PCG’s Stephen Flurry has done it again with his series The Trumpet Daily! As many of you may already know, Stephen actually has a Facebook page (which is article-worthy in and of itself). Recently he shared on his wall a year-old episode of The Trumpet Daily, entitled “Our Awesome Universe Potential”, wherein he attempts to argue for an intelligently designed Earth. And, as has been already well-established, anytime a CoG brain trust enters the slapdash field of Creationism, much incompetence and hilarity ensues.
As if to demonstrate this, Stephen begins with this howler (paraphrased in the video description): “The more we study and learn about our universe, the stronger the evidence becomes of an absolutely remarkable truth: There is an Author of the cosmos.”
Yes, he said “evidence”. And them’s fightin’ words ’round here. Let’s just take a stab at this “evidence” and see if it bleeds…
The first piece of so-called evidence Stephen offers is a series of impressive images taken by the Hubble space telescope. He waxes tepidly eloquent trying to describe them for his small-minded target audience. This goes on for a few awkward moments before he finally says something meaningful:
Walk outside and look up on a clear night. You will see several hundred stars–perhaps a few thousand if it’s dark enough and your view is unobstructed. Do you realize how unusual and special that view is? How motivated would you be to contemplate the night sky if all you saw was a canopy of thick clouds of particles and gasses? Happy for us, Earth’s atmosphere is transparent [so long as your view is unobstructed, of course!] (emphasis mine).
At precisely this point (literally–no joke!), the video transitions from a star-strewn image to a shot of earth from space, obstructed by what could accurately be described as “a canopy of thick clouds of particles and gasses.” I can only wonder whether PCG’s video editor, my old and dear friend, Dwight Falk, fell asleep at the board on this one. I mean, if one wants to do propaganda, it behooves one not to contradict one’s words with one’s images! Embarrassing!
But, before we allow Stephen to continue, let’s just unpack his argument so far.
First, he blithely asserts that our atmosphere is especially amenable to stargazing, compared with those of other planets. I don’t know how he knows this: he doesn’t say. Perhaps it was specially revealed to him. Certainly, though, he provides no basis from astronomical research, cites no sources and relates no data. You will be excused, fearless reader, if you do not take his word for it. After all, by his reasoning, a planet like Mars, with its excessively thin and dry atmosphere, would be a far superior place to set up humans for stargazing. Or, even better yet, a space-based observatory like Hubble (more on this amusing irony later).
Secondly, he is implying (and this becomes clear as he proceeds) that because we can see stars from the surface of the planet, it must have been designed that way for that purpose, since the god he prefers would want it that way. I shall heretofore call this the AfS (Argument from Stargazing), just as though we were philosophers taking on a serious argument (and why not–what could go wrong?). It is often difficult to parse the mess Creationists make of logic, but we’ll do our best (and I invite Stephen to correct us if we end up misrepresenting his train-wreck of thought). The logic of the AfS, then, I think, goes like this (and for all you logic geeks, this form is called polysyllogism):
(1) If humans contemplate the stars, then they can draw closer to God (Stephen’s god).
(2) If humans can draw closer to God (Stephen’s god) by contemplating the stars, then God (Stephen’s god) must have designed things that way for that purpose.
(3) If God (Stephen’s god) designed things that way for that purpose, then God (Stephen’s god) must exist.
(4) It is possible for humans to contemplate the stars.
(5) Therefore, God (Stephen’s god) must exist!
Aaaaaaand…right away we have a problem. Notice that the conclusion (5) is assumed to be true within the premise (1). That is a circular argument, folks! It is not valid to include one’s conclusion among one’s premises, since you can’t demonstrate your proposition by asserting it: God (Stephen’s god) exists because God (Stephen’s god) exists. Logic fail!
After all, many other things besides Stephen’s god could account for humans’ ability to contemplate the stars. For example, the earliest contemplation of the heavens engaged in by humans hardly led them to Stephen’s god, but to heathenish (and, given what we now know, equally inane) things like astrology. Thus, it could be that it is possible for us to contemplate the stars because such a fate is written in them (I just blew your mind, I know). Or…(and my money is on this one) it could be that it is possible for us to contemplate the stars because we happen to have evolved complex brains on a planet that is amenable to such activities. But we can’t logically get to a conclusion like that of the AfS by starting with goddidit! and arguing in a circle. We’d have to use a valid argument instead.
Finally, let us consider the glaring irony of featuring the Hubble space telescope (and the preeminently contemplation-inspiring images it has given us) while blathering on idiotically about how Earth’s atmosphere was designed with contemplative stargazing in mind. Get this. The whole reason we put such observatories in space is to avoid the interference of the atmosphere!
Hello?… Earth to Stephen…
Perhaps this dopey airhead should take some time off from contemplating his, like, totally “awesome universe potential” and start educating himself about reality.
