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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

June 8: Rot! Still no hellfire. But keep reading. It is starting to get a bit hotter!

(Note: This post repeats and adds to the previous posts, as I have now been able to log detailed information about still more of the Privileged Planet film. If you are a new visitor, just start here and stay here. Tomorrow, I will repost everything and add to it. Also, sorry it takes a long time. Remember, bloggers like me are volunteers.)

Privileged Planet is, as the Washington Post noted, a “sophisticated” film. It features good music, glorious graphics, and narration by John Rhys-Davies, who played Gimli in The Lord of the Rings. Rhys-Davies is an excellent narrator, principally in my view because he knows when to just not say anything and — better still — the writers know when to let someone else say it instead. Although the film obviously offers a message, I did not feel, not so far at least, that I was whacked upside the head with it.

(Service note: IF you are looking for a basic introduction to the uproar over the screening of The Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian, you can start anywhere in the archives from May 25, when I broke the story, on. I suggest you go here and here to start, and then this one will bring you up to date. Note that the blogs on the right-hand panel also update the story at various times, so try them too. Right now I am providing a review and detailed account of the controversial film Privileged Planet. itself. - Denyse)

It starts with a quote from T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I guess some might see Eliot’s comment as “religious” (remember that one of my goals is to figure out why the Washington Post thinks the film is “religious”), but the fact is, Eliot’s quote turns up all over the place.

I, for one, having heard it way too often, wish the writers had chosen something else for their intro. But let’s move on.

The film begins with Voyager 1 and 2, the 1977 spacecraft mission to the outer planets and then addresses Earth’s position in the solar system, as understood by Ptolemy and then later Copernicus. One key difference between PP and more standard fare quickly emerges at this point:

PP avoids using Copernicus’s discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun as an excuse to preach on the insignificance of Earth and of human life. It goes so far as to assume that we may be significant and that it may be possible to discover our significance, in part, through science.

Well! I can certainly see where educated people raised on 20th century naturalism, nihilism, existentialism et cetera— whether they are secularists who embrace it or Christians who accommodate it—would find PP’s approach shocking.

But their shock has nothing to do with science as such. Science provides reasonable evidence for a variety of viewpoints, including lots of evidence for the Privileged Planet ideas.

The shock comes from unfamiliarity with an approach to science in which science does not function as the Canadarm of naturalism (the philosophy that nature is all there is).

For example, Denis Daniels, editor of Book of the Cosmos, is quoted talking about the way in which Copernicus enabled a correct understanding of the solar system. “Once you started to imagine the earth moving instead of the sun, the mathematics of that cosmic machine started to make sense.”

Then the narrator notes that Copernicus’s discovery of the Earth’s orbit morphed into the “Copernican Principle” - the idea that the Earth occupies no preferred place. Philosopher Jay Richards, a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute then recounts how this “no preferred place” interpretation “became prominent in the twentieth century.” He calls it “The Principle of Mediocrity.”

Richards may be leaning on the “Principle of Mediocrity” phrase a bit hard to drive the point home. Today I picked up 6630 Google hits for the Copernican Principle and only 701 hits for the Principle of Mediocrity (some of these hits may address unrelated issues as well).

But astronomer Carl Sagan (d. 1996), who would be much more popular with the Washington elite than Jay Richards, leaned a lot harder ... in the opposite direction. Sagan popularized the concept of mediocrity in the 1970s to such an extent that I never suspected until I read Rare Earth three years ago that there was significant evidence that his view might not be science at all, just a popular astronomer’s opinion.

Indeed, the film quotes Sagan saying, in Cosmos,

Because of the reflection of sunlight the Earth seems to be sitting in a beam of light, as if there were some special significance to this small world ... but it’s just an accident of geometry and optics. Look again at that dot. That’s here. Home. That’s us. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

It is hard to miss the sneer in Sagan’s voice as he speaks these lines. Obviously, it was important to him to drive that point home.

Well, is Earth’s position “just an accident of geometry and optics”? Or is it not?

Now, here is the question I asked in By Design or by Chance?:

If there is evidence that Earth’s position is not just an accident of geometry and optics, is science permitted to know that? Or does science have to pretend it is an accident even in the face of considerable evidence that it is not?

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the intelligent design controversy.

We’re starting to see now what all the shouting is about.

Update June 6, 2005

The narrator goes on to talk about American astronomer Edwin Hubble’s key discovery that there are many galaxies in the universe and how this discovery gave legs to the theory that Earth is insignificant. Robert Jastrow, former director of Mt. Wilson Observatories, explains that at the time Hubble was examining distant objects, many astronomers believed that our galaxy marked the edge of the universe.

He notes, “Edwin Hubble altered this perception of the universe when he used the most powerful telescope of his day to photograph indistinct objects Long thought to be nearby clouds of gas, dust, Hubble determined that these patches of light were actually individual galaxies, many as large or larger than our own Milky Way.”So our galaxy is one among billions.

He then asks a fundamental question: “Does contemporary scientific knowledge actually confirm the Copernican Principle’s primary claim, that the Earth and the life it sustains exists without purpose or significance in the universe?”

Well, how do we go about framing the question in a way that science can offer relevant information?

The film then moves on to a phase of late 20th century astronomy that, depending on your point of view, will seem faintly embarrassing or depressing — or perhaps the stuff of which youthful hopes should always be made!: The idea that habitable planets and intelligent aliens must be common in the universe.

This search for extraterrestrial life, it is made clear, was a natural outgrowth of Hubble’s discovery that our galaxy is only one among billions.

Looking back on the bubbling 1970s, I am not sure that the idea that there are millions of alien civilizations should have been seen as an inevitable outcome of Hubble’s discovery. That is, whether you believe that there is nothing beyond nature or that there is evidence of intelligent design of the universe (and therefore there must be something beyond nature), we could in fact be all alone.

Depressing, but possible. But it is natural for people who are all alone to look for company, right?

