Fine tuning debunked

The universe is not fine tuned. I am sorry, folks. It is ever so slightly out of tune.

Fine tuning being a key argument in favor of God (some God, I keep forgetting which one), we may now dispense with the notion of God and move on to other things.

Those steeped in music theory know what I’m talking about. The mathematics of music just doesn’t quite come out right. The fact that it is so close to right–serviceably close, as our enjoyment of symphonies and rock and roll powerfully attests–without actually being right, proves that the universe is roughly tuned, not finely tuned. It requires some clever manipulations by humans to give the illusion of fine tuning.

The details are a bit intense, and I only sort of understand them myself. But basically it goes like this:

An octave is a musical internal in which the frequency of the sound waves of the higher note is exactly two times that of the lower note. For example, the frequency of the A below middle C is 440 Hz. The next higher A (one octave up) is 880 Hz and the next lower A (one octave down) is 220 Hz. So far, everything is perfectly tuned and the mathematics works out fine.

A fifth is a musical internal in which the higher note’s frequency is 1.5x greater than that of the lower note. So a fifth above that A is 440 Hz x 1.5, or 660 Hz. (That’s an E, by the way.) A fifth sounds harmonious because the sounds waves overlap at very regular intervals. So an A sung together with an E sounds real cool and beautiful. 

To get a similarly harmonious sound, you could start with the E and go up a fifth and sing a B with it. The E being 660 Hz, you get the B by multiplying by 1.5: 660 x 1.5 = 990 Hz. If that B is too high for you, you could cut it in half to 495 Hz and sing the lower B. It will still sound harmonious because the waves still cross each other at regular intervals. So far, we are still finely tuned.

In fact, you can go up by a fifth over and over (cutting it in half if you need to so it doesn’t get ridiculously high) and you will eventually come full circle to your starting note. Much of music theory is built on this “circle of fifths.” It’s really freaking awesome.

Except it actually doesn’t come out quite right. When you go all the way through the circle of fifths (twelve fifths built one on top of the other), you end up overshooting the mark by about a quarter of a half-step, or about a quarter of the distance between A and B-flat. And it’s not your fault! The math just comes out ever so slightly wrong! The tuning is not fine.
To compensate for this small error in the structure of the universe, musicians have come up with various tempering systems, by tweaking some or all of the intervals so they are just a little wrong. Pianos, for example, are tuned according to an “equal tempering” system which spreads the pain out so evenly, you basically don’t feel it at all. But it’s still there.  The universe is not finely tuned!


  1. Given that you now understand the universe is not finely tuned, are you ready to give up your ridiculous belief in God?
  2. Remind me which God it was that was supposed to have tuned the universe, so I can file a complaint.
  3. Is there anyone half as awesome as Beethoven?
  4. How could such a jerk write such great music?
  5. Wouldn’t an intelligent God have made Pi a rational number?
  6. What kind of pie did you have for Thanksgiving?
  7. If you’re an atheist, aren’t you a little sad you have no God to thank?
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