The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery

By Hector Avalos, Iowa State University

The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery
by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards
Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2004.

Posted September 11, 2005

Intelligent Design is a religious concept cloaked in the language of science. In fact, Intelligent Design is a new variant of an old creationist argument called the teleological argument, which has both Christian and non-Christian versions. In its most simplified Christian version, it is structured as follows: 1) Design implies a Designer; 2) This Designer is the Christian God.

The Privileged Planet (TPP), co-authored by Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer at Iowa State University, and Dr. Jay W. Richards, a theologian, is simply one of the latest attempts to argue that our planet was designed by some higher intelligence. Both authors are members of the Discovery Institute, a pro-Intelligent Design think-tank.

TPP discusses an array of data to buttress its argument that Earth was intentionally positioned where it is. For example, if our planet were much farther from, or much closer to, the Sun, then life might not exist. Also, "the mere presence of other planets in the inner Solar System reduces the number of asteroids and comets hitting Earth" (p. 115), and so helped ensure that such perils to life would be minimized. Earth is much better than Mercury for "measurability" of the universe because the latter planet "completes three rotations every two orbits" and so "would offer more confusing vistas" (p. 106).

From these and other data, TPP infers that our planet must have been intelligently placed in just this location in order for intelligent life to emerge that could then produce astronomers to observe the universe and discover the Designer's intentions.

History repeating itself

One need only read theologies produced over the last two thousand years to understand that TPP is not offering a new argument or even using much new basic data. All the basic elements, including observations about the rarity of life in the universe and the improbability of the collection of features needed to produce life have been primary data for thousands of years. Even the idea that our planet is ideal for astronomical discovery did not start with The Privileged Planet.

Cicero the famed Roman author of the first century BCE, already has a very well developed version of Intelligent Design in his De Natura Deorum ("On the Nature of the Gods"; DND henceforth). Note this passage (DND 2.34):

But if all the parts of the universe are so constituted that nothing could be better for use or beauty, let us consider whether this is the effect of chance, or whether, in such a state they could possibly cohere, except by the guidance of intelligence and divine providence....when you see a sun-dial or water-clock, you infer the hours are shown by art, and not by chance. How then can you suppose that the universe, which contains both the works of art and the artists, can be void of reason and understanding?

And while TPP (296-98) and other ID tracts sometimes suggest that their triad of "chance, necessity, or design" is a conceptual breakthrough, Cicero already tells us that "These thinkers however raise doubts about the world itself from which all things arise and have their being and debate whether it is the product of chance or necessity of some sort, or of divine reason and intelligence" (DND 2.35).

De Natura Deorum then goes on to describe specific features of the earth that allow life to exist. Here is one example: "For in the first place the earth, which is situated in the centre of the world, is surrounded on all sides by this living and respirable substance named the air" (DND 2.36).

And if we think that Cicero had not thought of Earth's placement in relation to the stars in the equivalent of our galaxy, consider what he says in DND 2.36:

And these vast and numerous fires not merely do no harm to the earth and to terrestrial things, but are actually beneficial, though with the qualification that were their positions altered, the earth would inevitably be burnt up by such enormous volumes of heat when uncontrolled and untempered.

Compare this to the discussion in TPP (p. 162) about how our position in the galaxy helps to shield us from the dangers posed by supernovae:

Observations of supernova remnants indicate that supernova rate peaks at about 60 percent of the Sun's distance from the galactic center, where they are 1.6 times more frequent than at the Sun's position...Estimates of the rate of life-threatening supernovae in the Sun's neighborhood vary; they average one every few hundred million years.

ID advocates often deny that they are practicing theology because they supposedly begin with only empirical observations that lead them to a design inference. Many ID advocates vehemently deny that they are "creationists" because they do not use the Bible for their data.

Yet, William Paley's famous Natural Theology, which introduced the famous watchmaker argument (a version of which is already in Cicero's DND) also is mostly centered on empirical observation, not biblical prooftexting.

