Saturday, 16 March 2013

Evaluating the effectiveness of the Design argument as a pointer to the existence of God

Evaluating the effectiveness of the Design argument as a pointer to the existence of God.

In his article, Astronomical evidence for the God of the bible, Hugh Ross argues that since ‘the characteristics and parameters of the universe and our solar system are so finely tuned to support life that nothing less than a personal, intelligent Creator can explain the degree of fine-tunedness’[i].  The first part of this essay will describe to the reader what the ‘fine tuning’ argument is.  The second part will describe all of Ross’s arguments for the existence of God, and the third and final part of this essay will critically evaluate Ross’s arguments and conclude that it is far too easy to suggest that the argument from fine-tuning points to the existence of God.


In recent times, scientists have been unravelling evidence showing that the laws of nature are so finely tuned that if such laws were a fraction off balance, then life as we know it would not haven be able to come into existence.  For example, if the decay rate of a proton was slightly higher, then life would long ago have been quickly eliminated by the release of radiation.  On the other hand, if the rate of decay was slightly lower, then life would never have come about in the first place.  Further evidence for fine-tuning has also been noted in other areas of cosmology, for example, the ratio of the electron mass to the proton mass, the magnitudes of force strengths, and the smoothness of the early universe[ii]. Such examples are taken as evidence that the universe is a finely-tuned system of precise cosmological constant.  Should any of these cosmological constants be different, then life would never have been able to come into existence.  Additionally, and perhaps more perplexing, such constants appear to be dependent upon each other’s own precision: if, for example, the strength of the strong force was more or less off its current value, then, so it is said, none of the other laws would hold either, making the universe’s existences an impossibility.  There appears to be an endless list containing hundreds of examples like these but they all share the same conclusion: each law sits within its own ‘goldilocks’[iii] zone, thus enabling life to flourish as we see it today.  For theists such as Ross and others who believe in God, this endless list provides reasonable grounds to suggest that something must have designed these laws, as they find it extremely improbable that they just happened to be finely tuned by blind chance.  In a nutshell this is the argument from fine-tuning:  God sets up the universe in a way that will allow it to evolve and produce life.


Interestingly, or ignorantly depending on which way you wish to look at it, Ross believes that the existence of a finely tuned universe is evidence for Design[iv]; for example, he states that if the expansion rate of the universe was slightly larger, no galaxy formations could ever occur.  Or that, on the other hand, if the rate of expansion was slightly smaller, the universe would have collapsed upon itself rendering the impossibility of the formation of galaxies and, consequently, life.  At awe with the sheer amount of evidence for such fine-tuning, he picks up on one example, the strong nuclear force, and goes on to state that if this force happened to be two percent stronger or two percent weaker, then the universe would never have developed the capability to support life[v].  In a different example he makes a similar point that reaches the same conclusion. This time he argues in terms of chemistry, that the ground state energies for the chemical elements 4He, 8Be, 12C, and 16O are so well balanced that if either of these values exceeds their current value by approximately plus or minus four percent, then life as we know it would not have been able to come into existence.[vi]  From both these observations Ross concludes that: ‘Clearly some ingenious Designer must be involved (my italics) in the Physics of the universe’.  However, Ross does not stop there.  Not only is it ‘clear’ that an ingenious designer (God) involved himself in the laws of physics, he is also certain that these laws provide us with an inkling as to the designer’s characteristics or personality.  One characteristic that stands out for Ross is God’s ‘care for living things and particularly for the human race’[vii].  The argument, if it can be called an argument, is once again derived from the appearance of fine-tuning.  This time, however, Ross describes the fine balance of deuterium, an isotope claimed to be important in the formation of stars in the Universe.  Too much deuterium will cause stars to burn out too quickly, eradicating the possibility of producing life, while too little deuterium in the universe will halt the production of the ‘heavier elements’ that are needed for life to emerge in the first place. According to Ross, the billions of stars that reside in space are needed for life to be possible.  Ross concludes that:

‘Evidently, God cared so much for living creatures that He constructed a hundred billion trillion stars and carefully crafted them throughout the age of the universe so that at this brief moment in the history of the cosmos humans could exist and have a pleasant place to live’[viii]


