Saturday, June 19

Of God, SETI, Science, and the "Wall Street Journal"

skepticThere are some times when I am less skeptical about God than at other times. Back in late October I wrote a post entitled “SETI and Religion: Why We Need Little Green Men”. Now, that post was about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (hence the SETI acronym), but in that post, as a kind of sidebar, I also alluded to the tendency of Americans, as by a wide margin the most religious of all First World nations, to systematically misrepresent, misunderstand, and misinterpret current scientific theories in order to fit the Procrustean bed of Americans’ often-bombastic and covertly insecure religiosity:  like the victims of the inkeeper Procrustes in the Greek myth, science is often trimmed to fit faith. Well … in what a more theistically devout believer than I might see as an ad hoc dispensation of Divine Providence, the Wall Street Journal – no bloodshot-eyed liberal periodical – provided a sterling example of just this tendency. Furthermore, the article by Eric Metaxas carried a publication date of 25 December 2014. So the Journal provided this example (to me?) as a Christmas gift. Metaxas did for SETI what I was talking about, and what Procrustes did to his hapless house-guests.


In case Metaxas’ article has been hidden behind the Journal’s paywall by now, the following is a paraphrased, but I believe quite fair, summary of his argument. He begins by giving a brief précis of SETI, beginning with the Drake Equation – though he does not use that term – and proceeding to do a fair job summarizing the implications for SETI of current astronomical research, including the findings of the planetary survey carried out – and still being valiantly carried out, despite crippling technical issues – by the Kepler spacecraft. He concludes that astronomers back in Frank Drake’s day (around 1960) took what turned out to be a grotesquely optimistic stance regarding the abundance of planets that could support life. There are now, he says – and this is probably a good ballpark estimate – not just seven, but more like seven dozen, coefficients in any contemporary version of the Drake Equation. Bottom line: the history of SETI has been marked by serial disappointment as the true complexity of the requirements for extraterrestrial life of any kind – not just intelligent life – have begun to dawn on us in the half-century-plus since Frank Drake wrote the original Equation.

Thanks to Hubble and Kepler, we have begun to be able to insert actual values for each of the coefficients in the original Equation -- but in the process have discovered other coefficients whose values we cannot even guess at for now. The point is that there is an increasingly cogent case to be made that, far from being a part of a galaxy fairly humming with extraterrestrial cultures, technology, and intelligence a la Star Trek and Star Wars, the galaxy – and, by inference, most likely the universe as a whole – may very well harbor no intelligent life anywhere except earth. Humans may very well be unique by virtue of the exquisitely delicate and interlaced requirements for the evolution of any kind of life, especially multicellular life, and most especially intelligent life. But forget intelligent life and SETI for a moment. The universe is itself exceedingly unlikely, argues Metaxas, because even the values of the fundamental constants of Nature – the gravitational constant, the “fine structure” constant of physics, the strength of the strong nuclear force itself and in relation to the other three “binding” forces (weak, gravitational, and electromagnetic), etc – are balanced with such exquisite delicacy with respect to each other that even the slightest variation would result, not only in a universe that could not sustain life (e.g., a universe in which the gravitational constant is so high that the stronger gravity would cause stars to burn out in, say, 100,000 years, far too short a time for evolution to occur), but in no universe at all because the alternate values of those fundamental constants would not even permit elementary particles to cohere into stable matter. So the uniqueness of human beings, the uniqueness of our universe, and the elegant waltz of natural law and physical constants necessary to originate and sustain both argue compellingly, so Metaxas concludes, for an intelligent Creator.


Lack of space compels me to skate over the down-in-the-weeds technical details of Metaxas’s fast-and-loose treatment of statistics. I will not quote the old bromide “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics”, because I really, sincerely, and without irony or snarkiness do not think Metaxas is lying. I think he just does not understand the math. And in any case, there are problems enough with his argument that one need not dwell on abstruse technical minutiae. I outline a few of the more salient problems as follows:

