Evolution Icon Evolution
Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Cosmos, Chaos, and a Privileged Address in the Universe

Neil Thomas
Photo: Aurora Australis from the International Space Station, by NASA.

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from Taking Leave of Darwin: A Longtime Agnostic Discovers the Case for Design, by Neil Thomas, newly released by Discovery Institute Press.

Almost a century ago the philosopher Bertrand Russell had some grave words to deliver on the plight of finding oneself in a universe bereft of meaning and metaphysical consolation:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius are destined to extinction… that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be securely built.18

Literary historian that I am, Russell’s semi-macho, crypto-military tone of unyielding defiance triggered for me something of a shock of recognition. The sentiment undergirding those sonorous words would not seem out of place within the warrior ethos informing the heroic poetry of the ancient world or that of the early Middle Ages. Such heroism under adversity is reminiscent of the unflinching bravery commended in the Old English poem that records a somber Anglo-Saxon defeat at the hands of Viking raiders, “The Battle of Maldon” (991 AD): “Mind must be firmer / heart the more fierce, Courage the greater, / as our strength diminishes.”

In Russell’s own day, an echo of that old heroic ethos had found expression in the influential Nietzschean philosophy of the Übermensch (elite human being) who should accept the “death of God” without demur and go forth to triumph over the slave mentality (Sklavenmoral) that had held him and his kind in a disenfranchised condition for so many centuries. While the instrumentalization of Nietzsche’s philosophy by the Nazis to bolster the case for genocide led to an understandable neglect of Nietzsche after the Second World War, the German philosopher appears to have made something of a comeback with the advent of a group of militant writers sometimes termed the New Atheists. Richard Dawkins in particular admonishes us in crypto-martial tones reminiscent of both Nietzsche and Russell to have the courage to face up to the inevitable void after our deaths and forge our own fearless paths through life in a similar spirit of bleak existentialist heroism, unblinking before the sobering revelation that “the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”19

Nihilism in the Dock

However courageous one may find such sermons, whether from Dawkins or Russell or Nietzsche, they could be said to have acquired a kind of sepia-tinted datedness about them.20 In the last half century, advances in the world of cosmology have revealed that our planet turns out to be biofriendly to a well-nigh miraculous degree — a verdant oasis fine tuned in a dizzying number of ways for life, in contradistinction to the little less than Hadean depths found in possibly the entire remainder of the observable universe. Through the lens of a celestial telescope, it is true, one can see little but the unfeeling immensity of that unremittingly hostile universe invoked by Russell, but if we look around us here on Earth we can see a planet which seems entirely discontinuous with the rest of the observable cosmos and abounding in a host of benign phenomena so numerous that they tend to go largely unnoticed.

Russell’s assumption of material forces churning away mindlessly over the eons and at length spewing out the unplanned anomaly of human life — “a curious accident in a [cosmic] backwater,”21 he once termed it — was first formally challenged by astrophysicist Brandon Carter in 1973.22 Carter put forward what he termed “the anthropic principle” (from the Greek anthropos, man). According to Carter’s detailed calculations, the fact that our planet is habitable, and exists in a universe that could generate and host a habitable planet such as Earth, obtains thanks only to numerous finely tuned conditions, many of them stretching back to the first nanosecond of the Big Bang. Many of the ways that Earth appears fine tuned for life had been noted previously,23 but Carter made an advance in formalizing planetary and cosmological fine tuning, and he jump-started a wider conversation in the community of physicists, astronomers, and cosmologists about possible explanations for this fine tuning.

Already in the 1960s scientists had begun to notice a strange connection among a number of otherwise unexplained coincidences in physics. It emerged that many of these mysterious values could be explained by one overarching fact: the values had been necessary for the origin and preservation of human and other life. Some of the fundamental constants referred to include the particular strengths of the electromagnetic force and the force of gravity, which appear to be calibrated with extraordinary precision (to a dizzying number of decimal points) for human needs. The Earth, too, caters to human needs in a host of ways unknown to scientists of a century or more ago. Its magnetic shield, for instance, prevents our atmosphere from being stripped of components crucial for life. This and various other planetary conditions have grown so numerous that some astrobiologists have despaired of finding other habitable planets among the hundreds of millions of stars in the Milky Way,24 while many others have at least ceased to talk about expecting to find habitable planets around every third or fourth star in the galaxy.

Our Privileged Planet

What are we to make of this radical discontinuity between the Earth — the only location known to have both a geosphere and a biosphere — and the rest of the cosmos? The contrast between our life-promoting biosphere and the unremitting deadness of so much of the rest of the cosmos is a stark one.

It was then for good reason that Carter concluded that our place in the cosmos, while not at the center of the universe as had been supposed prior to Copernicus, was at the very least “privileged.” Of course, this sounds a trifle Panglossian, after the fictional figure of Dr. Pangloss, whom Voltaire invented to guy Enlightenment credulities with the character’s fatuous refrain that 18th-century men and women were living “in the best of all possible worlds.” And yet there is no doubting Carter’s evidence that we do indeed live at a particularly privileged address in the universe. When one considers the manifold ways that it is fine tuned for habitability, Carter’s choice of the adjective “privileged”25 almost seems an understatement. Some might prefer the term “uniquely blessed” — meant either literally or metaphorically.

