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A Finely Tuned Universe

by Bill Meacham on August 8th, 2014

One of the more superficially plausible arguments for the existence of a Creator God is that of the Finely Tuned Universe. It is a variant of the argument from design, that the contents of the universe are so intricately connected that an intelligent being must have designed them. That argument originally focused on biological complexity, but Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection trumped it by accounting for biological design by natural causes rather than an intelligent creator.(1) The argument that the universe is finely tuned to provide a home for human life extends the argument from design from biology to the cosmos as a whole.

The argument, in brief, is that the conditions that allow life in the universe can occur only when certain universal fundamental physical constants lie within a very narrow range. If any of them were only slightly different, the universe would not be conducive to the establishment and development of not only life, but the diversity of physical elements, astronomical structures, and even matter itself. The probability of these values all being just so is so small that an intelligent Creator God is a better explanation than pure chance.

The list of such constants varies among adherents of this view; among them are the following:(2)

  • The ratio of the strength of gravity to that of electromagnetism;
  • The strength of the force binding nucleons into nuclei;
  • The Density parameter, the relative values of gravity and expansion energy in the Universe;
  • The cosmological constant, which defines the energy density of the vacuum of space;
  • The ratio of the gravitational energy required to pull a large galaxy apart to the energy equivalent of its mass; and
  • The number of spatial dimensions in spacetime.

Recently it has been suggested that the mass of the Higgs Particle, which is 17 orders of magnitude smaller than physicists would expect it to be were it “natural” (a technical term in particle physics, not the opposite of supernatural), is also one of these finely tuned properties of the universe. If it were what physicists would expect given other characteristics of small particles, there would not even be mass as we know it, let alone life.(3)

The Finely Tuned Universe argument asserts that the fact that all these values are set just so is highly, highly improbable. They have a Vanishingly(4) small chance of occurring just as they do by pure chance; so instead, an Intelligent Designer must have set them up that way. As a friend put it, what if you flipped a coin 100 times and it came up heads every time? Wouldn’t that be so improbable that we would suspect something other than random chance?

I think not. In rebuttal, let’s consider some points about probability and the anthropic principle.


The concept of probability applies only to that which has not yet happened, i.e., events in the future. The probability of an event happening is equal to the number of ways it can happen divided by the total number of possible outcomes. For flipping a coin to get heads there is one way the desired event can happen (it comes up heads) and two possible outcomes (it comes up heads and it comes up tails), so the probability of getting heads is 1/2 (0.5) or 50%. To find the probability of independent events that occur in sequence such as 100 heads in a row, you find the probability of each event occurring separately and then multiply the probabilities. That would mean 0.5 to the 100th power, which is indeed minuscule (7.88861E-31, according to Excel).(5)

But, after the events have happened, the concept of probability no longer applies! If you did indeed get 100 heads in a row, the probability, if you can call it that, would be 100%. Before you started, the probability of that outcome was minuscule. After you are done, that outcome is a certainty. It is no longer probable; it is actual.

So to say that we live in a highly improbable universe is bogus. It is certain that we live in the universe as it is.

That answer is unlikely to persuade most people. Yes, the universe is as it is, but before it got that way wasn’t it improbable that it would? My answer: Yes, it was quite improbable. But so was every other way it could have been.

Imagine, not a Creator God, but a Universe Generator. The Universe Generator is like a random number generator (except it does not have to be random) that generates universes, either all at once (the “multiverse”) or one at a time. Before any particular universe is generated, the probability of it turning out in a certain way is minuscule. The probability of a universe with different cosmological constants from ours, but each having a particular value, would be as minuscule as the probability of our universe with the values we find in it. At some point in meta-time our particular universe is generated. Then it’s a done deal, and here we are. That it was improbable before it got generated is nothing remarkable; so was every other universe before it got created.

I’m not sure the concept of a Universe Generator in meta-time actually makes sense, but it is a way of suggesting that the alleged improbability of our universe turning out just as it has is a bogus consideration.

Here is another way of looking at it. For simplicity, imagine flipping a coin, not 100 but only eight times. The probability of getting heads all eight times (HHHHHHHH) would be 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2 X 1/2, or 0.5 to the 8th power, which comes out to 1/256, or 0.00390625. That’s not Vanishingly small, but small enough to seem awfully improbable. Now consider the probability of getting some other result, say HTTHHTHT. Its probability is equally 0.00390625! Now matter how it comes out in the end, before you flip the coins the probability of any particular outcome is the same as any other. Similarly, that our universe was improbable is nothing remarkable. So was every other possible universe.

