THE FINE-TUNED UNIVERSE
(Based on a lecture to Senior University Georgetown, a lifelong
learning program, on June 13, 2001;
Posted August 16, 2005) Interestingly, it is related to a current
controversy, so related articles include
(1) Intelligent Design,
(2) A Biblical
Questioning the Leaps of Faith
. This explores in greater detail the
tendency to extend the Intelligent Design argument to support
This is being published on my
website partly in response to the recent flurry of interest in the
"Intelligent Design" movement. Much of the recent focus has been on
that aspect that deals with Darwinian theories of evolution, and
whether gaps in the theory should be pointed out. The political problem
is that there are a number of conservative Christians who see these
gaps as a significant weakening of the anti-supernaturalist bias of
contemporary science, and as a more subtle support for a variation of
creationism that supports a Biblical-based cosmology–and by extension,
political authority. My reaction is interestingly mixed, and commented
on in a related web-page paper, Perspectives on Intelligent Design.
However, the part that concedes some plausibility in the Intelligent
Design argument–though not in its foolish conclusions–relates less to
the problems of complex biological evolution, but to the even more
basic and as-yet-unsolved mysteries related to the incredible
fine-tuning of the basic physical constants of the cosmos.
This concept of a fine-tuned universe refers to the growing number of
discoveries of ways in which, if the basic physical laws of nature and
circumstances of our existence were even a slight bit different, a
little more this way, a little less that way, things wouldn't work the
way they do, and in a larger sense, neither life nor even the planets
and stars would even exist!
When I was growing up, there was a sense that nature "evolved," that
given enough time, everything could just happen by chance. This, it
turns out, was a naive and superficial view, but at the time, it seemed
more scientific than the old view that the universe had been created in
seven days. As it happens, though, the scientists have been what I call
"running the numbers," examining the results of the new discoveries
that have happened because of new technologies, telescopes that can see
farther, other kinds of telescopes that can see types of radiation
other than light– ultra-violet, infra-red, x-rays, radio waves; and at
the sub-atomic levels, too, instruments that help us figure out what
atoms are made of, and from that, how stars function, how they burn.
Biologists have also been looking at what is needed for the existence
of life, and looking at evolution more closely. Chemists have been
working in all of these areas, also. And what all these and other types
of scientists have found is that in not just a few, but a good many
ways, if circumstances had been different by only a tiny amount, just a
little bit more or less, well, then things wouldn't work.
Let's look at some general ways this is true, and then I'll go into
some explanations, because it's all really quite beautiful.
First, the Big Bang: Apparently, about 13 billion years ago, give or
take a few, all the matter in the universe as we know it, and all the
energy that keeps it all going, seems to have begun in a flash of
unimaginable smallness, and has expanded since then. However, if the
energy of this Big Bang had been a little less, all the mass, the
matter, and its gravity, would have after a few billion years, slowed
that expansion to a stall and it would have fallen back on itself just
like a rock you throw into the air comes to a point when it stops and
falls back down to earth, pulled by gravity. There would have been
what's been called a "Big Crunch." But this didn't happen.
On the other hand, if the energy of the Big Bang had been a tiny bit
more, all the matter that was created would have been spread out so
thinly that after a million years or so that stars wouldn't have
formed. There needed to be enough continuing density so that the matter
in the cosmos would exert enough gravitational force on the matter
around it so that it clumped into stars and galaxies. If the "blast"
had been too strong, matter would have been spread so thinly that this
clumping wouldn't have happened. It had to be incredibly finely
balanced, and physicists and astronomers have been amazed at this
Several other dynamics of the Big Bang have been figured out, and again
this fine- tuning has been impressive. Near the beginning, within a few
seconds, the great amount of energy had begun to condense into matter,
according to Einstein's equation of E=mc2, and what happens is, again,
amazing. In that process, the first thing that happens is that matter
is created along with antimatter. There is this stuff called
anti-matter that we can detect in minute amounts in certain radioactive
processes or in cyclotron experiments, and scientists have figured out
that energy when it is converted to matter– or vice versa– involves
some transformations into both matter and anti-matter. Now because if
the two types of matter ever encounter each other they annihilate each
other with a strong burst of released energy, they can't co-exist.
