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Ours Is a Finely Tuned — and No Free Lunch — Universe

Mathematician Ola Hössjer and biostatistician Daniel Andrés Díaz-Pachón explain to Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks why nature works so seamlessly

Our Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks had a chance, recently, to talk with Swedish mathematician Ola Hössjer and University of Miami biostatistician Daniel Andrés Díaz-Pachón on the many ways in which the universe is finely tuned for life. This is Part 1. Part 2 will shortly follow.

This portion begins at 00:00 min. A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.

Today on Mind Matters news on the podcast, we’re going to talk about fine-tuning of the universe for life. Scientists know that Earth is is finely tuned for life to come into existence. For example, pronounced atheist Sir Fred Hoyle (1915–2001). Hoyle was a great astronomer, maybe known best for his coining the term, Big Bang to describe the beginning of the universe. Hoyle did not at first believe that the universe had a beginning so he coined the term in a mocking way. He didn’t like it. He tried to make fun of it. But nevertheless, Hoyle’s term stuck Hoyle was also convinced, despite his beliefs, that the science of the universe dictated that it had to be fine tuned.

Robert J. Marks: Hoyle said the following about fine tuning: “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggest that a super intellect has monkeyed with Physics.” I love that word “monkey” with Physics. This monkeying with physics, chemistry and biology is the topic today on Mind Matters News. We have two guests who have published extensively in the literature about fine tuning. Dr. Ola Hössjer, is a Mathematical Statistics professor at Stockholm University and he joins us from Sweden. And our second guest is Daniel Andrés Díaz-Pachón research assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Miami…

I have to warn the listeners that both of these guys are wickedly smart. So you better listen closely. So let’s start with the chat Fred Hoyle defined fine–tuning and he says, the universe looks monkeyed with to allow life.

Note: Fred Hoyle (1915–2001) actually spent a great deal of time trying to discredit the Big Bang because it sounded like “a party girl jumping out of a cake.” However, he accepted the evidence.

Robert J. Marks: He’s not the only one who noticed. Famous physicist Freeman Dyson said, “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we are coming.” Now, the interesting thing about the fine tuned universe is there are different ways to measure the fine tuning of the universe, to put numbers to it that makes sense to us. And the three of us Ola, Daniel, and I agreed on a list of different ways that fine tuning can be measured. And we want to go through these and discuss each one in turn.

The first one is something called active information. Now, Daniel has published quite a bit in terms of active information. Daniel, could you give us a definition of active information and explain why it can be used as a measure of fine tuning?

Daniel Díaz: It is better to talk first about the No Free Lunch theorems. … The No Free Lunch theorems say that, in a big space, you can think of it as if you were shooting at some small target in a big wall. If you start looking at that target at random, then you’re not going to do better than end up in a blind search.… So active information was introduced in order to measure the amount of information that the algorithm is infusing in order to get to a target, the probability better than just that given by a blind search.

Robert J. Marks: The No Free Lunch theorem basically says that you have no knowledge beforehand of any domain expertise of finding the target. So you have nothing that guides you. One technique can be used to find the target as well as any other technique. Right?

Daniel Díaz: Yes. We have some numerical measures, but those numbers are going to change in different settings and different strategies for different values that you’re also considering …

Note: The No Free Lunch theorems, described at NASA, contains such observations as “No device can infer itself” and “No two distinguishable devices can infer each other” – David H. Wolpert,What does dinner cost? No Free Lunch Theorems

Robert J. Marks: Okay. One of the things that you mentioned, Daniel, is this idea of intervals.I know that Ola and you and I have done work on the probability measure of fine tuning and the difference between them and why one is the better. Ola, could you talk about?

Ola Hössjer: Yes. And that’s a very good question because we have some process that generates outcomes and it could be generating the universe by some mechanism, … generating a protein by some evolution or algorithm or something. And as you said, we have a target that could consist of a certain region or a certain interval within this overall space of possible outcomes. And as Daniel said, when we talk about the origin of the universe and look at a particular constant of nature, it’s only a very small life-permitting interval for that constant of nature that corresponds to universe that it meets life.

So, in that case, we could say that this small life-permitting interval, as Daniel said, is the target of this process that generated our universe. And then, so we have a small interval and then we would say, what is the probability that this process of generating this constant of nature, what is the probability that… If we think of this process as random in some way, what is the probability that this constant of nature falls within the life permitting interval?

And then intuitively we think that a smaller life-permitting interval would correspond to small probability of ending up there. Whereas the large life-permitting interval would correspond to a large probability of ending up there.

Robert J. Marks: But you’ve shown that this isn’t true, right?

Ola Hössjer: Not necessarily. Because it depends on the various possibilities of this random outcome of generating the universe. And that’s called the statistical distribution of that constant of nature… how it was generated. So in principle, it could be the case that the distribution is completely within this small life-permitting interval. And then the probability would be one of ending up with a life-permitting universe. At least when we talk about this particular constant of nature. And in the same way, it could be the case that we have a very large life-permitting interval, but this distribution is completely outside of it. And then still the probability is zero, but these are exceptions. So in our paper, we have a general way of choosing this distributional, the value of the constant of nature, which is outside of the universe…

Note: According to growing numbers of scientists, the laws and constants of nature are so “finely-tuned,” and so many “coincidences” have occurred to allow for the possibility of life, the universe must have come into existence through intentional planning and intelligence.

In fact, this “fine-tuning” is so pronounced, and the “coincidences” are so numerous, many scientists have come to espouse The Anthropic Principle, which contends that the universe was brought into existence intentionally for the sake of producing mankind.

Even those who do not accept The Anthropic Principle admit to the “fine-tuning” and conclude that the universe is “too contrived” to be a chance event. – Judaism Online

Robert J. Marks: So a question is you use the term maximum entropy. I think most people are familiar with the idea of maximum entropy associated with thermal dynamics. And I think there’s a relationship here. But as a statistician, you used the term maximum entropy in a more of a mathematical context, is that right? Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

Ola Hössjer: Yes. That is correct. And this is something called Bayesian statistics. So we have a certain parameter, the value of this constant of nature, and we use a certain prior distribution for that constant of nature. And then there is something we observe, the life-permitting interval or physicists have determined it. That’s the likelihood part. And then the question is in Bayesian statistics, how do we choose this prior information? And you could choose this in different ways. It could be chosen on subjective grounds, different people chose it differently.

Next: Fine-tuning? How Bayesian statistics could help break a deadlock

You may also wish to read: When 900 bytes shut down the world. A great physicist warned us, information precedes matter and energy: Bit before it.

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

  • 00:11 | A Little Fine Tuning
  • 01:36 Introducing Ola Hössjer and Daniel Díaz
  • 03:19 | No Free Lunch Theorems
  • 05:44 | Formula 409
  • 08:39 | Active Information
  • 09:41 | Intervals
  • 13:53 | Maximum Entropy
  • 21:03 Intervals of Infinite Length
  • 24:26 | Reduction to Practice
  • 29:31 Specified Complexity
  • 32:01 | Irreducible Complexity

Additional Resources

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Ours Is a Finely Tuned — and No Free Lunch — Universe