Should the Universe’s “Fine Tuning” Really Surprise Us?

I’ll never forget my second week of college philosophy class. It was during this week that I became aware that as a committed religious person I was in for a long semester with my religiously hostile professor. To be clear, my professor was amazing. Still to date, he was the most engaged teacher I’ve ever had online and challenged my thinking and ideas like no other. And, I aced his class. So by hostile, I only mean intellectually set against. 

The topic up for discussion that week was “Can we prove God exists? And if not, is it okay to believe in Him?” Many years removed from that opener, I know my response today would have been a little better formulated, but I still don’t believe my original thoughts were way off base. My initial thread led to a rather lengthy back and forth with the professor. At one point, I brought in what is known as the “fine-tuning argument.” Essentially, this argument looks at just how exact the perimeters for life to exist on earth have to be and reasons that this simply could not have occurred by mere chance. 

Without getting into the details, its enough to state that for many of those who do not even want it to be true this argument holds a lot of sway. Consider how astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, originally an atheist who moved in a religious direction due to scientific discoveries, characterizes the systematic fine tuning that life presents us with:

A common sense interpretation of the facts suggest that a superior intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.1 

Once one is presented with the staggering number of things that have to be ordered “just so” for life to exist it can certainly lead one to some metaphysical openness as to the potential reason for this “monkeying.” But should it? My professor did not believe so. Rather, he stated that there is nothing surprising about living in a universe such as ours, no matter how exquisitely fine tuned, due to the simple fact that we do live in it. No matter the details, we are looking into numbers and facts and data that has to support life. So no matter the results, we can simply acknowledge these facts and move on with our materialistic day. In the end, there is nothing surprising about living in a universe that you are currently living in. Its history and nature must be life compatible by default, no matter how “unlikely” such a reality may have been. This concept and line of reasoning is known as the weak anthropic principle. 

At first glance, and maybe even second, this objection can suck the life out of the rhetorical force of fine tuning arguments. But should it? After all, if the universe did not have the attributes necessary for life’s existence we wouldn’t be here worrying about it. But that misses the point. Sure, the universe has to be life friendly (as we look back into it and currently observe it), but what fine tuning arguments demonstrate is something more. They not only draw our attention to the truly exquisite nature of the requirements for life to exist in our universe, but highlight the seemingly insurmountable realities that have been overcome to achieve our present state of existence. With no prior evidence, the common sense move (from a naturalistic standpoint) would be to assume that this universe would be life very life friendly which is how in such a short time life found a home on earth. Indeed, it would be the expectation (and was) that the surrounding principles associated with the existence of life would be extremely life friendly. If chance alone was at the wheel, and still we found ourselves in the seat of life, we would expect there to have been countless roads that would have led us here, and chance just happened to take us down this one. But fine tuning demonstrates that there were countless obstacles along the way, all of which were overcome. It isn’t just that we should expect science to demonstrate that life can exist in our universe, but that, given chance, we should expect to find that existence is very life friendly. However, while we find the former, we find the complete opposite of the later. And that is a fact that should draw our attention. 

As Stephen Meyer summaries:

Proponents of what came to be commonly known as the “weak anthropic principle” (WAP) argued that we human beings should not be surprised to find ourselves living in a universe suited for life, because if the universe were otherwise, we wouldn’t be here to observe it. And since there is nothing surprising about living in a universe that has the conditions necessary for our own existence, proponents of the WAP have argued that the fine tuning requires no explanation. Nevertheless, the WAP encountered formable criticism from philosophers of physics and cosmology… the origin of the fine tuning does require explanation. He points out that though we humans should not be surprised to find ourselves living in a universe suited for life (since we are alive), we ought to be surprised to learn that the conditions necessary for life are so extremely improbable.2


  1. As quoted in: Stephen C. Meyer, Return of the God Hypothesis: Three Scientific Discoveries That Reveal the Mind Behind the Universe (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2021), 139 
  2. Ibid. 153

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One thought on “Should the Universe’s “Fine Tuning” Really Surprise Us?

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  1. Great post! A subject that needs so much more attention, thank you. The quote from Stephen Meyer that you shared should draw our attention: “He points out that though we humans should not be surprised to find ourselves living in a universe suited for life (since we are alive), we ought to be surprised to learn that the conditions necessary for life are so extremely improbable.”

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