You are all aware of the creationist op-ed column by Discovery Institute fellow traveler Eric Metaxas that recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal, about which we wrote More Creationism in the Wall Street Journal. It’s been endlessly re-posted at other news sites, and it’s been the subject of adoring praise by a number of creationists.
Afterwards, we took a stab at criticizing that creationist nonsense — see The “Science” of Intelligent Design — but our effort is nothing compared to what we found today. It’s a splendid rebuttal of the Metaxas nonsense, and it appears in a publication as mainstream as the Wall Street Journal.
In the New Yorker magazine we read No, Astrobiology Has Not Made the Case for God, written by Lawrence M. Krauss, theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Arizona State University. It’s excellent, and we urge you to read it all. The only thing we’ll do here is repeat a few of his most powerful rebuttals, which belong in everyone’s intellectual arsenal. Here we go, with bold font was added by us for emphasis:
Recently, the Wall Street Journal published a piece with the surprising title “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” At least it was surprising to me, because I hadn’t heard the news.
That’s good! Then Krauss says:
[T]he article was a not-so-thinly-veiled attempt to resurrect the notion of intelligent design, which gives religious arguments the veneer of science — this time in a cosmological context. Life exists only on Earth and has not been found elsewhere. Moreover, the conditions that caused life to appear here are miraculous. So doesn’t that mean we must have come from a miracle at the hand of God?
Yes, that’s the argument. It boils down to: Look, look! Ooooooooh, ooooooooh! Design, design! Let’s read on:
Let’s start with the first point raised in the Journal piece, which is that the more we have learned about our own evolutionary history on Earth, the more we appreciate the many different factors that may have been important in allowing that evolution. [Then a few of the Privileged Planet factors are listed.] By considering each of these many factors and imagining the probability of each separately, one can imagine that the combination is statistically very unlikely, or impossible.
Such a claim is fraught with statistical perils, however. The first is a familiar mistake of elaborating all the factors responsible for some specific event and calculating all the probabilities as if they were independent. In order for me to be writing this piece at this precise instant on this airplane, having done all the things I’ve done today, consider all the factors that had to be “just right”: [List of factors.] It would be easy for me to derive a set of probabilities that, when multiplied together, would produce a number so small that it would be statistically impossible for me to be here now writing.
This approach, of course, involves many fallacies. It is clear that many routes could have led to the same result. Similarly, when we consider the evolution of life on Earth, we have to ask what factors could have been different and still allowed for intelligent life. Consider a wild example, involving the asteroid that hit Earth sixty-five million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and a host of other species, and probably allowing an evolutionary niche for mammals to begin to flourish. This was a bad thing for life in general, but a good thing for us. Had that not happened, however, maybe giant intelligent reptiles would be arguing about the existence of God today.
Well done! He continues:
An even more severe problem in Metaxas’s argument is the assumption of randomness, namely that physical processes do not naturally drive a system toward a certain state. This is the most common error among those who argue that, given the complexity of life on Earth, evolution is as implausible as a tornado ravaging a junkyard and producing a 747. The latter event is, indeed, essentially statistically impossible. However, we now understand that the process of natural selection implies that evolution is anything but random. Is it a miracle that the planet produced animals as complex as, and yet as different from, humans, dolphins, and cicadas, each so well “designed” for its own habitat? No. Natural selection drives systems in a specific direction, and the remarkable diversity of species on Earth today, each evolved for evolutionary success in a different environment, is one result.
Also well done! Skipping a few paragraphs, Krauss then talks about “fine tuning of the constants of nature in order for us to exist”:
It is true that a small change in the strength of the four known forces (but nowhere near as small as Metaxas argues) would imply that stable protons and neutrons, the basis of atomic nuclei, might not exist. (The universe, however, would—a rather large error in the Metaxas piece.) This is old news and, while it’s an interesting fact, it certainly does not require a deity.
Once again, it likely confuses cause and effect. The constants of the universe indeed allow the existence of life as we know it. However, it is much more likely that life is tuned to the universe rather than the other way around. We survive on Earth in part because Earth’s gravity keeps us from floating off. But the strength of gravity selects a planet like Earth, among the variety of planets, to be habitable for life forms like us. Reversing the sense of cause and effect in this statement, as Metaxas does in cosmology, is like saying that it’s a miracle that everyone’s legs are exactly long enough to reach the ground.
There’s much more in the article, but we’ve excerpted enough. Now click over there and read it. It’s as good as it gets. No doubt, the Discoveroids will be posting something in response, in an effort to salvage the Metaxas column, because — as defective as it was — it’s essentially all they’ve got. That will be amusing.
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