Howard Smith is a lecturer in Harvard’s Department of Astronomy as well as an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He’s also a religious Jew who spends his time reconciling science with the mystical tenets of the Kaballah. The website for Smith’s 2006 book, Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmology and Kaballah: A New Conversation Between Science and Religion, describes the author as “a traditional and observant Jew,” and adds this:
The power of the scientific method is that every single person will see and hear exactly the same thing. Mistakes of interpretation will be found and fixed; cumulative wisdom grows, and as it does, we gain in understanding about God’s “Book of Nature.” In contrast, our relationship with the holy is communal and personal, and is sanctified. Together, our mind and our spirit, our shared and our personal experiences of the Divine, enable us to live in the natural world both aware of and grateful for its blessings. The psalm for Shabbat, Psalm 92, celebrates the universe that was completed with Shabbat: “How amazing is Your Creation, oh Lord, and how subtle are Your thoughts! …. An ignorant person can’t understand it; a simple-minded person won’t get it.” Thanks to the revolution in science and religion we are reaching for new highs of awareness. May we also reach new levels of wonder, gratitude, and holiness.
So what we have here is a religious scientist. But the religion part is completely missing from Smith’s op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post, “Humanity is cosmically special. Here’s how we know.” Or rather, the religion is implied, but is only implicit for reasons we can guess: instead of confessing his beliefs at the outset, Smith tries to use science to show that humans are “special”, and that, perhaps, there’s a Higher Intelligence behind the presence of humans on Earth.
To make his argument, Smith makes a number of discredited claims, including the “fine-tuning” argument. I’ll excerpt a few passages, all of which are wrong:
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 first result — the anthropic principle — has been accepted by physicists for 43 years. The universe, far from being a collection of random accidents, appears to be stupendously perfect and fine-tuned for life.
The weak anthropic principle, that we happen to live in a Universe that allows our existence, and thus our pondering that existence, is not at issue here. That’s just a tautology. The rest of the piece makes clear that Smith is talking about the strong anthropic principle (SAP), in which physical laws were devised by some higher power to permit human life. And that argument has not “been accepted by physicists for 43 years”.
There are, of course, alternative explanations to the SAP, five of which are mentioned by another physicist, Sean Carroll, in the video below. I needn’t reprise them, but I urge you to listen to the 9-minute video to refresh your knowledge of the issues.
There’s more wrong stuff (my emphasis in the excerpt below):
The most extreme example is the big bang creation: Even an infinitesimal change to its explosive expansion value would preclude life. The frequent response from physicists offers a speculative solution: an infinite number of universes — we are just living in the one with the right value. But modern philosophers such as Thomas Nagel and pioneering quantum physicists such as John Wheeler have argued instead that intelligent beings must somehow be the directed goal of such a curiously fine-tuned cosmos.
Carroll takes care of the “big bang creation” argument in the video at 2:15 in the video, showing Smith’s ignorance of the very physics he teaches. As for Nagel, who claims that evolution can’t account for consciousness (Nagel doesn’t mention God but nevertheless suggests some unknown teleological force), my colleague Allen Orr has dispelled that view in his review of Nagel’s ideas in the New York Review of Books.
Then Smith proceeds to a biological argument:
It seems likely that exoplanets could host extraterrestrial intelligence. But intelligence is not so easy to produce. Paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee summarize the many constraints in their book “Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe ” and show why it takes vastly more than liquid water and a pleasant environment to give birth even to simple (much less complex) life. At a minimum, it takes an environment stable for billions of years of evolution, plus all the right ingredients. Biologists from Jacques Monod to Stephen Jay Gould have emphasized the extraordinary circumstances that led to intelligence on Earth, while geneticists have found that DNA probably resulted from many accidents. So although the same processes operate everywhere, some sequences could be unlikely, even astronomically unlikely. The evolution of intelligence could certainly be such a sequence.
In fact, intelligence has evolved independently several times on Earth, unless you confine the definition of intelligence as “human-like” intelligence. Octopuses are intelligent, crows are intelligent, cats are intelligent. These are all independent evolutionary events. So what does that say about the “likelihood” of evolving intelligence? Simply that it’s not “astronomically unlikely”! One can easily see how the evolution of reasoning and foresight could confer enormous adaptive advantages to individuals, probably explaining the convergent evolution of intelligence in many species.
Further, it doesn’t take “billions of years of evolution” to evolve “even simple life”. The first strong evidence for life we have on Earth is about 3.4 billion years ago: bacteria that were already quite complex. And to get that degree of complexity you’d need substantial time. Other evidence suggests that there was life about 3.7 billion years ago—less than one billion years after Earth formed as a molten ball. Smith needs to read up on biology and evolution. What he’s getting at here, of course, is that some Intelligent Force was necessary to force the occurrence of such an improbable phenomenon.
Smith then bangs on about how the finite speed of light prevents us from even knowing about distant but intelligent beings. From that he somehow concludes that we are not only alone in “our cosmic neighborhood,” but “probably rare” and “not ordinary.” Well, surely the conditions for the evolution of life surely aren’t common in the Universe, but we simply have no idea how rare they are. Smith has no evidence that “the bottom line for extraterrestrial intelligence is that it is probably rarer than previously imagined.” Well, lots of people have “previously imagined” the rarity, and made calculations; but all those calculations are speculative, based not only on data we don’t have, but on our solipsistic view that extraterrestrial life must resemble that on Earth.
Smith gives away the game in his final paragraph, where he clearly implies some intelligence behind humans. When I read this, without knowing anything about the author, I immediately thought, “Smith is religious.” It turned out I was right. The bolding below is mine:
Some of my colleagues strongly reject this notion [that “we”–humans–are not ordinary]. They would echo Hawking: “I can’t believe the whole universe exists for our benefit.” Yes, we all have beliefs — but beliefs are not proof. Hawking’s belief presumes that we are nothing but ordinary, a “chemical scum.” All the observations so far, however, are consistent with the idea that humanity is not mediocre at all and that we won’t know otherwise for a long time. It seems we might even serve some cosmic role. So this season let us be grateful for the amazing gifts of life and awareness, and acknowledge the compelling evidence to date that humanity and our home planet, Earth, are rare and cosmically precious. And may we act accordingly.
What on Earth does it mean that we “serve some cosmic role” and are “cosmically precious”? Those very phrases imply that there’s a playwright behind our evolution, and for Smith that’s surely Yahweh. Note that he uses the word “unique” in the first excerpt from his op-ed.
So what we have here is an op-ed in a prominent newspaper that uses dubious and erroneous arguments to claim that humans were designed. But those arguments don’t stand up in light of what physicists and biologists—at least those not already committed to a religious explanation—understand about our cosmos. There is no compelling argument that we serve any cosmic role, or that any Designer is behind physical law and human evolution.
What galls me about Smith’s article is that, in light of his known views, he’s trying to hide his argument for God, all the while leading the reader to think that there must be a god running our Universe. His piece is deliberately misleading—indeed, duplicitous.
Finally, I’d point out to Smith that invoking Yahweh is a nonstarter, for then he’d have to explain the existence of the designer. Where did he come from? How did he act? And those are surely harder to explain than is the existence of intelligent life on Earth.
I’m surprised Smith hasn’t yet been funded by Templeton, but he has talked on these issues at an event sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, under their DoSER (“Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion”) program, itself funded by Templeton. (That program, by the way, is a blight on the AAAS.)
I’ll add a link to this post in the comments after Smith’s article.