Thoughts on The Fine-Tuning Argument

Yesterday, Paul Gould from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary presented a very interesting talk titled, “Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World.” In it, he argued for two important claims:

  1. The world is fine-tuned for human life, and
  2. The world is fine-tuned for human flourishing.

The argument from fine-tuning is particularly fascinating in that, as Paul rightly pointed out, everyone agrees on the data, just not on what the data shows. As I continued to think about the presentation while driving home, I realized that I can’t even agree with myself on what the data shows.

The Argument

The physics may be complicated, but the idea behind the argument is simple. Take a factor like the initial strength of the explosion at the Big Bang. Had the strength of that explosion differed by as little as one part in 1,060, the universe would have either collapsed back on itself, because the explosion was not strong enough to overcome the strength of gravity, or it would have expanded too fast for stars to form. So, had the force of that explosion been even slightly different, life would never have had a chance to form.

That factor is just one of many. By some estimates there are over 100 factors, and had any one of them been just slightly different, life would have been impossible. It is difficult to conceptualize the degree of tolerance here. An accuracy of 1 in 1,060 has been compared to firing a bullet and hitting a one-inch target twenty billion light years away on the other side of the observable universe. That’s just for one factor, the probability of all of the factors having the precise values that they do must be incredibly low.

So far, that’s nothing controversial. The universe appears to be fine-tuned for life. The controversial move is the inference from apparent fine-tuning to the probability of a fine-tuner. The intuition is that, considering the very many different ways the universe could have been, it is very unlikely that we would have ended up with this world if there were no creator. On the other hand, if there were a creator, it is very likely that a world capable of sustaining life would be created. Now, it becomes a Bayesian problem. Let L be a life sustaining universe and D be the existence of a designer, the probability of a designer given that the universe sustains life is

\Pr(D \vert L) = \frac{\Pr(D) \times \Pr(L \vert D)}{\neg L}

The probability that there is not a designer, given a life sustaining universe is

\Pr(\neg D \vert L) = \frac{\Pr(\neg D) \times \Pr(L \vert \neg D)}{\neg L}

Since the denominators are the same, \Pr(D\vert L) > \Pr(\neg D \vert L) if and only \Pr(D) \times \Pr(L \vert D) >\Pr(\neg D) \times \Pr(L \vert \neg D). Now, all we need to know is the prior probability of God existing, and we knew the probability of a life-sustaining universe on the assumption that there is a God. Easier said than done, as they say.

Instead, maybe we should rethink the strategy. If I knew how each additional factor affected the probability, then I might be able to assess how low the prior probability of D must be in order for the evidence to not raise \Pr(D\vert L) over 0.5. To do this, we can use the odds version of Bayes’ theorem: the odds of D given L is equal to the prior odds of D times the likelihood ratio:

O (D \vert L) = O(D) \times \frac{\Pr (L \vert D)}{\Pr (L \vert \neg D}

Now, let’s take that \frac{1}{1,060} tolerance from above, but let’s change it to \frac{1}{1,0001}. This does two things. First, it favors atheism some, but, more importantly for me, it makes the math much easier, because it makes the likelihood ratio a nice round number:

\frac{\Pr (L \vert D)}{\Pr (L \vert \neg D} = \frac{\frac{1,000}{1,001}}{\frac{1}{1,001}} = \frac{1,000}{1}

That means that with each new factor, the odds of the the universe being intentionally fine-tuned increase by a factor of 1,000. With 100 factors, the odds of theism are equal to the prior odds times 1 \times 10^{300}. This means that, in order for it to be less likely that God exists, given apparent fine-tuning, the prior odds of God existing must be less than \frac{1}{10^{300}}.

Now, I admit that I don’t know if all the factors have the same odds. I just know that some of them have been estimated to be higher than the value that I used. So, let’s just lower the odds by a power of 100. That is, now the degree of tolerance for each factor is a mere 1 in 10. If so, then the prior odds of God existing would still have to be lower than 1 in 1,000 before it would be unlikely that theism were true.

Next time, I’ll consider some objections and responses.

Prayer for Pittsburgh

God of Grace, God of Mercy,

We pray today for the people
of the Tree of Life congregation
in Pittsburgh.

We pray for all those
who suffer from violence,
for those who grieve,
and for those who have died
because of a hatred that
has no point,
and makes no sense.

May they find comfort in
the knowledge of your love,
and healing in the support
of the community.

We ask forgiveness
for the ways in which
your word has been twisted
to support acts of evil.

Give us the courage
to challenge the evil rhetoric
that supports hatred and violence,
and to speak the truth boldly,
that your love, grace, and mercy
extend to all without limit.

May the love of your people do the same.


Prayer for Labor Day


We pray for those who labor,

For those who are blessed
to do what they love,

For those who do what they must
in order to simply survive.

For those with hands as rough
as the son of a carpenter,

For those with backs as bent
as the one who bore a cross
through the streets of Jerusalem,

And for those who have been
shamed, despised and humiliated,
while serving at earthly tables,
patiently and humbly waiting
for a seat at the heavenly banquet.


