Sunday, July 2, 2017

Is Fine-Tuning a Fallacy?

Victor Stenger was a theoretical particle physicist who wrote many books critical of God, religion, and the case for God from scientific reasoning. A regular reader of this blog asked if I would critique some of his writings and ideas including his 2011 book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is not designed for us. I have always felt that if one wants to determine what is true, then one should understand the best ideas from opposing views of any issue and, consequently, I have read books by many critics of Christianity including Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and Stephen Hawking. I haven't read much of Stenger's work so I thought this would be a great opportunity to assess his ideas.

In his book The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning, Stenger claims that arguments theists make about fine-tuning can be easily refuted. Following the tone of my blog, I will try to discuss this issue in a non-technical way. The astrophysicist Luke Barnes wrote a long technical article refuting Stenger's claims which I highly recommend. In response to Barnes' article, Stenger wrote an article, which caused Barnes to write a further rebuttal on his blog. The general consensus among scientists who have studied this question is that Barnes' arguments are stronger than Stenger's and the universe does appear to be fine-tuned. For those who want to read the technical articles on this topic, I refer you to the links in this paragraph. For those who want a less technical discussion, including some of my original thoughts on Stenger's arguments, please continue reading.

The first thing I noticed as I read Stenger's book is that, like many atheists, he does not really understand the claims made by theists or have an accurate understanding of the Christian idea of God.  For instance, early in his book he states, "If I provide a plausible explanation consistent with our best knowledge, then the proponent of fine-tuning, who is, after all, claiming a miracle, has the burden of proving me wrong." (p. 67) Of course, the proponent of fine-tuning is not necessarily claiming a miracle but an improbable and apparently-designed outcome. This could come about through natural means, improbable events, or a miracle, as I explain in my post on Looking for God in Nature. So, in fact, Stenger's whole premise is wrong. Throughout the book, he consistently makes the claim that if he can show a reason within the laws of physics for the fine-tuning then he has eliminated the need for God. But, of course, fine-tuned laws and fine-tuned mechanisms only push the problem upstream a little. Both are still evidence of a designer. Stenger's conclusions are then primarily based on false premises. He shows his ignorance of biblical understanding when he claims the story of creation is incompatible with the Big Bang when, for instance, one of the major points of this blog is to show that scientific findings, including the Big Bang, are in complete agreement with the biblical record including the story of creation in Genesis 1. (p. 122).

One of Stenger's major points is that if the laws of physics are the same when tested by different observers (what he calls Point-of-View Invariance, or PoVI) then the laws of physics as we know them must be valid in any universe, not just ours. He then goes on to say that because these laws are necessary they are not fine-tuned at all. If Stenger's logic regarding PoVI and the laws of physics can be shown to be incorrect, then many of Stenger's conclusions are completely invalid. In fact, Luke Barnes does show that this proposal is not valid because of Stengers' misuse of certain terms. Barnes outlines Stenger's argument as:1
  • LN1.  If our formulation of the laws of nature is to be objective, it must be PoVI.
  • LN2.  Invariance implies conserved quantities (Noether’s theorem).
  • LN3.  Thus, “when our models do not depend on a particular point or direction in space or a particular moment in time, then those models must necessarily contain the quantities linear momentum, angular momentum, and energy, all of which are conserved. Physicists have no choice in the matter, or else their models will be subjective, that is, will give uselessly different results for every different point of view. And so the conservation principles are not laws built into the universe or handed down by deity to govern the behavior of matter. They are principles governing the behavior of physicists.” 
Barnes goes on to show that Stenger commits the logical fallacy of equivocation. He uses the word invariant (invariance) in LN1 and LN2 as if they mean the same thing, but, actually, they mean two very different things. The invariance in LN1 means the physical laws are the same while that in LN2 is a more technical term with a very distinct meaning of being symmetric. By using the word "invariant" when the appropriate term is "symmetric" Stenger sets up a false equivalence, and without that equivalence his whole argument is destroyed. His conclusion in LN3 does not logically follow. I believe this is why many scientists have indicated that Stenger's book does not, at all, refute the fine-tuning in the universe.

Stenger dismisses fine-tuning with technical language that sounds convincing but simply hides the fine-tuning behind rhetoric. A typical conclusion goes like this, "We conclude that the mass difference between the neutron and the proton results from the mass difference between the d and u quarks, which, in turn, must result from their electroweak interaction with the Higgs field. No fine-tuning is once-again evident." (p. 178). But the "electroweak interaction" is a totally arbitrary parameter which gives rise to the mass difference and must be somehow dialed in to the appropriate value to give the needed neutron and proton mass difference. In other words, the electroweak interaction must be fine-tuned. So this case of "no fine-tuning...evident" is actually a case where there must be fine-tuning, not to the "mass" but to the "electroweak interaction" or we won't have the needed neutron-proton mass difference. The non-expert reader thinks Stenger has shown that fine tuning is unnecessary when, in fact, this particular example really shows just the opposite.