Working backward, though, and with some other calculations, they found
that in the Big Bang, for every billion particles of anti-matter that
were annihilated along with a billion particles of matter, well, there
was one particle of matter left over. Talk about fine tuning. And the
result was just enough matter to still be enough to fill our known
universe, and all the energy it took to ignite the stars and keep
everything in motion.
The Four Basic Forces
At present, science has identified four basic forces that operate in
the cosmos: Gravity, Electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and
the weak nuclear force. And, as I said, in the last half century or so,
they've been running the numbers. What they've found is that if any of
these forces had been even a tiny bit stronger or weaker, everything
else would have been thrown out of balance. Stars wouldn't have formed
as they did, they wouldn't burn as they do, and the difference would
make it impossible for life to evolve.
It should be noted that these basic forces could have theoretically
have had any strength. There was no obvious reason for them to be just
as strong or weak as they were, nothing that obviously "caused" them to
be set at just the value they have. That is, science has not yet
acknowledged the possibility of what Aristotle called the "formal"
cause, also known as the teleological cause–that is, it's that way so
that we can be here to enjoy it. But this seems to be one of the
answers that may be more plausible than some of the weird alternatives
that a few hold-outs are offering.
The Qualities of Atoms
Another group of variables that are fascinating is that the atoms that
make up the bulk of life have certain qualities that, again, are not
obvious nor required. Some, indeed, are quite subtle.
One of these is carbon, which is the mainstay of biological processes.
Carbon is the sixth atom in size, it has six protons, and six
electrons–two in an inner orbit and four in its outer orbit, which
makes it possible to connect with up to four other atoms at a time.
This is near the maximum of chemical connections, and so carbon is
unique among the ninety-two elements in its capacity to create complex
So we need lots of carbon for life to exist, and carbon is created in
the bowels of the stars. But it requires a peculiar chain of fusion
events, beyond the fusion of hydrogen into helium, which is the source
of energy that fuels hydrogen bombs and keeps the stars as hot as they
are. But in addition to being a source of heat and light, the cores of
stars have the pressure, due to the gravitational force of all that
matter, and the heat due to the power of the fusion reaction, to be an
"alchemical crucible," a high-pressure chamber in which even larger
atoms can be created, and so they are.
The bigger the atom, though, the hotter and higher pressure it needs to
be, so that the larger atoms only happen in the cores of very large
stars, much larger than our sun, and even then, only when they are
undergoing the final phases of their own collapse, called the
"super-nova," when they burn–if you can imagine this–and you can't–none
of us really can–millions of times hotter than the sun!
Anyway, back to the creation of the smaller atoms that make up most of
our being–even then, it's tricky. For example, there's a fusion
reaction that requires the collision of basic atoms, building from a
4-atom core up to a 6 or 8-atom core, building carbon or oxygen. Now,
atoms, like everything else, have their own pure vibrational frequency,
the rhythm at which they vibrate most naturally-- just like different
glasses can, when rubbed in a certain way, give off a sound. It turns
out, when they run the numbers, that for fusion reactions to occur at
an optimal level, the vibrational frequencies of the atomic fragment
just preceding the operation to be harmonized with the frequency of the
atom that accepts the nuclear fragment, like passing a baton in a relay
race with swinging arms. And it so happens that the vibrational
frequencies line up, and there was no obvious reason why this should
happen–it was just a coincidence.
But a well known physicist was so impressed by this seeming coincidence
that he remarked that "someone must be monkeying with the numbers."
It's this kind of coincidence, happening again and again, that makes up
the substance of my talk about fine-tuning.