Here’s how it works. Earth’s atmosphere may be “transparent”, as Stephen insists, but it still produces effects that can limit the power of surface-based astronomy. The intervening atmosphere filters and distorts the electromagnetic radiation earthbound telescopes are attempting to collect, creating noise astronomers call scintillation or, variously, twinkling. This interference can be observed with the naked eye and is, in fact, why we sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star ”. Basically, the atmosphere kinda fucks things up for astronomy, but thanks to it parents get one more annoying children’s song to spam YouTube with (Thanks, Yahweh!).
To avoid those pesky scintillation effects (and other atmospheric monkey wrenches like light pollution) bequeathed to us by Stephen’s god in his bungled attempt to give us astronomy, we bad-ass humans, who don’t tend to fuck around, have decided to sidestep the atmosphere altogether and have put some of our observatories directly in motherfucking space! If anything, astronomy is the exact opposite of a good argument for Creationism, considering what it has had to overcome. The clearest views of the heavens are not the result of an intelligently designed atmosphere (quite the contrary), but of intelligently placed equipment. Science: over 9000!; Stephen’s god: 0.
From this point forward in the video, Stephen blunders through the standard Creationist attempt at hoisting their god up by the so-called “anthropic coincidences”. Some people of low intellectual sophistication are impressed by what seem to them meaningful coincidences between certain states of the universe and the existence of some combination of life (as we know it), human life and scientific discovery. They seem to think that the universe is “fine-tuned” to have us in it, and they commit all manner of statistical and inferential faux pas in the pursuit of confirming that bias. Stephen is apparently vaguely aware of what they are on about, no doubt having skimmed a few pages on the subject while getting a manicure. We’ll briefly touch on the low points (referring to the video, that is).
Stephen focuses on a low-brow cousin of the fine-tuning argument concerned with the position of Earth and the implications of such for life and scientific discovery. Evidently, much of the material he is drawing on (including the already soundly-thrashed argument about our “transparent” atmosphere) comes from a book I once recommended to Andy Locher (and I’m pretty confident these guys wouldn’t have found it on their own), which I read for comprehension long before Stephen quote-mined it for this program. You can read detailed reviews of The Privileged Planet (and see its position debunked by competent astronomers) here and here.
He claims, for instance, that we earthlings are positioned astonishingly well in our galaxy for life. We are far enough away from the center of the Milky Way, he asserts, that we are not killed by radiation, and yet close enough that certain heavy elements necessary for life (as we know it) are abundant. Furthermore, we are protected from impact events by the sweep of the outer planets’ gravity wells. Notice the inescapable logic:
Another convenient feature of our cosmic vantage point is how protected Earth is from collisions. The four gas giant planets in our solar system…do us a big favor by shielding Earth from dangerous space projectiles like asteroids and comets… Yet, they’re not too efficient. The few smaller asteroids that have made it through and hit Earth have actually aided scientific discovery.
Well, sure, when they weren’t wiping out the Dinosaurs.
Any argument (we’ll call them “Arguments from Hospitality”), that attempts to show that, since Earth is especially favorable to life (as we know it) it follows that it must have been designed for life, suffers from at least two weaknesses.
First of all, the rosy picture they paint is not particularly accurate: Earth is not incredibly hospitable to life (as we know it). Stephen fails to mention that mass extinction events litter Earth’s prehistory. Cataclysmic meteor strikes, ice ages, even life itself–all conspire against life (as we know it) on this planet. Evolution struggles through dumbly and blindly–and tenaciously–and here we are, against a raft of short odds.
The second weakness of all such arguments is that they get everything exactly backwards. The celebrated science fiction author, Douglas Adams, once explained this with the use of a clever metaphor. Imagine a puddle filling up a pothole. You wouldn’t consider the pothole to be specially designed to fit the puddle, would you? No, of course not! That would be backwards reasoning. Life is like that puddle and Earth (and, by extension, the Universe) is like that pothole. Life was made to fit Earth, not the other way around. It follows, then, that we should expect to observe an Earth (and by extension, a Universe) that contains the features that life requires. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here talking about it. This is something called the “anthropic principle”.
Think about it.
Imagine a different planet, closer to its star, heavily bombarded by cosmic radiation and meteors, lacking a sufficient atmosphere and devoid of water, etc.–in a word, a truly inhospitable planet (for life as we know it). The chances of life (as we know it) arising there are slim. Do we observe such planets? Of course! Seven are in our neighborhood, but hundreds have been observed so far, and such discoveries occur on a regular basis. Estimates of the total number of planets in the Universe run into the billions of trillions. A good number of them in absolute terms are almost certainly likely to be habitable by life as we know it (six such Earth-like planets have already been identified). And this is before we start talking about moons.
