The universe, a laboratory designed with us in mind?
April 18, 2004
THE PRIVILEGED PLANET: HOW OUR PLACE IN THE COSMOS IS DESIGNED FOR DISCOVERY
By Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards
Regnery, $27.95, 444 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY PHILIP GOLD
Albert Einstein once remarked that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe was that it was comprehensible. For the past few centuries, no one has offered a satisfactory non-theological explanation as to why this should be so.
In recent years, however, a small group of scientists and thinkers have decided to try a novel approach combining science with theology, albeit not of the fundamentalist genre. The result has been the growing and increasingly influential "Intelligent Design" (ID) movement, a major project of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, where I was a senior fellow for nearly 10 years. I never worked with the ID people, but found the effort fascinating, both as hard science and hard cultural and intellectual struggle.
Specifically, Intelligent Design holds that it is possible to study the biological and physical realms for evidence of design, without positing the identity, intent, or even the competence of the designer. Throughout the '90s, ID fought mostly against the "sacred creation myth of the materialist West."
Evolution, the best guess of a brilliant 19th-century scientist, has not been wearing well of late. A lot of little questions are starting to add up to One Big Question — much to the chagrin of the "If it isn't matter, it doesn't matter" crowds in science, education, and culture.
"The Privileged Planet," however, is not about Charles Darwin. It addresses matters pertaining to life, intelligibility, and design in the cosmos as a whole.
Ever since astronomers first figured out that the universe is a pretty big place, the assumption has been that, life-wise, bigger is better. We all know the logic. Posit 100 billion galaxies with 100 billion stars each. If only one in a million has planets, and only one in a million of those can support life, the universe should still be a pretty fecund locale.
But Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Richards point out that bringing together the conditions for life as we know it is so complex that advanced life may be exceedingly rare. For it's not just a matter of earth, water, fire, and air. It also involves circumstellar and galactic habitable zones, moons and eclipses, neighbors, and an endless array of complex interactions and feedback cycles, to name only a few factors.
Everything, so far as we can tell, must come together just right. We may not be alone in the universe. But if we're incredibly rare, it's because we're also incredibly improbable.
And yet . . .
As the authors demonstrate in detail, the confluence of factors and forces that give rise to life also provides a dandy view of the universe. Time after time, they show: That which makes us possible, also empowers us to understand the universe.
For the cosmos is more than a spectacle — the same in all directions — that we view through an atmosphere that is, most fortunately for us, transparent. The universe is also a laboratory. Studying what it does, from our vantage point, unlocks its secrets far more effectively than it might, were we to study elsewhere.
In a sense, this is no new idea. The anthropic principle, which comes in several flavors, explains that the universe is the way it is because, if it weren't, we wouldn't be here to understand it.
Tautological, perhaps. But the principle can also suggest that the universe is the way it is because it was designed with us in mind.
Early modern science allegedly put an end to that conceit by showing that, not only were we not the center of the universe, but there was nothing special about us. Now, it turns out, science may be showing that we and our planet are far more special than we could have known.
The question is, why? And what meanings do we assign to that specialness? The late Carl Sagan liked to describe humanity as creatures made of stardust, the universe looking at itself. "The Privileged Planet" suggests that the universe may be far more than that:
"Is it possible that this immense, symphonic system of atoms, fields, forces, stars, galaxies, and people is the result of a choice, a purpose or intention, rather than simply some inscrutable outworking of blind necessity or an inexplicable accident? If so, then it's surely possible that there could be evidence to suggest such a possibility . . .
"Perhaps we have also been staring past . . . a signal revealing a universe so skillfully crafted for life and discovery that it seems to whisper of an extra-terrestrial intelligence immeasurably more vast, more ancient, and more magnificent than anything we've been willing to expect or imagine."
It is doubtful that the ID movement will ever publish a peer-reviewed journal article, or hold a press conference, announcing the identity of the Intelligent Designer. But ID poses fine challenges to the "Tell us what we want to hear, the way we want to hear it" crowds, in science, faith, and in our culture generally.
Perhaps that's why ID makes so many people so uneasy that they dare not admit their fascination. It messes with their orthodoxies. It gets in the way of their shtick. It forces them — and maybe us — to think.
Philip Gold is president of Aretea, a Seattle-based public and cultural affairs center, and author of "Take Back the Right."