This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
As I’ve written before: Many arguments for religion and against atheism are so bad, they can’t even be considered arguments. They’re not serious attempts to offer evidence or reason supporting the existence of God. They’re simply attempts to deflect legitimate questions, or ad-hominem insults of atheists, or the baffling notion that “I want to believe” is a good argument, or attempts to just make the questions go away. Or similar nonsense.
But some arguments for religion do sincerely offer evidence and reason for the existence of God. They’re still not very good arguments, and the evidence and reason being offered still don’t hold water…. but they’re sincere arguments, so I’m doing them the honor of addressing them.
Today’s argument: the argument from fine-tuning.
The argument from fine-tuning goes roughly like this: The Universe is perfectly fine-tuned to allow life to come into being. The distance of the Earth from the Sun, the substance and depth of the atmosphere, the orbit of the Moon, the nature of matter and energy, the very laws of physics themselves… all are perfectly tuned to let life happen. If any of them had been different by even a small amount, there could not have been life on Earth. And the odds against this fine-tuning are astronomical. Therefore, the Universe, and all these details about it, must have been created this way on purpose. And the only imaginable being that could have created the universe and fine-tuned it for life is God.
Okay. We have some serious misunderstandings here.
The Perfectly Fine-Tuned Puddle Hole
Let’s assume, for the moment, that the Universe really is perfectly set up for life, and human life at that. I don’t think that for a second — I’ll get to that in a bit — but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that it’s true.
Does that imply that the Universe was created that way on purpose?
No. It absolutely does not.
Here’s an analogy. I just rolled a die ten times (that’s a six-sided die, all you D&D freaks), and got the sequence 3241154645. The odds against that particular sequence coming up are astronomical. Over 60 million to one.
Does that mean that this sequence was designed to come up?
Or think of it this way. The odds against me, personally being born? They’re beyond astronomical. The chances that, of my mom’s hundreds of eggs and my dad’s hundreds of millions of sperm, this particular sperm and egg happened to combine to make me? Ridiculously unlikely. Especially when you factor in the odds against my parents being born… and against their parents being born… and their parents, and theirs, and so on and so on and so on. The chances against me, personally, having been born are so vast, it’s almost unimaginable.
But does that mean I was destined to be born?
Does that mean we need to concoct an entire philosophy and theology to explain The Improbability of Greta-ness?
Or does it simply mean that I won the cosmic lottery? Does it simply mean that my existence is one of many wildly improbable outcomes of the universe… and if it hadn’t happened, something else would have? Does it simply mean that some other kid would have been born to my parents instead… a kid whose existence would have been every bit as unlikely as mine?
Yes, life on Earth is wildly improbable. And if it hadn’t happened, some other weird chemical stew would have arisen on Earth, one that didn’t turn into life. Or life would have developed, but it would have evolved into some form other than humanity. Or the Earth would never have formed around the Sun, but some other unlikely planet would have formed around some other star. (Maybe one with cool rings around it like Saturn, only Day-Glo orange with green stripes.) If life on Earth hadn’t happened, something else equally improbable would have happened instead. We just wouldn’t be here to wonder about it.
Douglas Adams (of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) put this extremely well in his renowned Puddle Analogy. He said:
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!”
Yes, the hole fits us rather neatly. But that doesn’t mean the hole was designed to have us in it. We evolved to fit in the hole that happened to be here. If the hole had been shaped differently, something else would have happened instead.
And how perfect is this hole, anyway?
Bitter Expanses of Cold and Blasting Chaotic Heat — The Perfect Vacation Spot!
Douglas Adams’s puddle analogy doesn’t end there. It continues:
This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise.
How perfectly fine-tuned for life is the Universe, really?
Life on Earth has only been around for about 3.7 billion years. Human life has only been around for 200,000 of those years (more or less, depending on how you define “human”).
The universe, on the other hand, is about 14 billion years old. (Post Big Bang, at any rate.)
Therefore, the current life span of humanity is a mere one 7,000th of the current lifespan of the Universe.
And after Earth and all of humanity has boiled away into space forever, the Universe will keep going — for billions and billions of years.
How, exactly, does that qualify as the Universe being fine-tuned for life?
To use Adams’ puddle analogy: The sun is rising. The air is heating up. The puddle isn’t getting smaller yet, but it’s destined to. And yet, many droplets in the puddle are still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright… because this world was supposedly built to have us in it.
And that doesn’t even take into account the mind-boggling vastness of space — the mind-boggling majority of which is not hospitable to life in the slightest. The overwhelming majority of the universe consists of unimaginably huge vastnessess of impossibly cold empty space… punctuated at rare intervals by comets, asteroids, meteors (some of which might hit us, by the way, also negating the “perfectly designed for human life” concept), cold rocks, blazingly hot furnaces of incandescent gas, the occasional black hole, and what have you. The overwhelming majority of the universe is, to put it mildly, not fine-tuned for life.
In other words: In the enormous vastness of space and time, one rock orbiting one star developed conditions that allowed the unusual bio-chemical process of intelligent life to come into being for a few hundred thousand years — a billion years at the absolute outset — before being boiled into space forever.
Somehow, I’m having a hard time seeing that as fine-tuning.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked the question: If biological life was intentionally designed by a perfect, all-powerful God… why did he do such a piss-poor job of it? Why does the “design” of life include so much clumsiness, half-assedness, inefficiency, “fixed that for you” jury-rigs, pointless superfluities, glaring omissions, laughable failures and appalling, mind-numbing brutality?
Today, I’m asking a similar question: If the universe was “fine-tuned” for life by a perfect, all-powerful God… why did he do such a piss-poor job of it? Why was the 93- billion- light- years- across universe created 13.73 billion years ago… just so the fragile process of human life in one tiny solar system could blink into existence for a few hundred thousand years, a billion years at the absolute most, and then blink out again? Why could an asteroid or a solar flare or any number of other astronomical incidents wipe out that life at any time? If the universe was “fine-tuned” for life to come into being, why is the ridiculously overwhelming majority of it created to be so inhospitable to life? (Even if there’s life on other planets, which is hypothetically possible, the point still remains: Why is the portion of the Universe that’s hospitable to life so absurdly minuscule?)
Atheists are often accused by religious believers of being arrogant. But it’s hard to look at the fine-tuning argument and see any validity to that at all. Believers are the ones who are arguing that the Universe was created just so humanity could come into existence… and that the immeasurable vastness of stars and galaxies far beyond our reach and even beyond our knowledge was still, somehow, put there for us. Maybe so we could see all the pretty blinky lights in the sky. Atheists are the ones who accept that the Universe was not made for us. Atheists are the ones who accept that we are a lucky roll of the dice; an unusual bio-chemical process that’s happening on one planet orbiting one star that happens, for a brief period, to have conditions that allow for it. (I know this is kind of a buzz-kill; here’s a nice humanist philosophy about it that might cheer you up.)
Yes, the existence of humanity is unlikely. But so is my personal existence, and the existence of the Messier 87 galaxy, and the roll of a die in the sequence 3241154645. That doesn’t mean these things were designed to happen. We are a puddle that evolved to fit in a convenient hole. There is no reason to think that the hole was created for us. And there is every reason to think that it was not. If “The existence of life in the universe just seems too unlikely” is the only argument you can make for why the universe was designed by God, you’re going to have to find a better argument.