Stephen seems to think that his god looked out at all the available planets and picked the one that was just right. And so he should, since that is the bias he is looking to confirm. It is both the beginning and the end of his argument. But what if we don’t start with that bias? What if we just look at things as they are? What we see is a range of probabilities for life (as we know it) arising and surviving on any given planet. Earth was represented by a certain probability that was, apparently, high enough. What does this prove? Only that certain features grant higher probabilities for the arising and survival of life (as we know it) than do others. That’s all, and it is to be expected. It is not an argument for special Creation. It’s common sense: to return to Adams’ apt metaphor, puddles do not collect atop speed-bumps. Similarly, excessively inhospitable planets tend to be excessively inhospitable, whereas nominally hospitable planets tend to be nominally hospitable. The Argument from Hospitality reduces to a tautology.
In one of the aforementioned reviews of The Privileged Planet, astronomer William H. Jefferys demonstrates how incompetent Creationists are in comparison with the scientists who study these things, and he describes how observations that confirm predictions from the anthropic principle are, in actual fact, evidence in favor of a naturalistic origin for life.
In their book, Gonzalez and Richards mention Fred Hoyle’s remarkable 1954 prediction of special resonances in carbon and oxygen nuclei (p 198 and following). These resonances were predicted because without them, carbon and oxygen could not be synthesized in stars, and since they also could not be synthesized by the Big Bang, our own existence implies that the resonances must exist, at least if the universe is naturalistic. This in turn leads to rather narrow predicted ranges for certain physical constants (“the constants are right”). Indeed, the resonances were found to exist, one of the earliest and possibly best examples of a prediction of a physical fact from the so-called weak anthropic principle, that sentient beings ought to observe that the universe they inhabit is consistent with their own existence.
But, if the universe had been designed by a sufficiently powerful designer, the constants would not have to be right in order for us to exist. For example, the designer could create a universe where the constants are not right for the production of carbon and oxygen in the interiors of stars, preferring instead (for whatever reason: whim, or the desire to accomplish other goals such as letting us know that he exists by means of a subtle scientific clue) just to manufacture the required carbon atoms and sprinkle them where needed throughout the universe.
If we consider the possible existence of such a designer — and remember, the ID creationists’ intentional refusal to specify the nature of their designer leaves this possibility open — then…our observing that “the constants are right” actually provides powerful evidence in favor of the naturalistic hypothesis. It would actually be our observing that “the constants are wrong” that would undermine, and in fact refute the naturalistic hypothesis. The ID creationists have the inequality backwards.
So, Stephen and the washed-up crackpots he parrots are hardly providing “evidence” for Creationism by appealing to the fact that Earth and the Universe are observed to contain those features that are necessary for the life that exists therein. They are merely describing a fact that is better understood by competent scientists and philosophers of science than by them.
But what about the other claim concerning the suitability of Earth’s position for astronomical research? This suffers from similar problems as the Argument from Hospitality and the Argument from Stargazing. In fact, it is an expanded form of the AfS. Besides an assumed Creator god, the underlying assumption here is that the conditions for astronomy and scientific discovery on Earth are the apex of possible conditions. They are not, as we have already partially discussed regarding the atmosphere. As with the atmosphere, suitability for astronomy is on a continuum, and it could be better. In fact, since this is so, in such a vast Universe as the one we inhabit, any given attribute is almost certainly better for some realm of scientific activity elsewhere. This is just a statistical reality. And since these conditions on Earth are not, in fact, perfect, this should be evidence against Stephen’s hypothesis.
What Stephen has done is to look at how good we have it, not considering that conditions are not as perfect as they could be, and has concluded erroneously that such an observation is evidence of design. But if it were slightly worse, that would be evidence enough to him as well. If it were slightly worse than that, that would also be evidence enough to him. If it were slightly worse than that, that would also be evidence enough to him. And so on. All the parameters he discusses in the video are not binary, but are on a continuum. Darkness. Distance. Size. Transparency. None of these measures are exclusive properties of Earth. Even the “Goldilocks zone” Stephen refers to is a range of distances–rather than a singular distance–around certain types of stars (not just the Sun), within which the likelihood of liquid water is considered to be highest. Both organisms and astronomers from other worlds would have to contend with these parameters, and some of them would certainly find their circumstances more felicitous than our own.
Suppose it were not so; if we existed on another world very different from the earth, then we would surely be doing something. We would be doing whatever was possible for us to do under the circumstances in which we found ourselves. If we accepted the Whiggish reasoning of the authors, we would be just as justified in concluding that our planet — and our universe, if we could see it in this alternative reality — was designed so that we would do whatever we happened to be doing at the time or find interesting at the time (as diverse human cultures have always done). The authors could learn much by studying a little anthropology and a little history.
Indeed. And so could Stephen.