Tuesday, March 22, 2011

How Biophilic is the Cosmos

On some (particularly poor) versions of the design argument, the fact that life in the universe, much less human life, appears to be exceedingly rare is taken as significant.  Recent research that arises from improved telescope imagery technology has been putting the number of Earth-like planets in our galaxy very high:

New Estimate for Alien Earths:  2 Billion in Our Galaxy Alone


Truth Seeker said...


Are you referring to a version of the design argument put forth by Guillermo Gonzales and Jay Richards in the their book the privileged planet?

If so, merely characterizing it as poor as you did is no doubt a straw-man fallacy. What is fallacious in their argument?

Also, if you would actually present their argument, this article would be shown for what it is, unimpressive. One of the conditions needed for complex life on a planet is that it exists in the Goldilocks zone which means that a planet is not to far from the Sun, and not to close to the Sun for the existence of liquid water. Just because some planets similar in size to Earth are in the Goldilocks zone doesn't even begin to give one even a semi boner because there are at least 20 other factors that have to occur together on one of these planets and even if you assign a meager one in ten probability to each condition for life needed you get 10^(-15) which is 1/1,000,000,000,000,000 which one one thousandth to one one trillinth. Do you have anything worth getting excited over, or is this the best you have?

Truth Seeker said...

Oh yeah, in case you aren't going to do the math, even if there are 2 billion planets in the habitable zone that are close in diameter to the Earth, and there are 100 billion galaxies we would get a total of 200 billion "Earth-like" planets in the universe. Compared to 10^(-15) however, that is still a really small number. Moreover, the majority of galaxies on our universe are eithe irregular galaxies, which means there is no well-defined circumstellar habitable zone, and / or they are to young in the evolution of galaxies to have heavy elements to form "Earth-like" planets. So, even 200 illion is too high an estimate.

Truth Seeker said...

I don't think atheist are silly for the record, but for some reason this is one of two options, and I don't want to open an ID. Sort of like a the fallacy of false alternatives...

Unknown said...

how many grains of sand are there on all the beach`s in the world
yet we don`t see sand castle`s
designing and constructing themselves,quantities in and of themselves are irrelevat.There is vast quantities of builbing material on the earth but houses ,
cars, etc dont design and build themselves, we need designer`s and builders common sense tell`s us that.

Unknown said...

sorry just one more thing did you read this article the words can, might, potential, possible , don`t exactly instill confidence

pboyfloyd said...

Design arguments are designed by theists after all.

Seems kind of disingenuous to use statistics against science to me.

Obviously if you're of the opinion that God designed the universe, our solar system, our planet and moon with us in mind, there were no 'statistics' involved.

Finally, it seems to me that some design apologists are willing to say that the universe is designed with life in mind, not just our spot in it.

This must be the fall-back position, just in case we are 'contacted'?

Matt McCormick said...

If we discover intelligent life on other planets, what would be the implications for religious belief? I would think that for Christians or Muslims, for instance, there would be a number of crises: did they have their own alien-Jesus/Muhammed? Are they are part of the divine creation in Genesis too? How come they never got mentioned? Are they inherently corrupted by sin too? What was God trying to accomplish by creating different forms of life in the universe? Do they have souls?

Truth Seeker said...

What version of the design argument are you calling poor, and why is it poor?

I am glad to see that you have dropped your original claim: that complex intelligent life is not unlikely after all.

Your other questions have no bearing whatsoever on the validity and soundness of any desing argument. If those questions were what you originally meant to discuss then please forgive my misunderstanding.

Peter Watts said...

For someone who derides the lack of detail in other's argument, "Silly Athiest", you seem remarkably vague in your own critique. "About 20 other factors"? Which would these be? Are you just parroting the arguments Ward and Brownlee made in "Rare Earth"? Those have been pretty uniformly blown out of the water, from their basic claim about the rarity of planets in the first place to their insistence that a Luna-sized body and a Jovian streetsweeper would be necessary to clean debris out of the Goldilocks zone. (In fact, a lot of those arguments didn't even have to wait for actual astronomical discoveries to discredit them; anybody who'd point out that modern planet-survey techniques haven't found any earth-sized bodies — without bothering to mention that those techniques lacked the necessary resolution to find such bodies in the first place — doesn't really warrant a lot of attention outside the stand-up comedy circuit.) If you're talking about a different set of factors, then name them; and justify your calculations, which assume that each variable occurs independently of all the others.

