Thursday, May 13, 2004

The Privileged Planet, the fallout splats…

I’ve just started reading The Privileged Planet, by Jay Richards and Guillermo Gonzalez. It is quickly turning out to be a good read and rumors to its demise have been greatly exaggerated. The gist of the book is best described by this quote (emphasis in original):
…Measurability refers to those features of the universe as a whole, and especially to our particular location in it – in both space and time – that allow us to detect, observe, discover, and determine the size, age, history, laws, and other properties of the physical universe. It’s what makes scientific discovery possible. Although scientists don’t often discuss it, the degree to which we can “measure” the wider universe – not just our immediate surroundings – is surprising. Most scientists presuppose the measurability of the physical realm: it’s measurable because scientists have found ways to measure it. Read any book on the history of scientific discovery and you’ll find magnificent tales of human ingenuity, persistence, and dumb luck. What you probably won’t see is any discussion of the conditions necessary for such feats, conditions so improbably fine-tuned to allow scientific discoveries that they beg for a better explanation than mere chance. Our argument is subtle, however, and requires a bit of explanation. First, we aren’t arguing that every condition for measurability is uniquely and individually optimized on Earth’s surface. Nor are we saying that it’s always easy to measure and make scientific discoveries. Our claim is that Earth’s conditions allow for a stunning diversity of measurements, from cosmology and galactic astronomy to stellar astrophysics and geophysics; they allow for this rich diversity of measurement much more so than if Earth were ideally suited for, say, just one of these sorts of measurement.
The general criticisms I’ve heard from scientists with regards to this idea have been along the lines of: “how can we claim that we’re in a unique position when we haven’t analyzed other possible worlds?” or “all they’ve done is highlight which features are unique to our planet and ignored those features that are not unique – so why are we privileged?” The first criticism is unusual to hear from scientists in that they, of all people, should understand that the analysis of data is what should drive conclusions. That we can propose that our planet is in a privileged position is not necessarily dependant on whether or not we have analyzed all other possible positions (or even a substantial portion of said positions). In other words, the proposal can be made because of the fact that our knowledge of the world around us has increased to the point that we also can show that such knowledge would not have been attainable from most other locations in the universe. That our location is also needed for advanced life to be possible only compounds the situation. The second criticism is, in my opinion, a much more valid point. I believe that the best answer to this criticism is time. If the privileged planet theory is true, then the dataset with which we observe unique characteristics that allow us to not only exist, but to measure our world, will increase. In other words, the gap between what is necessarily unique to our planet and what is commonplace will widen. Now, to be fair, I've generalized the criticisms I've read regarding The Privileged Planet. Time permitting, I hope to provide a post reviewing both the book and specific claims against it in the near future.

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