I am busy working my way through “Debating Christian Theism“, a book published by Oxford University Press in August 2013. It features about 20 different topics from science, to philosophy, to history. For each topic, there is an essay by a world-class scholar in favor, and one opposed. So you get both sides of many interesting issues, at a very advanced level. The section on cosmic fine-tuning features a chapter written by Dr. Robin Collins.
Robin Collins (PhD, University of Notre Dame, 1993), is professor of philosophy at Messiah College, Grantham, PA specializing in the area of science and religion. He has written over twenty-five articles and book chapters on a wide range of topics, such as the fine-tuning of the cosmos as evidence for the existence of God, evolution and original sin, the Doctrine of Atonement, Asian religions and Christianity, and Bohm’s theory of quantum mechanics. Some of his most recent articles/book chapters are “Philosophy of Science and Religion” in The Oxford Handbook of Science and Religion, “Divine Action and Evolution” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology (2009) “The Multiverse Hypothesis: A Theistic Perspective,” in Universe or Multiverse? (Cambridge University Press), and “God and the Laws of Nature,” in Theism or Naturalism: New Philosophical Perspectives (Oxford University Press, forthcoming). He recently received a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to finish a book that presents the case for design based on physics and cosmology, tentatively entitled The Well-Tempered Universe: God, Cosmic Fine-tuning, and the Laws of Nature.
His specialty is this fine-tuning argument. So let’s see what he says about it.
The fine-tuning argument
Here’s a short article where Collins gives TWO examples of the fine-tuning. He is very modest in his argument, merely asserting that the fine-tuning is more compatible with theism than it is with atheism.
Science is commonly thought to have undercut belief in God. As Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg famously remarked, “the more we find out about the universe, the more meaningless it all seems.” Yet, the discoveries of modern physics and cosmology in the last 50 years have shown that the structure of the universe is set in an extraordinarily precise way for the existence of life; if its structure were slightly different, even by an extraordinarily small degree, life would not be possible. In many people’s minds, the most straightforward explanation of this remarkable fine-tuning is some sort of divine purpose behind our universe.
This fine-tuning falls into three categories: the fine-tuning of the laws of nature, the fine-tuning of the constants of physics, and the fine-tuning of the initial conditions of the universe. “Fine-tuning of the laws of nature” refers to the fact that if the universe did not have precisely the right combination of laws, complex intelligent life would be impossible. If there were no universal attractive force (law of gravity), for example, matter would be dispersed throughout the universe and the energy sources (such as stars) needed for life would not exist. Without the strong nuclear force that binds protons and neutrons together in the nucleus, there would not be any atoms with an atomic number greater than hydrogen, and hence no complex molecules needed for life. And without the Pauli-exclusion principle, all electrons would fall to the lowest orbital of an atom, undercutting the kind of complex chemistry that life requires.
Some fundamental physical numbers governing the structure of the universe—called the constants of physics—also must fall into an exceedingly narrow range for life to exist. For example, many have estimated that the cosmological constant—a fundamental number that governs the expansion rate of empty space—must be precisely set to one part in 10120 in order for life to occur; if it were too large, the universe would have expanded too rapidly for galaxies and stars to form, and if it were too small, the universe would have collapsed back on itself. As Stephen Hawking wrote in his book A Brief History of Time, “The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers [i.e. the constants of physics] seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.” Finally, the initial distribution of mass energy at the time of the big bang must have an enormously special configuration for life to occur, which Cambridge University mathematical physicist Roger Penrose has calculated to be on the order of one part in 1010123. This is an unimaginably small number.
How widely acknowledged is the fine-tuning of the universe? Here’s an article from the New Scientist that discusses the fine-tuning of the force of gravity. (Link goes to my blog post on the New Scientist article, which is now no longer available)
The feebleness of gravity is something we should be grateful for. If it were a tiny bit stronger, none of us would be here to scoff at its puny nature.
The moment of the universe‘s birth created both matter and an expanding space-time in which this matter could exist. While gravity pulled the matter together, the expansion of space drew particles of matter apart – and the further apart they drifted, the weaker their mutual attraction became.
It turns out that the struggle between these two was balanced on a knife-edge. If the expansion of space had overwhelmed the pull of gravity in the newborn universe, stars, galaxies and humans would never have been able to form. If, on the other hand, gravity had been much stronger, stars and galaxies might have formed, but they would have quickly collapsed in on themselves and each other. What’s more, the gravitational distortion of space-time would have folded up the universe in a big crunch. Our cosmic history could have been over by now.
Only the middle ground, where the expansion and the gravitational strength balance to within 1 part in 1015 at 1 second after the big bang, allows life to form.
Here’s a very long paper by Collins on the fine-tuning argument, where he answers several objections to the argument, including the multiverse/many-universe hypothesis.
I think if you’re going to bring this argument up with a naturalist/non-theist, you should probably have a couple of examples ready to explain how the fine-tuning works. It’s important, because this is mainstream enough to be admitted by famous atheists like Martin Rees, astronomer royale of the UK and author of the book “Just Six Numbers”, reviewed here in the liberal UK Guardian. Although many naturalists feel obligated to believe the multiverse even though it cannot be seen or studied, they do admit that it is speculative, as in this article by MIT physicist Alan Lightman.
If you’re looking for a good introductory book where this argument is explained, Lee Strobel’s “The Case for a Creator” is a good choice.