The irregular galaxy argument is irrelevant to circumstellar Goldilocks zones; I'm guessing you meant the circumgalactic zones calculated by Lineweaver et al back in 2004. And rather than claiming that "there is no well-defined circumstellar habitable zone", it would be more accurate to claim that "the lethal radiation limiting the habitable zone along the coreward borders of spiral galaxies would not be limiting in galaxies lacking a spiral structure" — which actually increases the size of the habitable zone, all other things being equal (not sure about the metal content of those stars).

Something else rare-earthers forget is that the traditional circumstellar zone around sun-like stars doesn't include potential habitable zones around the moons of gas giants; such moons, even in our own solar system, are known to generate significant internal heat through the sheer tidal stress of their own orbits. Given the prevalence of gas giants and brown dwarfs throughout the galaxy, the conventional Goldilocks zone is likely to be too conservative, if anything.

Finally, Martin's aversion to words like "can", "might", "potential", and "possible" betrays an ignorance of science all too common among the religious. Scientists are trained to be conservative in their assessments, to use extreme caution in straying beyond the data, to be ever-conscious of the fact that evidence yet discovered may prove them wrong. It is far more honorable (and more intelligent) to state up-front that these are possibilities, yet to be proven, than it is to claim "I don't understand how this happened: therefore the Great Sky Fairy did it."

Was it Montagu who said "Scientists have proof without certainty; Creationists have certainty without proof"?

JSA said...

"I would think that for Christians or Muslims, for instance, there would be a number of crises"

I think you may be dramatically overstating your case due to wishful thinking. If the Jews were comfortable with a God who "chose" a small minority of humans and left the rest of earth's intelligent life to wail in the outer darkness, and if Christians weren't shaken by the discovery of races like the Chinese who had never known an Abrahamic faith, and if all of the faiths have learned to contend with the intelligence of dolphins and chimps -- I fail to see a scenario where intelligent life on other planets would make a major difference. It's not as if the God of Abraham ever conferred "chosen" status on planets instead of peoples.

I don't doubt that there are people who argue "The Universe is inhospitable to life, therefore God exists". But it's a rather bizarre argument, as you've already pointed out, and certainly not a very common argument for theism, either currently or historically. It's nowhere near as foundational to theism your use of the word "crises" would imply. I must conclude that you're exaggerating for dramatic effect.

Unknown said...

Matt - to say if we discover life on other planets it would be a problem for christians is a nonsense, it would be like me saying if christ returns to earth tomorrow that would be a problem for atheist`s, its not evidence its just saying if i had evidence about such and such, but you don`t.
But just for a moment lets deal with what we know about life, life always come`s from existing life, no known exception,the greatest minds in the world cannot make life , no one has the slightest idea how life could arise from non life , so please explain how life exists on earth , and forget about ET for now.

Peter Watts said...

Two words for you, Martin: synthetic biology. Look it up. You'd be surprised how close we are to creating life from nonliving components (hell, if you define viruses as living we did it years ago).

As to how life originally got started on this planet, I could run a whole shitload of terms past you: catalytic clays, Iron Sulphide Membranes, RNA worlds, pyranosal nucleotides. They'd mean nothing to you unless you had a background in biology. If you lack the time or the inclination to get the relevant degrees, look up the work of (for starters) L.E. Orgel. You should find lots of references online; those will lead you to others. Assuming you're truly interested, of course.

Again: the fact that you find something mysterious does not make it either unknown or unknowable.

feralboy12 said...

