Why does the universe appear fine-tuned for life?

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Some things occur just by chance. Mark Twain was born on the day that Halley’s comet appeared in 1835 and died on the day it reappeared in 1910. There is a temptation to linger on a story like that, to wonder if there might be a deeper order behind a life so poetically bracketed. For most of us, the temptation doesn’t last long. We are content to remind ourselves that the vast majority of lives are not so celestially attuned, and go about our business in the world. But some coincidences are more troubling, especially if they implicate larger swathes of phenomena, or the entirety of the known universe. During the past several decades, physics has uncovered basic features of the cosmos that seem, upon first glance, like lucky accidents. Theories now suggest that the most general structural elements of the universe — the stars and planets, and the galaxies that contain them — are the products of finely calibrated laws and conditions that seem too good to be true. What if our most fundamental questions, our late-at-night-wonderings about why we are here, have no more satisfying answer than an exasperated shrug and a meekly muttered ‘Things just seem to have turned out that way’?

It can be unsettling to contemplate the unlikely nature of your own existence, to work backward causally and discover the chain of blind luck that landed you in front of your computer screen, or your mobile, or wherever it is that you are reading these words. For you to exist at all, your parents had to meet, and that alone involved quite a lot of chance and coincidence. If your mother hadn’t decided to take that calculus class, or if her parents had decided to live in another town, then perhaps your parents never would have encountered one another. But that is only the tiniest tip of the iceberg. Even if your parents made a deliberate decision to have a child, the odds of your particular sperm finding your particular egg are one in several billion. The same goes for both your parents, who had to exist in order for you to exist, and so already, after just two generations, we are up to one chance in 1027. Carrying on in this way, your chance of existing, given the general state of the universe even a few centuries ago, was almost infinitesimally small. You and I and every other human being are the products of chance, and came into existence against very long odds.

And just as your own existence seems, from a physical point of view, to have been wildly unlikely, the existence of the entire human species appears to have been a matter of blind luck. Stephen Jay Gould argued in 1994 that the detailed course of evolution is as chancey as the path of a single sperm cell to an egg. Evolutionary processes do not innately tend toward Homo sapiens, or even mammals. Rerun the course of history with only a slight variation and the biological outcome might have been radically different. For instance, if the asteroid hadn’t struck the Yucatán 66 million years ago, dinosaurs might still have run of this planet, and humans might have never evolved.

Written By: Tim Maudlin
continue to source article at aeonmagazine.com

41 COMMENTS

  1. Amazing! It all fits!!!

    Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. Douglas Adams

  2. But our modern understanding of cosmology does demote many facts of central importance to humans — in particular the very existence of our species — to mere cosmic accident, and none of the methods for overcoming fine-tuning hold out any prospect for reversing that realisation. In the end, we might just have to accommodate ourselves to being yet another accident in an accidental universe.

    What a marvellous accident! We should treasure every moment.I don’t understand why it upsets people when they realize that they are not the “Pinnacle of Creation” It’s quite funny really how man has slowly been demoted from being the King of the Castle at the centre of the universe to an obscure position, in an outlying suburb of the Milky Way.Just a dirty rascal, an ape amongst other living beings made of the selfsame biological material.

  3. Funny, I had just told my kids nearly the same thing a few days ago, coincidence? Nah, just logical conclusions should be drawn with all available information and thus, both of us using logic have found a very similar explanation.

  4. Oh yes,and if the universe were any different we wouldn’t be here gawping and wondering and telling ourselves how ‘special ‘ we are that God chose to finetune the universe so that, like Goldilocks we might have a universe that was “just right”

  5. Things did just turn out that way. If the universe didn’t support life we wouldn’t be here to observe it and if the universe has any purpose at all (which I doubt) then there is no evidence at all that its purposes are in any way to do with any purposes for our existence. Any universe that doesn’t support life has no greater or lesser purposes than one that does, it just can’t be observed.

