Howard A. Smith, a lecturer in the Harvard University Department of Astronomy and a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, penned an opinion piece for the Washington Post this past Thanksgiving break about how we are to be thankful for a not-so-obvious blessing: our place in the universe. Here is a taste:
As we give thanks for our many obvious blessings, let’s reflect on a blessing that is less well known, a gift from modern astronomy: how we view ourselves.
There was a time, back when astronomy put Earth at the center of the universe, that we thought we were special. But after Copernicus kicked Earth off its pedestal, we decided we were cosmically inconsequential, partly because the universe is vast and about the same everywhere. Astronomer Carl Sagan put it this way: “We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star.” Stephen Hawking was even blunter: “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.”
An objective look, however, at just two of the most dramatic discoveries of astronomy — big bang cosmology and planets around other stars (exoplanets) — suggests the opposite. We seem to be cosmically special, perhaps even unique — at least as far as we are likely to know for eons.
The fine-tuning argument has had a long career, but recently it has been receiving special attention, not just by philosophers and theologians, but by scientists like Dr. Smith himself. A recently produced book by Cambridge University Press was just released this month by Luke Barnes, who is a postdoctoral researcher at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy who completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge, and Geraint F. Lewis, a Professor of Astrophysics at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy and head of the Gravitational Astrophysics Group, titled A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos that continues this long discussion about fine-tuning. The foreword by Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University, Canberra, and Nobel Laureate in Physics describes the book:
My colleagues, Geraint and Luke, in A Fortunate Universe, take you on a tour of the Cosmos in all of its glory, and all of its mystery. You will see that humanity appears to be part of a remarkable set of circumstances involving a special time around a special planet, which orbits a special star, all within a specially constructed Universe. It is these set of conditions that have allowed humans to ponder our place in space and time. I have no idea why we are here, but I do know the Universe is beautiful. A Fortunate Universe captures the mysterious beauty of the Cosmos in a way that all can share.
William Lane Craig aptly concludes that the fine-tuning for life in the universe, that “the view that Christian theists have always held, that there is an intelligent designer of the universe, seems to make much more sense than the atheistic view that the universe just happens to be by chance fine-tuned to an incomprehensible precision for the existence of intelligent life.” Here is Craig’s animated video on the fine-tuning argument:
The fine-tuning for life is quickly becoming one of the most discussed arguments in science today. Below are some resources related to the field of fine-tuning.
A Fortunate Universe: Life in a Finely Tuned Cosmos by Luke Barnes and Geraint Lewis
“Humanity is Cosmically Special. Here’s How We Know” by Howard A Smith | Washington Post, Nov. 25 2016
William Lane Craig’s clearing house of resources for the Fine-Tuning Argument (videos, articles, etc.)
Luke Barnes Blog
Robin Collin’s Fine-Tuning Website
Several years ago astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and philosopher Jay Richards wrote the book The Privileged Planet which was turned into a documentary here: