Read Part One of this series here.
At this point Strobel and Meyer left the stage. The room grew dark, and a video came on the large screen to my left. It was an excerpt from the The Privileged Planet, based on the book of the same title. The book was written by astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and theologian Jay Richards, and represented yet another gloss on the fine-tuning argument.
Richards was the next speaker. I had not read The Privileged Planet when it was published, and therefore was only vaguely familiar with its arguments. After hearing Richards speak, I’m not inclined to buy the book.
Things got off to a bad start. The portion of the video being shown was discussing the various physical parameters that have to be just right for intelligent life to be possible on Earth. We have to be orbiting a star with the correct physical properties (not too hot, not too cold), we have to have a moon of the right size to stabilize our orbit, and on and on. At this point an equation appeared on the screen. On the left hand side of the equation was the probability of the Earth having all the correct physical properties. On the right-hand side was a list of thirteen symbols, each one apparently representing the probability of some specific physical parameter being precisely what it needed to be. I say apparently because the clip never identified what the symbols meant.
Someone identiifed as a physicist came on the screen and informed us that if we now conservatively estimate each of the terms on the right-hand side to have a value of 1/10, and then multiply them all together to get the probability of all of the necessary events occurring at once, then we very quickly get a vanishingly small probability.
I was somewhat distressed to find that the people sitting near me were murmuring with approval. Personally, I was gagging. This childish argument is wrong for three obvious reasons:
- First, they had no basis for their assertion that a value of 1/10 represented a conservative estimate of the probabilities in question. That was simply a made-up number. Frankly, it is not even clear what it means to talk about the probability of the universe having a certain property. Probabilities are things that typically apply to outcomes of repeatable experiments. Is the idea that if we replayed the Big Bang over and over again, the universe would show the relevant properties one time out of every ten? I can’t imagine how the folks in the video defend any of their probability assertions.
- Second, the business about multiplying probabilities of individual events to obtain the probability of all the events happening simultaneously only applies to independent events. If the events are not independent, then it is simply incorrect to evaluate their joint probability in this way. Suffice it to say that the question of independence was not addressed in the video clip. (Richards casually asserted later in his talk that the events were independent, but provided absolutely no justification for this).
- Let us suppose that it really is very improbable to have all the necessary physcial characteristics on one planet. What would that prove? Only that something very improbable had occurred. So what?
After a few minutes of this Richards took the stage. He started by repeating the point that Darwin made the world safe for materialism, but that he did not know what cosmology had in store. The discovery that the universe had a beginning put great pressure on materialist conceptions of the universe. Everything that began to exist had a cause, remember?
Materialists try desperately to get around this, he said. When Sagan said the cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be, he was putting a stake in the ground against the idea of a supernatural creator. Darwin is just one part of the debate. There’s a larger world-view issue that must be resolved.
Sagan was quite the little star of Richards’ performance. He was also given the credit for popularizing the Copernican Principle, which Richards described as follows:
The Copernican Principle is basically the idea that the Earth and our location in the universe are unexceptional or unimportant that we’re sort of adrift on a speck of dust in a cosmic sea that is otherwise purely impersonal and doesn’t have a mind. …The Copernican Principle is something entirely different [from Coprnicus’s astronomical work], the claim that the Earth is unexceptional that whatever happens here must happen elsewhere in the universe.
Somewhere in the part of the quote represented by the ellipsis Richards’ had said that the Copernican Principle has nothing to do with Copernicus.
Sicne Richards is about to argue that his cutting-edge research, undertaken with Dr. Gonzalez, puts the lie to this notion, we ought to point out that very little of what Richards said here is accurate. First, it is called the Copernican Principle becuase Copernicus is credited with establishing that the Earth was not the center of the universe. He finally put to rest the Ptolemean idea that the Earth was the center of everything. And that is the basic point of the principle; that the Earth occupies an unexceptional location in the universe.