Anthropic Principle

Yes, one might object, but how come we get to be here and observe our world and think about it? Isn’t that strange? Not really. Consider the Anthropic Principle, the idea that observations of the physical Universe must be compatible with the conscious and sapient life that observes it. A variant called the Weak Anthropic Principle says that the universe’s ostensible fine tuning is the result of selection bias. Only in a universe capable of eventually supporting life will there be living beings capable of observing and reflecting upon any such fine tuning, while a universe less compatible with life would not be observed by anybody.(6) So it is entirely unremarkable that we are here to observe the universe. If the universe were such that it could not support life, we would not be there to observe and puzzle about it. There is no need to posit any sort of intelligent design to account for it. As physicist Stephen Hawking puts it, “Intelligent beings … should … not be surprised if they observe that their locality in the universe satisfies the conditions that are necessary for their existence. It is a bit like a rich person living in a wealthy neighborhood not seeing any poverty.”(7)

So What?

You can readily find on the Internet numerous other objections to the Finely Tuned Universe argument for a Creator God as well as numerous theological arguments that purport to refute them. I have offered a few objections in the interest of clarity of thought, but I suspect that the whole debate is what the Buddha called “questions which tend not to edification.”(8) Who really bases their faith on such arguments? Both theists and atheists come to conclusions on emotional grounds and then find arguments to rationalize their positions, as do we all in many arenas of life.(9)

William James addressed the question over 150 years ago: “It makes not a single jot of difference so far as the past of the world goes, whether we deem it to have been the work of matter or whether we think a divine spirit was its author.”(10) In either case, the world is as it is. From a practical point of view, speculation about origins is futile.

But what does matter is our orientation to life in the future. James, a theist who struggled to find a way to reconcile his urge to believe with science and philosophy, asserted that theism is preferable to atheism because it gives us hope for the future. I have addressed this question before. When objective science fails to provide an answer, our subjective experiences of what we might call a Higher Power can be decisive, particularly if our relationship with that Higher Power provides us benefits. If, for instance, we are happier and function better with such belief than without it, then we are justified in believing.

In that vein, I offer a gentle speculation. Consider the unlikely result of flipping a coin mentioned above, HTTHHTHT. The same result can be written in binary code, the language of computers, as 01100101. That is the code (in ASCII, for those who know what that is) for the letter “e,” the most common letter in the English alphabet. If we examined a computer-encoded text, we would find that sequence, 01100101, far more often than we would expect if its genesis were purely random. Indeed, we would probably find it more often than any other sequence of eight bits. That finding would tell us that the text is not random, but has some other organizing principle.

We cannot inspect numerous universes to see if more of them are amenable to life than we would expect from sheer randomness. But, as a friend suggests, we can look around the world we do live in to see if we can discern evidence of a Higher Power that takes a benevolent interest in us, God’s fingerprints as it were.

And if we find such evidence, we try to formulate a coherent story of how it fits in with the rest of what we know. There are many such stories in the world’s religions. Here is another one. In the beginning, it is said, was the Word.(11) Perhaps the universe we live in is a story that God is telling, a story that isn’t over yet. We are characters in the story; and unlike characters on the printed page, whose actions are determined by the author, we get to co-create the story. We get to make decisions and exert our will to make things happen. Maybe our actions are only eight tiny bits in a sequence that is Vastly long, but those bits make a difference. And it is up to us what kind of difference we make.


(1) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Design Arguments for the Existence of God.”

(2) Wikipedia, “Fine-tuned Universe.”

(3) Veith, “A Christian Physicist;” Barr, “On the Edge of Discovery;” Barr, “The Large Hadron Collider.”

(4) Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 207.  “Vanishingly” (capitalized) means very, very small, but not infinitely so.  Its reciprocal is “Vast,” meaning very, very large, but not infinite.

(5) Aczel, Chance, pp. 5-12.

(6) Wikipedia, “Anthropic Principle.”

(7) Quoted in Iron Chariots, “Fine-tuning argument.”

(8) Buddhist Writings, Majjhima-Nikaya, Sutta 63.

(9) Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, pp. 13-17.

(10) James, “Some Metaphysical Problems,” p. 71.

(11) Christian Bible, John 1:1.


Aczel, Amir D. Chance: A Guide to Gambling, Love, the Stock Market & Just About Everything Else. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004.

Barr, Stephen M. “On the Edge of Discovery.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Barr, Stephen M. “The Large Hadron Collider, the Multiverse, and Me (and my friends).” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Buddhist Writings, Translated and Annotated by Henry Clarke Warren. Vol. XLV, Part 3. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;, 2001. Online publication as of 15 November 2012.

Dennett, Daniel. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools For Thinking. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Design Arguments for the Existence of God.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Iron Chariots. “Fine-tuning argument.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

James, William. “Some Metaphysical Problems Pragmatically Considered.” In Pragmatism and four essays from The Meaning of Truth. 1955. New York: Meridian Books, 1964. Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Veith, Gene. “A Christian physicist, the Higgs particle, and an anthropic multiverse.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Wikipedia. “Anthropic principle.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

Wikipedia. “Fine-tuned Universe.” Online publication as of 6 August 2014.

