The Case for a Creator: A Universe Not Made For Us

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 7

The final section of this chapter concerns Gonzalez’s argument that the Earth is uniquely designed to make scientific discovery possible. His argument is that our planet is fine-tuned not just to allow the existence of life, but to allow us to find out important facts about the nature of the universe that wouldn’t be possible to discover if we lived anywhere else. (As an aside, it’s asinine for Strobel and his interviewees to celebrate how perfectly designed the Earth is for scientific discovery when they themselves reject many of the most important conclusions of science – but never mind that.) He begins with solar eclipses, which occur due to another of those coincidences that ID advocates love so much:

“There’s a striking convergence of rare properties that allow people on Earth to witness perfect solar eclipses… total eclipses are possible because the sun is four hundred times larger than the moon, but it’s also four hundred times further away. It’s that incredible coincidence that creates a perfect match.

Because of this configuration… observers on earth can discern finer details in the sun’s chromosphere and corona than from any other planet, which makes these eclipses scientifically rich.” [p.185-186]

Again, this is something that Guillermo Gonzalez, a professional astronomer, can’t possibly be ignorant of: You don’t need a solar eclipse to view the sun’s corona. You can just use a coronagraph, a very simple instrument that’s been in existence since the 1930s and performs the same function. The fact that our planet is uniquely positioned to see total eclipses is an interesting coincidence, but it’s in no way vital to scientific discovery.

“…perfect solar eclipses helped us learn about the nature of stars. Using spectroscopes, astronomers learned how the sun’s color spectrum is produced, and that data helped them later interpret the spectra of distant stars.” [p.186]

This argument makes no sense to me. What do eclipses have to do with humanity’s invention of spectroscopy?

“…eclipses provided a historical record that has… enabled us to put ancient calendars on our modern calendar system, which was very significant.” [p.186]

Eclipses, of course, are not the only way of coordinating ancient and modern calendars. You can use any event, whether earthly or astronomical, that occurred on a known date as a reference point. SN 1054 would be another example.

“Our location away from the galaxy’s center and in the flat plane of the disk provides us with a particularly privileged vantage point for observing both nearby and distant stars.” [p.187]

Wouldn’t a location in a more densely populated stellar neighborhood give us an even better vantage point for observing many different types of stars? This is a Gish Gallop-type argument where Gonzalez fires out as many assertions as possible, while doing little or nothing to explain the reasoning behind each one.

“The moon stabilizes the Earth’s tilt, which gives us a livable climate – and it also consistently preserves the deep snow deposits in the polar regions… By taking core samples from the ice, researchers can gather data going back hundreds of thousands of years.” [p.187]

I agree that ice-core data is a useful way of learning about past climate, though not the only one. I also note that Gonzalez has here committed himself to rejecting the young-earth position, which is something Strobel refuses to do (he calls it an “internal Christian debate“, remember). It’s therefore interesting that he lets this pass without comment. Shouldn’t he point out that, according to many of his fellow Christians, the Earth doesn’t have “hundreds of thousands of years” of past history and therefore these ice cores are useless as records of anything?

“And a transparent atmosphere allows the science of astronomy and cosmology to flourish.” [p.188]

This argument is especially ridiculous. Every atmosphere, no matter its composition, is transparent at some wavelengths and opaque at others. Our atmosphere, for example, is transparent to visible light but strongly absorbs infrared. Astronomers on any planet would ply their trade at the wavelengths that pass through the atmosphere, and for those that don’t, they could do precisely what we’ve done: send telescopes and observatories into space.

“Thousands of seismographs all over the planet have measured earthquakes through the years… scientists have been able to use that data to produce a three-dimensional map of the structure of the Earth’s interior.” [p.188]

The same effect can be achieved by setting off explosives on the surface to produce seismic waves, a technique used routinely by geologists and the extraction industry.

As we can see from all these examples, there’s nothing about the Earth’s environment that makes it uniquely well-suited to scientific discovery. What Strobel and Gonzalez have really managed to show, instead, is humanity’s cleverness in exploiting every opportunity available to us to learn about the natural world. Our planet is well-suited for science in some ways, ill-suited in others. If we lived on a different planet, the ways we’d have to learn about the world would be different – and if there were creationists on that planet, doubtless they’d be saying that those opportunities, and not these, were evidence of divine design.

As evidence of this, Strobel and Gonzalez have presented a rosy and thoroughly one-sided list of the ways in which our environment is good for scientific discovery. But there are other aspects of our environment, equally obvious and important, that are not so favorable. Here are some of them:

* The light speed limit. The fact that nothing can travel faster than light makes it essentially impossible to explore our universe in person, or even via robots. Even the nearest stars would take thousands of years to reach using the fastest means of travel currently available to us, and exploring any really interesting places, like the galactic center, would take millions.

* The poor fossil record. Because fossilization is an extremely rare event, most creatures, and possibly even most species, that have ever lived are unknown to us. Even in the very rare cases where fossils are formed, we need to rely on luck to bring them close enough to the surface to notice, and incredible amounts of tenacity and hard work are needed to excavate even a single fossil and assemble it from fragments and disassembled bones.

* Erosion and plate tectonics. The active geological processes that continually destroy and recycle the Earth’s crust mean that most of the planet’s oldest rocks and fossils no longer exist, making it very difficult for us to learn about the earliest epochs of history.

* Dark matter, dark energy, and other elusive phenomena. To judge by astronomical observations, the vast majority of the universe is made up of substances that are invisible to us and completely unlike anything we encounter on our planet. Enormous amounts of research, creativity, and effort have been expended in building the vast and complex experiments that we use to detect them (just read this description of the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search experiment, or this page about the Large Hadron Collider).

* Geological and cosmological timescales. Many really interesting scientific phenomena – continental drift, star formation, galaxy collisions – occur on such long timescales that they can’t be directly observed from start to finish by humans and our comparatively puny lifespans. This is very inconvenient for learning about the processes that shape our planet and our universe.

These aspects of our world (are there others I’ve forgotten?) cast doubt on the rats-in-a-maze theology which claims our universe is stocked with little puzzles created by God just to keep us busy. Nature does not yield its secrets easily, and the few pieces of knowledge we’ve managed to gain have all taken diligent work and imaginative leaps by dedicated scientists. It trivializes and demeans their effort for creationists to come in afterward and claim that those scientists were really just finding the clues planted by God.

Other posts in this series:

The White Man Non-Culpability Squad
Weekend Coffee: CRISPR
The Strange Tale of Rose Marks
Book Review: 1491
About Adam Lee

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