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Peer Review: The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning

Welcome to Peer Review, a series in which we ask leading academics to review books written by people working in the same field. Here Geraint Lewis, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sydney…

A universe composed differently could still support complex life. Susan NYC

Welcome to Peer Review, a series in which we ask leading academics to review books written by people working in the same field.

Here Geraint Lewis, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sydney, reviews The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us by Victor J. Stenger, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii.

We are a product of evolution, and are not surprised that our bodies seem to be well-suited to the environment.

Our leg bones are strong enough to allow for Earth’s gravitational pull – not too weak to shatter, not so massively over-engineered as to be wasteful.

But it could also be claimed we are special and the environment was formed and shaped for us.

This, as we know, is the basis of many religious ideas.

In recent years, such ideas have been expanded beyond Earth to look at the entire universe and our place within it.

The so-called Fine-Tuning Argument – that the laws of physics have been specially-tuned, potentially by some Supreme Being, to allow human life to arise – is the focus of Victor J. Stenger’s book.

Stenger presents the mathematics underpinning cosmic evolution, the lifetime of stars, the quantum nature of atoms and so on. His central is that “fine-tuning” claims are fatally flawed.

He points out that some key areas of physics – such as the equality of the charges on the electron and proton – are set by conservation laws determined by symmetries in the universe, and so are not free to play with.

Some flaws in the theory, he argues, run deeper.

A key component of the fine-tuning argument is that there are many parameters governing our universe, and that changing any one of these would likely produce a sterile universe unlike our own.

But think of baking a cake. Arbitrarily doubling only the flour, or sugar or vanilla essence may end in a cooking disaster, but doubling all the ingredients results in a perfectly tasty cake.

The interrelationships between the laws of physics are somewhat more complicated, but the idea is the same.

A hypothetical universe in which gravity was stronger, the masses of the fundamental particles smaller and electomagnetic force weaker may well result in the following: a universe that appears a little different to our own, but is still capable of producing long-lived stars and heavy chemical elements, the basic requirements for complex life.

Stenger backs up such points with his own research, and provides access to a web-based program he wrote called MonkeyGod.

The program allows you to conjure up universes with differing underlying physics. And, as Stenger shows, randomly plucking universe parameters from thin air can still produce universes quite capable of harbouring life.

This book is a good read for those wanting to understand the fine-tuning issues in cosmology, and it’s clear Stenger really understands the science.

But while many of the discussions are robust, I felt that in places some elements of the fine-tuning argument were brushed aside with little real justification.

As a case in point, Stenger falls back on multiverse theory and the anthropic principle, whereby we occupy but one of an almost infinite sea of different universes, each with a different law of physics.

In multiverse theory, most universes would be sterile (though we should not be surprised to find ourselves in a habitable universe).

While such a multiverse – the staple of superstring and brane ideas of the cosmos – is often sold as science fact, it actually lies much closer to the world of science speculation (or, to many, fiction).

We are not out of the fine-tuning waters yet, but Stenger’s book is a good place to start getting to grips with the issues.

The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed for Us by Victor J. Stenger (Prometheus Books) is available now.

If you’re an academic and have a book you’d like reviewed, or if you’d like to review a book for us, contact the science and technology editor, subject: Peer Review.

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10 Comments sorted by

  1. Rick Ryals

    logged in via Facebook

    I just have to say that Vic's interpretations are 100% motivated by his long-standing culture war with creationists concerning a subject that was originally formalized by Brandon Carter as an ideological reaction to the very thing that he's doing.

    And strictly from a scientific perspective as someone who is trying to resolve the fine-tuning observation from bio-oriented first physics principles, statements like "We are not out of the fine-tuning waters yet"... are the exact wrong way to look at it too.

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    1. Geraint Lewis

      Professor of Astrophysics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Rick Ryals

      Thanks for the comment. I do understand where Victor is coming from with his book, and he makes it plain that he has had long battles with creationist on the topic.

      >>"We are not out of the fine-tuning waters yet"... are the exact wrong way to look at it too.

