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The Necessity of God’s Existence: Ontological Arguments Worth Considering

By Brian Chilton

One of the more difficult of the apologetics arguments to understand is that known as the ontological argument. The ontological argument finds root in Anselm of Canterbury’s famed declaration, “God is that, than which noting greater can be conceived.”[1] This is the say, God is the greatest of all possible beings. God, properly understood, is maximally great. Nothing could be greater than God. Thus, Anselm argues that if it is possible to conceive of the greatest possible beings, then that greatest possible being must exist. There is much to unpack in this argument. However, I would like to focus on arguments that provide reasons to believe that God is a necessary being.

Ontological Argument God

Before we look at some arguments for the necessity of God’s existence, we must first define a necessary being. A necessary being is a being whose existence is mandatory due to a result of that being’s existence (i.e., contingency). For example, I exist only because of the necessity of my parents’ existence. My existence is contingent (based upon) the necessity of their existence. My parents’ existence is contingent (based upon) the necessity of their parents’ existence (my grandparents). The logical line of necessity continues until one finds the necessity of a maximally great being—a being that is transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent. We know that maximally great being as God. Let’s look at three or four modern ontological arguments that make the case for the necessity of God’s existence.

  1. Necessity of God Found in Logical Necessity.

As we already unpacked the argument from necessity, we have found that God’s existence is mandatory. However, the logical necessity of God’s existence is found in the following argument presented by Douglas Grootius:

  1. God is defined as a maximally great or Perfect Being.

  2. The existence of a Perfect Being is either impossible or necessary (since it cannot be contingent).

  3. The concept of a Perfect Being is not impossible, since it is neither non-sensical nor self-contradictory.

  4. Therefore (a) a Perfect Being is necessary.

  5. Therefore (b) a Perfect Being exists.[2]

The first premise notes that God is defined as a maximally great being, or Perfect Being. Premises 2 and 3 demonstrate the logical necessity that a Perfect Being is either an impossibility or a necessity. Since the existence of a Perfect Being is neither impossible, nonsensical, nor self-contradictory, the existence of a Perfect Being is shown to be a necessary concept. The atheist would need to demonstrate that God’s existence is impossible (which itself is impossible), nonsensical (which is actually found in a worldview that postulates that things magically pop into existence without any cause), or self-contradictory. The only means that the non-believer has to disprove the necessity of God’s existence in my humble opinion is to show that there is a self-contradiction in God’s existence. Yet, it appears to me that there are greater self-contradictions in viewing the universe without the existence of God, thereby strengthening the necessity of a Perfect Being. The former is an impossible task, the middle is a task that some have attempted…and failed, and the third is inherently flawed.

Looking at this model from a different perspective, consider Alvin Plantinga’s take on Norman Malcolm’s argument, presented by Norman Geisler:

  1. If God does not exist, his existence is logically impossible.

  2. If God does exist, his existence is logically necessary.

  3. Hence, either God’s existence is logically impossible or else it is logically necessary.

  4. If God’s existence is logically impossible, the concept of God is contradictory.

  5. The concept of God is not contradictory.

  6. Therefore, God’s existence is logically necessary.[3]

Let’s unpack this argument. If God did not existence, his existence would be a logical impossibility like the existence of magical unicorns. If God does exist, then his existence would be a logical necessity—like the example of my parents’ existence as given above. Thus, God’s existence would be logically necessary if he exists or logically impossible if he does not exist. If God’s existence is impossible, then the idea of God is contradictory. God’s existence is not a contradiction; therefore, God is a logical necessity.

I personally like these arguments as I find the existence of God an absolute necessity. Non-theistic arguments often lead to bizarre absurdities which are at times irreconcilable. Christian theism is the most coherent of all worldview, thus the existence of the Christian God is a logical necessity. There is another take to this argument that demands consideration: the necessity of God found in possible worlds.

  1. Necessity of God Found in Possible Worlds.

A possible world is a hypothetical scenario that describes the various ways that the world could be. We live in the actual world, however the would could have been much different. With that in mind, consider Alvin Plantinga’s ontological argument from possible worlds.

  1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists.

  2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world. That is, God’s existence is not impossible (logically contradictory), so we can conceive of a world in which God does exist.

  3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world. (Otherwise, it would not be maximally great.)

  4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.[4]

Let’s unpack Plantinga’s difficult argument. Nearly everyone would agree that it is at least possible that a maximally great being exists—that is, God. Since God’s existence is not impossible, then it is conceivable that God exists in some possible world. If it is possible that God exists in one possible world, then it is possible that he exists in every possible world including the actual world in which we live. Some will argue, “But yeah, it is possible that magical unicorns exist in some possible world. So, does that mean that magical unicorns must exist in this world?” Absolutely not! The existence of the magical unicorn is not a necessity. Since I am a contingent being, it is necessary in all possible worlds that I have a reason for my existence (by my parents or another set of parents). If God, being a necessary being, is possible in some possible world, he is possible in all possible worlds and is in fact found in the actual world. Confusing? Yes. But logically coherent? Absolutely!

Let’s now look at the last ontological argument of God’s necessity as it pertains to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

  1. Necessity of God Found in Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy increases as time progresses. Entropy is the disorder that occurs over time. Think of a wind-up toy. The wind-up toy is wound up and allowed to wind itself down. The winding down of the toy is the state of entropy. The same occurs with heat. Over time, heat cools until all heat is lost (i.e., heat death). The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the universe is losing energy as it continues to exist. This will ultimately lead to a complete loss of heat unless there is an intervention from outside the universe. The following modus Tollens argument, presented by Groothius, notes how the Second Law of Thermodynamics argues for the finite nature of the universe and the necessity of God’s existence.

  1. If the universe were eternal and its amount of energy finite, it would have reached heat death by now.

  2. The universe has not reached heat death (since there is still energy available for use).

  3. Therefore, (a) the universe is not eternal.

  4. Therefore, (b) the universe had a beginning.

  5. Therefore, (c) the universe was created by a first cause (God).[5]

Let’s unpack this argument. If it were possible that the universe is eternal with finite energy (which is observable), then the universe would have reached a heat death already. However, that has not occurred. Due to the absence of such an event, this proves that the universe is finite and had a beginning. If the universe had a beginning, the cause is most plausible to have been attributed to God. “Wait!” the skeptic may say. “Isn’t it possible that a multiverse gave birth to the universe?” Yes, it is possible. However, it has been shown in the BVG Theorem (named by its discoverers Borg, Vilenkin, and Guth) that all physical universes must have a finite past and an absolute beginning. So, the skeptic does nothing by arguing for a multiverse outside of pushing the necessity of God’s existence back a step or two.

Conclusion

It is true that these arguments are quite complex. But if one takes the time to evaluate and understand these versions of the ontological argument, I think one will find the necessity of God’s existence is rooted in a wealth of logical and philosophical certitude. Logically speaking, God’s existence is a necessity as it is demanded by logic and the data of causal relations in the actual world.

Original Blog Source: http://bit.ly/2npUHen


8 Major Worldviews (Part 2)

By Bryan Chilton

In our last article, we presented the first four of the eight major worldviews. As we noted, this is a revision to a previous article that only listed six. The first article in this series presented the worldviews known as atheism/naturalism, agnosticism, pantheism, and panentheism. This article will provide the last four. To keep from confusion, the last four worldviews will be listed as #1-4 in this article even though they represent #5-8 on our list.

Major Worldviews

  1. (#5) Polytheism: Several Gods Exist.

The term “polytheism” comes from two Greek terms: “polu” meaning “many” and “theos” as we have already defined as the term for God. In the polytheistic worldview, it is held that many gods and/or goddesses exist. Certainly, aspects of Hinduism meet the worldview. But, Hindus hold that the universal God manifests in various avatars. Polytheism is better represented in pagan religions, Greek and Roman mythologies, as well as Mormonism.[1]

The trouble with polytheism is found in necessary beings. Even if it is possible that there are many universes populated by Mormon men and women, one would be forced to push their existence back to a Prime Necessary Being. As noted earlier, all material, physical universes must hold a starting point. The universe demands an explanation for its existence. According to the BVG theorem, there cannot exist eternal material universes. Therefore, even if there are multiple universes populated by multiple gods and goddesses, those universes and beings become contingent upon the necessity of a transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being we know as God. Because of the concept of Ockham’s Razor,[2] polytheism fails as gods and goddesses are not necessary beings, whereas God is. The Christian apologist will need to use the issue of necessary and contingent beings among other areas as a starting point with polytheists.

  1. (#6) Dualism: God and the Physical World are Irreparably Separated.

Dualism is the belief that the spiritual and physical realms are irreconcilably separated. One must not confuse the dualist worldview with the dual nature of mankind (soul/body). A form of dualism in the human person can be demonstrated biblically.[3] However, the dualist worldview takes the distinction between the soul and body to extreme measures. Dualists will claim that the spiritual dimension is good and the physical dimension is bad. Thus, resurrection is not accepted nor is recreation of the new heaven and new earth presented in Revelation 21. Ancient Gnosticism, Platonism, and New Age philosophies often fit within the dualist paradigm.

The trouble with dualism is twofold. On the one hand, not all spiritual beings are good. Angels are considered spiritual beings. However, Satan and his demonic cohort are certainly not good. Rather, they are the epitome of evil. So, dualism fails to account for the fact that not all spiritual entities are good. On the other hand, dualism fails to account for the historicity of Jesus’ literal bodily resurrection. God, who is Spirit (John 4:24), created the physical world. The grand theme of Scripture is God’s restoration of the world and humanity. This includes the physical world. The Christian apologist will need to describe these distinctions and will want to provide the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection to the dualist.

  1. (#7) Deism: God as a Deadbeat Dad.

Deism is unique in that it takes its name from a Latin word rather than Greek. The Latin term “deus” is the word for “God.” Deism holds much in common with theism. Deists generally accept the existence of a transcendent God who is worthy of worship. The deist also accepts that this God is worthy of praise. The key distinction comes in God’s current involvement with creation. Deists reject the idea that God is immanent. They hold that God created everything at the outset but does not interject or intervene in creation since that time. Think of a wind-up toy. A person winds up the toy and releases it. The toy continues until it winds down without any involvement from the one who wound it. God is presented much like a deadbeat dad—that is, a dad who is uninvolved with his child’s life. Thus, deists reject the miraculous, revelations in any form except for reason, and personal relationships with the divine. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Locke are among the more famed deists.

Deism fails if one miraculous claim can be proven. If one miracle can be demonstrated, then deism fails because the miracle serves as evidence of God’s involvement in creation. Craig S. Keener’s two-volume work Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts will help the Christian apologist defeat deist claims. Also, the apologist will want to demonstrate the historicity of Jesus’ bodily resurrection as evidence of God’s involvement.

  1. (#8) Monotheism/Theism: God is Omnipotent, Transcendent, and Personal.

Finally, we come to the final worldview. The last worldview is monotheism or theism. Theists hold that one God exists. God is both transcendent (separate from creation) and immanent (works within creation). Thus, God is omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing). But, God is also omnibenevolent (all-loving) and omnipresent (in all places). God is beyond the scope of the universe and is not constrained by the laws of nature. Yet, God is also personal and reveals himself to humanity. The three classic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are considered theistic in scope.

Theism triumphs in many ways. Theism best explains the necessity of God’s being, the creation of the universe, the miraculous, personal revelation, and the substance dualism of humanity. However, one must note that while all Christians are theists, not all theists are Christian. The Christian apologist will want do demonstrate the reliability of the New Testament, then illustrate the reliability of the Old Testament, in addition to providing evidence for the life and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In doing so, the Christian apologist will show that God has ultimately revealed himself in Jesus.

Conclusion

Everyone has a worldview of some sort. The first step in presenting the gospel message comes by understanding where the person’s worldview currently resides. Understanding a person’s worldview comes by listening. Apologetics and evangelism are not a quick process. As Douglas Groothius claims, the Christian worldview is argued as the best hypothesis “carefully, slowly, and piece by piece…this means paying close attention to the components and implications of the Christian worldview, with an eye for detecting false stereotypes and caricatures.”[4] The process takes time, but if a person comes to faith in Christ, it’s worth every moment spent.

  Notes

[1] Mormons hold that God the Father is wed to a divine mother. Jesus is believed to have been the first spirit child. Mormon theology also holds that Mormon men and Mormon women wed in Mormon temples are able to become gods and goddesses of their own celestial universe and will produce their own spirit children.

[2] That is, the simpler explanation is preferred.

[3] See the works of J.P. Moreland, especially his book The Soul, for more information on substance dualism.

[4] Douglas Groothius, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove; Nottingham, UK: IVP Academic; Apollos), 50.

© 2017. Bellator Christi.

 


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8 Major Worldviews (Part 1)

By: Brian Chilton

Before the website transferred from pastorbrianchilton.wordpress.com to bellatorchristi.com, I had written an article on the major worldviews across the globe. I presented six major worldviews at the time. While I still think the previous article treated the most major of worldviews, I have come to realize after reading Douglas Groothius’ book, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, that other major worldviews exist that should be discussed and incorporated into the list.[1] So, let’s revisit the major worldviews in this article. The goal of the article will be to notify the reader of each belief and will show how Christian theism triumphs. In addition, the Christian apologist will need to understand the starting points that must be taken with each worldview.

Worldviews

  1. Atheism/Naturalism: Rejection of God’s Existence, Only the Physical World Exists.

The term “atheist” is taken from the Greek term “a” meaning “no” and “theos” meaning “God.” Placed together, the term means “no God.” The atheist, therefore, is one who does not believe in the existence of God. Atheists are often termed “naturalists” as they only accept the existence of the natural/physical world, thereby rejecting the existence of things like God, spirits, the human soul, angels, and demons. Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss are good examples of atheism.

Atheism holds a problem as it pertains to the immaterial world. Naturalism cannot explain the existence of human consciousness. Even if the consciousness could be shown to derive from material means, naturalism (or materialism) faces a great problem as the human consciousness is a non-material thing. A scanner can see brainwaves, but not mental thoughts and the like. Naturalism holds two additional problems. On the one hand, naturalism cannot answer why anything exists. It has been mathematically demonstrated by the theorem of Borg, Vilenkin, and Guth (i.e., the BVG Theorem) that there cannot be an infinite regress of material worlds. Every material world must have a beginning point. On the other hand, naturalism fails to account for the mounting evidence of near death experiences.[2] Atheism and naturalism hold great problems serving as a cohesive worldview. The Christian apologist will need to demonstrate the reasonability of God’s existence and the means by which naturalism fails.

  1. Agnosticism: God’s Existence is Unknowable.

Agnosticism comes from two terms: “a” the Greek term meaning “no” and “gnosis” the Greek term meaning “knowledge.” The agnostic does not necessarily reject belief in God. The agnostic claims no knowledge on the issue. There are at least two forms of agnosticism. Atheistic agnostics incline to reject belief in God, but are open to the possibility of God’s existence. The atheistic agnostic claims that it is impossible to know whether God exists or not. Bart Ehrman and Neil deGrasse Tyson are examples of atheistic agnostics.

Theistic agnostics are individuals who are inclined to believe in God’s existence. However, they are doubtful whether individuals can know anything about God. The theistic agnostic may either reject divine revelation altogether and claim that no religion is correct, or the theistic agnostic may reject exclusive revelation and will claim that all religions are correct. When I stumbled into my time of personal doubt, I became more of the theistic agnostic (one who claimed to be spiritual but not religious). The Ba’hai religion and Morgan Freeman may be considered examples of theistic agnosticism.

The trouble with agnosticism is with divine revelation. If God can truly be shown to exist, then atheistic agnosticism begins to wane. If one can demonstrate that God has revealed himself to humanity (particularly through Jesus of Nazareth), then theistic agnosticism begins to fade. The Christian apologist will need to understand, first, that agnosticism can cover a wide variety of flavors. Second, the Christian apologist will need to describe the evidence for Jesus of Nazareth’s life, miracles, and resurrection.

  1. Pantheism: The Force is With You.

Pantheism comes from two Greek terms: “pan” meaning “all” and “theos” meaning “God.” Pantheism may look quite a bit like panentheism and even theistic agnosticism. However, generally speaking, pantheism is the belief that God is an impersonal force. Buddhism is the greatest example of pantheism. The Star Wars idea of the “force” is another example of pantheism. Buddhists claim to be agnostic concerning God’s existence. Yet, the Buddhist believes in impersonal forces (i.e., the force behind reincarnation). The goal of such a worldview is to become nothing. In fact, the Buddhist concept of Nirvana means that one has become so enlightened that he or she escapes the wheel of reincarnation and becomes nothing.

The trouble with pantheism is diverse. On the one hand, the pantheist will speak of such forces in such a way that intelligence is necessary. For example, why is there a wheel of reincarnation? Why is it that good behavior elevates one to a higher level and vice versa? On the other hand, pantheists have great trouble in explaining why anything exists at all. Much more could be said on this issue as it pertains to the trouble of pantheism. The Christian apologist will need to describe the internal inconsistencies of pantheism as a starting point as well as note the personal nature of the divine.

  1. Panentheism: Everything is God.

Panentheism comes from three Greek terms: “pan” meaning “all,” “en” meaning “in,” and “theos” meaning “God.” Therefore, panentheism is literally defined as “all in God.” Panentheists hold that God penetrates everything. While the Christian may initially be inclined to agree, one must understand that panentheists believe that everything is God. Thus, the panentheist would agree that Jesus of Nazareth is God. But, the panentheist would also agree that you are God, he is God, everyone is God, and even your kitchen sink is God. The panentheist does not distinguish between the personal God and the physical creation. Hinduism is the greatest example of panentheism.

Panentheism, however, holds issues as it pertains to the world. If the world is God, then why is there so much evil? God is certainly good. So, if everyone is God, then wouldn’t everything be perfect? To accept such a claim, one must have a flawed idea of God’s nature. With the panentheist, the Christian apologist will need to begin by teaching the distinction between the personal divine being of God and the physical, material creation that is the world.

We have investigated the first four of the eight major worldviews. In our next article, we will describe the final four: polytheism, dualism, deism, and monotheism/theism.

Notes

[1] See Douglas Groothius, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 50.

[2] Here, I do not mean heavenly or hellish experiences. I am addressing the scientific verification of such events in this world. For instance, if one were to see something that could not have been otherwise seen after one’s death, then this would serve as a verification of the soul’s survival past death. Soul survival discredits naturalism.

© 2017. Bellator Christi.


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I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist (Paperback)

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Can God Create A Rock So Heavy That He Cannot Lift It?

By Evan Minton

Many times when talking with non-believers, they will appeal to some sort of one-liner or meme to render their unbelief a more credible position than the reality of an omnipotent God. Nevertheless, although these one-liners seem credible to the untrained mind, they actually don’t work as arguments. The same goes with this riddle, which basically attempts to pit God against himself in asking, “Can God create a rock so heavy that he cannot lift it?”

