News and Commentary

Harvard Astrophysicist Challenges Atheists: Earth is ‘Cosmically Special’

Penning an editorial in the Washington Post on Friday, astronomy lecturer at Harvard and senior astrophysicist in the Harvard-Smithsonian Center Howard A. Smith challenged a common atheist narrative that Earth and its inhabitants are a mere product of numbers game—or, as Stephen Hawking so eloquently put it: “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet.”

Smith argues that this is not the case, but that Earth is “cosmically special” and that humanity was likely an intended “goal.”

“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,” writes the astrophysicist. “We seem to be cosmically special, perhaps even unique — at least as far as we are likely to know for eons.”

Continuing, Smith highlights how even the most “infinitesimal change” would have precluded life.

“The universe, far from being a collection of random accidents, appears to be stupendously perfect and fine-tuned for life,” he states. “The strengths of the four forces that operate in the universe — gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear interactions (the latter two dominate only at the level of atoms) — for example, have values critically suited for life, and were they even a few percent different, we would not be here. The most extreme example is the big bang creation: Even an infinitesimal change to its explosive expansion value would preclude life.”

Of course, the rebuttal from an atheist here might be that with an infinite number of universes being possible, we just happened to have been situated on the one with the right conditions. Again, humanity being a product of a numbers game.

To this, Smith replies: “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.”

The Harvard lecturer then suggests that humanity may be even more rare than previously ascertained, or that we are possibly “alone;” this is what he calls the “second piece of new evidence that we are not ordinary.”

“The bottom line for extraterrestrial intelligence is that it is probably rarer than previously imagined, a conclusion called the misanthropic principle,” says Smith. “For all intents and purposes, we could be alone in our cosmic neighborhood, and if we expand the volume of our search we will have to wait even longer to find out. Life might be common in the very distant universe — or it might not be — and we are unlikely to know. We are probably rare — and it seems likely we will be alone for eons.

“Some of my colleagues strongly reject this notion,” concedes Smith. “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,” he argues.

Smith concludes that the evidence thus far is not on Hawking’s side, but, rather, that Earth is special, and that we likely do serve some “cosmic role.”

“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,” asserts Smith.