What One Nobel Winner Says about the Finely Tuned Cosmos

I think we are all weary of talking about Denton, especially since almost no one has read the particular Denton books I’ve referred to and arguments about “phantom texts” – texts whose content is unknown to most of the participants – are a bit frustrating. So I suggest a shift to the thought of another scientist who, as far as I know, is not a member of the Discovery Institute, and whose text we can look at together.

Here is an interesting passage from physicist and Nobel Prize winner, Charles H. 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.

“Some scientists argue that “well, there’s an enormous number of universes and each one is a little different. This one just happened to turn out right.” Well, that’s a postulate, and it’s a pretty fantastic postulate - it assumes there really are an enormous number of universes and that the laws could be different for each of them. The other possibility is that ours was planned, and that’s why it has come out so specially. Now, that design could include evolution perfectly well. It’s very clear that there is evolution, and it’s important. Evolution is here, and intelligent design is here, and they’re both consistent.”

For the whole interview with Townes, see Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes on evolution and "intelligent design"

I note that Townes, who describes himself as a “progressive” Protestant (which based on his remarks appears to be very different from a fundamentalist or literalist), sees no conflict between “evolution” and “design”. This is useful, because it is what I have been arguing, based on the definition and description of ID maintained by Discovery, and I had never seen these words of Townes before tonight.

Of course, people are free to take up Townes’s remarks and object to them (if they have objections), but I thought it was interesting (a) that an apparent non-partisan in the culture wars agreed with me about the compatibility of evolution and design and (b) that a physicist whose scientific achievement is probably regarded much more highly by the people here than Denton’s would take the same line of argument that Denton does.

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So let’s posit the remarkable coincidence that a magical being with the power and desire to make exactly this kind of universe exists. If the magical being weren’t just the way it is, we couldn’t be here at all.

Feel free to take up this remark and object to it if you have any. :slight_smile:

He died 6 years ago.


These are certainly possibilities. Can we frame them as scientific hypotheses with entailments, and devise ways to empirically test them?

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Why do you constantly resort to name-dropping and credentialism? And starting in the title, no less!


He’s so mealy mouthed, it’s hard to know what he actually thinks of the Intelligent Design movement proper. The “fine tuning” argument he talks about, of course, is not particular to that movement and is often put forth by proponents of the position which opposes ID and is often called “theistic evolution.”


What another Nobel Winner says about the laws of physics:

The title of the video somewhat mislabeled because the interviewer never actually asks that specific question of Steven Weinberg.

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Yes it’s rather odd how obsessed some design proponents have become lately with capturing basically the whole scope of evolution-compatible theistic ideas under the rubric of intelligent design, when they’re simultaneously obsessed with arguing that the origin and evolution of life is wildly implausibly, if not impossible.

And you will always find the same people arguing both these positions at different times. Some times evolution works but it’s because it’s “guided” (but we’re never told in what way in any detail), some times it just doesn’t work at all and intervention is required to poof things into existence, or to make certain very unlikely mutations happen because irreducibly complex structures just can’t evolve by natural selection under the laws of physics created by the designer to allow life.

I note that Townes, who describes himself as a “progressive” Protestant (which based on his remarks appears to be very different from a fundamentalist or literalist), sees no conflict between “evolution” and “design”. This is useful, because it is what I have been arguing, based on the definition and description of ID maintained by Discovery, and I had never seen these words of Townes before tonight.

That sounds like a theistic evolutionist. Does he think evolution can produce irreducibly complex structures, animal body plans, and that the laws of physics were fine-tuned for the cosmos to evolve to both create stars, planets, life, and ultimately intelligent beings like primates, without requiring God to reach in and perform divine interventions to facilitate these evolutionary transitions?

Or is he one of those people who think God created the laws of physics, and set up the initial conditions of the universe such that following big bang nucleosynthesis, matter would condense into stars, stars would go through multiple generations of stellar evolution to produce the heavy elements necessary for complex chemistry (such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorous, sulfur, iron, nickel, zinc, and so on), these elements would condense into solar systems with planets, the planets would undergo geological processes to further evolve the chemical and physical complexity of it’s environments to produce complex minerals and microenvironments such as continents and oceans with rivers, lakes, mountains, volcanoes, hydrothermal and geothermal vents, atmospheric processes creating climate and weather, but then the whole thing stopped. That far and no further.

