The Case for a Creator: All the Starry Heavens

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 7

Chapter 7 of Case is about the argument from planetary fine-tuning. This time, Strobel has two interviewees: Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Wesley Richards, both affiliated with the Discovery Institute. Since we’re keeping count of scientific “authorities”, which is whom Strobel claims to be interviewing, let me point out for the record that Gonzalez has a legitimate Ph.D in astronomy from the University of Washington. Richards, meanwhile, is another Christian theologian, with a Ph.D from Princeton Theological Seminary.

You may have heard of Guillermo Gonzalez from a fracas in 2007, when he was denied tenure at Iowa State University. Naturally, the Discovery Institute went into a frenzy of claims that it was entirely due to anti-ID prejudice – despite Gonzalez’s unimpressive publication record and failure to attract significant research funding during his time there (remember: authorities!). But even if his pro-ID views played a role in the decision, that would be entirely appropriate, since tenure decisions are supposed to be based on the quality of the candidate’s work. For the record, Gonzalez is now a professor at Grove City College, a private Christian university in Pennsylvania – the kind of place where those strictly-scientific, not-in-any-way-motivated-by-religion ID folks seem to keep ending up. (Bill Dembski, for another example, is now a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.)

But, moving on. As I said, this chapter is devoted to Gonzalez and Richards’ argument that a multiplicity of factors make the Earth uniquely suited for life – indeed, that it’s the only planet in the galaxy or even the universe that is so disposed – and that fine-tuning by God is the only way to explain this. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, here’s a passage from Michael Denton’s Nature’s Destiny that Strobel favorably quotes in the introductory remarks of this chapter:

No other theory or concept ever imagined by man can equal in boldness and audacity this great claim… that all the starry heavens, that every species of life, that every characteristic of reality exists [to create a livable habitat] for mankind… But most remarkably, given its audacity, it is a claim which is very far from a discredited prescientific myth. [p.158]

Strobel also cites Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee’s book Rare Earth, an argument by two non-ID-affiliated scientists that complex, intelligent life is an extremely unusual phenomenon. But Ward and Brownlee don’t believe that life as such is necessarily rare – they believe that microbes, which are far more resilient than us large, fragile creatures, may be more common in the cosmos. Remarkably, even this is too much for Strobel to accept: “…Ward and Brownlee uncritically buy into the idea that microbial life may very well be more prevalent” [p.156, emphasis added].

I want to focus on this before moving on to the rest of the chapter. After all, if you think about it, this is a very curious position for Strobel to take. As we’ve said before, intelligent design, according to its founders, is supposed to be about science. And science is based on observation. Since we’ve never done any close-up observation of any planet outside our solar system, there should be no grounds for excluding the possibility that there may be life on one of them. Even if one agrees with every argument that’s given later on in this chapter, it doesn’t follow that life is a one-of-a-kind unique event, only that it’s rare. Yet Strobel is clearly uncomfortable with the idea that any life of any form might exist elsewhere in the universe, even if it’s only extremophile alien microbes.

Why should this be problematic? After all, didn’t he just spend the previous chapter arguing that the laws of the cosmos have been fine-tuned to extraordinary precision to allow for life to exist? It would be incredibly wasteful to go to that much trouble just for the sake of one tiny planet in a universe of ten billion trillion stars. If intelligent design is being presented as a scientific hypothesis, it seems to be an a priori possibility that the intelligent designer might have created life on many different planets. Shouldn’t this hypothesis be given at least some consideration?

But instead, Strobel brushes past it without a backward glance, and this tells us something. When discussing an issue where the truth is still unknown – and the question of extraterrestrial life surely qualifies – a genuinely scientific book would present the competing possibilities and evaluate them fairly (remember “teach the controversy”?). For a journalist like Strobel, this would be an ideal place to interview people with different views and see how they stack up.

