By Matt Lefebvre

This post is a continuation of the teleological argument. Please see Part 1Part 2, Part 3 if you have not read them yet.

To read along with audio for this article, click here Teleo-Part4

Objections to the First Premise

Victor Stenger

A most notable opponent to the concept of fine-tuning is physicist Victor Stenger.  He has just recently written a book entitled The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us which makes no secret of his views.  For Stenger, too much has been made of the fine-tuning of the universe, especially by Christians.  As he states in the preface to his book,

“A number of authors have noted that the universe described when some parameters are slightly changed no longer can support life as we know it.  This implies that life, as we know it, depends sensitively on the parameters of our universe, which is unarguable.  A more dubious conclusion, which has attracted much theological attention for over two decades now, asserts that the parameters of our universe are ‘fine-tuned’ to produce life as we know it.” (The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, p.18).

Stenger is an atheist, but I was pleased to see that he has read various Christian works, for what that indicates to me is that he is not just basing his critique on straw-men and caricatures.  He has actually studied to see what these Christian authors had to bring to bear on the issue.  However, in spite of his presumably honourable intentions in considering theistic explanations of the way the universe is, I think he both misunderstands the theistic position and, ironically, his own position.  In considering Stenger’s position, he explains his pursuit by asserting,

“As a physicist, I cannot go wherever I want to but wherever the data take me.  If they take me to God, so be it.” (The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, p.22)


“…a scientist must go wherever the data lead regardless of personal wishes.” (The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, p.135).

In doing this, Stenger makes it seem as though science is free from bias, and that, in general, it is the facts and only the facts that determine what a scientist will believe about the world.  I am certainly not suggesting that he is being intentionally dishonest, but I do think he has an overly optimistic view of where science leads.  Physicist John Polkinghorne, in his article entitled “God and Physics”, acknowledges right off the bat the crucial questions that face every person, so I will quote him at length.

“Every worldview involves a commitment to a foundational belief, which is not itself to be explained but which will provide the basis on which all subsequent forms of explanation will ultimately have to rest.  No worldview can be free from such an initial commitment, for nothing comes of nothing.  In Western thinking about the nature of reality there have been two particularly influential traditions: materialism and theism.  They are both still very active today, and they differ in what they treat as their assumed foundation.  The unexplained brute fact of the former is the existence of matter; for the latter, the existence of a divine Creator.  Which is to be chosen depends upon how intellectually satisfying its brute-fact assumption is found to be.  My contention will be that the materialist starting point is unsatisfying.  The laws of nature, as modern physics has discovered them to be, have a character which is not self-contained but rather seems to point beyond them to the need for a further and deeper level of intelligibility.” (God is Great, God is Good, edited by William Lane Craig and Chad Meister, p.65).

Basically, what this says is that a scientist is not immune to philosophical speculation, no matter how much they might want to be.  It is this worldview that is the system for interpreting the data, and as the quote from Alister McGrath in the previous part stated, the issue is largely the interpretation of the data.  So Stenger misunderstands his own position by thinking that he is not committed to any particular way of thinking, but is only letting the facts speak.  In also misunderstanding the case for a designer as the explanation of the fine-tuning, Stenger seemingly tries to explain everything without actually explaining anything.  At the same time he is supposing that the theist is trying to explain everything, including the intentions of God himself.  However, as Alister McGrath rightly observes,

“Theologians do not hold that the Christian doctrine of God allows us to predict the specifics of the universe; the general view has always been that, since God made the cosmos with no constraining influences other than the divine will and nature, it could have been created in a variety of manners.” (A Fine-Tuned Universe, p.120).

He also seems to think that fine-tuning means that God created the universe, but then had to correct Himself at various points along the way.  For Stenger, God or no God, natural explanations are adequate.

“Now, as fine-tuned as this may seem, there exists a natural explanation.” (The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, p.199).

“The argument here assumes the ratio is some arbitrary constant that could have had any value except for God’s intervention.  In fact, the number of electrons exactly equals the number of protons for a very simple reason: as far as we can tell, the universe is electrically neutral, so the two particles must balance because they have opposite charge.  No fine-tuning happened here.  The ratio is determined by conservation of charge, a fundamental law of physics…Note that if the universe came from nothing, its total charge should be zero, as expected if there were no miraculous creation.” (The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, p.205).

No less than 10 times in his summary and review (and periodically throughout the book), Stenger writes something to the effect of “there is no fine-tuning; the parameter is fixed by established physics and cosmology.” (The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, p.278-289).

Stenger does not seem to grasp the fact that God is believed to be the source of order within the universe, so it is not as if God did a bad job at the Big Bang and had to correct Himself (The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, p.91) or, I might add, that the laws of nature existed independently of God.  No, the belief is that God brought the universe into being out of literally nothing, so the laws of the universe came into being with the universe.  Former atheist Antony Flew understood the implications of this question and he expounded them in his book about being convinced that there was a god.  Flew draws on the words of theoretical physicists Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies, but the implication is basic.

“The overwhelming impression is one of order.  The more we discover about the universe, the more we find that it is governed by rational laws…You still have the question: why does the universe bother to exist?  If you like, you can define God to be the answer to that question.” (Stephen Hawking, quoted in There is a God, p.97).

“Where do the laws of physics come from?  Why is it that we have these laws instead of some other set?  How is it that we have a set of laws that drives featureless gases to life, consciousness and intelligence?” (Paul Davies, quoted in There is a God, p.108).

