8. This Improbable Universe

This is a meditation on how complex is the interplay between the many variables that govern this universe of ours. In our daily lives, we don’t give a second thought to the fact of the existence of this very universe. We simply assume that the laws of the universe are robust, and exhibit a range of tolerance of variance: a change in any one of the many variables that govern the universe wouldn’t make a big difference…

The truth is that cosmologists now realize that the existence of a universe capable of self-conscious life is the product of a large number of variables such that if any one of them differed from its known value by a mere fraction of a percent one way or the other, our existence would not have been possible. This has come to be known as “the fine-tuned universe”. A small change in several of the over 25 fundamental physical constants – the strength of the forces that hold atoms together, the strength of gravity, the rate of expansion of the universe, to name but a few – would make the universe radically different, and unable to support the fragile life-form we are.

The possibility of life as we know it depends on the value of a few basic constants and is remarkably sensitive to them. The remarkable fact is that the values of these numbers seem have been very finely adjusted in order to make possible the development of life.

Some cosmologists have suggested that the fine-tuned universe concept can be interpreted as a claim of evidence for some kind of divine intention. As the argument goes, the chance that any initially random set of constants would correspond to the set of values that we find in our universe is very small and the universe is exceedingly unlikely to be the result of mindless chance.


If what you have read so far is enough to give you a sense of awe, wonder – and gratitude! – or if scientific details are of no interest to you, stop here, and engage in your meditation. You might simply want to reflect on the improbability, the uniqueness, the precariousness even, of this universe of ours… Or you might want to marvel at how fine-tuned everything must have been at the Big Bang to ensure that the universe could evolve sentient beings. Or you might want to think about alternative explanations: that our universe is but one of billions of universes all living out various combinations of this set of constants. If you need more details, more information, or more stimulation to generate awe and wonder, you might be interested in this article: 

Improbability of these features coexisting:

If we assume a truly random universe, what are the chances that we would get a universe in which all the many variables required for the appearance of life were properly lined up? The simultaneous occurrence of so many independent improbable features appears wildly improbable. The universe seems to be fine tuned for intelligent life.

Paul Davies has discussed fine-tuning at length, and in his book The Goldilocks Enigma (2006) he summarizes the current state of the debate in detail. He concludes by enumerating the alternative responses:

  1. The absurd universe – It just happens to be that way.

  2. The unique universe – There is a deep underlying unity in physics which necessitates the universe being this way. Some ‘Theory of Everything’ will explain why the various features of the Universe must have exactly the values that we see.

  3. The multiverse – Multiple Universes exist which have all possible combinations of characteristics, and we naturally find ourselves within the one that supports our existence.

  4. Intelligent Design – An intelligent Creator designed the Universe specifically to support complexity and the emergence of Intelligence.

  5. The life principle – There is an underlying principle that constrains the universe to evolve towards life and mind.

  6. The self-explaining universe – A closed explanatory or causal loop: ‘perhaps only universes with a capacity for consciousness can exist’.

  7. The fake universe – We are living in a virtual reality simulation.


All that the anthropic principle can provide is a comment on how lucky it is that we are here. We should then have to regard ourselves as immensely lucky to be alive, and view our existence as an exceedingly improbable accident. From the existence of these accidents of physics and astronomy one can wonder that the universe is an unexpectedly hospitable place for living creatures to make their home in. This does not prove that the architecture of the universe demonstrates the existence of God. Only that the architecture of the universe is consistent with the hypothesis that a Mind plays an essential role in its functioning1. Random chance, applied to a single and sole universe, only raises the question as to why this universe could be so “lucky” as to have precise conditions that support life at least at some place (the Earth) and time (within millions of years of the present).


There is no avoiding the fact that our presence here is precarious indeed, depending as it does on so many finely tuned variables. And there are many more! The ones we talked about in this meditation are just those that affect the cosmos as a whole. There are many others more specifically related to the Earth. One might simply wish to remain astonished at the complexity and fragility of our universe. One might also pause a moment to worry about what we humans do to modify any of the variables related to the delicate balance of environmental cycles here on Earth…. Already the Earth is somehow responding to us – we see it daily with bizarre weather patterns, the melting of glaciers at unprecedented rates, showing us just how finely-tuned this Earth must remain…

But the questions go far more deeply. Scientists tell us that the chances of this universe. being so fine-tuned are less than one in a billion billion. Paul Davies proposes 7 alternative explanations. For simplicity’s sake, we can boil them down to two choices to explain this:

  1. Either the initial conditions were set very exactly and very specifically by a creating Mind so that our universe could evolve and we self-sentient beings would appear,
  2. Or this universe is a purely random occurrence and is simply one of an incalculable number of other simultaneously existing universes randomly generated, none of which can sustain life.

The first option points to some Creator intentionally willing our universe, with its finely-tuned constants, to evolve self-sentient forms who could come to reflect on this. The second option is a way scientists have to avoid positing such a Creator.

Which way do you lean? Reflect a moment, if you have opted for the first, on the complexity of the act of Creation… “In the beginning was the Word…” How weighty these words become if we take into account the complexity of such a creative act…

How does all this make you feel? What part of your present world-view is most challenged by these reflections? What is most helpful/least helpful in these reflections?


Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1979); in Religion and Science. Historical and Contemporary Issues. 1997 Ian G. Barbour.