June 01, 2006

The Heavens Declare His Glory (part 1)

Space, Size, and Significance
(Part 1 in a 4 part series)
Psalms 19 tells us that the heavens declare the glory and handiwork of God. Christians have always taken this to mean that the beauty, design, complexity, hospitality, and vastness of the universe serve as a testimony to the One who created it. Indeed, who can deny the emotional charge experienced under a crisp, star filled night sky? And it has always been so, whether of the ancients, who possessed nothing but speculation over the nature of the heavens, or of we privileged moderns, whose knowledge of what lies behind and beyond those twinkling lights only adds to the wonder.

But far from evoking awe toward the creator, some skeptics see the vast scope of the creation as justification for their skepticism. There are various ways the objection is presented, but it generally runs something like this: "Why should God care about us small, insignificant creatures that live on a common place, orbiting an average star, in the outer reaches of an insignificant galaxy, tucked away in a remote corner of the universe?"

To frame this as a formal argument, they might say the following:
a) If there were a God who really cared about humans, He would have placed us in prime real-estate.
b) We are nowhere special.
c) Therefore, there is no God who particularly cares about us (or we are at least not the pinnacle of creation).

Of course, this argument could be adjusted in various ways, like saying there are trillions of habitable locations and so maybe we are just one of millions of randomly evolved species. But all these arguments still depend on a certain idea about the hospitality and architecture of the cosmos. The actual facts turn out to paint an entirely different portrait.

Before I get to the science (beginning in part 2), let me just address the wrong-headed philosophical idea that may underlie this objection.

There is a sense in which the smallness of man, the infinity of space, and the vast number of stars is supposed to diminish the importance of humanity. But this would seem to suggest that size equals value. Shaquille O'Neil may be more impressive to watch than Gary Coleman, but they are equal in their intrinsic value. Indeed, it is the intrinsic value of humanity compared to, say, the size of a galaxy that is at issue.

We demonstrate our understanding of this value distinction in that we find a one-ounce diamond to be more precious than a mountain of gravel. And we do not shed tears when stars go supernova like we do when humans die. For that matter, think for a moment about what you'd rather spend eternity with: a Red Giant star or a real-life human; or, a million galaxies or a million other self-conscious, personal beings?

We are not just quantitatively different from the furnishings of the universe, we are qualitatively different. And on top of that, if God has created us for His special purposes, and especially stamped His image upon us as the Bible teaches, then we are infinitely more valuable than all the inanimate mass and energy in space.

The objection then may turn to the idea that there are millions of other life forms in the universe, thus drowning our significance in a sea of equally (or more than equally) "special" beings. What place, then, for a God to concern Himself so intimately with us mere earthlings, as the Bible teaches?

Well, this would be a compelling question if it were something more than mere speculation. And saying that it is "probably" true presumes the whole materialistic project that life can get started on its own (which I've addressed elsewhere) much less evolve to a self-conscious entity. When and if SETI or NASA gives us some clear confirmation of intelligent neighbors, then it would be meaningful to seek a theological response in light of it. Even then, it is not as though no response can be given. In a cosmos ruled by an omnipresent and omniscient God, there is room for even the remotest atom to be the object of His meticulous attention.

But if we earthlings are the only game in town, then, as the late Carl Sagan said, the universe seems like an awful waste of space. The problem with this objection is that it is a misuse of the word "waste" and an unwarranted constraint on God's creative license.

Remember the image of the billionaire who lights his cigars with 100 dollar bills? In a certain sense, God's unlimited power permits Him to operate with this kind of extravagance. He is free to create as much or a little as He pleases, and if He chooses to create galaxies or whole universes for nothing other than His own pleasure, or for the heavenly host, then that is His prerogative. The difference is that the billionaire can rightly be said to be wasting his resources simply because there are others who could benefit from the incinerated money. You can only waste what can be put to use, or better use, elsewhere. But can the same be said of God and His creation?

The whole idea behind the objection is that the waste of the universe is because there is no one else to make use of it. The complaint arises because of the abundance, not because it is failing to meet a need found elsewhere. You can't waste something if no other possible consumer of it exists. Now, if God had created one crowded universe and also one that was virtually empty, then perhaps that would qualify as a "waste."

