Creationist Wisdom #613: It’s a Miracle!

Today’s letter-to-the-editor appears in the Daily Journal of San Mateo, California — in the middle of Silicon Valley. It’s titled Miraculous existence. The newspaper has a comments feature, with only one comment so far.

We don’t like to embarrass people (unless they’re politicians, preachers, or other public figures), but we have an exceptional situation here. The letter-writer is Jonathan Madison, described at the end as “A native of Pacifica [a city in San Mateo County, California], Jonathan Madison worked as professional policy staff for the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Financial Services, for two years. Jonathan currently [is in] his third year of law school.” He qualifies for full-name treatment. We’ll give you a few excerpts from his letter, enhanced with our Curmudgeonly commentary and some bold font for emphasis. Here we go!

Your life is a miracle. Do not just take my word for it. Today, scientists are increasingly making the case that, practically speaking, life on planet Earth should not exist.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! Great beginning! Then he says:

In the 1960s, astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that the underlying factor determining whether a planet could sustain life in our universe was whether that planet was the right distance from the right kind of star. For several years, scientists accepted Sagan’s theory as the Holy Grail. With one simple requirement for a planet to sustain life, scientists reasoned that the number of planets capable of supporting life in our universe amounted to “1 septillion — 1 followed by 24 zeros,” according to a 2014 Wall Street Journal article. Today, the vast majority of scientists fundamentally disagree with that logic.

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! Sagan was aware of and agreed with the Drake equation, which describes several factors, not just a planet’s location within its star’s habitable zone In fact, the Wikipedia article on the Drake equation says:

The astronomer Carl Sagan speculated that all of the terms, except for the lifetime of a civilization, are relatively high and the determining factor in whether there are large or small numbers of civilizations in the universe is the civilization lifetime, or in other words, the ability of technological civilizations to avoid self-destruction. In Sagan’s case, the Drake equation was a strong motivating factor for his interest in environmental issues and his efforts to warn against the dangers of nuclear warfare.

Jonathan isn’t doing very well so far. Let’s read on:

Today, scientists believe that more than 200 prerequisite conditions must be met for a planet to support life. Take away just one of those conditions and life on that planet cannot exist. The startling reality is that, scientifically speaking, the likelihood of life surviving on our planet is less than probable. Nevertheless, human life has continued to survive and regenerate throughout the test of time.

Jonathan is repeating Discovery Institute propaganda, found in The Privileged Planet, a book by one of the Discoveroids’ “fellows.” We continue:

World-renowned physicist Adrian Bejan has provided, in my view, the greatest theory yet to explain how life forms on our planet have preserved themselves — the Constructal Law. According to Bejan, everything on our planet follows from a fundamental design or pattern that allows for the best possible flow of energy. Bejan references the unique way in which water travels from the roots of a tree trunk to the top branches, and ultimately, flows to the sky. Likewise, water travels from the sky down to Earth to recycle that same process. We can see this same flow pattern in rivers, plants, lightning bolts. We can even see those same patterns in our physical bodies. From the flow of electrons in our brains, oxygen flow in our lungs and blood flow from our hearts, everything is interdependent upon one another, according to Bejan.

Adrian Bejan? He’s not a physicist. He’s a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University — here’s his faculty page at Duke: Adrian Bejan. Wikipedia has an article on his Constructal law, which says:

The main criticism of the constructal law is that its formulation is vague. The constructal law states that “For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it”, but there is neither a mention of what these “currents” are nor an explicit definition of what “providing easier access” means, nor precisely formulating the relationship with math. Without defining the physical quantities or their exact relationships, it is not physical or mathematical.

Bejan is a favorite of the Discoveroids — see Airplanes Evolve by Intelligent Design, Therefore … . Having adopted Bejan as his guru, Jonathan ends his letter with this:

As such, humanity should fall in line with nature’s flow phenomena. After all, we are each an integral part of the very fabric of our universe. We should exist not just with a goal of self-gratification, but with a purpose to help those around us, and preserve the existence of our universe’s greatest achievement: life itself.

So there you are. Jonathan is convinced that the Earth is unique, and that there are no other life-bearing planets in the universe. He’s also convinced that science is on his side. Nice letter!

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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16 responses to “Creationist Wisdom #613: It’s a Miracle!

  1. It isn’t clear to me that the distinction between life and civilization is being attended to.
    Sagan could think that life is dependent on just one or two factors, while agreeing with the Drake equation.

  2. Casey Luskin should look over his shoulder. When he graduates, this new kid on the block could be the Discoveroids’ new lawyer/writer. He seems to have all the credentials and there can’t be room for two.

  3. Charles Deetz ;)

    Amazing how Jonathan can skip over DI and creationist usual clunkers and still sound like a nutter. At least I can appreciate his hippie conclusion that we should all get along.