This question reminds me of when the religious leaders tried to trap Jesus in a no-win situation by asking “Should we pay taxes to the Romans?” If Jesus said yes, then that would mean that He was siding with Rome, the people hated Rome and wanted their Messiah when he came to overthrow the Romans and destroy them. Answering yes would turn the Jewish people against Him. They might even stone him or something! On the other hand, if Jesus said no then he’d get in trouble with the Romans. It’d be treason. No matter which answer Jesus gave, it seemed, He would get Himself in trouble. We all know what happened next and how Jesus brilliantly wiggled out their trap. (Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:21-25)

The Christian Apologist seems to be in the same position. “Can God Create A Rock So big he cannot lift it?” If we say yes, then we concede that there is something God can’t do because God would then create a rock which He couldn’t lift. The thing God couldn’t do would be to lift the rock. On the other hand, if we say no, then we also concede that there’s something God cannot do. Namely, create a rock which He can’t lift. Either way, our answer will affirm that God is not omnipotent, or so it seems.

I think this attempt to stump the theist and get him to admit that God is finite is a pretty bad one. For it misunderstands the definition of omnipotence. When we Christians say “God can do anything” we don’t mean literally everything. When we say that God can do the impossible, we don’t mean he can do the logicallyimpossible. By impossible, we mean things like creating things out of nothing, keeping people in a fire from burning, having a guy walk on water, or make a 90 year old woman get pregnant and give birth to a healthy son, and things like that. We don’t mean God can do absolutely everything. We mean only what is logically possible (that is to say, things that are not contradictory concepts).

There are some things God cannot do simply because He is omnipotent. If God is infinitely powerful than it’s impossible to create a rock so large He cannot lift it. For if there was anything He couldn’t lift, that would prove Him a being of finite strength. But a being of infinite power could create a rock of infinite size and infinite weight and still be able to move it. It is because God is infinitely powerful (i.e omnipotent) that He cannot create a rock too hard for Him to move.

This little riddle is akin to asking “Can God’s infinite power overwhelm His infinite power?” Or it’s like asking “Can God beat Himself in a fist fight” or “Can God think up a mathematical equation too difficult for Him to solve”. It’s sheer nonsense. C.S Lewis once said “Nonsense is still nonsense even when we speak it about God.”You’re basically asking if a Being of unlimited power can produce something to limit Him. But His unlimited power, by definition, rules out that possibility. An unlimited being cannot create limits for Himself.

The definition of omnipotence does not mean being able to do the logically impossible (to do something logically contradictory). God cannot create square circles, married bachelors, one ended sticks etc. God can do anything that’s logically possible, that is; not logically contradictory. God can create out of nothing, God can make ax heads float in water, He can make animals speak in a human tongue, He can cause a virgin to be pregnant, but He can’t make something exist and not exist at the same time, He can’t cause an animal to speak in a human tongue and be silent at the same time, and He can’t make a woman both pregnant and not pregnant at the same time. Nowhere in The Bible does it say that God can do the logically impossible. That is not the definition of Omnipotence.

There are other things God cannot do. Not just logically impossible things. He can’t commit sin. He cannot do evil acts because God is sinless and holy (Psalm 23:6, Psalm 25:8; Psalm 34;8; 2 Corinthians 5:21, etc.) and so to do those things would be to contradict His own morally perfect nature. Titus 1:2 says that it’s impossible for God to lie. It’s not that God merely chooses not to lie, but that He’s literally incapable of it. Why? Because lying is a sin and sin goes against God’s morally perfect nature. God can no more do evil then fire can cause things to freeze.

Richard Bushey of “ThereforeGodExists.com also wrote about this question. And he said in the article “This is not to say that logic is some sort of force that transcends God that he is a slave to. But rather it is to say that logical consistency is founded in the person of God himself.” Indeed. Logical Consistency is a character trait of God like holiness, love, justice, etc. Indeed. God is a rational Being. Even if God’s power did allow him to do the logically impossible, at the very least, His nature would prevent Him from doing so.

Can God do anything? Yes. So long as it’s both logically possible and in accord with His morally perfect character.

Visit Evan’s Blog @ CerebralFaith.Blogspot.com


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What Are Some Of The Problems With “Philosophy-Free” Theology?

By Jonathan Thompson

“I only need the Bible, not man’s philosophy!”, “We don’t need to use philosophy since we have the Holy Spirit!”, “My beliefs are exegetically driven, yours are philosophical!” Many statements like the ones just mentioned sound reverential and benign to the religious ear, but these statements need to be refined. Often when one presses these types of statements for technical precision one will find in them the pervasive attitude of anti-intellectualism, more specifically, the unconscious implication that one can engage in good theological practices having divorced any antecedent philosophical commitments, or else, having no need to understand the underlying philosophical assumptions or implications that these religious doctrines are imbued with.

What the proponents of these “Philosophy-Free” views primarily fail to grasp is that philosophy is an indispensable feature underpinning virtually all rational practice. The cosmologist, for example, won’t be able to infer an era of inflation without making certain philosophical assumptions (e.g., that the world is a rational place susceptible to discovery, that our best cosmogonic theories actually approximate reality, etc.) . Similarly, the theologian simply cannot make any type of rational theological inferences without being first committed to certain ancillary beliefs which enable them to do theology in the first place. At least five difficulties with the “Philosophy-Free” view immediately come to mind:

What Are Some Of The Problems With “Philosophy-Free” Theology? – Five Difficulties

1. “Philosophy-Free” theology is self-refuting. What “Philosophy-Free” proponents fail to realize is that the belief that one can engage in theological practice having divorced all of their philosophical presuppositions is itself a philosophical presupposition, namely, an interpretive philosophy. How is it, that we know, for example, that when we see God saying “Let there be light” that the author isn’t teaching that, lay aside the incarnation, God is actually a biological organism? It is through a philosophy of interpretation through which these conclusions are to be arrived at. In short, without philosophy it is simply impossible to come to these types of theological conclusions.

2. “Philosophy-Free” theology is, by definition, irrational. This becomes most evident when one realizes that the word“philosophy” is just an academic locution for reasoning. To say that we should do our theology without philosophy, really just is to say that we should interpret scripture without reasoning about it or else having not reasoned about how we are to apply the interpretation ascribed to it. But to do theology without thinking about it just is, by definition, to give oneself to irrationality. Instead, the relevant question before us which needs to be addressed is this: what is the criteria to which we can determine the truth-value of a given theological proposition?

3. “Philosophy-Free” theology cannot help to adjudicate between competing theological viewpoints. If we are aiming at truth, then it won’t be enough to just point to a set of teachings that are, in fact, exemplified in scripture and automatically assume their truth by virtue of them being in the Bible – that only begs the question. Rather, if truth is our end goal, we still need to exercise our God-given cognitive abilities to determine whether or not these various theological teachings are, in fact, coherent. Look at it this way, if our reasoning tells us that a particular doctrine taught in scripture is actually false, we shouldn’t jettison our reasoning in favor scripture since, that is, by definition, to prefer irrationality – surely that isn’t God-honoring! Instead, if such were the case, as uncomfortable as it might make some of us, we should actually derelict our own views with respect to inerrancy, at least so far as we are to remain rational. That in mind, given the preclusion of philosophy that the “Philosophy-Free” view assumes, there simply remains no other resources available to the theologian, inferential or otherwise, that can be used to evaluate the truth-value of a theological claim since any resource given to the theologian will be, at it’s root, philosophical. So even if it were the case that one could exegete a text divorced from any type of philosophical presuppositions, it would still be the case that you couldn’t derive any theological truths, much less adjudicate between competing theories.

4. “Philosophy-Free” theology leaves one apt to be fooled by false doctrines. William Lane Craig has, I think, quite rightly pointed out that “the man who claims to have no need for philosophy is the one most apt to be fooled by it”.[1] Given this, it’s not surprising then that we will often find these introspectively callow ilk being drawn in to false beliefs themselves or else objecting to other viewpoints in such a way that suggests that they don’t even really understand the the view that they’re criticizing. Quite simply, it is through reflection upon the antecedent philosophical commitments underpinning a doctrine that helps serve to weigh its plausibility. To do theology without this feature leaves one at an epistemic standoff, that is, it leaves a symmetry of ignorance regarding competing viewpoints. For the interlocutor this means preferring one doctrine over another, not as a result of rational reflection, but of subjective feelings or perhaps, even blind faith. Thus, the individual that is sensitive to their own presuppositions has a considerable advantage over the person who does not, with respect to coming to true beliefs.

5. “Philosophy-Free” theology further perpetuates the stereotype that Christians are uncritical of their own beliefs. American culture has already become post-Christian. In media it’s not uncommon to see Christians caricatured as intellectually uninformed persons who believe what they do blindly. Now, you may ask yourself, why can’t we Christians just ignore what the culture believes about us at large? The answer is, because a culture that sees Christians as a group of intellectually thoughtful people, sensitive to their own assumptions, will be open to their beliefs in such a way that a culture influenced by stereotypes will not be. If Christians exemplified more thoughtfulness in their beliefs in terms of being able to recognize ones own presuppositions, the cultural perception of them will change.

What Are Some of the Problems With “Philosophy-Free” Theology? – Informing Christians may help ameliorate their hostility towards philosophy

So why do so many Christians seem to make statements implying they believe in “Philosophy-Free” theology? One possibility, which, perhaps, is the most charitable is that these Christians really are just speaking colloquially, lacking in technical precision and as a result of this they inevitably end up making statements that entail beliefs they don’t actually hold to. In cases like these we should simply gently press these folks for technical precision. Another possible explanation is that these Christians simply lack the appropriate philosophical training necessary for them to realize the implications of what they are actually saying; phrases like “I only need the Holy Spirit”, “I don’t need man’s philosophy”, “I’m a Bible guy”, and so forth sound like pious statements, have rhetorical force, and so are uncritically espoused to by otherwise well-meaning people. The solution? Inform them about the ubiquity of philosophy and hope they will eventually come to embrace it.

Visit Jonathan’s Website: FreeThinkingMinistries.com

 

NOTES


[1] http://www.reasonablefaith.org/hawking-and-mlodinow-philosophical-undertakers

 

An OUGHT From An IS

By Tim Stratton

Does objective truth apply to morality? This question has major ramifications depending on how you answer it, because it ultimately asks, “DOES GOD EXIST?” We can see this demonstrated through the use of logic in a deductive syllogism known as “The Moral Argument.”[1] Here it is:

1- If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2- Objective moral values and duties exist.

3- Therefore, God exists.

To avoid this theistic conclusion, those committed to their atheistic presuppositions desperately seek to find a way to refute at least one of these premises. Many wind up stating that objective moral values and duties do not exist. By making this move, however, they affirm that there is nothing reallywrong with Hitler’s Holocaust, the molestation of young boys in the Penn State locker room by Jerry Sandusky, or the murderous actions of ISIS. Since rejecting premise (2) tacitly affirms the atrocities of these evil men, they feel the pressure to either find another way to ground objective morality, or become theists. Some atheists, such as Sam Harris, have attempted to find a logical way to ground objective morality in the “science of human flourishing,”[2] stating: “Whatever advances the flourishing of humanity is objectively good and whatever hinders human flourishing is objectively bad.”

Harris has failed on several accounts. For instance, even if (and that’s a very big “IF”) moral values could be grounded via this “science of human flourishing,” it would be powerless to explain why the flourishing of humans is objectively good. After all, in the movie, “The Matrix,” Agent Smith referred to the flourishing of humanity as a “virus,” and a “cancer of the planet.”[3] Is Agent Smith objectively wrong, or do we simply have differing subjective opinions? It would be circular reasoning to argue that the flourishing of humanity is objectively good because one assumes it is objectively good when humanity flourishes.

I’ve also heard it said that human flourishing is objectively bad for the earth and all other forms of life. A fellow human actually argued, “If all insects on earth disappeared, within fifty years all life on earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the earth, within fifty years all (other) forms of life would flourish.”[4] So perhaps it is objectively bad for humans to flourish, at least from the perspective of “all other forms of life.” The question then becomes, why is it good for humanity to flourish, even if human flourishing hinders other forms of life?

Atheism cannot answer why the flourishing of humanity is objectively good. All the atheist can do is simply presuppose and assume it is. On the other hand, if God exists and created humanity on purpose and for the specific purpose to know, love, and enjoy a relationship with God for eternity, then it is objectively true (independent from human opinion) that it is objectively good (and right) for humanity to flourish.

Moreover, atheism is impotent to explain why we are obligated to fulfill or align our lives with any of these moral values that lead to human flourishing. If one were not to carry out any of these moral codes leading to human flourishing, and instead devoted their lives to kidnapping, rape, murder, etc., the worst they could be accused of is merely acting unfashionably, nothing more![5] The last time I checked, no one has made a case that it is objectively wrong to be considered “uncool,” or a “nerd” by the subjective opinion of the majority. Although it seems implausible that objective moral values can exist apart from God, it is logically impossible to ground objective moral duties if atheism is true.

On top of all of this, to make matters worse, this atheistic philosophy is ultimately self-refuting! Harris, as a naturalist (the view that only nature exists), holds to “scientific determinism,” which means he believes our thoughts and actions are causally determined by natural forces like physics, chemistry, and the initial conditions of the big bang. All of these things are outside of human control. Harris makes his view clear:

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have. Free will is actually more than an illusion (or less), in that it cannot be made conceptually coherent. Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them.[6]

Therefore, humans could never freely choose any action, including actions with supposed moral properties. Given these objections to the idea of a scientific foundation for an epistemology of objective morality, we must come to the conclusion that science cannot derive an ought from an is, and therefore, cannot tell us anything about how we must conduct our lives in any ethical or moral sense. If naturalistic atheism is true, we have no logical grounds of objective moral values, no logical grounds of objective duty to align our lives with any set of subjective code of ethics, and no ability to do otherwise since all would be determined by outside causal forces. Since ought implies can, and there is no ability to do otherwise in a cause and effect/determined universe (on atheistic naturalism), it follows that it is completely nonsensical for the naturalist to talk about how we ought to think, act, or behave.

Bottom line: If moral values and duties are objective, God must exist!

Stay reasonable my friends (Phil 4:5 ESV),

Tim Stratton

Visit Tim’s Website: Free Thinking Ministries

Click here to see the source site of this article


 

Notes:
[1] The Moral Argument: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/moral

[2] Sam Harris vs. William Lane Craig debate: https://youtu.be/yqaHXKLRKzg

[3] The Matrix, https://youtu.be/L5foZIKuEWQ

[4] This quote was attributed to Jonas Salk; however, I cannot find the source. Be that as it may, some people actually believe it is better for insects to flourish than it is for humans to flourish.

[5] William Lane Craig, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/navigating-sam-harris-the-moral-landscape

[6] Sam Harris, Free Will, (Free Press, New York, 2012), Page 5

Is the Universe Fine-Tuned for Life and Is This Evidence for God?

Sometimes people ask about fine-tuning and I created this overview to just provide links to all of my fine-tuning blogs on CrossExamined.org. I’ll update this as I add to this. I defend this fine-tuning claim which is actually widely accepted in the physics community:

“In the set of possible physical laws, parameters and initial conditions, the subset that permits rational conscious life is very small.”

Of course whether that implies design is more controversial but I defend the case that it does:

Intro/Philosophical Background

If You Don’t Want God, You Better Have a Multiverse!

How Does Fine-Tuning Provide Evidence for God?

Evidence

Fine-Tuning of Initial Conditions to Support Life

Many Changes to the Laws of Physics Would be Life-Prohibiting

Fine-Tuning of the Force Strengths to Permit Life

Fine-Tuning of Particles to Support Life

Objections

Mistaken Objections that Seek to Trivialize Fine-Tuning

Important Objections in the Fine-Tuning Debate

But We Can’t Even Define Life

Coarse-Tuning vs. Fine-Tuning

For a more in-depth defense of the scientific case (and some excellent philosophical points), I highly recommend Cosmologist Luke Barnes:

Is it Stupid to Believe in Miracles?

In my previous blog I defended the notion that it’s not stupid to believe in the creation of the universe by God. It seems fitting in this Christmas season to also look at another claim derided by skeptics – the possibility of miracles. Here is how Richard Dawkins puts it:

“The nineteenth century is the last time when it was possible for an educated person to admit to believing in miracles like the virgin birth without embarrassment. When pressed, many educated Christians are too loyal to deny the virgin birth and the resurrection. But it embarrasses them because their rational minds know that it is absurd, so they would much rather not be asked.[1]”

There certainly are educated, intelligent, science-respecting modern-day Christians who unashamedly believe in these miracles[2]. There is nothing irrational or anti-scientific about the possibility of miracles unless one can disprove the existence of anything supernatural which certainly has not been done. Contra Hume, I don’t see a non-question-begging in-principle argument against the mere possibility of miracles[3]. In previous blogs, I’ve argued that the origin of the universe and the fine-tuning of the laws and constants of nature to support life constitute evidence for God. There are many other philosophical arguments for a transcendent God capable of acting on nature – which is all I take a miracle to be. Miracles don’t break the laws of nature[4] but merely represent God acting in the universe. If we have evidence of intervention at such fundamental levels as creating a universe, setting up its initial conditions, and setting fundamental parameters to precise life-permitting values, then why think it irrational that God could create a sperm to fertilize Mary’s egg? The skeptic needs to interact with these and other arguments and should not merely dismiss the possibility of miracles by ridiculing believers – as Dawkins advocated when he said “Mock them. Ridicule them. In public.”

I’m not complaining about considering a miracle claim a priori unlikely – I actually encourage that since miracles should be expected to be rare if they occur at all. Rather, I argue against a dismissive attitude characterized by ridiculing the possibility of miracles without interacting with the evidence or arguments for God’s existence. Merely scoffing at the potential implications that miracles are possible if God exists does not disprove the hypothesis that God exists.

Even leading scientists and philosophers who are skeptical about God propose a number of speculative theories with some rather surprising implications. I likewise argue we should not dismiss the possibility that these theories are true merely because of even bizarre consequences, which in some cases are more radical than the possibility of God acting in the world. Consider the following theories:

Aliens seeded life on earth

  • Dawkins mentions this possibility in the movie Expelled.
  • Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick wrote a book that proposes this scenario to explain life’s origins on Earth.[5]
  • Implications: if this hypothesis were true, a form of Intelligent Design (ID) would be true – to some skeptics that is about as bizarre as you can get![6]

Our universe originated from a quantum fluctuation

  • Edward Tryon first proposed this and Lawrence Krauss has proposed a more recent version of this theory.
  • Implications: the entire universe would have originated from what appears to be “empty” spacetime – at least as empty as it can be made. Note that it’s more likely for a single sperm to fluctuate into existence to impregnate a virgin than it is for a huge, long-lived universe such as ours to fluctuate into existence.
  • Why I’m skeptical? I’m not skeptical because the emergence of matter from spacetime in its lowest energy state may be counterintuitive for this certainly does happen! Although virtual particles are known to emerge from rearrangements of the energy in the quantum vacuum, large fluctuations are exponentially less likely than small fluctuations – and we have quite a large universe! Likewise the emergence of long-lasting fluctuations are exponentially less likely than short-lived fluctuations where the emergent matter is converted back to energy – and we have quite a long-lived universe! Thus this theory makes predictions inconsistent with our universe (even after applying a selection effect based on the universe permitting life). Here is my critique of Krauss’s proposal in more detail.

