One of the commonly invoked arguments in any discussion of natural theology and the evidence for God is the Anthropic Principle – or put simply, the fact that the universe in which we live is incredibly finely tuned to support the existence of life as we know it.  Karl Giberson recently posted on this at Science and the Sacred and I was asked by a reader in an e-mail if, given my rather skeptical attitude toward Intelligent Design (capital I capital D) in biology, I was equally skeptical here and thought that the anthropic principle was an expression of bad science.  The short answer, simply, is no. It isn’t bad science, it is one piece of evidence for the existence of God, it is not proof for the existence of God.

Stephen Hawking (a highly respected theoretical physicist and not a religious person) put it like this in his 1988 book A Brief History of Time (link is to the updated 1998 edition – I have and quote from the 1988 original):

hst_pillars_m16 cropped.JPG

The laws of science, as we know them at present, contain many fundamental numbers, like the size of the electric charge of the electron and the ratio of the masses of the proton and electron. We cannot, at the moment at least, predict the values of these numbers from theory – we have to find them by observation. It may be that one day we shall discover a complete unified theory that predicts them all, but it is also possible that some or all of them vary from universe to universe or within a single universe. The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life. For example if the electric charge of the electron hes been only slightly different, stars either would have been unable to burn hydrogen and helium, or else they would not have exploded. Of course, there might be other forms of intelligent life, not dreamed of even by writers of science fiction, that did not require the light of a star like the sun or the heavier elements that are made in stars and are flung back in space when the stars explode. Never the less it seems clear that there are relatively few ranges of values that would allow the development of any form of intelligent life. Most sets of numbers would give rise to universes that, although they might be very beautiful, would contain no one able to wonder at that beauty. One can either take this as evidence of a divine purpose in Creation and the choice of the laws of science or as support for the strong anthropic principle. (p. 125)

Does the fine tuning of the universe impress you as evidence of divine purpose in Creation?

Image: Star-Birth Clouds in M16. This eerie, dark structure
is a column of cool molecular hydrogen gas and dust that is an
incubator for new stars.  The color image is constructed from three
separate images. Red shows emission from singly-ionized sulfur atoms,
green from hydrogen,  blue from doubly- ionized oxygen atoms. Credit:
Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University), and NASA
(public domain)

The nature of the universe alone – the fine tuning for life – will not convince anyone of purpose or design. Richard Dawkins – while admitting that the fine tuning exists – finds the evidence for creation absent:

The theist says that God, when setting up the universe, tuned the fundamental constants of the universe so that each one lay in its Goldilocks zone for the production of life. It is as though God had six knobs that he could twiddle, and he carefully tuned each knob to its Goldilocks value. As ever, the theist’s answer is deeply unsatisfying, because it leaves the existence of God unexplained. A God capable of calculating the Goldilocks values for the six numbers would have to be at least as improbable as the finely tuned combination of numbers itself, and that’s very improbable indeed – which is indeed the premise of the whole discussion we are having. It follows that the theist’s answer has utterly failed to make any headway towards solving the problem at hand. I see no alternative but to dismiss it, while at the same time marvelling at the number of people who can’t see the problem and seem genuinely satisfied by the ‘Divine Knob-Twiddler’ argument. (p. 143 The God Delusion)

Dawkins goes on to describe how biologists have had their consciousness raised and suggests that a form of  natural selection may even explain the fine tuning of the universe – taking a cue from a theoretical physicist Lee Smolin (p. 146).

Owen Gingerich, Professor of Astronomy and of the History of Science, Emeritus, Harvard University, in his excellent, readable little book God’s Universe says:

To believe in a designed universe requires accepting teleology and purpose. And if that purpose includes contemplative intelligent life that can admire the universe and can search out its secrets, then the cosmos must have properties congenial to life. For me part of the coherency of the universe is that it is purposeful – though it probably takes the eyes of faith to accept that idea. But if a person accepts that understanding, the principle that our universe must be well suited to life also becomes the evidence of design. (p. 77)

John Polkinghorne (a theoretical physicist and one time Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge – he resigned to become an Anglican Priest) also comments at length on the anthropic principle and the evidence for design in the fine tuning of the universe in his book Quarks, Chaos & Christianity – another readable short book. He ends his chapter Is Anyone There? as follows:

Asking and answering the questions, “Why can we do science at all?” and “Why is the universe so special?” have given us a nudge in the direction of religious belief. The answers we’ve found do suggest that there’s a Someone there. I’ve already agreed that it doesn’t amount to proof, but I think that there aren’t many really important things that can be established in this kind of logical and necessary way. (p. 47)

In The Language of God Francis Collins suggests that the fine tuning of the universe leads to one of three possibilities: (p. 74-75)

  1. There are many universes (essentially an infinite number) and we (of course) happen to be in the one capable of developing and supporting intelligent life.
  2. There is only one universe – and it just happened to be right.
  3. There is only one universe – but it is right because it was designed to support intelligent life and reflects the action and purpose of the creator.

He goes on to say:

One must leave the door open to the possibility that future investigation in theoretical physics will demonstrate that some of the fifteen physical constants that so far are simply determined by experimental observation may be limited in their potential numerical value by something more profound, but such a revelation is not currently on the horizon. Furthermore, as with the other arguments in this chapter and those that precede and follow it, no scientific observation can reach the level of absolute proof of the existence of God. But for those willing to consider a theistic perspective, the Anthropic Principle certainly provides an interesting argument in favor of a creator. (p. 78)

Polkinghorne, in response to a suggestion by Paul Davies that science can provide a surer path to God than religion can, puts it quite well:

Well I think that this really is bizarre for, although we can learn something of God from the pattern and development of creation, there are many other things we shall only learn about God if we take the risk and accept the insight of a more personal form of encounter. Meanwhile let’s note that, although the scientific detail of this chapter would have surprised (and I’m sure interested) St. Paul, its general thrust would not have seemed unfamiliar to him. He once wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world God’s invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20). (p. 47-48)

As I think about this – even if the constants are determined by a new unified theory to be exactly those required for the formation of life – would this “natural” explanation negate the significance of design and purpose? I don’t think it would – we would still have the wonder and grandeur of a creation designed for our existence.

What do you think? Is the the fine tuning of the universe for the development of life evidence for the existence of a creator? Do you think it should be avoided as a God of the gaps type reasoning?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

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