Questions from Theists: How Can the Universe be So Finely Tuned for Life?

When I launched this website a week ago, publishing my About page, I almost immediately got a comment from a theist, arguing in favor of theism. His comment made several different kinds of points in rapid succession. While each assertion and each question deserved its own considered reply, unfortunately, the flurry of them all at once made it hard to do justice to any of them. Assertions can usually be conveyed in a sentence or two, while countering them with substantive arguments takes much longer.

One of the things he asked was this:

How come the world fits together so exactly? If the Earth was a meter closer to the sun, life would not be sustainable, for example.

I picked this one section out, because I knew I could give a quick correction, and — regrettably — was too flippant about the underlying point, that he was asking how the universe can be so finely tuned for life to exist, without an intelligent, omnipotent force (i.e., God) designing the universe for life. I answered that part as follows:

This is false. The Earth has an elliptical orbit, not a circular one. The average distance of the Earth from the sun is ~92,918,000 miles. The Earth’s farthest point from the sun this year is 94,506,507 miles. The Earth’s closest point to the sun this year is 91,401,343 miles. So as you can see, in January, Earth was about one and a half million miles closer to the sun than the average, and right now we’re about one and a half million miles farther away from the sun than average.

He replied to this as follows:

OK, don’t take it as the exact one meter, take it as the principle of the way it works exactly with the seasons, the earth at a certain axle making the seasons as they are, the complete situation that works exactly like it should and with one of these missing it would not work at all.

There are many arguments to be made about fine-tuning, on both sides, and I gave him a several part reply. I’m not going to quote that reply, here, but instead give a similar, expanded and rewritten, reply, for any readers here who have these kinds of questions. [I might also make more posts on the topic, later, and / or add more to this post, since there are many other relevant arguments besides what I included here.] I can’t be certain that this response perfectly suits the gentleman who originally commented, but it might be relevant for readers who are interested in the fine-tuning argument.

(A) Let’s begin by noting how far off the original assertion was:

We don’t know how exactly how much nearer nor farther the Earth could be from the sun while still sustaining life, but we know that the nearest and farthest that the Earth was to the sun this year give us minimum bounds. The numbers are at least this much, and maybe more.

There are 1,609.34 meters per mile, and the difference between the nearest and furthest distances from the sun that the Earth is, this year, comes out to 3,105,164 miles.

3,105,164 x 1,609.34 = 4,997,264,631.76

So, the assertion was off by literally just shy of five-hundred-billion percent, at the very minimum.

I must respectfully suggest to those who both favor the fine-tuning argument and who also use the “meter closer to the sun” example, that finding out one of your primary examples is off by at least five-hundred-billion percent, might be cause for you to reconsider what you know about the topic.

(B) To the best of our knowledge, the universe as a whole appears to be incredibly hostile to life as we know it. The empty stretches of vacuum are almost unimaginably vast, with just tiny spots of matter here and there in between all of the emptiness. The temperature of the universe, on average, is barely above absolute zero. There’s harmful cosmic radiation almost everywhere. If the universe were finely tuned for life by an omnipotent creator, one might expect most of the universe to be habitable, and for life to be flourishing everywhere — an endless grassy plain or woodland, full of all variety of creatures, or something akin to that. Instead, we find that life is almost nowhere. I have heard it said that if the universe were a house, the area habitable for life as we know it would be equivalent to about one atom within that entire house. That’s obviously a very loose analogy, but it’s enough to help one grasp that life as we know it is hardly prospering as we might expect in a universe designed for such life.

(C) The “finely-tuned world is evidence of God,” argument undermines itself.

Why would God need to fine-tune the universe, or our little part of it? What is the reason for fine-tuning?

Think about an architect fine-tuning a house design, or electronics engineers fine-tuning a laptop computer design, or automotive engineers fine-tuning a car design. Architects have to fine-tune houses to make everything that must go into them (such as toilets, oven, electrical wiring, etc.) fit inside the available space, and then they have to fine tune the size of the house itself to fit within the size of the property; they have to fine tune the home to be affordable within the area where it’s being built, to handle the weight of the materials the house is made out of and perhaps handle the weight of things like snow loads on the roof, to withstand the stresses of earthquakes, to withstand local weather patterns, and so on. Electronics engineers have to fine-tune laptop computer designs to accommodate the weight limits of what a person can comfortably carry, the heat a chip can handle, the capacity a battery can store, the cost of memory, and the like. Automotive engineers have to fine tune cars to accommodate how much steel weighs, how strong plastics are, how wide street lanes are, how much air resistance impedes thrust, and the like. Simply put, the only reason one ever fine-tunes anything is because there are external factors that one does not and cannot control. Especially physics and economics. Why don’t architects just design houses with more space on the inside than they take up on the outside, that cost pennies to manufacture? Why don’t electronics engineers make laptop computers that can store an infinite amount of data and never run out of power? Why don’t automotive engineers design cars that travel at the speed of light and can withstand any crash? Because they can’t circumvent the way the world is.

An omnipotent God, on the other hand, would be under no such constraints. He could do whatever He wants. Thus, He would have no need for fine-tuning. He could, for example, just make people fireproof and shockproof by divine will, instead. (After all, gods routinely do miracles which defy physics as we know it, in many of the world’s sacred religious texts.)

Even so, you might think, perhaps God was just in the mood for some fine-tuning, anyway. But this still implies that the world had pre-existing characteristics that were outside of God’s creation. Furthermore, unnecessary fine-tuning would come at steep costs. Think about a laptop computer with infinite data storage capacity, infinite processing speed, and infinite battery power, in comparison to the laptops we have. Likewise, for a god to fine-tune a creation to operate within external factors, rather than divinely will a creation with impunity toward external factors, would be to greatly compromise the design from the absolute best possible, to the best possible within the severe constraints.

If God had to fine-tune the universe, it’s because He was restricted in what He was able to do. He was not omnipotent to make things any way He wanted. And the more fine-tuning was necessary, the more external factors must have been out of His control pressuring the directions of his choices, and the less powerful God was to make things His way. When you start contending that staggeringly huge levels of fine-tuning were required, you are necessarily arguing that God’s creative powers were infinitesimally small. It’s an argument that the way that the world is, was entirely outside of His influence, while God had no choice.

One thought on “Questions from Theists: How Can the Universe be So Finely Tuned for Life?”

  1. You make some valid points about a very similar things that I have heard said. However, in the beginning before sin, the world was perfect. The destruction of life in many places in the bible shows why some areas will never be inhabitable; God made them that way after grave sin in those areas and a stiff necked stubborn people who would not obey God in spite of God’s many warnings prior to their destruction. However, you have convinced me in the flaw of the first comment that I have heard used. However, due to the many impossible miracles God has performed in my own life that could not have been done at a human hand and were otherwise impossible; I shall retain my faith and belief in God.

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