And it is in Paley's Natural Theology (pp. 213-14) that we not only find yet another version of TPP's argument, but we also encounter the idea of observability and measurability:

After all; the real subject of admiration is, that we understand so much of astronomy as we do. That an animal confined to the surface of one of the planets bearing less proportion to it than the smallest microscopic insect does to the plant it lives upon; that this little busy inquisitive creature by the use of sense which were given to it for its domestic necessities, and by means of the assistance of those senses which it has had the art to procure should have been enabled to observe the whole system of worlds to which its own belongs; the changes of place; of the immense globes which compose it; and with such accuracy as to mark out, beforehand, the situation in the heavens in which they will be found at any future point... all this is wonderful, whether we refer our admiration to the constancy of the heavenly motions themselves, or to the perspicacity and precision with which they have been noticed by mankind.

TPP tells us that the Earth's tilt is important. It observes that "a larger tilt would cause larger climate fluctuations" and "a small tilt might lead to very mild seasons" (TPP, pp. 4-5). Thus, Earth's tilt seems ideally suited for habitability.

William Paley tells us: "Another thing, in which choice appears to be in what geometricians call the axis of rotation" (Natural Theology, p. 216). Paley also discusses what too large or too small a tilt would do. For example, "As to ourselves, instead of rejoicing in our temperate zone, and annually preparing for the moderate vicissitude, or rather agreeable succession of seasons, which we experience and expect, we might come to be locked up in the ice and the darkness of the artic circle..." (Natural Theology, p. 217).

Paley (Natural Theology, p. 224) then discusses the relationship of the Earth to some of the larger planets, and notes:

It has been rightly also remarked, that if the great planets, Jupiter and Saturn, had moved in lower spheres, their influences would have had much more effect, as to disturbing the planetary motions, than they now have.

Compare this to TPP's (p. 94) remark that "The massive planets are like big bullies who push around the smaller kids in the neighborhood."

TPP addresses objections to its concept in almost the same way as does William Paley. TPP (p. 330) says: "Something can be designed without being perfect" and then gives the model-T as something imperfect, but yet designed. William Paley says: "It is not necessary that a machine be perfect, in order to show with what design it was made." (Natural Theology, p,. 7). Paley gives an imperfect watch as an example.

Between 1910 and 1915 we saw the publication of an anthology of anti-evolutionary and anti-modernist tracts, The Fundamentals, which popularized the word "fundamentalist."

In one tract, titled "Life in the Word," a lawyer from New York City named Philip Mauro told with excitement about A Man's Place in the Universe (1903) published by Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), the English naturalist and contemporary of Charles Darwin.

Mauro, the equivalent of the modern ID advocate Phillip E. Johnson, describes with excitement the main conclusions of Wallace's book:

First, that the solar system occupies (and always has occupied) approximately the central portion of this vast universe, getting all the advantages due to such favorable position. Second, that the earth is certainly the only habitable planet in the solar system, and presumably the only habitable spot in the whole universe...

From Mr. Wallace's premises, if the universe is assumed to be the work of an intelligent Creator, it would follow that everything in this inconceivably vast and complex universe has been planned and arranged with special reference to making this little earth of ours a place suitable for the habitation of living beings, and especially of mankind.

(The Fundamentals, 2:156)

Given this brief historical survey, we suggest that any claim that The Privileged Planet contains new developments that have not received a fair hearing in academia is historically false. Such arguments have been given a hearing for at least 2000 years, and they have been repeatedly repudiated because of objections that are still valid today.

Why The Privileged Planet is flawed

The utter superficiality of the argument in TPP becomes apparent when one realizes that our planet has millions of features that we could identify as unique. These million other features also might not exist if our planet were any closer to, or farther from, the Sun; or had any other of the positional features in the solar system or galaxy that TPP touts as conducive to intelligent life.

For example, if our planet were not located precisely where it is, then we might also not have AIDS viruses, congenital deformities, or death itself. So why do ID proponents think that life and intelligence were the features selected for intelligent design? Why don't ID proponents argue that our planet has been positioned where it is so that AIDS viruses, congenital deformities, and death could exist?

