Howard A. Smith, a lecturer in the Harvard University Department of Astronomy and a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, penned an opinion piece for the Washington Post this past Thanksgiving break about how we are to be thankful for a not-so-obvious blessing: our place in the universe. Here is a taste:
There was a time, back when astronomy put Earth at the center of the universe, that we thought we were special. But after Copernicus kicked Earth off its pedestal, we decided we were cosmically inconsequential, partly because the universe is vast and about the same everywhere. Astronomer Carl Sagan put it this way: “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star.” Stephen Hawking was even blunter: “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.”
An objective look, however, at just two of the most dramatic discoveries of astronomy — big bang cosmology and planets around other stars (exoplanets) — suggests the opposite. We seem to be cosmically special, perhaps even unique — at least as far as we are likely to know for eons.
The fine-tuning argument has had a long career, but recently it has been receiving special attention, not just by philosophers and theologians, but by scientists like Dr. Smith himself. A recently produced book by Cambridge University Press was just released this month by Luke Barnes, who is a postdoctoral researcher at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy who completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge, and Geraint F. Lewis, a Professor of Astrophysics at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy and head of the Gravitational Astrophysics Group, titled A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos that continues this long discussion about fine-tuning. The foreword by Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University, Canberra, and Nobel Laureate in Physics describes the book:
My colleagues, Geraint and Luke, in A Fortunate Universe, take you on a tour of the Cosmos in all of its glory, and all of its mystery. You will see that humanity appears to be part of a remarkable set of circumstances involving a special time around a special planet, which orbits a special star, all within a specially constructed Universe. It is these set of conditions that have allowed humans to ponder our place in space and time. I have no idea why we are here, but I do know the Universe is beautiful. A Fortunate Universe captures the mysterious beauty of the Cosmos in a way that all can share.
William Lane Craig aptly concludes that the fine-tuning for life in the universe, that “the view that Christian theists have always held, that there is an intelligent designer of the universe, seems to make much more sense than the atheistic view that the universe just happens to be by chance fine-tuned to an incomprehensible precision for the existence of intelligent life.” Here is Craig’s animated video on the fine-tuning argument:
The fine-tuning for life is quickly becoming one of the most discussed arguments in science today. Below are some resources related to the field of fine-tuning.
A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos by Luke Barnes and Geraint Lewis
“Humanity is Cosmically Special. Here’s How We Know” by Howard A Smith | Washington Post, Nov. 25 2016
William Lane Craig’s clearing house of resources for the Fine-Tuning Argument (videos, articles, etc.)
Luke Barnes Blog
Robin Collin’s Fine-Tuning Website
Several years ago astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and philosopher Jay Richards wrote the book The Privileged Planet which was turned into a documentary here:
But wait, there’s more!
Summary: These are the fundamental constants and quantities of the universe. Each of these numbers have been carefully dialed to an astonishingly precise value – a value that falls within an exceedingly narrow, life-permitting range. If any one of these numbers were altered by even a hair’s breadth, no physical, interactive life of any kind could exist anywhere. There’d be no stars, no life, no planets, no chemistry…The fact is our universe permits physical, interactive life only because these, and many other numbers, have been independently and exquisitely balanced on a razor’s edge…The probabilities involved are so ridiculously remote as to put the fine-tuning well beyond the reach of chance.
From galaxies and stars, down to atoms and subatomic particles, the very structure of our universe is determined by these numbers:
* Speed of Light: c=299,792,458 m s-1
* Gravitational Constant: G=6.673 x 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2
* Planck’s Constant: 1.05457148 x 10-34 m2 kg s-2
* Planck Mass-Energy: 1.2209 x 1022 MeV
* Mass of Electron, Proton, Neutron: 0.511; 938.3; 939.6 MeV
* Mass of Up, Down, Strange Quark: 2.4; 4.8; 104 MeV (Approx.)
* Ratio of Electron to Proton Mass: (1836.15)-1
* Gravitational Coupling Constant: 5.9 x 10-39
* Cosmological Constant: (2.3 x 10-3 eV)
* Hubble Constant: 71 km/s/Mpc (today)
* Higgs Vacuum Expectation Value: 246.2 GeV
These are the fundamental constants and quantities of the universe. Scientists have come to the shocking realization that each of these numbers have been carefully dialed to an astonishingly precise value – a value that falls within an exceedingly narrow, life-permitting range. If any one of these numbers were altered by even a hair’s breadth, no physical, interactive life of any kind could exist anywhere. There’d be no stars, no life, no planets, no chemistry.
