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Can There Be a General Theory for Fine-Tuning?

If you make a bowl of alphabet soup and the letters arrange themselves and say, good morning, that is specified. What are the probabilities?

In Episode 2, the first part, (September 9, 2021), Swedish mathematician Ola Hössjer discusses fine tuning in biology with Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks the way “Life is so finely tuned that it is frightening,” Put another way, the billions of cells in our bodies are each like a city. Not as a group but each of them. No wonder we feel so sick when things are going wrong with our cells. It is like billions of dysfunctional cities… Anyway, Hössjer has been working on a general theory for fine-tuning:

This portion begins at 12:07 min. A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.

Robert J. Marks: Ola, you came up with a general theory. We talk about in physics, for example, a theory of everything. It turns out the fine tuning is something ubiquitous in our universe. It occurs in biology, chemistry, and physics and cosmology, the specific area of physics.

Robert J. Marks

The question is, is there a general theory, a general way that we can look at fine tuning across all of these disciplines? You’ve done that, by something called a specificity function, I believe. Could you explain the specificity function at as a high a level as you possibly can, so that we can understand what’s going on here about your general theory?

Ola Hössjer: We introduced this idea in my joint paper with Steinar Thorvaldsen originally. I have an ongoing project now with Daniel [Diaz], where we elaborate on this idea more. We start with a sample space of all the possible outcomes of a certain algorithm. This could be the algorithm on generating the universe.

Robert J. Marks: Okay. An algorithm for generating the universe is, how would you describe that as a theory or a model of by which the universe came into creation?

Ola Hössjer: If the universe was randomly generated, the different constants of nature could have different possible values with different probabilities. The sample space is a collection of all possible outputs of the algorithm.

In cosmology, that would be the process of generating a universe. In biology, that could be, as Daniel talked about, population genetics — which is really describing small evolutionary changes. Then the outcome could be the outcome of an evolutionary process to generate a protein. We talked about proteins as being fine tuned.

It could also be, in biology, the process of generating — and that’s more challenging — a whole protein complex or a molecular machine. That is the first part. We need a sample space of possible outcomes.

Now comes the specificity function. To each possible outcome in this sample space, we assign a value: How specified is this particular outcome? If we go back to cosmology, for each possible universe, we could look at a specific constant of nature. Then the value of the function will be binary: Either this value of the constant-of-nature outcome corresponds to a universe that permits life or not.

Or when we talk about a protein, we have a certain amino acid sequence that folds to a protein. So each amino acid sequence is a possible outcome. That outcome either corresponds to a functioning protein or not.

In this case, the specificity function is binary as well: 1 if the protein functions, and 0 if it does not.

But then, if we’re talking about a molecular machine, we could also say whether the specificity function works or not. But we could also have a more refined [calculation], like the number of parts it consists of, and so on.

If we talk about population genetics. If the purpose is to generate various organisms, not only a protein or a protein complex, but a whole organism or population, or to generate a species with organisms, what is the biological fitness of each organism? That quantifies that organism’s reproductive ability, how many offspring it is expected to have. That’s another example of a specificity function.

To each possible outcome, you assign a number that tells you how specified that particular outcome was. Then the third part is a null distribution. That is, if you think of an outcome being generated randomly by chance, you have a certain distribution on it.

Ola Hössjer

Now we have these three components, the list of all possible outcomes (the sample space), a specificity function, and a null distribution that gives us the distribution of all these possible outcomes.

Now we can define fine tuning using these three components. First, we need to have a target. The target consists of all the outcomes that are specified, that have a sufficiently high value of this specificity function, above a certain level. In the case of the universe, it’s simply all possible generated outcomes that permit life for a certain constant of nature.

That gives us the target, the function, or the subset of all highly specified outcomes. Then, because we have constructed a distribution for randomly generated outcomes, we can talk about the probability of ending up in that target of highly specified outcomes. If that probability is small, then the system is finely tuned. We could apply that in cosmology. And then we call the target, life permitting interval.

We could apply it to evolutionary processes for generating proteins. What is the probability of that process generating a protein that works or functions? Or we could also talk about an evolutionary process. This is a chance with a certain null distribution. What is the probability of that evolutionary process generating a certain molecular machine which is irreducibly complex? If that probability is small, then the structure is fine tuned.

Robert J. Marks: One of the things I really like about your theory is including all possible successes. I’ve heard for example, that if you make a bowl of alphabet soup and the letters arrange themselves and say, good morning, that is specified. And you can talk about the probability of that happening by randomly selecting numbers. That probability is very small.