  4. I suppose it’s a good thing he’s studying to be a lawyer and not a scientist. Even without considering the Drake equation, there are an estimated 10^11 galaxies in the universe. Some are smaller than ours, but many are larger. There are an estimated 10^11 stars in our galaxy. And a lot of them have multiple planets. Assume an average of 5 planets per star, there are some 5 x 10 ^22 planets, nearly the number of molecules in a liter of a 1 M solution. Anyone who thinks life only originated on one of them should be considered a homeopathic astronomer.

  5. Anyone who thinks life only originated on one of them should be considered a homeopathic astronomer.

    Interesting turn of phrase!

    The Drake Equation leaves me very conflicted. My natural sense of intuition thinks it obvious that in such a vast universe of so many galaxies of so many stars, there would be many planets with life. Yet, even a brief look at the mathematics reminds me that when multiple factors are totally unknown and currently unknowable to us, the resulting margin of error completely overpowers any semblance of a meaningful answer. Therefore, honesty begs me to say: What chances there be of other life. I simply do not know. That which I cannot calculate, I cannot claim to know.

  6. @abeastwood: I join Prof. T in saluting “homeopathic astronomer”!

  7. I had no idea that water had to go through the treetops on its way to the sky. Silly me, I thought it could just evaporate from rivers, seas or wherever.

    And then, the cunning design features which make rain fall to earth. Who thought those up? On how many planets does rain just float aimlessly, of no use to man or beast?

  8. Third Prof has tied his mind in a knot: “The Drake Equation leaves me very conflicted.”
    Not necessary. Like all math this stuff is based on assumptions and some of them involving the Drake Equation are not validated by empirical evidence. Hence the only reasonable attitude is “we don’t know because we lack data”. As a biblical scholar that’s something you are undoubtedly familiar with.
    Now of course as laymen we can take sides and have some fun. But that’s quite like taking sides at a basketball match. We are just the bystanders, not the ones who decide the match. And nobody forces you to take a side.

  9. @Professor: I didn’t mean to imply that I was certain life of some sort exists somewhere else in the universe. But because of the identification in the last couple of decades of a growing number of planets elsewhere, and the probability that there are quite a lot of them, it would not surprise me if there aren’t at least a few with some form of life. Actually, I’d be surprised if we ever find out that there are no other planets with life in the universe. Full disclosure: I’m currently reading Nick Lane’s The Vital Question about the relations between energy transfer, some basic chemistry, and the origin of life. That may influence my view.

  10. One of the things that is frequently missed is that not only are there a lot of planets, there is the consideration of time, Not all intelligent life will be available at the same time. Here we are at a time something over thirteen billions of year after the big bang and we’ve been around for only a tiny fraction of that time, It is not a reasonable assumption that other life will be contemporaneous with us.

  11. Hence the only reasonable attitude is “we don’t know because we lack data”

    And that’s probably why I wrote of the Drake equation (and all other scientific questions** for that matter) just a few sentences later:
    What chances there be of other life. I simply do not know. That which I cannot calculate, I cannot claim to know.

    As those of the academy who first proposed, tweaked, and discussed the Drake equation pointed out, it was never intended to produce a particular conclusion other than the general goal of stimulating discussion. In that regard, it certainly has been successful. I find it fascinating in how it’s yet another context where for many people in those discussions, the intuition and the intellect don’t always face in the same direction. The example of that which I see most often in discussions of evolutionary processes is the observation that “Evolution produces what looks like deliberate and direct design but isn’t.” Intuition encourages us to assume we observe design even though our intellect convinces us that it isn’t the directly manufactured product of a designer. That’s not a “min
    d tied in a knot.” And seeing how it’s admitted by scientists across the belief/non-belief spectrum, such as atheist Richard Dawkins and born-again evangelical Francis Collins, it’s also not a volley in an imaginary war between atheism and theism, as the Discovery Institute must contend if cash flow from donations are to be maintained.

    Indeed, it’s also another reminder of some of the differences between Philosophy and Science.**
    ____________________________
    ** FOOTNOTE: The fact that some of the most ignorant and dismissive denigrations of Philosophy—including the assumption that the Dept of Philosophy might represent the most expendable professors of even the elite university faculties—come from some of the scientists best known to the general public should tell us that our educational goals become more specialized, the “big picture” is lost. Or as I once put it in a documentary interview for the old N.E.T.: We no longer know what it is we know and how we know it, ya know?

  12. Hence the only reasonable attitude is “we don’t know because we lack data”. As a biblical scholar that’s something you are undoubtedly familiar with.

    Though tongue-in-cheek in this case, statements of this sort in more serious contexts are representative of a popular fallacy that remains amazingly common even among those presumably well educated in the liberal arts. Obviously, following the evidence where it leads is absolutely essential in humanities scholarship just as it is within the sciences. Yet, it’s amazing how many people presume that everything and everyone in fields like Biblical Studies (and Religious Studies in general), and/or Political Studies, and/or Economics—to name a few fields of scholarship—are about advocacy and personal agenda to the point that evidence doesn’t matter except as a propaganda tool.

