A special universe?

A second question of this deeper kind arises from thinking about the character of the laws of nature themselves. Science just takes them for granted, as the basis from which it derives its understanding of the events that are happening. I do not think, however, that we should do so, for we should press on to ask the question, Why is the universe so special? Why are the laws of nature so ‘finely-tuned’ to make life possible? Behind this question lies a very surprising realization that scientists only reached in the last forty years or so. It is that, though life in our universe only developed billions of years after the big bang, the world was pregnant with that possibility from the very start. By that I mean, that the laws of nature had to take from the start exactly the form they do for you and me to have been able to be here on Earth today. Otherwise things would have gone wrong that would have made the history of the universe boring and sterile. I am sure you know that this unexpected collection of scientific insights has been given the name of the Anthropic Principle. (A better name would be ‘the Carbon Principle’, because no-one is claiming that precisely homo sapiens, five fingers and all, had to emerge, but only carbon-based beings of our kind of complexity and fruitfulness.)

Active star formation region (click to enlarge).
To get to the point of the Anthropic Principle, just think about the stars. A fruitful universe has to have exactly the right sort of stars, for the stars have two absolutely indispensable roles in making life possible. One is simply fuelling its development. The three and a half billion year history of life on Earth has only been possible because all that time the Sun has been shining steadily, supplying the energy needed. We understand what enables stars to burn steadily and for long periods like that, and if the forces of nature had been only slightly different from what they are, it would have been impossible. A universe exactly the same as ours except that in it gravity was three times stronger, would have been boring and sterile in its history because its stars would have burnt themselves out in a few million years, long before any life could get going on an encircling planet.

Stellar nucleosynthesis of carbon (the triple-alpha process). Since Beryllium-8 is so short-lived, only a fine-tuned resonance allows significant quantities of carbon to be produced (click to enlarge).
The second role the stars have to perform is to produce the raw materials of life in their nuclear furnaces. The chemistry of life is the chemistry of carbon and there is only one place in the whole universe where carbon can be made, namely inside stars. We are all made of stardust. Once again, this delicately balanced chain of reactions by which the chemicals of our bodies have been made, is only possible because the laws of nuclear physics are just the way they are and no other. When Fred Hoyle saw that carbon could be made in stellar interiors only because there was an enhancement (a resonance) at exactly the right energy to make it possible, he is said to have remarked that the universe was a ‘put-up’ job. Hoyle could not just believe this was a happy accident, with nothing more to be said about it.

So, is all this just our luck, or is there a reason why things are so finely-tuned to the possibility of life? I would find it extremely intellectually lazy just to say that’s the way it is and that’s that. My belief in creation makes all this intelligible for me. Our fruitful universe is the way it is because it is not just ‘any old world’, but it is a creation that has been endowed by its Creator with just those laws of nature that have enabled it to have so fertile a history.

Supernova remnants: we are made from the elements expelled during these stellar explosions (click to enlarge).
One further issue needs to be addressed. Did not Charles Darwin destroy the idea of creation by showing that life developed simply through evolution? Darwin certainly told us something very interesting about the How of life’s development on Earth. We should take his insights very seriously. In fact, from the very publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, some Christians began to do so. The story, so often repeated in a kind of modern myth, that the ideas of evolution were opposed by solid ranks of obscurantist clergymen is historically ignorant. It is simply untrue. At the time there was a good deal of argument for and against Darwin’s ideas, both among scientists and among religious people. Early on, an Anglican clergyman, Charles Kingsley, stated powerfully the right way to think theologically about evolution. He said that God could no doubt have brought into being a ready-made world, but in fact the Creator had done something cleverer than that in making ‘a creation that could make itself’. The world is not God’s puppet theatre in which the Creator pulls every string. It is instead the theatre of Love in which creatures are allowed to be themselves and to make themselves. That is the way in which Christians can understand the scientific insight of an evolving world. It is fully compatible with the belief that that world is God’s creation.