the multiverse. Does it have an infinite number of universes, or a finite number of universes? If there are infinite universes, then all possibilities are realised somewhere is some fashion. We just happen to be in one life-permitting universe surrounded by an infinite sea of mostly dead universes. This makes sense, as far as it goes. It goes a long way in refuting fine-tuning.
But there’s a problem with this argument: the multiverse simply cannot have an infinite number of universes. Infinity is not a physical reality.
This is no assertion – it can be easily proved mathematically. The first step is to ask whether there is a number of universes (n) in the multiverse. Naturally there must be a number of universes in the multiverse, otherwise it would contain no universes. But if there is a number of universes (n) in the multiverse, then we can always add another universe to that number (n + 1).
However, if 1 can be added to (n), then (n) cannot be infinite, for infinity cannot be exceeded. So (n), whatever it is, must be finite.
Thus the multiverse must have a finite number of universes. This means that any given multiverse does not contain every possible universe. Thus a multiverse does not exhaust every possible combination of initial conditions and physical laws, meaning that a finely-tuned universe cannot be dissolved in an sea of infinite possibility.
Turtles All the Way Down?
With this established, we can now see that the multiverse cannot explain away fine-tuning, for a multiverse itself must be finely-tuned.
Any multiverse that generates a life-permitting universe must have meta-laws. These meta-laws are like our universe’s laws, except they apply all over the multiverse. They regulate and control the emergence of universal ‘by-laws’ like ours. They set the limits of what’s possible and what’s impossible. They run the show just like the laws described in modern physics run our show.
Now imagine if these meta-laws were changed slightly. Presumably, they would now set different limits. Different things would be possible in individual universes, and other things would be impossible. As such, we are forced to conclude that our universe’s laws only came about because the multiverse’s meta-laws permitted them to exist. If the meta-laws were different, then a universe like ours wouldn’t be possible. Indeed there must be endless possible multiverses that do not allow life to exist at all – all it takes is for the dials on the multiverse’s meta-law control panel to be adjusted in the wrong way.
This means that the problem of fine-tuning hasn’t been solved – it’s just been displaced to a higher level. After all, what has finely-tuned the multiverse to produce a life-permitting universe like ours? Why is life possible anywhere in the multiverse?
One answer would be to say that there is a multiverse of multiverses. Perhaps we can call it a megaverse? But why is the megaverse finely-tuned? Perhaps it’s part of an omniverse? Where do we stop?
The situation is reminiscent of an incident with William James, a famous public lecturer in 19th century USA. After explaining the nature of the solar system to a group of people, a lady came up to him with her ‘alternative’ theory. She explained that she believed the world was balanced on the back of a giant turtle. James patiently asked what the turtle was resting on. Another turtle, she said. James asked what the second turtle was resting on. But the lady was wise to his game, and exclaimed,
“You see Mr. James, it’s turtles all the way down!”
Is it multiverses all the way down? If we don’t solve the issue of fine-tuning with our universe, we end up chasing an infinite regress of bigger and bigger cosmic structures, never finding an end. Infinite regresses never allow us to come to the present, so this cannot be a solution to the problem of fine-tuning.
This failure of the multiverse theory has not gone unnoticed. George Ellis FRS, Professor of Mathematics at Cape Town University comments on the multiverse by saying:
“Philosophically it doesn’t solve a thing, it just pushes you one step back.” [iv]
Paul Davies agrees:
“The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.” [v]
None of this means that the multiverse doesn’t exist. It may well exist. However, these realisations show that the possible existence of a multiverse cannot be used as an argument against the fine-tuning of the universe. As soon as life exists, the possibility for non-life comes into existence with it. At whatever level we look at, the cosmos must be finely-tuned for life. It is not just the probability of life that must be dealt with, it is the possibility of life that is surprising.