    To illustrate that, the following Fox News interview with Religious Studies scholar, Reza Aslan, nearly went viral as an example of atrociously unprofessional journalism. It also reflects an increasingly typical business which has learned how to manufacture and deliver an “imaginary reality” customized to its target demographics. (Only the most naive will assume that Fox News is unique in these regards.) Yet, I found it fascinating how the interviewer so blatantly articulated the assumption that the scholar’s recently published book on Jesus must surely have ulterior motives. Aslan grew up in a Muslim family, became an evangelical Christian for three years as a teen, and then returned to his Islamic roots. So, it is as if the “journalist” reads about that in the book jacket and simply doesn’t believe his professed answers and motives. An exasperated Dr. Aslan tries to explain that researching religious traditions and publishing one’s scholarship based upon evidence is what academics do—but the interviewer remains focused on exposing the suspected ideological agenda.**

    ttp://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2013/07/28/video_fox_news_lauren_green_asks_reza_aslan_why_muslim_would_be_interested.html

    Of course, whenever one sees the topic of Muslims and Jesus arise in conversations with Americans, expect to hear most Christians vehemently deny the awaited return of Jesus by Muslims. (Many will say, “Jesus belongs to us, not the Muslims!”) Yes, it is not just a matter of being unaware that Jesus’ Second Coming is a prophecy just as important in Islam as it is in Christianity. Most have no idea that Jesus (Isa) is the only prophet of Islam who is described as doing miracles. In fact, there are several respects in which westerners might tend (incorrectly) to see Jesus (Isa) as superior to Mohammed.
    ____________________________

    ** FOOTNOTE: The footnote will appear in my next comment.

  13. There are other confounding factors in attempting to use the Drake equation as an estimate.

    One of the main ones relates to Earth’s history. Massive meteor bombardments that took place after life got started early in the history of the Earth might be another means for seeding the local region of the galaxy with life.

    The reason this might be possible is that the chemistry of the major building blocks of life is in the range of about one electron volt. Even a meteor bombardment doesn’t produce enough energy to break chemical bonds of such material embedded in the debris that gets blasted into space. The binding energies of most solid material such as rock and iron are on the order of a few tenths of an electron volt; a full order of magnitude smaller than that of chemistry.

    Once in space, those building blocks are at a much lower temperature and remain stable. The only dangers they encounter are due to high energy bombardments of nuclear particles and gamma rays. But many such compounds survive; and they could even survive in the passage of this material through the atmospheres of other planets in other solar systems.

    So if life develops on some planet similar to ours, it could have been because it was seeded by something that developed on another planet.

    And this doesn’t include the possibility of other templates for life that are not like those we are familiar with on our own planet.

  14. ** FOOTNOTE:
    The Mythology of the Spanish Inquisition

    [This is just a rough draft of a portion of article draft that will appear at Bible & Science Forum: Professor Tertius
    eventually. I think the topic will be entertaining.]

    When audiences and interviewers have asked me about the Spanish Inquisition and I explain that most of what the average Americans thinks they know about the death toll and torture of that era is anti-Catholic propaganda started by the Reformers, the follow-up questions usually assume that I’m Roman Catholic or have an underlying ideological agenda other than the one I explain to them: scholars pursue the evidence where it leads. The surviving documentation evidence related to the Inquisition, including courtroom transcripts and routine bureaucratic paperwork, is incredibly abundant for some provinces and ranges from modestly plentiful to sparse for others. And computer technology eventually facilitated multiple in-depth projects which exhaustively tallied the statistics which corrected the more traditional estimates and even quantified things like dismissals due to lack of evidence (lots of those because unlike the “secular” courts, the Inquisitors had much higher standards for required evidence by simply HAVING expectations of evidence!) and incredibly mild penalties for many.

    Of course, for decades now historians have been aware of the wide gulf between the public’s perceptions of the Spanish Inquisition and the conclusions of the academy. So even when I was in grad school the relatively low death toll was already becoming common knowledge. Yet, it was not until decades later that I realized just how much all of us lack realistic “baselines” by which such events and eras can be evaluated. I had best save that thought for an upcoming blog article on this topic. But this is an example of an eye-opening historical fact that I hadn’t expect to see:

    Contrary to public opinion, the Spanish Inquisition was generally typified by courtroom standards of justice, expectations of evidence, skepticism towards biased testimony traced to ulterior motives, and more humane treatment of both prisoners awaiting trial and those convicted. People forget just how unjust were most “justice systems” in most of the world until recent times and the centuries of the Inquisition were no different—except for the fact that, in general, the Catholic Church had the most literacy (therefore, they had written laws and rules of procedure and careful records of what transpired unlike “secular courts” which often left nothing to review or determine what happened) and the most wealth. As a result of having money, their prisoners had an excellent chance of being fed, even if they had no family members on the outside to bring them food. Moreover, the church tended to have actual jails which were much more likely to protect prisoners from the elements and from other prisoners and/or those on the outside who were intent on doing them harm. (In the secular jails, criminals were often subject to execution before trial by accomplices or wealthy crime bosses who wanted to make sure that they couldn’t testify and implicate others.)