So the film moves on to a discussion of the SETI search with SETI spokesman Seth Shostak. Shostak comments,

Unless there is something very, very special, miraculous if you will, about out solar system, about our planet Earth, unless there is something extraordinarily unusual about it, then what happened here must have happened many times .

Now this could be construed as a religious statement (returning to the Washington Post’s concerns), because Shostak uses the word “miracle”. But it is not clear what he means by the term. In the context, he seems to mean a highly unusual, unexpected event rather than a sign from God.

Shostak is not, so far as I know, a Suspicious Person, because he is not associated with the intelligent design hypothesis. He comes off as sincere and likeable, and one fears for him — the way one fears for a person engaged in a fruitless search for a birth parent who, one suspects, he is better off not to meet. But there is no way to tell him that, and why make it one’s business anyway?

The narrator moves on to say that the assumption that habitable planets must be common has inspired a search for life beyond Earth. More than 100 planets have been identified (as of film’s making in 2004; there are surely more now).

The film states that all of these planets are gas giants like Jupiter. (It is generally believed that life could exist on rocky planets but few believe it could exist on huge gas balls.)

That information may be a bit out of date. I seem to recall reading that a possible rocky planet has been discovered since then.

However, the general consensus announced by the narrator that “few believe they would sustain even simple life,” is probably still accurate, based on the constraints on planets for harboring life that I have read about.

The narrator then refocuses a key point: “Are habitable planets rare or common?” So what is the evidence? Astrobiologist Guillermo Gonzalez (a Suspicious Person because he is associated with the intelligent design community) is then quoted as saying “The answer could be yes and the answer could be no - and either answer is interesting.”

Gonzalez is shown at work at a telescope at NASA. He candidly explains, regarding his youthful enthusiasm for alien civilizations (inspired by the lunar landings), “My belief wasn’t based on any hard-core science.” Now that he is a working scientist, he looks at it in a more hard-headed way: “There’s two sides of the equation. There’s the number of trials and then there’s the factors.”

The film then cuts to Charles Beichman, a project scientist with NASA Terrestrial Planet Finder*, who points out that, so far as we know, the same laws of physics and chemistry that apply on Earth apply everywhere in the galaxy. This view is backed up by Bijan Nemati, a physicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Why is that important? Because ETs cannot simply breathe asbestos dust or stale beer, and live.

The film adopts the view that any actual extraterrestrial life scenario will, so far as we know, obey existing laws of physics and chemistry. So if ETs are out there, they do not have to be “like us” in a detailed way but they do have to obey laws we can study and understand. That is reassuring for science.

Overall, I can see why some members of the secular elite would be squirming in their chairs at this point. Again, the squirms have nothing to do with the science.

The film isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before. It relies mostly on people who are not associated with the intelligent design hypothesis to make its point.

No, the Big Sin so far would be simply a failure to support the Carl Sagan consensus. That is, the film treats meaning and purpose in the universe as an open question. After Sagan, and more important, after Jean-Paul Sartre, nobody was allowed to do that.

2005 06 06 afternoon

Next, Kevin Grazier, a pleasant young investigation scientist at NASA’s Cassini-Huygens Mission to Saturn, points out that Earth inhabits a “Goldilocks zone” (not too hot, not too cold, just right).

The habitable zone in our solar system is relatively narrow, and a vivid demonstration of what would happen if Earth orbited the sun in the position of Venus (parboiled) or Mars (flash frozen).

Privileged Planet also discusses the uniqueness and importance of water for life, and presents it in an interesting way. I’ve written on the topic myself, and wish that more people knew about it.

Jay Richards then comments that “Contrary to what the Copernican Principle suggests, the recipe for life is much more complex than ‘just add water.’” (And, I have to admit, I have not checked my rose bowl recently for new types of life forms ... )

A long list of “necessary factors capable of supporting complex life”, appears:

- within galactic habitable zone [not too hot or cold]
- orbiting main sequence G2 dwarf star
- protected by gas giant planets [protected from asteroid hits]
- within circumstellar habitable zone
- nearly circular orbit [avoids way too cold and way too hot]
- oxygen-rich atmosphere
- correct mass [most life forms can only survive in certain gravity environments]
- orbited by large moon
- magnetic field
- plate tectonics
- ratio of liquid water and continents
- terrestrial planet
- moderate rate of rotation

If you know what the authors are talking about, you won’t need a PhD to realize that these are characteristics of Earth.

Here, I think, I can fault the film for assuming that average viewers understand what the scientists are talking about when typical public education has not remotely prepared them for it.

In school, students learn that global warming threatens Earth. But very few learn anything in school that suggests that Earth is possibly unique.

I have heard people say, seriously, that they believe that we could all move to another planet if we mess things up here. Yeah? Neptune maybe? Check it out before you put your house up for sale.

Gonzalez points out that we live on a “paper-thin crust” of Earth’s tectonic plates (movable crusts). That, in particular, brought back memories for me:

As an elementary school student an Ontario town in 1963, I was told that many American scientists did not believe that there were tectonic plates, as a result of which a professor at the University of Toronto endured much ridicule for endorsing them. My grade school teacher (probably the prof’s former grad student) once cut out a map of the continents and showed how you could fit a lot of them together. How, she asked, could people not see what this must mean? Apparently, the Americans had some other theory involving land bridges, and they were very attached to it. Now everyone knows about the tectonic plates, sort of. So things really do change.

Anyway, back to the film: As far as I can tell from my reading, the film is not misrepresenting anything with respect to the conditions life forms are generally believed to need.

Some authors have argued that life forms on Earth are merely specially adapted, and that the parameters could be very different elsewhere. Science fiction writers have developed elaborate alternate-evolution scenarios. And, of course, there is always a prof or two out there who makes a living opposing one item or another on the list. But the list represents reasonable current thinking.

Many of the ideas in the film echo books I have read, notably Nature’s Destiny, on why the universe seems adapted for life and Rare Earth on why, nonetheless, complex life is rare. Neither book promotes a religion.