o The role of uniqueness even in plausibility arguments for intelligent design

 Proponents of intelligent design – though perhaps not Metaxas himself – often argue for their thesis beginning with the overwhelming abundance and diversity of the various forms that life assumes just on our own tiny planet alone. The argument goes that the millions of species of plants and animals currently inhabiting the earth’s surface and oceans would be unsustainable apart from an elegant and delicate balance of habitats, physical characteristics, evolutionary adaptations, etc., etc. That is certainly true. In fact, it is so true that one can only hope that human beings will take this insight to heart and not interfere with the natural dynamism of the planet without careful, prolonged, and painstaking thought and analysis. The argument proceeds to assert that, given the awesome complexity of the physical environment, the God Who created it absolutely revels with great exuberance and abandon in the sheer joy of God’s Own creative fecundity. Ecological and biological diversity sustained over many aeons must be underwritten by an Intelligence capable of originating and supervising a degree of complexity humans scarcely are even now capable of conceiving.

But when intelligent design advocates stop looking at the earth and cast their eyes skyward, the rhetorical strategy also shifts. Radically. This is exemplified by Metaxas’s own argument. Now uniqueness, not diversity, is in the driver’s seat. The existence of life – and even of the universe itself – is subject to an interplay of physical constants and gross circumstances so complex that we are driven to the conclusion -- so the argument goes -- that all life on earth, and intelligent life most of all, is possible only through purposive, deliberate, and premeditated engineering – the preceding word needs no quotes! – quite the opposite of mere accident and happenstance. The universe, they conclude, is engineered with the goal in mind – or rather, in Mind – of the origination and support of intelligent beings – i.e., us. Furthermore, argues Metaxas, SETI's lack of success in detecting signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos entails the conclusion that, not only is the universe engineered to support intelligent life in general, but that it is engineered to support us and only us in particular. Per omnia saecula saeculorum.  World without end, amen. Metaxas implicitly proposes to undo the work of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin by putting human beings back at the center of the cosmos.


So what is the real basis of the argument: diversity or scarcity? If there were only one species of life on planet earth – say, the e. coli bacterium – would the “Argument from Uniqueness” conclude that the scarcity of life on earth evinces an Intelligent Designer? Similarly, if someday dozens of intelligent cultures were to be discovered in our galaxy – think Carl Sagan’s novel Contact here – would the sheer abundance of intelligent species argue against such a Designer -- just as the present scarcity of intelligent life argues for it? Intelligent design advocates like Metaxas want to have their forensic cake and eat it, too: in a context characterized by diversity and complexity, they want to leverage this diversity and complexity so as to come up with the conclusion that there is an Intelligent Designer; but in a context characterized by sparseness and uniqueness, they want to leverage these opposite characteristics to arrive at the same conclusion. Two problems: (1) this argument reeks of special pleading – spinning one’s argument so that the desired conclusion is “always already” “baked into” the premises -- no matter what those premises are; (2) the argument is ultimately self-defeating because, if both diversity / complexity and scarcity / sparseness lead to the conclusion that there is an Intelligent Designer, then it is far from clear why either alternative – diversity or scarcity – is relevant to the issue at hand. If you don't care about time constraints and only want to get to Spokane -- and if getting to Spokane is all you care about -- then it matters not whether you go by way of Everett or Hong Kong. Fitting the possibility of intelligent design into the Procrustean bed of Metaxas's argument requires that he lop off big chunks of both logic and statistics.

o “Earth jingoism”

Even proponents of SETI and of the existence of intelligent life elsewhere who do not have hidden religious agendas not infrequently succumb to what I call "earth jingoism":  the belief that intelligent life elsewhere requires environmental / physical conditions consistent with earth life:  water, a temperate climate, an oxidizing atmosphere, gravity of a certain level, etc., etc., etc.  Planets that orbit stars at a distance in which these conditions prevail are said to be situated in the "habitable zone" -- that is, habitable for earth life -- or sometimes "the Goldilocks zone", where conditions are not too hot, not too cold, but "just right" -- that is, just right for earth life. A couple of caveats:  (1) that is a perfectly valid way to get SETI started because (2) we have to begin with what we know. For SETI to get off the ground -- as it were -- we have to start somewhere. Furthermore, there probably are laws that set limits on the conditions under which any kind of life at all can originate, flourish, and evolve.

