Our Universe is Fine Tuned for Life—Why?

Consider how many natural laws and constants—both physical and chemical—have been discovered since the time of the early Greeks. Hundreds of thousands of natural laws have been unveiled in man’s never ending quest to understand Earth and the universe.

I couldn’t name 1% of the laws of nature and physics. Here are just a few that come to mind from my spotty recollection of high school science. I shall not offer a bulleted list, because that would suggest that these random references to laws and constants are organized or complete. It doesn’t even scratch the surface…

Newton’s Law of force (F=MA), Newton’s law of gravity, The electromagnetic force, strong force, weak force, Avogadro’s Constant, Boyle’s Law, the Lorentz Transformation, Maxwell’s equations, laws of thermodynamics, E=MC2, particles behave as waves, superpositioning of waves, universe inflation rate, for every action… etc, etc.

For some time, physicists, astronomers, chemists, and even theologians have pondered an interesting puzzle: Why is our universe so carefully tuned for our existence?And, not just our existence—After all, it makes sense that our stature, our senses and things like muscle mass and speed have evolved to match our environment. But here’s the odd thing—If even one of a great many laws, properties or constants were off by even a smidgen, the whole universe could not exist—at least not in a form that could support life as we imagine it! Even the laws and numbers listed above. All of creation would not be here, if any of these were just a bit off…

cosmic_questWell, there might be something out there, but it is unlikely to have resulted in life—not even life very different than ours. Why? Because without the incredibly unique balance of physical and chemical properties that we observe, matter would not coalesce into stars, planets would not crunch into balls that hold an atmosphere, and they would not clear their path to produce a stable orbit for eons. Compounds and tissue would not bind together. In fact, none of the things that we can imagine could exist.

Of course, theologians have a pat answer. In one form or another, religions answer all of cosmology by stating a matter of faith: “The universe adheres to God’s design, and so it makes sense that everything works”. This is a very convenient explanation, because these same individuals forbid the obvious question: ‘Who created God?’ and ‘What existed before God?’ Just ask Bill Nye or Bill Maher. They have accepted offers to debate those who feel that God created Man instead of the other way around.

Scientists, on the other hand, take pains to distance themselves from theological implications. They deal in facts and observable phenomenon. Then, they form a hypotheses and begin testing. That’s what we call the scientific method.

If any being could evolve without the perfect balance of laws and constants that we observe, it would be a single intelligence distributed amongst a cold cloud of gas. A universe that is not based on many of the observed numbers (including the total mass of everything in existence) probably could not be stable for very long.

rene_descartes-sDoes this mean that  it’s all about you?! Are you, Dear reader, the only thing in existence?—a living testament to René Descartes?

Don’t discount that notion. Cosmologists acknowledge that your own existence is the only thing of which you can be absolutely sure. (“I think. Therefore, I am”). If you cannot completely trust your senses as a portal to reality, then no one else provably exists. But, most scientists (and the rest of us, too) are willing to assume that we come from a mother and father and that the person in front of us exists as a separate thinking entity. After all, if we can’t start with this assumption, then the rest of physics and reality hardly matters, because we are too far removed from the ‘other’ reality to even contemplate what is outside of our thoughts.

Two questions define the field of cosmology—How did it all begin and why does it work?  Really big questions are difficult to test, and so we must rely heavily on tools and observation:

  • Is the Big Bang a one-off event, or is it one in a cycle of recurring events?
  • Is there something beyond the observable universe? (i.e. the one that traces back to the Big Bang)
  • Do the laws of physics and chemistry that we observe in our region of the galaxy apply everywhere?
  • Is there intelligent life beyond Earth?

Having theories that are difficult to test does not mean that scientists aren’t making progress. Even in the absence of frequent testing, a lot can be learned from observation. Prior to 1992, no planet had ever been observed or detected outside of our solar system. For this reason, we had no idea of the likelihood that planets form and take orbit around stars.

Today, almost 2000 exoplanets have been discovered with 500 of them belonging to multiple planetary systems. All of these were detected by indirect evidence—either the periodic eclipsing of light from a star, which indicates that something is in orbit around it, or subtle wobbling of the star itself, which indicates that it is shifting around a shared center of gravity with a smaller object. But wait! Just this month, a planet close to our solar system (about 30 light years away) was directly observed. This is a major breakthrough, because it gives us an opportunity to perform spectral analysis of the planet and its atmosphere.

Is this important? That depends on goals and your point of view. For example, one cannot begin to speculate on the chances for intelligent life, if we have no idea how common or unusual it is for a star to be orbited by planets. It is a critical factor in the Drake Equation. (I am discounting the possibility of a life form living within a sun, not because it is impossible or because I am a human-chauvinist, but because it would not likely be a life form that we will communicate with in this millennium).