    Religios have to try to see purposes and meanings but here is my answer: The idea that the entire cosmos was made by a creator so he/she/it could sit and watch a band of sentient apes struggle with good and evil on one cooling cinder is not just unsatisfactory it is profoundly absurd.

  6. “For you to exist at all, your parents had to meet, and that alone involved quite a lot of chance and coincidence. If your mother hadn’t decided to take that calculus class, or if her parents had decided to live in another town, then perhaps your parents never would have encountered one another. But that is only the tiniest tip of the iceberg. Even if your parents made a deliberate decision to have a child, the odds of your particular sperm finding your particular egg are one in several billion….”

    Nonsense reasoning.

  7. My own guess is that life is broader than the flavour we have on earth. It can get its energy from pretty well whatever source is available. It could be based on many families of complex molecules. When we compare other places to earth, we are measuring suitibility for life very similar to earth, not necessarily life generally. I would also guess that the distinction between living and non-living is much mushier than we believe.

    I could imagine a scientist on Triskelion dismissing the notion of life of earth, “Nonsense, the H2S concentration is two orders of magnitude too small.”

    In a similar way, if the fundamental constants were different, you could still get a universe, just different from ours. It might still be interesting from the point of view of its inhabitants.

    My analogy, your blind wife randomly selects some paint for the house. You may like some choices better than others, but all choices work on some level.

  8. Then there are all those extremophyles – so beautifully matched to their environments! Sulphurous pools, hydrothermal vents, arid deserts, polar ice-caps, sub-glacial lakes, an Antarctic continent devoid of land predators, etc . Dry-seasons and yearly cycles – Just the right length for the organisms which lie dormant for part of the year!

    Who could have designed those habits especially for those organisms???? It really is comical the way backwards-thinking ponders these evolved and evolving features!!!!

    • In reply to #11 by Alan4discussion:

      It really is comical the way backwards-thinking ponders these evolved and evolving features!!!!

      Right, and an excellent example. It’ a processing error; a logical, philosophical misstep. Spinoza discusses this in Ethics, how people egocentrically attribute agency and meaning to things. He even charitably explores this faulty reasoning, and reveals it to be a person’s tendency to see themselves as the central figure in a cosmic drama. That little emotional immaturity become a metaphysical assumption, and 6,000 years later people are blowing themselves up on trains.

  9. This article seems to have it all the wrong way round similar to a very human centric view of the universe…..
    Biological life is fine tuned and adapted to the pre existing conditions that it is born into and those are the laws we are bound by……Its not the cosmological constants that are fine tuned – we only evolved because the pre existing constants were constant enough….and they are not fine tuned…humans invented fine tuning……energy clustering, encapsulation and transfer since the big bang has constantly formed more complex ways to exist for particles – atoms – cells….what next in universal evolution ?

  10. It really is truly unamazing how closely the delusions of circular reasoning, match the base perceptions of the brains which generated them!

    It’s a fantastic match – like they were from the same template! – as good a match as each separate puddle in its hole!

    How could such accuracy occur?? .. .Another miracle”!!!??? . . .. . … . ..

  11. 99% of an atom is empty space. I understand why we say “the universe is fine tuned for life”. However, as far as we know 99.999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999
    999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999
    999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999
    % of the universe has NO life.

    I know that they mean strong nuclear force and light speed and physical constants and I’ve seen “God the devine knob twiddler” stuff. BUT, and here is the big deal, we do not know how to measure (or it is an absurdity) to try to estimate all the LIFE that the universe EXCLUDES.

    Perhaps the universe is extremely unhospitable to life. And there are millions and millions of iterations of life that do not and cannot arise because of the “settings” of the universe.

    So, to summarize, we don’t know SHIT about this topic.

  12. All the arguments for “fine tuning” seem to presume that the various constants they are discussing could have possibly had other values. That, for example, the down quark could have somehow been slightly lighter than the up quark instead of heavier, thereby causing protons to be heavier than neutrons. Or that the “fine-structure constant” which characterises the strength of the electromagnetic interaction could somehow be more than 4% different from what it actually is. And so on.

