A Fine Tuned Universe? 4 (RJS)

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The second section of Alister McGrath’s new book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology deals with fine-tuning and natural theology in the context of a number of scientific theories and observations. The first of these relate to cosmology and the fundamental constants of the universe.  We discussed some of this in a post, The Heavens Declare, a month or so ago, but it is worth a revisit in the context of McGrath’s book.

It has been noted by many scientist that the universe appears to be fine-tuned for the existence of life.  Many of the fundamental constants appear unconstrained in their values, yet have values that, if they were even slightly different, would lead to a sterile universe unable to develop life. This leads to the so-called Anthropic Principle which is expressed in two forms (p. 116): weak:what we can expect to observe must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers” (after all to quote Robert Dicke “It is well known that carbon is required to make physicists”(p. 122)) and strong:the universe (and  hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends) must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage.

This observation does not provide a deductive proof for the existence of God, and certainly does not demonstrate the existence of the Christian God.  Yet it is consistent with Christian theism.  And this leads to the question McGrath poses in his book.

Does God offer the best empirical explanation for the anthropic phenomena, the fine-tuning of the universe for our existence?

For those who are interested, the development of our understanding of the nature and origins of the universe is a fascinating story.  For an accessible introduction McGrath recommends a book by Amir Aczel  God’s Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe and I concur. This is a fascinating and readable book. The title, God’s Equation, refers not to any theistic view, but to the fact that there is a relatively simple fundamental equation that describes the universe.

The standard cosmological model describes the universe as forming in a series of eras beginning from the Planck era (the first 10-43 seconds) extending to the present.  An interesting description can be found on this site: Life in the Universe with a chart here.

But back to our main topic. McGrath outlines three different approaches that are taken to deal with the anthropic phenomena.

First:  The fine-tuning is nothing but an interesting coincidence. We are incredibly lucky – and if we weren’t, we wouldn’t be here to know about it.

The fundamental constants in question had to have some value – so why not these ones? They need possess no further significance. To give an example: the population of the United States is (over) 300 million. There is only one president. The odds of any one American becoming president are thus 1 in 300 million. But so what? It may be highly improbable that any given individual should be president, but it is a certainty that someone will be. At one level it is impossible to refute this argument. Yet it is clearly inadequate to account for the actualization of a highly improbable scenario: the emergence of a universe adapted for life. (p. 121)

Second: Observational Bias. The anthropic principle appears significant on account of the bias or location of the observer. This relates to the observation of a number of coincidences in the magnitudes of various quantities pointed out by P.A.M. Dirac. But these coincidences may simply point to a timing issue – these coincidences hold at the time and place where life develops, but they do not hold everywhere or at all times.  Of course they are true here and now.

A related approach is taken by Nick Bostrom, who argues that any special features of the universe which we might observe are ultimately illusory, a necessary consequence of our restricted viewpoint. … Bostrom thus argues that the central error of much anthropic thinking concerns a failure to appreciate that it represents nothing other than an observational selection effect. (p. 122)

Third: We don’t have a universe, we have a multiverse. This approach is based on the inflationary model proposed by Alan Guth.

On this view, there exists a multiplicity of universes, so that the one we inhabit is an inevitability. We happen to live in a universe with these biologically friendly properties; we do not observe other universes, where these conditions do not pertain. (p. 123)

Because there was an enormous inflation in the intial formation of the universe there are bubbles completely separated from each other that we are unable to observe. The speed of light – our limiting communication channel – guarantees that we will never observe them.

Current interpretations of string theory suggest that the multiverse may consist of as many as 10500 sets of constants. In most of these domains, the sets of values inherited would be expected to be biophobic. However on probabilistic grounds, there will be some region in which the sets of values are biophilic. We happen to live in one such universe. It may be fine-tuned for life. But what of the 10500 others? (p. 124)

Some will go so far as to suggest that every possible outcome has been realized and as some universes are suitable for life at certain times, in certain places, it is inevitable that life will exist. We are back to the first option above. While it is improbable that any given universe will be hospitable, it is inevitable that some (at least one) will be.

McGrath points out that “at present the multiverse hypothesis remains little more than a fascinating yet highly speculative mathematical exercise.”  He also suggests that while the multiverse is touted by some as doing away with the need to consider design or divinity, that the multiverse is fully consistent with the theistic understanding of God.  It certainly doesn’t eliminate God as creator.  We still have a universe created with the potential and potencies for  our existence.

Back to Augustine and the general model found in his view of creation.

