Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Privileged Planet: A review of a review

I have seen many rants against ID (Intelligent Design), but I cannot recall one as comprehensively bad and unthinking as William H Jefferys's review of The Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards, posted on the misleadingly named National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

The NCSE is not broad, as its name would suggest, but narrow: keep any discussion of Biological Intelligent Design outside the science classroom. You would think that on the "National Center for Science Education" you could find, for example, discussions on new techniques for teaching high school physics. You can't. This site and this organization have little to do with science education beyond the evolution v. biological ID debate.

If look at the NCSE's about page, you will find something like a mission statement (if there is an actual Mission Statement page, I couldn't find it.) There you would be excused for concluding, if the NCSE were aptly named, that the only science known to man is evolution. There is no mention of physics or chemistry.

So the NCSE is an organization which, in spite of its name, is devoted to just one issue. It is a Potemkin "Center for Science Education."

I find it odd, then, that they even posted a review of The Privileged Planet, which says nothing at all of substance regarding evolution. In their book Gonzalez and Richards start with the empirical (and undisputed) fact that, at least insofar as mainstream cosmology, astrophysics, and nuclear chemistry are concerned, we exist in a fine-tuned universe. One can take this as real fine-tuning and become a cosmological IDer, or one can take it as "apparent" fine-tuning and look for scientific explanations, but unless you want to stick your head in the sand you cannot deny that it is there.

Here is another way to put it. Let's break up the fact that we are here into five scientific questions:
  1. How is it that there is something rather than nothing?
  2. Given that there is something, how is it that the something includes galaxies, stars and planets?
  3. Given that there are planets, how is it that one or more of them can support complex life?
  4. Given that a planet can support complex life, how is it that life actually began?
  5. Given that life actually began, how is it that it evolved into complex, self-aware creatures?

Now if you debate with evolutionists, they demand that the argument stays on point 5. If you try to move it back one step to point 4, abiogenesis, they will cry foul. That's not evolution's problem, they will say, our domain strictly begins after the onset of life, and however it happened is not relevant and fine with us (although we won't allow it was by divine fiat.)

Fair enough. By why then do they care about The Privileged Planet, which is operating in the domain of points 2-3?

Could it be that the NCSE's agenda goes beyond what it claims? That they are threatened not just by criticism of evolution but by any hypotheses that shines favorably on the notion of a Creator? I see no other explanation. Note that this radical notion is quite new: it is a trivial exercise to find the most prominent scientists waxing philosophical on the obvious connection between the beauty and elegance of science and a divinely rational Creator. The NCSE, it appears, would censure Newton, Copernicus, Maxwell, Einstein, etc.

Let me try to get back on track.

Gonzalez and Richards extend the fine-tuning argument in a fascinating way: they argue a connection between habitability and observability—not only is the earth extremely lucky in its ability to support life, it is also a privileged laboratory from which to do science, especially cosmology and related fields.

Just as an example:
  • Habitability: for a planet to be habitable, it needs to be in a low (but not too low) stellar-density neighborhood so that (among other things) the radiation is not too intense.
  • Observability: That is also the kind of environment that permits us to see outside our own galaxy and back in time to the early universe.

On the one hand, this is a profoundly significant religious question. Has the Creator both prepared the earth for life and also prepared it so that we could do science? The implication is that religion and science should be friends, not enemies.

However, the conjecture of The Privileged Planet is not a religious one but a scientific one. In fact, in a subtle way, it is not at all helpful to ID. Cosmological ID diehards (like myself) would like to argue this: God made the universe and, as an added blessing, He made it so we could study the universe too. The Privileged Planet argues, in effect, that the blessing of observability is not independent. Habitability and observability are highly and scientifically correlated. My religious side would be happier if Gonzalez and Richards are wrong, and habitability and observability counted as two miracles instead of just one.

Sorry for more rabbit trails. This time I'm serious. Let's get to the review.

Jefferys opens his review this way:
The Privileged Planet is based upon the odd notion that the more unsuitable our universe is for producing intelligent life, the more likely it is that our universe was "designed" to produce intelligent life by a "designer" of indeterminate nature; put another way, supposedly the less likely it is that there could be a planet in our universe that supports intelligent life, then the more likely it is that the universe was "designed" to produce a particular intelligent life form -- us -- that can and will investigate the nature of the universe.
From the get-go we see that Jefferys's review will be anti-intellectual. He will not refute The Privileged Planet, he will simply declare that it is odd and wrong.

Examine what he declares as odd: "the more unsuitable our universe is for producing intelligent life, the more likely it is that our universe was 'designed' to produce intelligent life by a 'designer' of indeterminate nature."