Then we finally get to what, I fear, might be a truly sticky point: In a subtle and highly intellectual way, the film ridicules Sagan’s beloved Drake equation.

This is an equation that tries to estimate the number of intelligent alien civilizations in the galaxy.

Privileged Planet demonstrates the equation as a formidable looking bunch of scientific numbers—and then completely blows up the idea.

The Drake equation was one of Carl Sagan’s big moments. He really believed in that stuff, apparently. That life could start anywhere because it didn’t start for any reason or purpose, it just sort of happened.

Bijan Nemati explains why the probability is so small: You have to multiply 10 percent of this and 10 percent of that, so you multiply tiny fractions until you end up with a really small one.

“A hundred billion is a very large number but a thousandth of a trillion is much much smaller.”

Privileged Planet portrays it as 10 to the minus 15 displayed across the night sky in giant letters, of the sort that typically advertise a bait-and-switch used car deal in the Saturday paper.

Then Gonzalez is quoted saying, “Yes, we’re rare.”

(Gonzalez doesn’t say that he knows we’re alone or that he has a special message from God or anything like that.)

I just hope no one puts that guy Nemati in jail for pointing out the obvious. When a system is really rotten, pointing out the obvious is the most dangerous thing you can possibly do— and yet so often, it is the only road out of some stupid hell.

Ten per cent for the Drake equation is actually quite modest and fair You can assign whatever values you want to the probabilities because there is so little real information! Not only have no intelligent aliens turned up, but not even a single-celled organism that can reliably sourced to another planet. Just now, I’d settle for a bacterium, and I bet everyone else would too.

(Stuff to know: Earth and Mars may have whacked stuff back and forth at an early stage in their development, so it is possible that even if we find one-celled organisms on Mars, they came from Earth. Alternatively, an Earth organism could have come originally from Mars. No one was taking notes at the time.)

Then the Privileged Planet narrator asks, “Does the possibility that our planet is rare within the galaxy imply anything about its significance?”

At this point, I think I can detect a sort of religious agenda, but it’s not really different from Sagan’s except in one way:

Where he said no, these folks imply yes!

That’s kind of convenient for yer humble hack, because I’ve still got the story right.

The PP folks dissed Sagan in his own church, the Smithsonian.

I bet that the people who still mourn Sagan, who died relatively young in 1996, and believe passionately in thethings he stood for wouldn’t enjoy Privileged Planet at all, because it raises too many disturbing questions.

They are very, very mad about the fact that Privileged Planet is being shown at the Smithsonian.

But, as I said before, that has nothing to do with science.

I’m going to stop for a break now, but I am still waiting for that big “religious” theme, as in Biblical-type miracles, revelations, prophecies, and such.

Unless, of course, you think that meaning or purpose in the universe is a big religious theme but no meaning or purpose isn’t one.

But then I ask, does evidence matter? What does the evidence reasonably suggest?

June 7 update: Lots of astronomers, still no hellfire ... but keep reading

We now meet astronomer Donald Brownlee, co-author of Rare Earth, a book I found very useful for explaining why complex life is uncommon in the universe (and therefore the likely reason why no one answers SETI’s mail).

He comments, “There is a general feeling that nature wants to make Earth-like planets and that naturally life will evolve on them and naturally evolve into something like us and the conditions, the environmental conditions on the planet that would allow for more complex creatures similar to people, plants, animals, is very rare, so we wrote the book Rare Earth to point out that the Earth is actually a rather special place.”

All this is interspersed with wild nature scenery and then cuts to Brownlee at work in what looks like a really awful institutional office.

It occurs to me that Brownlee’s ideas would be great for promoting environmentalism. This coming Thursday is Earth Day here in Toronto and I will commit a Big Sin if I am fool enough to drive.

Oh, okay, now I am beginning to get it ...

Brownlee says, ... the Earth is almost like a giant organism where the systems are interactive ...

Aha! The Gaia hypothesis! So is this the big religious moment?

Basically, the Gaia hypothesis, named after an ancient Goddess, suggests that Earth is best seen as a giant organism.

But Brownlee only says that Earth is “almost like” a giant organism — and he issues no call to conversion.

Hey, wait a minute. If you are going to save people, provided they adopt your religion, you can’t say “I can almost, like, save you.” So no, this can’t be the big religious moment the Washington Post discovered. Not yet.

Brownlee goes on, “But the real question is, you know, why did this happen? Is it just a matter of luck? Or not? If you look at thousands of planets, only a small fraction, or a very small fraction, will be truly Earth-like. ”

Well, most mentally alive people eventually wonder about those kinds of things. “Why did this happen?” Well, why did anything happen? Come to think of it. Why does anything ever happen at all? Could it all have happened somewhere else? Millions of times? How can we know?

I just hope the Washington Post editorial board doesn’t think that only big-brainers at universities ever wonder about this stuff. Or worse, that if anyone else ever does wonder about it, they must have a bad case of “religion.” Talk about being out of touch ...

Ah, but now we come to a part where I think the film is dissing St. Carl again, and in his own church. While Brownlee is speaking, we cut to the Astro-Slot, a slot machine graphic that shows Earth as the triple zillion winner, coming up on all the panels.

Hmmm. That’s definitely very unorthodox, if you are a devout Saganite. Remember, Earth is only a pale blue dot. It couldn’t be a big winner.

Okay, but either Earth won or it didn’t. The only way to prove that Earth didn’t win would be to find a million more Earths. We are still looking, and the odds are not very good. That does not prove anything, but it does require that we look again at our assumptions.

Jay Richards then comments, regarding chance as an explanation, that there are 100 billion galaxies “... you have to ask yourself, ‘What if this convergence of factors didn’t come as the result of simply a fluke or luck. What if it is the result of some underlying purpose or design? And if the Earth does exist for a purpose, is there any way that we could tell?’”