The fundamental picture that emerges from the contemporary view of the origins and development of the universe is that of an entity which came into existence and was virtually instantaneously endowed with the potentialities for anthropic development.

Augustine suggested that God created not by producing ready-made objects but by potencies and process. This is entirely consistent with the world we see. We live in a universe where it is possible (obviously) and inevitable that something like us would exist – the universe was created with the “potencies” for our development. Not in the way that Augustine thought – but nonetheless created and designed with intent using process to bring it about.

So What?

The existence of God is a reasonable empirical explanation for the data – but it is not the only possible explanation. I think that it is the best empirical explanation because it explains more than just the nature of the universe. But this is a faith statement.  It is not a science statement. And I will suggest that this is the way God intends it to be.  When we read the story in the Bible, the story of God’s interaction with his people two things seem obvious to me. First, the God of the Bible is interested in relationship and covenant.  He does not knock people over the head and compel them to belief and obedience. Second, if the Bible is taken seriously, even incontrovertible evidence is insufficient to compel belief and obedience. This is a relationship.

What do you think? Does the fine-tuning of the universe for our existence point to God?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at] att.net.

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  • Scot McKnight

    Thanks again for such a clear and accessible description.
    This anthropic principle fascinates me and I do think it is one of the major facts of life to be explained. And I agree with McGrath that the multi-universes theory is speculative and only a mathematical probability, and it takes the same kind of faith in that theory as one needs to believe in God. That second theory is a wonderful piece of postmodernity but it doesn’t work for me because we are dealing with facts that are testable in many ways.
    Yes, the anthropic principle could be coincidence but the bottom line for any of us ought at least lead to the position of Einstein — some kind of profound awe at the vastness and intricacy and marvel of life. That awe, so I think, leads us also to the God who created and summons us to look and learn and believe and wonder.
    Anyway, I’m an amateur in this stuff.

  • I don’t see the Anthropic Principle as pointing toward God anymore than it points toward randomness. I want it to point toward God, but maybe my desire points toward God more than the evidence itself?

  • Travis Greene

    I think it points to or suggests God, but doesn’t compel belief in God.
    I also think the multiverse (if true) does not challenge Christian belief. So what if there are billions of universes that are nothing but boiling gas or inert cool matter or emptiness or whatever and we live on the one little habitable island. We already know that; we are surrounded by lifeless suns and dead, scorched planets, with no other life that we know of, just in this universe.

  • Contrary to bogus claims by just about everybody that doesn’t know what they are babbling about… Robert Dicke’s interpretation was NOT a statement of the weak anthropic principle, which is only valid if you assume that the multiverse really does exist, (or if you can produce a valid cosmological principle that explains why we are just an accidental consequence of otherwise highly pointed physics), because the weak interpretation is not observed.
    Regardless, the existence of God is not a reasonable empirical explanation for the data even if we are not here by accident, as long as it is plausible that we are simply a necessary function of the thermodynamic process, rather than an accidental consequence of it.
    Then there is the real reason… but nobody round here wants to hear it.

  • dopderbeck

    McGrath hits the nail on the head IMHO. But I’m going to quibble with this characterization: “But this is a faith statement. It is not a science statement. And I will suggest that this is the way God intends it to be.”
    McGrath’s overall “scientific theology” project is an effort to modify this “faith statement vs. science statement” duality. The statement that “the anthropic principle reflects God’s providential ordering of the universe to produce life” is first neither a “faith statement” nor a “science statement”: it is a truth claim about the nature of reality. This statement is interdisciplinary: it ties together things that can be known through “faith” (or better, “theology”) and things that can be known through “science.” The tools and methods of “science” can describe the cosmological constants and their importance for life as we know it, but they cannot offer any insight on the metaphysical meaning or purpose of those data. The tools and methods of “theology” supply metaphysical context for these scientific observations. Here we have what seems very much to be an excellent example of the consilience of methods that together provide a more fully-orbed explanation of reality than either can alone.
    Scot McK, yes, that sense of profound awe should lead us to think theologically. But does it or can it without the prompting of the Holy Spirit? Like McGrath, I think I lean more towards Barth’s reading of Romans 1 here. The heavens declare God’s glory, but without the Holy Spirit, people refuse to see that. This is why the strong ID program fails theologically, IMHO.

  • RJS

    Your elaboration of your quibble with my statement regarding faith and science does a pretty good job (better than I did) of explaining what I meant by the statement. Tools and methods of science cannot provide a metaphysical meaning for the observations and cannot eliminate such meanings.

