Is the Universe Fine-Tuned for Life?

It comes up now and again that, were the physical constants of the universe (such as the speed of light, or the fine structure constant, or so forth) only slightly changed, the universe would not be able to support intelligent life as we know it. It is then argued that, since the chances of the constants being within such a tiny range are commensurably tiny, there must be some explanation, and that explanation is the God of whichever religion you happen to be arguing for at the time.

This argument seems to say that “the world could have been so much worse (in terms of the number of living, conscious beings) if things were changed only slightly, so there must be a reason it exists in such an unlikely state of things being okay (in terms of number of living, conscious beings).” Let us be clear: if God meant to optimise for hydrogen, He could have done much better by not allowing fusion reactions to convert hydrogen into heavier elements. Also it is debated whether protons are truly stable, so hydrogen might not last forever in our universe.

But consider: the world could have been ludicrously, absurdly, fantastically better in terms of the number of living, conscious beings. Almost the entire universe is choking vacuum; almost all of the mass-energy is invisible and non-interacting*; almost all of its history will be spent as a void of entropic darkness after the last stars die. Designing a better world – not a perfect one, just an improved one in terms of the number of living, conscious beings – would be easy. Let’s see. Forget about inverse square laws: there’s a universal down and a constant gravitational acceleration everywhere. The most abundant substance can be water instead of dark energy. Or silicon, if you want to get silicate life instead. Or whatever, it’s hardly important. Fixed-temperature objects provide a constant, unceasing flow of energy for driving the heat engine behind all computational processes.

It has been suggested that it is sufficiently miraculous that the universe supports life at all, and asking why it doesn’t support more life leaves that miracle unexplained. Those saying this are possibly being duplicitious: they almost certaintly intend to propose an all-powerful, cosmically-necessary, personal entity to explain this ‘just barely sufficient’ miracle. Such an entity could do far, FAR better. They have just as much work to do in explaining how this entity was constrained to do so poorly, as the non-believer has to explain how pure physics did so well – if not more. This argument is not intended to disprove fine-tuning, merely to show that the fine-tuner has also failed to provide an explanation.

Ah, but all that would all be super-inelegant and preclude having a single unified fundamental physics (for people to discover)? Not having to claw frantically out of gravity wells in tightly-sealed cans in order to go anywhere would stunt civilisation’s growth? Or, that old classic, life-was-great-but-man-sinned?

I don’t see how finding the rules of a complicated simulation would be any less rewarding from the inside than finding the rules of a simple one. “Oh, all these insights reduce to one” might be harder to come by, but “hey look a cool and entirely novel phenomenon” would be much more common. If God simply cares more about having an elegant physics than about intelligent life, such that our universe is some optimum of a function over the amount of life and the elegance of the laws of nature, I have to ask why God’s utility function is so conveniently tuned as to produce exactly our universe. That is, the fine-tuning has simply been postponed from what-made-the-universe-so-suspiciously-the-way-it-is to what-made-God’s-mind-so-suspiciously-the-way-it-isn’t.

Whatever civilisational-soul is being talked about when it’s suggested that the universe is so inhospitable to us so as to be a challenge, I’m not seeing it. I mean, there’s a difference between ‘a challenge’ and ‘something most people will never participate in, ever, because it is far, far too hard.’ This is a fairly obvious game design principle. This argument may be much less resonant for those who buy into a sort of Destiny of Man concept, but I for one do not. Who benefits from this Destiny? No actual person? Right, it can be ignored then. Or, just those who care a lot about it? Well, they have odd preferences, but I don’t think it’s fair to mould the shape of the world for their strange sakes alone.

Which leaves just “but we deserve to be in the least amenable world that will possibly support us.” There are two ways to go with this: we’re just that awful, and our lives are just barely worth living. The former I cannot in good conscience support, but if you believe it, go for it. The latter breaks down as: Suppose God made but one world, then it would be perfect. But in fact He makes all worlds that are merely better-than-not-having-been-made. We should then statistically expect ourselves to be in a state with as close to even amounts of good and bad as possible, because there will simply be many more such states (for the same reason that there are more states of a sequence of coin flips that contain about half heads and half tails than states containing only ten heads).

My problem with this latter is not moral but rather one of distinguishability. How is “God creates every universe above a certain moral threshold” and “physics creates every universe within certain mathematical parameters” distinguishable from within the universe? Bearing in mind that since God sees all of history from outside, the only way we’ll ever know the true total morality of the universe is to wait until the end of it. Whereas it’s already thought that the total energy of the universe is roughly zero. This may make very little sense to anyone except myself, but it just seems like there’s not much difference between “intelligent designer creates every universe that meets minimum moral standards, we should expect to be near the minimum” and “unintelligent process creates every universe that meets minimum mathematical standards, we should expect to be among the universes that will only just barely support life while still having a simple mathematical structure,” except that the latter doesn’t need any intelligence.

* – If it turns out that dark matter and dark energy sustain the majority of sentience in the universe, I will retract this argument and adopt whatever deism the Darkies have developed.

Is the Universe Fine-Tuned for Life?

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