@ martin:
There are lots of ideas on how life could get started from non-life. The problem is testing those ideas, which is what science requires. We're talking about chemistry that happened billions of years ago.
No one has any explanation for how a god would arise, how a god would create a universe, or create life. Of course, religion doesn't require testable theories, does it?
I'm constantly amazed at people whose idea of a fair debate is one where they can posit the existence of a supremely powerful intelligence that requires no evidence, while the opponent has to provide conclusive proof of chemical reactions that took place billions of years ago.
You're right, though, that alien life would not be a problem for Christians, since any ad hoc explanation will do. You don't even need to go "one size fits all" with it; each sect could have its own explanation, and you could all pretend that you agree.
And when you are ignorant of something, do you just assume everyone else is as well, or do you know better? One is stupid, the other is dishonest. Take your pick.

JSA said...


Do a Web search for "Al Moritz Origin of Life". Al is a theist and a biochemist, and he explains how life could have plausibly arisen from chemical reactions without the need for a creator to intervene and violate the laws of nature.

The argument from ignorance ("God of the gaps") has got to be the worst possible argument for theism. You're banishing your god to an ever-shrinking slice of reality defined as "whatever doesn't yet have a naturalistic explanation". I can't believe you would do that deliberately, if you actually believe in god, unless you're trying to starve him to death.

Matt McCormick said...

One should be cautious about inferring "No one has any ideas about how X happened," from "I don't know anything about X." A few relevant, recent posts:

Current Theories of Abiogenesis

RNA World

Unknown said...

once again the evolutionist faith comes to the fore , telling me that we as intellegent creatures , are near to making life somehow explains how life made itself, how can you not see the contratdiction
you need life to make life.oh no it happened billions of years ago by itself but when we take all these chemicals to a lab we as intelegent as we are can`t make it happen is that reasonable i think not, walking along an empty beach you come across a well constructed sandcastle, you can theorise, postulate , and guess, how it might have got there, perhaps wind or waves acting on the grains of sand , but we all know we would believe someone designed and built it because its logical to do so , so i would not be proposing a person of the gaps to explain the sandcastle I would just be using my God given logic which tells me complexity does not arise by random forces.
By the way do some real searching for the origin of life and if you can find a paper , which does not use the words, maybe , perhaps, possibly, if only, come back to me , because in the analagy re jumbo jets and junk yards if by a million to one chance 2 pieces of the jumbo jet came together all you evolutionists would be screaming we are on our way to getting a working jet, but would we be? no. simply put you need intelligent life to make complexity not randomness from nothing.

Unknown said...

and one more thing , please don`t tell me the laws of nature did it, without telling me what specific laws of nature you are refering to
The 2nd law of thermodynamics is order to disorder, increasing entropy, so please tell me what natural law produces order from disorder, what law makes people from hydrogen gas, what law makes life from non life.And please dont tell me time , if you ask an engineer how he built a bridge he would not tell you, time , time is how long it takes not how it was acomplished.

Peter Watts said...

Jesus fucking Christ. Where to begin.

telling me that we as intellegent creatures , are near to making life somehow explains how life made itself, how can you not see the contratdiction

You stated that "the greatest minds in the world cannot make life". I pointed out that they could. I contradicted an ignorant statement on your part — and in fact, I saw it clearly.

Of course, that's not the contradiction you're referring to. You're mixing up two lines of argument entirely (one about whether people know how to create life, the other about how life got started in the first place), and pretending that my comments on one subject were intended to answer the other. If you put half as much effort into spell-checking as you do into the recitation of creationist fallacies, you'd be — well, you'd be someone who could at least spell correctly when parroting creationist fallacies. I gotta say, though, I'm not hopeful.

Regarding your comments about the second law of thermodynamics, evolution does not decrease entropy; it merely slows the rate at which entropy increases. On the remote chance that you're actually interested in learning about this stuff (as opposed to merely parroting random fortune-cookie snippets from the Discovery Institute), try reading Evolution and Entropy by Dan Brooks and Ed Wiley.