It is probable that we’re living in a simulation

  • Nick Bostrom proposed this argument in 2001.
  • Implications: everything is an illusion and The Matrix movie tells us more about reality than all science textbooks combined.
  • The Wikipedia article linked to above has some decent critiques of this proposal but here is a nice critique of this argument by a Stanford prof.

Eternal inflation

  • Eternal inflation is probably the leading multiverse theory. We have decent reasons for believing that there was an early rapid expansion phase in our universe which is dubbed cosmic inflation (although no physical mechanism has of yet been identified that could produce this inflaton field and only certain types of inflation would result in other universes). Certain theories for mechanisms of inflation could possibly create “bubble universes” with enormous fecundity – by some estimates about 12 million billion universes created per second. Many consider these implications to be absurd but I think we need to evaluate such proposals on the basis of the evidence for this flavor of inflation rather than on the implications of the theory.
  • Implications:
    • Vilenkin summarizes the radical implications by stating that “there are infinitely many O-regions where Al Gore is president and – yes! – Elvis is still alive.[7]”
    • There are identical copies of you (and everyone else) in other universes because there are more universes than there are possible events at the quantum level and thus materialist assumptions everything is repeated an infinite number of times in an infinite multiverse.
    • There are universes in which everything is identical except that you wrote this article and I’m reading it now.

Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

There are many possible interpretations of quantum mechanics that are consistent with the math but in this radical interpretation reality branches out like a tree where every possible quantum outcome happens in one branch of the tree which constitutes a sort of parallel universe. The implications of this theory are basically just as radical as those described above for eternal inflation.

Everything that is mathematically possible is realized somewhere in the universe

  • MIT physicist Max Tegmark, who has done some important research validating various fine-tuning claims, adopts this radical viewpoint.
  • Implications: this is even more radical than the previous theories because it would entail not just that all physical possibilities but that all metaphysical possibilities are realized somewhere. There would be uncountable infinities of infinite multiverses of infinitely different types! Unicorns, fire-breathing dragons, and all science-fiction characters would certainly exist somewhere in this multiverse!
  • Why I’m skeptical: In this case perhaps the implications do lead to a reductio ad absurdum but one can also argue strongly against the theory itself. The overwhelming number of life-permitting universes within this overall universe would not have concise physical laws with minimal parameters since there are vastly more ways to have much more complex laws of nature that could still permit life – Occam ’s razor would not be a fruitful heuristic! You wouldn’t have Nobel Prize winning physicists waxing eloquent about the beauty and simplicity of physics and how that is a guide to true theories.[8]

I am skeptical of all of these theories but I don’t think we should dismiss any of them merely because their radical implications seem implausible. In the same way, one shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of God even if miracles seem too implausible to you. One should examine evidence for these theories relative to their predictions and relative to alternate theories – i.e. by employing abductive reasoning (an inference to the best explanation). I think that many of these speculative proposals are inferior alternatives to the hypothesis that God created the universe and finely-tuned the physics to support life and are actually posited to some degree as alternatives to evidence for design. Naturalistic presuppositions seem to play some role in motivating many of these speculative theories, with the probable exception of the Many Worlds Interpretation (which I think is by far the most likely of any of these to actually be true – which isn’t saying much though).

By unjustifiably endowing what is created with god-like powers, perhaps some skeptics are falling into a modern-day version of the trap that the apostle Paul warned about in Romans 1:25 where he talks about people who “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

Agnostic physicist Paul Davies also warns about “the most general multiverse theories … At least some of these universes will feature miraculous events – water turning into wine, etc. They will contain thoroughly convincing religious experiences … [that would look like] … direct revelation of a transcendent God. It follows that a general multiverse set must contain a subset that conforms to traditional religious notions of God and design.[9]” In trying to deny evidence for God, some skeptics have had to so broaden their ontology as to enable the possibility of miracles after all!

____________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 187.

[2] Francis Collins, John Lennox, John Polkinghorne, Mike Strauss, Don Page, Henry Schaefer, James Tour, etc.

[3] I think Hume’s arguments failed, if you disagree consider agnostic John Earman’s book entitled Hume’s Abject Failure.

[4] “Nothing can seem extraordinary until you have discovered what is ordinary. Belief in miracles, far from depending on an ignorance of the laws of nature, is only possible in so far as those laws are known.” C.S. Lewis, Miracles

[5] I think he later backed away from this proposal but at one time he thought it was plausible enough to make a focal point for a book he wrote.

[6] Parenthetically, note that this possibility also shows an example of what ID advocates point out – that intelligent design (at least in biology) doesn’t necessarily even require the supernatural and thus should not be precluded from scientific consideration.

[7] Vilenkin, Many Worlds in One, p. 113. This is actually a quote from an article Vilenkin wrote for a physics journal.

[8] See Eugene Wigner’s famous essay on The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. https://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.html. Also, see how Weinberg regards beauty as a guide to finding the correct physical theories: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/elegant/view-weinberg.html. Or refer to this essay for a historical review: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-h-bailey/why-mathematics-matters_b_4794617.html

[9] Bernard Carr (ed.), Universe or Multiverse, p. 495.

Are Creationists Stupid?

It is quite common in Internet circles to attack the intelligence and even sometimes the integrity of anyone believing in creation. An unfortunate strategy among some leading atheists is to group all opposition to solely naturalistic origins theories into one category, perhaps the one they think can most easily be refuted – young earth creationism. They like to ignore that God can also use processes and that many scholars (both now and in the early church) don’t think that the Bible teaches the age of the universe. Clearly some creationist claims are mistaken[1] but is it ridiculous to hold to any belief in creation at all?

In evaluating this question, first consider how creation is defined according to the Oxford dictionary: “The action or process of bringing something into existence.[2]”

By this definition, everyone should agree that the following were created:

  • Our universe
  • Life
  • All species
  • Consciousness

Even atheists agree that none of these are eternally existent. Atheism entails though that there has been no intervention by a supernatural Creator in the origin of these entities and that is the notion of creation to which they object.

Let’s consider the most foundational type of creation that atheists must deny – the creation of the universe. The second definition in the Oxford dictionary actually highlights this particular aspect by defining creation as “the bringing into existence of the universe, especially when regarded as an act of God.” However, it is a well-established scientific fact that our universe has a finite age and most scientists agree that its early history is characterized by an expansion out of an incredibly dense and tiny state in what is now known as the Big Bang. So our universe was created! But does that necessarily mean there was a Creator?

Nobel prize winners who have contributed to the confirmation of the Big Bang have noted how it appears quite similar to a creation event:

“The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five Books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.“ Arno Penzias

“There is no doubt that a parallel exists between the Big Bang as an event and the Christian notion of creation from nothing.[3]” George Smoot

Edwin Hubble’s successor, long-time atheist Allan Sandage, became a Christian late in life and notes that “it was my science that drove me to the conclusion that the world is much more complicated than can be explained by science… It is only through the supernatural that I can understand the mystery of existence.[4]” Sandage also notes that “Astronomical observations have also suggested that this creation event, signaled by the expansion of the Universe, has happened only once. The expansion will continue forever, the Universe will not collapse upon itself, and therefore this type of creation will not happen again.[5]”

Quantum physicist Christopher Isham notes that “perhaps the best argument … that the Big Bang supports theism is the obvious unease with which it is greeted by some atheist physicists. At times this has led to scientific ideas, such as continuous creation [steady state] or an oscillating Universe, being advanced with a tenacity which so exceeds their intrinsic worth that one can only suspect the operation of psychological forces lying very much deeper than the usual academic desire of a theorist to support his/her theory.[6]“

So maybe it’s not so ignorant to see the Big Bang as a creation event and as evidence (not proof) for a supernatural Creator. But could there have been a natural cause to the Big Bang? I’ve blogged previously about how the overall universe had to have a beginning. I’ve quoted Alexander Vilenkin, a prominent cosmologist: “With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.” In this same blog I also discussed and referenced the New Scientist article entitled: Why physicists can’t avoid a creation event?

There are some loud voices trying to silence these frank admissions – most notably by atheist Lawrence Krauss. Even Krauss speaks about creation but just claims it is out of nothing, which when pressed he admits by nothing he means the quantum vacuum. I posted several short video clips from an interview I conducted with OU physicist Mike Strauss asking for his response to Krauss’s claim that our universe could have originated from nothing. Strauss is also skeptical that the universe can be created from the quantum vacuum. I also asked him whether Vilenkin’s BGV theorem even left open the possibility that the quantum vacuum has eternally existed and again he was skeptical.

Strauss is but one many of Krauss’s critics. Consider this scathing NY Times critique by physicist/philosopher David Albert of Colombia: “And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.[7]”

As Frank Turek likes to ask – “Which is more reasonable that nothing created the universe or that Someone created the universe?”

There is also the matter of “dummies” like Leibniz (who was one of the inventors of calculus) arguing philosophically for the need for God even if the universe was eternal as I’ve blogged about recently. None of this argumentation relies on anything that is even remotely called into question by modern science so one cannot just dismiss this argument by assuming that Leibniz just lacked knowledge of future scientific discoveries. My blog also cites recent developments by Rob Koons and Alex Pruss and others that further these types of arguments by offering compelling support for the key premise of Leibniz’s argument.

Thus, creation shouldn’t be considered a dirty word used only by those who are intellectually inferior. We have logical reasons to believe that the universe needs a Creator; we find scientific evidence that looks remarkably like a creation event, and attempts to attribute the creation of this universe to solely naturalistic causes are scientifically implausible. We’ve also discovered that a remarkable orderliness in the original Big Bang state was necessary for the existence of any form of life. Thus, we have many independent lines of evidences that combine to form a strong cumulative case for creation, and even for a Creator!

__________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Since there are many different, conflicting views of creation they cannot all be correct. The same could be said for various scientific theories as well.

[2]http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/creation

[3] George Smoot, Wrinkles in Time (1993)

[4] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/newsweek/science_of_god/scienceofgod.htm

[5] http://www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth15.html

[6] Isham, C. 1988. “Creation of the Universe as a Quantum Process,” in Physics, Philosophy, and Theology, A Common Quest for Understanding, eds. R. J. Russell, W. R. Stoeger, and G. V. Coyne, Vatican City State: Vatican Observatory, p. 378.

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/books/review/a-universe-from-nothing-by-lawrence-m-krauss.html?mabReward=relbias:w&adxnnl=1&module=Search&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1418576495-uhuZjnkGzY+luBnAcl0rPQ

Coarse-Tuning vs. Fine-Tuning

nebulosa_borboleta1I attended an interesting debate last Saturday night between Justin Schieber and Blake Giunta. Blake used the fine-tuning evidence as one argument for God’s existence and Justin countered by pointing to the Coarse-Tuning argument.

What is the Coarse-Tuning Argument?

Assuming that the various finely-tuned constants can take on any value up to infinity, then any finite life-permitting range (even a large one) would become an infinitesimal subset. Thus, even coarsely-tuned parameters could be considered improbable. This is often seen then as a reductio ad absurdum against fine-tuning – for then we should be equally surprised no matter how wide the range of life-permitting values is for a given constant (so long as it was finite).

Blake followed Robin Collins in arguing that coarse-tuning could still represent an improbable situation if indeed we knew that the possible values for the various constants could go to infinity. However, I don’t think many physicists would be persuaded of anything improbable if the universe only required coarse-tuning rather than fine-tuning to support life. In fact this was the expectation prior to the pioneering work of Hoyle, Barrow, Tipler, Carter, and others. No one that I’m aware of argued that physical constants being life-permitting pointed to design until the life-permitting range of constants was discovered to be exceedingly narrow.

Why coarse-tuning would not be accepted as improbable?

Most physicists did not accept a Coarse-Tuning Argument not because it might not be improbable if the possible range was infinite, but rather due to skepticism that the possible range of constants could be infinite. If David Hilbert was right, actual infinities are nowhere to be found in reality and it would be impossible for the constants to be infinite. See my previous blog for a discussion of some of the issues associated with actually infinite quantities. Even if Hilbert is incorrect, one could still argue that one can estimate probabilities by taking limits and that Hilbert’s Hotel shows simply the counter-intuitive nature of dealing with infinities. Even if the actually infinite is possible, physicists generally reject candidate theories that entail the actually infinite – at least if the equations cannot be renormalized to avoid the infinities.

Is the range of possible values for the constants infinite?

The key assumption in the Coarse-Tuning Argument is that the possible range of constants could be infinite. However as Luke Barnes has pointed out the concept of mass becomes incoherent if fundamental particles could exceed the Planck mass. Particles over a certain mass would form a black hole and therefore be impossible to create. Does it really seem physically possible that an electron could have a mass of a billion tons? Might it be prohibitively difficult to create particles with such a huge mass due to the energy or energy density requirements in making it? Would such a massive particle be stable? We could treat the case that the electron’s mass was greater than some huge value as corresponding to there being too few electrons after some small amount of time in which the universe expanded and cooled. This special case would obviously be life-prohibiting as electrons are necessary for chemistry, stellar fusion, and other processes critical for life.

What about force strengths?

Another class of parameters that have to be finely-tuned is force strengths. Most physicists think that at least 3 out of the 4 fundamental forces are unified at certain energy levels – and probably all 4. Thus, there is an underlying relationship between the forces that would constrain their relative strengths. Ratios of the force strengths would not be infinite. If a constant governing a force strength had a value of 0, that special case could also be evaluated with respect to its ability to support life. All 4 fundamental forces are thought to be necessary for life although there are ways to have life without the weak force – but only by compensating with additional fine-tuning in other aspects.

Robin Collins argues that once force strengths become too large we lose our ability to predict whether or not such a scenario would be life-permitting – there could be new physics at such large energy scales. This is not a problem for the fine-tuning argument as defined by leading advocates though because the argument only addresses the parameter ranges for which we can reliably evaluate suitability for life – we consider only the epistemically-illumined region. Here is how John Leslie explains it in his Universes book (which I highly recommend):

If a tiny group of flies is surrounded by a largish fly-free wall area then whether a bullet hits a fly in the group will be very sensitive to the direction in which the firer’s rifle points, even if other very different areas of the wall are thick with flies. So it is sufficient to consider a local area of possible universes, e.g., those produced by slight changes in gravity’s strength, . . . . It certainly needn’t be claimed that Life and Intelligence could exist only if certain force strengths, particle masses, etc. fell within certain narrow ranges . . . . All that need be claimed is that a lifeless universe would have resulted from fairly minor changes in the forces etc. with which we are familiar. (pages 138-9)

In other words, it still looks like the rifle was aimed if it hits a tiny group of flies surrounded by a vast wall without any flies – even though there might be other flies on parts of the wall we cannot see. A design inference can be justified even though we lack complete knowledge about the life-permitting status of all of the possible parameter space. We’re only evaluating the local, finite region for which a determination can be made.

A finite number of physically possible constants?

If one takes the fine-tuning argument based on physically possible parameter space rather than metaphysically possible parameter space, then it’s expected that the range of values for constants is finite. I’ve previously linked to this important article by John Barrow outlining different ways in which physics itself can drive constants to different values. For example, spontaneous symmetry breaking in the early universe affected various parameters related to electromagnetism and the weak force. The Weinberg angle could have taken on other values that would have resulted in alternate derived parameters. However, nothing in those equations allow any of the parameters to go to infinity.

Barrow also notes that unifying gravity and quantum mechanics is only possible if “the true constants of nature are defined in higher dimensions and the three-dimensional shadows we observe are no longer fundamental and do not need to be constant.” Because of quantization, the number of ways of compactifying these extra spatial dimensions would be finite. We can treat the case that quantization is not in effect as a special case that would not plausibly support life. Without quantization, atoms are not stable and would not have consistent properties permitting information to be stored. Even String Theory entails a finite number of possible sets of fundamental constants. Many theorists think it’s quite large, perhaps 10500, but all we need is for it to be finite to avoid the infinities required by the coarse-tuning argument. Refer to my previous blog for other reasons to expect a finite range for constants of nature.

Initial conditions

Cosmologist Luke Barnes also points to the fine-tuning associated with the initial conditions of our universe as an example immune from the problems of infinities. Unless one thinks that probabilistic statements cannot be made despite the reputation of statistical mechanics as a well-established physics discipline, one is able to conclude that our universe started out in an incredibly special, highly-ordered state. The number of life-permitting states is extraordinarily tiny compared to possibilities as Roger Penrose has computed – see my blog for details. Since the number of particles was finite and the volume of space in the early universe was quite small, there is no problem of infinities that prohibits a rough probability estimate.

Summary

More work should be done in assessing the possibilities of infinities and the potential impact on the fine-tuning argument. However, I see no reason that Coarse-Tuning would be a reductio ad absurdum against fine-tuning because if we knew for sure that the constants had an infinite range the finiteness of the life-permitting range should suffice for demonstrating that life-permitting universes are a tiny subset among possibilities. However, physicists are rightly skeptical that these constants could be infinite. I’ve listed several reasons for thinking that the constants couldn’t have an infinite range – which is why physicists were not astounded until they discovered that life-permitting ranges are tiny among possibilities that can be evaluated. We can compute that the universe would be lifeless if gravity were 40 orders of magnitude stronger even though we might have some slight uncertainty about what happens if it were 4000 orders of magnitude stronger and do not know a precise upper bound of what is physically possible.

Fine-Tuning of Particles to Support Life

The fine structure constant could easily be larger, the photon massive, quarks heavier, or even worse, electrons, photons, or quarks might not [exist] .. Any one of these would be enough to eliminate our presence.[1]” Physicist Leonard Susskind

This blog is yet another installment in a series on how the fine-tuning of the universe for life provides evidence for God. Here are other blogs in the series:

Intro/Philosophical Background

If You Don’t Want God, You Better Have a Multiverse!

How Does Fine-tuning Provide Evidence for God?