Okay, let's shift the stage from the stars to the earth. If this planet
had been too far from the sun, it would have been too cold, obviously;
or too close, too hot. But its orbit is not like the orbits of most of
the other planets. They're more elliptical, which means that they're
just a little egg-shaped, skewed off center. And that means that, say,
with the planet Mars, there's a time in its orbit when it's closer to
the sun and another time that it's farther, and the difference is
almost 40 million miles! Whereas with our planet, mother Earth, there's
only about 4 million miles difference out of the distance of an average
of 83 million miles. So, our planet's orbit, though elliptical, is
almost circular in comparison, which is good, because in January, when
we're closest to the sun, well, we hardly notice, because in the
northern hemisphere, the angle of the earth makes it winter. The point
is that if our planet had a more elliptical orbit, the temperature
swings on our planet would be more extreme, perhaps incompatible with
life, or at least any more complex forms of life.
There are a number of aspects of this planet that are just so perfect
for life, including such startling phenomena as earthquakes,
radioactivity, lightning, and volcanoes. In the short run, such
phenomena tend to be bad for those living in the vicinity, but in the
long run, each plays an essential role in the maintenance of the
overall balance of life-giving qualities.
Earthquakes are the side-effect of tectonic shifts, the slipping around
of the crust of the earth, the continents, which in their collisions,
lift up long-buried sea-beds, raising them into mountains, and allow
this organic material to then be subjected to the atmospheric forces of
erosion, thereby over millions of years, re-circulating the basic
elements required for life.
Volcanoes, in the early phases of the earth, brought forth onto its
rocky surface the clouds of steam, water having been originally
combined with rock. (That's the way it is in outer space, in comets, in
asteroids. Water molecules are fixed in crystalline form with minerals,
silicon, aluminum, etc., and there are massive amounts of water in the
subterranean mantle of the earth. Volcanoes bring it up to the surface,
along with carbon dioxide and other gases. And they continue to help
supply the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, which are in turn
necessary to keep our planet not too hot and not too cold.
Lightning needs to happen about the level that it does happen–too much
more, and there would be too may forest fires. But those electrical
discharges also burn nitrogen, combining nitrogen with oxygen, creating
nitrates. Plants and animals need nitrogen, which is an essential
component of proteins, DNA, and other basic components. But life can't
access it in its gaseous form of two atoms combined. It needs to be in
a chemical form, such as Nitrates, combined with oxygen, and this is
then absorbed by plants and eventually animals. So, too little
lightning and there wouldn't be enough nitrates around to support life.
Radioactivity? Well, even very small amounts of the radioactive
elements undergo fission. And if surrounded by closely packed earth,
they heat up the earth. Geologists have come to the surprising
conclusion that the reason the earth's core is so hot is not only
because of the pressure down there, but also because of the stored-up
radioactivity. This heat makes the core molten, it circulates, they
think that accounts for the magnetic field around the earth, which in
turn not only accounts for the aurora borealis, the northern lights,
but more functionally, diverts the large majority of cosmic rays and
solar radiations other than light which would, if the magnetic field
were weaker, penetrate the atmosphere and bathe life in an excess of
radiation, effectively killing it off.
As the story of the Big Bang and the vastness of the cosmos begins to
come together, it takes on aspects of a marvelous myth. Why did it take
ten billion years before life could happen? Because extra-large stars
had to form, burn, and die, explode and send out their ashes into the
cosmos, to be gathered together over hundreds of millions of years to
form another generation of stars and the beginnings of planets. Many of
the chemicals that make up our body didn't exist until one or two of
these cycles had spewed out their ashes of carbon and magnesium,
calcium and iron. We are made of the hearts of stars.
So why is the universe so big? It has to be that big of a project for
the processes that can form life to happen. Why has it lasted for such
a long time? It takes that amount of time for life to happen.
Did you know that life seemed to have begun within a billion years of
the earth's formation? That's remarkably quickly considering the
kinds of processes that had to form and the gross instability of the
earth during that period. It wasn't at all as if the processes of
chance had ten billion or a hundred billion years to work it all out.