This book, however, ignores every alternative and homes straight in on the conclusion that its author has clearly chosen ahead of time: that life on Earth is a one-of-a-kind unique phenomenon. And since this conclusion isn’t supported by scientific evidence (how could it be?), it must derive from the author’s personal religious faith. In other words, this chapter is another piece of evidence showing what we all knew already – that this book’s claim at being “science” is really just a pretense, a form of window dressing, that uses scientific language to disguise a conclusion that comes first and foremost from evangelical Christian religious beliefs.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Ritchie

    How odd. When you consider the billions of billions of planets in the universe and assume each one is randomly placed, the chances of one of them having perfect conditions for life are actually rather good. So why should Strobel want to promote the idea that Earth alone in the universe hosts life? Surely it would help his argument for an intelligent designer if life, an extremely unlikely event, was also common in the universe! That would be a state of affairs that chance alone could not explain.

    In fact, why exactly should the fundies be averse to the idea of extraterrestrial life at all? Is it merely because it does not mix well with a literal reading of Biblical creation? I’m sure the fundies could do a little creative explaining if alien life DID show up – they have done so on many other topics.

    Perhaps this merely taps into a desire to be special, unique, the privileged children of an ultimate power. Whatever the reason, it is undermining Strobel’s ability to make his argument even internally consistant.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Yeah, isn’t it amazing how everything seems to support their god? No matter what we observe, it’s somehow support for the idea of their specific god. If the universe were teeming with life, they would conclude it’s because goddidit. If we are the only life in the universe, goddidit. If the conditions for this or that allow life and we exist, goddidit. If they don’t allow life and we exist, goddidit. Of course, an hypothesis that can be used for any and all eventualities doesn’t really explain anything.

  • 2-D Man

    How odd. When you consider the billions of billions of planets in the universe and assume each one is randomly placed, the chances of one of them having perfect conditions for life are actually rather good.

    Every played Keno, Ritchie? You pick ten numbers from 1 to 100, then the computer picks ten random* numbers in the same range. If you match all ten numbers, you hit the jackpot. You get less and less money for getting fewer and fewer matches and get no money for getting one or two matches (I think). What’s interesting, though is that you actually get a fairly big prize for getting no matches!

    *Granted, it’s a computer picking numbers, so it’s not truly random.

  • Ritchie

    Hmmm, first I’ve heard of that one, but it makes sense to me. Do people play for real money?

  • Joffan

    Doesn’t the “only Earth has life” position somewhat contradict the “Universe fine-tuning” argument?

  • John Nernoff

    If the Universe is fine tuned for life how come life appeared on the earth only after some 8 billion years after the earth’s appearance and the grand accomplishment of man only in the last 200,000 years or so? The fine tuning argument is absurd.

    Moreover, if the earth is fine tuned for Homo sapiens, how about if I throw you (with only your Sunday best on) overboard in the North Atlantic in winter and you get to tell me in a few days how fine tuned it is? OK?

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    You know, it’s funny – I keep telling myself that one day, this is going to get just too tedious and I’m not gonna want to read it any more. But then you go and, like, write well & stuff, and I keep getting drawn in.

    This guy is such a waste of publishing space. You’re doing a real good job of dismantling his line of BS, though!

    Perhaps this merely taps into a desire to be special, unique, the privileged children of an ultimate power.
    – Ritchie

    Bingo! But good luck getting anyone to, I dunno, admit that. No, they wanna teach it as scientific fact and make sure that nobody goes and tells them that their song and dance is just a song and dance.

  • Paul S.

    In a sense, isn’t the fine-tuning argument an esoteric version of geocentricity? I mean, obviously, the earth isn’t the center of the universe. But to advocates of ID/fine-tuning, it may as well be if life only occurs here on Earth. Is it possible that the religious are actually moving backwards to pre-Galilean concepts?

  • 2-D Man

    Well, the BC Lottery Corporation seems to keep running the game, so I guess so.

    Okay, so I had time to do some research, and it’s not quite the way I described before. BCLC says that if you pick ten numbers and match ten the prize is a hundred grand, if you match six, you get 10 bucks(so ), if you get 5 (5% chance) or zero (4.5% chance), you get three dollars (so it’s not a fairly big prize, my apologies). What’s interesting, though, is that this suggests you’re more likely to get four matches than none, and roughly just as likely to match half your numbers.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Ritchie wrote:

    So why should Strobel want to promote the idea that Earth alone in the universe hosts life? Surely it would help his argument for an intelligent designer if life, an extremely unlikely event, was also common in the universe! That would be a state of affairs that chance alone could not explain.