    Is there any support for this presumption whatsoever? Just because we can imagine these constants having different values than they actually have doesn’t mean those values are in any way “arbitrary”.

  13. Stephen Hawking said he guessed that would turn out the math describing the universe constrains those constants.

    Any time the you are surrised at the universe, what you have done is noticed how wrong your misconception of how it should be was.

    The only reason we have notions for how it should be, it based on past experience. If clowns popped into existence regularly during your childhood, it would never occur to label this odd. You likely would not even seek an explanation for it, only if the frequency changed.

  14. Purpose of the Universe

    The notion of purpose implies some being attempting to make some change to the universe. By extension you can say a crescent wrench has a purpose, but only because plumbers exist.

    So if you talk about the purpose of the universe you are really asking “What was god intending the universe to do?” If you don’t posit a god (or a universal consciousness), the universe can’t very well have a purpose. The universe can have a purpose to a human, but that is a very local assignment, nothing whatever to do with the universe as a whole.

    Different people can assign different purposes to the same object. E.g. I use a computer mostly to influence other people’s beliefs. Someone else might use that same computer to play video games. Same for the universe. You get to assign your own purpose to it.

    If you don’t believe me, ask the universe.

  15. As I have written on many previous threads here, showing that our physical models are brittle (dependent on precise settings to match reality) does not justify a belief in so called “fine-tuning” for our Universe. The author almost got that far at the end of the article, but not quite. It is completely possible that in the bigger reality (that we can’t access) the models we are using are only approximate and only work in the special case of our Universe. We would never know any better. The author got close to that with his falling object world thought experiment, but could not carry it far enough based on its own limitations.

    • In reply to #19 by Quine:

      I think I’d go one step further and point out that, even if there was only one universe and this was it, the idea of “fine-tuning” presumes that, left to its own devices, the universe would simply fail in some way and requires intervention from an “engineer” (i.e. the Creator). In other words, it presumes what it sets out to prove because it simply posits that the norm is for the universe to fail in a certain way. In fact, it’s an intellectual sleight-of-hand because it creates a problem that isn’t there and then solves this pseudo-problem with the ease and slickness of a well-played con.

      That is, the idea of fine-tuning is circular and based on nothing that came out of the sciences of the universe or on any empirical data. It isn’t even based on sound logic; just a dubious analogy on par with the argument from Paley’s watch. This is before we point out the embarrassing, cart-before-the-horse-style anthropocentrism behind the idea that things don’t work without an agent there to mould it, as if the universe were a machine set up by a big man beyond the observable universe.

      • In reply to #22 by Zeuglodon:

        In fact, it’s an intellectual sleight-of-hand because it creates a problem that isn’t there and then solves this pseudo-problem with the ease and slickness of a well-played con.

        Well said!

  16. I suspect some of the people posting here are not familiar with these constants. They are not about fine conditions for life, but for more basic things like will there be matter. I wrote about them in my religious essay “Is there a God”.

  17. ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ is either a flawed question, or it has an answer. ‘Fine tuning’ would not be a satisfactory answer. If there is an answer, it would be a lot cooler and more insightful than ascribing conscious intent to the manifestation of the physical… a childish which Deepak Chopra says Dyson supports.

    • In reply to #24 by This Is Not A Meme:

      If there is an answer, it would be a lot cooler and more insightful than ascribing conscious intent to the manifestation of the physical… a childish which Deepak Chopra says Dyson supports.

      Despite having shown imaginative lateral thinking and making considerable contributions in science, Dyson has been very much into woo and AGW pseudo-scepticism – where he admits his ignorance, but still seems to think his ignorance entitles him to dispute the work of others. It probably comes down to the sort of faith-thinking of someone who was awarded the year 2000 TEMPLETON PRIZE!

