Three millennia ago, an Ancient Near Eastern monarch gazed up at the night sky in wonder, and it stirred his poetic soul.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,” he wrote, “and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”

For believers, it’s easy to resonate with King David’s awe in the face of cosmic beauty, and to recognize that it points to something beyond itself. The heavens do, indeed, declare the glory of God.

But David goes farther, claiming the skies show God’s handiwork and display his knowledge. These statements reflect the direct experience of the senses but also speak to the mind. They almost sound like they might fit under the banner of scientific inquiry, if we may use that modern term in such an archaic context.

And so they have proven to do, with increasing clarity. The cosmos, as it turns out, is not only beautiful but also exquisitely fine-tuned. Its physical properties are so carefully – and improbably – arranged that they point without mistake to the hand of a cosmic Designer.

Cosmic fine-tuning, in brief

Modern physicists and astronomers have discovered that the odds against the universe existing in its present form by pure chance are, well, astronomical. In fact, they’re far, far beyond astronomical.

The cosmos is built on a complex set of physical laws and constants, and on relationships between fundamental forces, all of which possess infinitesimally specific values. Even the slightest deviation in any of these values, and the universe as we know it could not exist, much less support life.

The strength and ratios of the four basic universal forces – strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, electromagnetic force and gravitational force – must be exactly as they are for elements, stars, planets and galaxies to exist. The same goes for the cosmological constant, the mass density of the universe and the expansion rate of the universe, among others.

It’s common to use the phrase “one in a million” to describe something so unlikely as to be virtually impossible. But the level of specificity – of fine-tuning – for these various laws and constants ranges from 1 in 10^37 (that’s 10 followed by 37 zeroes) to 1 in 10^120 (or 10 followed by 120 zeroes).

The numbers become practically meaningless without an analogy. Taking the “best bet” of the lot (1 in 10^37, the required degree of precision for both the strong nuclear force and the expansion rate of the universe), astrophysicist Hugh Ross compares it to covering North America with dimes, piling the dimes up to the moon, repeating the process with a billion North Americas, and then finding one specific marked dime, blindfolded. Pick any other dime, and the universe we know and live in ceases to exist.

Or according to physicist-philosopher Robin Collins, imagine a measuring tape stretched across the entire known universe, with a single mark representing the acceptable value of the force of gravity. Move that mark by one inch – on a tape spanning the whole universe – and said universe could never be formed.

As theoretical physicist Michio Kaku sums it up, “It’s shocking to find how many of the familiar constants of the universe lie within a very narrow band that makes life possible. If a single one of these accidents were altered, stars would never form, the universe would fly apart, DNA would not exist, life as we know it would be impossible, Earth would flip over or freeze, and so on.”

Such precise fine-tuning in the foundational properties of the cosmos offers compelling evidence that it was designed for a purpose. And the evidence for design would indicate the presence of a Designer.

In the words of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Charles Townes, “Intelligent design, as one sees it from a scientific point of view, seems to be quite real. This is a very special universe: it’s remarkable that it came out just this way. If the laws of physics weren’t just the way they are, we couldn’t be here at all. The sun couldn’t be there, the laws of gravity and nuclear laws and magnetic theory, quantum mechanics, and so on have to be just the way they are for us to be here.”

A problem for materialist cosmologies

As far as the evidence from astronomy and physics goes, there’s nothing controversial about these observations of cosmic fine-tuning. As physicist Paul Davies notes, “Everyone agrees that the universe looks as if it was designed for life.”

Disputes arise, however, not over the science but because of metaphysical assumptions. Materialist cosmologies insist the universe has no design, and certainly no Designer, but came about through sheer chance via random natural processes. But for such cosmologies, the evident fine-tuning in the cosmos poses a serious problem.

One way to deal with the problem is simply to ignore it. Materialists will double down on their belief in chance because for them, it’s the only acceptable explanation. They’ll claim the appearance of design in the cosmos is merely that – an appearance, an illusion that in no way necessitates a Designer.

But such assertions fly in the face of reason and experience, to say nothing of the evidence. The extreme remote probabilities inherent in cosmic fine-tuning rule out pure chance as an organizing principle for the universe. Moreover, no one would look at a car or smartphone or building and say, “Sure, it may look like it was designed, but that’s an illusion. It must’ve assembled itself by random chance. It’s just a coincidence that it serves a useful purpose.”

Another way around the fine-tuning problem for materialists is by appealing to necessity. The universe with all of its variables, they’ll argue, had to take shape exactly the way it did because of physical laws. It was still due to chance, they’d add, only chance constrained by physical necessity, somehow.