The process moved towards organization rather quickly. The physicist
Paul Davies has posited a tendency of matter to move towards greater
complexity and organization, against the Second Law of Thermodynamics,
the tendency for things to just spread out in an equal distribution of
energy–what's called "entropy." But this concept has metaphysical
The major implication of this growing awareness of the fine-tuned
nature of the universe is the suggestion that there is a kind of innate
intelligence in the cosmos, which many see as scientific evidence for
the existence of God. What kind of God is not suggested by the
evidence, whether it be a God of the Bible, or something more like the
Chinese concept of the Tao, or the Source of Consciousness in the
primal Yoga disciplines of Hinduism, or the Great Spirit of the Native
Americans... but still, it suggests something more mind-like in
contrast to the vision of a truly impersonal, random, semi-mechanistic
cosmos, something that "just happened."
That was the world view among many intellectuals in the mid-1950s, as I
said, when I was growing up. It was a time in which science prided
itself (I use that term, "pride" intentionally) on being more advanced
than religion, which was seen to be laced with superstition. Of course,
the religion they were talking about was the institutional type that
dominated Western Culture for the previous millennium and more, and
this whole tension between science and religion should be recognized as
being also an aspect of the greater political tension between the
forces of institutionalized religion and monarchy and the forces of
emerging rationalism and democracy during the Eighteenth Century.
This tension continued into the Twentieth Century, and continues today,
with pressures on the constitutional separation between church and
state. Science back then saw itself as a more rational counter to a
type of religion that they perceived as being counter to rationality
itself.. Such as a religion that absolutely rejected all aspects of
But the truth is that more sophisticated thinkers on both sides have
been finding areas in common, moving away from the need to take
polarized positions. Many theologians, such as Pierre Teilhard de
Chardin–one of the more eloquent–and others, have found that evolution
is really quite compatible with a slightly modified view of theology,
and many scientists find that a belief in God is compatible with
Now comes this group of ideas from science, and it goes with a growing
movement. I define a movement as a social phenomena marked by, in this
case, an increasing number of articles in magazines, national and
international conferences, websites, chat rooms on the internet, books,
etc. The field is one called "intelligent design." A number of
Christian theologians, and some from other religions, too, have used
the developments in science to uphold their own brand of theology;
while some others suggest that this intellectual position, this theory
that the fine-tuned nature of the universe is evidence for God, is very
general and doesn't support the validity of any particular religion;
rather, it supports the common intuition of deep thinkers, meditators,
inspired spiritual sages and teachers, etc., that we are part of
something that in a broad sense of the word is "alive," is an ongoing
force in the cosmos.
It is in this sense, too, that many scientists admit to experiencing
something akin to a religious feeling, when contemplating the cosmos,
whether it be in the form of the vast expanses of astronomy, the
seemingly infinitesimal dynamics of the sub-atomic world, or the
mysteries of biology, ecology, geology, and the interactions among all
Around 1720 a theologian, William Paley, articulated the argument from
design more forcefully, although many have suggested the same idea from
the Greeks onward: The world is such a complex place that it couldn't
have happened by chance. However, by the end of the Eighteenth Century,
as people became aware of the nature of fossils and the evidence of
geology, these fields coming into their own during that period, the
paradigm had shifted: A more mechanistic view emerged, the idea that
the world emerged in the course of a seemingly infinite ongoingness of
time and chance.
For example, an eminent scientist, Pierre Laplace, is said to have made
a presentation of the current state of astronomy to the Emperor
Napoleon. When asked by Napoleon, "But Monsieur Laplace, you have not
mentioned the workings of God in all this?" the scientist replied, "Mon
Empereur, I have no need of that hypothesis."