The statement, far from odd, is self-evident. In fact, it is just Sagan's argument in reverse. Sagan argued that the universe surely produced billions of earths, and this is then taken as evidence that there is no designer. One doubts that Jefferys finds that argument odd. The Cosmological ID argument is just stating that Sagan and his followers cannot have both ways. Granted, if earth-like planets are common, then there is no evidence for a designer. Therefore if earthlike planets are exceedingly rare, then it is fair game to suggest that such evidence does support design.

Not to beat a dead horse, but The Privileged Planet does not argue fine-tuning per se. It argues than habitability also leads to observability.

Jefferys continues his anti-intellectual rant with a common anti-intellectual tactic: an accusation (reach in the bag, pull one out) of a logical fallacy. He claims that Gonzalez and Richards create a false dichotomy. He doesn't bother with the inconvenience of referencing where this error is committed; he just makes an unsubstantiated assertion. I have read The Privileged Planet and I have watched the video, as far as I recall design is presented as a potential, even the best explanation, but never as the only possible alternative to existing theories. It seems that Jefferys is befuddled; he confuses a true dichotomy, that the universe was either designed or it wasn't designed, with a false one.

Jefferys goes on to make more bizarre and scientifically inaccurate statements. For example, in criticizing ID, he writes:
This is because a basic rule of inference is that one has to compare the likelihood of observing evidence E under all relevant hypotheses H1, H2, ..., Hn. Then the hypothesis that has the greatest likelihood is the one best supported by the evidence
This is nonsense. Does he hold mainstream cosmology to this standard? Does he know of a calculation that computes the likelihood of an earthlike planet given the big bang? I'll remind him that Sagan would have loved such an argument, for all he had at his disposal was an argument from vast numbers.

Then we have this gem from Jefferys:
What if we had observed that the universe was actually quite conducive to the existence of intelligent, inquisitive life? Would Gonzalez and Richards then conclude that the probability of observing such a universe, given that it was designed by an "intelligent designer", was small? I hardly think so.
This is too sloppy of a statement to respond to in a precise way. Is his hypothetical premise that the universe is not fine-tuned and life friendly? Or is it still fine tuned, but not vastly hostile to life? Without stating what he means, all he can do is theorize how Gonzalez and Richards would respond to his ill-defined toy universe.

Not content with merely putting words in their mouths, Jefferys goes on to argue as if they actually said (what he speculated they would say) and then demonstrates how their imagined response to his pretend universe damns their argument:
But there's the rub. They [Gonzalez and Richards] can't have it both ways. An elementary rule of inference is that if evidence E supports hypothesis H, then observing that E is false would undermine H. In other words, if observing that the universe is fecund were to support the hypothesis that the universe is "designed", then observing that it is not fecund would necessarily support the hypothesis that it was not "designed" and would undermine the design argument.
He cannot wait for them to slip-up and fall into his clever trap, he teleports them into its clutches and then slaps himself on the back. Logical fallacy Mr. Jefferys? Pot-kettle-black.

Actually, it is from evolutionists, not IDers, that I most often encounter "anything-goes" imprecision. If there is water on Mars will there be life? If there is life, will it be complex? Will there be life on Titan? Will it be simple? Complex? Evolution makes no predictions—all permutations of yes, no, and maybe to such questions are accommodated within its framework.

Jefferys criticizes The Privileged Planet's handling of many worlds (MWH) and parallel universes, writing:
[they] claim that "we have no evidence to think that other universes exist," a claim that happens to be false, for several reasons. One reason is that it is a prediction of the best-supported theory in cosmology, one that is strongly supported by evidence. And the second is that under that model, our own existence evidentially supports the MWH (since under that hypothesis a selection effect is involved: we can only exist in one of the very small proportion of worlds in which "the constants are right," so our own existence implies the existence of these other worlds).

Jefferys is engaged in some Clinton-speak here. It is true that we have evidence to think (i.e., speculate) that other universes exist. However, we have no actual evidence that they do. No parallel universe has ever been detected, period. The fact that some current theories are consistent with parallel universe does allow one to think about them, but it is not to be confused with evidence that they exist. Theories are famous for incorrect predictions upon extension. Maybe Jefferys believes that highly successful classical electricity and magnetism is evidence for the fact that electrons will radiate and spiral into the nucleus (which is what it predicts.) He then goes on to argue that assuming the multiverse hypothesis is correct, once again disingenuously implying that actual evidence exists (this "evidence", permit me to repeat, being that multiple universes is a prediction—and he conveniently neglects to mention that it is an untestable prediction) then, surprise surprise, Gonzalez and Richards are wrong. Woulda-coulda argument, Mr. Jefferys.