All that cosmic, galactic, stellar, planetary, and geological evolution and change. But then no further. The laws did all that to move the contents of the universe towards the conditions necessary for life. Produced the elements, the solar systems, the planets and chemicals and continents and oceans, but then… nothing. Evolve towards all those things but life itself.

Now God has to intervene again to take the elements like carbon and nitrogen and all the rest, which He’s created laws and set up the entire universe to produce, and telekinetically rearrange them into a complex cell.

And then he’s going to let it evolve for a few billion years but without ever resulting in something irreducibly complex before he has to reach in again and zap a flagellum into existence, or a cytoskeletal actin fiber, a cell nucleus, and most of the nuclear pore complex.

And then he’ll let those evolve again for a while but, wouldn’t you know it, this evolutionary process he’s created just can’t create an animal body plan, so now he’s got to intervene again to create that. And that animal can then evolve again for a while but, you guessed it, God just can’t catch a break - now he has to intervene again to turn a leg into a flipper, or a fin into a leg. Or make primates more intelligent, and some primates more intelligent than others, and one particular primate the most intelligent of them all.


This is an amazing post. Love it. ID presents us with a less competent creator.


I think I first came across this argument as a teenager. At that time, I was very much into Christianity. So I had no religious objections to the argument.

Still, it did not make sense. That the world we find ourselves in happens to support our kind of life – this seemed totally unsurprising. It could not have been otherwise. And it still seems that way. I think that’s the weak anthropic principle, though I had not heard of that principle back when I first heard the argument.


Hindus believe that there are gods everywhere. This ID god is more like a minor Hindu god than the Christian one.

First, thanks for posting the link to Townes’ thought. I remember being encouraged to discover his comments many years ago when I was a Christian scholar, probably in 2005 when this little interview was published. I never met him and I never mentioned him at Quintessence of Dust, which is a shame. I never read his writing on science and faith, also a shame. It seems he was smart, decent, well-regarded, and pious.

To your point, you already know what I think about evolution and design, and that would explain why I found Townes to be an encouraging breath of fresh air when I was a Christian confronting the dishonesty, ignorance, and viciousness of the ID movement. Townes was talking about the things that mattered.

I guess it’s “useful.” To me, it’s obvious that evolution is a way to get design, and so any argument that “design” is an alternative to evolution is just really dumb. This has nothing to do with Nobels or masers or Christianity or Druidism, except to the extent that some of those things are known to make educated people talk like buffoons.


Since you’re familiar with Townes writings, do you know if he endorsed Intelligent Design proper, in the sense of claiming there are structures or systems in biology that could not have arisen thru evolutionary processes as usually understood by mainstream scientists, and that these could only arise with the intervention of a intelligent being?

I specifically wrote that I haven’t read his work on science and faith. I read the interview in the OP, today and many years ago, and his entry at Wikipedia.

No, I don’t know. From his comments in the interview, I doubt that he was shallow or gullible enough to embrace a god of the gaps, but given the penchant of pious physicists for pablum of the sort, it wouldn’t be that surprising if he did.

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Yes, but I don’t think he was a member of Discovery even before he died, so I’m not sure what your reminder note is for.

Why do you constantly resent it when any scientist, however well-qualified he is to talk about the subject, comes to conclusions of design?

That’s true for every possible universe. If physics weren’t the way they just are then the universe filled with those exact gas Clouds wouldn’t exist. Why does our universe need an explanation and not that one? It only does if you beg the question and assume life is cosmically significant (which is only true if God exists) and needs as explanation. Then on top of that nothing about Theism predicts a fine-tuned universe, or even a material universe for that matter.

Maybe the fine-tuning argument could be more successful if you conjoined it with an argument from moral agency but I doubt. Just don’t understand the appeal of that argument and don’t see how people don’t see it’s super question begging.


Yes, you did. Sorry for overlooking that.

It is probably reasonable to surmise from his comments on the Kansas evolution hearings, however, that he was not a supporter.

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I don’t know. I only came across the piece by Townes a day ago. Does anyone here know of other statements by Townes on this subject? It would be interesting to have more detail.

We have some physicists here; perhaps they are familiar with the ideas of Townes on these subjects.


A scientist coming to conclusions of design is by itself no more science than a milkman doing the same. What matters is the nature of the explanation, not the content, let alone who is presenting it.

So I ask again, can what Charles Townes says be framed as scientific hypotheses with entailments and ways to empirically test them?

If not, no problem, he is entitled to his opinions and he may be worth listening to - but let’s not pretend that you have somehow provided weight to the notion that ID is scientific.