The "waste" complaint would seem to conversely imply that if God were more economical, then He would have created nothing more than a single star and planet. Heck, maybe all the extra water and land on earth is a waste too. But then I'm sure the objection would become, "that seems like an awful waste of His power." The implication is that God must create exactly what is needed to provide for the beings He has made, or that whatever He has made must necessarily be filled with beings like, or other than, us in order to qualify as "use." Presumably, God should "use" it all or have some designated purpose for every cubic light-year of it. This seems presumptuous both to assert how God is required to create and to assume that God does not indeed have some use for the entire creation.

Aside from how the universe may serve some heavenly purpose or future purpose for ourselves, there are benefits that have always been enjoyed as a result of it, and with time we are even more fully appreciating them. The local stars have always been a delight to us, and as the Bible says, have helped us to mark the times and seasons. In modern times we have been exploring the depths of space, learning much about our own local domain and the very laws of physics as a result. In fact, we would never know of the vast reaches of space in order to call it a "waste" if we had not already probed it with our instruments.

How very dull and constraining it would be if we inquisitive humans did not have this grand showcase and laboratory at our disposal. What a beautiful, awesome, and educational thing that God has offered to us. I defy even the most scientifically illiterate person to look upon a deep space image of a galaxy or nebula and maintain his emotional neutrality. And even an agnostic like Sagan otherwise believed that "Life is but a momentary glimpse of the wonder of this astonishing universe."

The universe is indeed serving its purpose, and we are just the right kind of heavenly-minded creatures able to both understand it and appreciate it. That is true of each of us even though we are but one in 6 billion, and would remain true even if the universe did happen to be peppered with other beings just like ourselves.

You may continue the series here:
The Heavens Declare His Glory (part 2) - Location, Location, Location
The Heavens Declare His Glory (part 3) - It's in the Stars
The Heavens Declare His Glory (part 4) - Habitat for Humanity

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13 Comments:

At 6/04/2006 7:30 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

I agree that the vastness of the universe in no way impinges on the significance of humanity in the sense that size does not equate to significance. It is interesting to speculate whether, if there is a god, all those other civilizations that may be out there needed their own messiah. Perhaps a percentage of them didn't eat the apple in a metaphorical sense and so did not need one. How likely are other life forms? We don't know, there are credible numbers you could put into the Drake equation to give answers in either direction.
What if we suppose that there is no god? Do we see a credible scenario before us? What about abiogenesis for example? Well it would be a tall order to expect evolutionary science to have unravelled the results of billions of years of this process to trace it back to its origin. Perhaps we are at the stage of 17th century embryology. They couldn't solve the epigenesis versus preformation debate. Did that mean it was logical to invoke god? I think not. There are promising areas that may yet reveal some answers to the abiogenesis question, such as proteinoid microsphere research.
What about how unlikely it is that life could arise from chemical processes spontaneously? Well it is worth remembering that we need only to postulate a self replicating precurser to the mechanisms of life we see before us today. Even so, if the odds against life arising by blind chance near a star were 100 billion to 1 against, it would happen on average once per galaxy. Now those odds make winning the lottery look likely.

 
At 6/05/2006 9:29 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Hang in there psio. I'll answer this one but time is tight for me (will be all year I think).

 
At 6/06/2006 2:57 PM, Blogger Beowulf said...

I wouldn’t be so confident as to say life happening by chance is so “likely.” To the contrary, there seems to be exponential hurdles to overcome. Some scientists have come up with the “goldilocks effect” to describe life on earth. Everything is just right for life to occur on this planet.

Also, for Paul, I think the statement, "Why should God care about us small, insignificant creatures that live on a common place, orbiting an average star, in the outer reaches of an insignificant galaxy, tucked away in a remote corner of the universe?" can be challenged as well. As stated above, our location is “perfect” in many ways—even for scientific discovery.


For more information on this subject, you can watch “The Privileged Planet” (you’ll need “real player”). It’s much better than drawn out boring reading; at least for me ;-}

Be well

 
At 6/06/2006 5:46 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

This issue of other populated planets and the role of Jesus is an interesting question that is usually asked by Christians. The short answer is, "we don't know." There's just not enough information to go by either from nature or Scripture. Again, I have to say it is only an academic question until such time as we find evidence of sentient, soulish creatures.

That being said, I do think there is enough contained in Scripture regarding the nature of God and humanity for me to make some guesses about this. Since God is omniscient and stands outside of time, we know that The Fall did not take Him by surprise, and the atonement of Christ was ordained "from the foundation of the world." This implies that this creation wasn't just an experiment gone badly and the other races across the cosmos could have played out differently. The kind of God we are talking about isn't just treating the universe as a big Petri dish or source of amusement for Himself; He is working out a perfect plan toward an objective for which He has only offered us partial knowledge thus far.