That is a very good question. Maybe best suited to Science and Philosophy 101 rather than Slow Physics Students Tutorial, but, at the risk of repeating myself, if this is religion, Sagan’s Cosmos was just as much or much more so.

The narrator then introduces dramatic footage of a total eclipse of the sun in North India in 1995, including bystander reactions (clearly, they had not expected the sky to become so dark).

Astronomer Gonzalez enthuses about the event and introduces a surprising fact, well known to astronomers for hundreds of years, but not to many others: The distance of the Earth from the moon and sun happens to be exactly right for key astronomical observations of the sun during an eclipse (400 times bigger but 400 times further away). Of course, the exact position of Earth and the relationship of Earth to our sun and moon are also critical for unrelated biological reasons. Gonzalez sees that as evidence that humans were meant to explore the universe.

Well, maybe it is. On the other hand, if we are so well off here on Earth, maybe we should just stay home. Anyway, that’s just one guy’s opinion. I’m still waiting for the call to conversion.

Next, we learn how Gonzalez and Richards met up. Gonzalez liked the numbers and wrote an astrophysics paper about them, and Richards wanted to study a “wider purpose” of the universe. Together, they authored the book and DVD Privileged Planet.

Richards notes, “I had the same feeling that he did, that perfect solar eclipses were sort of the tip of the iceberg, the first instance of an entire class of evidence that provides a way for judging if the universe is the result of a fluke or some impersonal process or the result of purpose or design.”

Well, Carl Sagan knew the answer already and it was either “fluke” or, at best, “impersonal process.” But how exactly did Sagan know? How can we know if he was right? What if he wasn’t right? Shouldn’t that make a big difference to science?

I’m still waiting for the hellfire tracts. Maybe they come in the mail. Mail from the States is slow here in Toronto, so I must be patient.

Rot! Still no hellfire. But keep reading. It is starting to get a bit hotter!

Philosopher Richards hails astronomer Gonzalez’s information about how convenient eclipses are for science, published in a peer-reviewed journal, as possibly the first instance in a “whole class of evidence” that might provide a way to tell whether the universe is a fluke, an impersonal process, or design.

I think that by “fluke,” Richards means that there is no point to it at all. By “impersonal process,” I think he means that there is something like a point, (for example, that there is an intelligence but it doesn’t know that you exist). The third option is design (there is an intelligence and it knows you exist).

I could fault the film here for assuming that everyone knows what “impersonal process” means. I am not sure; I am just guessing, but I bet I am mostly right.

It’s more the script writer’s fault than philosopher Richards’s. You have to stop these people sometimes, and say, “Can we get the bus stop translation, not the learned society one?”

We are told that in 1999, Gonzalez and Richards met up and started studying eclipses together.

Against a background of an eclipse, the narrator notes, “... these striking events are not only compelling to observe, they also open a port onto the physics and chemistry of the entire universe.”

Okay ... so we don’t have to leave the planet to study the stuff that if we didn’t know we couldn’t leave the planet? Yes, that’s handy.

Gonzalez then says “Really, you can think of eclipses as a giant natural experiment set up that allows us to observe a part of the sun that’s critical towards understanding how its light is produced and its atmosphere.”

Now at this point, people who think that there is no detectible meaning or purpose in the universe will protest that no one has set up any kind of natural experiment. It all just happened. This universe could be one pass among a zillion failed universes where no one learns anything or goes anywhere.

Well, let’s see.

We now hear from another scientist (I remember the face, not the name), who enthuses about the fact that the exact ratios of the sizes of the Earth, moon and sun allows us to measure the exact ratios of the constituents of the sun’s upper atmosphere.

Then a graphic illustration follows of the flash spectrum that can be viewed through a prism during a total eclipse. The narrator explains the significance by pointing out that, for example, the eclipse of 1870 led to the discovery of helium, the second most abundant element in the universe.

Gonzalez notes, “The spectrum is probably the single greatest source of information about a star.”

The narrator then says, accompanied by graphics, that these circumstances are “both precise and crucial.” If our moon was a bit larger, it would block our view of this chromosphere and if it was a bit smaller, it would allow too much light and the spectrum could not be seen.

This knowledge, Gonzalez explained, allows scientists to understand how stars work, in general, so astrophysics was born.

Okay, so the gods must be scientists. I think that’s way better than the scientists must be gods, but let’s move on.

The narrator tells us that on May 29, 1919, during an eclipse, British astronomer Arthur Eddington and colleagues photographed the stars in the Hyades star cluster. Later analysis of their data verified that light bends, verifying Einstein’s theory of relativity.

(We see notes taken in beautiful handwriting. Is this real? I hope so. Part of the text is in German, I think ... )

Gonzalez comments that Eddington’s experiment was only possible because stars become visible during the day in a total eclipse, so eclipses are very important in the history of science.

Interesting to reflect that people used to run and scream about these things.

Now Gonzalez says something really interesting: “The best place in the entire solar system to view solar eclipses is from the surface of the Earth. I’ve actually calculated the circumstances for eclipses from all the other planets and all the other moons - 65 of them, the major moons - ” and it’s an amazing coincidence - the one place that has observers is the one place that has the best eclipses.

We see more footage of people reacting excitedly to the darkness at noonday ... Look, I’d act excited too, okay? A person who is not an astronomer should at least get into the mood somehow.

Narrator says, “Within the gossamer light of a solar eclipse, Gonzalez and Richards recognized a fascinating connection between the factors necessary for complex life and scientific observation. But was this merely an isolated fluke of nature or a glimpse at a principle and a purpose was fundamental to the universe as a whole?”

We’d all like to know. So first, does anyone want to dispute Gonzalez on the facts? Could you see a better eclipse, for example, anywhere in the solar system?

I can certainly see why, in the Church of St. Carl, this is all heresy, regardless of whether Gonzalez is right or wrong on the facts of the case. Science, remember, is supposed to be a big accident, like everything else.