The remainder of your commentary is merely a rehash of previous bullshit points that have already been answered, expressed in syntax fractured enough to serve as an analogy for that random-junkyard imagery you're so fond of. We've already answered your questions here; repeating them with even worse spelling doesn't disguise the fact that you're just recycling the same old shit. Go educate yourself to the point where you can respond to new input with more intelligence than a broken record.

Or at the least, just go.

JSA said...

"expressed in syntax fractured enough to serve as an analogy for that random-junkyard imagery you're so fond of."

That was my reaction upon reading his response, too. I think he is a bot like Chomksybot, accreting random clauses from a corpus of apologetic texts. It's an elaborate prank designed to show that randomness can produce things that we consider to be ordered -- even arguments against the possibility of randomness resulting in order.

Unknown said...

To Peter and JS please forgive my ignorance and bad spelling ,but without refering my to some book can you please present the actual evidence of which you know,for how life began from non life, how hydrogen gas and small amount of helium became people , how order and design comes from random actions, if you can present present actial experimental evidence for any of the above I will be mighty impressed.

Unknown said...

sorry guy but can`t help just saying the spelling mistakes are my effort to create a new language , just like random mutation (mistakes) creates new creatures,
sound plausible don`t you think.

Peter Watts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Watts said...

please forgive my ignorance and bad spelling…

Why? Assuming for the moment that you're not mentally retarded, both ignorance and bad spelling are the result of laziness. I can't think of a good reason to forgive either.

but without refering my to some book can you please present the actual evidence of which you know,for how life began from non life

Don't like books, huh? You do realize that books are where this "actual evidence" is usually synthesized and presented in a form tractable to laypeople?

Ah well. No problem. Books just synthesize older research anyway; the cutting-edge stuff shows up first in the technical journals. So here you go: check out Orgel, LE, 2004: "Prebiotic Chemistry and the Origin of the RNA World", Critical Reviews in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 39:99—123.

…if you can present present actial experimental evidence for any of the above I will be mighty impressed.

Not as impressed as I'll be when you do the same for your hypothesis. That's your assignment now, Martin: hold yourself to the same standard that you'd hold us. Present actual evidence of the mechanism by which an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, self-aware entity can arise from nothing at all. Keep in mind that lack of "actual evidence" — which you find so objectionable when applied to prebiotic chemical reactions for which there is, in fact, considerable evidence — must logically be orders of magnitude more objectionable when applied to a deity more complex than the entire universe. (Unless of course you meant that sand-castle argument literally, and your God is actually no more complex than a molded pile of silicon on a beach somewhere.)

Before handing in your work, check it for internal inconsistency — for example, claims such as "you need intelligent life to make complexity not randomness from nothing" (which means either that 1) god was created by intelligent life, or 2) god is not complex). Also check your work for common fallacies such as "argument from incredulity"; you may find such arguments compelling, but it is difficult to express how unimpressed the rest of us are by "It's beyond my understanding therefore the Magic Sky Fairy did it". Especially when put forth by someone whose "understanding" doesn't extend far enough to spell the word "actual".

Begin now. No talking until the assignment is completed.

Matt McCormick said...

Dammnnnnn, that stings and I didn't even say any of that stuff Finnegan did. Pwnage.

Unknown said...

peter- the creation of life and the universe was a once off historical event I assume you agree, I was not there to see it so I believe certain thing based on circumstantial evidence to believe God did it, you being a man of science must have proof, I assume as words like believe and faith are nor words of science , so once again please tell me how life began from non life , how the complex universe came into being from just hydrogen gas and small ammounts of helium since thats all that was created in the big bang.
Maybe you dont understand how this could happen thats why you are not presenting any facts to back up your argument , maybe your faith is in men like Dawkins , Coyne et al and you believe they understand it so it must be so.so I will tell you what I do know.
life alway comes from life there is as yet no know exception
2nd law is the rule in the universe thats why its called a law.
hydrogen gas does not form into people no matter how long you leave it.
If i came across a working model of our solar system I would assume someone designed and built it so then I conclude the real thing being a million time larger and more complex must be designed and built by someonw also .
so any facts and evidence from your side would be appreciated.