Objections

Mistaken Objections that Seek to Trivialize Fine-Tuning

Important Objections in the Fine-Tuning Debate

But We Can’t Even Define Life

Evidence

Fine-Tuning of Initial Conditions to Support Life

Many Changes to the Laws of Physics Would be Life-Prohibiting

Fine-Tuning of the Force Strengths to Permit Life

This blog examines how hard it is to get the right type of building blocks to support intelligent life. Not just any types of particles suffice – no scientist speculates about photon-based life or neutrino-based life since there would be no way to store or replicate information[2]. Consider that every second you have about 65 billion neutrinos passing through the tip of your finger, and at night solar neutrinos travel unaffected through the entire earth before going through your fingertip. The only plausible forms of advanced life that could originate anywhere in the universe are based on atoms. You might think that the mass of a particle doesn’t really matter that much. It’s easy to envision ourselves being composed of protons or electrons or quarks of a different mass. But this turns out to be quite mistaken. The mass of particles is very important in determining their longevity, their suitability in sustaining nuclear reactions in stars, and their suitability for chemistry. In this blog, I’ll once again be extensively utilizing Luke Barnes excellent fine-tuning article as a resource, but I’ll also refer to writings of leading physicists such as Leonard Susskind, Stephen Hawking and Nobel Prize winner Frank Wilczek.

In order to have evidence that life-permitting physics is a small subset among possibilities we must have some idea of the range of possibilities. In this context, we’re on pretty firm ground. There is a maximum mass for particles as set by the Planck scale. The current concept of mass would become incoherent if particles could exceed the so-called Planck mass. The Standard Model provides a means of computing quantum corrections that affect masses, resulting in a natural scale for particle masses. Let’s examine whether or not the mass of certain particles has to be finely-tuned to support life.

The Masses of the Electron and the Proton

If protons were 0.2 percent heavier, they would decay into neutrons, destabilizing atoms.[3]” Hawking in Grand Design

For this data, I’d like to show you a graph from Barnes’s review article[4] with notes about the various life-permitting constraints.

ParticleMassDiagram2

Credit: Luke Barnes Review Article

Notes About Diagram: The graph’s axes are scaled based on arctan(log10[x]) such that [0,∞] maps to a finite range. Refer to my previous blog for a more detailed explanation of coupling constants but basically these are just the dimensionless fundamental constants that convey the strength of the fundamental forces. Here is some notation used in the descriptions of the life-permitting criteria:

α – the electromagnetic coupling constant (also referred to as the fine-structure constant)

αs – the coupling constant for the strong nuclear force

β – the ratio of the mass of an electron to the mass of a proton

The tiny life-permitting region has to simultaneous satisfy each of the following life-permitting criteria and our universe’s values are at the ‘+’ sign near the lower left:

1) For hydrogen to exist the mass of an electron must be less than the difference in the masses of a neutron and a proton else the electron would be captured by the proton to form a neutron. Without hydrogen, there would be no water and no long-lived stars (e.g. Helium stars burn out 30 times faster).

2) Atoms are only stable if radius of an electron orbit is significantly greater than the size of the nucleus – this depends on the ratio of the electron and proton masses such that αβ/αs < 1/1000.

3) The energy scale for chemical reactions should be much smaller than that for nuclear reactions. Otherwise, information could not be stably stored because the type of elements in molecules would be changing because chemical identity would not be maintained. This requires the ratio of the electron and proton masses to be finely-tuned such that α2β/αs2 < 1/1000.

4) Unless the fourth root of β is less than about 1/3, molecular structures would be unstable. They would basically be continually melting and thus disrupting the ability to store information.

5) The stability of the proton requires the electromagnetic coupling constant to be less than the difference of the masses of the down quark and up quark divided by a constant. This enables the extra electromagnetic mass-energy of a proton relative to a neutron to be counter-balanced by the bare quark masses.

6) This fine-tuning is related to the electromagnetic coupling constant and was covered in my previous blog.

7) Stars will not be stable unless β > 0.01 α2

Note that life-permitting criteria 2-5 and 7 also depend on one or more coupling constants and thus reinforces my previous arguments about the difficulties in getting simultaneous solutions to so many independent equations. There are also some additional constraints on the masses of the proton and electron not necessarily shown in Barnes’s diagram:

  • A constraint on the main nuclear reaction in stars. This depends on a finely-tuned strong nuclear force strength as previously mentioned but also depends on a particular relationship of the masses of the up and down quarks and the electron.
  • The ratio of the mass of the electron to the proton also affects the ability of stars to output photons at energy levels that break chemical bonds (this was also referenced in my previous blog because it also depended on force strengths). The dashed line in the diagram represents that constraint.
  • The mass of the electron and proton also show up in the equation for the cosmological parameter Q as described in my previous blog.

These tight constraints on the life-permitting region for the mass of the electron are even more surprising because the values are deemed “unnaturally low” to begin with. Barnes elucidates this issue: “There are, then, two independent ways in which the masses of the basic constituents of matter are surprisingly small … the Hierarchy Problem … and the flavour problem. … The electron mass is unnaturally smaller than its (unnaturally small) natural scale set by the Higgs condensate.[5]” These are called problems simply because they require fine-tuning – the values they take on are quite different than the natural scale. It’s possible that new physics discoveries might minimize the unnaturalness somewhat but the life-permitting ranges are so tight that there is no basis for assuming that the fine-tuning will go away.

There is also a tight constraint on the charge of the electron. The electromagnetic coupling constant can be expressed in terms of a ratio involving the square of the charge of an electron. Thus, the numerous constraints referenced in my previous blog can also be viewed as a dependence on the charge of the electron. Thus, consider again the fine-tuning necessary for the production of carbon and oxygen in stars. This required fine-tuning of the electromagnetic coupling constant to 1 part in 10,000. Thus, another way of looking at this is that if the electron differed in charge by more than 1 part in 100,000,000 in either direction then the universe would basically be devoid of carbon or oxygen or both.

In order to understand more details about the mass of the proton, a little background will be helpful. A proton is comprised of 2 up quarks and a down quark and a neutron is comprised of 2 down quarks and an up quark. Most of the mass of these composite particles is derived not from the quarks but from the energy due to the strong force that is constraining them. This binding energy is equivalent to mass as per Einstein’s famous equation: E=mc2. Thus, we should also examine the sensitivity of the quark masses.

Quark Masses

“[T]he up- and down-quarks are absurdly light. The fact that they are roughly twenty thousand times lighter than particles like the Z-boson . . . needs an explanation. The Standard Model has not provided one. Thus, we can ask what the world would be like if the up- and down-quarks were much heavier than they are. Once again – disaster![6] Leonard Susskind

The mass of the quarks is derived from the Higgs boson but the other approximately 98% of the proton and neutron mass is based on the binding energy of the strong nuclear force. Quark masses vary from roughly 10 to 344,000 times the mass of the electron and thus if the masses of the up and down quarks only support life within narrow ranges relative to possible quark masses, this constitutes a high degree of fine-tuning. Research into the physics literature reveals very widespread agreement that these quark masses are finely-tuned. Barnes cites at least 7 physics articles arguing for this conclusion. Physicist Craig Hogan affirms this conclusion: “Changing the quark masses even a small amount has drastic consequences for which no amount of Darwinian selection can compensate.” Hogan reminds us that fine-tuning deals with what has to happen before any biological evolution could get started.

Barr and Khan’s article considers the 60+ orders of magnitude in the space of possible up and down quark masses and document 9 different life-permitting criteria that end up constraining the life-permitting region to a tiny subset in the space of possibilities. I conservatively measured the improbability off their graph as no more than 3 parts in 1036 – this makes it less likely than picking out one red grain of sand in a giant sand pile in Eurasia up to the height of the moon (to harken back to my analogy from a previous blog).

Most of these criteria are very clear cut disasters for life of any kind – for example there are constraints necessary to have stable protons, neutrons and atoms, and there are a couple of disasters where only one type of long-lived particle would exist with the chemistry of either hydrogen or helium.

Other particles

Atoms, molecules and life are entirely dependent on the curious fact that the photon has no mass.[7]” Susskind

Susskind goes on to explain that no life could exist if the photon had even a tiny mass because otherwise electromagnetic force acts at too limited of a range for chemistry to be operative. The Higgs Boson has been in the news lately since it was discovered recently at the LHC. Luke Barnes documents how, in natural Planck units, the vacuum expectation value of the Higgs Boson must be between 4e-17 and 2e-14. He cites 4 different articles and multiple finely-tuned criteria.[8]

Even the mass of neutrinos turns out to require fine-tuning to support life. Tegmark, Vilenking and Pogosian argue that if the sum of the mass of the 3 species exceeds just 1 electron volt then no galaxies would exist. They refer to this as an anthropic constraint so they seem convinced that life couldn’t form if there were no galaxies, presumably since galaxies are critical for star formation. This constraint is significant since neutrino masses are so tiny compared to other particles. For example, the top quark is 170 billion times more massive than this!

Will New Physics Rescue Us From the Need for All of These Fine-Tunings?

Physicist Craig Hogan argues that the “two light quark masses and one coupling constant are ultimately determined even in the `Final Theory’ by a choice from a large or continuous ensemble… the correct unification scheme will not allow calculation of [the masses of the proton and the up and down quarks] from first principles alone.” So these parameters have a large range of choices and a small life-permitting range and there is no good reason to expect a ‘Theory of Everything’ to force these masses to their current values. We should remember that even if this were the case, there would still be a fine-tuning argument based on what is metaphysically possible. Physicists would still be astounded at the coincidences: “Even if all apparently anthropic coincidences could be explained [in terms of a more fundamental theory], it would still be remarkable that the relationships dictated by physical theory happened also to be those propitious for life.[9]” Bernard Carr and Sir Martin Rees

Actually, grand unified field theories and other new more fundamental physics theories introduce new fine-tuning requirements. Most of these theories assume something called supersymmetry is true. However, if supersymmetry were true at our energy scales, there would be no life anywhere in the universe as Susskind has pointed out[10]. In this unconfirmed theory, every particle has a partner particle of the opposite type – bosons have partners that are fermions and vice versa. Thankfully, even if supersymmetry turns out to be true, it’s a broken symmetry at low-energies! Barnes also points out that the Grand Unified Theories provide “tightest anthropic bounds on the fine structure constant, associated with the decay of the proton into a positron and the requirement of grand unification below the Planck scale.[11]” So these new candidate theories do not eliminate fine-tuning.

If you’ve been following my fine-tuning blog series, I hope by now you see the incestuous nature of the inter-dependencies and inter-connections of finely-tuned parameters and how incredible it is that there is a solution to all of the concurrent equations that must satisfy multiple, entirely independent life-permitting constraints. Consider that if you have 10 linear equations and 10 “unknown” variables then there is usually at least 1 solution to all of the equations. This becomes increasingly unlikely is as you add non-linear terms or as you reduce the number of variables. Thus, if new physics reduces the number of variables (the fundamental constants) that makes it more surprising that a simultaneous solution exists to all of the life-permitting criteria!

Can the Multiverse Explain this Fine-Tuning?

Recall our discussion about how the multiverse, if it is to explain fine-tuning, predicts that the fine-tuning will be barely enough to be life-permitting. As physicist Paul Davies notes: “there is no a priori reason why the laws of physics should be more bio-friendly than is strictly necessary for observers to arise.” Davies also says that “the observed Universe is not minimally biophilic, and many scientists seem to think it is actually optimally biophilic.” I think he must be referring to the laws of physics and not necessarily all aspects of the universe being optimally biophilic.

Do we have indications from the fine-tuning of particle attributes that they are fine-tuned more than is strictly necessary to support life? Stephen Hawking seems to think so: “The summed quark masses seem roughly optimized for the existence of the largest number of stable nuclei.[12]” Many of these heavier elements are not essential to what would minimally count as a living observer but are important for technology and lead to a more bio-friendly universe. Multiverse theories generally entail new physics that predicts that protons decay. No one has yet seen such an event despite extensive attempts that allow us to compute a maximum possible proton decay rate. This decay rate turns out to be much greater than that predicted by the multiverse proposals. Nobel Prize-winner Frank Wilczek of MIT indicates that the lifetime of the proton is at least 10 orders of magnitude greater than necessary – this corresponds to a factor of ten billion.

Physicist Lee Smolin critiques multiverse theories because they fail to make predictions consistent with our universe. He notes that “there are constants that simply don’t have the values we would expect them to have if they were chosen by random distribution among a population of possibly true universes.[13]” Smolin points out the unexpected and unlikely relationship between quark and lepton masses. He further argues that under randomly varying laws, “some symmetries of elementary particles would be violated by the strong nuclear force much more than they are.[14]”

Another powerful example of fine-tuning that goes beyond what is strictly necessary for life can be seen in the properties of water. A 2011 article[15] from New Scientist highlighted research by scientists from Stanford and the Argonne National Lab:

“Water’s life-giving properties exist on a knife-edge. It turns out that life as we know it relies on a fortuitous, but incredibly delicate, balance of quantum forces. Water is one of the planet’s weirdest liquids, and many of its most bizarre features make it life-giving.” Consider just a few of the examples of the bio-friendly properties of water that are exceptional compared to other liquids:

  • Higher density as liquid than solid (ice floats)

– Prevents lakes from freezing bottom up

– Ice at top then acts as a much better insulator than water to minimize additional freezing

  • Very high heat capacity

–  Moderates temperatures at global and organismal levels

  • Latent heat of evaporation by far higher than other substances

– Increased ability to cool organisms

– Water’s unusually high thermal conductivity for a liquid also aids in cooling

  • Unusually high surface tension

– Maximizes capillary action

  • Low viscosity increase rate of diffusion, recycling of nutrients globally, and allows tiny capillaries (3 micron, single-cell thick wall) to nourish muscles
  • Non-Newtonian fluid

–  2x increase in pressure leads to 3x rate of (blood) flow

  • Viscosity of ice maximizes glacial activity
  • Near universal solvent – great for transport within cells or recycling nutrients within an ecosystem

The article explains that fine-tuning was needed for water to have such properties: “computer simulations show that quantum mechanics nearly robbed water of these life-giving features… Water fortuitously has two quantum effects which cancel each other out… ” The article concludes: “We are used to the idea that the cosmos’s physical constants are fine-tuned for life. Now it seems water’s quantum forces can be added to this ‘just right’ list’.” The parameter at the most fundamental level that is finely-tuned is simply Planck’s constant since that affects the magnitude of the effects of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. However, recall that I mentioned previously that all of the force strengths have a term for Planck’s constant in them. Thus, Planck’s constant is independently highly constrained based on force strengths and yet this just happens to also result in water having all of these amazing and unusual properties that benefit life in a manner beyond what is explicable by multiverse theories.

An example of additional fine-tuning required under multiverse theories relates to the number of spatial dimensions. Theories that entail multiverses with differing parameters per universe generally predict additional spatial dimensions that have to be compactified if life is to exist because otherwise there would be neither stable atoms nor stable planetary orbits. A much more significant example of an additional fine-tuning is required by what seems to be the most popular multiverse theory, eternal inflation. I mentioned in an earlier blog but it’s worth repeating that Sean Carroll[16] and others have calculated that “inflation only occurs in a negligibly small fraction of cosmological histories, less than 10-66,000,000.” Thus, the multiverse isn’t very successful at explaining these finely-tuned parameters and the multiverse itself requires fine-tuning. The hypothesis of design therefore better explains the totality of the physics data.

 


[1] Leonard Susskind. The Cosmic Landscape, p. 176.

[2] As I’ve previously pointed, John von Neumann proved that information storage and replication are necessary for any type of life since life is a self-replicating system.

[3] Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. The Grand Design, p. 160

[4] Barnes, p. 42-44.

[5] Barnes, p.48.

[6]Susskind, p. 176.

[7] Susskind, p. 174-5.

[8] Barnes, p. 44.

[9] Carr and Rees, “The Anthropic Cosmological Principle and the Structure of the Physical World,” Nature 278 (1979): 612.

[10] Susskind, p. 250. (The partner of the electron, the so-called selectron, would ruin chemistry.)

[11] Barnes, Luke. The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life. Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, p. 53. http://arxiv.org/abs/1112.4647

[12] Hawking and Mlodinow, p. 160.

[13] Lee Smolin. The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, p. 166.

[14] Smolin, p. 167

[15] Lisa Grossman. “Water’s quantum weirdness makes life possible.” New Scientist. 25 Oct, 2011. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228354.900-waters-quantum-weirdness-makes-life-possible.html

[16]Carroll, Tam. Unitary Evolution and Cosmological Fine-Tuning. http://arxiv.org/abs/1007.1417v1

Fine-Tuning of the Force Strengths to Permit Life

“As we look out into the Universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it almost seems as if the Universe must in some sense have known that we were coming.[1]” Physicist Freeman Dyson

In my previous blog, I discussed how numerous changes to the laws of physics would have resulted in a lifeless universe. I admitted that this was relatively modest evidence for my fine-tuning claim:

“In the set of possible physical laws, parameters and initial conditions, the subset that permits rational conscious life is very small.”

I say relatively modest because the evidence I cite in my blog about the fine-tuning of initial conditions is so powerful and the same I argue applies to the evidence I present in this blog. This blog examines how the constants governing the four fundamental forces of physics must be finely-tuned to support life. Refer to my previous blog for the qualitative aspects of these forces and how they have to be just right to permit life. I now focus on the quantitative constraints on the strengths of these forces if intelligent life is to plausibly exist anywhere the universe. First some background – physicists typically refer to coupling constants for those dimensionless constants[2] which represent the strength of each force. The strength of these forces ranges over about 40 orders of magnitude – that is to say that the strongest force is 1040 times stronger than the weakest force. Thus, it would be surprising if the strengths of these forces must lie in narrow ranges to permit life – at least if the values were set at random such as would be the case in a universe without God. Let’s look at how sensitive these parameters are with respect to permitting life:

1)      Strong nuclear force

This force is important for the existence of stable atoms beyond hydrogen. If the strong force were 50% weaker, no elements used by life would exist because protons couldn’t be held together in the nucleus. The strong nuclear force must exceed the strength of the electromagnetic force sufficiently to overcome the electromagnetic repulsion of positively charged protons. While learning chemistry would be much easier if only the first few elements existed in the periodic table, there would be no physical creatures around to learn it! If the strong force were about 50% stronger no hydrogen would be left over from nuclear fusion processes occurring in the early universe. Hydrogen plays a critical life-supporting role not only as a constituent of water but hydrogen-burning stars last 30 times longer than alternatives. This particular constraint may not make intelligent life impossible but life would certainly be much harder to originate if the available time were so limited and if neither water nor hydrocarbons existed.

Also, hydrogen-bonding is very important in biology for many reasons: information storage in DNA, antibody-antigen interaction, and for the secondary structure of proteins. Remember that parameters that seem beneficial for life but are more fine-tuned than is strictly necessary counts against a multiverse explanation of the fine-tuning because multiverse scenarios predict only what is minimally necessary for life.[3] An even tighter constraint is that if the strong force were more than about 2% stronger protons wouldn’t form from quarks – in which case no chemical elements would exist![4] If the strong force were 9% weaker, stars would be unable to synthesize any elements heavier than deuterium (which is heavy hydrogen).