    Ah, but that’d put paid to Strobel’s preferred brand of Designer. We can’t have that!

    In a related note, I’m trudging my way through The Case for Faith, and it induces as much acute brainfreeze as tearing through a quart of Breyer’s Butter Pecan in three minutes. Ach.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    What exactly are Strobel’s motives? To convince everyone to believe in God? To what end? If he really really believes God created all, then there would be no reason to avoid real experts and good science, because he would also believe that this would lead to the conclusion that He did. Why be so dishonest? To sell books? To lie to himself?

  • Stephen P

    @SuperHappyJen: while I wouldn’t rule out Strobel simply wanting to sell books, I think the motivation is different.

    Although religious people talk a lot about Truth and Morality, the mental model they are actually using when proselytising is not at all that of truth or morality, or even in most cases wealth. It’s about Winning. The mentality is like that of footballers competing in the world cup, or golfers or chess players competing in their tournaments. Only with religious people their tournament is more like one of those board games where you try to cover the board with counters of your own colour. If someone converts to your religion, you’ve covered another square.

    So of course when they are using that mental model (albeit pretty much unconsciously) then they are only going to make moves which they think will help them win the game. And religious people are, on the whole, bad losers.

  • http://evilburnee.co.uk PaulJ

    The reason Strobel insists on Earth being the sole habitat of life may be because other, alien, forms of life — especially intelligent life — present problems for the “Jesus died for our sins” type of theology. That is, because humanity is “fallen” and can only be “saved by Christ” all those intelligent aliens are doomed to burn in hell.

  • http://generalsystemsvehicle.blogspot.com Hank

    Why is it that the most obviously & blatantly creationist/ID’ist/anti-evolution/anti-cosmology “thinkers” want so desperately to appear science-y and concerned about evidence, and even go to the trouble & lengths of interviewing (albeit completely sympathetic subjects) & writing & publishing (albeit through Xtian vanity presses)? If evidence is actually your primary concern you shouldn’t care if it contradicts your personal opinion. Well, that’s if you’re honest, anyway …

    Really, whatever happened to faith? Surely if you’re resorting to such mundane things as evidence and logic and things-that-sound-like-science to argue with we close-minded materialists you’ve lost the battle already.

  • jack

    Although religious people talk a lot about Truth and Morality, the mental model they are actually using when proselytising is not at all that of truth or morality, or even in most cases wealth. It’s about Winning.

    Exactly right. Ebon directs us to a good book on the subject in this review.

  • lpetrich

    The privileged-planet advocates seem to accept that most of the Universe is just plain hostile for us. But do they believe that God intervened to create the Earth with just the right properties and just the right spot?

    In any case, the fine-tuning and privileged-planet advocates often seem to ignore that natural selection can happen on cosmic scales as well. We are able to live on the Earth because the protosolar nebula produced lots of planets and smaller objects and one of them happened to be in the right place for us.

  • colluvial

    … that all the starry heavens, that every species of life, that every characteristic of reality exists [to create a livable habitat] for mankind…

    … or for mud, clouds, bacteria, or any other manifestation of the universe. The fine-tuning argument is a meaningless logical knot. Even if the appearance of life is a rare event, why would it be surprising that we exist in one of those rare places where life exists? The only reason that our existence would be too unlikely without the crutch of a supernatural entity is if one assumes the outcome; that is, that humans HAD to arise on this particular planet. Rather than, given the incredible vastness of space and time, an extremely unlikely event (the origin of life and the evolution of an intelligent, curious life form) was likely to occur somewhere and it just happened to be here. It’s no more incredible that our environment enables our existence, than that the shape of the puddle is the same shape as the pothole that holds it. Similarly, there’s no more reason to be in awe of the unlikeliness of our existence than there is to be in awe of the unlikeliness of the particular assemblage of atoms in a speck of dust on the end of your nose or in the Orion Nebula.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.co, Tommykey

    The reason Strobel insists on Earth being the sole habitat of life may be because other, alien, forms of life — especially intelligent life — present problems for the “Jesus died for our sins” type of theology. That is, because humanity is “fallen” and can only be “saved by Christ” all those intelligent aliens are doomed to burn in hell.

