Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Embarrassingly Bad Arguments

Jeff Schweitzer, a former White House policy advisor and a Ph.D. in marine biology as well as in neurophysiology, must be a very bright guy, which makes a recent column by him in the Huffington Post all the more remarkable for the sophomoric silliness of its argumentation.

Schweitzer evidently wishes to persuade his readers that the recent discovery of an earth-like planet elsewhere in our galaxy threatens to discredit the Bible and perhaps mark the end of any warrant for belief in God, but the reasons he gives in support of this are unworthy of a man of such achievements.

He immediately gets off on the wrong foot:
[T]here are likely thousands or millions or even billions of such earth-like planets in the universe. The discovery of just one such world is good evidence for many more: after all, we know of 100 billion galaxies each with as many as 300 billion stars (big variation per galaxy). Astronomers estimate that there are about 70 billion trillion stars. Math wizardry is not necessary to conclude we did not by chance find the only other possibly habitable planet among that huge population of stars.

With this discovery, we come ever closer to the idea that life is common in the universe. Perhaps you are not convinced.
Well, no, I'm not convinced. The discovery of a planet roughly the size of the earth orbiting in the habitable zone of a star, is certainly a necessary condition for life to exist on it, but it's nowhere near a sufficient condition. So many other factors are necessary for the planet to sustain life, much less advanced life, that the odds against any planet in the galaxy, or in the hundred billion other galaxies, exhibiting them all are astronomical. Earth could well be the only planet which does exhibit all of the characteristics necessary for advanced life, and to believe otherwise is, at this point, little more than an act of faith.

Furthermore, to assert, as Schweitzer does, that this discovery brings us ever closer to the idea that life is common in the universe is like saying that the discovery in the 16th century that the earth revolves around the sun brought us ever closer to sending a man to the Andromeda galaxy. Even if our planet is not the only one in the universe that can sustain life it doesn't follow that any other similar planets there may be actually have life on them, and it certainly doesn't follow that life is common in the universe. Schweitzer seems to think that given a few appropriate conditions the emergence of life is inevitable, but this again is an act of faith.

In any case, these little exaggerations are as nothing compared to what Dr. Schweitzer has in store for us further on:
[L]et me speculate what would happen should we ever find evidence of life beyond earth even if you think such discovery unlikely. I would like here to preempt what will certainly be a re-write of history on the part of the world's major religions. I predict with great confidence that all will come out and say such a discovery is completely consistent with religious teachings. My goal here is to declare this as nonsense before it happens....

Let us be clear that the Bible is unambiguous about creation: the earth is the center of the universe, only humans were made in the image of god, and all life was created in six days. All life in all the heavens. In six days. So when we discover that life exists or existed elsewhere in our solar system or on a planet orbiting another star in the Milky Way, or in a planetary system in another galaxy, we will see a huge effort to square that circle with amazing twists of logic and contorted justifications. But do not buy the inevitable historical edits: life on another planet is completely incompatible with religious tradition. Any other conclusion is nothing but ex-post facto rationalization to preserve the myth.
This is so bad, so far wrong, that one is embarrassed for Dr. Schweitzer for having made such public display of his ignorance. He states that:
  1. the Bible is unambiguous about creation
  2. the Bible teaches that the earth is the center of the universe
  3. the Bible teaches that only humans were made in the image of God
  4. the Bible teaches that all life was created in six days.
The first three of these claims are patently false, and the last is the subject of intense disagreement among Christian scholars, but even if all four claims were true how are they inconsistent with life existing elsewhere in the cosmos? Nothing in those statements precludes the possibility that life on earth is not unique. Schweitzer assays to reinforce his asseverations by drawing on the Genesis record, though he misidentifies Genesis 1:26,27 by calling it Genesis 1:1. This is a small error perhaps, but it serves to cast doubt on Schweitzer's understanding of his topic. He writes:
From Genesis 1:1 [sic], we get:

God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image, in the image of god he created him; male and female he created them.

Nothing in that mentions alien worlds, which of course the ancients knew nothing about. Man was told to rule over the fish on the earth, not on other planets. But god would have known of these alien worlds, so it is curious he did not instruct the authors to include the language.
In other words, 1) if the Genesis account is accurate then we would expect it to give us an accurate account of life on other planets. 2) Since it makes no mention of such life we are left to believe there is none. 3) So, if it should turn out that there is life on other planets we can only conclude that the Bible is wrong.

Set aside the fact that premise 1) is clearly false. Taken as a whole the argument is what is called in elementary logic an argument from silence. It's like arguing that if the Bible were really the true word of God it would mention Antarctica because God would have known about Antarctica. Since the Bible nowhere mentions Antarctica it cannot be the true word of God. Most people learn to recognize this fallacy by the time they reach puberty, but Dr. Schweitzer, in all his learning, has evidently never come across it before.

Later he gives us another textbook example of the same fallacy when he says:
None of the 66 books of the bible make any reference to life other than that created by god here on earth in that six-day period. If we discover life elsewhere, one must admit that is an oversight. So much so in fact that such a discovery must to all but the most closed minds call into question the entire story of creation, and anything that follows from that story. How could a convincing story of life's creation leave out life? Even if the story is meant to be allegorical, the omission of life elsewhere makes no sense.
It's only an oversight, of course, if the purpose of the Bible is to provide an exhaustive description of the universe, but that was surely not its purpose. Schweitzer may as well have complained that Genesis doesn't mention quasars, black holes, and the moons around Jupiter and that the omission of these celestial objects makes no sense since surely God would have known about them.

To be sure, if life is discovered elsewhere in the cosmos, it will raise some interesting questions, but it will have no bearing whatsoever on the basic claims of Christian theism.

Let's close with another example, among many that Schweitzer provides, of his philosophical/theological sloppiness. He writes:
There is also a problem with Genesis 1:3: And God said, "Let there be light" and there was light. Well, the earth is only 4.5 billion years old, yet the universe, and all the light generating stars in ancient galaxies, are more than 13 billion years old. So when god said, "Let there be light" there already had been light shining bright for at least 10 billion years.
Dr. Schweitzer here fails to acknowledge that most people believe Gen. 1:3 to be a reference to the initial creation event, the Big Bang. Why assume that it comes ten billion years later?

I don't have all the letters after my name that Dr. Schweitzer has after his but even so, I'd like to presume to give him a word of advice. Before venturing out of your field of expertise to make dogmatic pronouncements about what is and is not the case in other disciplines, please read up on what the brightest minds in that other field are saying about the issues you want to raise. In other words, do some homework. You'll save yourself a lot of embarrassment.