Life in Other Universes
Another possibility needs to be considered too. What if the multiverse exists, but it is teeming with life? What if there are billions of other universes, but they all are finely-tuned? Scientists will never be able to disprove this. Even if we find indirect evidence for a multiverse, we would never be able to tell what the laws and constants of those other universes are. The other universes could be replicas of our own, and have alien civilisations galore. Why not? If our universe is the only to be observed, why assume it is the exception? To assume it is the only one with life is to make an a priori atheistic assumption. There is no evidence that other universes aren’t finely-tuned, and there never will be. For even if a String Theory prediction that there are 10500 universes is somehow confirmed, without going to have a look, we will never be able to know what their nature is. It could be that every other universe in the ‘string landscape’ is also finely-tuned, and harbours life.
Perhaps the atheists of our sister universes are also doing their utmost to deny fine-tuning?
Naturally, this pluralistic perspective is entirely in accord with a theistic outlook, where God creates multiple realms of creation, each harbouring life. After all, in its opening lines, the Holy Qur’an states:
“All praise belongs to Allah,Lord of all the worlds.”
(Holy Qur’an, 1:2)
Design — the Inevitable Conclusion
It should be clear by now that all of the above responses are designed to ignore the obvious solution: that the universe looks like it was designed for life because it was designed for life. Perhaps the more fundamental physics of the universe is not some new constant, or another blind law, but rather a purpose – the purpose to produce life. If the universe has purpose, we have to accept that this purpose came from the intention of a Conscious Planner, who values life over death.
The writing has been on the wall for many decades now. In 1981, Sir Fred Hoyle wrote an article surveying the evolution of his views over his career. While he began by thinking that he could explain his discoveries in science without appealing to an organising force beyond the universe, his attempts fell short. He ended his article with a categorical statement:
“A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”[vi]
Hoyle was surely right, and modern science is trying to deal with the fallout from this indubitable conclusion. In response to being led back to an Intelligent Designer, it is traversing the various stages of grief. The shock has settled, and the denial has been swept away, but bargaining is alive and well (maybe a multiverse can help us?). Acceptance looms on the horizon.
Those scientists who do accept the inevitable trajectory of modern science towards Design are aptly described in the Holy Qur’an as the truest scientists, the men of understanding:
“In the creation of the heavens and the earth and in the alternation of the night and the day there are indeed Signs for men of understanding; Those who remember God while standing, sitting, and lying on their sides, and ponder over the creation of the heavens and the earth. They say:
“Our Lord, Thou hast not created this in vain!”
(Holy Qur’an, 3:191 – 192)
Umar Nasser (@UmarN91) is a junior doctor with an interest in psychiatry who frequently writes on religion, science and atheism. He is a public speaker on religion in the contemporary world, and has coordinated anti-radicalisation event campaigns across UK universities. He was once a street magician, but has since decided that there are more than enough tricksters in the world.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] Weinberg, S. (1994). Life in the Universe. Scientific American, [online] (Vol 271, Issue 4). Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/magazine/sa/1994/10-01/#article-life-in-the-universe [Accessed 9 Oct. 2018].
[ii] Rees, Martin. Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe (SCIENCE MASTERS) (Kindle Locations 2192-2194). Orion. Kindle Edition.
[iii] From Rashid Mubasher, a friend studying Mathematics at the University of Warwick:
“The probability of getting a 6 by rolling a single fair die is just 1/6. About 16.7%. If you roll six dice, then the probability of getting at least 1 six is ‘1 minus the probability of getting zero 6’s.’
The probability of getting no 6’s is (5/6)6, because we are using 6 dice.
So, the probability of the second sentence is (1 – (5/6)6). This is about 66.5%.”
[v] The Guardian. (2007). Paul Davies: Yes, the universe looks like a fix. But that doesn’t mean that a god fixed it. [online] [Accessed 21 Aug. 2018].
[vi] Hoyle, F. (1982). The Universe: Past and Present Reflections. Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, 20(1), p.12.