Unexceptional, in this context, means unexceptional for the purpose of making obervations of the universe. To the extent that it finds acutal applications in cosmology, it is really just the idea that the universe is homogenous and isotropic over large scales (meaning that what we see is independent of the direction in which we look, at least over vast scales). It certainly does not mean the Earth is unexcetional in the sense of having properties that make it suitable for life, unlike the majority of planets that lack those properties. Richards will go on to argue that the Earth is singularly well-suited for making scientific observations, but as will become clear, the sort of things he has in mind are not the sort of things addressed by the Copernican Principle.
The Copernican Principle has nothing to do with whether the universe is impersonal or has a mind, and it has nothing to do with whether things that happen here must also happen elsewhere in the universe.
This was a lead in to just what an exceptional place Earth really is. Over the next ten minutes he rattled off a bunch of things that have to work out just right for complex life to be possible. You need carbon, and liquid water, and a planet that orbits the Sun at the right distance and on and on. This part of the talk culminated in a list of bullet points being presented on the screen which was meant to impress us with how fine-tuned everything is. Among these points were the need for a large moon to stabilize our orbit, and the need for large planets like Jupiter to shield us from collisions with comets.
This was a common style of argument throughout the conference. Show that if some physical parameter were changed in isolation from all other physical parameters the result would be a planet not hospitable to complex life, then deduce from this that an intelligent designer must have been behind it all. This argument has great rhetorical force, but it adds up to very little scientifically.
Moving on, there was next a discussion of probability. Richards raised the obvious issue that even things that seem very improbable become probable if you are given enough tries. This poses a problem with going straight from the observation of fine-tuning to the conclusion of design. Not much to comment on here beyond noting that Richards was constantly using the phrase “Probabilistic Resources” during this portion of his talk. This is not a term you will hear mathematicians using very often. It is, rather, a little phrase William Dembski likes to use in his writing, because it makes the commonplace observation that unlikely events become likely if you wait long enough sound wonderfully technical and rigorous.
So how does Richards get around this argument? Well, one answer is that he is so enamored of the tiny numbers his probability calculations lead to that he thinks chance is simply not an adequate response no matter how big the universe is. A billion tries isn’t very impressive when your probability is one out of ten trillion. But his main response, I’m not kidding, was the following:
This is the idea. The same narrow circumstances that allows us to exist also provides us with the best overall setting for making scientific observations. …The very conditions that make Earth hospitable for complex or intelligent life also make it well-suited for viewing an analyzing the universe as a whole.
If you are thinking at this point that you must have misunderstood that last quote, that no one could actually be so myopic as to pick out some fature of the world and conclude that the world was desgined specifically to manifest that feautre, then welcome to my world. Rest assured, however, that Richards now spent the final fifteen minutes of his talk explaining that yes, unbelievably, you heard him right.
Exhibit A in his discussion of this improbable point is the fact that our moon and Sun are arranged in just the right way to produce perfect solar eclipses on Earth. And such eclipses are precisely what we needed for a crucial test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. If we didn’t have such eclipses, we couldn’t have carried out this test!
Still not convinced? Consider the galactic habitable zone. There are only certain locations within a galaxy in which complex life could form. Too close to the center and you are more subject to radiation threats and comet collisions. Too far away and only small planets can form. There is a sweet spot in the middle where planets suitable for complex life can form. And this sweet spot is also the place you would most like to be to make astronomical observations of the universe. You are far enough from the center that you can see out into the distant universe. But you are close enough to the center that you have plenty of nearby stars to observe. So once again we have a correlation between the properties necessary for life and the properties necessary for scientific investigation.
I’ve done my best to present Richards’ argument accurately, but it still sounds so foolish to me that I’m not sure I’ve understood him properly. I invite you to consult this article by Richards and Gonzalez, eerily similar to Richards’ presntation, to see for yourself if you think I have misrepresented them.