Jefferys goes on to discuss how he has "proved" that fine tuning argues against intelligent design. He argues, in a paper coauthored by Michael Ikeda that, as far as I know, is only available online and not in a peer reviewed journal:
It has recently been claimed, most prominently by Dr. Hugh Ross on his web site that the so-called "fine-tuning" of the constants of physics supports a supernatural origin of the universe. Specifically, it is claimed that many of the constants of physics must be within a very small range of their actual values, or else life could not exist in our universe. Since it is alleged that this range is very small, and since our very existence shows that our universe has values of these constants that would allow life to exist, it is argued that the probability that our universe arose by chance is so small that we must seek a supernatural origin of the universe.

In this article we will show that this argument is wrong. Not only is it wrong, but in fact we will show that the observation that the universe is "fine-tuned" in this sense can only count against a supernatural origin of the universe. And we shall furthermore show that with certain theologies suggested by deities that are both inscrutable and very powerful, the more "finely-tuned" the universe is, the more a supernatural origin of the universe is undermined.
That's right: the more fine-tuned the universe is, the less likely that it was designed. Imagine an infinitely fine-tuned universe: no a priori theory for the values of the physical constants, yet this pretend universe would not exist if the values of the electron charge, the relative strengths of the other fundamental forces, the expansion rate of the universe, the cosmological constant, Planck's constant, etc., differed, not just by one part in 10999 from their known values, but if they differed at all. This hyper-tuned universe, according to Jefferys, would be a slam-dunk proof of a naturalistic explanation and the perfect refutation of ID.

If his argument had any validity, we should expect to find evolutionists arguing that the universe is fine-tuned and IDers arguing that it isn't.

The paper that Ikeda and Jefferys wrote is a fine example of this approach: If I use Bayes's Theorem, my analysis is both clever and correct. If you are into that sort of thing, here is a refutation of Ikeda and Jefferys.

Finally (in his conclusion) Jefferys addresses what Gonzalez and Richards actually wrote about in The Privileged Planet, instead of what he thinks they think. He does no better here. He writes, concerning the connection between habitability and observability:
For suppose it were not so [that we lived on a planet like earth, with a transparent atmosphere and a large moon]; if we existed on another world very different from the earth, then we would surely be doing something. We would be doing whatever was possible for us to do under the circumstances in which we found ourselves.
The thinking that had to take place to construct such a refutation—why it makes the mind reel. First of all, to refute The Privileged Planet, Jefferys should make a case that such a planet is habitable. Venus would be a good place to start (although that would bias the argument in his favor, for Venus already enjoys a special location within a special galaxy.) Jefferys seems to be arguing: if intelligent life exists on Venus, they would be very happy with their own level of observability. His entire argument: they would surely be doing something. Well, what they wouldn't be doing is cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, planetary science, space-weather, etc.

In summary, Jefferys presents no actual arguments against the hypothesis presented in The Privileged Planet. In particular, Gonzalez and Richards present ways to falsify their theory, viz.
  1. To find a distant environment that was hostile to life and yet a better place than earth for making scientific observations.
  2. Find complex life where they claim you won't find it—say on a gas giant, or near a x-ray emitting star in the galactic center, or on a planet without a dark night, etc.
  3. Find complex life on a planet that does not have a large moon (that produces good solar eclipses.)
  4. Find non-Carbon based life

Jefferys should address these points and make evolution's or cosmology's prediction for each of them. Does evolution, for example, predict that we will find non-Carbon based life, or is it silent on the matter? My guess: doesn't matter, all potentialities are welcomed there.

All Jefferys offered was bad logic and distortions. In particular, he implied that there is evidence for multiple universes when, in fact, there is none. And furthermore, while it is difficult to falsify the hypothesis of The Privileged Planet, Gonzalez and Richards offer some suggestions that are, in principle, achievable. The parallel universe theories are not, even in principle, falsifiable.

UPDATE: In the comment section, some questions arose regarding the first example of falsification:

To find a distant environment that was hostile to life and yet a better place than earth for making scientific observations.

Guillermo Gonzalez has provided this clarification:

It is important to keep in mind what we mean when we say that a planet is better or worse for scientific discovery than Earth. It is always in the context of "constrained optimization." We give the examples of the Moon or Mercury providing better views of the universe due to the lack of an atmosphere, but that also prevents them from producing rainbows, producing information rich sedimentary or ice layer deposits, concentrating ores via interaction of the geological and hydrological cycles (important for technology), and providing oxygen to allow for fires and other industrial activities.

One always needs to keep in mind the diverse and competing ways Earth is optimized for scientific discovery and all the preconditions needed for doing science.


Update 2: More critique of the unpublished proof of Jefferys and Ikeda.

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