A more meaningful thing to do is to ask, what is the probability of anything, which is meaningful coming up and floating in your soup. That’s a more important thing. It sounds like you’ve done that, by looking at all of the possible solutions that are specified. You’ve looked at all the possible successes. Am I right in that interpretation?

Ola Hössjer: Yeah. That’s kind of a goal of this project. I think that’s the beauty of mathematics. You have some general abstract objects, and you model things from different areas of applications in a similar way. I think that’s an important part of the beauty of mathematics — that seemingly unrelated features in cosmology and biology and in algorithmic theory, and so on could be modeled in a very similar way using similar concepts.

Next: Was the universe created for life forms to live in? How would we know?

Here are all of the instalments, in order, of the discussion between Robert J. Marks, Ola Hössjer, and Daniel Díaz on the fine tuning of the universe for life:

The first episode:

Ours is a finely tuned — and No Free Lunch — universe. Mathematician Ola Hössjer and biostatistician Daniel Díaz explain to Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks why nature works so seamlessly. A “life-permitting interval” makes it all possible — but is that really an accident?


Fine-tuning? How Bayesian statistics could help break a deadlock: Bayesian statistics are used, for example, in spam filter technology, identifying probable spam by examining vast masses of previous messages. The frequentist approach assesses the probability of future events but the Bayesian approach assesses the probability of events that have already occurred.

The second episode:

Life is so wonderfully finely tuned that it’s frightening! A mathematician who uses statistical methods to model the fine tuning of molecular machines and systems in cells reflects… Every single cell is like a city that cannot function without a complex network of services that must all work together to maintain life.

Can there be a general theory for fine-tuning? If you make a bowl of alphabet soup and the letters arrange themselves and say, good morning, that is specified. What are the probabilities? Ola Hössjer sees the beauty of mathematics in the fact that seemingly unrelated features in cosmology and biology can be modeled using similar concepts.

The third episode

Was the universe created for life forms to live in? How would we know? We can begin by looking at the fundamental constants that underlie the universe. The constants of the universe — gravitational constant, entropy, and cosmological constant — must be finely tuned for life to exist.

Why did Stephen Hawking give up on a Theory of Everything? Daniel Díaz and Ola Hössjer continue their discussion of the fine tuning of the universal constants of nature with Robert J. Marks. The probability, they calculate, that the fine tuning of our universe is simply random is down to 10 to the minus sixty — a very small number.

The fourth and final episode

Is life from outer space a viable science hypothesis? Currently, panspermia has been rated as “plausible but not convincing.” Marks, Hössjer, and Diaz discuss the issues. Famous atheist scientists have favored panspermia because there is no plausible purely natural explanation for life on Earth that would make it unnecessary.

Could advanced aliens have fine-tuned Earth for life? That’s a surprisingly popular thesis, considering how hard it is to account for life without assuming a creator. As Robert Marks, Ola Hössjer, and Daniel Díaz discuss, some prominent atheists/agnostics have chosen to substitute advanced extraterrestrials for God.

Our universe survived a firing squad and it’s just an accident? According to the Weak Anthropic Principle, if things weren’t the way they are, we wouldn’t be here and that’s all there is to it. Given the odds, a philosopher likens the Weak Anthropic Principle to surviving a firing squad and concluding, incuriously, well… that’s just the way things are.

In an infinity of universes, countless ones are run by cats… Daniel Díaz notes that most of the talk about the multiverse started to appear once it was realized that there was fine-tuning in nature.
Robert J. Marks points out that even 10 to the 1000th power of universes would only permit 3,322 different paths. Infinity is required but unprovable.


If extraterrestrials didn’t fine tune Earth, maybe there is a God. In the face of a grab bag of ideas like creation by ETs or countless universes (some run by cats), why does the idea of a Creator seem far out? Traditional philosophers, not committed to a religion, have thought that deism (and theism) are rational, science-based conclusions, based on fine tuning.

You may also wish to read: No Free Lunches: Robert J. Marks: What the Big Bang teaches us about nothing. Bernoulli is right and Keynes is Wrong. Critics of Bernoulli don’t appreciate the definition of “knowing nothing.” The concept of “knowing nothing” can be tricky.

Show Notes

  • 00:47 | Introducing Dr. Daniel Díaz
  • 01:00 | Introducing Dr. Ola Hössjer
  • 01:14 | Fine-tuning in biology
  • 07:15 | A cellular city
  • 08:15 | Population genetics
  • 12:07 | A general theory of fine-tuning
  • 22:27 | Probability to measure the degree of fine-tuning

Additional Resources

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Can There Be a General Theory for Fine-Tuning?