That said, however, Metaxas -- and he is not alone in this -- seems militantly determined to forget that the above assumptions about the "habitable zone" are, at the end of the day, precisely that:  just assumptions.  They are not natural laws.  They are heuristic conveniences. As I said just now, such natural laws constraining the kinds of life that can exist most likely do come into play at some point.  But we have only the roughest, most qualitative idea of what those laws are.  For example, life almost certainly could not exist on a planet so near its star that it is continually lashed by gamma rays, solar prominences / storms, etc.; nor could life probably exist on a planet so cold that chemical reactions could not occur because everything would be frozen in place. But beyond that ... ??? ... So Metaxas's theological conclusions are grossly premature.  Saying that God engineered the universe for the human race in particular, as he seems bent on doing, is really nothing more than saying that, as human beings, we would not want to live in such environmental / radiological slums.  But that is not to say others could not.  For all we know, intelligent beings on Saturn's moons might leave their homes and offices periodically and venture outside for a fresh breath of ... methane.  Of course, we love earth-like conditions because those conditions are what we are evolved to like -- much as Singaporeans love durian a.k.a. "the corpse plant" ... my one flirtation with which, on a business trip, is best left undescribed.


Besides, if the presumptive Intelligent Designer is so exuberantly creative as to make millions upon millions of terrestrial species -- 'way over 90 pct of which are extinct by now, by the way! -- why would such a creativity-inebriated God be so parsimonious when it came to matters celestial?  There are over 4,000 species of cockroaches alone on planet Earth. May we then infer that God likes human beings less because God only created one intelligent species  -- even taking care that other competing species of humans (Cro-Magnon, Neanderthal, etc.) obediently go extinct?  Why would an Intelligent Designer structure the universe in such a way that conditions conduce to the existence of only a single intelligent species, cosmos-wide, while being no less careful to engineer the earth's environment so as to play host to uncounted millions, perhaps billions, of species over the 4-billion-year history of evolution?  Why so generous on Earth and so stingy in Heaven?

o How do we know something we’ve never encountered before is naturally occurring or the product of design by an intelligent agent?

Finally, there is a matter of principle to consider.  Imagine that you are a native in, say, the jungles of New Guinea.  You have had no contact whatsoever with the outside world.  Oh sure, you might see the thin contrails of a jet aircraft arcing high overhead, but you have no idea what these are, and, if you trouble to look at them closely, you  probably think they are the handwriting of the gods or whatever. Beyond that, your world consists of the jungle and its millennia-trampled paths immediately surrounding your local village. But one day while out hunting, you look down and you see, lying on the ground, a round object with a tough, transparent cover and a more-or-less circular, flexible band.  Underneath the transparent cover is a round disc with marks -- 12 of them -- and on the disc, pointing to these marks, are two arrows.  (You know about arrows because you use them in hunting.)  In other words, you have found a wristwatch.  Now ... a question ... would you know that the wristwatch was an artificial object?  Or would you think it was some type of natural organism?  Remember:  you have had no contact whatsoever with the world outside the jungle, its people, or its artifacts.  Would you even be able to decide whether the watch was artificial --  the product of intelligence -- or natural -- the product of natural forces?  Of course, if you are a New Guinea native and if you really had had no contact outside the jungle, you probably would think that everything -- the whole world -- was the product of intelligence.  You probably would not have any concept of "natural law".  The gods do everything.  So, in that case, what would tell you that the watch was the product of mortal, human craft and not of that practiced by the gods?  In general, and regardless of whether the relevant categories are natural vs. artificial or divinely created vs. human craft ... how would you assess the "ontological" status of the watch?  Or even could you?


So I'm repeating philosopher David Hume's rebuttal to Rev. Paley.  Rev. Paley, rather like Eric Metaxas and contemporary ID advocates, argues that design is evident in the universe the very same way design is evident in human artifacts.  Given its complexity, someone, some intelligent agent, had to make the watch.  It could not have come into existence by mere chance.  Ditto the universe, concluded Rev. Paley. Hume replied that, of course, we know someone made the watch, because we have seen, or at least heard tell of, watches being made before.  We have never seen, and could never see, the universe being made, because there is only one such and we were not, as it were, "present at the creation".  (This is an oversimplification of Hume's argument, of course.) Complexity is no clue, at least unless we assume what we are trying to demonstrate:  purposive, teleological activity. In order for you, as a New Guinea native, to judge that the watch is a human artifact, you would have to know that to begin with.  Ditto the universe.

