Dear Believer, It is Arrogant to Think Humanity Occupies a Privileged Place in the Universe

In their video, Plumbline Pictures claim it is arrogant to think that we occupy a privileged place in the universe – Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL) – YouTube.[1]

“Isn’t it time to stop thinking that we are somehow the reason why this universe was made? That our culture is somehow better than other cultures? Its time to learn how the universe really is, even if that deflates our conceits, and forces us to admit we do not have all the answers. You must confront these fundamental questions.”[2]

The idea that people are arrogant for observing humanity’s privileged place in the universe seems odd to me. It’s odd because first, this push-back seems unaware of the scientific data that shows humanity has a privileged place in the cosmos. The data suggests our place is very privileged indeed. It is also odd because second, data is just data. To claim data as “arrogant” is simply mistaken. If the data did not support the conclusion that our position in the universe was privileged, then maybe you could make a case that this claim could be arrogant.

So – how does the scientific data support the claim that we are in a privileged spot in the universe? It does so in at least two ways.

1. We are Positioned for Scientific Discovery

The scientific revolution started in the 16th century, and has relied on some very specific sets of circumstances that most individuals have probably just accepted as a given. And yet, the fact of their existence is striking. The Copernican Principle has often been understood as the point when mankind and our cosmic home was found to be mundane. This was not the point Copernicus was originally making. And the more we learn about the universe, this mundane interpretation of the Copernican Principle is harder and harder to sustain. 

Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and Philosopher of Science Jay W Richards have amassed a surprising body of evidence that shows that the fact that humanity is here now at this place and time, and we are physically capable of making scientific discoveries, is the result of an optimal balance of competing conditions (just like any humanly designed system). We are equipped with mental and physical capacities, and we are unusually well positioned to decipher details about the cosmos. We are therefore exceptional in our existence and in our ability to do science, and we sit at the optimum location to do that in cosmic terms. Surely this requires an explanation? [3]

What do they mean by an optimum location?

  • We inhabit a planet with a moon that stabilizes our orbit and climate. The relative sizes are perfect for allowing us to see solar eclipses. The moon is travelling away from us, and this capacity will be lost in an estimated 250 million years’ time. Yet we are here now to take advantage of our conditions to do science.
  • The earth’s surface is a data recorder. Ice cores store ancient data about CO2 and methane levels and allow us to correlate nitrate spikes to past cosmological events in the universe.
  • Planetary earthquakes and plate tectonics allow us to map the planets interior, and also maintain a planetary crust that sustains the carbon cycle and a life permitting ecosystem on the planet.
  • Earth’s magnetosphere shields and protects the atmosphere from solar wind.
  • If our gravity force was weaker, our atmosphere would leak away. 
  • If our atmosphere was thicker, it would be harder for us to see through it to do astronomy.
  • Jupiter and Saturn are our solar-system’s vacuum cleaners, protecting Earth from asteroid impacts, and also acting as a source of material for us to study dating back to the formation of the solar system.
  • Our sun is at a particular size right now making it stable. It is unusual and contributes to the earth’s habitability and our ability to do scientific analysis.
  • Our position in the Milky Way galaxy is higher significant for us. We are actually sitting at the best lab bench in the galaxy. If we were any closer to the centre, our night sky would be so bright it would obscure light from distant stars. 
  • We are also at the right time in planetary history for astronomical discovery. This will not always be the case during the Earth’s history. Big Bang cosmology predicts accelerating expansion of space, causing distant objects to fade from view from Earth. But at this very particular place and time in cosmic history, we are here to observe them.

Of course, you could reply that we are just lucky and we just happen to exist at this time and place. This seems to me to be the wrong way to interpret the scientific data. Why?

Well, consider the activity and development of the sciences. These are only possible because of these and many many more highly specific parameters that have very particular settings. Are we going to accept this rich prime location to perform scientific study, while at the same time passing our position off as the result of blind chance? We do not leave any part of scientific analysis to chance. So why is it fitting to leave the precise conditions allowing us to do our science to blind chance? We are sitting at the best lab bench in the galaxy, and surely that demands an explanation.

The naturalist may dismiss these notions. Not because he disagrees with the data, but because the interpretation of the data does not fit within his limited, naturalistic box. And – probably because he doesn’t like to think about the possible implications of the conclusion that we were put here to allow us to use of minds to study nature.

If the universe did exist for a divine purpose, how could we tell? Surely the answer is – look for the existence of some incredible coincidences within nature. Perhaps, the optimum balance of competing conditions just like the ones Gonzales and Richards point to.

2. We Live Within a Finely Tuned Universe

Physicists have discovered that the incredible coincidences just keep on coming as we look closer and closer into the fabric of the universe. 

It turns out that for our universe to exist at all requires a highly precise setting of many initial conditions that are themselves independent. Each of these initial conditions is sometimes described as being like a very precise dial that can take different values. If even one of those dials was to be set slightly differently, our universe would cease to support the existence of life. 

The incredible thing is that the laws of physics as we know them depend on the initial conditions of the universe being set correctly. But the initial conditions are not set by the laws of physics. In fact, physics relies on dial settings that are fundamentally mysterious. We don’t know why they are set as they are, but life couldn’t exist in our universe if they were not correct.

Luke Barnes and Geraint Lewis give some examples:[4]

  • Turn off gravity and there’s nothing to drive matter to gather into galaxies
  • Turn of electromagnetism and there is no chemistry as there’s nothing to keep electrons bound to their nuclei
  • Turn of the nuclear strong force and there are no atomic nuclei in the first place

These ideas are explored by theoretical physicists. But surely, they are also relevant to the claim being made by the “Dear Believer” video. Do we occupy a privileged place? Absolutely we do, the whole universe is the result of incredible and precise fine-tuning.