Currently there seems to be a general consensus amongst both physicists and philosophers that the Universe appears to be a finely tuned system as the above evidence
Suggests.  There is no debate on this issue.  However, there is a debate as what extent, or to what degree, fine tuning holds.  Ross effectively argues that if the degree of the strong
force and ground state energies surpass, in one way or another, a two or four percent threshold, then life would not be able to come into existence.  With this in mind, let us assume that these laws were only one percent plus or minus off their current value.  For example, that the strong nuclear force were instead one percent stronger or one percent weaker than its current value?  Surely this result would not have much of an effect on the plausibility of life, since it would still lie within the thresholds that Ross initially maintains.  Assuming that Ross is correct in his analysis, one can build a case to show that the universe is not finely-tuned enough.  Why is the strong nuclear force only finely-tuned to a plus or minus two percent threshold instead of a more cohesive and accurate 0.1? Would this not build a better if not more persuasive claim that the universe in finely tuned as opposed to Ross’s two percent claim?

Even though we must allow for measurement error when attempting to calculate the degree of fine-tuning, this doesn’t and shouldn’t detract us from the thesis that such laws could be more accurate.  And it becomes even more perplexing when one realises the possibility the cosmological constants have in existing as even more accurate, and so on ad infinitum.  Interestingly, it has not taken long for physicists to pounce onto this issue, and by doing so they have produced bags of evidence to show that life –despite being so finely-tuned – could still be a tenable outcome.  To give but one example, if the energy level in carbon were substantially altered by approximately 20 percent, then it is believed that life’s development would not be inhibited[ix].  Amid such evidence, it is no wonder Richard Dawkins scoffs at the theists God for being an ‘underachiever’[x] in his ‘design’. 

However, the term ‘life’ should be taken critically, for the form of life that would become possible could well be different to the carbon based life we are all familiar with here on earth.  Of course, it could well be a totally different form altogether.  If this is true, then how are we to know how ‘fine’ fine tuning is for the purpose of life?  At present we have no capability for independently verifying how fine it appears to be.  It is not as if we can venture outside our universe run some checks and compare them to our own.  It could well be that we live in a universe amongst many other universes, and that this one appears finely-tuned to us.   However, we have no idea whether other Universes, if they even exist, have the same or different sets of cosmological constants in comparison to ours.  For all we know, they might be completely different but still have the capability to produce life.  But without independently checking, the notion of fine-tuning, fundamentally, remains a matter of human judgment which is liable to error – especially when something as large as ‘the Universe’ becomes the subject of our work. 

But in saying all that let us assume that we did have the capability to measure the degree of fine-tuning of such laws.  Let us assume that we compared our laws of nature to those belonging to other universes, and let us say that we discovered all our laws as being finely-tuned to an astounding 0.00001 percent threshold, whereas other Universes possessed a totally different set of laws and hence didn’t get the opportunity to produce life at all.  What could we conclude from this scenario? Ross would conclude, as he already does, that this would be de facto evidence, or to put it more mildly, better reason for believing in a timeless God that created these laws, since life appears to be the only factor that makes the difference between our Universe and all other Universes.  However, what compelling evidence would there have to be to suggest that the laws of nature have been stamped with the signature, and therefore seal of approval, of a timeless God? No evidence can be brought forward to suggest that God created the universe because we have no idea, through science, philosophy, or reason, what a timeless God would be like to produce something!  Indeed, even if we should grant the possibility that a timeless God created and finely tuned the Universe for life to flourish, it is still inconceivable to the human mind as to how this occurred.  If we cannot conceive of such a thing, how can Ross conceive that the laws of nature, whether they are finely tuned or not, are a product of design from a timeless God?  It appears to me that Ross not only prematurely assumes that fine-tuning and the outcome life must be connected to a creator ‘God’ of some sort, but that he also confuses and displaces the notion of fine tuning to that of evidence of divine design.

