Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Waste of Space?

The movie Contact was not subtle in expressing its main theme. At least four times in the movie, the question is posed, "Do you think there's any other intelligent life out there?" The unvarying response is, "If not, it sure seems like an awful waste of space." The movie, of course, was adapted from Carl Sagan's novel by the same name, and offered a clear portrayal of his worldview, including the Principle of Mediocrity. Sagan was convinced by the sheer magnitude of the universe that life--and even intelligent life--must be everywhere abundant in it. We live in a culture that easily resonates with Sagan's views, where portrayals of such life are indeed everywhere. (You might prefer the original Star Trek series, but your wife likes The Next Generation, your brother is a Battlestar Gallactica fan, and your kids prefer sci-fi video games, but we can all find common ground somewhere in the Star Wars movie series, right?) But Sagan's conclusions in this regard had little to do with empirical science, and have become outdated by the accumulating evidence.

The second king of ancient Israel, the shepherd and psalmist David, likewise wondered at the immensity of the heavens, even though he could only see about 6,000 stars (the number that can be observed with the naked human eye).
When I consider the heavens, what is man that You [O Lord] are mindful of him?
Indeed, the vastness of the universe presents a challenge to folks of all metaphysical stances today. Mormon doctrine has the faithful populating planets throughout the cosmos. In a similar vein, the last book by the late Henry Morris, a young-Earth creationist, postulated that Christians would be given dominion over other planets in the age to come. These speculations on his part were largely fueled, apparently, by his inability to otherwise explain why there are so many stars if life on Earth was a primary purpose of creation.

As it turns out, however, the number of stars (approximately 100 billion trillion) is one of those many characteristics (along with associated parameters like the mass density of the universe and the relative masses of the neutron and proton) that must be just right for life to exist anywhere at any time in the universe. Given the chemistry and physics of the universe, the vast number of stars that exist are precisely what is required for life. Moreover, when the probabilities of such fine-tuning are consider, it becomes astronomically improbable that even one life-support planet exists (apart from a Designer). The question of the origin and existence of life is a separate, equally difficult problem for the naturalist, but that can wait for another post.

In the meantime, here're a couple of other quotes from scientists studying the fine-tuning of the universe. First, British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle...
...a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology.
Likewise, theoretical physicist Tony Rothman wrote...
The medieval theologian who gazed at the night sky through the eyes of Aristotle and saw angels moving the spheres in harmony has become the modern cosmologist who gazes at the same sky through the eyes of Einstein and sees the hand of God not in angels but in the constants of nature.

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