The late great Douglas Adams once mused that, “imaging a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in – an interesting hole I find myself in – fits me rather neatly…staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it.”[5] Could it be that our universe works the same way? If the hole weren’t there, the puddle wouldn’t be there. If the universe wasn’t here, neither would we.

Except Adams’s puddle analogy fails to describe the fine-tuning of the universe. The water in a hole will always take on the shape of its hole. If the hole had been different, the water will adjust to match it. Any hole will do for a puddle. However, not just any universe will do for life. It is more likely that a universe would pop into existence for 1 second before collapsing again. Or, the universe would last longer but contained so few particles that no two would ever interact during the history of that universe.[6]

Fred Hoyle, who discovered the incredibly unlikely carbon atom production process within stars, once exclaimed:

“A commonsense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”[7]

3. Attempting An Anthropic Escape

The common response to the religious implications of the physical fine-tuning of the universe goes something like this:

“We exist. So – what else should we expect from a universe that contains us? We expect precisely these facts you lay out. Namely, that the universe can support us. If the universe wasn’t finely tuned this way, we would not be here to discuss it. So – don’t worry about all this.”

The reply tries to undercut the impact of the incredible coincidences that lead to our existence on this planet. But this anthropic response fails to undercut the impact of the scientific data and its implications. Why?

Well – lets write the anthropic escape response this way:

            If (physical_observers)

            then

                an observer permitting universe

The problem is, this little conditional statement does not answer the question – “why observers in the first place?” After all, this statement as it is written is true whether there are physical observers in our universe, or whether there are no such observers! So, we have not touched the crucial question – why are there observers anyway?

The anthropic response is good at explaining why we do not have a life prohibiting universe. But it doesn’t explain why a life permitting universe exists. In fact, it doesn’t even try to approach that problem. Surely this question deserves some thought and consideration?

4. Summary

As the Dear Believer video states, it is time to understand how the universe really is and to accept this even if it challenges our philosophical presuppositions. Humanity’s privileged place in the universe will deflate the conceits of naturalistic philosophy, and the non-believer will try to resist its implications. And yet if we are committed to truth rather than just supporting our own pet theories, we must honestly face the implications. We have been put here for a purpose.


[1] Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL), Plumbline Pictures, posted 3rd May 2014, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY.

[2] Ibid., 08:48.

[3] Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards, The Privileged Planet How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery, (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2004).

[4] Geraint F. Lewis and Luke A. Barnes, A Fortunate Universe Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2016), 91.

[5] Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt: Hitching the Galaxy One Last Time.

[6] Geraint F. Lewis and Luke A. Barnes, The Trouble with “Puddle Thinking”: A User’s Guide to the Anthropic Principle, https://arxiv.org/pdf/2104.03381.pdf.

[7] Fred Hoyle, “The Universe: Past and Present Reflections.” Engineering and Science, November 1981. Pp. 8-12, quoted in Fred Hoyle, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Hoyle.

Faith of the Scientist

I’ll often hear people say things like, “I have no time for faith. I live my live on reason, observation and evidence.” Really?

I see. Well – let’s see how that works, shall we?

 

Lets imagine a scientist is doing some rigorous analysis, studying something in nature. How about, the behaviour of enzymes in the human digestive system. Well – I agree. That scientist is going to use reason, she’s going to make observations and also appeal to the evidence she gathers as she reaches her conclusions. But – what else is going on as she does so?[1]

 

1 – She BELIEVES that her senses are trustworthy. In other words, she has faith that as the facts reveal themselves to her, that she has the abilities to detect them via her senses. That she can know facts using human senses.

2 – She BELIEVES that her mental faculties are trustworthy. And – she believes the peer group that reviews her work – also have trustworthy mental faculties. These scientists trust their rational faculties. They just take for granted, for example, that their rational faculties allow them to perceive, compare, combine, remember and infer. In other words, these people believe their mental faculties are reliable and can be used to reach legitimate conclusions.

3 – She BELIEVES certain critical truths that she has NOT learned thru scientific observation alone:

  • Every effect must have a cause
  • The same cause under like minded circumstances will produce the same effect.

4 – She BELIEVES it is moral and right to use her rational faculties, not to manufacture and make up things, but to accurately observe the behaviour of these enzymes, and report them as honestly and rigorously as she can.

 

That’s a lot of faith / belief before we start our scientific analysis. Don’t you think? Perhaps you and I are in the same boat whether we do science or not. People often appeal to science because it holds a lot of authority in our culture today. But what is science actually grounded upon?

Sir John Polkinghorn has said:

“Science does not explain the mathematical intelligibility of the physical world, for it is part of science’s founding faith that this is so.”

Professor of Mathematics, John Lennox, has continued.[2] You cannot begin to do physics without believing in the intelligibility of the universe. And on what evidence do scientists base their faith? Lennox observes the following:

1 – Human reason did not create the universe.

2 – Humans did not create our own powers of reason either. We can hone them, but we didn’t originate them.

How odd then that what goes on our tiny heads actually gives us anything near a true account of the behaviour of the staggering universe in which we inhabit? This is truly an unreasonable conclusion…from the perspective of atheism.

BUT – for a theist – the grounding beliefs of the scientist and the observations above make perfect sense. And they resonate perfectly with:

In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was God … All things came to be through him.” (John 1:1,3)

[1] Nancey Murphy, Beyond Liberalism & Fundamentalism, (New York: Trinity Press International, 2007), 33-34, summarised.

[2] John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything, (Oxford: The Good Book Company, 2019), loc 526.