Privileged Planet? Copernicus vs. Goldilocks: Smackdown

Last night I watched the documentary The Privileged Planet, and also finished reading Paul Davies’ latest book Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life. To the credit of the Discovery Institute, who produced the documentary, they did little more than argue that our place in the universe is special, in a vague sense, and that this indicates that our existence has a purpose. Paul Davies, in his book, makes perfectly clear that he feels simply appealing to a deity to solve the mystery of our existence is intellectually unsatisfying – rather than say there are “turtles all the way down” (to recall one famous and amusing anecdote), this view introduces a “superturtle” that is supposedly self-explanatory. But a simple God does not have a choice about creation, and so an argument about the ‘first cause’ cannot get one to the God of the Bible, by any means.

Be that as it may, I do feel that criticism of the so-called “Copernican Principle” is appropriate. Humans are scarcely typical of life on earth in our quest to understand the workings of the universe. Nor is Earth typical of the planets of the solar system. Too much has been made of the strong anthropic principle, since the weak one is self-evident. Any sentient species, looking at the universe, would inevitably wonder why we are so fortunate as to be in this place. But the answer is as simple and correct as it is unsatisfying: if the conditions for life were not ‘just right’ here (the Goldilocks principle) we wouldn’t be here. I think it was the book The Probability of God that made a comparison to finding ourselves before a map at a shopping mall and finding that its words “You Are Here” with accompanying arrow designated precisely our position! But the effect is illusory – if we weren’t here, we would not be observing it.
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  • Elliot

    I recall reading an essay in an anthology (I believe it’s Philosophy of Religion: the Big Questions) which made a fairly convincing case that the “well, if we weren’t here, we wouldn’t be surprised that we were here!” argument is rather weak. I can’t remember the details now, but the author argued that we still do have a right to wonder why we exist when the odds were so stacked against us.