Now, since there is the possibility that some laws, if not all, could well be more finely tuned than they currently are, what does this tell us about Ross’s argument that evidence for fine-tuning provides us with an indication that they were designed and created by a timeless God involved in the physics of the Universe?  The implication that immediately springs to my mind is that Ross’s God is an imperfect one.  For, according to scientific research, God could have created a more accurately re-fined version of the laws instead of the ones we have at present.  But let us say, for the sake of the argument, that God could not have done a better job because in the moment of creation He had only one chance to express himself without knowingly realizing what the consequences would be, and that in a short burst that was the Big Bang, the universe as it is came into being.  In this respect I am thinking of the analogy that: God strikes the match but leaves it to burn accordingly.  The immediate problem here is that if God is supposed to be timeless, how can God involve himself in something that is inside time let alone leave a trace of his signature behind?  Surely there is a contradiction here.  Being timeless means that this ‘something’ is not affected by time, but strictly speaking, if something is not affected by time, it cannot be affected by space either, so if something is timeless then surely it must also be space-less, rendering God as an inconceivable nothing to our minds.  So, despite Ross’s conclusion, it is very much unclear how a timeless and space-less God could have involved himself in the creation of the laws of nature and leave his mark – a finely-tuned universe as a system of precise cosmological constants -  for us to infer.
In fairness to Ross though, his conclusion that a ‘Designer must be involved in the Physics of the Universe’ could well be a correct one, but not necessarily correct in the meaning Ross takes as a ‘designer’ to be.  I grant that there is at least the possibility that a Designer, or group of Designers, in the form of extra-terrestrial beings, either somewhere in our own Universe or from another could well have created and fine-tuned these laws to hold.  This ‘hypothesis’ could well explain the origin of such laws without the need for evoking Rossian God who crafted the laws of nature for the purpose of life.  This possibility could well end the crave some theists have for an overly complicated timeless God, a God who created the Universe for the purpose of life.  But still the problem is not solved here, for the next question to be asked is: where did these ‘aliens’ come from, and for what purpose?  The idea that aliens created the universe, as Swinburne rightly points out, only pushes the problem back further, so far back that eventually we are mentally forced to imagine sitting outside the boundary of space and time.  Like a solid brick wall, we cannot observe what is beyond it, yet we are lead to conclude that this wall must have been placed here by something beyond it… And the idea is that we must call upon or evoke a ‘God’ to stop this infinite regress of walls.  So eventually we come to the old argument that something must have come out of nothing to kick start the whole process of the Universe, and consequently life, in the first place.  But then this contention doesn’t really have anything to do with Ross’s, or any other argument, from fine-tuning or design, in general, and so to invoke this argument would be to ‘go off topic’, as it were, and into an argument from first cause which is not only irrelevant but also beyond the scope of this essay.  Indeed, the argument from first cause might well be related to the argument from design; but it differs since, in my view, it wrongly assumes that things originate from the ‘divine’.  But when we think about it, when we ask ourselves the deep and troublesome questions of how something can come out of nothing there are only three possibilities, all of which lead to agnosticism or even scepticism about the origin of existence:  Firstly, that the notion of time and space emerged out of nothing  - doesn’t make sense to a human mind.  Secondly, that time and space have always existed  - again doesn’t make sense how something can exist forever without a cause.  And thirdly, that if time and space have an origin then we are stuck with the fact that how does this something originate out of ‘nothing’.  Even if we evoke God – where did He come from?
Ultimately, we have simply no idea how we got here. 