  • MatthewS

    Would the biblical narrative allow for multiple universes containing humans who have sinned? I understand there to be one eternal God and one Christ event. So either the other universes would be without redemption or they would all have to point to Jesus’ atonement in our universe; neither seems likely.

  • Island, you wrote:
    “Then there is the real reason… but nobody round here wants to hear it.”
    1.) Clearly this is a faith statement on your part, described as fact. So you’re kind of undermining your own credibility. Choose skepticism if you wish. But shifting one faith statement for another – one interpretation of the data for another – really gets you nowhere.
    2.) Its not that we don’t want to hear it. We hear you, we just beg to differ. We lean towards a different interpretation of the facts. But you’re welcome to continue to offer alternatives.

  • Rick

    “…the other universes would be without redemption or they would all have to point to Jesus’ atonement in our universe…”
    I feel like this is Star Trek meets C.S. Lewis. ;^)

  • Rick – totally!
    Spock, said cooly to Kirk:
    “Captain, we appear to be encountering a salvific anomaly.”

  • RJS,
    I have very much appreciated this series. I’m not a scientist and so I benefit from your clear explanations.
    I have one little question. You use the term ’empirical explanation’ a few times in this post. What do you mean by this? Put another way, how does an empirical explanation differ from an ordinary explanation? When I read the term I think testable, but then we couldn’t really say the existence of God is an empirical explanation, so I’m no doubt missing something.

  • RJS

    craig v,
    Empirical means based on or characterized by observation and experiment instead of theory.
    An empirical fit is one that models the data well, but may or may not be demanded by a theoretical model.
    All I meant in the first question was in your opinion does God provide the best practical explanation for the fine-tuning of the universe? In my later use of the term I meant something similar. I am not saying that God is the only way to account for fine-tuning, – but suggesting that God is a reasonable way to account for fine-tuning.

  • RJS

    I think that the multiverse hypothesis is a bit farfetched – but…
    If there are a multitude of universes with different constants, and if other universes are capable of sustaining life, I expect that God will have dealt with each on their own terms and it is nothing for us to worry about. Since the essence of the Christian story is that God became like us and atoned for us so that we could be “like him” I would expect that this is confined to our space-time universe.
    If we take the discussion of angels and demons from the pages of scripture – do all of them also come to God through the atoning work of Christ?

  • RJS,
    Thanks. I also think the multiverse idea farfetched. My physics prof back in my undergrad was a man who had thoroughly enjoyed the 60s (read: didn’t come back down ’til the 70s!). Multiple universes seemed great to him!! So did some pretty wild theories involving waves. I think doing dope in the 60s is a necessary prereq for some theories 🙂
    Angels and demons: what evidence of atonement for them exists? Not sure there is such. I get the impression they all made a choice once for all and they all live with it. This is highly speculative and held with completely open hands to be sure.

  • Steve A

    Thanks RJS for this very helpful series. I think that the “fine tuning” we observe is a powerful pointer towards God. I also agree that God doesn’t force us to believe and so it isn’t dispositive of the question of his existence.
    But, if we have a single universe the “coincidences” necessary for us to exist are piling up pretty high. (and, this is not like the president of US example–where the system requires that we have a President, so it makes the existence of someone with that title very likely. Here we have no scientific basis to think that the universe needed to create us specifically or even create life in the broadest sense, so the fact that it is tuned so it did is something we all have to grapple with.
    I think the multiverse explanations sound mostly like a desperate attempt to avoid addressing the problems above, with a beautiful, unproveable, and empirical evidence free “answer.” To me it is basically a faith statement–“I can’t believe in a super (or extra) natural cause, so I’ll imagine a world where everything could happen and so does happen somewhere (and ignore the problem of first causes).” I’m not saying all multiverse theorists think this, but many people who point to multiverse theories are using them in more or less exactly the same way that YECs use Genesis–here is something that supports what I already believe.

  • Phil M

    dopderbeck (#5)
    I like your distinction of the different tools that must come together to determine truth. Given that you’ve identified two of those tools (science and theology), what would you classify the middle tool (“the anthropic principle reflects…”) as? Philosophy?

  • The third explanation seems rather unlikely — even if the Big Bang (etc.) were to separate several ‘bubbles’ that wouldn’t see eachother, the physics across them should still stay the same. After all, distance from our planet to the sun doesn’t change physics, why would any distance?
    As another note, people interested in this could also check out Sproul’s “Not a Chance” over here: http://www.amazon.com/Not-Chance-Modern-Science-Cosmology/dp/080105852X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1246586428&sr=8-1.