Consider gravity, for example. The force of gravity is determined by the gravitational constant. If this constant varied by just one in 1060 parts, none of us would exist. To understand how exceedingly narrow this life-permitting range is, imagine a dial divided into 1060 increments. To get a handle on how many tiny points on the dial this is, compare it to the number of cells in your body (1014) or the number of seconds that have ticked by since time began (1020). If the gravitational constant had been out of tune by just one of these infinitesimally small increments, the universe would either have expanded and thinned out so rapidly that no stars could form and life couldn’t exist, or it would have collapsed back on itself with the same result: no stars, no planets, no life.
Or consider the expansion rate of the universe. This is driven by the cosmological constant. A change in its value by a mere 1 part in 10120 parts would cause the universe to expand too rapidly or too slowly. In either case, the universe would, again, be life-prohibiting.
Or, another example of fine-tuning: If the mass and energy of the early universe were not evenly distributed to an incomprehensible precision of 1 part in 1010123, the universe would be hostile to life of any kind.
The fact is our universe permits physical, interactive life only because these, and many other numbers, have been independently and exquisitely balanced on a razor’s edge.
“WHEREVER PHYSICISTS LOOK, THEY SEE EXAMPLES OF FINE-TUNING.” – Sir Martin Rees
“THE REMARKABLE FACT IS THAT THE VALUES OF THESE NUMBERS SEEM TO HAVE BEEN VERY FINELY ADJUSTED TO MAKE POSSIBLE THE DEVELOPMENT OF LIFE.” – Stephen Hawking
“IF ANYONE CLAIMS NOT TO BE SURPRISED BY THE SPECIAL FEATURES THE UNIVERSE HAS, HE IS HIDING HIS HEAD IN THE SAND. THESE SPECIAL FEATURES ARE SURPRISING AND UNLIKELY.” – David Deutsch
What is the best explanation for this astounding phenomenon? There are three live options. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design. Which of these options is the most plausible?
According to this alternative (physical necessity), the universe must be life-permitting. The precise values of these constants and quantities could not be otherwise. But is this plausible? Is a life-prohibiting universe impossible? Far from it! It’s not only possible; it’s far more likely than a life-permitting universe. The constants and quantities are not determined by the laws of nature. There’s no reason or evidence to suggest that fine-tuning is necessary.
How about chance? Did we just get really, really, really, really lucky? No. The probabilities involved are so ridiculously remote as to put the fine-tuning well beyond the reach of chance. So, in an effort to keep this option alive, some have gone beyond empirical science and opted for a more speculative approach known as the multiverse. They imagine a universe generator that cranks out such a vast number of universes that, odds are, life-permitting universes will eventually pop out. However, there’s no scientific evidence for the existence of this multiverse. It cannot be detected, observed, measured, or proved. And the universe generator, itself, would require an enormous amount of fine-tuning!
Furthermore, small patches of order are far more probable than big ones. So the most probable, observable universe would be a small one, inhabited by a single, simple observer (Boltzmann brain). But what we actually observe is the very thing we should least expect: a vast, spectacularly complex, highly ordered universe, inhabited by billions of other observers. So even if the multiverse existed (which is a moot point), it wouldn’t do anything to explain the fine-tuning.
Given the implausibility of physical necessity or chance, the best explanation for why the universe is fine-tuned for life may very well be it was designed that way.
“A COMMON SENSE INTERPRETATION OF THE FACTS SUGGESTS THAT A SUPERINTELLECT MONKEYED WITH PHYSICS . . . AND THAT THERE ARE NO BLIND FORCES WORTH SPEAKING ABOUT IN NATURE. THE NUMBERS ONE CALCULATES FROM THE FACTS SEEM TO ME SO OVERWHELMING AS TO PUT THIS CONCLUSION ALMOST BEYOND QUESTION.” – Fred Hoyle
“THERE IS FOR ME POWERFUL EVIDENCE THAT THERE IS SOMETHING GOING ON BEHIND IT ALL . . . IT SEEMS AS THOUGH SOMEBODY HAS FINE-TUNED NATURE’S NUMBERS TO MAKE THE UNIVERSE. THE IMPRESSION OF DESIGN IS OVERWHELMING.” – Paul Davies
“THE HEAVENS DECLARE THE GLORY OF GOD; THE SKIES PROCLAIM THE WORK OF HIS HANDS. DAY AFTER DAY THEY POUR FORTH SPEECH; NIGHT AFTER NIGHT THEY REVEAL KNOWLEDGE.” – Psalm 19:1-2