Review: Why the Universe Is the Way It Is
Work under Review
Hugh Ross agrees with Leibniz. All's for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and you are living in it. As founder and president of an old-earth creationist ministry, Reasons to Believe, Ross also thinks nature and the Bible are complementary sources of truth. Both are necessary for a complete picture of our cosmic purpose. In his catechetical book Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, nature speaks first in the form of a cosmological fine-tuning argument from design. Fundamental properties of the universe and unique features of planet earth are improbably arranged, hence designed solely for our benefit. The remainder of the book cites Bible chapter and verse to dispatch the pesky problem of evil with an eschatological solution. Do you sometimes have difficulty seeing the Designer's purpose in a life-destroying tsunami, earthquake, or pandemic? All will become clear when the "best possible world" of this age gives way to an even better "perfect" world of the next. But purpose is still discernible in events of this world, including the greatest of tragedies. You must simply look harder. Ross explains that the quest for meaning is like playing "Where's Waldo?" in the children's book series of the same name. Why is the universe so big, old, dark, lonely, and in decline (chapters 2–6)? Ross finds the Waldoes and points them out. Like Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius, he "explains it all for you".
Ross's version of the cosmic fine-tuning argument resembles that of several Discovery Institute Fellows, although he parts company with their efforts to promote a non-supernatural designer in public science education. Physicists have understood for quite some time that life as we know it could not exist if any of several cosmic constants deviated from their observed values by one part in 1040 or some similarly large number (for example, see Rees 2001). Why is this true? The anthropic principle points out that, were it otherwise, we would not be here to ask the question. But is our existence due to a colossal fluke, some yet-undiscovered natural law(s), divine design, or a rarity made inevitable by membership in a super-huge, random, and mostly sterile set of multiple universes (the "multiverse")? For Ross, design is the only option worth talking about. To make his case, he recites from an expanding litany of gee-whiz antecedents to existence (chapter 8) and ignores competing explanations.
In the standard design solution to fine-tuning, a Designer is used to explain the narrow range of cosmic parameters that allow us to be here. To use an analogy that Ross does not, material facts of our existence are like cards in a highly improbable hand drawn from a very large deck. Their putative unlikelihood is explained if an Intelligent Dealer picked them out on purpose. There are 2 598 960 possible five-card hands that can be drawn from a deck of only 52 cards. The chances of drawing any one in particular are thus already pretty low. But we are not likely, a posteriori, to see a miracle in every hand drawn. What is the prior expectation for a special hand, then, like one that contains two pairs? Since there are 123 552 different ways to get two pairs in a five-card hand, the probability is 123 552/2 598 960 — about 5%. It is somewhat unlikely to get this result in a single deal. If you were dealt 20 hands in succession, however, you would not find it remarkable to get two pairs in at least one of them. Is the special "hand" of our existence vastly more improbable? Ross says yes, but he is still answering after the fact. He does not know the number of ways intelligent life could be arrived at or the number of attempts that have occurred, or even the initial range of possibilities (the "deck"). Despite repeated claims, he has no way to determine if our existence is likely or not.
Fundamental properties of the universe are necessary but insufficient conditions for life in it. So Ross's Designer works post-Big Bang to make a habitable planet and put life on it as per Genesis 1. That was the week that was, says Ross, but it actually lasted several billion years. Incredulous readers are referred to Ross's other books to connect Genesis to the fossil record. Meanwhile, he expands the fine-tuning argument along the lines of Discovery Institute Fellows Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards. Gonzalez is an "intelligent design" martyr recently beatified in Ben Stein's movie Expelled (see RNCSE 2008 Sep–Dec; 28 [5–6]). He and Ross published on this topic as early as 2000 in the religious journal First Things (Gonzalez and Ross 2000). At that time, Gonzalez also collaborated with paleontologist Peter Ward and planetary scientist Don Brownlee who argued in Rare Earth (2000) that our galaxy is probably not host to much extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). This boldly marketed conjecture was captured in a groan-inducing parody worthy of a Yoko Ono lawsuit: "Imagine There's No Spacemen" (sic) (http://www.astro.washington.edu/rareearth/rareearthsite/rareearth.mp3 [Link has expired]).
Ward and Brownlee contended that to support complex intelligent life, a planet needs an improbable combination of things like a large moon, plate tectonics, a nearby Jovian planet, and location in a "Galactic Habitable Zone" (GHZ). Gonzalez and Richards went further in The Privileged Planet (2004; reviewed in RNCSE 2005 Jan–Apr; 25 [1–2]: 47–9) and saw God where the former merely doubted ETI. Earth is not only rare; it's a miracle! To make the case, they hyped the importance and rarity of each and every condition necessary for life as we know it. Ross follows suit and, for instance, champions a highly restrictive GHZ that is simply not borne out by quantitative modeling. On the basis of numerical simulations that neither Ward, Brownlee, Gonzalez, nor Ross bothered to make, Prantzos (2008) reports that it is currently impossible "to draw any significant conclusions about the extent of the GHZ: it may well be that the entire Milky Way disk is suitable for complex life."
Exaggerated claims like an extremely limited GHZ surround a more serious central blunder in the rare earth argument from design: discounting the multi-planet solution. Design proponents often cite a testability criterion to reject undetected multiple universes in favor of a cosmological Designer who, coincidentally, is also unobserved. In the terrestrial version, however, Ross expressly ignores the ongoing discovery of a large population of planets. By Ross's own calculations, there are of order 1021 stellar systems in the observable universe alone. Current observations and theory suggest that nearly all these will contain planets of some kind. But neither Ross nor Gonzalez demonstrates, quantitatively, that a generic planet has less than 1 chance in 1021 of ending up with properties that could support complex life. There is therefore no reason to exclude the origin of a habitable "rare earth" solely from natural causes, given the size of the universe and ubiquity of planets.
This is just one more Waldo that vanishes under scrutiny like the face on Mars at high resolution. Sadly for Waldo searchers, it happens time and time again in Ross's latest book. In the end, one finds many reasons to doubt but few reasons to believe.
Gonzalez G, Ross H. 2000. Home alone in the universe. First Things 103: 10–2.
Gonzales G, Richards JW. The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery. Washington (DC): Regnery Publishing, 2004.
Prantzos N. 2008. On the "Galactic Habitable Zone". Space Science Reviews 135 (1–4): 313–22.
Rees M. 2001. Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces that Shape the Universe. New York: Basic Books.
Ward P, Brownlee D. 2000. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Rare in the Universe. New York: Copernicus Books.
Department of Physics and Astronomy
Northern Arizona University, Box 6010
Flagstaff AZ 86011-6010
David Koerner is Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Northern Arizona University, where he studies planet formation in astronomical observations of circumstellar disks around young stars. He coauthored Here Be Dragons: The Scientific Quest for Extraterrestrial Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) with Simon LeVay.