The issue is not that scientists are clinically sterile, totally objective, agents, mere flesh-and-blood disc drives impartially registering data, whereas religious critics and apologists are in thrall to a preconceived set of value judgments.  The issue is more subtle than that.  Scientists have their own biases and their own pre-judgments.  But these biases and pre-judgments are methodological in nature -- not axiological (pertaining to value judgments) --  unless the principle "Knowledge is good" counts as an axiological judgment. Among these presuppositions of science are that the universe is ordered, that math (for whatever reason) works, that the human intellect is up to the task of understanding, that evidence counts, etc., etc. Furthermore, science is an incorrigibly social discipline:  scientists check the results of other scientists who check the results of other scientists ... etc. ... precisely in an effort to filter out, not only relatively straightforward measurement error, but also personal bias.  Most of the time (1) the same cannot be said of apologists of religion, and (2) the more conservative the religious apologist, the less true are their protestations of disinterestedness and impartiality. Why? Because, especially with conservative believers, (1) the conclusions are usually "baked into" the premises (think "Ken Ham and creationism" here) and (2) in any case, the conclusions are such as to support a rather specific religious, usually divinely revealed, world view, morality, and values -- in Metaxas's case, specifically Christian, or at least monotheist.

Reading conservative religious apologists' commentary on, and conclusions about, science inevitably tells us much about the apologists and very little about the world.  In that sense, we have met ET and s/he is us.

James R. Cowles


  • Interesting piece. 50 years ago Lewis wrote about this issue a lot. Personally, I think the chemical properties of carbon and water make it a much better base than others… And all life is different by dna not chemistry for the most part… So it would be an unexpected novelty to find arsenic based life!

    I’m just sad that even if we find it, unless all our physics have a loop hole we can never get there.

    I personally would just preach to the intellectual squid people. Who knows maybe they have a squid Jesus! Harpooned by the octo pharasees. The eastern church has never been homocentric in its view of salvation… But then again I don’t believe platonic soles are Christian at all.

    • Agreed about carbon-based life. I just argue that we should be open about future novelty. Only recently did marine biologists discover the existence of extremophiles around the hot-water vents on the ocean floor, happily consuming sulfur compounds boiling up at 300 degrees or so. I’m also not betting against loopholes in physics … or, failing that, the ability of humans to build “generation ships” that will launch from earth and arrive at their destinations piloted by their many-times-great grandkids.

      • Sorry hit send, I think they are probably an example of existing organisims moving in. Generation ships are an interesting idea, my main concern though is I think there is a finite amount of easy power sources for the project. We tend to treat science as a magic box, money in and what we want out… But most are advances so far have been pretty gratis once the foundations where laid. I think we have over the last hundred years we’ve picked low hanging fruit, soon opportunity cost is going to become a limiting factor.

        In general that makes me pressimistic about the future, or society is burning all that oil to drive mini vans on the assumption we’ll just build great batteries, etc. We assume advancements that the current science actually now is forecasting against. 50 years ago it was the opposite situation.

        • Yeah … I know what you mean. I think it’s wise to reserve judgment. But there haven’t been any really foundational discoveries in physics & astrophysics — I mean like the discovery of galactic redshifts — for quite some time now. Reputable physicists like Susskind are writing books with titles like “The End of Physics”. Does make you wonder …

  • JB

    A little wordy. What Cowles doesn’t mention is that all the combined scientific knowledge doesn’t amount to a speck of what’s to be known. Also, his assertion that math works isn’t always true either. So, there’s that.

    • That we know very little compared to what is to be known is the whole point of the post. In particular, because we only have a sample size of one, we know very little about the conditions under which even earth life can originate and flourish.

    • Not sure what you mean about math not always working. If you mean that the consistency of math cannot be proven mathematically, that is true, but is an issue in the foundations of mathematics. The attitude of scientists — and mathematicians — toward the consistency of math is “So far, so good”. Such is the nature of science. Only religion deals in the commodity of absolute certitude.

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