      I am unsure what you mean here. Are you suggesting it is wrong to say that fine-tuning is not an ongoing subject of debate as there are questions yet to be answered?

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    2. Rick Ryals

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Geraint Lewis

      Sorry, I didn't reply in the right spot, because I didn't previously see the reply prompt which only appears when you cursor over a previous comment and I'm a newbie... ;)

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  2. Rick Ryals

    logged in via Facebook

    H Geraint, I'm saying that trying to "explain away" fine-tuning isn't the way to go about resolving the cc problem or any of the rest...

    You know where Vic is coming from, but my point was that he's practicing "Copernicanism", which is the very reason that Carter formalized the principle in the first place.

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    1. Rick Ryals

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Rick Ryals

      Okay, since you didn't respond, and you are an astrophysicist, I'm going to push this out one step further to say that the "explain it away" mentality produces many physical absurdities. For example, anybody that isn't lost in the speculative projections of unproven and incomplete theories of modern physics might notice that a flat yet expanding universe satisfies the second law of thermodynamics much more efficiently than the naive quantum approximation of a cc that should be about 120 orders of magnitude greater than is observed, since far less energy gets wasted when it is disseminated uniformly over time as more work gets done before heat death can occur.

      Seems pretty obvious that there is an energy conservation law that "suppresses" the cc... duh... a "maximum action principle".

      Course, that's just obvious, it's not something that anybody wants to hear...

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    2. Geraint Lewis

      Professor of Astrophysics at University of Sydney

      In reply to Rick Ryals

      Sorry I didn't respond, but there was work to do.

      I don't think there is an "explain it away" mentality, just an "explain it" mentality. Is the universe fine tuned or not, and what Victor says is that some of the claimed finely-tuned properties of the Universe simply aren't, it is just that you are looking at the problem in not enough way. Anyone who has worked in optimization of two parameters will have seem this in the form of degeneracies - changing just one parameter or the other will not result in a good outcome, but looking in multiple dimensions, you can follow an optimal valley not apparent in one direction alone.

      >> Seems pretty obvious that there is an energy conservation law that "suppresses" the cc... duh... a "maximum action principle".

      I'm sorry, but I really don't understand that this is meant to mean

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    3. Rick Ryals

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Geraint Lewis

      "I don't think there is an "explain it away" mentality, just an "explain it" mentality."

      That is not correct, but I guess that you would not know this, unless you were to advocate a strong interpretation.

      "I'm sorry, but I really don't understand that this is meant to mean."

      Me too.

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  3. Roxane Paczensky

    Registered Nurse

    I'm an atheist and have an interest in these types of discussion, albeit to inform myself how to argue against the existance of theistic gods. I don't say that god doesn't exist, we just don't have any evidence that one does. What I get frustrated by is that apologists for theistic gods use the unknows of the universe, our planet and our history on it to support the claim their god exists. I won't have a problem if either the presence of a fine tuning is discovered or not. I will have a problem if fine tuning discovery is used as evidence to support someones theistic god, as there is plenty of evidence that those gods were invented by man.

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    1. Rick Ryals

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Roxane Paczensky

      Yep, that's a fact, Roxane, and here is the scientific distinction that doesn't get made by either side of the argument thanks, unfortunately, to the unscientific dogma that results from the never ending culture war that's raged for about as long as we've stood upright.:

      Even if we are not here by accident, an intelligent agency, (supernatural or otherwise), is not the first place that one would most naturally expect to find a solution to the fine-tuning problem, given the lack of direct evidence…

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  4. Peter Kinnon

    logged in via Facebook

    While I share Stenger's motivation in rejection of Creationist/ID interpretations, Geraint Lewis's observation that " some elements of the fine-tuning argument were brushed aside with little real justification." would seem appropriate.

    Some of the strongest evidence of "fine tuning" comes not from fundamental physics but from chemistry. Among the most often quoted examples are the unique properties of carbon and of water, first pointed out by Lawrence Henderson back in 1913 in "The Fitness of…

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