Closer to the truth recently released an insightful podcast in which host Robert Lawrence Kuhn asked the late Western Michigan University philosopher Quentin Persifor Smith (1952-2020), “What does a fine-tuned universe mean?” (August 31, 2022). Smith is recognized for his work on the 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 trimmed for life? Kuhn’s questions and Smith’s answers 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 is happening at each point and reason backwards that it must have happened given what came before. But we simply didn’t know the capacities and potential.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn: (2:00) That is absolutely correct, but that would mean that the laws and values of the universe would only have to apply in one direction. And wow! We are lucky because this one path leads to life and spirit.
Quentin Persifor Smith: (2:13) Well, I think that’s pretty species-centric to say, well, it’s fortunate that the human species evolved, but what about the other species? What about chimpanzees or whales? What about bacteria, right? All these things are effected by all these constants that you mention and why are people singled out?
Robert Lawrence Kuhn: (2:39) No, you’re right. All of these creatures and things are all almost equally improbable, yet they are all exceedingly improbable. So if there was any variation in all these values and constants, there would be nothing, it would just be an amorphous soup of, you know, photons or something.
Quentin Persifor Smith: (3:00) Well, whatever universe you’re going to have, it’s going to be enormously unlikely. And what theists do is they introduce moral value and say, well, human life has moral value and there is a probable universe with moral agents and conscious beings.
… Look where physicists discuss the so-called fine-tuning problem, you won’t find it in the physical examination or the Journal of Mathematical Physics. You will find it in the popularizers that physicists write. And so it’s not really a piece of serious science; It’s just part of pop science that sells books… it’s not considered a scholarly problem…
Here Dr. Smith ventured into an area that 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 books talk about fine tuning academic Books. One of the more common 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 is not in a journal per se. I don’t see it (and I think others don’t either) as any less relevant than other types of scholarly publishing. For a recent scholarly book, see Fine-tuning in the physical universe (Cambridge University Press).
“Also, conference papers are usually collected as conference proceedings, not journals, but are no lesser source. So the International Astronomy Union held a symposium, and one of the papers submitted was this: “Large Number Coincidences and the Anthropic Principle in Cosmology” (published by Cambridge University Press). But there are certainly magazine publications. Here are some references:
“Furthermore, the concept of fine-tuning keeps popping up not as a main theme but as a side theme in other works, particularly those comparing different cosmologies. Some of them try to avoid fine-tuning, of course, but that means the concept is actually part of the conversation.
“And of course there’s the Biological Fine-tuning Passport that appeared in the Journal of Theoretical Biology:
“So it’s certainly not as popular in magazines as it is in mainstream press (which shouldn’t come as a surprise), but it certainly is is a topic that is actively discussed in scholarly journals and books.”
Quentin Persifor Smith: (6:58) If you look, when theists quote the scientists, they quote from their popular books; They don’t quote from physics journals. And so are physicists – what they do, they speculate philosophically in their popular books, what they are allowed to do because they are popular books. (7:08) A popular book tries to explain lengthy equations in common sense language and it doesn’t work, so you have quite a bit of leeway in what you want to say. (7:20)
Comment: Professor Smith was probably right when he said that the general audience version simplifies things a bit. But, as Bartlett demonstrates, the fine-tuning is appreciated by physicists writing for their peers.
By the way, those were Not So physicists would misrepresent their discipline to the public. As luck would have it, they are not.
Next: Why Quentin Smith thought belief in God was unscientific.
You might also like to read: How fine-tuned was our universe’s debut? The mind confused. All the details that were there in the beginning and everyone working together… The math is amazing. Steve Meyer explains. The fact of fine-tuning – of both forces and their relationships – is universally accepted, regardless of physicists’ religious beliefs, or lack thereof.