Stephen HawkingOf course, progress sometimes raises completely new questions. In the 1970s, Francis Drake and Carl Sagan began exploring the changing rate of expansion between galaxies. This created an entirely new question and field of study related to the search for dark matter.

Concerning the titular question: “Why is the universe fine-tuned for life?”,  cosmologist Stephen Hawking offered an explanation last year that might help us to understand. At least, it offers a theory, even if it is difficult to test. The media did their best to make Professor Hawking’s explanation digestible, explaining it something like this [I am paraphrasing]:

There may be multiple universes. We observe only the one in which we exist. Since our observations are limited to a universe with physical constants and laws that resulted in us—along with Stars, planets, gravity and atmospheres, it seems that the conditions for life are all too coincidental. But if we imagine countless other universes outside of our realm (very few with life-supporting properties), then the coincidence can be dismissed. In effect, as observers, we are regionalized into a small corner.

Cosmic EpochsThe press picked up on this explanation with an unfortunate headline that blared the famous Professor had proven that God does not exist. Actually, Hawking said that miracles stemming out of religious beliefs are “not compatible with science”. Although he is an atheist, he said nothing about God not existing. He simply offered a theory to explain  an improbable coincidence.

I am not a Cosmologist. I only recently have come to understand that it is the science of origin and is comprised of astronomy, particle physics, chemistry and philosophy. (But not religion—please don’t go there!). If my brief introduction piques your interest, a great place to spread your wings is with Tim Maudlin’s recent article in Aeon Magazine, The Calibrated Cosmos. Tim succinctly articulates the problem of a fine-tuned universe in the very first paragraph:

“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.”

And: “Had the constants of nature taken slightly different values, we would not be here.”

The article delves into the question thoroughly, while still reading at a level commensurate with Sunday drivers like you and me. If you write to Tim, tell him I sent you. Tell him that his beautifully written article has added a whole new facet to my appreciation for being!

Related: Quantum Entanglement: EPR Paradox

5 thoughts on “Our Universe is Fine Tuned for Life—Why?

  1. I think the fine-tuning argument gives support for theistic belief. Some questions arise for me in this discussion. The non-theistic scientist asks the question of the theist, “Where did God come?”, but equally pressing questions can be re-directed: “Where did the matter come from that supplied the Big Bang?”; “What was outside that concentration of matter at the moment of the Big Bang?”; and, “What is outside of the present universe?”

    I have seen responses such as here that there are multiple universes (explaining the fine tuning argument), or that our current universe is part of an infinite cycle and that space and matter simply exist, or that the universe curves back on itself and there is no ‘beyond’ the universe. These don’t satisfy my longing mind. They seem merely speculative to fit a purely scientific explanation. Another question I have is how does science determine that the known natural laws cannot be overridden by a higher spiritual one? Was this hypothesis established scientifically, or simply assumed? I also think an important approach to evaluate is that one person claimed to be the incarnation of God himself, speaking for him in terms of how we are to think and act. That to me is a very important argument for the existence of God, and would give an explanation for why the universe is tuned just right for us.

    Not addressed here but I think the greatest challenge for the purely scientific method is the issue of consciousness: if scientific naturalism is correct and everything reduces down to the elements at the subatomic level, how can we be independently thinking beings and conscious of ourselves?

    If we could look at the chemical and electrical reactions in our brains, past the movements of electrons and protons to the elemental matter, where would we see ‘us’? Are we just some kind of ‘behavioral state?’ I cannot accept it. There has to be something beyond the natural, and science cannot give all the answers to the questions that trouble me. This leaves me open to the spiritual.

  2. Because of all the myriad Universes, we arose in this one because it was the one in which we *could* arise.

  3. Some of your “difficult” questions, while important, are not that difficult.

    ‘Who created God?’

    This is similar to the question, “Can God create a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it?” Just because you put God in a self-contradictory nonsense sentence, that doesn’t mean that your nonsense sentence suddenly makes sense. If you had a *really* heavy rock; say a googelplex times heavier than the recently discovered black hole J0100+2802 (which is 12 billion times bigger than our Sun), then it’s no longer a rock, but a big black hole. What does it mean to “lift” such a “rock”? Against the gravity field of what planet?

    Similarly with the “Who created God” question. If God really is God, then He/She/It is the First Cause (by definition; otherwise we’re only talking about the Borg, our future descendants, or some other really powerful creature). This is the whole point of Aquinas’ first four proofs (Peter Kreeft has a good summary at http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/first-cause.htm). You might ask if there is it possible for such a thing as a First Cause to exist, but that is not a scientific question because science depends on causality. You can’t do experiments in which you observe the differences between one universe (or set of multiverses) that has causality, and another that does not. So it’s really an ontological question.