People who design usually take time to think about the thing they are designing; they usually draw up a plan and build a prototype to ensure that their design is as flawless as it can be.  But a designer in this anthropomorphic sense cannot be applied to a designer in an atemporal ‘Godly’ sense.  If God did indeed design the laws of physics then he could not have thought about it because this requires time; he could not even act to design something because this too, not only requires time, but also the space to accommodate this act.  Now, Ross could well argue that I am an anthropomorphizing the notion of God and his ‘creation’, that is to say, that I am understanding creation and design on my own humanly interpretation of space and time.  Ross might well argue that God creates timelessly in a way that humans can’t comprehend, perhaps in a way where God cannot understand what he is doing.  Well, firstly if we grant this then there would still be no ‘evidence’ from fine-tuning that conveys Gods ‘expression’ within the laws of nature.  Since God wouldn’t know about the consequences of his act, how would we be able to recognize the laws of nature as a product from God?  More so since life doesn’t seem to be a necessary prerequisite for creating a Universe since things could well exist without life – rocks for example.  Secondly, if we are unable to comprehend creation from God, then how are we to pass any judgment on the matter at all?  It is not as if I can see the world from many different perspectives, like from the perspective of other animals, or from the perspective of cosmological objects in the Universe.  It would be as if the only way in coming to understand a God that creates in a timeless way would be to ‘see’ the world as it were through the perspective of God.  We simply cannot see the world through any other perspective than through our own, much private, human senses.  Something that creates in a timeless way is not only unintelligible to us, it is also very much unimaginable.  In this respect, we have no way of knowing why the laws of nature are the way they are, nor can we comprehend their origin whether they are finely-tuned or not.  We could, in principle, evoke design by God on probabilistic grounds, but by doing so we would really have no idea what this would mean while we run the risk of posing a ‘God of the Gaps’ argument for the existence of things.  Hence, I cannot see how it is clear to Ross that the argument from design points to the existence of God.

Though there are many problems inherent in evoking the notion of ‘God’ as creator of a finely tuned cosmological Universe, Ross’s further claim that it can only be the God of the Bible as investing this amount of care into humanity’[xi] is the one that is most perplexing, worryingly ill thought out and totally bizarre.  So bizarre that I find it impossible that such a person could ever come to be so short sighted of the infinite problems associated with this, dare I say, argument. 

Although it might be well be true that the God in the Bible preaches a certain kind of love for ‘his’ people, it is very unclear why Ross links the balance of deuterium to the same caring and loving God since such a balance shows no sign of permeating any of these characteristics, nor does the Bible mention any affiliation to deuterium specifically.  In fact, from observing such a balance, it is more reasonable to suggest that there is no connection between the balance of deuterium and God’s care for humanity; all that the balance evidently shows is that it is fine enough for stellar formations to occur and nothing else.  This is a very poor, and if I should state, rather reckless connection to make.  As already argued, there is no way for distinguishing God’s signature within the fine tuning of the laws of physics, let alone distinguish a signature that shows, or at least could be inferred from, what personality he holds. 

But even if we are willing to allow God to posses the capacity to care and to love and hence craft things out of this care, then this assumes that God has the potential to imbue such emotions and sentiments.  But even if He had such potential, Ross unknowingly contradicts himself, because if God be something outside space and time then how on earth can Ross give this ‘Being’ character and personality?  There is no way.  Ross is evidently taking a giant leap of faith between the premise of his argument, that balance of deuterium is just right for stellar formation, and its conclusion, that a caring God is required for this balance.  How could there be ‘evidence’, as Ross thinks, of a caring God?  Ross maintains that God created the stars so that humans could have a pleasant place to live, but if God really wanted to give us a pleasant place to live, why not eradicate the apparent endless suffering in the world instead of giving us shiny balls of plasma to look at in the night’s sky?  If anything, the world is not a pleasant place to live in at all.  It is both painful to mind and body, and at most dangerous and threatening to life both on a worldly and cosmic plain.  Suffering is rampart – be it in the third world or the more advanced countries, and the inability to attain material and/or spiritual satisfaction, or even tame our instincts provide the soul with anything other than pleasure. 
In the grand scale of the Universe there is no notion of good or bad, care or neglect; the laws of physics are just the way they are with no meaning attached to them, it is us instead who accord them meaning. 