It seems as though Stenger is answering a “Why?” question with a “How?” answer.  Jan Narveson, another critic of design, illustrates well what I mean, albeit unintentionally.  “Why does water boil when heated?  The scientific story supplies an analysis of matter in its liquid state, the effects of atmosphere pressure and heat, and so on until we see, in impressive detail, just how the thing works.” (In God and Design, p.94).  Technically Narveson does answer the question, but why should water, or anything else, boil?  Or why should there be anything there at all to boil in the first place?  In the same way, Stenger describes proposed areas of fine-tuning, explaining how they work in terms of physics and cosmology, and then thinks he has solved the mystery of why there should be a universe compatible with life.  Perhaps I am being too hard on him.  After all, he is more of a scientist than he is a philosopher.  So, in the interest of giving him more of a chance to speak, let us look at some of his science.

“This also means [the models of physics] will be the same in any universe where no special point of view is present.  And it means that when I show in the following chapter that no laws of physics were broken for the universe to come into being, the next question, ‘Where did the laws of physics come from?’ is already answered.” (The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, p.91).

“When we use ‘infinity’ in physics, we simply mean ‘a very big number,’ not the abstraction Craig refers to as an ‘actual infinite.’” (The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, p.119).

“Saying the universe is eternal simply is saying that it has no beginning or end, not that it had a beginning an infinite time ago” (The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, p.121).

I have already written on reasons to believe that the universe had a beginning, based on both scientific and philosophical reasoning, so I will not repeat myself here.  However, I think it is worth pointing out what Stenger is really saying so he does not “blind you with science”.  In the first quote above, by claiming that the laws of physics would be the same in any universe, he thinks he has provided adequate explanation of where they came from and why they are the way they are.  I am not sure about you, but I find that to be avoiding the question that other atheists have faced head on.  One example would be J.L. Mackie, as he stated “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.” (Quoted in Scaling the Secular City, J.P. Moreland, p.55).  Furthermore, in the second and third quote, he is trying to deny a beginning by making it seem like [William Lane] Craig was saying that the theory of an eternal universe means that it had a beginning an infinite time ago, but this is certainly not anything that William Lane Craig has postulated, neither in his published work nor in his debates with Victor Stenger.  I could not believe what I was reading, so I had to read it again a few times to make sure it really said that.  As far as Stenger’s thought on its own, I do not see how he can claim that the universe has been around for “a very long time” (to use his mathematical definition of infinity) and not think that he is contradicting himself in saying that the universe is eternal.  It is almost as if Stenger thinks it is okay for his reasoning to come into play after there is already matter and already laws of nature.  Part of his reasoning relies on inflationary cosmology (theory of rapid expansion in the early history of the universe), which in itself, even if correct, would require precise initial conditions, that I might say tongue-in-cheek needed to be fine-tuned.  William Lane Craig sums this up well in writing, “In other words, inflationary scenarios seem to require the same sort of fine-tuning that theorists had hoped these models had eliminated.” (In God and Design, p.160).

I would like to make one final point in refutation of Stenger’s objections to the fine-tuning of the universe.  He spends most of his time on the fundamental forces, whereas I have spent most of my time on the habitability of where we are situated as humans on Earth.  He casually dismisses the uniqueness of Earth, suggesting that he is sure that life is out there, considering how easy it is to make complex molecules from simpler stuff (The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, p.183).  I, however, have suggested that even getting past the fundamental forces safely is no guarantee of life.  There still has to be a quality galaxy and a safe, yet well supplied, area within it.  There needs to be the right kind of star at the right time, which would be able to produce and sustain the right kind of planets, including the right kind of moon.  There needs to be the right elements to work with to sustain life, but also in the first place to form its building blocks.  As a nice transition from the first premise to the second, I would like to present an atheist’s view on a finely-tuned phenomenon, coming from astrophysicist Fred Hoyle.  This has to do with the production of both carbon and oxygen in stars, both very important for life on Earth.  The thing is, though, carbon is actually part of the reaction to make oxygen, but both are needed in adequate amounts, so somehow, there has to be a way that not all the carbon is used up in making oxygen.  Well, as it turns out, the reaction threshold for the elements is where it needs to be to bring forth both elements through stellar nucleosynthesis.  As an added note, I gave numbers above about how much the forces could change to bring about galaxies and stars, but in order to bring about this crucial reaction, the numbers would need to be narrowed down even further.  There could not be more than a 0.5% change in the strong force or 4% change in the electromagnetic force.  If it did change, either nearly all the carbon or nearly all the oxygen would be destroyed in every star (The Privileged Planet, p.198-199, Collins in God and Design, p.184-185, A Fine-Tuned Universe, p.133-134).  As I pointed out in quoting John Leslie before even discussing any of the evidence for fine-tuning, it is not any particular individual claim for fine-tuning that is impressive, but the various different aspects of fine-tuning.  Sure, it is interesting to think of the implications of a universe without any carbon or oxygen, but even more interesting is to think of a universe in which the reaction of carbon to make oxygen did not stop until all the carbon was used up.  With some things in life, close does not count, like a skydiver’s parachute almost opening or an Olympic sprinter almost finishing first (losing by maybe only 1/100th of a second).  I would like to suggest that fine-tuning is one of these things, since you could have many of the requirements for life, but if just a few crucial aspects were missing, all the previous benefits of the universe would be useless.  So with no further ado, I give you the words of Fred Hoyle.

“From 1953 onward, Willy Fowler and I have always been intrigued by the remarkable relation of the 7.65 Mev [1 MeV=1,000,000 electron Volts] energy level in the nucleus of 12C to the 7.12 Mev level in 16O.  If you wanted to produce carbon and oxygen in roughly equal quantities by stellar nucleosynthesis, these are the two levels you would have to fix, and your fixing would have to be just where these levels are actually found to be.  Another put-up job?  Following the above argument, I am inclined to think so.  A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.” (Fred Hoyle, in Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, p.16)

Click here to see part 5 of the article


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