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The Privileged Planet June 28, 2008

Posted by Ian in Religion.
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Thanks to posts here and here I have discovered that a film entitled “The Privileged Planet” has been distributed to 400 schools in New Zealand. Curious, a quick Google search yielded that Google Video had a full version of the film which I duly watched. I have to say it is pretty tame as far as ID propaganda goes – in fact I even found it kind of interesting. So while it concerns me people are sending any kind of propaganda to New Zealand schools, if this is as bad as it gets I don’t think I really have a reason to complain.

What follows is an overview of the main points of the film with my comments about the key points.

The film opens with a discussion of the voyager space craft, and talks of the well known image now known as the pale blue dot. The film covers what it calls “the mystery of the earth’s significance in the universe” starting with Ptolemy and moving onto Copernicus discovering that the earth itself moved. This leads onto what they call the “Copernican Principle” which was that the earth holds no special place in the universe. Carl Sagan and the famous passage from his book “Pale Blue Dot” are given as the primary example of the Copernican principle. They then talk about Hubble discovering we weren’t the only galaxy and that we were just another ordinary galaxy in the universe, which further undermines the earth’s special place in the universe.

This introduction sets up the main purpose of the film – discrediting the Copernican principle.

With this in mind they start discussing the “ingredients for complex life” which include:

1.        Within galactic habitable zone

2.       Orbiting main sequence G2 dwarf star

3.       Protected by gas giants (from comet impacts)

4.       Within circumstellar habitable zone

5.       Nearly circular orbit

6.       Oxygen rich atmosphere

7.       Correct mass

8.       Orbited by large moon

9.       Magnetic field

10.   Plate tectonics

11.   Ratio of liquid water and continents

12.   Terrestrial planet

13.   Moderate rate of rotation

They go on to explain some of these in quite a lot of detail, but the upshot seems to be that complex life cannot exist unless it is a very earth-like planet. Now forgive me for a simplistic answer, but I think their imagination is a bit lacking here. Sure mammalian life might struggle elsewhere but what reasons have we to suspect that it is the only kind?

They point out that the earth is well suited to meet our needs and in a sense it really is. But there is a good reason for that. Earth animal’s it seems are evolved to live in just such an environment so saying it suits us is a product of us having to adapt to what we got, not a perfect place which we found when we somehow got here. In fact life has even modified the earth dramatically over time and the composition of the atmosphere for example is as much a function of life as it is a resource for life. To suggest that life couldn’t do the same in dramatically different environments is I think a bit brave.

Jay Richards (a philosopher at Discovery Institute and co-author of book with the same name as the documentary) sums up the first section of the film:

“When you consider chance as an explanation for a planet like earth, you have to look at it in the context of the universe as a whole. While the odds appear astonishingly small that you’d get all the right ingredients to support complex life in just one place in the galaxy, you have to keep in mind that our galaxy is just one of perhaps 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Still, logically, I think you have to ask yourself ‘what if this convergence of factors didn’t come about as the result of simply a cosmic lottery or a mere fluke or luck. But what if it’s the result of some underlying purpose or design? And if the earth does exist for a purpose, is there any way that we could tell?”

This is about as strong as the theology gets in the film.

The next large chunk of the programme deals with the idea that the earth is uniquely situated as a place to observe the universe – what they call the correlation between life and discovery. The statement taken from the book of the same name as the film states:

“The same narrow circumstances that allow us to exist also provide us with the best overall setting for making scientific discoveries.”

Examples given include:

1.       Total solar eclipses due to moon being the perfect size to cover the moon which allows significant scientific discoveries such as sun composition or confirmations of theories such as relativity.

2.       Transparent atmosphere (try telling that to astronomers lol) unlike other planets like Venus.

3.       Apparently the thin band of the electromagnetic radiation called visible light is the most useful for observing the cosmos.  And yet we know of animals that “see” in infrared or ultraviolet or even sound.

4.       Our location in the galaxy is ideally suited for observing the universe.

Then the film goes on to discuss the fundamental principles of the universe, and presenting a basic version of the fine tuning argument without taking to any particular conclusion (i.e. there is no mention of needing a tuner).  However it takes an interesting twist by saying that they are not only well tuned, but are knowable (linking back to the connection between liveability and discovery).  Paul Davies (author of The Mind of God) notes:

“Most scientists just take it for granted that the world is both ordered and intelligible. And the intelligible part I find really quite extraordinary because it’s one thing to accept the universe is ordered, but ordered in a way that human beings are capable of understanding is an extraordinary thing. And so the question naturally arises, what is the explanation for this?”

This immediately brings to mind Richard Feynman who said “If you think you understand quantum physics, you don’t understand quantum physics.” I do not think the world outside our immediate experience is easy to understand, although we do our best with the tools we have.

The next section of the film tackles the notion that humans have the ability to figure this out. They argue that humans understanding the universe can’t have occurred from a Darwinian point of view because we don’t need it for survival. Yet I think the response to this is obvious – the success of the human species was its general ability to figure things out. This gave it the edge against other stronger, faster, better armed animals and ultimately led to civilisation. I would argue most of our other skills are functions of civilisation rather than our genetic code.

Finally, in the last few minutes of the film they get onto the notion of god but in a very low key way, referring to how Copernicus and others thought to understand the mind of god via understanding the mechanics of the universe. Surprisingly this is as far as it goes, and pleasantly the film does not offer the usual non-sequitur of this type of film that “therefore god exists” but rather just ends with the following concluding statement:

“As we gaze ever deeper into the universe we are inevitably drawn back to timeless questions. What is the source of the cosmos? And what is our purpose within it? While answers will always be debated, valuable new insights are now at hand emerging from a corner of the universe where complex life and scientific discovery have converged, on an extraordinary planet called earth.”

So really the purpose of the film is to make people realise earth is special and not just another planet. In a sense I agree with them. It is special from a biased point of view – it is special because we are fairly well adapted to live on its surface and to make discoveries from it. Would a complex life form with a vastly different mechanism for life even notice anything special about the earth? Perhaps, or perhaps not, but only by assuming the way humans do things is the only way to do things can we then justify most of the statements in this film, and surely that assumption is far from solid?


1. Christiaan - June 30, 2008

Once again there is a lot to be said for the media – the way it was reported it was as if 400 copies of Expelled had been sent to the schools.

2. Ian - July 1, 2008

I think the overall intention (and perhaps the combined effect of the whole package including brochures etc) is still pretty bad.

However this particular documentary is fairly tame compared to many others, including expelled from what I gather. Of course PP it is still only one “and therefore goddidit” away from being pretty bad lol.

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