But so far I still don’t know what the Washington Post thinks the big religious message is because I have not found any basic proposition argued here that goes beyond what Carl Sagan argues, as opposed to merely opposing what he would argue with evidence.

But I will keep watching.

Aha! The smoking hypothesis!

Finally we get to the big hypothesis of Privileged Planet!

Following the discussion of the uniqueness of earth for science discoveries, Jay Richards says, “What if those things that make a planet habitable also make that planet the best place for making scientific discoveries? That is, what if those rare locations in the universe that are compatible with observers like ourselves are also the best places overall for making observations?”

Well, here again we have a falsifiable assertion. Does anyone know of better realistic places for making observations than Earth?

The narrator announces that after three years of research and testing, Richards and Gonzalez published their hypothesis in The Privileged Planet (2004).

Then the key hypothesis — presumably the theme of Privileged Planet — appears on the screen:
The same narrow circumstances that allow us to exist also provide us with the best overall setting for making scientific discoveries.

Of course, my first reaction was to assume that these guys are on the NASA payroll. I mean who should be the happiest people on the planet, if their hypothesis is true?

Richards then explains that in the book Privileged Planet , he and Gonzalez detail more than a dozen examples of key correlations between life and discovery. (I have not read the book, but will try to post non-tendentious reviews.)

We then cut to a discussion of one of these factors, the atmosphere of the Earth. Interestingly, that thin band that keeps us all alive is currently the subject of one of the other BIG debates, global warming.

Other planets such as Mars and Uranus are shown, and the narrator points out that among the approximately 70 known planets and moons (that are not just a lop-sided rock), Earth is the only one whose atmosphere can sustain complex life and the only one whose atmosphere is transparent.

Now again, here’s a great chance to prove Richards and Gonzalez wrong. Can someone falsify this observation?

Gonzalez explains that, unlike some other planetary atmospheres, Earth’s atmosphere is clear. That is because it is made up of mostly nitrogen and oxygen but very little carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds. The transparent atmosphere is well suited to astronomy.

Of the other bodies in the solar system that have thick, hazy atmospheres, the narrator says, “None of these alien worlds view the stars, or even offers a clear view of the sun.”

I guess doing astronomy without a clear atmosphere would be like trying to figure out how much snow fell last night while staring at the basement wall ...

Jay Richards then asks why it is that the only planet that is habitable is also the best one for science?

Yeah, how is that? And don’t tell me I am an idiot for wondering.

Of course, this is all heresy in the Church of St. Carl (Sagan), because we are supposed to know somehow that it is all a big accident.

So the big hypothesis has been announced, ... and my local letter carrier has come and gone.

Where ARE those hellfire tracts I thought I was going to get, anyway? I can’t start banging on doors up and down the street, bugging my neighbours with my Big Message from God, until I hear something that isn’t just about how great astronomy is and (more subtly) why devout astronomers are not mad.

(The undevout astronomer is mad. - Edward Young)

The Gods Must Be Raving

The pace of the film begins to slow down a bit here, but bear with me; we’re getting somewhere.

(Note: If you are following the Privileged Planet-Smithsonian uproar and are new to this blog, scroll down to the Service note below for options.)

Having mentioned the virtues of the Earth’s atmosphere, the narrator notes, “The virtues of such an atmosphere are continually tested.” We are told that Earth is bombarded with radiation from the sun and other bodies throughout the universe, even supernovas of distant galaxies. The electromagnetic spectrum is listed: (gamma, Xray, ultraviolet, visible, infrared, microwave, and radio waves. While almost all the wavelengths are invisible, lethal, or useless but a “thin sliver of radiation” is essential for life.

Jay Richards points out that the narrow spectrum essential for life also turns out to be the spectrum best suited to making observations about the universe.

We are then told that these specific frequencies that suit both plants and astronomers, while produced in abundance by our sun, represent less of than one trillionth of a trillionth of the universe’s natural range of electromagnetic energy.

As much of that number as can be accommodated is observed to shoot across the night sky, like a very improbable celestial body.

So far, so what, I found myself asking? Haven’t we been here before, with fine tuning, eclipses, atmosphere, et cetera? How many more of these episodes will there be?

BUT, Guillermo Gonzalez then says,

It’s a remarkable coincidence that the kind of atmosphere that’s needed for complex life like ourselves does not preclude that life from observing the distant universe. It’s something that you wouldn’t expect just chance to produce. Why would the universe be such that those places that are most habitable also offer the best opportunity for scientific discovery?

Okay, ... before we go on, let’s recap St. Carl (Sagan)’s key teaching:

Because of the reflection of sunlight the Earth seems to be sitting in a beam of light, as if there were some special significance to this small world ... but it’s just an accident of geometry and optics. Look again at that dot. That’s here. Home. That’s us. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

Do you see a conflict here? If you don’t you must have skipped a page or two. This is truly a deadly heresy in the Church of St. Carl, whose implications did not hit me clearly until now:

Richards and Gonzalez are saying two closely related but slightly different things:

1. The science evidence clearly and obviously contradicts the general teachings of the Church of St. Carl.
2. If the exact conditions of life are the same as the exact conditions for observation and exploration, then maybe human strivings do have some empirically detectible significance.

I think this second item is what disturbed the Washington Post. Unambiguous evidence from science is being used — without any editorializing so far — to attack the immensely powerful twentieth-century “life in a world without meaning” cult. This cult is, after all, the staple of every art filmfest, artie magazine, artsie course in sociology and religion ... By implication, Richards and Gonzalez are casting down secular saints as important as Ernest Hemingway and Jean-Paul Sartre.

There is an unwritten understanding, after all, that science must never be used in public to attack the cult of life after meaning, only to uphold and support it. And the film violates this understanding.

But so far no one has advocated any religion; they have instead undermined the religion of the secular cultural elite.

Yeah, I guess the gods are mad!

Starry Starry Night

Almost up to the very end, the film makes the case, with further examples, that Earth is ideally suited to astronomy. (See the next post for what happens then!)

According to the narrator, Earth is located “in the relatively safe and uncrowded region” between the Sagittarius and Perseus arms of the Milky Way.

I must say, it feels odd hearing this kind of thing without the “and therefore we are insignificant” theme that I grew up with.

Service note: If you are looking for the rest of my extended review of Privileged Planet, go here. If you are looking for information on the showing of Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian, go here and here to start, and then this one will bring you up to date. My extended review aims at determining exactly why the Washington Post thinks it is a “religious” film, or anyway, more so or in some different way than Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

Gonzalez restates that, when appraising a planet, location is everything. We cut to page views of the book Privileged Planet, a more detailed look at the authors' hypothesis.

The narrator notes that Gonzalez and Richards “now argue that Earth is also located in the best setting within our galaxy for astronomical research.”

“As it turns out, our position in the universe is not only critical for life, it is also surprisingly important for making scientific discoveries, ” Gonzalez goes on, driving the point home, that we are near the mid-plane of a very highly flattened galaxy, with low dust problems, so we can have clear views.

Again, does someone want to argue against this? Are there in fact better places for doing astronomy that are known to be habitable?

Against the background of stars and an observatory, the narrator says,

For more than a century, this nearly ideal platform for observation has enabled astronomers to study the structure of the Milky Way. Looking toward the constellation Sagittarius on a clear night, for example, we see that the stars in our galaxy are not uniformly distributed across the sky. Instead, they appear as a concentrated band, a flattened disk of stars, dust, and gas, one hundred thousand light years in diameter ....

[... and here we are, lost forever in this vast immensity, travelling alone, coming from nowhere and going nowhere ... Oh, wait a minute! That was not in the script! Wow, I forgot. This isn’t the Church of St. Carl (Sagan). No wonder I couldn’t find my place in the prayer book ... ]

Gonzalez explains that if we were living in the center of the galaxy, things would look much more “spherically distributed.” In that case, it would be much harder to distinguish between things that are inside the galaxy and things that are outside. Also, he notes, the center is much dustier than our region, so “views of the distant universe would be much more difficult to obtain, they’d be much more compromised.”

(It’s worth considering that, unless some really big sci-fi breakthrough occurs, we can’t really visit distant reaches of the universe, so we would never know about them if we couldn’t see them.)

The narrator says that if we were actually in one of the spiral arms, dust clouds and stars would make it difficult to determine the shape of the Milky Way or to distinguish the stars in our galaxy from the rest of the universe.

Jay Richards says, “We’re really in the optimum position for seeing the nearby structure of the Milky Way galaxy, as well as seeing the distant cosmos as a whole.” (A photo montage of galaxies near and far appears.)

He restates his position that the best overall position for habitability is also the best for scientific discovery, in this case on a galactic scale.

A figure of our flattened galaxy appears, rolls over a few times and veers off to the left.

I can certainly see why Gonzalez and Richards think that it can’t all be just a big accident. But, of course, St. Carl must have known most of this stuff too. Is there important evidence that contradicts Richards and Gonzalez?

Or could it be that the doctrines of the Church of St. Carl, as outlined in Cosmos, must be received on faith and can only be known by faith?

I have now located the passages that the Washington Post probably thinks are “religious.”

(Note: I’d seen the controversial film last fall, but if you asked me which passages might be construed as religious, I couldn’t. That is why I decided to do a thorough analysis.)

Service note: If you are looking for the rest of my extended review of Privileged Planet, go here. If you are looking for information on the showing of Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian, go here and here to start, and then this one will bring you up to date. My extended review aims at determining exactly why the Washington Post thinks it is a “religious” film, or anyway, more so or in some different way than Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

A quotation from Albert Einstein appears against the starry night background:

The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.
Albert Einstein

Jay Richards says,
For centuries, the fact that we can discover things about the universe has really been something of a mystery. Why would beings like ourselves be able to discover a universe like this? Why is what we think about the universe - why would it correspond to the way things really are.

We now cut to theoretical physicist Paul Davies, of the Australian Centre for Astro biology, who says:
Our ability to understand and discern the universe is a fundamental part of what makes the universe tick, so that we are linked into it. This isn’t just an accident, to be a trivial little byproduct; it is linked to the great cosmic scheme of things. Now, I have no idea how that linkage works, why it’s there, or anything of that sort, but I am very, very struck by the fact that we can understand the universe in such exquisite detail at such a deep level.

Whoa! So mind is not simply an accidental outgrowth of matter? The fact that we are able to discern the universe at a deep level is part of a cosmic scheme, not just another accident? Make a note of that. This is another heresy against metaphysical naturalism, the Church of St. Carl (Sagan).*

(*Metaphysical naturalism, or naturalism, argues that nature is all there is, mind is an accident of evolution, and there is no great cosmic scheme of things, in the sense Davies means.)

The really interesting thing is that Davies is not an intelligent design supporter and only arguably a theist. But he is a dangerous fellow anyway: generally, he thinks too much and asks too many good questions, as Einstein did. Later on in the film, he is quoted saying some Really Bad Stuff. Hang on.

Let me pause a moment to shill books here. I have read several of Davies’s books and recommend them, especially About Time and Are We Alone?.

Anyway, the narrator goes on to restate that the spectacular progress of the modern scientific enterprise is the product of a universe accessible to the human mind and finely calibrated both for life and scientific discovery.

We view graphics of subatomic particles, names of fundamental forces and such against the starry sky. Robin Collins, a philosopher of science from Messiah College, says that all the forces must work together or there is no complex life.

Again the thought occurs to me (Collins doesn’t say it): Either there are a zillion junk universes pile up out there, or this awe-inspiring confluence is not just an accident.

The narrator notes that during the last forty years, scientists have determined the relative strengths of each of these primary laws and forces (strong, electromagnetic, weak, and gravity) and notes that they are considered to be “finely tuned.”

