Recently, I’ve been reading several articles on the topics of physics and faith, so I decided to share some of my thoughts about them here, especially on symmetry in nature and fine-tuning of the universe for life. Nothing in physics or life is separate from the new life found through faith in Christ, and I am concerned that we as scientists and science enthusiasts often fall for less than what we are made for in our approaches to science. We are too easily drawn into worshiping the impersonal creation rather than its personal Creator. To give some background for this claim, I’d like to reflect on several of these articles on science and faith below.
In “Anthropic Coincidences,” First Things writer Stephen Barr addresses the fine-tuning toward life of many physical constants in our universe. Over the last century, physicists have discovered natural processes that “just happen” to balance, such as a resonance between the energy levels of carbon-12 and the three-alpha nuclear reaction that allows elements other than hydrogen (and thus life!) to exist. Or the huge mass difference between electrons and protons that somehow still have exactly equal and opposite electric charges, making atoms possible. Or the expansion rate of the universe… As these sorts of abundant, serendipitous coincidences cast doubt on the idea that life has no purpose or design in the universe, Barr investigates the implications of fine-tuning for theism. Several arguments objecting to the theistic explanation have been formulated, such as the many-universes response, the limitations-of-knowledge response, and conventional-science counter, which Barr admits have some weight, but do not defeat fine-tuning arguments for theism.
I could easily spend a blog post on each of these responses to the argument that the universe’s physical constants are finely-tuned to allow for life (and will, hopefully, at some point) but for now, the short version of these objections to fine-tuning are as follows: the many-universes response says that our universe would look fine-tuned if there were a huge number of other universes, each with different values of the physical constants. Some universes would be fine-tuned, some would not. The limits-of-knowledge responses are that we don’t really know what sorts of possible values the physical constants could take, and the conventional science counter says that there are as-yet-unknown explanations that naturally follow from what we already know, but just haven’t discovered yet. There are also responses to these counters, but that is not the point I am trying to make here.
While physicists question the implications of fine-tuning, asking what relation our status as biased observers is (we can only observe a universe which supports life, for obvious reasons), the arguments for and against design in fine-tuning yet remind us how unlikely our existence is. When I consider fine-tuning, I do not see a rigorous proof of design, but instead, to channel Wigner, an “unusual effectiveness in the natural sciences” for supporting life. The fact that the proton and electron have the same charge while their masses differ wildly, or the happenstance of carbon-12 resonances give an impression of design, and are a cause of wonder. For the Christian, this is cause to worship. However, the particular fine-tuning arguments for theism (FTAs) put forth, while certainly not invalid, are not strongly persuasive by themselves either. They are probability arguments, and as such, relate to our knowledge states. The problem is that our knowledge states about the possible values of the physical parameters themselves, the number of universes, and the other evidences for the existence of God all play upon the probabilities in FTAs. That is not to say these are defeaters for the FTAs, but they do mean that FTAs should not serve as stand-alone arguments.
Instead, Barr’s treatment of the fine-tuning coincidences reminds me of the purpose and wonder of Creation, primarily as a means of marveling at nature in its study, and growing more in awe of its Creator, serving as reminders of God’s ingenuity as Creator, and providence as our Sustainer. I would like to further explore the individual formulations of the FTA in further posts and continue to probe their relative effectiveness as an intersection of modern physics with natural theology. I do believe after examining these arguments in some depth that they are logically valid and have merit, but am currently unsure about their degree of effectiveness as probabilistic arguments about hypothetical changes in parameters that we cannot directly test.
How instead should we view fine-tuning in light of theism and materialism? Barr gives us a clue in yet another First Things article, “Fearful Symmetries“. Seeing order as emerging from chaos, some materialists, such as Daniel Dennett, employ the metaphor of cranes whereby nature builds itself up from a basic level as opposed to unnecessary sky-hooks (i.e. “God”) building it from “up-there.” However, this misses the way that those “cranes” work: only a deeper level of order allows apparent chaos to give rise to order, as evidenced by symmetry, a kind of order in physics. Using the example of marbles in a tilted box rolling into a tight-packed symmetrical pattern, Barr shows how this symmetry is actually a loss of symmetry inherent to the spherical nature of the marbles; generalizing, Barr develops the principle in physics of order from yet deeper order.
Unlike fine-tuning, which speaks to us of God’s providential care for our existence, symmetry reminds us of His transcendent power and beauty. Wigner comes to mind as Barr describes the mathematics of gauge symmetry in the fundamental forces, in which an expression for the energy of a system known as the Lagrangian does not change with changes to coordinate systems. Barr recognizes this strange effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences, and how it speaks to a universe where things that do not have to be beautiful to work nonetheless are. While fine-tuning thus says more about God’s care for man in creation, symmetry brings us to consider God’s sovereign beauty and our relationship towards Him.
Like fine-tuning, symmetry does therefor teach us something of God: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20, NIV) In other words, symmetry is not a syllogism proving that God exists, but a deeply affective expression of beauty that leads us to wonder at nature. For the reductive materialist, this wonder becomes idolatry— a worship of impersonal matter rather than an infinite-personal loving God. Upon encountering beauty built into the very fabric of reality, we can ignore it, worship it, or worship the One who made it, but we are never without excuse.