Unknown said...

sorry I should have said the creation of life and the universe were once off events

Peter Watts said...

Oh, Martin. You didn't even start the assignment before talking. What am I going to do with you?

Fail you, for starters.

sorry I should have said the creation of life and the universe were once off events

Actually, both your attempts were wrong. You'll have to try again.

But if you do, I won't be around to correct you any more. I should point out before I leave, though, that my acceptance of naturalistic evolution is not because I have "faith" in Dawkins, Coyne, or William Shatner's mother for that matter. I accept these things because I've spent decades studying them: I've earned my Ph.D., I've done research, I've studied the technical literature, I've even contributed to it. I've taught evolutionary principles at the university level. People like Dawkins have spent their whole adult lives researching these things.

How much time have you spent studying these issues, Martin? What credentials qualify you to hold up your own prideful ignorance as evidence against mountains of fact and logic that you can't even be bothered to look at?

thats why you are not presenting any facts to back up your argument

When you've asked questions that might — if I squint really hard — almost read as though they were honestly asked, I've shown you where to get the answers. You refuse to look them up. You refuse to even try. Instead, you demand exhaustive treatises on biochemical evolution and the history of the inflationary universe, crammed into the comment fields of a personal blog; you demand an education in advanced physics and biology, simplified so that it can be understood by some semiliterate who lacks even fourth-grade spelling skills. You want the insights that I earned over three degrees and two postdocs, insights that real experts work for years to acquire — and if I suggest that you perform so much as a Google search in pursuit of that goal, you cross your arms and declare that I have no evidence to offer.

I've noticed you're fond of analogies. Here's one: I am not able to teach my cat about the Periodic Table of elements. That does not mean the Periodic Table is a myth. Likewise, the fact that you are simply too stupid and/or lazy to look up relevant evidence — even when someone points you directly at it — does not mean that evidence is lacking. It only means that you do not want see it.

If you want me to attempt to give you a proper grounding in evolutionary theory, you'll have to be willing to do homework, like any real pupil. You'll also have to pay me the salary I got for teaching this stuff at university. Until that point, I'm sorry but my time is too valuable to waste on ignorant assholes whose only response to answers is to slap hands over ears and mindlessly repeat the same question at endlessly increasing volume.

It's been a slice.

Unknown said...

so what you are saying is that if you keep calling me enough names , the big bang , macro evolution , etc all become true wow that sure is some teaching skill`s you have.
I will make it simple for you , please present one example just one of a life form arising from non life. You see I belive that life comes from life , I can do this by experimentation, observation, etc you know science stuff ,so please explain to me why you believe the contrary , and a little evidence may help your case.
By the way where I grew up they had a saying it was give me your money or I will stab you, so the name calling I have had worse.

Unknown said...

I can only assume that Peter has ceased this debate claiming my ignorance as the reason for doing so, maybe , but with most evolutionists the real reason is lack of evidence. Most evolutionist need to admit that both evolution and creation are both matters of faith neither position`s can be proven ,all either side can do is present circumstantial evidence to back up their arguement and we can then weigh up this evidence to see which is the most reasonable explaination for the evidence. Do you agree Matt seeing that you were very happy to think peter had put me in my place , if you disagree please state why , and can anyone please present some evidence to back up their position and not just say such and such say`s such and such, but present some evidence so at least I can understand what you are actually defending and you understand what you are defending

Unknown said...

lets look at it his way , exceptions and rules, if you fall from an airplane at 30,000 feet without a parachute the rule is you will die but there are exceptions and people have lived.
with this in mind lets weight up the evidence
1- hydrogen gas left long enough becomes people
2- mutations in reproduction
3- beneficial mutations
4- life from non life- pasteur
5- random making complex without
6- 2 law of thermodynamic`s
these are just some thing we can ask in these things are they the rule or the exception.
for instance are there any benifical mutations? I say no but if there are they are the exception.
so does a large collection of rules or exceptions make thing the way they are you deceide, for me I would prefer to get off a plane that has landed than get out at 30,000 feet, and this time after time after time.