2)      Electromagnetic force

This force is responsible for chemistry and plays a critical role in stellar fusion which powers life. The electromagnetic force needs to be much weaker than the strong nuclear force for atoms to be stable – so that the radius of the electron orbit is much larger than the radius of the nucleus.[5] Unless the electromagnetic coupling constant (which represents its strength) is less than about 0.2, there would be no stable atoms because electrons orbiting the nucleus would have enough kinetic energetic to create electron-positron pairs which would then annihilate each other and produce photons. Additional examples of fine-tuning for this force strength will be described later in this blog.

3)      Weak nuclear force

The weak force controls proton-proton fusion, a reaction 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 times slower than the nuclear reaction based on the strong nuclear force. Without this, “essentially all the matter in the universe would have been burned to helium before the first galaxies” were formed. Because the weak nuclear force is so much weaker than the strong nuclear force, a star can “burn its hydrogen gently for billions of years instead of blowing up like a bomb.[6]” I’ve previously described the negative ramifications for life if there were no hydrogen in the universe.

John Leslie points out several other ways in which the weak nuclear force is finely-tuned. “Had the weak force been appreciably stronger then the Big Bang’s nuclear burning would have proceeded past helium and all the way to iron. Fusion-powered stars would then be impossible.[7]”

Neutrinos interact only via the weak force and are just powerful enough to blast off outer layers of exploding stars but and just weak enough to pass through parts of the star to get there. The weak force also plays a role in fusing electrons and protons into neutrons during the core collapse of stars to keep the collapse proceeding until it becomes an exploding star (supernova). UK Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees estimated that a change in the strength of the weak nuclear force by about 1 part in at least 10,000 relative to the strength of the strong force would have prevented supernova explosions which allow heavier elements to find their way to planets.[8] Without these supernova explosions key heavy elements would be unavailable for life.

4)      Gravitational force

Many physicists think that we’ll eventually discover a Grand Unified Theory, uniting gravity with the other 3 fundamental forces. For this reason Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind remarks that “the properties of gravity, especially its strength, could easily have been different. In fact, it is an unexplained miracle that gravity is as weak as it is.[9]” This probable underlying relationship leads to a natural expectation that gravity could be as strong as the strongest force. The strength of gravity is about 40 orders of magnitude weaker than the strong nuclear force. Based on this expectation that gravity can vary up to strong nuclear force strength, the level of fine-tuning required for life is pretty remarkable:

  • If gravity is weaker by 1 in 1036, stars are unstable to degeneracy pressure (for small stars) or unstable to radiative pressure just expelling huge chunks of the star (for larger stars).
  • If gravity is stronger by 1 in 1040, the universe is dominated by black holes not stars.
  • If gravity is weaker by 1 in 1030, the largest planet that would avoid crushing effects of gravity on any large-brained creatures would have a radius of about 50 meters – which is not a good candidate for an ecosystem and the development/sustenance of intelligent life.

These are huge numbers that may be hard for most readers to visualize.  Thus, consider the following analogy to help understand the improbability of 1 part in 1036. Suppose one could make a sand pile encompassing all of Europe and Asia and up to 5 times the height of the moon.[10] Suppose one grain of sand is painted red and randomly placed somewhere within this pile. A blind-folded person then randomly selects one grain of sand from the pile. The odds that she would select that one red grain of sand are slightly better than the 1 in 1036 odds of a life-permitting strength of the gravitational force based on just one of the above criteria.

Let’s explore a few more fine-tuning cases constraining multiple constants concurrently.

Long-Lived Stars

As I’ve discussed previously, stars play at least two key roles in making the universe life-permitting:

1) As a long-lived power source that helps life overcome the effects of the Second Law of Thermodynamics that would otherwise lead to an eventual state of disarray and equilibrium.

2) For synthesizing elements not created by the Big Bang (which is basically everything past beryllium).

We take the sun for granted as a long-lived stable source of power but note the lack of any comparable long-lived power source on earth as an indication that is not always the case. A star is basically a controlled nuclear explosion held together by gravity – that it can last so long requires a delicate balance of various physical parameters. Consider that the Sun outputs less energy per kilogram of its mass than a person does – without fine-tuning, stars would die out much sooner. Obviously the sun is still able to output enormous quantities of energy because it’s so huge! Another surprising aspect of the sun is that photons generally take at least several thousand years to travel from the sun‘s core to its surface through the ionized plasma.[11] There are significant constraints on the strength of gravity and electromagnetism if there are to be long-lived stars. Luke Barnes summarizes some of the key physics research in this arena:

“There is a window of opportunity for stars – too small and they won’t be able to ignite and sustain nuclear fusion at their cores, being supported against gravity by degeneracy rather than thermal pressure; too large and radiation pressure will dominate over thermal pressure, allowing unstable pulsations.[12]”

Barnes does some calculations based on the possibility that gravity could vary in strength up to the strength of the strong nuclear force and uses a uniform prior distribution of possible values for the gravitational coupling constant and the electromagnetic coupling constant. Using this approach, he computes that “the stable-star-permitting region occupies 1038 of parameter space.” This is even less probable than my previous sand analogy!

Production of Both Carbon and Oxygen in Stars

One of the earliest examples of fine-tuning was discovered by astronomer Fred Hoyle with regard to the fine-tuning required to make both carbon and oxygen in stars. Three distinct coincidences are required to abundantly make both types of elements in stars. These restrictions impose a constraint of about 1 part in 250 on the relative strength of the strong force and the electromagnetic force in both directions. Actually a more recent study by Ekström[13] in 2010 indicated that a change of just 1 part in 10,000 in the electromagnetic coupling constant would have resulted in the inability of stars to synthesize both carbon and oxygen. Despite being an atheist Hoyle conceded:

“Some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule. 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.[14]”

Other Constraints among Force Strengths

For a more comprehensive examination of fine-tuning constraints, refer to Luke Barnes excellent review article that I’ve previously referenced. This review article is an excellent summary of a hundred or so physics articles, and in many cases references multiple articles per fine-tuning constraint. Barnes lists several additional constraints I haven’t mentioned and provides additional details. Just among constraints involving powers of these coupling constants, Barnes lists a half dozen or more cases. Usually the power involves just a squared term but it’s important to note that there are linear, quadratic and inverse relationships among the coupling constants. For example, the electromagnetic force strength is constrained in one way based on a linear constraint and in another way based on a quadratic constraint and in another way based on the inverse of the force strength relative to some other constant. It is remarkable that there is a life-permitting region that simultaneously satisfied these multifaceted constraints.

Also, since each coupling constant can be expressed in terms of more fundamental parameters such as Planck’s constant and the speed of light there are very tight constraints on those parameters as well – especially because of the constraints across different powers of the coupling constant. Thus, Planck’s constant is constrained in one way and the square of this constant is constrained based on a different life-permitting criterion – and likewise for the speed of light.

Moreover, there is a finely-tuned cosmological parameter, known as Q, which can be expressed in terms of various other parameters including coupling constants. In an equation derived by Max Tegmark and Martin Rees[15], there are the following powers on various coupling constants: -1, 16/7, 4/7. Also, there is a natural log of the electromagnetic coupling constant to the -2 power that is taken to the -16/9 power. Without the various contributions of coupling constants taken to the various powers, the value for this parameter Q would not have been life-permitting. Q represents the magnitude of variations in energy density in the early universe. If Q was larger than 10-5 the universe would have consisted of too many black holes to be life-permitting. If Q were smaller than 10-6 there would be gravitationally bound structures in the universe – no stars, no planets and therefore no life. See Barnes’s article on page 32 for more details on the fine-tuning of Q and its relationship to coupling constants.

Finely-Tuned Output of Stellar Radiation

Brandon Carter first discovered a remarkable relationship among the gravitational and electromagnetic coupling constants. If the 12th power of the electromagnetic strength were not proportional to the gravitational coupling constant then the photons produced by stars would not be of the right energy level to interact with chemistry and thus to support photosynthesis. Note how sensitive a proportion has to be when it involves the 12th power – a doubling of the electromagnetic force strength would have required an increase in the gravitational strength by a factor of 4096 in order to maintain the right proportion. Harnessing light energy through chemical means seems to be possible only in universes where this condition holds. If this is not strictly necessary for life, it might enter into the evidence against the multiverse in that it points to our universe being more finely-tuned than is strictly necessary.

Closing Thoughts

It’s important to note how the values of these constants must lie within narrow ranges to be life-permitting based on multiple, independent criteria! My next blog will provide additional examples of this “coincidence.” This multiplicity makes my fine-tuning claim more robust because even if most of these peer-reviewed articles were wrong about fine-tuning claims, there would still be enough cases left to show that life-permitting physics is rare among possibilities.

Also, the question arises as to the likelihood there would exist any value for a constant that could satisfy multiple finely-tuned life-permitting criteria? Why would the life-permitting regions necessarily overlap at a single value that could then permit life relative to all of the constraints? UT Austin philosopher Robert C. Koons argues that this points to a higher-order fine-tuning and thus to design:

“When the value of a single constant is constrained in more than one way, it would be very likely that these independent constraints put contradictory demands on the value of the constraint. By way of analogy, if I consider several algebraic equations, each with a single unknown, it would be very surprising if a single value satisfied all of the equations. Thus, it is surprising that a single range of values satisfies the various anthropic constraints simultaneously. Leslie argues that this higher-order coincidence suggests that the basic form of the laws of nature has itself been designed to make anthropic fine-tuning possible. In other words, Leslie argues that there is evidence of a higher-order fine-tuning.[16]”

This coincidence grows even more surprising when one goes beyond the sheer multiplicity of constraints and also analyzes how differing powers on the constants appear in equations expressing independent and unrelated life-permitting constraints. Why is it that a given strength of electromagnetism turns out to be just right for long-lived stars, atomic stability, proton stability, electron stability, the synthesis of carbon and oxygen, the energy of photons output by stars, and the magnitude of density fluctuations in the early universe? Even speculative multiverse theories do not explain this type of coincidence.


[1] John Barrow and Frank Tipler. The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, p. 318

[2] Actually, these are constants at current densities but in the early universe the 3 non-gravitational forces are thought to have been unified in the sense that at those energy levels all of the forces behaved in the same manner. Once we get beyond the first 1/100th of a nanosecond of the universe though we can speak of these as being constants.

[3] For an explanation of this widely accepted principle, refer to my previous blog: http://crossexamined.org/god-or-multiverse.

[4] Walter Bradley. (He happened to be the head of an engineering department when I was at Texas A&M). http://www.leaderu.com/offices/bradley/docs/universe.html

[5] Luke Barnes. The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life. Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, p. 42. (http://arxiv.org/abs/1112.4647)

[6] Freeman Dyson, Scientific American 225 (1971), p. 56.

[7] John Leslie. The Prerequisites of Life in Our Universe. http://www.leaderu.com/truth/3truth12.html

[8] Martin Rees, Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. London A 310 (1983), p. 317.

[9] Leonard Susskind, Cosmic Landscape, p. 9.

[10] I know that this is physically unrealistic but this hypothetical analogy aids in visualizing the magnitude of the fine-tuning.

[11] NASA web site. http://image.gsfc.nasa.gov/poetry/ask/a11354.html

[12] Barnes, p. 30.

[13] Ekström S., et al., Astronomy and Astrophysics, p. 514.

[14] Fred Hoyle. Engineering and Science, 11/81, p8-12.

[15] Max Tegmark and Martin Rees The Astrophysical Journal (1998), p. 499, 526

[16] Robert C. Koons. Theism vs. the Many-Worlds Hypothesis. http://www.reasons.org/articles/theism-vs.-the-many-worlds-hypothesis

Many Changes to the Laws of Physics Would be Life-Prohibiting

In my previous blog, I discussed how the initial conditions of our universe had to be extremely finely-tuned to support life of any kind anywhere in the universe. As part of my ongoing series on how fine-tuning provides evidence for the existence of God, I now turn to the laws of physics themselves. It turns out that life seems to require all 4 fundamental forces of physics. Let’s do a quick survey of some of the many ways that alternate physics could have been life-prohibiting:

1)      Gravity is essential in the formation of stars and planets. As I discussed in a previous blog, life needs something like stars as a long-lived stable energy source. Also, as cosmologist Luke Barnes has pointed out: “if gravity were repulsive rather than attractive, then matter wouldn’t clump into complex structures. Remember: your density, thank gravity, is 1030 times greater than the average density of the universe.”

2)      The strong nuclear force is necessary to hold together the protons and neutrons in the nucleus. Without this fundamental force, no atoms would exist beyond hydrogen and thus there would be no meaningful chemistry and thus no possibility for intelligent life. The positively charged protons in the nucleus repel each other but thankfully the strong nuclear force is sufficiently stronger than electromagnetic repulsion. If the strong force acted at long ranges like gravity or electromagnetism, then no atoms would exist because it would dominate over the other forces. Barnes notes that “any structures that formed would be uniform, spherical, undifferentiated lumps, of arbitrary size and incapable of complexity.[1]”

3)      The electromagnetic force accounts for chemical bonding and for why electrons orbit the nucleus of atoms. Without chemistry, there is no plausible way to store and replicate information such as would be necessary for life. Light supplied by stars is also of critical importance to life in overcoming the tendency towards disorder, as dictated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Barnes points out that without electromagnetism, “all matter would be like dark matter, which can only form large, diffuse, roughly spherical haloes.[2]” Suppose like charges attracted and opposites repelled (in contrast with the behavior in our universe), there would be no atoms.

4)      The weak nuclear force plays a key role during core-collapse supernova[3] in the expulsion of key heavier elements, making them available for life rather than just entombed forever in dying stars. Also, the weak force enables the key proton-proton reaction which powers stars in our universe. There is a clever paper by Harnik[4] that attempts to find a life-permitting universe without the weak force but only at the expense of a “judicious parameter adjustment.” See this discussion of the additional finely-tuned constants that were necessary to compensate for the lack of a weak force.[5] Also, some physicists think that the weak force is necessary for there to be matter in our universe.[6]

A region of star formation in a small nearby dwarf galaxy (N90) as captured by the Hubble telescope:
StarFormation

The existence of matter in our universe relies on some asymmetries in physics that are not yet precisely understood. Most physical reactions produce matter and antimatter in equal proportions and these products would simply annihilate each other upon contact, resulting in a matter-less (and therefore lifeless) universe consisting solely of radiation. We’re fortunate that the laws are such that this asymmetry produces a slight excess of matter over antimatter (about 1 part in ten billion)[7]! It would be premature to try to make a numerical claim that a constant has to be finely-tuned to permit this phenomenon but this unusual asymmetry provides yet another example of how different physics could have been catastrophic for life.

Another key physics principle that is critical for life is quantization. Values are defined as being ‘quantized’ if they can only take on discrete rather than continuous possibilities. Without quantized orbits electrons would be sucked into the nucleus and no chemistry would be possible. This quantization also leads to stable orbitals and consistent chemical properties. If electrons could orbit the nucleus anywhere such as is permissible for planets orbiting a star, then a given chemical element would have properties which are too variable for information storage of the type needed for intelligent life. Consider how the DNA in your genome would become cancerous within a day if its properties/information content were constantly varying. Also, consider how a breath of oxygen could conceivably become poisonous if its properties had no consistency.

Some other aspects of quantum mechanics are also very important to life. We need the Pauli Exclusion Principle so that all electrons don’t just reside in the lowest energy-level orbital. The multiple levels of orbitals contribute greatly to the richness and diversity of chemistry. Not all types of particles follow the Pauli Exclusion Principle – if electrons were bosons rather than fermions they wouldn’t be restricted by this principle. The Pauli Exclusion Principle coupled with the quantization of electron orbitals is responsible for giving matter its rigidity, which is important for the existence of stable structures. Moreover, without quantum mechanics, atoms would decay in about 10-13 seconds as Earnshaw’s theorem demonstrates based on classical mechanics.

Physicist Leonard Susskind points out yet another way that physics could have been life-prohibiting:

‘The photon is very exceptional. It is the only elementary particle, other than the graviton, that has no mass… Were the photon mass even a tiny fraction of the electron mass, instead of being a long-range force, electric interactions would become short-range “flypaper forces,” totally incapable of holding on to the distant valence electrons. Atoms, molecules and life are entirely dependent on the curious fact that the photon has no mass.[8]’

The trend in physics is that the number of cases of fine-tuning is growing over time. For example, physicist Joel Primack recently discovered an important link between the existence of dark matter and galaxy formation. Primack showed that “galaxies form only at high peaks of the dark matter density.“ Galaxies are generally thought to be necessary for life because they are critical for star formation. Thus, even aspects of physics which might seem pointless, such as dark matter, turn out to play an important role in making the universe more bio-friendly. I’ve also referenced an article in a previous blog that discusses how black holes “may actually account for Earth’s existence and habitability.[9]”

Any one of these facts by itself might just be seen as fortunate coincidences but there are enough of them to provide at least modest support for my fine-tuning claim:

“In the set of possible physical laws, parameters and initial conditions, the subset that permits rational conscious life is very small.”

The support is not as strong as what I documented based on our universe’s initial conditions nor as strong as what I will document concerning the fine-tuning of the constants of nature but it adds to the overall case. Moreover, this evidence has some bearing in the consideration of the multiverse[10] as an explanation of fine-tuning because it deals with physics at the level that most multiverse proposals cannot explain. In most multiverse scenarios the laws of physics are the same – what changes are the constants in the equations representing those laws. If you want to explore more about various multiverse alternatives, here is one useful perspective that was referenced in comments of a previous blog. Max Tegmark has proposed what he calls a level 4 multiverse in which all mathematical possibilities are realized somewhere in the multiverse. If we lived in such a multiverse, Occam’s Razor would not be a fruitful heuristic and we wouldn’t have Nobel laureates[11] talking about how simple, elegant theories led them to discoveries. There would be infinitely more equations with lots of complicated terms and expressions than there would be simple equations with minimal terms. Colombia professor Peter Woit provides a powerful critique of Tegmark’s highly speculative metaphysical proposal. These multiverse scenarios in which fundamental laws are different are not widely accepted among physicists.

In summary, life needs all of the 4 fundamental forces of nature and several principles from quantum mechanics. These facts about the laws support my fine-tuning claim that life-permitting physics is rare among possibilities. Standford physicist Leonard Susskind summarizes the physics well:

“It is gradually becoming accepted, by many theoretical physicists, that the Laws of Physics may not only be variable but are almost always deadly. In a sense the laws of nature are like East Coast weather: tremendously variable, almost always awful, but on rare occasions, perfectly lovely.[12]”

 


[1] Barnes, Luke. The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life. Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, p. 18. http://arxiv.org/abs/1112.4647

[2] Ibid., p, 18.

