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:

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.

  • CailinBan

    That’s just absurd ‘logic’. But even if that did prove a God, it doesn’t even begin to prove the Christian God.

  • mikespeir

    …the sun is four hundred times larger than the moon…

    Huh?

  • lpetrich

    In linear diameter, but they are close in angular diameter from our location.

    As to fossilization, some fossils are almost absurdly common, like fossil protist shells. There are whole rock formations made of them.

    Marine invertebrates are not far behind, though the best-preserved ones have hard parts like shells and hardened skins.

    Of vertebrates, the most common fossils are fish; land-vertebrate fossils are relatively rare. However, large ones are often better-preserved than small ones; their size can be helpful.

    Imprints of soft body parts are seldom preserved, something which makes arthropod and vertebrate fossils relatively informative about their former owners. It’s hard to deduce anything about the internal anatomy of a snail or a clam from its shell.

  • TEP

    If the Earth is designed to make scientific discoveries easier, why are all the black holes so far away? Why can’t we have a tiny one with the mass of an asteroid in orbit around the Earth, that we can conveniently send spaceships to in order to perform experiments on it? Why doesn’t uranium 235 decay more slowly, so that there will be a greater proportion of it in natural uranium, to make it easier to discover nuclear power? Why are there no rocks made of dark matter, no strangelet atoms, or magnetic monopoles on Earth? Why are there no nearby star-systems comprised of two black holes in close orbit, to make it easier for us to detect gravity waves? Why isn’t there a nice little asteroid made of antimatter somewhere we can reach easily? Why isn’t there more osmium on Earth, so it wouldn’t have taken until 1803 to discover it? Why does water contain so little deuterium, when if there had been a 50/50 ratio of deuterium to normal hydrogen we’d have discovered isotopes much sooner? Why aren’t there any radiation-resistant plants that accumulate radioactive elements to avoid being eaten, as this would have helped us to discover radioactivity way sooner? Why isn’t our solar system a binary system, as this would have yielded us much more information about the nature of stars? In fact, why isn’t it some kind of exotic binary with an ordinary star and a neutron star in orbit around one another – how convenient would it be to have a neutron star on our doorstep (along with the antimatter asteroid and mini-black hole)?

  • Lenoxus

    A possible typo, unless it’s in the original quote: “four hundred tiems* further away”.

    Clearly, the 400 thing is hard proof of that the Sun Goddess and Moon God (evidence for whom is already quite derivable from philosophy and logic) like each other. Or something.

  • David D.G.

    Since you ask, Ebonmuse, you might consider adding that many things are hard to observe and learn about (or even be aware of) because of incredibly tiny size — microbes, viruses, molecules, atoms, etc. That’s one reason it took us so long to figure out that invisibly tiny creatures were responsible for most diseases, rather than demons, witches, imbalanced humours, and so on.

    Nice job you’re doing on deconstructing this book, by the way. Keep up the great work!

    ~David D.G.

  • Logan Blackisle

    The nearest star would NOT take ‘thousands of years’ to reach; it can be done in a century or less with Nuclear Pulse Propulsion – still way too long for any kind of easy traveling, but our technology continues to become better and better.

    Saying it would take thousands of years is just a needless exaggeration.

    Aside from that, I look forward to next post.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    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.

    Especially when creationists flatly ignore the clues that we do have.

    And I’ll second what David D.G. said. The fact that so many of the important truths about the universe are invisible to the naked eye — either because they’re too small or too far away — is a major, major flaw in the purported “design” of the discoverable and comprehensible universe.

  • http://oneyearskeptic.blogspot.com/2009/12/introducing-one-year-skeptic.html Erika

    Ahh, confirmation bias.

  • http://lenoxus.pbworks.com Lenoxus

    Wouldn’t any universe with sufficiently intelligent life forms be conducive to science? As long as there is at least one consistent law, there is something for science to “do”, and the continuous existence of life would naturally require at least one consistent law (or else everything would be like that Far Side cartoon with the label “Out of Order” stuck on a mishmash of characters and objects, but far more chaotic still).

    Okay, these forms would have to have at least one means of perceiving their environment, and at least one way to communicate their findings and ideas with others, preferably in a static storage system like writing.

  • Shawn Smith

    Thanks for your examination of these pretty fanciful claims. I just have one nit to pick:

    Even the nearest stars would take thousands of years to reach using the fastest means of travel currently available to us,

    Extending on the point brought up by Logan Blackisle in #7 above, Are you aware of This report from NASA from the late 80′s? There was some thought put into how to make a probe that would make it to Alpha Centauri in about 100 years, and be able to send data back (at a few kilobits per second with a 4.5 year latency.)

  • Eric

    I think it likely that there are a few intelligent lifeforms in our galaxy that might make similar arguments. Maybe aquatic critters on that mega-earth we discovered might disbelieve that photosynthesis could happen on land surfaces (“land” what’s that?) or even in the oceans. Perhaps their rich oceans depend on photosynthesis in their thick atmosphere. They might be able to float to the top of their atmosphere using rigid aerostats and observe the stars for the first time. They’d have to be pretty high tech to ever see the stars. They might have computers before they ever saw stars.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    The creation account in Genesis truly betrays its human origins when the stars are described as being put in the night sky by God for our benefit, such as to mark the seasons and such. It would be amusing to tell that to the inhabitants of a planet that orbited one of those stars.

  • Nathan

    I think, reading things like this, that the intended audience is doubting Christians, and perhaps believing ones. These thin rationalizations would be far more convincing to someone in the throes of religion, meant to serve as bolsters for belief, not to induce belief in the first place. This is the ‘two’ of the one-two punch, the ‘one’ being the irrational emotional appeal, and before that fades away, land the slick psuedoscientific handwaving.

    I have to wonder if the author really believes this hooey, because, if not, this is just despicable – and I’d rather not believe that of anyone.

  • http://www.ciphergoth.org/ Paul Crowley

    It shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that it’s easier to bring to mind examples of things that we have discovered because we are able to than things we haven’t discovered because we are not able to.

  • Caiphen

    ‘I think, reading things like this, that the intended audience is doubting Christians, and perhaps believing ones. These thin rationalizations would be far more convincing to someone in the throes of religion, meant to serve as bolsters for belief, not to induce belief in the first place. This is the ‘two’ of the one-two punch, the ‘one’ being the irrational emotional appeal, and before that fades away, land the slick psuedoscientific handwaving’.

    Nathan

    Yes, you’re right. I was in the throes of religion at one time. After a Xians heavy investment into it they want it to be true. They’ll ignore all else except that which bolsters their belief. I’m pretty sure that the writer of a book like ‘The Case For a Creator’ knows how dishonest he/she really is.

  • lpetrich

    Even worse, the laws of physics must be expressed in mathematics that goes far beyond the heads of the large majority of people. Even simple algebra goes over the heads of many people.

    So why make the Universe so difficult to understand that only a tiny fraction of the population can have a reasonably-good understanding of how it works? Or else why not make us so that a large fraction of the population can easily understand the necessary mathematics?