From → Philosophy

  1. I like this topic! From your post:

    But, after the events have happened, the concept of probability no longer applies! If you did indeed get 100 heads in a row, the probability, if you can call it that, would be 100%. Before you started, the probability of that outcome was minuscule. After you are done, that outcome is a certainty. It is no longer probable; it is actual.
    So to say that we live in a highly improbable universe is bogus. It is certain that we live in the universe as it is.

    This is a truth often forgotten or underestimated, and I’d like to extend that idea a bit.

    When we realize that actuality has no probability it also means that:
    1. The unfolding of the universe is a single event, entirely entwined to include every atom and quark in complete codependence; it’s not a series of independent events proceeding by cause and effect, that being a crude and compromised approximation made for the sake of pragmatic expediency.
    2. The idea that the universe has any probability is one expression of the fallacy of the objective viewpoint; one could only posit the probability of “the universe being just so” from an objective stance outside the universe, and that’s not where we are, nor ever could be.
    3. All there is to know is manifest in each present moment, for in the present is all of existence. However, to miss any one bit of what happens in a given moment is to forever miss an essential piece of the whole picture of existence. Merely in that I cannot now see the plight of a friend on the other side of town, I am sure we can never form a complete picture of the universe because we can never access all the pieces that make it up.
    4. If we take the universe as actual rather than probable (which I think is the only way to take it which does not end up absurd), then it means time is not an important factor in understanding the coherence of the whole thing. That is, even things which happen prior to other things can be rightly considered as mutually necessary. So while we easily say the earlier thing must have led to the latter, it is also correct that the latter thing was inevitable given the earlier one. For example, people had to arise in this universe, just as surely as light did.
    5. That is, there is only one given, and it is everything.

    Finally, the most important aspect of all this might be that probability, like concepts of free will, choice, and “branching alternatives” are ontologically epistemological; that is, they arise from a finite (limited) and subjective access to knowledge. So too, free will and choice are not “real”. However, it’s just as important to realize that this does NOT mean they don’t “matter”. These exist in an ontology where we can also find concepts like time, God, intention, theory, mathematics, good, and love. These operate in an actual subjective domain that inevitably arises in this universe and they operate in such a way that they play an essential role in the continuing inevitable development of the whole of existence. Every choice is necessary, and must be made as freely as it can be, and every one of those choices necessarily result in the creation of the further manifestation of a single eternal moment.

    Just to clarify: Determinism is as irrelevant and meaningless as “the probability of the universe”. The same sort of reasoning which eliminates probability also eventually requires that an intentional stance be taken by and for souls like us, and for the beings that can conceive it and to the maximum extent they can feel it, the freedom to choose and indeed create each moment as the inevitable extension of the preceding moment which it seems to be.

    To me the answer to “So what?” is a little stronger. To me all this stuff means that:
    1. My choices are free and essential to the unfolding of the universe; ie. I am a true creator.
    2. Every choice I make is deeply validated by the universe as a whole, but
    3. I remain the only true judge of how good my choices are, and I retain the freedom and self-endowed responsibility to improve my choices in time.

    If we accept these terms on the faith that they can or should be held true for all beings with whom we can communicate about such things, then there are some real implications as regards how to approach things like laws and punishments, education, politics, etc. These interpretations can also feed very productive work in the software of our souls.

    More succinctly, if we hold these truths to be self-evident, we might be able to write a better constitution, curriculum, or DSM than ever before.

    • Bill Meacham permalink

      Thanks, Guy.

      You say

      > there are some real implications as regards how to approach things like laws and punishments, education, politics, etc.

      I’d like to hear what you think those implications are. Please post something on your blog.

      > if we hold these truths to be self-evident …

      Except they are not self-evident to most people, so you’ll need to argue for your position. I’d like to see what leads you to believe “the universe is a single event.”

      Best regards, Bill

  2. Dustin permalink

    “So to say that we live in a highly improbable universe is bogus. It is certain that we live in the universe as it is.”

    Well, when someone makes the statement “the universe is highly improbable,” they cannot be speaking in the same temporal sense that you mentioned. In fact, they aren’t even making a statement about the universe, they are making a statement about our perception of it.

    Let me give a metaphor: I’m standing in the middle of a football field. I am told there is a single drop of rain that will fall from the sky. When that rain drop hits my head, I say “that was highly improbable!” This is not a “bogus” statement; it is a comment about our expectations. Humans, after all, rely on percentages. 99% of the universe does not appear to be inhabitable. To our perception, this is highly unexpected. Once again, of course the universe exists and we are here and that is certain. But that is about as useful as Tarsky’s “truth” serum: “The universe has humans if and only if the universe has humans.”

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