So, given the premise that we are part of a perfect plan, which permitted a fall, and given that God has impressed His own image upon us, and that He has Himself taken on our form (seemingly for all eternity), it becomes difficult to comprehend what other story He would establish for other "worldly" creatures remotely like ourselves. An atheist might find this to be snobbery, but I can only work with what I believe God has revealed, and until such time as I meet an otherworldly peer there is no one to convict me of bigotry or against which I might exercise it.

An argument against the idea that there could be unfallen worlds out there is that these would be "perfect" worlds, indistinguishable in purpose from "heaven." The problem is that this universe is a transient creation, which is susceptible to decay and which will eventually suffering complete entropy. This means that these unfallen worlds will not be redeemed and renewed, like our own, but will simply need to be transplanted to some other paradise for practical reasons. It is not clear what the point would be in intentionally creating this kind of temporary semi-paradise rather than just putting these unfallen beings into heaven in the first place. This scenario only works if God does not, in fact, know the future. And that is not the God of classical Christianity.

As far as the "Drake equation" is concerned, I think it is incredibly simplistic and naïve, and the more you know about the requirements for life and the uniqueness of a truly long-term habitable world, the more the numbers approach zero. Even the secular authors of the book Rare Earth were of the opinion that sentient life is most probably a rare commodity; and I think their modified equation is a stab toward a more realistic assessment of the situation. (FYI, I'll be including some aspects of this discussion in my next post.)

But even the mere existence of a life-friendly environment still leaves the overwhelming problem of abiogenesis, and if you've read my related posts on that you should know that even adding in billions of reaction sites to the equation is a drop in the bucket where the probabilities are concerned. Turning the whole universe into a prebiotic soup would still not do it.

Also, probabilities only work where there is a mechanism to reach your goal. For instance, you can't roll nines on six-sided dice, even in a billion tries; or, you can't roll ten sixes in a row if there's nothing to pick up the dice and roll them. This is why simply "postulating a self-replicating precursor" is not enough. You have to postulate things that could happen by way of natural chemical processes, and even then you must show that the ingredients were available and that the necessary conditions were met for those processes to commence. Dreaming up the possible intermediate steps is tough enough. Making such things even in a controlled environment poses challenges. But demonstrating that such things could and did happen under natural conditions has been a killer.

And we are not necessarily "getting closer" to a solution. We seemed closer to it in the past when we were more naïve about chemistry and the makeup of the cell. The optimistic bubble of the Miller-Urey days of experimentation has been burst. And speaking of bubbles, I am not at all impressed by proteinoid microspheres as a precursor to life. These are merely bubbles made from certain materials common to biochemistry. Hardly a quantum (or functional) leap forward even if they were relevant to the task. If NASA told us they had found a naturally formed brick house on Mars (complete with plumbing and electricity), would you be impressed if they said they'd also found brick shaped minerals in the outlying area? I'd think it was more like an unrelated coincidence than a precursor.

 
At 6/06/2006 8:47 PM, Blogger Paul said...

BF,

Yes, I intend to do a bit of exposing of those just right conditions. And I agree that The Privileged Planet is a good resource. I especially like the way it takes this issue to the next level in not only illustrating the hospitality of our environment (which is becoming well recognized), but in pointing out that those just right conditions also happen to put us in a unique position as spectators of the universe.

Thanks for the link. I have the video, but I didn't realize that it was also available online.

 
At 6/07/2006 12:02 AM, Blogger Beowulf said...

What could I say; I am a sucker for free stuff!

