The cosmological anthropic principle: apologists and homilists beware!

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is much that motivates science to revise the design metaphor. Does the scientific principle discussed in this article help or hinder these efforts?

Edwin A. Karlow, Ph.D., is a professor of physics, La Sierra University, Riverside, California, United States

Over the past 30 years, awareness has been growing among scientists that our universe, and our place in it, is special. Rather than seeing it as a random choice among many possibilities, scientists extol the uniqueness of how the universe was put together. Even the laws by which it operates give the universe an air of contrivance, of design. In fact, with such an appropriate metaphor, even unbelievers resort to the vocabulary of design.

Here, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, much motivates science to revise the design metaphor. Many reasons exist for this revision, the foremost being the cosmological anthropic principle (AP) with its myriad evidences of fine-tuning in the universe. Christian homilists and apologists capitalize on these evidences quickly because they seem ready-made to bolster faith and validate belief in God as Designer and Creator.

But the anthropic principle cannot be invoked indiscriminately, and mentioning specific fine tunings can involve a chain of implications that may not have the desired consequences. Particularly for Seventh-day Adventists, the implications of the anthropic principle and its attendant evidences must be carefully examined before using them as an apologetic or homiletic device.

The principles

That the earth is fit for human habitation can hardly be classified as news, for if that was not so, we wouldn’t be here to note the fact. But that last sentence highlights the heart of the cosmological anthropic principle. The so-called weak anthropic principle states that “our existence has selected from all possible universes the one that permits us to exist.”1This cannot be classified as a claim that all possible universes do or have existed, but that our existence stands as evidence for the fitness of this world and its universe to sustain sentient beings. This fairly mild proposition was the basis for the natural theology of the nineteenth century and reminds us of David’s praise to God in Psalms 8 and 19 for the excellence of His handiwork.

In its weak form, the anthropic principle cannot give a reason for our existence. For that we must turn to an agency outside the universe. However, the strong form of the anthropic principle asserts that the universe itself “must have those properties which allow life to develop within it at some stage of its history.” Clearly, this form of the anthropic principle has no need of God the Creator; natural laws do it all.

Variants of the strong anthropic principle include the participatory anthropic principle: “Observers are necessary to bring the universe into being.” Its reverse, “The universe is necessary to bring observers into being,” is essentially the weak form recast. The participatory form is not so far-fetched as it sounds, when one recalls that we were created in God’s image and at His pleasure. As Ellen White reminds us, we are invited to be partners together with God.2 Even physicist John Wheeler says, “It is not only that man is adapted to the universe. The universe is adapted to man.” In a very deep spiritual sense the universe and we are necessary for each other.

The fundamental constants

Clearly the anthropic principle stands as the atheistic answer to why there should be a universe at all and without further elaboration offers little homiletic or apologetic grist. The facts that motivated the principle, however, offer some compelling glimpses of what the universe must be like, and show how tightly linked and tightly constrained are the fundamental constants of nature. These effects are commonly referred to as the fine-tunings or cosmic coincidences of nature.

Hugh Ross, Christian evangelist and astrophysicist, has summarized more than 57 different precisely adjusted physical constants and relationships, some of which—if changed by as little as one part in 1050—would yield an altogether different universe, perhaps no universe at all!3In their seminal treatment of the anthropic principle, John Barrow and Frank Tipler spend over 500 pages and 600 equations elucidating the implications of these anthropic requirements. “Twentieth-century physics has discovered there exist invariant properties of the natural world and its elementary components which render inevitable the gross size and structure of almost all its composite objects. The size of bodies like stars, planets and even people are neither random nor the result of any progressive selection process, but simply manifestations of the different strengths of the various forces of nature. . . . We can show that the order of magnitude of the key features of astronomy and physics can be deduced as inevitable once the constants of Nature are specified.”4

Atomic, nuclear, and stellar phenomena are too remote for most of us to appreciate the implications of anthropic fine-tuning. However, Barrow and Tipler show that many characteristics of life that we take for granted are governed by the initial choice of constants and physical laws.

For example, we cannot tell why humans should be 5 or 6 feet rather than 8 or 9 feet tall, but we can explain why they are not 100 feet or only 1 inch tall. (This deduction is entirely compatible with Ellen White’s observation that Adam “was more than twice as tall as men now living upon the earth.”5) Similarly the length of the day and year on a habitable planet follow from Newton’s second law of motion and the fundamental constants mentioned earlier.

The carbon resonance remains as a favorite among the myriad of fine tunings because its discovery made such an impression on atheist Fred Hoyle, British astronomer and cosmologist.6 Had not these resonances been just right, either no carbon would form or all of it would become oxygen. Instead we have a just-right abundance of both!

