Interpreting the Coincidences

Many religious thinkers see the anthropic coincidences as evidence for a purposeful design of the universe. They ask, How can the universe possibly have obtained the unique set of physical constants it has, so exquisitely fine-tuned for life as they are, except by purposeful design—design with life and perhaps humanity in mind (Swinburne 1998, Ellis 1993, Ross 1995)?

Let us examine the implicit assumptions here. First and foremost, and fatal to the design argument all by itself, is the wholly unwarranted assumption that only one type of life is possible—the particular form of carbon-based life we have here on Earth.

Carbon seems to be the chemical element best suited to act as the building block for the complex molecular systems that develop lifelike qualities. Even today, new materials assembled from carbon atoms exhibit remarkable, unexpected properties, from superconductivity to ferromagnetism. But to assume that only carbon life is possible is tantamount to "carbocentrism," which results from the fact that you and I are structured on carbon.

Given the known laws of physics and chemistry, we can easily imagine life based on silicon (computers, the Internet?) or other elements chemically similar to carbon. These still require cooking in stars and thus a universe old enough for star evolution. The Ni = N2 coincidence would still hold in this case, although the anthropic principle would have to be renamed the cyber-thropic principle or some such, with computers rather than humans, bacteria, and cockroaches the purpose of existence.

Only hydrogen, helium, and lithium were synthesized in the early big bang. They are probably chemically too simple to be assembled into diverse structures. So it seems that any life based on chemistry would require an old universe, with long-lived stars producing the needed materials. Still, we cannot rule out forms of matter other than molecules as building blocks of complex systems. While atomic nuclei, for example, do not exhibit the diversity and complexity seen in the way in which atoms assemble into molecular structures, perhaps they might be able to do so in a universe with different properties and laws.

Sufficient complexity and long life may be the only ingredients needed for a universe to have some form of life. Those who argue that life is highly improbable need to open their minds to the possibility that life might be likely with many different configurations of laws and constants of physics. Furthermore, nothing in anthropic reasoning indicates any special preference for human life or indeed intelligent or sentient life of any sort—just an inordinate fondness for carbon.

Michael Ikeda and William Jefferys (2001) have demonstrated these logical flaws and others in the fine-tuning argument with a formal probability analysis. They have also noted an amusing inconsistency that shows how promoters of design often use mutually contradictory logic: on the one hand, the creationists and God-of-the-gaps evolutionists argue that nature is too uncongenial for life to have developed totally naturally; therefore, supernatural input must have occurred. On the other hand, the fine-tuners (often the same people) argue that the constants and laws of nature are exquisitely congenial to life; therefore, they must have been supernaturally created. They can't have it both ways.

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