Klinghoffer: We’re Special, Really Special!

The Discovery Institute — which always claims to be a science outfit — is once again insisting that the universe was created just for us. The new post at their creationist blog is Harvard Astronomer: “We Seem to Be Cosmically Special, Perhaps Even Unique”, written by Klinghoffer. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us for emphasis:

Writing in the Washington Post, Harvard astronomer Howard Smith forcefully blunts Stephen Hawking’s assertion that “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.” Of course, it’s not only Dr. Hawking who says as much — denying human exceptionalism is close to universal orthodoxy among the socio-academic demographic he occupies. Carl Sagan put the same view a little more mildly: “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star.”

This is Smith’s article: Humanity is cosmically special. Here’s how we know, which already has attracted 300 comments. He’s described as “a lecturer in the Harvard University Department of Astronomy and a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.” Smith’s article says:

There was a time, back when astronomy put Earth at the center of the universe, that we thought we were special. But after Copernicus kicked Earth off its pedestal, we decided we were cosmically inconsequential, partly because the universe is vast and about the same everywhere. … An objective look, however, at just two of the most dramatic discoveries of astronomy — big bang cosmology and planets around other stars (exoplanets) — suggests the opposite. We seem to be cosmically special, perhaps even unique — at least as far as we are likely to know for eons.

Smith’s “objective” conclusion seems a bit excessive, but he attempts to support it by mentioning the Anthropic principle, a controversial concept, after which he declares:

The universe, far from being a collection of random accidents, appears to be stupendously perfect and fine-tuned for life.

[*Groan*] It shouldn’t surprise us that everything we discover about the universe is consistent with our existence — were it otherwise we wouldn’t exist. But it doesn’t follow that the universe was designed for the purpose of our existence. If it were true that the universe was created to support life, then its appearance would be inevitable throughout the universe, wherever congenial conditions existed, and it would require no additional activity from an intelligent designer. Smith also mentions the discovery of thousands of extra-solar planets, and because most are apparently unsuited for life, he also spins that into an argument for our unique status:

For all intents and purposes, we could be alone in our cosmic neighborhood, and if we expand the volume of our search we will have to wait even longer to find out. 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. This is the second piece of new evidence that we are not ordinary.

Okay, that’s Smith’s opinion. Klinghoffer gleefully provides extensive quotes from Smith, after which he tells us:

Atheists aren’t having any of it. At Why Evolution Is True, biologist Jerry Coyne hits back, complaining that Smith doesn’t confess right up front that he is in fact, as Smith himself has written elsewhere, an observant Jew. Coyne frets that Smith is a “religious Jew who spends his time reconciling science with the mystical tenets of the Kaballah.”

Coyne’s reference to Smith’s religion is a small part of his article, which does a good job of dismissing Smith’s views on scientific grounds. Klinghoffer doesn’t dwell on that part of Coyne’s article, of course. Instead, his Discoveroid post says:

If Smith thought that scientific evidence confirms his religious views in all their details, he could have written that, though it would have provided an even easier excuse to dismiss him. Or perhaps, more reasonably, he agrees with ID advocates that science takes you so far and no farther, leading only to the minimal conclusion that life bears evidence of design.

Although Klinghoffer admits that it’s “unclear” whether Smith agrees with the Discoveroids to that extent, he ends his post with this:

Smith does, however, say this: “Scientists have been admirably honest about admitting ignorance, and, it seems to me, offer a lesson in humility to theologians: we do not know it all, regardless of our Scriptures … or our egos.” [Ellipsis in the original.]

So we’re left with a bit of a muddle. Smith obviously has a tendency to see supernatural implications in what astronomers have discovered; but at the same time, he acknowledges that we have a lot more to learn. Klinghoffer already knows all he needs to know, and he attempts to take Smith where he clearly doesn’t go, and adopts him as a potential Discoveroid fellow-traveler. We’ll leave it to Smith to decide if he wants to make that leap, but we suspect that, albeit a theist, he’ll decline the opportunity.

Copyright © 2016. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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4 responses to “Klinghoffer: We’re Special, Really Special!

  1. As you point out Smith’s use of “objective” is dubious to say the least.

  2. I remind you that the standard design argument: that life is not expected to arise under conditions of nature – is contrary to the premises of the Anthropic Principle: that the parameters of nature are fine-tuned for life.
    It is difficult to understand why the designers of of the Law of Conservation of Information decided to make an exception to that Law in order to make life possible. Or how we can infer that the universe is designed for life when we can observe that the ordinary working of nature cannot produce life.

  3. Even if the claim that the universe is ‘intelligently designed’ were not a massive fail, it would still be an even more insanely huge leap to make the still greater claim that the universe was ‘intelligently designed for us‘.

    How could we possibly detect that dung beetles aren’t the pinnacle of creation for which the vast cosmos was oogity-boogitied into existence?

    And of course, another problem with such teleological rationalisations is that we can never determine just where the end-point lies–other than extinction, or the heat death the universe. Or indeed, to determine the beginning point at which ‘design for life’ is held to be ‘manifest.’ The cosmos had existed for some 9 billion years before the solar system formed; what was the Grand Old Designer doing in that interval? Watching football?

  4. Let’s assume that the universe is created for our sake.
    How does that make any difference for our understanding of science?
    It’s still obviously the case that our bodies are most similar to the bodies of chimps and other apes, among all the forms that life takes on Earth.

    Was the evidence for our intelligence created, and was our intelligence created to come to that conclusion, part of the plan for us? If so, how can we think that the conclusion is false? I’d say that it is not for our sake that we are mislead about that.