      (Martinus J. G. Veltman, the 1999 Nobel laureate in physics, suggested the prize “bridg[ed] the gap between sense and nonsense
      Established in 1972, it is awarded to a living person who, in the estimation of the judges, “has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works”.[1] The prize is named after Sir John Templeton (1912–2008), an American-born British entrepreneur and businessman, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1987 for his philanthropic efforts.[2] Until 2001, the name of the prize was “Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion”, and from 2002 to 2008 it was called the “Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities“.)

      He is among signatories of a letter to the UN criticizing the IPCC[39][40] and has also argued against the ostracization of scientists whose views depart from the acknowledged mainstream of scientific opinion on climate change, stating that “heretics” have historically been an important force in driving scientific progress. “[H]eretics who question the dogmas are needed… I am proud to be a heretic. The world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies.”[38]

      Dyson says his views on global warming has been strongly criticized. In reply, he notes that “[m]y objections to the global warming propaganda are not so much over the technical facts, about which I do not know much, but it’s rather against the way those people behave and the kind of intolerance to criticism that a lot of them have.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeman-Dyson

      Dyson criticises climate scientists for bring intolerant of ignoramuses criticising their work!!

      He also has expressed rather strange dualist mystical views:-

      He [Dyson] is a non-denominational Christian and has attended various churches from Presbyterian to Roman Catholic. Regarding doctrinal or Christological issues, he has said, “I am neither a saint nor a theologian. To me, good works are more important than theology.”[52]

      Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect.

      Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious or scientific dogma claims to be infallible. Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive. By their arrogance they bring both science and religion into disrepute.

      Metaphysics – Dyson has suggested a kind of cosmic metaphysics of mind. In his book Infinite in All Directions he is writing about three levels of mind: “The universe shows evidence of the operations of mind on three levels.

      . . .. . .. [I]t is reasonable to believe in the existence of a third level of mind, a mental component of the universe. If we believe in this mental component and call it God, then we can say that we are small pieces of God’s mental apparatus” (p. 297).

      So Chopra is probably right to quote Dyson as a fellow wooist – and as you know wooists love “celebrity”, as badges of false authority!

    • So will NON thinking life forms!

      In reply to #28 by sciling:

      Thinking lifeforms, wherever they may exist in the multi-verse, will always perceive their environment to be fine tuned for their existence.

    • In reply to #28 by sciling:

      Thinking lifeforms, wherever they may exist in the multi-verse, will always perceive their environment to be fine tuned for their existence.

      Quite a lot of life forms on Earth at present are finding that those pesky polluting humans are detuning theirs!

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-24904143

      The world’s oceans are becoming acidic at an “unprecedented rate” and may be souring more rapidly than at any time in the past 300 million years.

      The oceans are thought to have absorbed up to half of the extra CO2 put into the atmosphere in the industrial age.
      This has lowered their pH by 0.1

      “You don’t find a mollusc at the pH level expected for 2100, this is really quite a stunning fact,” said Prof Gattuso.

      “It’s an imperfect window, only the ocean’s acidity is increasing at these sites, they don’t reflect the warming we will see this century.

      “If you combine the two, it could be even more dramatic than what we see at CO2 vents.”

      The effect of acidity is currently being felt most profoundly felt in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans. These chilly waters hold more CO2 and increasing levels of the gas are turning them acidic more rapidly than the rest of the world.

      The more acidic they become, the more damaging they are to the shells and skeletons of marine organisms.

      The researchers say that by 2020, ten percent of the Arctic will be inhospitable to species that build their shells from calcium carbonate. By 2100 the entire Arctic will be a hostile environment.

  18. Wait, aren’t we the ones fine tuning ourselves with the existing universe for compatibility with our life, not the other way around.

    This argument is like the “prove god doesn’t exist” argument – nonsense.

    Like the water that comes out of the hot tap is always hot argument. If we connected the lines the other way round it would be the cold tap and the hot water would still come out of the tap that we expected hot to come out of.

    • In reply to #30 by wlauritzen:

      That is backwards. Life is fine tuned to the universe.