    PaulJ, if I recall, the position of the Catholic Church is that if there are intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe, then Jesus’ sacrifice applies to them as well. They sure do keep their bases covered, don’t they?

  • Jim Baerg

    However, some believers don’t have a problem with alien intelligences. C. S. Lewis held the position that an ET intelligence wouldn’t *necessarily* be ‘fallen’. See his novel _Out of the Silent Planet_.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I’ve always thought it would be perfectly compatible with Christian theology to have intelligent beings on other planets who never fell into sin. I wonder why so many Christians seem to abhor that idea. Maybe it’s because it would throw cold water on the privileged role humans have always been told we play in Christian theology – we might have no choice but to rank ourselves considerably lower in the heavenly hierarchy if we have to share it with beings who never disobeyed God in the first place.

  • Alex Weaver

    The IDers are manipulating the variables to achieve the outcome they had in mind all along. Clearly proof of an intelligent designer at work.

  • mikespeir

    What exactly are Strobel’s motives?

    Among the others mentioned, I’m convinced that one of the proselytizer’s motives is to convince himself.

  • goyo

    I’ve always wondered why, if the earth is so fine-tuned, god couldn’t have moved us a little further from the sun so we wouldn’t get skin cancer.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Why bother fine-tuning the Universe when you’re gonna stick me with a bum appendix anyway? Some design. Some intelligence.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Why bother fine-tuning the Universe when you’re gonna stick me with a bum appendix anyway?

    That’s because a naked couple ate an apple 6000 years ago.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Thumpalumpacus “Why bother fine-tuning the Universe when you’re gonna stick me with a bum appendix anyway?”
    You might want to consider seeing a doctor. I’m no expert on the human body, but I’m pretty sure you aren’t supposed to have an appendix there.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I thought they always came at the end….

  • Christy

    But instead, Strobel brushes past it without a backward glance, and this tells us something. When discussing an issue where the truth is still unknown – and the question of extraterrestrial life surely qualifies – a genuinely scientific book would present the competing possibilities and evaluate them fairly (remember “teach the controversy”?). For a journalist like Strobel, this would be an ideal place to interview people with different views and see how they stack up.

    I think Strobel made some very good points, personally. I bet half of you haven’t read the book. The fact that we might possibly be the only intelligent life is not the point of his book–the point was that we’re here and that’s wierd. Look at some of his other points. Also, Christians don’t all share the same views. as shown by the reference to C.S. Lewis’s book. I would consider him an intelligent thinker.

    Although religious people talk a lot about Truth and Morality, the mental model they are actually using when proselytising is not at all that of truth or morality, or even in most cases wealth. It’s about Winning.

    Actually, being a christian, I am motivated by my compassion for people, and not wanting them to die after a lame purposeless life and to not be in Heaven with myself. Hey I’m a kid and no scientist, but I know why I do these things.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    fact that we might possibly be the only intelligent life is not the point of his book–the point was that we’re here and that’s wierd.

    I don’t think Ebon is suggesting it’s the point of the book, just one of the un-substantiated arguments he makes in defence of creationism.
    I’m not sure that I would describe the fact that we are here as “wierd”; where would you consider it not wierd for us to be? Certainly the fact that we are anywhere at all is one that demands an explanation, but our creation by something else (that also requires an explanation) isn’t a satisfactory one.

    Actually, being a christian, I am motivated by my compassion for people, and not wanting them to die after a lame purposeless life

    Why do you think that life as an atheist is lame and purposeless?

    Hey I’m a kid and no scientist, but I know why I do these things.

    Then now is the best chance to find a rational basis for your belief, test the evidence and learn some science:)

  • Alex, FCD

    I bet half of you haven’t read the book.

    If personal experience is any guide, we’re reading this so we don’t have to read the book.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Actually, being a christian, I am motivated by my compassion for people, and not wanting them to die after a lame purposeless life and to not be in Heaven with myself. Hey I’m a kid and no scientist, but I know why I do these things.

    If the purpose of your life is to spend eternity in Heaven, then what’s your purpose once you get there?


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