Stenger also presents case after case where he claims no fine-tuning is necessary because a certain parameter or ratio is defined by known physics. But he apparently seems completely oblivious to the fact that then requires the "known physics" to be highly fine-tuned to give the correct parameters. He has just moved the need for fine tuning from one place to another, yet he seems to honestly believe that somehow removes the fine-tuning. That is, if the mechanism predicts the fine-tuning there is no fine-tuning. It is a huge logical misconception to just assume that finely-tuned and understood mechanisms that work are not, of themselves, examples of fine-tuning.

After reading this book myself and reading other scientists' reviews of The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning it seems that Stenger's arguments are considered strong only by those who already agreed with him, while the majority of scientists who have studied the issue agree that Stenger dismisses fine-tuning claims with little justification. Clearly, the scientific evidence for a designer remains strong. I expect that as theists continue to point out that the universe really does appear to be finely-tuned to allow life to exist that more books like this will be written to try to undermine that case, and that close inspection of the arguments against theism will show them to be highly inadequate, just like those in the supposed Fallacy of Fine-Tuning.

1Barnes, "The Fine-Tuning of the Universe for Intelligent Life," arXiv:1112.4647, (2012)


  1. Excellent review. I wouldn't be able to decode the technical aspects.

  2. I learned that the mass difference is not really an inherent mass difference but results from the electroweak force. Fine tuning is like pushing on a water balloon-it keeps popping up. I have seen Stenger at CU. He is one angry guy.Died over a year ago.

  3. Last I checked, one of the most, if not the most brilliant scientist on the planet, Stephen Hawking, doesn't believe that Fine Tuning is necessarily proof of a Creator. It might be, but the "jury is still out"

    Why don't we wait until more evidence is gathered before we make a judgment on this issue. That is why I refer to myself as an "agnostic", not an atheist. There is not sufficient evidence to know for certain if there is a Creator or not.

    But the real question for you, Michael, is whether or not there is good evidence for your ancient Hebrew god, Yahweh. Assuming that evidence for a Creator is automatically evidence for Yahweh is an error in logical thinking.

    To me, the evidence suggests that if there is a Creator God (or Gods), which there very well may be, he (she, they, or it) prefers not to be identified and is indifferent (or enjoys?) suffering. This is but one issue which I believe demonstrates that Yahweh/Jesus cannot be the Creator.

    1. I'm sure you can find a good Christian response to the problem of evil and suffering on the internet. The short answer, of course, is that God gave humans the ability to make choices and that human choices are the primary reason for evil and suffering. I think the facts back that up. For instance, there is enough food to feed the whole world, but human greed and power struggles cause many to starve. You make the logical fallacy of believing that because God has not destroyed evil yet, he is indifferent. That is not true. He has, and will, ultimately take care of the problem of evil and suffering. What other world-view says that God cares so much about human suffering and evil that he paid an insurmountable debt? Come on, Gary. You are just throwing out questions that you know the Christian answer to. You may not accept that answer, but your posturing doesn't advance the dialogue.

    2. May I add Gary, that if God is to deal with all the evil and suffering in this world, who should he start with? Will it be you or me? Who first?

    3. Gary, I think you should start looking at the evidence of what Jesus has done. The evidence for his death, burial and resurrection is substantial enough. Everyone I am aware of who sought to examine it honestly has come to the conclusion of the reality that Jesus must have risen from the dead.

    4. To simulate the fine-tuning of 6 constants of nature check out (non-commercial, PC or Mac, no tablets). The simulator focuses on the what of fine-tuning not the why.

  4. There will always be uncertainty on these large questions, we can never know enough to make 100%, for sure, decisions about the existence of God. But that shouldn't stop us, there's hardly nothing in our human knowledge and experience that's 100% yet we make decisions and form opinions regardless. So why not do the same when it comes to the biggest question in our life of who we are and what's the meaning of life? And since the notion of God is a suprem intelligent and loving Being ,try to connect to Him as a person. A simple prayer with open heart disposition for God to reveal Himself to you could far more powerful than anything else.

  5. Mike I enjoy the late Dr. Feynman's lectures because he's funny and super brilliant.

    n one he discussed the apparent fact that unless Carbon 12 had a very specific energy band 7.82 million volts there would never have been any large number of elements in the table or universe. Turns out there is such a band and so three helium atoms could fit , stay that's fine tuning.

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  7. Nate Non sequitur meter is pegged. However the topic being how improbable is the universe we live in unless the Creator designed the substructure, laws. so uniquely that when taken in sum the hundred or more independent design parameters all fit together and each operates in infintesimally small ranges. The Hebrew language of the OT WAS A QUITE limited vocabulary and it's creative description conforms quite nicely with a true beginning. Beethoven isn't mentioned either but God loved and inspired the Psalms.
    Try Hebrews 11:1-3 it's in the NT right after Philemon. Moreover faith and evidence are linked by observation and experience. Scientists and particularly physicists believe that what mathmatics predicts will be observed in the laboratory directly or indirectly and validate the mathematics.

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  9. Mate I never said anything remotely resembling such. I tend to be robust in my arguments in agreement with the tenets of Aritotelian methods...true rhetoric vs sophistry is perhaps the measure of successful debate. If a whimpering sentence of victimhood is your idea of substance then by all me as move along...Godspeed.