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Does Fine-Tuning Prove God Exists?

There is a version of the Argument from Design, one of the traditional metaphysical arguments for the existence of God, that has caught some popularity recently. It figures prominently in the work of theistic public intellectuals like Dinesh D'Souza, and it is (allegedly) what enabled some unscrupulous people to take advantage of Anthony Flew in his dotage. It's usually called the "Fine-Tuning Argument," for reasons that will shortly become apparent, and what makes it both salient and insidious in our political scene is that it pidgins the discourse of science, mathematics, and philosophy well enough to appeal to people who fancy themselves intellectuals, and at the same time provides the basic argumentative structure to propaganda on behalf of the peasant revolt against knowledge known as the Intelligent Design movement.

The Fine-Tuning Argument goes something like this: The laws of nature are specified not only in terms of variables like force, mass, charge, spin, color, flavor, etc., but also in terms of fundamental constants, real number values that are (at least presently) irreducible from physics. These constants are measured to an extraordinary degree of precision: the fine structure constant is 7.297352570(5) x 10-3; Planck's constant is 6.62606893(33) x 10-34 J?s; and so on (the numbers in parentheses are uncertainties of the last digits). Suppose each constant is set or tuned by some vast cosmic dial. If any dial were turned just a little bit — and "a little bit" here means by magnitudes far smaller than anything human beings can consciously comprehend — the formation of the universe would have been radically different from what it turned out to be, and in particular, there would have been no life in the universe.

Here's where the proponent of fine-tuning comes in. (The term itself, obviously, suggests an anthropomorphism.) Only a tiny range of values for the fundamental physical constants, a range smaller than any human imagination can conceive, permits the existence of life in the universe. Yet there is life in the universe — look around. With that background established, the proponent of fine-tuning can now deliver her decisive blow: "Sure, maybe the fundamental constants just randomly all happened to settle on values conducive to life rather than the vastly larger range of values that would not have supported life. But isn't it infinitely more probable, given the apparent fine-tuning of the universe and the vanishingly small probability of the universe randomly fine-tuning itself, that some intelligence deliberately fine-tuned the physical constants so that they would support life? From a purely rational perspective, therefore, doesn't the fine-tuning of the universe warrant belief in a Fine-Tuner?"

At the extremes of the debate, this argument doesn't tend to move many people. Theists are already in the position the fine-tuning argument wants to take them to. Atheists, on the other hand, are far more likely to think there's something fishy about the argument than to be persuaded, but are seldom in a position to say just what's wrong with it. However, in the broad ecumenical center where those who "just know there's something out there" reside, an argument like fine-tuning that doesn't explicitly contradict evolutionary theory (indeed, it's a means by which religious believers can be Darwinists) and instead maintains the trappings of scientifically-informed discourse has great potential to shore up people's faith. It also — and this is not the intent of all its proponents — shores up the reasoning that supports Intelligent Design theory. It's a truly ingenious little argument.

But in addition to being ingenious, it's a bad argument. There are at least three fatal objections to it, which recur in one way or another in debates over Intelligent Design — hence understanding them is a key to understanding how ID proponents mislead their audiences. The first objection undermines Fine-Tuning on its own premises, so I'll dwell on it a little more than the others (bear with me). In order:

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