    You also need to very carefully define the other words too. Like the word “who”. If we ascribe personhood to a mere collection of atoms like you and me, why can’t we attribute personhood to the First Cause, given how powerful He is. But is that necessary? (BTW, I refer to First Cause using the word “He” for the same reason that C.S. Lewis said that he was feminine with respect to God-because the essence of masculinity is giving/initiating).

    The next word, “creating”, I assume means “ex nihilo” – out of nothing. That would mean that God’s creator is the First Cause (by definition) which is Himself. So far, that’s easy. The tough part is figuring out if having a logically sound definition for God is provably possible; or provably impossible. Given Godel’s theorem, which shows the limits of self-describing systems (and in this case, a self-creating system), I suspect that like the halting problem, it is undecidable. Neither case is provable, and we’re stuck with trying other approaches.

    Your next easy question:

    ‘What existed before God?’

    This is another nonsense question, even if you change the question to “What existed before the Big Bang?” The problem is that Time also appeared at the Big Bang. So there’s no such thing as “before”. As time-bound creatures, that is really difficult to wrap our minds around (much harder than simply answering the question, anyway 🙂 )

    ‘Is the Big Bang a one-off event, or is it one in a cycle of recurring events?’

    If the Big Bang were just one in a cycle, then it must be caused by the “Big Crunch”, and is most likely a rebound of a “Big Crunch” (the energy of which has to go *somewhere*). And presumably, the parameters of the Big Crunch determine the state of the next universe. If so, and this state includes the universal constants and parameters, which (in a chaotic system that is sensitive to initial conditions) would be changed each time, then eventually the parameters will set up a universe where gravity is too low to cause a Big Crunch, and the cycle stops. Granted, the cycle might be set up in such a way that even with random variations, it always *must* end with a Big Crunch. How does one fine-tune a cycling sequential multiverse to do that? Actually, the Strong Anthropic principle says that every cycle of such a universe would need to have it’s Big Crunch designed that way every time by the intelligent beings that inevitably become the Omega Point in that Universe.

    You also ask:

    “Is there something beyond the observable universe?
    (i.e. the one that traces back to the Big Bang).”

    Good question! Actually, there are certainly parts of our Big Bang universe that are outside our light cone, and therefore are not observable (and never will be, unless there is a Big Crunch, which seems less likely in light of recent discoveries of Dark Mass and Dark Energy). At any rate, if our local Big Bang universe is a sub-universe of some colliding-brane super-universe, then that super-universe is the “real” universe (i.e. everything that exists), but it is very similar to that part of our local “Big Bang” universe that is outside of our light cone. The big question is whether or not it’s physical laws would be the same as ours. If so, or if not, how could we tell?

    Here is a counter-question: Regarding any existence before the Big Bang: Is it a something, or a someone? Is there some sort of experiment that could determine the answer?

    Your penultimate question:

    “Do the laws of physics and chemistry that we observe in our region of the galaxy apply everywhere?”

    They *seem* to, as far as we can tell. But basically, scientists just take it on faith that it is so. If nothing else, we just apply Occam’s razor, taking the simpler explanation. Otherwise we would have to explain why it ain’t so.

    Is there intelligent life beyond Earth?

    Is there really intelligent life on Earth? 🙂 How could you tell?

    Seriously, the answer is most likely that there are no intelligent species in our galaxy, and probably not in the universe. Read up on the Fermi Paradox. The probability that we are the first intelligent species in this galaxy is infinitesimally small. So where are the contrails of starships? We should be able to see the Cerenkov radiation of near-light-speed travel all across the night-time sky. Not to mention artificial wormholes, or Dyson Spheres. The carbon footprint of a Matrioshka Brain would unmistakable (actually, it’s the thermal to gravity ratio that would be hard to hide). That is half the problem.

    The other problem is the myriad of improbabilities that needed to arise for Earth-like planets to exist. Not just rocky planets in their star’s Goldilocks zone, it is very unlikely that such planets get smacked by a just-right late-formation impact that gets rid of most of the crust, enabling the planet to have both oceans and land, not to mention tides and continental drift, all of which are necessary for complex life to evolve.

    If Earth is rare, the implications are not shaken off lightly. What we do matters. Will we get off this rock and colonize the galaxy, as the evolutionary imperative demands? Or will we cause our own extinction and hope that the descendants of the remaining cockroaches succeed where we have failed?

    • Wow! I honestly have difficulty distinguishing the cosmology from the physics, the metaphysics, the historical citations, and perhaps the BS. Seriously, I am not saying that your comment contains BS, but you have gone so far beyond my pay grade, that I simply tell.

      Since the last paragraph is the only one that I understand, I will confirm that we are in agreement. The Earth is precious, but it also very likely, our last stand. If we hope to live beyond a few more centuries, we really out to get our house in order and then find the gumption to navigate space faster and begin searching for suitable habitat.

Ellery reads all feedback. 1st comment delayed for moderation