Carter’s findings, initially announced at a specialist conference, have since been incorporated into the mainstream of cosmological understanding, despite dissenting opinions from some scientists embarrassed by the possible theistic implications of the new discoveries. In a series of books appearing over the past few decades aimed both at subject specialists and lay persons, astrophysicist Paul Davies elaborates on the growing awareness by astronomers that the fitness of our earthly environment for life seems all too great to be accidental, and that the laws of physics appear to be uncannily fine tuned to support humankind.26 Such evidence runs counter to the older opinion that our place in the cosmos arose by a process of cosmic vicissitude that “did not have us in mind,” as American zoologist George Gaylord Simpson opined many decades ago.27

Following the Evidence

Arguably, these factors even go some way toward relativizing that purported demotion of humankind brought about by the so-called Copernican Revolution,28 a point Carter himself made in his seminal 1973 paper introducing the concept of the anthropic principle. Our solar system is of course indubitably heliocentric rather than geocentric, but recent research excavating the many ways Earth is unusually — and perhaps uniquely — fine tuned for life, combined with discoveries that the universal laws of physics and chemistry also appear fine tuned to allow for the existence of life, and indeed, fine tuned in some ways to allow for advanced terrestrial beings such as ourselves, cannot be simply shrugged off — not if we are serious about following the evidence. For Michael Denton this evidence signals a return to the kind of anthropocentric conception of the world of the pre-Copernican Middle Ages. People in the Middle Ages got many things wrong, he concedes, but their most presumptuous conviction, that of humankind’s prominence in the great cosmic drama, seems to have stood the test of time.29

One inference from the above is that life may not after all simply be the aleatory consequence of where the cosmic dice had happened to fall. It is at least warrantable in logical terms to infer that a power greater than mere happenstance may have been responsible for the benign dispensation. For that reason Denton begs to differ from modern liberal theologians who hastily resigned themselves to seeing science and theology as occupying distinct epistemological realms, “non-overlapping magisteria” [=domains] in Stephen J. Gould’s somewhat cumbersome wording.30 Many have glossed that expression as a polite euphemism in which the right to identify truth is ceded to science, whereas religion is confined to the more peripheral domain of subjective value.

On the contrary, counters Denton, there is important overlap, for science has provided evidence that the laws of nature (and whatever actuates them) appear specifically devised to support life. The magisteria overlap and urge scientists and theologians to come together in dialogue. On this reading of things, contemporary theologians — and religious people in general — have been too supine before the mighty behemoth of Science and, in the process, have missed scientific evidence they might have alighted upon.

Notes

  1. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian [1927] (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 107.
  2. Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 133.
  3. This was pointed out as early as the 1970s by philosopher Richard Spilsbury in Providence Lost: A Critique of Darwinism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), especially 111–130.
  4. Bertrand Russell, Religion and Science (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1935), 221–222
  5. Brandon Carter, “Large Number Coincidences and the Anthropic Principle in Cosmology,” Symposium—International Astronomical Union 63 (1974): 291–98, doi:10.1017/S0074180900235638.
  6. Darwin’s tutor, William Whewell, had made reference to the uncanny suitability of the planet for life and so had Alfred Russel Wallace in his Man’s Place in the Universe, published in 1903. See Michael A. Flannery, Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2011), 87–89. See also a groundbreaking work on the subject by Lawrence J. Henderson, The Fitness of the Environment (New York: MacMillan, 1913).
  7. See Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, The Privileged Planet (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2004); Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, Rare Earth (New York: Copernicus, 2000); and David Waltham, Lucky Planet (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
  8. Brandon Carter, “Large Number Coincidences,” 291, 293.
  9. Paul Davies develops this point further in several books, including The Accidental Universe (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982), God and the New Physics (London: Penguin, 1990); The Fifth Miracle: The Search for the Origin of Life (London: Penguin, 1999); The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life? (London: Penguin, 2007); and The Eerie Silence: Searching for Ourselves in the Universe (London: Penguin, 2010).
  10. George Gaylord Simpson, The Meaning of Evolution: Revised Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 345.
  11. Some historians question whether the shift from a geocentric cosmology to a heliocentric one actually demoted the Earth in the eyes of Renaissance scholars. In the Medieval geocentric cosmology that Copernicus challenged, Earth was regarded as the bottom, or sump, of the universe. On this view, the heliocentric model could be said to have been a promotion for planet Earth. For more analysis of this issue, see Michael Newton Keas, Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2019), 91–107.
  12. Michael Denton, Nature’s Destiny: How the Laws of Biology Reveal Purpose in the Universe (New York: Free Press, 1998), 370.
  13. See Stephen J. Gould, Rock of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (New York: Ballantine, 1999).