Darwin was only a kind of spokesperson for this greater cultural shift,
and his work became a bit of an icon. In fact, there were still many
small holes in the theory. It didn't explain everything, especially the
emergence of life itself. Again, the argument shouldn't be viewed as
being between absolute creationists of the Bishop Usher type–Bishop
Usher being a late Eighteenth-Century clergyman in England who
calculated, based on the begats of the Bible, that the world was
created in the year 4004 BC, and even gave the date and time of
day!–and absolute naturalists who deny the operation of any forces
other than blind chance. As I said, there is an increasing middle
ground occupied by thoughtful people who can consider alternative
To conclude, the seeming tension between science and religion is being
dissolved in a growing movement from a surprising quarter–science
itself, which, in running the numbers associated with the general
discoveries in cosmology, astronomy, chemistry, physics, ecology,
biology, and related fields, are finding a host of variables which seem
to have been designed to be optimal for the emergence and sustenance of
life on this planet. A little more or a little less, sometimes one part
out of a quintillion or more, would make the whole house of cards
collapse. What can account for these coincidences, this series of
interrelated coincidences? The conclusion in the minds of an increasing
number of rigorous thinkers is that the workings of an intelligent
designer, a Divine force, is an explanation that may not be easily
Finally, I'll conclude with a poem by Walt Whitman:
When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams,
to add, divide, and measure them
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured
with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
The world is a marvelous place, and there is a certain romanticism in
directly perceiving it in simple wonder, to be sure. Yet I want to put
in a plug for the learn'd astronomer–okay, the one ol' Walt was
listening to was perhaps too dry to keep his poet-audience's attention,
but those charts, those proofs, well, if you look at them with the
right perspective, with a certain attitude, they can be pretty
beautiful in what they disclose--thrilling, in fact!
Barrow, J. D. & Tipler, F. (1986). The Anthropic Cosmological Principle
Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Behe, M. (1996). Darwin's Black Box
New York: The Free Press.
Behe, M., Dembski, W. , & Meyer. (2000). Science and Evidence for Design in the
. Weathersfield Institute. ($12.95,
Corey, M. A. (1993). God and the New
. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Davies, Paul C. W. (1982). The
. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University
Press. (Also by this author, a noted physicist:
- (1983). God and
the new physics
. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- (1992). The
Mind of God
. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- (1999). The
fifth miracle: The search for the origin and meaning of life
New York: Simon & Schuster. (Proposes an as-yet-unknown causal
principle towards complexity in the cosmos, p. 20, 259.)
Dembski, William A. (1998). The
. Cambridge, England: Cambridge U. Press.
$54.95. Physics math library.
Dembski, William A. (1999). Intelligent
Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology
. Downders Grove,
IL: InterVarsity Press
Denton, Michael J.. (1998). Nature's
Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe
New York: The Free Press.
Moreland, J. P. (1994). The creation
hypothesis: Scientific evidence for an Intelligent Designer
Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Overman, Dean L. (1997). A case
against accident and self-organization
. Lanham, MD: Rowman
Ross, H. (1993). The Creator and the
. Colorado Springs: NavPress.
The scientist approached God and said,
"Listen, we've decided we no longer need you. Nowadays, we can clone
people, transplant hearts and do all kinds of things that were once
God patiently heard him out, and then
said, "All right. To see whether or not you still need me, why don't we
have a man-making constest?"
"Okay, great!" the scientist said.
"Now, we're going to do this just like I
did back in the old days with Adam," God said.
"That's fine," replied the scientist,
and bent to scoop up a handful of dirt.
"Whoa!" God said, shaking his head
in disapproval. "Not so fast, pal. You get your own dirt."
(--Reader's Digest, around July, 2001, contributed by Mary E.
"We are in the position of a little child entering a
huge library filled with books in many languages.
The child knows someone must have written those
It does not know how.
It does not understand the languages in which they
The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the
arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is.
That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the
most intelligent human being toward God.
We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying
certain laws but only dimly understand these laws.
Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force
that moves the constellations."
I'd be interested in your
comments and suggestions. Contact me at: