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Sunday, June 05, 2005

Privileged Planet 1: Dissing St. Carl in his own church? So was that the crime?

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.

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.

(To be continued)

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