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Philosopher: “Universe Fine-Tuned for Life” is Just Folk Belief!

Do physicists claim that the universe is fine-tuned for life only when writing for a popular audience — and not in their professional work?

Closer to Truth recently published a revealing podcast in which host Robert Lawrence Kuhn asked late Western Michigan University philosopher Quentin Persifor Smith (1952–2020), “What Does a Fine-Tuned Universe Mean?” (Aug 31, 2022). Smith iss esteemed for his work on philosophy of time, philosophy of religion, naturalism and atheism, philosophy of Big Bang cosmology and quantum cosmology.

So can we really draw conclusions from the fact that our universe appears fine-tuned for life? Kuhn’s questions and Smith’s responses help us understand why the question remains controversial. A partial transcript and notes follow.

Quentin Persifor Smith: (1:43) If the universe is causally deterministic, you can take whatever happens at any point and infer backwards that this is what must have happened, given the preceding. But we just didn’t know the the capacities and potentials.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: (2:00) That’s entirely right but that would mean that the laws and values of the universe had to be only one way. And wow! We’re lucky because that one way leads to life and mind.

Quentin Persifor Smith: (2:13) Well, I think that’s rather species-centered to say, well, it’s lucky that the human species evolved but what about the other species? What about chimpanzees or whales? What about bacteria, right? All these things are brought about by the all these constants that you’re mentioning and why are humans singled out?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: (2:39) No, you’re right about that. All of these creatures and things are all almost equally improbable but yet they’re all improbable, extraordinarily so. So if there any variation in all of these values and constants, there wouldn’t be anything, just be an amorphous soup of, you know, photons or something.

Quentin Persifor Smith: (3:00) Well, no matter what universe you’re going to have, it’s going to be enormously improbable. And what theists do is, they introduce moral value and they say, well, human life has moral value and some probable universe with moral agents and conscious beings exists.

… you look where physicists discuss the so-called fine-tuning problem, you’re not going to find it in the Physical Review or the Journal of Mathematical Physics. You’re going to find it in the popularizers that physicists write. And so it’s not really a part of serious science; it’s just a part of pop science that sells books… it’s not regarded as a scientific problem…

Jonathan Bartlett

Here, Dr. Smith has ventured into territory we can check out. Jonathan Bartlett was asked if he knew of any references to discussions of fine-tuning in physics journals and he replied:

“First of all, many of the books talking about fine-tuning are academic books.  One of the more common ones is Barrow and Tipler’s The Anthropic Cosmological Principle from Oxford University Press.   This is not a popular book, it is definitely an academic book, but it isn’t in a journal per se.  I don’t (and I think others don’t) view that as less relevant than other types of academic publications.  For a more recent academic book, see Fine-Tuning in the Physical Universe (Cambridge University Press).

“Additionally, conference papers are usually collected as conference volumes, not as journals, but are not any lesser of a source.  So, the International Astronomy Union had a symposium, and one of the papers submitted was this one: “Large Number Coincidences and the Anthropic Principle in Cosmology” (published by Cambridge University Press).  There are indeed journal publications though.  Here are some references:

“Additionally, the concept of fine-tuning turns up repeatedly not as primary topics, but as secondary topics in other papers, especially those comparing various cosmologies.  Some of these are trying to avoid fine-tuning, of course, but that means the concept is in fact part of the conversation.

“And, of course, there’s the ID paper on biological fine-tuning that appeared in the Journal of Theoretical Biology:

“So, it’s certainly not as popular in journals as it is in the popular press (which shouldn’t be a surprise), but it certainly is a topic being actively discussed in academic journals and books.”

Quentin Persifor Smith: (6:58) When you look at when theists quote the scientists, they’re quoting from their popular books; they’re not quoting from physics journals. And so, physicists are — what they’re doing, they’re kind of philosophically speculating in their popular books which they are allowed to do because they’re popular books. (7:08) A popular book is trying to explain pages of equations in common sense language and you can’t do that and so you have quite a bit of latitude in what you’re going to say. (7:20)

Comment: Professor Smith was likely right in saying that the version aimed at a popular audience simplifies things somewhat. But fine-tuning is, as Bartlett demonstrates, acknowledged by physicists writing for their peers.

Incidentally, were that not so, physicists would be misrepresenting their discipline to the public. As it happens, they are not.

Next: Why Quentin Smith thought that belief in God is unscientific.

You may also wish to read: How fine tuned was our universe’s debut? The mind boggles. All the details that were there at the beginning and all work together… The math is amazing. Steve Meyer explains. The fact of fine-tuning — both of forces and their relationships — is generally accepted, irrespective of physicists’ religious views or lack thereof.


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Philosopher: “Universe Fine-Tuned for Life” is Just Folk Belief!