[3] A supernova is an exploding star and is the key way heavy elements are distributed throughout the universe.

[4]Harnik R., Kribs G., Perez G., 2006, Physical Review D, 74, 035006

[5]Barnes, p. 46-7.

[6] Fermilab website. DOE. http://lbne.fnal.gov/why-neutrinos.shtml

[7] Here is a website if you want to explore this further: http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/cosmo/lectures/lec22.html

[8] Susskind, Leonard. The Cosmic Landscape, p. 174-5.

[9] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-black-holes-shape-galaxies-stars-planets-around-them/

[10] If you missed my other blogs and are wondering what a ‘multiverse’ is, a multiverse is simply a collection of universes. If there is a vast ensemble of other universes with widely varying laws this might be a candidate explanation of the fine-tuning. Here was my blog on that topic: http://crossexamined.org/god-or-multiverse/

[11] For example, Eugene Wigner’s famous essay on The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences. https://www.dartmouth.edu/~matc/MathDrama/reading/Wigner.html. Also, see how Weinberg regards beauty as a guide to finding the correct physical theories: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/elegant/view-weinberg.html. Or refer to this essay for a historical review: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-h-bailey/why-mathematics-matters_b_4794617.html

[12] Susskind, p. 90.

Fine-Tuning of Initial Conditions to Support Life

This is the sixth blog in my series on fine-tuning. Here are the previous blogs if you missed them:

Intro/Philosophical Background

If You Don’t Want God, You Better Have a Multiverse!

How Does Fine-Tuning Provide Evidence for God?

Objections

Mistaken Objections that Seek to Trivialize Fine-Tuning

Important Objections in the Fine-Tuning Debate

But We Can’t Even Define Life

We’re finally ready to start exploring the fine-tuning data itself. A logical starting point is the initial conditions of our universe – are those which permit life rare among possibilities?

1)      Energy-Density is Finely-Tuned

The amount of matter (or more precisely energy density) in our universe at the Big Bang turns out to be finely-tuned to about 1 part in 1055. In other words, to get a life-permitting universe the amount of mass would have to be set to a precision of 55 decimal places. This fine-tuning arises because of the sensitivity to the initial conditions of the universe – the life-permitting density now is certainly much more flexible! If the initial energy density would have been slightly larger, gravity would have quickly slowed the expansion and then caused the universe to collapse too quickly for life to form. Conversely if the density were a tad smaller, the universe would have expanded too quickly for galaxies, stars, or planets to form. I argued in my previous blog that it’s implausible to expect life to originate without a long-lived, stable energy source such as a star. Thus, life would not be possible unless the density were just right – if you added or subtracted even just your own mass[1] to that of the universe this would have been catastrophic!

There is, however, a potential dynamical solution to this problem based on a rapid early expansion of the universe known as cosmic inflation. In this blog, I’ll be relying primarily on the most comprehensive review article on fine-tuning in the peer-reviewed literature – this one by Luke Barnes. I’ve referenced it previously and I’m hoping if I reference it enough I’ll get tech-savvy readers to check it out! It may be too technical for some readers and my blog can be viewed as just an attempt at explaining some highlights to non-physicists and tying it into my metaphysical hypothesis that God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning. So let’s look at what Luke Barnes has to say about inflation as a solution to the energy density problem. He points out 6 aspects of inflation that would have to be properly setup, some of which turn out to require fine-tuning. One significant aspect is that the inflation must last for the proper amount of time – inflation is posited to have been an extremely brief but hyper-fast expansion of the early universe. If inflation had lasted a fraction of a nanosecond longer, the entire universe would have been merely a thin hydrogen soup, unsuitable for life. Barnes cites an article by Max Tegmark of MIT that indicates that in a best case scenario about 1 in 1000 inflationary universes would avoid lasting too long. The biggest issue though seems to be that for inflation to start, it needs a very special/rare state of an extremely smooth energy density. Several articles make this point – consider Sean Carroll’s article:

“It is therefore a necessary (although not sufficient) condition for inflation to occur that perturbations be small at early times. . . . the fraction of realistic cosmologies that are eligible for inflation is therefore … 10-66,000,000.”

Barnes also explains why, even if inflation solves this fine-tuning problem, one should not expect new physics discoveries to do away with other cases of fine-tuning: “Inflation thus represents a very special case… This is not true of the vast majority of fine-tuning cases. There is no known physical scale waiting in the life-permitting range of the quark masses, fundamental force strengths or the dimensionality of spacetime. There can be no inflation-like dynamical solution to these fine-tuning problems because dynamical processes are blind to the requirements of intelligent life. What if, unbeknownst to us, there was such a fundamental parameter? It would need to fall into the life-permitting range. As such, we would be solving a fine-tuning problem by creating at least one more. And we would also need to posit a physical process able to dynamically drive the value of the quantity in our universe toward the new physical parameter.”

2)      Initial Conditions in a Very Low Entropy State

Even if inflation somehow could solve the energy density problem and scientists are mistaken that inflation requires its own fine-tuning, inflation doesn’t solve the problem with this next type of fine-tuning which relates to the universe’s initial entropy. What is entropy? Entropy represents the amount of disorder in a system. Thus, a high entropy state is highly disordered – think of a messy teenager’s room. Our universe began in an incredibly low entropy state. A more precision definition of entropy is that it represents the number of microscopic states that are macroscopically indistinguishable. An egg has higher entropy once broken because you’re “opening” up many more ways to arrange the molecules. There are more ways of arranging molecules that would still be deemed an omelet than there are ways to arrange the particles in an unbroken egg in where certain molecules are confined to subsets of the space in the egg – such as a membrane or the yolk. Entropy is thus closely associated with probability. If one is randomly arranging molecules, it’s much more likely to choose a high entropy state than a low entropy state. Randomly arranged molecules in an egg would much more likely look like an omelet that an unbroken egg.

Entropy can also be thought of as the amount of usable energy. Over time the usable energy decreases. This principle is known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that in a closed system the entropy on average increases until a state of equilibrium is reached. Thus, the Second Law predicts that our universe will eventually reach such a state of equilibrium or “heat death” in which nothing interesting happens. All life will die off long before such a state is reached. Life relies on usable energy from the environment.

It turns out that nearly all arrangements of particles in the early universe would have resulted in a lifeless universe of black holes. Tiny inconsistences in the particle arrangements would be acted on by gravity to grow in size. A positive feedback results since the clumps of particles have an even greater gravitational force on nearby particles. Penrose’s analysis shows that in the incredibly dense early universe, most arrangements of particles would have resulted basically in nothing but black holes. Life certainly can’t exist in such a universe because there would be no way to have self-replicating information systems. Possibly the brightest objects in the universe are quasars, which release radiation as bright as some galaxies due to matter falling into a supermassive black hole. The rotation rates near black holes and the extremely high-energy photons would disrupt information storage, a prerequisite for life[2].

Artist's impression of a stellar-mass black hole.Artist’s conception of a black hole. Credit: European Space Agency, NASA, and Felix Mirabel (the French Atomic Energy Commission & the Institute for Astronomy and Space Physics/Conicet of Argentina)

Oxford physicist Roger Penrose is the first scientist to quantify the fine-tuning necessary to have a low entropy universe to avoid such catastrophes. “In order to produce a universe resembling the one in which we live, the Creator would have to aim for an absurdly tiny volume of the phase space of possible universes, about 1/1010123 [3].” This number is incomprehensibly small – it represents 1 chance in 10 to the power of (10 to the power of 123). Writing this number in ordinal notational would require more zeroes than the number of subatomic particles in the observable universe, 10123 zeroes vs. about 1092 particles. Under the assumption of atheism, the particles in our universe would have been arranged randomly or at least not with respect to future implications for intelligent life. Nearly all such arrangements would not have been life-permitting so this fine-tuning evidence favors theism over atheism. We have a large but finite number of possible original states and rely on well-established statistical mechanics to assess the relevant probability.[4]

In a comment on one of in my earlier blogs, someone suggested that perhaps the universe is fine-tuned for black holes rather than life. The incredibly low entropy state of the initial conditions shows, however, that the exact opposite is true – fine-tuning was required to avoid excessive black holes! This fact about the initial conditions also calls into question Smolin’s proposed scenario that universes with differing physical constants might be birthed out of black holes. Smolin suggests the possibility of an almost Darwinian concept in which universes that produce more black holes therefore more baby universes than those which don’t. But if our universe requires statistically miraculous initial conditions to be life-permitting by avoiding excessive black holes, universes evolving to maximize black hole production would be unlikely to lead to life! (Even if the evolution of universes were possible)

Furthermore, the skeptic who thinks that black holes suggest a purposeless universe should consider that black holes can, in moderation and kept at distance, be helpful for life. While a universe comprised of mostly black holes would be life-prohibiting, having a large black hole at the center of a galaxy is actually quite helpful for life. Here is a Scientific American article that documents the benefits of Black Holes for life – it summarizes: “the matter-eating beast at the center of the Milky Way may actually account for Earth’s existence and habitability.”

Does inflation explain the low entropy of the early universe?

Here is how Sean Carroll answers this question: “Not by itself, no. To get inflation to start requires even lower-entropy initial conditions than those implied by the conventional Big Bang model. Inflation just makes the problem harder[5].” Penrose also has harsh words for inflation as an explanation of the low entropy state of the initial universe[6].

Barnes calls inflation a “cane toad solution” for the entropy fine-tuning. Cane toads were brought into Australia from Hawaii starting in 1935 to eat beetles threatening the sugarcane fields. With no natural predators in Australia this strategy was disastrous as these poisonous toads multiplied greatly and wreaked havoc on native species and the ecosystem in general. Thus, Barnes is saying that inflation makes this fine-tuning problem worse. None of this is to say that some version of inflationary theory isn’t true just that it doesn’t help this fine-tuning issue.

How well could a multiverse explain this evidence?

This is a key question to consider as we explore the fine-tuning evidence. If some features seem overly fine-tuned, this would be unexpected if our universe was simply a life-permitting universe randomly selected from a vast ensemble of other universes with other constants or initial conditions. A multiverse explanation for the fine-tuning of the low entropy fails miserably because this universe does seem to be finely-tuned much more than would be minimally necessary. As Penrose says: “We can get the solar system and all inhabitants for much less odds: 1 in 101060 .. These world ensemble hypotheses are worse than useless in explaining the anthropic fine-tuning of the universe.” In other words, Penrose argues that it would be more likely to just have the particles arranged in initial conditions such that you already have pre-formed intelligent life in a single solar system than to have such a large universe as ours in a low-entropy state that could eventually lead to intelligent life.

Even atheist Sean Carroll admits[7] that a multiverse explanation fails for this fine-tuning. First, he agrees with the widely-accepted principle I referenced above: “anthropically-selected parameters should be of the same order of magnitude as the largest value compatible with the existence of life.” He then explicitly agrees that the multiverse cannot by itself explain this particular fine-tuning and quotes Penrose’s numbers. “An example of fine‐tuning well beyond anthropic constraints is the initial state of the universe, often characterized in terms of its extremely low entropy… The entropy didn’t need to be nearly that low in order for life to come into existence. One way of thinking about this is to note that we certainly don’t need a hundred billion other galaxies in the universe in order for life to arise here on Earth; our single galaxy would have been fine, or for that matter a single solar system.” As an atheist he doesn’t view this as an insuperable problem, holding out hope that new physics could somehow explain this low entropy. Carroll indicates that he can’t think of any reason why God would fine-tune the universe more than is necessary, apparently not giving thought to the possibility that God might want to leave evidence that He setup the physics of the universe – evidence of the type that even an infinite multiverse cannot plausibly explain!

Is this evidence for God?

Even if this evidence points to design, why think that God is necessarily the designer?

If this is your perspective, please help remove the stigma on intelligent design so this type of evidence can be fairly evaluated. Also, note that this perspective affirms the claim of leading Intelligent Design advocates that design by itself does not necessarily prove God.

For this particular design evidence, however, I argue that we have reasons for thinking that only a supernatural being could setup these initial conditions in this way. Is it in principle physically possible for a being limited by the laws of physics to setup the initial conditions of our Big Bang? The Heisenberg Uncertainty principle limits our ability to even have knowledge of both position and momentum of particles beyond a certain scale – and it’s even more challenging to think about how so many particles might have their locations and velocities adjusted. The early universe would have been so small that the limits imposed by this physical principle would seem to prevent any physically-limited agent from making the necessary adjustments to the particles or even having knowledge to determine necessary adjustments. Moreover, even those who advocate a naturalistic cause to the Big Bang often admit that the Big Bang represents a spacetime boundary. Many theorists consider our universe to be a causally disconnected region of spacetime – which would make it impossible for a physically limited being residing in a different physical region from affecting anything in this new region of spacetime.
Thus, a supernatural designer seems more plausible than a natural designer. Also, if fine-tuning is required to bring about intelligent life, how did the first natural designers arise?

Does God Have to be Fine-tuned?

To me this seems like asking: “does an uncreated being depend on rare events or rare settings of physical parameters for His existence?” By definition God doesn’t rely on anything for his existence – this is the concept of a necessary being. If the concept of a necessary being seems implausible, I warn you that you might already believe premises that by the rules of logic would entail the existence of a necessary being. I invite you to explore that possibility in this online quiz.


[1] The universe is estimated to contain at least 10^80 atoms – here is one estimate of 10^53 kg: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observable_universe Anyone old enough to read this blog must weigh at least say 10 kg so this seems to be a safe estimate even after accounting for other forms of matter energy not included in the above mass.

[2] Refer to my previous blog for further justification: http://crossexamined.org/cant-even-define-life/

[3] Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind, p. 343. He also makes the same argument in Road to Reality on p. 730.

[4] In addition, the entropy equation for a black hole, first developed by Bekenstein and Hawking, is involved in these computations. This equation is widely accepted by the physics community and I’ve read articles by those who believe in string theory and those who believe in loop quantum gravity arguing for their theories by pointing to how they can derive this same equation in their flavor of quantum gravity.

[5] Sean Carroll, http://preposterousuniverse.com/eternitytohere/faq.html

[6] Penrose says in Road to Reality, p. 755: “Indeed, it is fundamentally misconceived to explain why the universe is special in any particular respect by appealing to a thermalization process [such as inflation]. For, if the thermalization is actually doing anything (such as making temperatures in different regions more equal than they were before), then it represents a definite increasing of entropy. Thus, the universe would have had to be more special before the thermalization than after. This only serves to increase whatever difficulty we might have had previously in trying to come to terms with the initial extraordinarily special nature of the universe. . . . invoking arguments from thermalization, to address this particular problem [of the specialness of the universe], is worse than useless!” A couple of pages later Penrose also writes that “the point is that whether or not we actually have inflation, the physical possibility of an inflationary period is of no use whatever in attempts to ensure that evolution from a generic singularity will lead to a uniform (or spatially flat) universe.”

[7] Carroll, Does the Universe Need God? The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. A copy is available online at http://preposterousuniverse.com/writings/dtung/.

But We Can’t Even Define Life

In my previous blog I addressed some important issues in making the case that fine-tuning supports theism over atheism. Today I want to look at the objection against fine-tuning that says we can’t assess fine-tuning claims because we can’t even define ‘life’ – or put another way: “fine-tuning claims don’t properly account for other possible life forms.” It has proven surprisingly hard for scientists to agree upon a definition for life. This uncertainty, however, hasn’t prevented biologists from making inferences about life nor has it kept physicists from writing numerous articles claiming that certain changes to physical constants would have resulted in a lifeless universe. In most cases, the inference to a lifeless universe is based upon severe catastrophes such as:

  • A very short-lived universe
  • No stable atoms
  • No chemistry
  • No long-lived sources of energy (such as stars)

It seems plausible that in these situations no life could arise of the kind that could evolve into intelligent, rational creatures. Many fine-tuning constraints involve multiple life-permitting criteria so that even if one of them was incorrect, there would still be other constraints on the life-permitting range of values based on different life-permitting criteria. John Leslie affirms that “many of the fundamental constants have to take the values they do for several independent reasons.” Moreover, even if half of the fine-tuning claims were mistaken there would still be a sufficient number of finely-tuned parameters to conclude that life-permitting universes are rare among possibilities. My fine-tuning claim is therefore robust since it doesn’t rely on all physicists’ claims being true – here it is again:

In the set of possible physical laws, parameters and initial conditions, the subset that permits rational conscious life is very small.

If some peer-reviewed articles are in error, there might be other articles defining other constraints or at least there would be enough remaining evidence to conclude that the life-permitting universes are rare among possibilities. But let’s look in detail at what is necessary for life according to scientists.

What are some essential attributes of any plausible life form?

Self-replicating

Any life form that could evolve to possess intelligence would have to include a self-replicating system. John von Neumann showed that any self-replicator requires certain features such as information storage and processing. Any information storage system would need to be comprised of reasonably stable entities. A star, for example, is a hot plasma of charged particles in rapidly changing configurations and thus is deemed implausible to store information needed to originate and sustain life. Also, in the near vacuum of space there are so few particles interacting that there is no plausible way to replicate enough information for complex life.

Non-trivial information content

As origin of life researcher Stuart Kauffman has noted: “all living things seem to have a minimal complexity below which it is impossible to go.” One theoretical estimate for the amount of information for the simplest possible life form is 113,000 base pairs.[1] Any life form is likely to require polymers of some type to serve as building blocks that can be replicated. There are multiple ways in which a lack of finely-tuned parameters could have prevented the formation of any atoms beyond hydrogen. In this scenario, there would be no polymers and indeed no chemical compounds except for H2. It is implausible to think that if only hydrogen ever existed in the universe that we would have intelligent life or so many physicists have argued.

Preservation of information content during replication

We also have some indications from our own planet of the importance of high fidelity information replication. The canonical genetic code that provides the mapping from RNA codons to amino acids used on our planet is highly optimized and arose early in life’s history[2] (else it wouldn’t be as universal.) Biologists interpret this as evidence of the importance of minimizing errors during translation and replication. The ability to preserve information is therefore recognized as being highly important for life.

Ability to harness energy from environment

Life must be able to harness energy from the environment or else the Second Law of Thermodynamics would pose an insurmountable hurdle. A long-lived stable energy source such as a star would therefore be required.