      Yes, although whether the physics of this/the Universe are variable or not, looking at our location in the Milky Way in the Link, it may well be that nearly all of our galaxy is too unstable or otherwise unfriendly to any kind of life.

      Plus, there are many other forms of galaxies where there may be no ‘friendly’ regions at all, so postulating that ‘the universe’ is fine-tuned for life could be very, very far from reality.

      http://earthsky.org/space/does-our-sun-reside-in-a-spiral-arm-of-the-milky-way-galaxy

      If we find other ‘friendly’ planets in our neighbourhood, even ones with life on them, our ‘Goldilocks Zone’ near the edge of an arc along the length of a sub-spiral-arm may itself be rather rare, so the Universe could be almost all hostile… Mac.

  19. I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember reading in one of Dawkins’ books where he references a conversation in which one person states “it sure looks like sun goes round the earth”, and the other person replies “well what else would you expect it to look like?”

    The title of the article is “Why does the universe appear fine-tuned for life?”, to which one is tempted to reply “Well what else would you expect it to look like, a universe that couldn’t support life?”

    • In reply to #32 by KrustyG:

      I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember reading in one of Dawkins’ books where he references a conversation in which one person states “it sure looks like sun goes round the earth”, and the other person replies “well what else would you expect it to look like?”

      The title of the article is “Why does t…

      G.E.M. Anscombe to Wittgenstein, if memory serves.

  20. I have always had trouble taking this fining tuning argument seriously. To me it seems more symptomatic of a gap in our understanding of basic physics and cosmology. We don’t yet understand what determines the values of the fundamental constants. When we do, we may well find out that there is only one possible set of values. Or maybe certain cosmologists are right and there is an infinity of universes with different constants.

    Without this understanding, marveling at the super-fine tuned universe seems premature and only gives fuel to the religious nutters.

  21. Whenever I hear things to the effect of “Life as we know it would not exist” I try to focus on the aspect of “as we know it”. Were these universal constants different, matter could have a different form, but maybe one more friendly to the building blocks of life… or even less friendly.
    But until we acquire multiple universes to observe and experiment with, we’re left with hypothesizing.

  22. In reply to #27 by Alan4discussion:

    In reply to #24 by This Is Not A Meme:

    So Chopra is probably right to quote Dyson as a fellow wooist – and as you know wooists love “celebrity”, as badges of false authority!

    He’s still out of his league. Deepak just needs to keep Dyson’s name out of his mouth.

    I googled Chopra’s allegations and found some really abstract, weird sounding ideas, including a debate with Krauss as to whether consciousness can last forever, even in an intergenerational sense. Krauss argues the quantum death of the universe, and I don’t understand Dyson’s argument, but it was nothing so quaint as Chopra’s universal anthroconciousioness.

    Speaking of fine-tuning, Biocentrism is the language Chopra should be speaking… but even this is above his head. Chopra peddles ancient Vedic woo, which is formatted for sale and manipulation of others. From what I’ve seen of Dyson’s stranger ideas, they are more benign and original. They are worth arguing against. I agree with Dawkins. Dyson should sue.

    I am overly charitable with biocentrism, because it is new and yet to integrate with other philosophies. I believe it’s ultimate contribution and strength is in epistemology, that a priori dilemmas indicate we can not study the external universe and that all of physics is only studying the mind, that we can only study things which share a commonality with our consciousness, thus we can only know of that which allows for consciousness, explaining fine-tuning and allowing for the logical possibility of eternal consciousness/reincarnation. I’m really curious as to how this idea has failed to be exploited more by Deepak. It might contradict some of his other ideas he peddles.

  23. perhaps the word ‘chance’ as an explanation for how the universe has turned out the way it is and resulted in life, may be misleading to those who cannot fathom the huge numbers and size of the universe.

    May I, instead of using the word chance, posit the term, given the vast number of possibilities, ‘stastically inevitable’. so any non-collapsing universe is BOUND to result in order and compexity of some sort eventually.

    just a thought

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