When Mere Coincidence Fails to Explain

When Mere Coincidence Fails to Explain

What are the odds that we are alive by chance? Is the universe fine-tuned?

My wife, Pattie, likes to experiment with recipes. Sometimes she will tinker with the quantity of cooking oil, substitute honey for sugar, or add a variety of nuts or fruit to a dish. Invariably, it’s healthier—or so I am told—and sometimes it’s even just as tasty.

Imagine, however, a recipe that came with this warning: “Do not vary ingredients, quantities, temperatures, or cooking time by even the slightest amount, or it will result in immediate death!” To take this example a step further, what if our survival required we eat only one particular food? We might say that food is “fine-tuned for human life.”

Well, scientists are discovering—almost daily it seems—that the recipe for making and maintaining advanced life is nothing short of this. It seems as if the universe were made to support human life. The term philosophers and scientists use for this phenomenon is the “anthropic principle.”1

A Fine-Tuned World

One scientist has identified several hundred conditions within our world that, if varied in the slightest, would result in the impossibility of human life.2 For many of these conditions, the sheer degree of precision is hard to fathom. It would be equivalent to a recipe requiring us to count individual grains of sugar, measure molecules of milk, and calculate to the thousandths of a degree the temperature of the oven and the correct fraction of a second for it to shut off.

Fine-tuning appears everywhere. Scientists see it in everything from the structure of the entire universe to subatomic particles. From the presence of fine-tuning emerges an argument for the existence of a Creator outside of time itself. Often this Creator is believed to possess supernatural knowledge, power, and even love for the human species.

The Laws of Physics

The universe has unfolded following unchanging laws of physics. Scientists and biblical scholars agree that the laws of physics existed prior to the beginning of the universe. In fact, you might be surprised to know that in Jeremiah 33:25–26, the prophet mentions this principle, almost in passing, to compare God’s unchanging love for his people to his unchanging laws that govern our world.3

What science has revealed since the time of Jeremiah is that these laws are exquisitely fine-tuned to permit the universe to exist. Astronomer Hugh Ross has identified hundreds of fine-tuning parameters necessary for human life, which point toward intelligent design. Let’s consider those that have to do with the laws of physics themselves (as compared to the scores of other fine-tuning parameters that have to do with the design of the universe, our galaxy, the solar system, our planet, and biology.) The three most common forces that must be “just right” are gravity, the strong nuclear force, and the electromagnetic force.

The Force Be with Us

Physicist Brandon Carter has determined that if the force of gravity were to vary by more than 1 part in 1040, life-sustaining stars like our sun would be impossible. Isaac Newton described the strength of the gravitational force and Einstein further refined what this force is, but who determined that it should be exactly what it is?

Even if we were to accept the position that gravity is simply a fact, we still are left with the question of why this force is so precisely fine-tuned—to the extent that even the tiniest difference would mean life is not possible.4

The electromagnetic force is also fine-tuned for life. If the electromagnetic force were slightly greater, then atoms would cling to electrons more tightly, making the sharing of electrons with other atoms impossible. But it is this sharing of electrons that makes chemistry (and life) possible. On the other hand, if the electromagnetic force were slightly weaker, the atoms could not hang on to the electrons at all, resulting in the same dead end.5

Similarly, the strong nuclear force is the force that binds protons and neutrons in the nucleus of the atom. If the strong nuclear force were just 2 percent weaker, there would only be one element in the universe: hydrogen, because hydrogen has only one proton and no neutrons. However, if this force were 0.3 percent greater, then protons and neutrons would have such an affinity for each other that hydrogen would not exist.6 Hydrogen is, of course, essential to life.

These are but three of the more easily understood fine-tuning parameters in the laws of physics, which themselves are but a few of the hundreds of fine-tuning parameters across the entire realm of nature. To appreciate more fully the degree of fine-tuning in the universe and in the laws that govern the universe, let’s look at how fine-tuning is measured.

Fine-Tuning: The Numbers

Mathematics has provided us with the means to quantify the odds of a self-created universe of random occurrences evolving into what we see today. Imagine being locked in a large building with 1,000 rooms. Each room contains 1,000 combination locks with 3 dials—and 10 positions on each dial. You must release each lock without making an error (no retries) in order to be free of your captors. What are your odds of survival?

You probably guessed that the odds are one in a large number. How large? Well, you have 1,000 rooms times 1,000 locks with 10 positions in each dial. Three dials for each lock gives us odds of 1 in 1000 for getting the right combination. This gives us the following equation: one chance in 1,000 × 1,000 × 1,000. That’s one chance in one billion—1 in 109 or 1 in 1,000,000,000—of making the random turns needed to survive.

One in one billion chances of getting all of the turns right on all of the locks in all of the rooms seems daunting. But it’s nothing compared to physicist Brandon Carter’s estimate of fine tuning required for gravity alone to permit life: 1 in 1040.

Fine-Tuning without the Numbers

Fine-tuning indicative of a designed world has been observed for millennia. Without the math and before modern science, humans felt that creation pointed toward a Creator. Anthropologists tell us that the wonders of the natural world are the basis from which all societies form religious expression.

The Apostle Paul reflects the Christian view of this: “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.”7 Centuries before Paul, King David told us, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”8

Theologians call the idea of knowing God through his creation “general revelation.” Within the Christian tradition, from general revelation—seeing God’s creation—we know there is a Creator, and from the Bible—what is called “special revelation”—we learn how to relate to that Creator. Thanks to scientific discoveries made over the past couple of decades, never before has general revelation been more robust.

  1. The term “anthropic principle” derives from the concept that the universe appears to be designed for the benefit of humans (i.e., anthros). One of the earliest appearances of this concept in scientific literature was more than sixty years ago in the journal Nature (see Robert H. Dicke, “Dirac’s Cosmology and Mach’s Principle,” Nature 192 [1961], 440–41). The term was popularized by astronomer Brandon Carter and subdivided into the “weak anthropic principle” (a form of circular reasoning) and the “strong anthropic principle.” As used in this article and more commonly in discussions of cosmology, fine-tuning is based on the strong anthropic principle (the universe appears to be designed for human life).
  2. See Hugh Ross, “RTB Design Compendium (2009),” Reasons to Believe, http://www.reasons.org/links/hugh/research-notes for an online collection of hundreds of fine-tuning characteristics. These include 140 features of the cosmos as a whole and 402 characteristics specific to our galaxy and planetary system. Dr. Ross, an astronomer and the president and founder of the Reasons to Believe ministry, publishes weekly updates announcing “new reasons to believe.” The list noted above is referenced several times in Hugh Ross, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008).
  3. The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Jeremiah 33:25–26. The verses read, “This is what the Lord says: ‘If I have not made my covenant with day and night and established the laws of heaven and earth, then I will reject the descendants of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his sons to rule over the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and have compassion on them.’”
    The Holy Bible, New Living Translation © 2007 sheds even more light on this concept: “But this is what the Lord says: ‘I would no more reject my people than I would change my laws that govern night and day, earth and sky. I will never abandon the descendants of Jacob or David, my servant, or change the plan that David’s descendants will rule the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Instead, I will restore them to their land and have mercy on them.’”
  4. Much of the original scientific work undergirding Brandon Carter and other physicists’ fine-tuning discoveries are provided in John Barrow and Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1986).
  5. Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos, 3rd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO, NavPress, 2002), 146–147.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Romans 1:20.
  8. Ibid., Psalm 19:1.
  9. Photo Credit: Simon Bratt / Shutterstock.com.