Carbon and oxygen, two of the basic building blocks of living things, are formed in the nuclear fires of massive stars. Exploding supernova blast this material throughout space, where it is recycled in another series of stellar births, lives, and supernovae deaths. The physical constants and laws that permit life to exist as we know it also guarantee stars of the right kind and number that will yield enough carbon and oxygen and other heavy elements for a planet like ours to form. “This stellar alchemy takes over ten billion years to complete. Hence, for there to be enough time to construct the constituents of living things, the universe must be at least ten billion years old and therefore, as a consequence of its expansion, at least ten billion light years in extent. We should not be surprised to observe that the universe is so large. No astronomer could exist in one that was significantly smaller.”7

We now know that the sizes of atoms, people, planets, and even the universe are not accidental, nor are they the results of natural selection. Rather they are consequences of inevitable equilibrium states between competing natural forces of attraction and repulsion. Thus if we find it satisfying that things as mundane as the length of the day and year, and even our own height, should be constrained by the fundamental constants of nature, then AP impels us to accept with equal alacrity that things as remote to us as the size and age of the universe and the quantity of its stars are also proscribed in the same fashion. The same laws and fundamental constants govern them all.


Several issues emerge from these considerations that interact with Adventist thinking. The first and most obvious is time⎯namely, the time required for the development of stars and production of heavy elements. If we are impressed with the fine-tunings involved in the carbon resonance, for instance, then we must not ignore the implication that this process takes a lot of time to generate the necessary quantities of material. Why, we may ask, if God is the Creator, would He wait so many billions of years to make life? Why not do it right away?

“The answer,” Hugh Ross says, “is that, given the laws and constants of physics God [evidently] chose, it takes about ten to twelve billion years just to fuse enough heavy elements in the nuclear furnaces of several generations of giant stars to make life chemistry possible.”8

But with God as Creator, could He not have made all the necessary ingredients for life at the outset and bypassed the tedious stellar processes? Such seems to be implied by familiar biblical passages such as Psalm 33:6, 9: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth. . . .For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood forth” (RSV).

These lines provide the basis for our concept of an instantaneous creation that everything came forth fully developed from the Creator’s hand. This view does not easily accommodate the vast time scales implied by the evidence for stellar evolution and the production of the elements required for life. Appealing to the fi ne-tunings of the universe as evidence of God’s creatorship could be misconstrued as support for deep time and an evolutionary development of life.

Another issue is the implied process whereby the earth forms along with the other planets in our solar system, a lengthy process estimated in the billions of years. The developmental histories of Mars, Jupiter, and the other planets will be similar to Earth’s because the same laws govern all their developmental histories. But if we constrain the physical processes we see in the Earth to six thousand years, are we not also obliged to similarly account for the histories of the other planets? We must recognize that the creation story we espouse has implications beyond planet Earth.

One possible way out of the predicament would be to argue that God set the universe operating in the remote past with the laws we now observe and later prepared Earth for habitation. This approach would seem to resolve the problem of deep time, and essentially comprises the passive “gap theory,” which interprets Genesis 1:1 (God created the heaven and the earth [KJV].) as referring to the entire cosmos, but distinct from the creation of life on earth described in Genesis 1:2–2:1 (Thus the heavens and the earth were finished [KJV].).

A third issue consists of the recycling of stellar material in a series of creation and re-creation events. There is not one creation, but many—a kind of continuous creation. Stars are born, live out their fiery existence, and die. Their exhausted material becomes the stuff of other stars that form under the gravitational attraction of the former material. Adventists have focused on the creation of Earth as the sole event. But AP applies to the whole universe, not just planet Earth. Invoking the fine-tunings requires us to enlarge our vision to include the whole of the cosmos with the Earth a part of that.

We rightly praise God for His design in the universe as evidenced by the anthropically invested fi ne-tunings, but too quickly do we reject the implications of that design (long ages for the universe and planet Earth, multiple creations or continuous creation, etc.) when they seem to confl ict with our beliefs. This inconsistent approach has little appeal to those familiar with the science involved in AP and confuses those who look to the church for guidance in understanding scientific findings.

While AP is comprehensive, it cannot be segmented to suit specific homiletic or apologetic agendas. Appealing to one example of fine-tuning implies them all, and fine-tuningmeans exactly that! We need to do the theology necessary for embracing all of the implications of AP: The universe has a long history, its size is vast, and these are necessary conditions for the existence of life as we know it. Lacking such fresh theology, we should be cautious when invoking AP and its fine tunings. Their injudicious use can lead to either confusion over the meaning of the science or disrespect for the basis of our beliefs.

1 See, for example, Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos, 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress Publishing Group, 1995), 128.
2 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, 297; White, The Acts of the Apostles, 579.
3 Ross, Creator and the Cosmos, 118–21, 138–41.
4 John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Cosmological Anthropic Principle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 288, 9.
5 White, The Story of Redemption, 21.
6 This fascinating story is best told by Owen Gingerich, “Is There a Role for Natural Theology Today?” Chapter 1 in Science and Theology: Questions at the Interface, ed. Murray Rae, Hilary Regan, John Stenhouse, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1994).
7 Barrow and Tipler, Cosmological Anthropic Principle, 3.
8 Ross, Creator and the Cosmos, 116.



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Edwin A. Karlow, Ph.D., is a professor of physics, La Sierra University, Riverside, California, United States

April 2007

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