What is wrong with their argument? There are many possible points of attack. Physicist William Jeffreys points out one of them in his review of The Privileged Planet:
Finally, I turn to Gonzalez and Richards’s notion that our earth is uniquely designed for its inhabitants to do scientific exploration, and that the universe is similarly designed for us to do that scientific exploration. They point to a number of phenomena that have aided our scientific enterprise, such as the transparency of the earth’s atmosphere, the fact that we have a moon that is just far enough from the earth to produce spectacular solar eclipses, and so on. Of all the arguments in the book, I find this the weakest. It puts the cart before the horse. For suppose it were not so; if we existed on another world very different from the earth, then we would surely be doing something. We would be doing whatever was possible for us to do under the circumstances in which we found ourselves. If we accepted the Whiggish reasoning of the authors, we would be just as justified in concluding that our planet — and our universe, if we could see it in this alternative reality — was designed so that we would do whatever we happened to be doing at the time or find interesting at the time (as diverse human cultures have always done). The authors could learn much by studying a little anthropology and a little history.
Religious Studies professor Hector Avalos raises a similar objection:
Even more puzzling is that Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, who is an astronomer, concludes that the earth was positioned for his convenience (in order to make scientific measurements of the universe). He begins Chapter 1 of TPP with a story about how the observation of a solar eclipse led him eventually to posit the idea that Earth was positioned so that he could make such observations.
This rationale is analogous to a plumber arguing that if our planet had not been positioned precisely where it is, then he might not be able to do his work as a plumber. Lead pipes might melt if the Sun were much closer. And, if our planet were any farther from the Sun, it might be so frozen that plumbers might not exist at all. Therefore, plumbing must have been the reason that our planet was located where it is.
Moreover, if this planet were designed to facilitate scientific discovery, it leaves unexplained the fact that 99.99999% of our planet’s 4.5 billion-year history was not inhabited by creatures that could record measurements. One might just as easily postulate that the Designer meant for earth to be inhabited mostly by creatures that made no intelligent measurements.
To these excellent points, I would add a third: If the universe was designed with its eventual scientific discovery in mind, why is scientific investigation so difficult, and why is it something that seems so unnatural to many people?
For most of human civilization there was no organized attempt to investigate nature scientifically. And even today, most people do not engage directly with the understanding of the universe that science provides. Indeed, they cannot. Even something as simple as Newtonian mechanics requires considerable mathematical training to fully appreciate, after all. Most people find such mathematical mastery either impossible to attain, or attained only at the expense of an enormous amount of highly unpleasant work.
And then there is the fact that in many cases people positively resist scientific explanations for commonplace phenomena, preferring instead various sorts of mysticism and irrationality. The rudiments of logical thinking, crucial to serious scientific investigation, are things that have to be taught and practiced before they seem natural.
On top of that we have the many hurdles to scientific advancement. Richards is excited about the fact that the possibility of perfect solar eclipses makes it possible to test the general theory of relativity. Personally, I’m more struck by the fact that the general theory of relativity, one of the fundamental principles of physics, has to be tested in a manner so complex it takes geniuses of Einstein’s calibre to think of it. If the Earth is designed for scientific discovery, why are its basic principles so complex and counterintuitive that most people are unable to participate actively in science? It is trivial to imagine changes in the natural world that would make scientific advancement easier to achieve. Should such hurdles persuade us that scientific advancement is not the raison d’etre of the Earth? Apparently we have just the right balance of discoverability and difficulty for Richards to see a wise designer indeed.
If Gonzalez and Richards are right then on the one hand the designer went to a great deal of trouble to create a planet on which complex life was possible, and established conditions specifically intended to make scientific discovery attainable. Then He populated that planet with complex life forms singularly incapable of the patterns of thought necessary for successful science. Forgive me for not being impressed.
Richards closed by noting that his argument should be understood as an inference to the best explanation. We note this correlation between habitability and measureability, he says. Under a materialist conception of the universe there is no reason to find ourselves in a part of the universe singularly conducive to scientific investigation. But under the hypothesis that the universe was designed for discovery, this fact becomes comprhensible.
This style of reasoning is distressingly commonplace. The fact is RIchards has precisely zero basis for his assertion regarding what we should expect in a universe without design. Why, exactly, shouldn’t we expect scientific progress to be possible in a universe without design? We have only the one universe to observe. It is not as if we have a multidue of universes to study, some designed and some not, that allows us to draw distinctions between them. We will encounter this sort of argument again in later posts.
Coming Up: Stephen Meyer on the origin of life. Confronting the other side in line at the local Subway.