 
At 6/09/2006 5:32 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
Busy eh? I wish you well with your endeavors.
Thank you for an interesting and informative reply regarding other world messiahs.
As far as the likelihood of habitable worlds goes i would say that we don't really know how 'ideal' conditions really have to be before life can exist, as we only have our solar system as an exemplar. We have discovered that life is more robust than we previously thought. However even if a habitable world is very very unlikely it still will have happened many times due to the vast numbers of star systems out there.
On the abiogenesis question I think you dismiss promising areas of research too lightly. I think one of the errors you make is to calculate the probabilities involved using the complex co-evolved molecular machinery we see before us today. This is not valid. Nor is it valid to conclude that because, in the relatively short time that molecular biology has existed as a discipline, it has not found the definitive first replicator, that this necessarily undermines the idea that life started as a result of natural chemical processes.
Finally a quote:
"It is often pointed out that chemists have failed in their attempts to duplicate the spontaneous origin of life in the laboratory. This fact is used as if it constituted evidence against the theories that those chemists are trying to test. But actually one can argue that we should be worried if it turned out to be very easy for chemists to obtain life spontaneously in the test-tube. This is because chemists' experiments last for years not thousands of millions of years, and because only a handful of chemists, not thousands of millions of chemists, are engaged in doing these experiments. If the spontaneous origin of life turned out to be a probable enough event to have occurred during the few man-decades in which chemists have done their experiments, then life should have arisen many times on Earth, and many times on planets within radio range of Earth.
So we have arrived at the following paradox. If a theory of the origin of life is sufficiently 'plausible' to satisfy our subjective judgement of plausibility, it is then too 'plausible' to account for the paucity of life in the universe as we observe it. According to this argument, the theory we are looking for has got to be the kind of theory that seems implausible to our limited, Earth-bound, decade-bound imaginations. Seen in this light, both Cairns-Smith's theory and the primeval-soup theory seem if anything in danger of erring on the side of being too plausible! Having said all this I must confess that, because there is so much uncertainty in the calculations, if a chemist did succeed in creating spontaneous life I would not actually be disconcerted!" -R. Dawkins.

 
At 6/09/2006 10:55 AM, Blogger Jeff said...

I'd like to make 2 points that are philosophical in nature. The minor one first.

When considering the question of 'waste' it seems to me to be of primary importance to point out that argument from analogy is inappropriate when talking about a supposedly infinite creator. It's philosophically irrational to say that God 'wasted' power, resources, space or time. He has an infinite amount of each. So unlike the millionaire that lights a cigar with a $100 bill (even he can be said to be wasteful because he's got a finite amount of money), God has no limits. In summary, 'waste' only makes sense when dealing with finite resources.
So any claim that deals with God and claims 'waste' is irrational.

My second point is that the argument you dealt with here:
a) If there were a God who really cared about humans, He would have placed us in prime real-estate.
b) We are nowhere special.
c) Therefore, there is no God who particularly cares about us (or we are at least not the pinnacle of creation).


Really belongs to a larger class of arguments from intuition. I say intuition because the person advancing the argument is making speculations about what God would do (see the premise a above). So I could rephrase this argument making the assumptions explicit:
P1) I have faculties on par with God
P2) I know God's purpose(s) in creation
P3) I therefore know that God's purposes are not met in the created order as we see them
C) Therefore there is no God

This is the same thing being done time and time again by philosophers, theologians, and all us ordinary people when we forget to allow for the infinity of God's knowledge, and His perhaps unknown motives in doing all that He does. So whether the debate is over soteriology, or the problem of evil, or the irrational arguments for atheism they all fall prey to invalid premises.

 
At 6/12/2006 2:34 AM, Blogger anonymous said...

Great blog, Paul.

I followed you over from Thinking Christian and have read many of your posts.

Very good thinking and writing.

 
At 6/12/2006 1:26 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks Charlie! I don't post with great frequency, but I at least try to make it worth the read. Stop by again.

 
At 6/14/2006 9:55 PM, Blogger Jim Jordan said...

Hi Paul
To counter Carl Sagan's comment, I'd have to expand on the old adage thus: "If it's too good to be true, it probably is...unless God has something to do with it."

A few thoughts:
Did Jesus preach on other planets to aliens? I think the Jeopardy answer to that would be "What is Mormonism?" :)

And why, oh why didn't the Bible prophesy "Star Trek"? Or Santa Claus? Could it be that they don't exist?

The American Astronomical Society sold me 25 square miles on Mercury 20 years ago (seriously) for a $25 donation. Now since our photographic resolution has improved so that we can see down to acres, I wonder what it's worth now?

But seriously, astronomy is great because we see God's real estate portfolio. He made it, and it inspires more awe than anything else.

 
At 9/15/2006 8:04 AM, Blogger John W. Loftus said...

But you see, according to ancient Hebrew cosmology it wasn't much of a stretch to think God created without any wasted space at all. Did God deceive them by not telling them the whole story or did the Biblical authors write into the Bible their own ancient views? see here

 
At 9/27/2006 2:07 PM, Blogger Paul said...

"Deceive them by not telling them the whole story?" Your premise seems to imply that God's "honesty" requires that He deliver to man a trillion volumes of advanced, though incomprehensible (maybe forever), scientific literature.

 

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