That’s not news, of course, it’s just widely underreported.

In the Church of St. Carl, science evidence is only legitimate if it appears to oppose meaning and purpose in the universe or in humanity, Cosmos-style. It is not much discussed if it appears to support meaning and purpose. I put that down to the twentieth-century establishment’s cult of “life in a world without meaning”.

(Note: In an assortment of papers, intended to demonstrate the fact that fine-tuning is an issue that thoughtful scientists have much pondered, I saw suspicious headline: “An amazing array of scientists are bewildered by the design of the ...” This could be a fundamentalist tract of some kind. But I can’t see what it actually says.)

Richards then repeats the theme,
If you are to take the fundamental constants of nature and you were to change these even slightly or to pick their values at random, you would almost never get a universe that would be habitable in any sort of way.

This is all widely known. St. Carl must have known about this stuff. Again, I wonder what his actual science argument against it was? Or did he have one? Did anyone ever ask him for one? What happened to people who did ask? Or did we just assume that if he said so, it must be right?

The narrator now asks us to imagine a machine, and lo! an imaginary machine somewhat like a huge motherboard floats through night sky ... showing the constants. He repeats that if the constants differed even slightly, “the impact would be catastrophic.” Persons who have experienced a disastrous computer failure triggered by an apparently trivial incident will resonate with that image.

Science historian Collins then makes the interesting observation that if gravity, for example, was increased even a tiny bit, any life form bigger than a pea would be completely crushed. Bacteria might exist, but not complex life.

Theoretical physicist Davies pipes up, restating the key points, and the narrator notes that not only are these properties finely tuned for our existence, but they can also be understood by humans. Gonzalez notes that it is remarkable how well the laws work, how simple they are, and therefore discoverable.

This is a key point, and is likely part of the growing culture shock that many viewers would experience watching with this film. The fact that the laws work is one thing; the fact that they are beautiful and simple, and that humans can understand them and are ideally placed to discover them is quite another.

If this is an accurate description of the universe, it isn’t Sagan’s universe, so it would be difficult for some people to deal with, especially establishment types who are heavily invested in ideas about life in a world without meaning.

A quotation from Albert Einstein appears against a starry sky:

I have deep faith that the principles of the universe will be both beautiful and simple.
Albert Einstein

The narrator says, “For nearly four hundred years, scientists have discovered an elegant simplicity in the mathematical equations that express and unlock the laws of the cosmos.”

Richards adds:
It has been said that many of the most important theories in theoretical physics can be written on a single sheet of paper, and I think ought to be considered surprising, that such a simple formula or equation could have such far-reaching applications to a very complicated and very large universe.
Collins follows up, repeating this idea.

These people repeat themselves a lot, actually, but I didn’t especially mind because the graphics are really good. Then, all of a sudden ... we see equations against the sky, and Davies says:

Most scientists just take it for granted that the world is both ordered and intelligible, and the intelligible part I find really quite extraordinary because it is one thing to accept that the universe is ordered but ordered in a way that human beings are capable of understanding is an extraordinary thing, and so the question naturally arises, what is the explanation for that?

Ooooh, be careful, fella. Repeat after me uber-Darwinist G.G. Simpson’s great line , “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned.” Keep repeating it, and don’t wonder about any contradictions between the planlessness of humans that so many biology teachers like to harp on and the careful organization of the universe as a whole.

The narrator says, “Many who have pondered this mystery of an intelligible universe argue that it cannot be easily explained away.”

Robin Collins adds, "From naturalistic assumptions, you would not expect the universe to be understandable by human reason."

Red flag here: “Naturalistic assumptions” is a rude word in many quarters. You are not supposed to realize that naturalism is an assumption about the universe, not a result of science discoveries. No one has proved it. The Church of St. Carl assumes it. And the rest of us are just supposed to just accept it like a fish accepts water. Naughty Robin.

Now we cut to Paul Davies, who says,

We have, certain skills, we can jump streams, and catch falling apples and so on which are necessary for getting by, but why is it that we also have the ability to discern what is getting on inside atoms or inside black holes? These are completely outside the domain of everyday experience, totally surplus to our requirements, not at all necessary for good Darwinian survival.

Paul Davies, I warned you, and you didn’t listen. Not only didn’t you listen, but you have gone and spoken the Deplorable Word! You have as much as said that Darwinian survival may not fully account for human nature. Darwinism is the emotional epicenter of the Church of St. Carl. There is still time to retract, to say you were just speculating ... But not much time ....

Gonzalez stirs the pot again, adding, “The discoverability of the universe is something we didn’t need for our existence. It’s something additional to it. It seems then that whatever the source of the universe is, it intended that it contain observers who can discover.”

Jay Richards restates the main thesis, then adds, “I think that that’s the sort of pattern that ought to suggest to people conspiracy rather than mere coincidence” and Guillermo Gonzalez adds, “There’s something about the universe that can’t be simply explained by the impersonal forces of nature and atoms colliding with atoms. You have to reach for something beyond the universe to try to account for it.”

Intended observers? Things conspiring to create meaning? Reaching beyond the universe? This is obviously the religious part, and it is heretical.

According to the established Church of St. Carl, the universe is closed and without meaning. St. Carl doesn’t demonstrate that; he assumes it as a starting point.

We now see pictures of random pages of an old manuscript book. The narrator says:

Such an approach lies at the foundation of modern science. In his search for a more elegant description of the solar system, Nicolas Copernicus was motivated by his desire to comprehend what he called “The mechanism of the universe, wrought for us by a supremely good and orderly Creator, the system the best and most orderly artist of all framed for our sake.

Dennis Danielson, Editor, of The Book of the Cosmos, says, “So he imagined this analogy of the work of a workman, a craftsman making something that worked well. That analogy wasn’t one of his conclusions. That analogy was one of his assumptions. ”

Against a background of a collage of old paintings of major foundational scientists at work,Jay Richards says
The founders of modern science like Copernicus and Galileo and Kepler and Newton himself believed that the universe was the product of a mind, that it was intelligible to beings like ourselves because the universe itself was the product of an intelligent being.

