Our universe could have developed in a great number of different ways. Yet, it developed in such a way that allowed complexity and, in time, life to emerge. How so? For what reason? And, perhaps more importantly – why does it matter to even think about such things?
People have different views on how the world came to be what it is. Some believe it was created with the purpose of supporting life. Others believe, it is just a coincidence that it developed so as to make life possible. This second line of thought goes along the following lines: there were various potential ways for the world to develop, each of them with as low probability as the next, yet it had to develop in some way, so it just happened to be the one we experience today – the universe where life exists. I will call this the coincidence-world. It may well be a valid answer to the question ‘why the world developed so as to make life possible’. Whether you accept it as a satisfactory answer, however, will depend on your worldview. Incidentally, this is also a clue for the other question I raised – why does it matter to think about such things? But let’s not jump ahead too quickly. What about the other view, the belief that the world was created with the purpose to make life possible?
This line of thought comes from what philosophers of religion call ‘argument from design’. It is said that when we observe the world around us and see how everything seems to be perfectly designed for the purpose it fulfils, we are compelled to think it was indeed purposefully created, presumably by some great designer. Let’s call this designer the Architect (for the simple reason that I just happened to remember the movie Matrix at the moment of writing this). So, in short, the argument from design says that there must be an Architect because everything looks really well-designed for whatever purpose it fulfils, and such perfectly-functioning ‘mechanism’ cannot appear accidentally, spontaneously or by coincidence. Famous examples of this have been the various beaks of birds or our own eyes perfectly suited to perform their purpose, and so on. If you are now getting ready to object by referring to the theory of evolution that offers an explanation to these observations without the need for an Architect, I understand and agree with you. But bear with me. We are asking questions about the world as a whole. Evolution can explain the development of life on Earth, but what can explain evolution? Why did it begin at all? What made it possible?
This is where the argument from design gives us a potential answer, and it is called the ‘fine-tuning argument’. It is very different from the coincidence-world idea I described earlier. This argument is teleological – it presumes the existence of purpose (as opposed to mere chance and randomness). The fine-tuning argument runs along these lines:
- Several features of our universe are such that, had they been only slightly different, life would not have been possible.
- These features are in reality such that life in our world is possible (and it exists!).
- The probability of these features being such that makes life possible is small.
- Given that the probability of it is small and yet these features are such that make life possible, it requires an explanation.
- The best explanation of such an improbable situation is that a creator (what I refer to as the Architect) has set the features of the universe with the purpose of making life possible.
I mentioned earlier that the coincidence-world idea may be a valid answer to the question ‘why the world developed so as to make life possible’. Alternatively, perhaps the fine-tuning argument offers a valid line of thought to answer that question. My point here, however, is that it doesn’t matter. Not that I don’t see value in scientific or theological pursuits of knowledge or wisdom. But, when it comes to the big questions of life, I think we should be very clear about what it is we are looking for.
If I survive a horrible accident, let’s say a train crash, and I am the sole unlikely survivor, it inevitably raises questions in my mind. No one else survived, all the odds were against everyone on that train, so why should I be the sole survivor? Why me? If a friend tries to console me and explains that I should not get so overwhelmed by it, that it was a mere coincidence, that everyone had extremely little chance of surviving and I simply was the one who did, it is pure chance that it was exactly me, it could have been anyone else, and so on, I do not think I’d feel much better. These may be valid answers, but they are not satisfactory answers, at least not for everyone. Why? For the same reason that many people cannot fully accept the coincidence-world as the final explanation of our universe being such as to make life possible.
The coincidence-type answers are not satisfactory because they do not address the real question. I believe that when we ask the big questions of life we are usually looking to find some underlying meaning and purpose, not facts grounded in statistics. Don’t get me wrong, if you feel satisfied with the coincidence-type answers, that’s perfectly fine, this line of thought suits your worldview. But those of us who struggle with accepting statistics when confronted with such questions can, I believe, benefit from reflections as these. Statistics can offer a lot of valid answers. However, it cannot increase my self-knowledge.
When I think about the reason for why the universe has developed in such a way as to make life possible and I feel that I am more drawn towards the fine-tuning argument, even if perhaps not fully accepting its reference to an Architect, I can increase my self-understanding by realizing that in this reflection I am, in fact, looking for some deeper meaning of life that I can relate to, and not for a cosmological theory. It is a much more inward journey than an outward one, although it may take my thoughts into ‘outer space’ to help me know myself better. This, for me, is the real value of such reflection. This is why it matters to think about such things.