This line of argument, however, makes a fatal error regarding the nature of the cosmos. In metaphysical terms, it fails to recognize that the universe isn’t necessary, but contingent. The cosmos has a beginning, which means something – or someone – caused it. As such, the universe doesn’t need to exist in any specific form. In fact, it doesn’t need to exist at all. There’s no reason why its physical constants couldn’t have assumed any of a near-infinite number of values, or none at all.

Besides, where did the physical laws governing the cosmos come from? They didn’t exist before or outside the universe, and thus couldn’t have constrained its formation. The only feasible explanation is that they, along with the cosmos they define, come from the mind and purpose of a Designer.

What about the multiverse?

By far the most popular option currently in vogue with materialists to explain away cosmic fine-tuning is the multiverse hypothesis. The basic concept is that our universe is merely one of an infinite number of universes, some of which are nearly indistinguishable from our own, others so alien that the laws of physics as we experience them don’t apply.

The implications for a fine-tuned cosmos are clear, at least in the mind of multiverse proponents: Given an infinite number of universes, everything becomes not only possible but inevitable. In other words, our universe not only lucked out against unimaginable odds but in fact couldn’t avoid doing so.

However, this is nothing more than an exercise in stacking the odds. It’s like a child playing a game, growing frustrated at his inability to win and changing the rules so he can’t lose. Are the odds insurmountable against our universe arising by chance? No problem. Just assume the existence of a multiverse, in which literally every possibility can and does occur.

It must be kept in mind that there’s not one iota of evidence for the existence of other universes, nor indeed can there be, since by definition we’re limited to our own universe. And a growing number of scientists, both theist and atheist, have come to criticize the hypothesis for its lack of scientific rigour.

As cosmologist George F.R. Ellis points out, “The trouble is that no possible astronomical observations can ever see those other universes. The arguments are indirect at best. And even if the multiverse exists, it leaves the deep mysteries of nature unexplained.”

Theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder is a tad more blunt in her assessment: “Universes besides our own are logically equivalent to gods. They are unobservable by assumption, hence they can exist only in a religious sense. You can believe in them if you want to, but they are not part of science.”

Even on its own terms, the concept fails to account for why a multiverse would exist. For argument’s sake, suppose there are infinite multitudes of universes, each one governed by a divergent set of physical laws. But once again, where did those laws and those universes come from? The multiverse hypothesis doesn’t know or care. Its only concern is to deny the necessity for a Creator.

It’s not called the cosmos for nothing

The word “cosmos” comes from the ancient Greeks, originally meaning good order and arrangement, with an added sense of harmony and beauty. The English word “cosmetics” derives from it. And as early as Pythagoras in the 6th century BC, Greek philosophers, astronomers and mathematicians began using it to describe the universe as the created order, a meaning that has come down to the present.

Clearly, even ancient pagan thinkers shared in the universal human intuition that the universe is ordered and arranged by a cosmic Designer. It’s doubly ironic, then, that many of their modern counterparts invoke the word that denotes the created order while denying that it’s either ordered or created.

“By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God,” wrote the author to the Hebrews, “so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”

The discoveries of modern astronomy and physics only serve to underscore that timeless scriptural truth, echoed in the hearts and intuitions of all humanity. Deep-space imagery reveals new vistas of beauty and grandeur that continue to declare the glory of God. And beneath the surface, exquisitely fine-tuned cosmic properties keep pouring out knowledge of God and displaying his handiwork.

It’s a joy and privilege to live at a time when we can watch, listen and learn of such things.

Sources and further reading

Jonathan Borwein and David H. Bailey, “When science and philosophy collide in a ‘fine-tuned’ universe,” The Conversation, April 3, 2014.

John Dunfee, “The fine-tuning argument for God’s existence,” Talk Apologetics, March 17, 2018.

George F.R. Ellis, “Does the multiverse really exist?Scientific American, August 2011.

Brian Greene, “Welcome to the multiverse,” Newsweek, May 21, 2012.

Korey Haynes, “The anthropic principle: Are the laws of the universe fine-tuned for life?Discover Magazine, November 12, 2018.

David Klinghoffer, “Physicist: ‘Multiverse is religion, not science’,” Evolution News and Science Today, July 10, 2019.

Alan Lightman, “The accidental universe: Science’s crisis of faith,” Harper’s, December 2011.

Alister E. McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology, (Gifford Lectures), Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Jeff Miller, “The anthropic principle: The universe is designed for us,” Apologetics Press, accessed October 28, 2019.

Ethan Siegel, “Fine-tuning really is a problem in physics,” Forbes, April 5, 2019.

Lee Strobel, “The case for a Creator,” Focus on the Family, October 22, 2014.

J. Warner Wallace, “The inexplicable fine-tuning of the foundational forces in our universe,” Cold-Case Christianity, September 25, 2015.

ID’s top six: The fine-tuning of the universe,” Evolution News and Science Today, November 8, 2017.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Join our newsletter

Advice for every stage of life delivered straight to your inbox