Family Separation at the Borders

I tend to find most political issues to be difficult and intricate, requiring complex and nuanced responses. So, I believe that there is generally room for rational disagreement when evaluating particular policy decisions.

This, however, is not the case with the current administration’s family separation policy — it is simply heinous, cruel, inhumane, and contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

We should not return to the Obama administration’s lesser evil of locking up children with their mothers. It is past time for Congress to undertake the difficult task of immigration reform.

If God is both just and good, then justice and goodness are not incompatible. We could develop an immigration policy that is both just and good, if we were but willing to do the work.

I expressed this today to the offices of my congressional representatives. To find yours, go to


The benediction from last Sunday’s sermon:

The almighty God who made you
from the dust of this earth,
now sends you out into the world.

Go with faith, hope, and courage,
knowing that he is with you.

He has called you by name,
and you are his.


Prayer in Times of Fear

God of compassion,

In this week of violence and tragedy,
we mourn with those who grieve,
cry with those who weep,
and sit in silence with those in pain,

But what should never happen even once
seems to happen over and over again,
until we are left with nothing
but bloodshot eyes and numb hearts.

Even so, Lord, this is our witness:

You are with us,
and in your presence,
We will not be afraid.

We will not fear the world,
for it is your creation.

We will not fear the future,
for you have already redeemed it.

We will not fear the unknown,
for surely you have seen it.

We will not fear the stranger,
for that person was made in your image,
even as we are made.

We will not fear our weakness,
for you will give us strength.

We will not fear the darkness,
For we carry the light with us.

You are there,
and we are not alone.

We will not be afraid.


Homily for Ash Wednesday

Delivered on February 14, 2018 at NorthHaven Church, Norman, Oklahoma.

Like most people, I have a somewhat love-hate relationship with myself, which means that I also have a love-hate relationship with mirrors. When I pass by a mirror, I can never resist the urge to look, but I’m never completely satisfied with what I see. I look into some mirrors, and I’m confronted with the cold, harsh reality — the ugly truth, as it were. I look into other mirrors, like those found at the carnival, and I like what I see; I’m a bit taller, and a bit thinner.

Neither mirror can give me what I need. The first mirror shows me the truth, but only as it is now, whether I want to see it or not. The second mirror shows me what I want to see, even if it could never be possible. What I need is a mirror that shows me what I truly am, but also gives me a glimpse of what I truly could be. That’s the mirror I need, even if it may not be the mirror I want.

We have such a mirror in Scripture. In fairness, we must confess that we can bend and distort Scripture so much that it functions exactly like those carnival mirrors, showing exactly what we want to see, confirming our desires and reinforcing our biases. There are times, though, when I come to the text openly and honestly, and it shows me who I am, as I cry with David in Psalm 51:

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

But Scripture can also show me what is genuinely possible — the beauty of a life lived fully in the Kingdom of God; more than just a glimpse of who I am, but a vision of who God wants me to be.

The book of Isaiah was written when the people of Judah desperately needed both of these mirrors. The small nation of Judah, what was left of the once mighty nation of Israel, had not only been defeated by Babylon, but had been taken away in captivity. The people of God were apparently forsaken by their God — prompting the psalmist to lament, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”

Even in the midst of that despair, however, there is a voice of hope. We hear it in what are called the “servant songs” of Isaiah, found sprinkled in the text, from chapter 42 through chapter 53. In these passages, God speaks of his promised servant, who will establish justice in chapter 42, be the light to the nations in chapter 49, be vindicated in the face of humiliation in chapter 50, and exalted and lifted up in chapter 52.

And so, we sit back and wait for the promised servant, the one who will finally do the will of God. Who is this servant? It is difficult to read chapter 53 and not see Jesus there in the text:

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

I do believe that this text speaks prophetically of the Crucified Christ, but that doesn’t mean that the servant songs are simply about Jesus, a point that is made clearly in Isaiah 41:8,

But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, ‘You are my servant, ….’

A message that is repeated in chapters 44, 45, and 49. We will see the servant, if we will but look in the mirror. The reflection that we see, however, is harsh and unyielding. It is a clear picture of what God wants us to be: people who seek justice, something that is mentioned three times in the first four verses, yet seek it in a way that is not self-serving. It is a kind of justice that does no harm to the weakest in society — we are to be the light to the nations, helping the blind to see, and freeing those who are in darkness and imprisoned, in a way that does not call attention to ourselves.

It is, at the same time, a beautiful image of what can be, and a devastating contrast to what now is, one that forces me to ask, what is it that I really seek?

Is it justice, or merely my own advantage?

Is it righteousness, or merely my own rights?

Is it to serve, or to be the one who is served?

This day, Ash Wednesday, is the day on which the church is faced with the truth. The ashes are remnants of the palms that we waved on Palm Sunday, a vivid reminder of how quickly our vows of dedication to God become cries of denial and betrayal.

We come before the altar of God to hear the humbling words, “Remember, you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.”

We come, bringing our pride, our pretension, our vanity, and our feelings of superiority to be cleansed in God’s holy fire. Out of the ashes that are left, God has chosen to raise up his servant.

Thanks be to God, for his mercy and grace.