A Leap Ahead to a Long Look Back
THE PRIVILEGED PLANET:
HOW OUR PLACE IN THE COSMOS
IS DESIGNED FOR DISCOVERY
by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay
464 pages, $27.95
Available in bookstores
Here's a publishing event that stands to do nothing less than frame the thinking of an entire generation not only on science — but on theology as well.
For at least two centuries, scientists by and large have insisted that Earth is a dismally ordinary planet, an unintended byproduct of cosmic evolution spinning around an insignificant sun in one of the billions of galaxies peppering the cold, dark, indifferent universe. According to this view, Earth is (in the words of the late Carl Sagan) “a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”
This approach has been dubbed the “Copernican Principle” after the famous Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). Legend has it that he hurled us into insignificance by announcing in the 16th century that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the cosmos. His principle has become a kind of gospel for secularizing scientists like Sagan bent on deflating “our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe.”
Sagan did not live to see the advent of a revolution that may yet sweep away the Copernican Principle. For, as this revolutionary text by astronomer-physicist Guillermo Gonzalez and theologian-philosopher Jay Richards demonstrates, Earth is a privileged planet indeed. The deck has been stacked in its favor with a suspicious thoroughness in every imaginable detail.
Gonzalez and Richards show how Earth is privileged in two important and very surprising respects. First, the conditions that allow for complex life on our planet are so extraordinary that it may well be the only planet in the universe that could possibly support complex life. Second, our place in the cosmos is (as the subtitle says) “designed for discovery.” That is, Earth is eerily well equipped as a laboratory for the very human activity of science.
Did you know, for example, that Earth is the only place in our solar system where it is possible to view a perfect solar eclipse, “where the moon just covers the sun's bright photosphere”? Or that our ability to understand the chemical makeup of distant stars depended upon discoveries made during these rare and magnificent events? But having a total solar eclipse (where our moon exactly covers our sun) depends on the curious, near-perfect roundness of our moon, placed at just the right distance between the earth and the sun.
This is the same moon, by the way, that has just the right mass to stabilize our earth's tilt so that we don't have enormous, lethal climate changes.
This is only one of the hundreds of strange “coincidences” pointed out by Gonzalez and Richards. For them, it cannot be mere coincidence that the “same rare conditions that have sustained our existence also make possible a stunning array of discoveries about the universe.” What can we legitimately infer? “We have good reason to suspect that things have been intentionally arranged, even if this came about through the interaction of natural laws and initial conditions.” In short, not only the latest evidence in science, but the very fact that we have science at all “points to purpose and intelligent design in the cosmos.”
The implications of this well-backed assertion for theology are immense — and well worth considering for believers and skeptics alike.
Benjamin D. Wiker writes from Hopedale, Ohio.
- May 30-June 5, 2004