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Ask an Atheist: How do you explain the precision of creation?


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By Jim Downard

How do atheists explain the precision and order of planets moving around the sun, or the earth revolving once every 24 hours? Some kind of intelligence is involved in that – if not God’s then whose?

SPO_House-ad_Ask-an-atheist_0425133This is a subset of the Fine Tuning “Anthropic” argument that is all the rage in Intelligent Design circles (somewhat less so in Young Earth creationist apologetics since so much of it depends on conventional cosmology which involves that billions of years stuff they don’t like) and bases a lot on being picky about what it is that is supposed to have been “tuned.”

Our rotation rate and orbit is not one of those. A planet’s orbital speed is due entirely to its distance from the sun, and hence gravitation. We now know of actual planets orbiting other stars, so looks like you can find just about every size and distance from star combination you care to see, with variable rotation options hitching along. No planet is magic as to why it moves as it does, it’s just the mandate of gravity based on the mass of its star and its distance from it, affected occasionally by the odd planetary collision and the gravitational tugging of large gas giants.

The speed at which a planet spins on its axis is due to more factors, in our case notably the dynamic relationship of our large moon. The 24 hour day we experience now hasn’t always been that way. When the Earth was forming 4.5 billion years ago it rotated much faster than now, only five hour days to start, and has been slowing down ever since as the Moon (formed from a giant impactor event about 20 million years into the Earth’s formation, splatting off a distinctive mix that we know directly from the rocks brought back from the Apollo missions) recedes from the Earth.

The moon receded quite quickly at first (all this is due to the dynamics of gravity, transfer of angular momentum, etc, so can’t avoid doing that so long as physics laws function as they do), so that by around 4.4 billion years ago the moon was about halfway to its present location, and Earth’s rotation had slowed to about 10 hr days. By 4 billion years ago the Moon was 70 percent of its present distance and Earth had slowed still more to about 13 hour days, with oceans forming (and correspondingly bigger tides as the Moon was closer than today). By the time bacterial life was getting going (whether by purely natural origins or by some supernatural creation action) the Earth was still spinning faster, with 18 hr days

So clearly life did not develop or depend on the 24 hour day we’re used to today, any more than cyanobacteria 2 billion years ago would have been more impressed by the solar eclipses totally blotted out by the intervening Moon being larger in the sky because it was closer to the Earth then.

Mars, with its own history (and only two piddly moons to not affect its rotation rate much) also happens to have a similar 24 hour day. Was that “designed” for the benefit of the life (presumably) not living around the giant Olympus Mons volcano?

The pitfall of Fine Tuning arguments is that it is presuming what it seeks to prove: who says there is any tuning of anything, as though someone could decide to plop a planet down in one spot or another, spinning at one speed or another, in the way one decides to position a floor carpet or table lamp.  There is no cosmic feng shui.  All the development of solar systems appear to be as mechanistic and non-decisiony as you can get.  This is not a new issue. Back around 1800 the astronomer Laplace was said to have told Napoleon that the reason why he didn’t mention God anywhere in his work on planetary motion was because “I have no need of that hypothesis.” The formula of how gravitation works covered it all just be following it through.

Fine Tuning arguments these days don’t usually offer the 24 hour day as an example (since as we’ve seen, the science has shown that hasn’t been constant after all) but they indulge in the same flawed conclusion jumping by upping the level to that of the fundamental forces themselves: mustn’t the values for gravity and so on have been “designed” to be what they are so that we (its always US, isn’t it, a cosmic narcissism) can exist as the purpose of it all.Problem is we can’t step back and see whether there is some Cosmic Tape Deck where the knobs can be twiddled by any designer (skipping also that supposedly the deck itself was designed, so are there really presets or not). Those who want to invoke intention in physical processes are free to do so, but should not think that their “explanation” actually explains anything.  If no universe has ever (or can ever) exist where gravity has some other value or properties than what it has, then fretting over intention there is no more helpful than asking why the designer would have made water molecules so they can form into icebergs that can sink Titanics.

Nothing about such speculation changes the properties of gravity or water molecules in any way.  We humans live in our little niche of the universe, wanting ever so much to be special and intended. Maybe we are. But maybe also we just like looking at a vast indifferent cosmos in those anthropic ways to make our tiny niche of the universe seem more congenial. Oh, and don’t worry too much about whether the Yellowstone mantel plume was “designed” to devastate its environment every so often, and that we may be next, or that those many asteroids orbiting the sun were “designed” to cross planetary orbits every so often and cause even bigger nuisances

Fortunately, there was no dinosaur equivalent of Dr. Pangloss from Voltaire’s “Candide” to opine in the Cretaceous about how their’s was the Best of All Possible Worlds … oh, what is that bright flash in the sky … oh dear.

Jim Downard
Jim Downard
Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose. He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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