The best explanation that TPP can muster for its selection is apparently on p. 303: "When considering universes, everyone recognizes, unless they're trying to avoid a conclusion they find distasteful, that a habitable universe containing intelligent observers has an intrinsic value that an uninhabitable one lacks."

But TPP does not define "intrinsic value." In fact, TPP says (p. 300): "Such value is difficult to define, but we usually know it when we see it." Thus, TPP ends up with a very self-serving and circular argument that may be paraphrased: "Feature X was designed because I consider X valuable."

Otherwise, ID advocates may simply be repeating an ancient biblical concept. As stated in Isaiah 45:18 (NRSV): "For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens he is God!), who formed the earth and made it he established it; he did not create it a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!)."

Even more puzzling is that Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez, who is an astronomer, concludes that the earth was positioned for his convenience (in order to make scientific measurements of the universe).  He begins Chapter 1 of TPP with a story about how the observation of a solar eclipse led him eventually to posit the idea that Earth was positioned so that he could make such observations.

This rationale is analogous to a plumber arguing that if our planet had not been positioned precisely where it is, then he might not be able to do his work as a plumber. Lead pipes might melt if the Sun were much closer. And, if our planet were any farther from the Sun, it might be so frozen that plumbers might not exist at all. Therefore, plumbing must have been the reason that our planet was located where it is.

Moreover, if this planet were designed to facilitate scientific discovery, it leaves unexplained the fact that 99.99999% of our planet's 4.5 billion-year history was not inhabited by creatures that could record measurements. One might just as easily postulate that the Designer meant for earth to be inhabited mostly by creatures that made no intelligent measurements.

The absurdity of fine tuning

Related to ID are often what are called "Fine Tuning" arguments. Usually, such arguments list a myriad of physical constants and values that must "be right" in order for life to exist on earth. Thus, if the charge of the electron were much different, for example, life would not exist on earth. Once one considers all the things that must "be right" for life to exist, then some astronomical probability is calculated to argue that life on earth cannot be pure coincidence.

The main assumption is that the amount of physical constants and entities that "must be right" to produce any entity X is generally proportional to the amount of the Designer's purpose for X.

As I noted before TPP was published (Avalos, 1998), this assumption can be reduced to absurdity. For example: Let P = the entire set of entities or physical values that must "be right" for human life to exist on earth. Mathematically, we can argue that many MORE things need to "go right" to produce computers and a host of other entities otherwise regarded as of no "intrinsic value."

We need only P to make human beings, but we need P + 1 (i.e., human beings) to make computers. Given that mathematical fact, why do advocates of ID think that human beings are the ultimate "purpose" of the Designer? And why can't human beings be only an intermediary step in some conceivably longer causal sequence?

Indeed, there is no escaping the fact that, whether we call the "Designer" the Christian God or not, the advocates of ID provide no scientific method to verify that any feature they observe about our universe corresponds to the intentions of a grand "Designer." And it is this ARBITRARY and UNVERIFIABLE attribution of intention that renders Intelligent Design an exercise in theology rather than in science.


Avalos, Hector. "Heavenly Conflicts: The Bible and Astronomy." Mercury 27 (2, March/April, 1998) 20-24. The Journal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Cicero. De Natura Deorum. Translated and edited by H. Rackham. Loeb Classical Library 268. Cambridge, Massachusetts:Harvard University Press, 1982.

Gonzalez, Guillermo and Jay W. Richards. The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2004.

Mauro, Philip. "Life in the Word," in R. A. Torrey, A.C. Dixon, et al., The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. Four volumes. Los Angeles: Bible Institutes of Los Angeles, 1917. We quote from the four volume reprint edition published by Baker Books (Grand Rapids, Michigan), 1998.

Paley, William and James Paxton. Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearance of Nature. Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1854. We quote from the reprint issued by Kessinger Publishing (Whitefish, Montana).

Dr. Hector Avalos is Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Iowa State University.

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