These same constraints and additional ones are described as prerequisites for life in an important article[3] in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that explains the attributes of alternate life forms that might eventually be found elsewhere in the universe. This article serves to confirm that the physics literature is making generous assumptions about what could be life-permitting. Here are some key points of the article with my comments provided after the quotations:

  1. “It is predictable that life, wherever we encounter it, will be composed of macromolecules.” I agree – information and storage would most likely require polymers of some type.
  2. “Only two of the natural atoms, carbon and silicon, are known to serve as the backbones of molecules sufficiently large to carry biological information.” I think that most physicists writing about fine-tuning are open to more alternatives than this article but the article raises some important points about the unique suitability of carbon:
    1. Carbon “unlike silicon … can readily engage in the formation of chemical bonds with many other atoms, thereby allowing for the chemical versatility required to conduct the reactions of biological metabolism and propagation. … Silicon, in contrast, interacts with only a few other atoms, and the large silicon molecules are monotonous compared with the combinatorial universe of organic macromolecules”
    2. “Life also must capture energy and transform that energy into the chemistry of replication. The electronic properties of carbon, unlike silicon, readily allow the formation of double or even triple bonds with other atoms.”
    3. “It is critical that organic reactions, in contrast to silicon-based reactions, are broadly amenable to aqueous conditions. Several of its properties indicate that water is likely to be the milieu for life anywhere in the universe.”
  3. “Life that depends only on chemical energy inevitably will fail as resources diminish and cannot be renewed.” This agrees with my point about needing a stable, long-term energy source to overcome the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
  4. “Temperature is a critical factor for life. Temperatures must be sufficiently high that reactions can occur, but not so high that that complex and relatively fragile biomolecules are destroyed. Moreover, because life probably depends universally on water, the temperature must be in a range for water to have the properties necessary for solute transfer.” Again I think that the physics literature is more open-minded in this aspect but certainly at some point it becomes too hot or too cold to either reliably store information or to have enough energy to replicate it.

But Does Life Have to be Carbon-Based Life?

My fine-tuning claim and that by prominent advocates such as Luke Barnes don’t presuppose that any life form would have to be carbon-based – it’s much more general than that. However, this PNAS article is one of many to claim that silicon is the best alternative to carbon as a basis for life. Silicon bears some similarities to carbon as expected from its position just below carbon on the periodic table. If we can understand why silicon-based life doesn’t appreciably increase the possibilities for life, then we can gain confidence in the generality of the fine-tuning claim.

As the PNAS article indicates, carbon is much more suitable for life than is silicon. Consider the specialness of carbon with regard to the number of types of molecules that can be formed with H (hydrogen) and the following elements[4]:

H – 1

He – 0

Li – 1

Be -1

B – 7

N- 7

O -2

Ne-0

C (carbon) – over 2300 known types of molecules just involving C and H

 Revisiting our dartboard analogy, consider how a life-permitting region is tiny among possibilities. As a reminder, just one finely-tuned parameter, the cosmological constant, has to be set in a narrow life-permitting region among possibilities that is comparable to hitting a bull’s-eye on a huge wall that is 376 million light-years per side. If the life-permitting region for carbon-based life is small, the region for silicon-based life should be smaller since silicon is less suitable for life than is carbon. Although there is one fine-tuning constraint that specifically references carbon, it turns out to also be applicable to silicon. Unless there was a nuclear resonance at just the right energy level, fusion in stars might have never produced carbon. However, without this resonance level there would be a bottleneck that would also inhibit silicon or elements heavier than carbon from being synthesized. Stars make carbon on the way to making silicon. (Most elements past beryllium were synthesized in stellar fusion from smaller atoms.) Thus, universes that produce silicon are no more likely than those that produce carbon – so the bull’s-eye for silicon-based life is smaller and basically just overlaps the carbon bull’s-eye.

Lessons Learned from Origin of Life Research

Consider how some origin of life researchers admit that the origin of the first life form from non-life is exceedingly improbable even with carbon and a diversity of other elements, long-lived stars, and other helpful attributes in our finely-tuned universe. For example, Christian Schwabe writes: “the formation of the first life is viewed as a chance process that occurred in spite of minuscule odds such as 1:10300 and which is accepted only because we are here.[5]“ Eugene Koonin appeals to the multiverse to overcome a horrendous improbability that he estimates at 10-1018 for a plausible first evolvable cell. Not all researchers are this pessimistic but the slow progress in the field should caution those who think that non-carbon life forms a large region in the space of possible parameters. If carbon is so clearly the best choice for life as most biologists believe and if the origin of life is somewhat of an unlikely event even utilizing organic (carbon-based) molecules such as RNA, how much more unlikely is a naturalistic origin of life without carbon.[6]

Fine-Tuning for Intelligent Life

Recall that my fine-tuning claim refers not to just any life form but to intelligent life. Since theism predicts that God would want some advanced life forms, this raises the bar for constraints on life-permitting universes. If merely primitive replicating cells could originate in somewhat less finely-tuned universe, this still would not count against my fine-tuning claim unless this life could also evolve to achieve intelligence and self-awareness. Clearly more fine-tuning is required for the universe to support rational conscious life than would be required for very primitive life forms.

Closing Thoughts

Most physicists writing about fine-tuning think that there are some very clear-cut cases of fine-tuning such as that for the cosmological constant. Consider, for example, how Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg has argued for a multiverse explanation to the fine-tuning of the cosmological constant. He posits vast numbers of universes each with different values for the cosmological constant, the energy density of empty space. Weinberg’s argument for the value being consistent with multiverse predictions relies on a hard limit[7] for the life-permitting range so that our universe can be considered typical among life-permitting universes[8]. Smolin and others have critiqued his prediction as not being that close to what a multiverse would predict but that is irrelevant to my current point which is simply that Weinberg clearly believes that varying this constant by a tiny amount among the possibilities would result in no life of any kind living anywhere in that universe. Refer to my multiverse blog for why our universe would need to be typical among life-permitting universes for a plausible multiverse explanation.

Few physicists specializing in fine-tuning point to other possible forms of life as a supposed refutation to the fine-tuning argument but those who do should write rebuttals to the many peer-reviewed articles claiming life would not exist in certain scenarios involving different physical constants or initial conditions. Skeptics need to show why these authors were mistaken. Perhaps this is a good point of emphasis in urging physicists to be careful in their claims. If some of these fine-tuning claims are over-stated though this would actually provide evidence against a multiverse explanation to the fine-tuning because it would represent ways in which our universe is overly fine-tuned for life. A naturalistic multiverse predicts that our universe should not be more fine-tuned than is minimally necessary to support life.

 


[1] Forster A. C., et al. Nature Mol. Syst. Biol., 2 . doi:10.1038/msb4100090 (2006).

[2] Early Fixation of an Optimal Genetic Code. Molecular Biology and Evolution. Oxford Journals. Stephen J. Freeland2, et al.

[3] Pace, Norman. “The universal nature of biochemistry”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98 (3) (2001): p. 805–8.

[4] This was presented by Luke Barnes at the Philosophy of Cosmology conference in 2013 in Santa Cruz, CA.

[5] Schwabe. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part B: February 1994: (Volume 107, Issue 2) p. 167.

[6] In this blog, I have no intention of getting into discussions about whether or not we have evidence for divine intervention in the origin of life – that is a separate topic. Note that the origin of life and fine-tuning are separate issues. Fine-tuning deals with setting up an environment conducive to life – sort of like that biosphere they setup in Arizona. Conversely, origin of life relates to whether or not life forms were put into that biosphere or originated from non-living matter within it.

[7] By ‘hard limit’ I mean that no other life forms could exist anywhere in universes with cosmological constants whose absolute value exceeded a threshold that is about 120 orders of magnitude less than the natural values predicted by the Standard Model of Particle Physics. BTW, Weinberg first coined the term “Standard Model.”

Important Objections in the Fine-Tuning Debate

In my previous blog I dealt with objections to fine-tuning based on misunderstandings of the nature of the argument or of probability theory. In this blog, however, I attempt to deal with important issues in the debate. If either objection succeeds it would undermine the design inference based upon the fine-tuning evidence.

Could the Laws of Physics Have Been Different?

If there is only one possible set of physics, then there is no sense in which the set of life-permitting physics could be said to be improbable. There are two aspects to considering with regard to whether or not the laws of physics might have been different.

1)      Are there other metaphysically possible alternatives?

Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy so this aspect is really a question that goes beyond science. However even among scientists, few think that there is only one logically possible set of laws of Nature. For example, in one of the classic fine-tuning papers Bernard Carr and Martin Rees note that “even if all apparently anthropic coincidences could be explained [in terms of some deeper theory], it would still be remarkable that the relationships dictated by physical theory happened also to be those propitious for life.[1]” Even if there was only one physically possible set of physics there is still something surprising about the fine-tuning evidence because there is no reason to think that their couldn’t have been different laws, constants, or initial conditions. If there really were no alternatives that were even metaphysically possible, one should be able to derive the laws and parameters of physics without even having to do observations and experiments but as physicist John Barrow notes in regard to the fundamental constants discussed in fine-tuning, “we have never successfully predicted the value of any dimensionless constant in advance of its measurement.”

If one looks at mathematical proofs, the premises are never based on empirical results whereas in science we’ve learned that we need to do experiments to choose among candidate theories. Metaphysicians, therefore, generally recognize that mathematical truths are true in all possible worlds (in the modal logic sense of the word) but that scientific truths are not.

Physicist Paul Davies responds to those few who have tried to argue that “the nature of the physical world would be entirely a consequence of logical and mathematical necessity. There would be no choice about it. I think this is demonstrably wrong. There is not a shred of evidence that the universe is logically necessary. Indeed, as a theoretical physicist I find it rather easy to imagine alternative universes that are logically consistent, and therefore equal contenders for reality.[2]”

2) Are there other physically possible alternatives?

Many leading physicists think that physics itself provides various potential means for varying the fundamental constants. Virtually every physics department is involved in research in theories such as String Theory that entail that the constants of physics actually could be different. As Lee Smolin explains, “string theory makes all the properties of the elementary particles contingent – determined not by fundamental law but by … solutions to the fundamental theory.[3]” String theory was once thought to be the best hope for a Theory of Everything which might explain why the constants of physics take on the values they do. Indeed it might greatly reduce the number of fundamental parameters. However, there seem to be a vast number of solutions to the equations of String Theory although they’re still not well-defined. Some scientists have complained that what was hoped to be a “Theory of Everything” has turned out to look more like a “Theory of Anything.”

In this article, physicist John Barrow lists 5 reasons to expect that the constants of physics can vary.

1)      “We know that the best candidates for unification of the forces of nature in a quantum gravitational environment only seem to exist in finite form if there are many more dimensions of space than the three that we are familiar with. This means that the true constants of nature are defined in higher dimensions and the three-dimensional shadows we observe are no longer fundamental and do not need to be constant. Any slow change in the scale of the extra dimensions would be revealed by measurable changes in our three-dimensional ‘constants’.”

2)      “Some apparent constant might be determined partially or completely by spontaneous symmetry-breaking processes in the very early universe. This introduces an irreducibly random element into the values of those constants.”

3)      “Any outcome of a theory of quantum gravity will be intrinsically probabilistic… [thus some constants are] predicted to be spatial random variables”

4)      “A non-uniqueness of the vacuum state for the universe would allow other numerical combinations of the constants to have occurred in different places.”

5)      There are some observations that the fine-structure constant may have varied very slightly over time and/or space. [Newer studies are still not conclusive on this point – the data is somewhat ambiguous.]

 Even if the constants and laws of physics couldn’t vary, there is even more reason to think that there were many physically possible sets of initial conditions. Paul Davies states this emphatically:

“Even if the laws of physics were unique, it doesn’t follow that the physical universe itself is unique…the laws of physics must be augmented by cosmic initial conditions…there is nothing in present ideas about ‘laws of initial conditions’ remotely to suggest that their consistency with the laws of physics would imply uniqueness. Far from it…it seems, then, that the physical universe does not have to be the way it is: it could have been otherwise.[4]”

John A. Wheeler agrees: “Never has physics come up with a way to tell with what initial conditions the universe was started off. On nothing is physics clearer than what is not physics.”

What about the laws themselves varying?

Fine-tuning proponents don’t generally seek to quantify the rarity of life-permitting physics among all possible laws but rather at the level of initial conditions and constants as not enough is known to evaluate that case in any detail. As Robin Collins puts it, fine-tuning only considers the epistemically illumined region. As we evaluate the space of possibilities that we have sufficient “light” to evaluate, we discover the remarkable fact that life is only possible in a very small subset. Going back to our dartboard analogy from a previous blog, we have some uncertainty about the size of the wall – maybe it’s not 300+ million light years per dimension or maybe it’s actually larger. The argument is still quite powerful even if we’re over estimating the range of available parameters by a factor of a million million million – and remember this analogy dealt with only one of the many finely-tuned parameters.

In a future blog, I will examine how life depends upon certain laws and principles but will not attempt to make a numerical probabilistic case in that arena. In many candidate physical theories, the laws themselves wouldn’t change in different universes, merely the constants in the equations for those laws.

But We Can’t Assess Exact Probabilities

Another objection is that we can’t assess an exact improbability for life. We can tell something is highly improbable even if we cannot compute an exact value or conduct a series of trial experiments. What are the odds that I would beat Lebron James in a one-on-one basketball game? My only chance would be if he got hurt or something and it would be hard to estimate that very precisely.

I agree that it is premature to put an exact number to the rarity of life-permitting universes among possibilities but I believe that we have a dozen or more independent reasons for thinking it highly improbable. I did toss out the improbability of 1 in 10^100 in a previous blog – as a counterfactual saying in effect that if it could be shown that intelligent life was this rare among possibilities, wouldn’t you count it as some evidence for cosmic design? I indicated that when I present the evidence in detail that I would attempt to justify this number and that many non-theistic physicists accept this magnitude of a number for just a single parameter in some cases.

If we accept the plausible assumptions found in the peer-reviewed physics literature, we do end up with an incredible improbability for a life-permitting universe if physics is set randomly. These articles often cite a natural range for constants based on magnitudes derived from Quantum Field Theory or particle masses as predicted by the standard model of particle physics. For my fine-tuning claim to be defeated virtually all of these physics articles would need to be mistaken.

Computing an exact value involves knowing the exact range of possibilities and the distribution function neither of which is generally known precisely. Many scientists take the principle of indifference to imply a uniform (and thus linear) distribution of possible values for constants, Citing Aguirre’s work, Luke Barnes indicates that it’s unreasonable to expect that new information about underlying physics will invalidate fine-tuning: “In short, to significantly change the probability of a life-permitting universe, we would need a prior that centres close to the observed value, and has a narrow peak. But this simply exchanges one fine-tuning for two – the centre and peak of the distribution.” Barnes/Aguirre discussed this at last summer’s philosophy of cosmology conference amidst many prominent physicists and philosophers who have written about the fine-tuning and no one challenged it. Barnes lists some other key attendees as: Craig Callender (UCSD), Sean Carroll (Cal Tech), Shelly Goldstein (Rutgers), Anna Ijjas (Harvard/Rutgers), Tim Maudlin (NYU), Priya Natarajan (Yale), Ward Struyve (Rutgers), Tiziana Vistarini, (Rutgers), David Wallace (Oxford), Alex Pruss, Chris Smeenk, Fred Adams, Leonard Susskind, Matt Johnson.

In summary, I think it would be a mistake to ignore fine-tuning simply because we don’t know exact ranges that values can take on – if anything we may be underestimating them. As I’m presenting the evidence I’ll try to highlight what physicists are saying with regard to expectations for the range of parameter space and the reader can evaluate whether or not these physicists are mistaken in claiming that life-permitting universes are rare among possibilities.


[1] Bernard Carr and Martin Rees, “The Anthropic Principle and the Structure of the Physical World,” Nature 278, (1979): 612.

[2] Paul Davies in Templeton address in August 1995. http://www.firstthings.com/article/1995/08/003-physics-and-the-mind-of-god-the-templeton-prize-address-24

[3] Smolin. The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), p. 127.

[4] Paul Davies, The Mind of God (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), p 169.

Mistaken Objections that Seek to Trivialize Fine-Tuning

This is my third blog in a series on fine-tuning as evidence for God. Here are the first and second blogs, which deal with the philosophical background. Before I share the evidence I want to refute or at least rebut a few objections seen at the popular level but rarely in scholarly circles – otherwise, readers might just ignore the argument no matter what fine-tuning evidence is presented. Generally one should be wary of dismissive claims that attempt to trivialize what many intelligent physicists and philosophers think is worthy of discussion and evaluation. Even hardened skeptics admit that the fine-tuning evidence is worth evaluating. The late Christopher Hitchens answered a question concerning what is the best argument from the other side: “I think everyone of us picks the fine-tuning one as the most intriguing… you have to spend time thinking about it, working on it. It’s not a trivial [argument].” But let’s consider some popular level responses that seek to trivialize fine-tuning.

The Universe is not Adapted to Us, We’re Adapted to the Universe

This was the primary response given by atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian when I discussed fine-tuning in his recent Q&A session at UT Dallas. This response is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the articles in the physics literature as addressed in my previous blog. The fine-tuning deals with how the physics has to be setup before life gets started so without fine-tuning there is no evolutionary way for adapting life to the universe.

Aren’t Any Set of Physical Constants Just As Likely As Any Other?

About 5 years ago I had the opportunity to engage in sort of a friendly debate with the head of the science department at the high school where my daughter and son attended. She was taking a “Theory of Knowledge” class as part of the International Baccalaureate curriculum and the instructor needed to provide an example to students of presentations of opposing viewpoints. He had heard that I was an advocate of Intelligent Design and wanted each of us to make presentations supporting our viewpoints. He is an excellent teacher and heads the science department and I was somewhat nervous to be engaging in my first public debate of this type – this was before I had read a dozen or so books on fine-tuning and taken a graduate course on Cosmology. However, the instructor gave a surprisingly weak response to the fine-tuning evidence that I had presented. He set up an analogy for the students of dealing out a set of 5 cards from a set of 10 packs of cards with different backings. The odds of dealing out any particular hand were extraordinarily low but he argued that since any set of cards was just as likely as any other set, no inference could be made that the cards were not dealt at random. This was supposed to refute a design inference because any set of constants of physics is just as likely as any other.

However, the assumption that any set of constants is just as likely as any other is the very thing that we want to know. Starting off with that as an assumption begs the question against design. As Luke Barnes articulates in this excellent podcast dealing with responses to the fine-tuning claim, suppose we’re playing poker and every time I deal I get a royal flush. If this continues to happen, you become increasingly convinced that I’m likely to be cheating. If I responded to an accusation of cheating by just saying “well any set of 5 cards is just as likely as any other so you can’t accuse me of cheating” you would be rational to reject this explanation. The question is not “how likely is any set of 5 cards?” but rather “how likely is it I’m cheating if I just dealt myself 10 straight royal flushes?” This question accounts for the possibility that I’m cheating which would almost certainly be true in this scenario. So the right question is “given the fine-tuning evidence, how likely is it that the constants were set at random?” The values for physical constants conform to a very particular pattern – that which supports life. The fact that we have so many finely-tuned constants makes it unlikely that they were all set at random (at least in the single universe scenario and I’ve already shown some of the problems/challenges in multiverse explanations.)

