The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe (60mins)
—Illustra Media, Inc., Narrated by John Rhys-Davies; produced, written, and directed by Lad Allen. Based on the book of the same name by Guillermo Gonzalez & Jay W. Richards.
January 26, 2005—Over 450 people were shocked by strong currents of energetically innovative thought. After viewing the Tampa Bay premiere of a new documentary, The Privileged Planet, invited guests from the University of South Florida community saw some true blue scientists questioning the very premises of what constitutes acceptable questions for science.
You see, Science is not supposed to answer questions of “why?” Only the “what?” questions are considered acceptable grist for the scientific mill. Unfortunately for traditional science, the “why?” questions are some of the most important and intriguing. For example, Einstein was continually puzzled by the fact that humans can understand what are biologically irrelevant phenomena (e.g., black holes). Indeed, what survival value is linked to our ability to investigate and understand aspects of the universe beyond this earth? We can easily propagate this planet without knowing Earth is part of a solar system which in turn is part of a galaxy system. This ability has no evolutionary value, yet our ability to know persists and even grows. So, what’s up?
Richards and Gonzalez have an intriguing answer to a troubling question: Why is Earth so well-suited for complex life and observation of the universe by its inhabitants? More critically, is there evidence, scientific evidence, to suggest design—a purpose that explains more than the sheer permutations and probabilities which allow for complex life-form existence?
Guillermo Gonzalez (Ph.D., Washington), Astrobiologist, and Jay W. Richards, Philosopher (Ph.D., Princeton), seem to be obsessed with finding some sort of reason behind irregular phenomena. Richards, who attended the premiere in person and patiently answered inarticulate and insightful questions alike, seems particularly obsessed with challenging some fundamental principles of scientific investigation. Not all obsessions are bad, and when coupled with premise challenges, they can be mind-boggling. Such was the case with the Tampa Bay premiere of The Privileged Planet.
Copernicus discovered the Earth was not the center of the solar system, and certainly not the center of the universe. But the medicine we ingested intellectually to avoid the toxicity of anthrocentrism has had a negative side effect—we have assumed, unnecessarily according to Richards and Gonzalez, that the Earth is not special. Sagan called it a little blue dot in a vast cosmic arena. Sagan is clearly right quantitatively, but qualitatively? Perhaps there is more to the Earth than its size.
Qualitatively, why is the Earth so well configured for life? Theists, of course, have a ready answer. But, science normally leans on the huge ledge of time which affords google-sized permutation possibilities. “Why?” is not a particularly popular nor socially-appropriate question to be asked by a scientist. Some fear losing their credibility by asking “Why?”
Richards & Gonzalez are fearless. Challenging traditional premises, they re-examine the empirical record in biology, chemistry, astrobiology, and especially physics. A rather startling conclusion accumulatively emerges: rather than being a pale blue dot insignificantly placed in a galaxy, evidence supports a quite different conclusion—the Earth is uniquely positioned to support complex life, and—here’s the real news—uniquely positioned to observe the universe. Einstein was puzzled that humans have such ability; it is a challenge for biologists as well. Just what is the survival value of being able to understand, for example, a black hole?
Scientists who assumed a deity are not unusual; Newton, Pascal, Copernicus, and Einstein are just a few of the more famous. But, today is different. Deity is neither a premise nor a possibility in traditional science. And to be fair, Richards and Gonzalez are not arguing for deity, per se, but arguing that the empirical evidence of life, chemistry, astrobiology, and especially physics accumulatively suggest purpose, not random permutation.
Amidst the evidence supporting a purposeful design is the rather startling precision of the relationship between the moon’s mass/distance from the Earth and mass/distance from the sun. One scholar extols, “were it not for the moon, we would not be.” In fact, Gonzalez discovered that the size of the moon is precisely what allows solar eclipses to be scientifically rich experiments. If it were slightly smaller, or larger, we could not observe solar flares (and starlight bending from the sun’s mass, a major confirmation of Einstein's theory of relativity). Furthermore, it is the moon’s precise mass that stabilizes the Earth’s axis to maintain a temperate climate whereby complex life forms can exist.
Richards and Gonzalez continued to reveal a variety of accumulated evidence which supports two pillars of thought: (1) the Earth is particularly well-suited for complex life forms, and (2) the Earth is particularly well-suited for observation. Specifically, Gonzalez argues that both sides of the equation must be considered; i.e., not only the number of possibilities, but also the number of factors that must be precisely “in tune” to support complex life-forms and an observational platform. Small changes in just one factor (e.g., gravity) remove all possibilities of complex life. And there are more than a score of factors which must be precisely tuned not only to a given level, but also tuned systemically with all the other factors. It turns out the probability for a well-suited environment for observing complex life-forms trumps the “other side of the equation.”
The debate will continue, and it should. After all, there are few questions more important than “purpose.” To be driven by purpose is one definition of obsession, and Richards and Gonzalez are obsessed. Perhaps we too need to be obsessed—as scholars we have some work to do. Surely, there is more to our purpose than mere propagation.
D. Thomas Porter, Ph.D.,
Omega News - United Services
© January, 2005
and School of Mass Communications,
University of South Florida