That’s true, but very embarrassing. Science evidence demonstrated meaning and purpose for those guys. Meaning and purpose was not just some motivational pie-in-the-sky forthem (which, if we are smart, we know is all nonsense, really), the way it became in the twentieth-century, because mega-pundits said so.

The Church of St. Carl avoids the views of the older scientists and probably regards any mention of them as, in itself, “religious”. For example, I learned from a book I am reviewing that,

A proposal to the NSF to fund the publication of Isaac Newton’s to-date unpublished work on theology was rejected even though the proposal was made by one of the world’s leading Newton scholars. The reason given, according to Shermer, was that it would be bad for science if it became generally known that the greatest scientist of all time actually believed in God.. (P. 125)

Intelligent laypeople should be outraged by the idea that they need to be protected from this information for their own good.

Paul Davies notes, regarding the great scientists,
They were driven by this notion that this was essentially a theological quest. They were uncovering God’s handiwork and the way the world worked. I mean, what a thought. We’re being given a glimpse of the mind of God, a to figure out how God put the universe together. It’s a hidden subtext in nature that can be exposed through this procedure we call science.

The narrator concedes,
Though most scientists no longer think in such explicitly theological terms, recent evidence may again point to an earth far different from the contemporary image of a pale blue dot lost in a cosmic sea.

By specifically using the words pale blue dot, the narrator is here dissing St. Carl again— driving the point home that Sagan was wrong—and yet widely believed.

The image shows a zoom up from an observatory to Earth and the moon on their celestial path, then the sun and other planets.

Jay Richards says,
We’ve often been told, especially in the twentieth century, that the universe does not have us in mind, that is, that we exist in a very large universe and that the universe was not designed for beings like us. We are simply life that happened to come about on a tiny little planet surrounding a tiny insignificant star in a run of the mill galaxy within a very large universe that was not intended. Our argument suggests something completely different. It suggests that the universe exists for a purpose and the purpose isn’t simply for beings like ourselves to exist, but for us to extend ourselves beyond our small world home, to view the universe at large, to discover the universe and to consider whether in fact that universe points beyond itself.

So Richards has here summarized the heresy, while dissing St. George Gaylord, the great Darwinist who “knew” that the universe did not have us in mind.

The narrator closes with
As we gaze ever deeper into the universe, we are inevitably drawn back to timeless questions. What is the source of the cosmos? And what is our purpose within it? While answers will always be debated, valuable new insights are now at hand emerging from a corner of the universe where complex life and scientific discovery have converged. Our extraordinary planet called Earth.

And then the credits.

I now realize that I won’t be getting any hellfire tracts in the mail. (I must continue to bug my neighbours about purely mundane matters.)

The only thing these Privileged Planet people want me to do is consider what the science evidence about the universe really suggests. If that’s a problem for the Church of St. Carl, it says way more about the Church of St. Carl than it does about the universe.

The next post offers my summary opinion of the film.


It is high time someone perpetrated a heresy like this, but of course they will have to go to the stake!

1. Privileged Planet is an excellent film and should be widely shown. It is a shame that the Smithsonian was scared into withdrawing its original support by a pack of yahoos who are a disgrace to a free society. The Smithsonian public affairs department should have begun every response to a complaint with “Have you seen the film? Can you describe what you are complaining about?” That would blow the Darwinbots off promptly. If the Smithsonian is indeed planning new policies, as reported, that should definitely be one.

2. The film is religious throughout in exactly the same sense as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is religious. It makes and defends a statement about the nature of the universe. But the Church of St. Carl, whose doctrine is metaphysical naturalism (nature is without meaning or purpose) is the established religion of the educated elite in the United States. The Washington Post so totally accepts the Church of St. Carl’s teachings as a norm that they don’t even see them as religion. Those teachings are “just the way things are.” The Posties think that Privileged Planet is religion because it addresses the actual science evidence and comes to an opposite conclusion.

3. Science evidence doesn’t matter much to the Church of St. Carl. I suspect that that is because the evidence is mostly on Richards and Gonzalez’s side. But as long as the Church of St. Carl remains the United States’s established church, evidence will not be entertained.

4. While the film does not discuss evolution, it implies that evolution may not be fully naturalistic, purposeless, and accidental. It would be hard to overestimate how emotionally attached the Church of St. Carl’s members are to fully naturalistic evolution, even though the tide of evidence is running against it — or perhaps precisely because the tide of evidence is running against it.

I’m looking forward to the East Coast premiere at the Smithsonian on June 23, whether or not the Smithsonian likes it.

I personally believe that the Church of St. Carl should be disestablished for its own good. Science institutions should not be in the business of supporting only films that deny meaning and purpose and attempting to suppress films that document it.



(Blog Policy Note: If you have watched the Privileged Planet film and wish to comment on it, you are welcome. As a matter of policy rather than lack of time, I will not address any posts about Privileged Planet unless the poster can begin by reassuring me that he or she has seen the film. I simply do not have time to correspond with anyone who will not make such a minimal contribution to a free society. I will, however, finish my own extended review before I address such posts. (If you want to comment on the film without having seen it, there is apparently a huge number of forums available to you, so please go to one of them.)

The Post-Darwinist’s Comments section is now treated as a combination Letters/Op-Ed page. It is surely unnecessary to mention this in polite company, but just for the record, this blog is not a showcase for cussing, dissing, rude remarks, unsubstantiated accusations, URLs posted with little additional information, et cetera. All this stuff gets borfed as soon as I notice it. If you wish to direct readers to other blogs or sites, that's fine but please take a couple of sentences (perhaps 50 to 100 words) to explain what the reader will learn there. There are many worthwhile sites out there. Why is your fave special?)

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?.

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