In Victor Stenger’s article, is the Universe fine-tuned for us?, Stenger attacks the notion that life, that is our understanding of life, is the tour de force product of fine tuning, for, as I have already argued, a different life form could well evolve if the laws of nature were different.  Furthermore, in his analyses of over 100 model Universes with different cosmological constants, he argues that over half of the stars could survive to at least a billions years[xii].  Since, it appears that long stellar life times are a requirement for life to emerge, a billion years for Stenger, is seen as ample time to allow stars to evolve and nucleosynthesis heavier elements for life to occur[xiii].  Since Ross assumes that the laws of nature are finely tuned for human wellbeing, it is he who is taking a very anthropomorphic and bias perspective by thinking that God designed the laws of nature for the sake of human prosperity.  Indeed, this argument is similar to the one Hume under the guise of Philo uses against Cleanthes.  Philo argues that Cleanthes interprets the designer God in an anthropomorphic and imperfect way[xiv], a God who is, essentially, personified by humans as a deity for humans. This argument is exactly the same as the one Ross takes – the laws of physics, for Ross, are finely balanced for the sake of human wellbeing.  Not only is Ross yet again taking another leap of faith, but he is also taking a prejudiced view in that we humans are superior in comparison to all other animals, rocks, and other inorganic material.  Again, there cannot be any form of evidence from fine-tuning that would logically infer this conclusion to be the case.  Surely, since humans have only been around for a few thousand years and were preceded by other species that became extinct (e.g. dinosaurs and the woolly mammoth) who is to say that God created for humans when it only takes a ‘finely-tuned’ asteroid to wipe us out into extinction and, therefore, allowing us to share the same fate as the dinosaurs of millions of years ago? Since there is neither evidence nor reason to suggest that human life will forever continue to exist here in the Universe, there is therefore no reason to suggest that human life is the highest achievement mustered by fine-tuning, or even God.

To summarize, this essay has argued against Ross’s idea that fine-tuning points toward the existence of God.  It has argued the following points: Firstly, that the universe could have been more accurately refined, yet still leaving the possibility open for the emergence of life, carbon based or not.  However, either way, there is nothing to suggest the appearance of God’s hallmark or signature that inevitably points to his existence.  Secondly, since invoking aliens as designers of our laws only pushes the problem back further, we are faced with the problem of how something can come from nothing.  But to invoke a God who is not affected by time, is to effectively render him as a ‘nothing’ since he is neither in space nor time.  Hence, we are faced with an unsolvable contradiction of how a timeless God can involve himself in things that occur in time.  Thirdly, we have no way of knowing why the laws of nature are the way they are, nor can we discover their origin.  By invoking a God we could well fall into the ‘God of the gaps’ argument.  Lastly, since there is nothing to suggest from the laws of nature that God possess a personality of some sort, Ross takes a giant leap of faith by linking the balance of deuterium and the love of God, and is effectively taking an anthropomorphic stance on the idea that the laws are finely-tuned for human wellbeing.  Why we are here is a mystery, where we came from is a mystery.  It could well be that ‘something’ ‘somehow’ put us here intentionally or otherwise.  But, in all honesty, we simply do not know the answer to these questions.

© 2011 Roberto Nacci All Rights Reserved

If you would like to use this essay for academic or other purposes, please contact the author for permission first.


[i]Ross, H., (1992), date accessed: 6/04/2011, p. 9
[ii] Tegmark, M. (1997). On the dimensionality of spacetime. Class. Quantum Grav. 14: L69-L75
[iii] Dawkins, R., The God Delusion, London: Bantam Press, (2006), p. 147
[iv] Ross, H., The Fingerprint of God, second edition, Orange, CA: Promise publishing (1991), pp.120-128.
[v] op.cit Ross, H (1991) p.122
[vi] Ibid. p.10
[vii] ibid. p.11
[viii] ibid. p.11
[ix] Livio, M, Hollowell, D, Weiss, A & Truran, J W: The anthropic significance of the existence of an excited state of 12C, Nature vol 340, No. 6231, 27, (1989)
[x] op.cit Dawkins, R. p.119
[xi] ibid. p.11
[xii] Stenger, V. Is the Universe fine-tuned for us?, In Matt Young and Taner Edis, eds., Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press: 172-84
[xiii] Op.cit Young & Edis. p. 176
[xiv] Hume, D, Dialogues concerning natural religion, in Stump, E., Murray, M.J., Philosophy of Religion the big questions, Oxford: Blackwell publishing, pp. 94-99

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