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Were Special After All

Written by Colson Center for Christian Worldview on . Posted in BreakPoint Commentaries

Hey—guess what? There’s something cosmically special about us human beings after all. Even the Washington Post says so. One of the cardinal tenets of a worldview shaped by materialism and Neo-Darwinism is a rejection of the idea that human beings are in any way special. Instead, we’re merely the result of a fortuitous accident. What’s more, many adherents postulate that this accident has occurred, perhaps even often, elsewhere in the Cosmos. So there’s nothing exceptional or unique about us. However, Howard A. Smith, an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian-Harvard Center for Astrophysics, begs to differ. In a recent Washington Post article, Smith told readers that an “objective look at just two of the most dramatic discoveries of astronomy . . . big bang cosmology and planets around other stars,” suggests that those who have relegated humanity to cosmic insignificance are, in a word, wrong. He points to the Anthropic Principle, which holds that “the universe, far from being a collection of random accidents, appears to be stupendously perfect and fine-tuned for life.” What’s more, the “life” being referred to here isn’t just algae and the occasional vertebrate. Citing the work of philosopher Thomas Nagel and astrophysicist John Wheeler, who coined the term “black hole,” Smith raises the possibility that “intelligent beings must somehow be the directed goal of such a curiously fine-tuned cosmos.” This raises an obvious question: How much intelligent life is out there? The answer, according to Smith, is that life “is probably rarer than previously imagined.” Smith continues, “Life might be common in the very distant universe—or it might not be—and we are unlikely to know. We are probably rare—and it seems likely we will be alone for eons.” That’s because of what is known as the “misanthropic principle” or, alternatively, the “Rare Earth Hypothesis.” Believe it or not, the fine-tuning required to make life possible was the easy part. Because “it takes vastly more than liquid water and a pleasant environment to give birth even to simple (much less complex) life.” Smith cites the work of Nobel Laureate Jacques Monod and Stephen Jay Gould, who “emphasized the extraordinary circumstances that led to intelligence on Earth.” The “combined astronomical, biological and evolutionary chances for life to form and evolve to intelligence” are infinitesimally small. Throw in the enormity of the cosmos—for instance, the Milky Way galaxy is said to be 100,000 light years across—and, as Smith says, “we probably have no one to talk to.” So, it turns out that we are far from ordinary, much less “chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet” as Stephen Hawking so depressingly put it. Smith concludes that “humanity and our home planet, Earth, are rare and cosmically precious,” and he urges us to “act accordingly.” And all God’s people said “Amen!” Now, I’m neither an astrophysicist nor have I played one on television. But two years ago I made similar arguments in the Wall Street Journal. While the overall response to the piece I wrote was positive, there were still plenty of critics who took me to task for “masquerading as a scientist,” which of course I was not doing. I simply cited what had been, in Smith’s words, “accepted by physicists for forty-three years,” and asked the obvious questions raised by what we know. Smith asked different, but no-less important questions. As was the case two years ago, rejection of what he has to say about the astronomical un-likelihood of human existence will have little to do with science. But it will have a lot to do with a fanatical commitment to a sadly materialist and anemic worldview.

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