RoyalFlush

Photo: Graeme Main/MOD

Puddle Thinking

Another failed objection to Fine-Tuning is based on something written by Douglas Adams, the well known author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (although this quote is not from that book):

“Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’”

Richard Dawkins applied this to the fine-tuning at Adams’ eulogy. There is a meaningful lesson perhaps in this analogy but it’s not applicable to the fine-tuning. In the analogy, “gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller” but the water still conforms the hole perfectly up to a certain height. If we discovered that any set of constants and initial conditions would permit life, then the puddle analogy would be applicable but since the universe has to be fine-tuned to support life, it’s quite disanalogous! Any configuration of dirt supports water whereas very, very few configurations of physics can support life. Some skeptical scientists who have studied the fine-tuning explicitly state this analogy “doesn’t hold water” – such as David Deutsch.

Improbable Events Happen All the Time

Yeah, but when a series of unlikely events have something in common that is predicted by a hypothesis one generally treats that as evidence for the hypothesis. There are many cases in science where inferences are made based on probabilities. Certain organisms, for example, are considered to be evolutionary descendants because it would be extremely unlikely for unrelated organisms to randomly arrive at the same DNA sequences (from a naturalistic perspective anyway). Unlikely events or states conform to a pattern predicted by the hypothesis of common descent.

In the fine-tuning case, a series of fundamental constant of physics such as various particle masses and force strengths all happen to take on values in a narrow range that permits life. These facts conform to a long-standing hypothesis that God would want to create a life-permitting universe and leave evidence that He created it and thus fine-tuning should be treated as evidence for design.

Just one Universe so Probability of Life Must be 1 out of 1

This response implies a frequentist view of probability whereas my fine-tuning argument deals with a Bayesian approach to probability which deals with epistemic probability (as a degree in belief). Refer to this article in the Stanford Encyclopedia for some issues in the finite frequentism version of probability theory – it might be useful in some contexts but there are many cases in science where we would be unable to make reasonable inferences without a more generalized approach to probability theory. For example, if scientists are reasoning about what caused the disappearance of the dinosaurs, finite frequentism is not a useful tool for analyzing this one-time event. There are also many cases in theoretical physics in which we can compute probabilities for certain events and don’t need to rely solely on past statistics. Suppose we have just created the first ever 20-sided die (an icosahedron with numbered sides). Under the finite frequentist approach, suppose we roll the die one time and obtain a 7, should we assume the probability of rolling 7’s is 1 out of 1? We can do better using theoretical physics and recognize that we have a 1/20th chance of rolling each number if the die is perfectly constructed. In engineering, we frequently assess theoretical probabilities before deciding what to build.

Consider an example from theoretical physics – we can know that universes in which the electromagnetic force is stronger than the strong nuclear force will likely be lifeless without having to find such a universe and test it for the presence of life. In such a universe there would be no stable atoms and thus no way of plausibly storing enough information to support a self-replicating system. As Luke Barnes says, analyzing fine-tuning is “not just like theoretical physics, it is theoretical physics.” He also has an excellent blog dealing with the limitations of finite frequentism.

Irrelevant Objections

A common objection is that the universe is not jam packed with life, therefore the universe is not-fine-tuned for life” or that “we can’t live in most parts of the universe so it’s not fine-tuned for life.” Note that these objections are very human-centric whereas in Christian theology God not humans is the most important thing in the universe. In my introductory blog, these kinds of overly narrow expectations of what God would or wouldn’t do are what I caution against. The logical approach for a skeptic would be to assess whether or not God exists in an open-minded way and then seek out more information about His attributes. A God that is not merely a human creation should differ at least slightly from human expectations. In terms of these particular objections, God may simply want to humble humans and show us how small and powerless we are compared to Him. More importantly though, these objections are irrelevant to the fine-tuning claim that I made:

“In the set of possible physical laws, parameters and initial conditions, the subset that permits rational conscious life is very small.”

Moreover, as Barnes points out – if you can understand why humans can’t live in these other parts of the universe such as the vacuum of space or near a black hole you can understand why the universe needs to be finely-tuned because without such fine-tuning the entire universe would be a near vacuum or too full of black holes for life. So in some sense these objections implicitly affirm the fine-tuning claim.

Philosophical Arguments that the Universe had a Beginning

This is my last blog dealing with the origin of the universe as an argument for the existence of God. I’ll examine the issue of whether new physics might be discovered to enable the universe to be past eternal. I’ll offer a couple of philosophical arguments against the possibility of an eternal past. If these arguments succeed we can be confident that no scientific discoveries could ever show that the universe has existed forever. Indeed if these arguments are sound, the scientific evidence I’ve offered so far would become superfluous.

If the universe has existed forever, this would entail an actually infinite number of past events. I use the term “actually infinite” to distinguish it from a potential infinite quantity. No one doubts that the number of future events can grow without limit but this is merely a potential infinite. Any finite time in the future there would still have been a finite number of events since the current time so the infinity is just potential – it represents an unattainable limit as this article by George Ellis, a prominent cosmologist, indicates.

Is it possible for actually infinite numbers of entities to be realized in the actual world?

One of the greatest mathematicians of all-time, David Hilbert, certainly didn’t think so: “the infinite is nowhere to be found in reality. It neither exists in nature nor provides a legitimate basis for rational thought.“ Georg Cantor established a mathematically rigorous way of dealing with the concept of infinity that is very useful for mathematical and scientific calculations. Although Hilbert defended Cantor’s work, he argued that infinities couldn’t exist in the actual world or they would lead to absurdities.

Some readers may be thinking that if it is mathematically possible it has to be physically possible. But not everything used in mathematics necessarily implies a direct correspondence with physical ontology (nature of being). Infinitesimals are mathematically feasible and highly useful in calculus, but modern physics holds that everything is quantized. Mathematical consistency and coherence doesn’t necessarily imply physical realization – there are abstract mathematical systems that can be constructed that are coherent but not all of them are necessarily realized anywhere in physics. In computer science we often choose between multiple mathematically equivalent but quite different ways of computing things – they can’t all correspond to physical ontology because they entail fundamentally different ways of modeling reality. Infinities that show up in physics equations are considered problematic unless and until some type of renormalization can be performed.

So if we can show that absurdities result if actual infinites exist, then we have good reasons for rejecting the possibility of an actually infinite number of past events – even if it is mathematically feasible. Here is how philosopher Peter S Williams makes this argument to a lay audience:

Suppose I ask you to loan me a certain book, but you say: ‘I don’t have it right now, but I’ll ask my friend to lend me his copy and then I’ll lend it to you.’

  • Suppose your friend says the same thing and so on…
    1. If the process of asking to borrow the book goes on forever, I’ll never get the book
    2. If I get the book, the process that led to me getting it can’t have gone on forever

Somewhere down the line of requests to borrow the book, someone had the book without having to borrow it. It’s easy to see how this analogy applies to the Kalam – if the arrival of the current event/book required infinitely many prior events, it would have never arrived. You cannot traverse an actual infinity. If the current event/book did arrive, the process that led to it couldn’t have gone on forever.

Another example of the physical impossibility of an actually infinite number of items is the following. Suppose that there is one particle of some type for every positive whole number (integer) – we can think of these as comprising a mathematical set in which we’ve numbered the particles. The number of particles is aleph null and represents a so-called countable infinity. Suppose this type of particle is not stable and thus half of the particles decay in some time interval. One could think of the number of particles in this set as now consisting of the even integers. But one can also reach a contradictory answer that the number of particles is the same as the original by proving mathematically that the number of even, positive integers is the same as the number of positive integers.

This mathematical proof is quite simply done by showing a one-to-one correspondence between the elements in the set. For every integer in the original set, there is one integer in the set of even integers (2,4,6, …) obtained by just doubling the original value. Thus, the number of particles in each set is mathematically identical even though half of the original particles underwent decay. After we wait another half-life, half of the remaining particles have now decayed so the set would consist of particles (4,8,12, …). However it can also be mathematically proven that the number of positive integers that are multiples of 4 is identical to the number of positive integers. Have the number of particles been reduced or not? We reach contradictory results – no matter how many half-lifes we wait, the number of particles is the unchanged and has been reduced as per the usual physics equation. Thus, dealing with the actually infinite in reality would violate the laws of physics.

Philosopher Alexander Pruss offers at 6 arguments in support of premise 2 of the Kalam – that there couldn’t have been an infinite number of past events. Although he thinks actual infinities might be possible in general, he doesn’t think an infinite causal chain is possible. “This strengthens the Kalaam argument by showing that the premises can be weakened: the Kalaam argument only needs the kind of causal anti-infinitism that I now cautiously accept.”

Objection: But doesn’t Christianity require that God has lived through an infinite number of events?

There has never been a time at which God has not existed. However, if time is a physical entity that began to exist, it seems to have been something brought about by a cause outside of time. The classic theistic understanding is that God is an eternal being that exists outside of time. There is an interesting passage in the New Testament, Jude 24, that speaks of God having dominion and glory before time began. See also Titus 1:2 for another Biblical reference consistent with the understanding from modern physics that time had a beginning. As evidence of God being able to see into the future one can study Biblical prophecies of the future state of cities such as Memphis, Thebes, Babylon, Ninevah, Ashkelon and peoples such as the Philistines, Edomites, and Jews. (See this link to explore this evidence for divine inspiration of texts known to be written before the fulfillment)

It may be hard for us to grasp something that exists outside of time since we are constrained in this realm. Many scientists, however, do posit the existence of other space-time dimensions and explain how we would be unaware of these – e.g. see the book Flatland, which Hawking and Sagan point to an illustration of the possibility of unseen dimensions. Perhaps God exists in another realm or dimension of time or perhaps William Lane Craig is right in theorizing that God existed timelessly before creation and stepped into time when He created time.

Final Comments on the Implications of the Kalam

The conclusion of the Kalam is pretty modest. It doesn’t establish the existence of a particular god etc. Deism rather than theism could still be true if this is all we had to go on. The Kalam, however, is a strong refutation of naturalism – the view that nature is all there is. Most atheists hold to naturalism and if they admit that it’s false they’ve undermined the most significant traditional arguments for atheism.

A transcendent cause to the Universe possesses some properties of God such as being beyond space and time and being immaterial. It’s pretty hard to deny this as atheist scientist Lewis Wolpert discovered in his debate with William Lane Craig. Wolpert admited that the universe had a beginning saying “well we know that, nobody disputes that.” The ease with which he is willing to admit this should bother you if you’re a skeptic as it is yet another testimony to how this argument depends only upon mainstream, widely accepted science. Wolpert’s assertion that it might have been a very special computer fails miserably as one can see here.

Much Ado About Nothing

In my blog series on scientific evidence for God, I’ve initially focused on the origin of the universe. I defended the Kalam cosmological argument and argued that since currently known physics shows that the Universe had to have a beginning there must be a transcendent cause possessing some attributes of the classical understanding of God (as a spaceless, timeless, and immaterial being) Thus, the Kalam provides good reasons for believing in theism over atheism – I claim it provides epistemic support rather than constituting a deductive proof because we cannot prove the premises beyond the shadow of a doubt.

I appreciate the comments and interaction thus far! John raised another good question recently about whether the quantum vacuum could have appeared from nothing and I responded briefly:

Even if our entire universe fluctuated into existence from the quantum vacuum this would not be a defeater for the Kalam unless one could also show that the quantum vacuum is eternal. If spacetime had a beginning, as currently known physics[1] indicates, then so did the quantum vacuum and thus a transcendent spaceless, timeless cause of the Universe would still be required. But if the quantum vacuum itself could emerge from absolutely nothing then the materialist/naturalist would have a path to creating a universe without a god.

I promised to blog in response to this important question, so here it is.

Is it possible for the quantum vacuum to emerge from absolutely nothing?

By “nothing” I mean simply the usual English definition of “not anything.” The concept of “nothing” defined in this way has no properties and thus no potentiality to bring about something. A widely accepted tenet of philosophy is that “out of nothing, nothing comes.” The quantum vacuum is certainly not nothing because it has properties and ones that can be modelled quite accurately using mathematical equations! The quantum vacuum is best thought of as the lowest energy state in spacetime. Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal of the UK, explains:

Cosmologists sometimes claim that the universe can arise ‘from nothing’. But they should watch their language, especially when addressing philosophers. We’ve realised ever since Einstein that empty space can have a structure such that it can be warped and distorted. Even if shrunk down to a ‘point’, it is latent with particles and forces – still a far richer construct than the philosopher’s ‘nothing’. Theorists may, some day, be able to write down fundamental equations governing physical reality. But physics can never explain what ‘breathes fire’ into the equations, and actualised them into a real cosmos. The fundamental question of ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ remains the province of philosophers.

Too bad Lawrence Krauss didn’t heed Rees’s warning. Krauss wrote a book entitled “A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing.” The book’s subtitle references this great question of philosophy about which contemporary philosopher Derek Parfit exclaims: “no question is more sublime than why there is a Universe: why there is anything rather than nothing?”

In the comments section of a critical blog written by ardent atheist Jerry Coyne, Krauss ironically admits his book doesn’t live up to its subtitle “I may not be focusing on the classical question that has bother philosophers, but I don’t think I ever claim to.” But Lawrence, you made that the subtitle of your book! So when pressed even Krauss seems to be backing away some from claiming that the Universe can be created from a state of nothingness prior to the existence of a quantum vacuum. Other times he does seem to be claiming this but even Coyne criticizes him for “a bait-and-switch.” Krauss is equivocating between different definitions of nothing in his argumentation.

Whatever Krauss might be claiming there is no basis for claiming that the quantum vacuum can originate from a state of absolutely nothing. There is no physics of non-being. No scientific experiment has ever been performed in the absence of space and time and thus there is no scientific basis for extrapolating from ‘not anything’ to the physical world.

For a more detailed critique of Krauss by those much more knowledgeable and articulate than myself please read this blog by cosmologist Luke Barnes – here is an excerpt:

Krauss repeatedly talked about universes coming out of nothing, particles coming out of nothing, different types of nothing, nothing being unstable. This is nonsense. The word nothing is often used loosely – I have nothing in my hand, there’s nothing in the fridge etc. But the proper definition of nothing is “not anything”. Nothing is not a type of something, not a kind of thing. It is the absence of anything.

Barnes also has a follow-on blog that is quite helpful where he states:

if something can some out of nothing, then anything and everything can and should come out of nothing at all times and places. This, then, is the empirical evidence we would need in order to believe that the universe could come out of nothing.

I also highly recommend this scathing review of Krauss’ book by philosopher/physicist David Albert that appeared in the NY Times. Here is an excerpt from Albert:

[Physics has] nothing whatsoever to say on the subject of where those [quantum] fields came from, or of why the world should have consisted of the particular kinds of fields it does, or of why it should have consisted of fields at all, or of why there should have been a world in the first place. Period. Case closed. End of story.

But don’t Christians also claim in a creation from nothing?

Note that when theists speak of “creation ex-nihilo” they are referring to creation out of nothing physical. The Christian view is that God is an eternally existing necessary being and so there was something causally before the Universe began (but not temporally since there was no time!)

Note that there are also independent reasons for thinking that a necessary being such as God must exist – for example in the Leibnizian cosmological argument. I chose not to get into that argument because my series of blogs focuses on science and that is a philosophical argument that doesn’t even depend on the universe having to have a beginning. So in the Christian view, God created the Universe out of nothing physical. While that sounds very mysterious to us, science itself has shown us that all of space, time, matter and energy came into being in the finite past. There is nothing physical or natural left to appeal to as a causal explanation. Thus, by deduction we’re left with a supernatural cause – a cause beyond nature.

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[1] By “currently known physics,” I mean the well understood physics of General Relativity and physics associated with semi-classical spacetime. Because no one knows the correct version of quantum gravity, it is possible that new details concerning quantum physics could permit a past eternal universe. Aron Wall has published some good arguments for why one should not expect any new discoveries in quantum physics to overturn the current understanding that the universe had a beginning. Vilenkin has also argued along these lines as well.

Objection to Premise 1 of the Kalam: Doesn’t Quantum Mechanics Violate the Causal Principle?

It depends on what you mean by causality. A philosophically-informed physicist would say Quantum Mechanics (QM) doesn’t do away with causality:

“In fact, QFT[Quantum Field Theory] is constructed in such a way to explicitly preserve causality. Any QFT textbook devotes 10 pages of chapter 1 to explain why the square root of the Klein gordon equation does not make a good wave equation for a QFT – it cannot preserve causality.”

In physics, we speak of things happening based on mathematical laws. For example, two electrons are repulsed by the electromagnetic force and we can compute their path of motion. There seems to be a clear causal connection because the math is fully deterministic. In QM, the only difference is that the math is probabilistic rather than exact. No one is even sure that QM is indeterministic – Bohm’s interpretation might be right. Even if QM is non-deterministic, is it appropriate to say that things are happening without causes? We can use the Schrödinger/Dirac equation to make quite accurate probabilistic computations concerning the evolution of a system. We may not know when a particular radioactive atom will decay but we can use statistically large sets of atoms to accurately perform radiometric dating.

To be sure, there is a lot of controversy over how to interpret causation in QM (e.g., does the observer play a role?) but I don’t think QM really does away with the causal principle in the sense relied upon by the Kalam. The Kalam relies only on there being underlying reasons for things coming into being. If something happens in a manner that can be probabilistically predicted (as is always the case in QM), then it’s not a case of something being created without a cause from absolutely nothing. Things originating without causes could not be predicted even probabilistically!

Here is philosopher/Physicist David Albert on how Quantum Mechanics doesn’t explain the origin of the Universe from absolutely nothing: “The fact that some arrangements of fields happen to correspond to the existence of particles and some don’t is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that some of the possible arrangements of my fingers happen to correspond to the existence of a fist and some don’t. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves, is not a whit more mysterious than the fact that fists can pop in and out of existence, over time, as my fingers rearrange themselves. And none of these poppings — if you look at them aright — amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.”

The Borde-Vilenkin-Guth theorem that I referenced in the previous blog indicates that spacetime cannot be extended into the infinite past. QM operates within spacetime so if spacetime is not eternal it is unreasonable to claim that quantum processes have been eternally in operation. Some physicists do speak of highly speculative theories of creating a universe out of the quantum vacuum but the quantum vacuum is not nothing – it’s just the lowest energy state of spacetime. It’s weird to think about spacetime not existing but such is the implication of BVG and the earlier Hawking-Penrose singularity theorems. This Scientific American article might be helpful in explaining how the Big Bang is not just describing expansion into “some imagined preexisting void.” The Big Bang is not dealing with expansion into preexisting space but the expansion of space.

For more details on the problems when some scientists speak about the Universe being created from absolutely nothing I highly recommend this blog by cosmologist Luke Barnes.