An Open Letter to My Open-Minded Colleagues

In March 2004 The Privileged Planet, which I co-authored with Jay Richards, was published, evoking both enthusiastic and negative reactions from a number of leading scientists. The argument covers everything from the fine-tuning of the constants of physics to the initial conditions of the Big Bang; from our host star and planetary neighbors to our atmosphere and moon. Our conclusion? The universe is designed not only for life but also for scientific discovery.

The argument is falsifiable, vulnerable to the river of data about extrasolar planets, our galaxy, and the larger universe flowing in over the next two decades thanks to missions like Gaia and Kepler.

Though controversial, the book has received positive endorsement or reviews from such leading scientists as Cambridge’s Simon Conway Morris, Harvard’s Owen Gingerich, and David Hughes, a Vice-President of the Royal Astronomical Society. 

Although I would love to see our hypothesis confirmed, in the interim I’m gratified to see our argument the subject of reasoned debate and discussions about what future discoveries would count for or against our position. This is the scientific process at its best.

Recently a documentary was released based on the book. The sixty-minute documentary covers the SETI debate, astrobiology, and evidence of purpose in astronomy and physics. It includes interviews with such scientists as Robert Jastrow, Seth Shostak, Donald Brownlee and Paul Davies. From the publicity generated by the book and film, I’ve had a number of civil and stimulating conversations with fellow scientists about our thesis that a correlation exists between life and discovery.

A few scientists and organizations, however, have preferred ridicule over engagement. Things got really nasty after a scheduled premiere of the documentary was announced at the National Museum of Natural History for June 23rd. Suddenly Internet attack squads were activated, and the mainstream media took notice. As is customary in media stories dealing with ID, initial reports were almost completely ignorant of the book and the film. Articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times, for instance, said that The Privileged Planet took aim at Darwin. But neither the book nor the film even treat biological evolution and, moreover, argue from standard cosmic evolutionary models.

Then there were the contributions from what can only be called the Sagan lobby. In an article linked on the American Physical Society web page, Robert Park described the film as “faith-based” and harped on the film producer’s funding sources. The American Geophysical Union issued a press release titled “Creationist Film at the Smithsonian: Scientists Must Speak Up for Science”. Even worse, an employee of the American Institute of Physics sent an email to a JPL employee warning that four JPL scientists had been interviewed in a “religious” film. The email ended with, “I believe that the scientists interviewed would be horrified to find legitimate science being used to promote a religious agenda. Is there any way we can help remove the sheen of scientific accuracy from this film?”

The sleaziness speaks for itself.

Our argument is controversial, of course. We have no illusions about that. The book’s most controversial suggestion is that purpose best explains the correlation between habitability and discoverability. Still, since a number of prominent physicists also see evidence of purpose at the cosmic level, a largely civil discussion of even this issue might have remained in the forefront but for one thing: the association my co-author Jay Richards and I have with design theory, which, according to the caricature of critics and media, is merely creationism and anti-evolutionism.

But design theory is larger than the debate over biological evolution and isn’t tethered to any one religion. That’s why it counts among its proponents Hindus and deists as well as Christians and Jews. According to the way design theorists define intelligent design, for example, an exemplary Neo-Darwinist who infers design based on the fine-tuning of the physical constants would be making an intelligent design argument.

Design theorists, as they define themselves, are simply those arguing that purposive activity is scientifically detectable somewhere in nature. By this standard, a number of prominent scientists are design theorists, though they would never label themselves thus. Scholars should be free to choose the terminology they believe best captures their respective positions. Intelligent design is a phrase loaded with a great deal of baggage, baggage a scientist could be forgiven for wishing not to carry.

