Friday, July 20, 2007

At the Center of the Universe

Byron sends along a link to an article by novelist Anthony Doerr who writes a lovely meditation on the Hubble Deep Field photograph that shows the universe to be populated with billions of galaxies. Doerr considers this picture the most important picture ever taken because it shows us how incredibly vast the cosmos is and how incredibly puny we are.

Every speck in this photo is a galaxy like our Milky Way.

In the course of his wonderment Doerr asks whether it can be "even remotely possible that our one, tiny, eggshell world is the only one encrusted with life?"

The answer to this question, according to some astronomers, is that not only is it possible, it's probable (See, for example Gonzalez and Richards' Privileged Planet or Ward and Brownlee's Rare Earth), but as Doerr exclaims elsewhere in his essay, whether there are trillions of earths or just one the circumstances are mind-boggling.

It used to be the case that astronomers argued that the Copernican revolution showed the earth to be an insignificant backwater in the universe and that it was foolishness to think that we were somehow at the center of things as medieval theologians said we were. It turns out, though, that the medieval theologians were more correct than they were given credit for. It appears that the universe pretty much has to be as big as it is in order for us to be here at all.

Scientists believe that the universe started in an enormous explosion of space-time and energy about 14 billion years ago. There was no matter at the instant of that initial "Big Bang," only energy, but in the milliseconds after the Bang matter, in the form of protons and electrons, began to condense out of the enormous energy produced by the explosion, and, as the nascent cosmos expanded it cooled and the protons and electrons combined to form hydrogen gas.

The hydrogen clumped in massive spheres to form the first stars and these huge balls of gas produced in their cores a fusion furnace that generated all the other elements necessary for life. This process took billions of years and all the while the universe was expanding, growing larger and populated by galaxies of these stars.

Eventually, some of the stars themselves exploded, spewing the elements in their cores out into space in great clouds of debris. Some of this debris was captured by the gravitational field of our sun and cooled to form molten spheres which cooled further to become planets.

This happened about 5 billion years ago, and out of the star dust that became earth God fashioned living things.

Now, if this is how creation came about then it took about 10 billion years for the conditions in the universe to be such that the raw materials necessary for life were available. All that time the universe was expanding, getting bigger and more beautiful with every year that passed until man appeared. So, and this is the point, the universe has to be as old as it is and thus as vast as it is in order for life to exist in it at all.

Man may be not at the physical center of the universe but rather at the ontological or existential center. As incomprehensibly big as it is, it all exists so that man can exist. That truly is mind-boggling.



My friend Steve links us to an article by former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson who puts his finger on one of several existential problems that the atheist needs to confront but rarely does. It's a problem we've discussed often here at Viewpoint and Gerson starts off his piece this way:

British author G.K. Chesterton argued that every act of blasphemy is a kind of tribute to God, because it is based on belief. "If anyone doubts this," he wrote, "let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor."

By the evidence of the New York Times bestseller list, God has recently been bathed in such tributes. An irreverent trinity -- Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins -- has sold a lot of books accusing theism of fostering hatred, repressing sexuality and mutilating children (Hitchens doesn't approve of male circumcision). Every miracle is a fraud. Every mystic is a madman. And this atheism is presented as a war of liberation against centuries of spiritual tyranny.

Proving God's existence in 750 words or fewer would daunt even Thomas Aquinas. And I suspect that a certain kind of skeptic would remain skeptical even after a squadron of angels landed on his front lawn. So I merely want to pose a question: If the atheists are right, what would be the effect on human morality?

Read the rest of the essay to see how Gerson answers his own question. I said above that it's one of several existential problems that the atheist often avoids facing. To read a little bit about some of the others go here.

UPDATE 1: Christopher Hitchens offers a reply to Gerson that completely misses the point.

UPDATE 2: Years ago Wendy's ran television adds which asked the question of their competitors, "Where's the beef?" I'm reminded of these adds as I try to keep up with the flurry of articles asking the anti-theistic writers pretty much that same question. Where's the philosophical meat? Peter Berkowitz is one example of a writer unimpressed with the "new, new atheists." Taking Christopher Hitchens' god [sic]is Not Great as the best of the lot of the recent spate of anti-religious books he does a fine job of exposing the shallowness of the theological and philosophical pools in which these authors, despite their popularity, are wading.

Dinesh D'Souza adds Stanley Fish to the chorus of serious thinkers who find the arguments of the current crop of anti-theists to be worthy of little more than the indulgent smile one might confer upon a child's inchoate attempts at drawing a flower.

I'm sure many more thinkers will be soon rushing to the fray since the books by Dawkins et al. are such easy sport for anyone who has seriously thought about the matters about which they write.


Report Suspicious Activity? No Way.

Here's a piece of news guaranteed to have steam shooting out of your ears:

Democrats are trying to pull a provision from a homeland security bill that will protect the public from being sued for reporting suspicious behavior that may lead to a terrorist attack, according to House Republican leadership aides.

Rep. Pete King, New York Republican and ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Steve Pearce, New Mexico Republican, sponsored the bill after a group of Muslim imams filed a lawsuit against U.S. Airways and unknown or "John Doe" passengers after they were removed for suspicious behavior aboard Flight 300 from Minneapolis to Phoenix on Nov. 20 before their removal.

"Democrats are trying to find any technical excuse to keep immunity out of the language of the bill to protect citizens, who in good faith, report suspicious activity to police or law enforcement," Mr. King said in an interview last night.

"This is a slap in the face of good citizens who do their patriotic duty and come forward, and it caves in to radical Islamists," Mr. King said. "I don't see how you can have a homeland security bill without protecting people who come forward to report suspicious activity," Mr. King said.

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, initially opposed the legislation for fear it would lead to racial profiling.

Why would they do this? Why would they not want to immunize people from lawsuit who witness suspicious behavior that turns out to be benign? How can the government on one hand urge citizens to be vigilant and report suspicious behavior and on the other tell us that if we're wrong we can lose everything we own in a lawsuit?

It's hard to take Rep. Thompson's racial profiling excuse seriously so what's the real reason? Are the Democrats that beholden to the trial lawyers? Are they in the back pocket of CAIR (Council for American-Islamic Relations)? Whatever the answer it's astonishing that Americans would continue to vote for these people.