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Monday, June 13, 2005

Privileged Planet: Found: The “religious” passages

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 Charmer, 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.

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

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