For myself, I accept the label, because I think intelligent causation explains some phenomena better than its competitors. Frankly, I think openness to the evidence of nature is an essential part of the scientific spirit. And ID asks questions that, at the very least, should be open to debate. For instance, what if purposive activity was the cause of the fine-tuning of the physical constants? Is there any way we could tell? As a scientist, I want to be free to ask that question and free to search for evidence that would provide an answer one way or the other to that question. I consider the correlation between habitability and measurability such evidence. And anyone familiar with The Privileged Planet knows that we make the inference from scientific evidence, not from first principles derived from Scripture or some mystical experience. Scholarly discussions about evidence of purpose in nature are not limited to seminaries. Physicists, philosophers, and astronomers are also interested in this question.

For example, physics Nobel Laureate Charles Townes (by no means a self-identified design theorist) recently wrote the following in The Wall Street Journal: “What is the purpose or meaning of life? Or of our universe? These are questions which should concern us all. As a scientist, I have been primarily trying to understand our world—the universe, including humans—what it is and how it works. Of course, if the universe has a purpose, then its structure, and how it works, must reflect this purpose.” Townes goes on in the essay to call for a “serious intellectual discussion of the possible meaning of our universe.”

Townes and I probably disagree about some issues. Here, however, there is a meeting of the minds. Scientists can study the cosmos and argue from the evidence to different conclusions. As long as they can formulate a plausible hypothesis and put their arguments in empirical harms’ way–as philosopher of science Del Ratzsch has put it–there should be no talk of banishing anyone to outer darkness. 

Besides, the topic of purpose in the universe has been a part of the public debate for a long time. It’s just that only one side of the debate—the side that denies purpose—has been allowed a voice. For instance, one of my childhood heroes, Carl Sagan, opened his series Cosmos with the statement, “The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” That’s as metaphysically tendentious as it gets. More to the point, it’s a hard assertion to test. If anything it is contradicted by the collapse of the steady state model of the universe, replaced by the model of a universe with a beginning some 13.7 billion years ago. 

Nevertheless, the Smithsonian was right to sponsor a retrospective on Sagan and the series (as it did in the 1990s) because unfettered debate is the lifeblood of science. In contrast, the Smithsonian, under pressure from people like magician James Randi, backed out of its routine co-sponsorship of The Privileged Planet documentary and then issued a statement, without substantiation, that the film’s conclusion “is not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution’s scientific research.” A museum spokesman elaborated, saying the reason was that the documentary’s conclusion “took a philosophical bent.”

The museum didn’t cancel the showing of the film. No blood was spilled. I have no scars to show my grandchildren. However, it is no trivial thing for the National Museum of Natural History to describe a testable inference based on scientific information as “not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution’s scientific research.” Is Sagan’s atheistic dictum to be the only acceptable inference in astrophysics and cosmology now? 

Loyal Neo-Darwinists like Kenneth Miller may have thought their modest arguments for purposiveness at the level of fine-tuning protected them. As long as they closed ranks against the “creationists,” leading scientists who have long spoken of purpose probably figured they wouldn’t get excoriated by their materialist colleagues. The latest statement from the Smithsonian suggests, however, that the circle of scientific orthodoxy is tightening. On the day when world class physicists and mainstream evolutionary biologists are widely considered scientifically impure for their suggestions of purpose at the cosmic level, perhaps it may occur to them that holding their tongues when a colleague was attacked wasn’t good enough. Perhaps by then it will be too late. 

Guillermo Gonzalez is an Assistant Professor of Astronomy at Iowa State University and a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He is the author of over 60 articles in the peer-reviewed, scientific literature. He received his Ph.D. in Astronomy in 1993 from the University of Washington. He has done post-doctoral work at the University of Texas, Austin and at the University of Washington and has received fellowships, grants and awards from such institutions as NASA, the University of Washington, Sigma Xi (scientific research society) and the National Science Foundation.

Guillermo Gonzalez

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Guillermo Gonzalez is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. He received his Ph.D. in Astronomy in 1993 from the University of Washington. He has done post-doctoral work at the University of Texas, Austin and at the University of Washington and has received fellowships, grants and awards from such institutions as NASA, the University of Washington, the Templeton Foundation, Sigma Xi (scientific research society) and the National Science Foundation. In 2024, he co-authored the YA novel The Farm at the Center of the Universe with Jonathan Witt.