    So, I was quite amused to learn that there were prisoners in the secular jails who intentionally made heretical statements witnessed by their jailers and then told their jailers that they had a divinely appointed duty to turn the confessed heretic over to the custody of the inquisitors. That would place them in the church jails, where they often found that they had a warm place to sleep and food to be eaten. There, as a confessed heretic they couldn’t always expect life on easy street but even a harsh sentence at the hands of the inquisitors tended to be far less fatal and gruesome than even the lightest sentences of the secular justice system. (Keep in mind that until modern times, relatively “trivial” crimes like hunting on the King’s land was a capital punishment crime or even breaking a branch of the royal topiaries might mean terrible torture. In countless instances, the horrors one tends to hear in association with the Spanish Inquisition were more likely to be associated with the secular courts and jails.

  15. “For a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it”

    That might be a serious point for creationists if (1) Bejan didn’t use the demonic word “evolve”; and (2) either living things or ecosystems were immortal; and (3) Bejan gave us the slightest idea what his “imposed currents” were (it’s not clear he knows that himself).

    As things are, on point (1) alone Bejan has stepped in it. If you have to invoke evolution to refute evolution, you’ve pretty much conceded the argument. Points (2) and (3) just drive a couple of extra stakes through his position.

  16. Third Prof remarks: “That’s not a “mind tied in a knot.”
    No. Neither did I claim it was. The phrase only referred to “The Drake Equation leaves me very conflicted.” Nothing more, nothing less.

    “it’s also not a volley in an imaginary war between atheism and theism”
    Certainly not. You already know I’m willing to point out conflicts that are part of that war, but the Drake Equation isn’t, except perhaps for the usual suspects that are so prominent on this nice little blog. Hence it shouldn’t leave you conflicted at all.

    “come from some of the scientists best known to the general public”
    Well, an excellent education in one field doesn’t guarantee any skill in other fields. If you by any chance need some convincing evidence for this I can give you a few Nobel Price winners who were more insane than Good Ol’ Hambo, except for the research they did to win that price.
    For the moment it will suffice that The God Delusion isn’t exactly a decent philosophical foundation for atheism imo.

    “the “big picture” is lost”
    Sorry, but then you just have to look better. There are natural scientists who are pretty good at philosophy. There are also philosophers who understand quite some natural sciences. I name Keith Parsons.
    Google “time before Big Bang” and you will learn how physicists and philosophers still are interested in a question already formulated by Augustinus of Hippo, who in my view wrote the best treatise on time ever (even if he is shown to be wrong in the end).

    “it’s amazing how many people presume that everything and everyone in fields like….. are about advocacy and personal agenda to the point that evidence doesn’t matter except as a propaganda tool.”
    Well, I think economics generally an embarrasment indeed, but that’s not because of the field of research, but 1) because I have known some students economy who weren’t exactly skilled in methodology and 2) because too many economists prefer to discuss politics instead of designing tests (in the broadest meaning of the word) to decide between conflicting hypotheses. Of course that means that there also are several excellent economists – my compatriot Jan Tinbergen being a famous one.
    Regarding historical research I as a teacher math and physics am enormously impressed by the rigor of historians like Ian Kershaw, JB Bury, Braudel and of course Jona Lendering (the guy who wrote that piece about hermeneutics). Are you familiar, even vaguely, with the research of Israel Finkelstein on a 10th Century palace in Megiddo, where King David might or might not have lived? I think it’s the joke of the year – history of antiquity in this case was a harder science than physics (C-14 dating).

    “we don’t know because we lack data”.
    This actually refers to “known unknowns”.

    https://rambambashi.wordpress.com/2015/08/24/a-known-unknown/

    “the interviewer remains focused on …..”
    Jona L thought both the interviewer and the interviewed a bad joke.

    “… about the Spanish Inquisition”
    Old news to me. I don’t like it, but facts are facts. I have quit holding the Spanish Inquisition against christians several years ago.
    However we Dutch have a reason to loath the Spanish Inquisition. For several years it was a dangerous instrument for the prosecution of protestants, especially when the Duke of Alva was in charge. I suppose that’s where the bad reputation comes from.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquisition_of_the_Netherlands
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fernando_Álvarez_de_Toledo,_3rd_Duke_of_Alba#Governor_of_the_Netherlands_.281567.E2.80.9373.29