Thursday, August 20, 2009

Nicholas Kristof On The Origin of Stars

Apologies again for my lack of posting lately. However, I wanted to respond to this column (registration required) by Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times.

While I agree with the overall point of the column, about revitalizing oneself by getting back to nature, the following item from his list of ten tips made me roll my eyes:

4. Skip a tent. To keep off rain, carry an ultralight tarp that you tie between two trees and stake to the ground, like a pup tent. But if there’s no rain, sleep under the stars. God made stars so that humans could fall asleep admiring them. (Emphasis mine)

Kristof's remark manifests the egocentrism that one finds in much of religious expression. The stars in the sky are not the product of a process that began billions of years ago, if one takes Kristof literally, but rather they are just part of some grand cosmic tapestry weaved by God specifically for our viewing pleasure. This is an echo from Genesis 1:16-17, wherein the stars are described as being set in the sky to provide us with light in the sky during the night. As I wrote in another post on this blog, if there are intelligent beings living on a planet circling one of those stars in our night sky, they would probably be amused to learn that the sun that provides them with heat and light exists primarily for our aesthetic benefit.

I ran across this same kind of thinking in a letter to the editor in an issue of National Geographic last year. In responding to an article from an earlier issue about the loss of dark skies to manmade light, the letter writer saw fit to remind readers that after all, God created the night for us. Silly me, I thought we had darkness because the Earth rotates on its axis, which means that half of the planet's surface at any given moment is facing away from the light of the sun.

In fairness to Kristof though, his remark could be taken as some form of poetic license. But it does reflect an all too common mode of thought by religious believers that anything beautiful or beneficial in nature is somehow proof that there is a God who cares about us. In the comments to one of my earlier posts, a Christian commenter mentioned reading about how Jupiter's gravitational pull sucks in a lot of meteors that might otherwise have impacted on Earth, thereby sparing us destruction. Wasn't this proof of intelligent design? My response was two-fold. First, why would a loving god need to introduce into the universe planet killing asteroids at all? Alternatively, God could have programmed such asteroids to miss the Earth anyway. Second, in a vast universe filled with billions of galaxies each filled with billions of stars of their own, shouldn't we expect to find some solar systems where gas giants like Jupiter play the part of some kind of celestial vacuum cleaner? To me, at least, there is no need for an egocentrical explanation that it is all there simply because of us.


Sparrowhawk said...

Yeah, let me elucidate this way of thinking. Basically, if we like it, it was made for us to like.

It is exactly the same as the idea that the universe was created for us because golly, doesn't it fit us so darn well? We couldn't survive in any other conditions, so it was made for us! Douglas Adams' puddle analogy dispells this pretty well. The universe does not fit us, we fit it because we evolved in it.

The stars are not pretty because the gods made them for us to enjoy. We enjoy them because...well, frankly I don't know why, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that we've been looking at them for as long as we've been humans, hell maybe even our biological ancestors were fascinated by them for some reason. They're pleasing. They indicate that the sky is, etc. I'm not a philosopher so I don't really know what the theories are about why we find certain things pleasing and others not.

Sparrowhawk said...

I also like how this guy is all anti-tent in one sentence, and then in the next basically tells you to fashion a shitty make-shift tent out of a tarp and a tree. This is basically what a tent is anyway, just improved on so that it's more effective. But whatever, I'm sure a fuckin' tarp nailed to a tree is more "natural", whatever that means.

RedFerret said...

Sadly this type of "thinking" is all too common in such articles. "If God has meant us to fly he'd have given us wings . . ." etc. Just a subtle religious undertone, to remind you of your place, intentional or not. Sighs.


Andrea said...

To expound on Sparrowhawk's comments: chimpanzees have been observed gazing silently at the horizon as the sun sets. It seems reasonable to think that we evolved to find things beautiful for lots of indicates a healthy sense of vision, for one, I guess. And then we humans have taken that appreciation of aesthetics to a whole 'nother level.

As for the stars, yes they are twinkly and purty. From millions of miles away. But you'll notice that creationists don't speak much about the loving intent behind bacteria, viruses, and parasites here on blessed Planet Earth.

Anonymous said...

You said, "The stars in the sky are not the product of a process that began billions of years ago, if one takes Kristof literally, but rather they are just part of some grand cosmic tapestry weaved by God specifically for our viewing pleasure."

Personally, I did take Kristof's verbiage as poetic license, and I don't see that Kristof's view denies that stars are the product of a process that began billions of years ago. Did he? It seems to me you're just rightfully expressing frustration at an assumption. I know the same thing happens to me when anyone makes one.

Brett said...

Agreed. I think the Intelligent Designers have a misunderstanding of how probabilities work.

They say, "Look at the immense number of factors that have to align in order for us to be here!! The likelihood of this occurring by chance is one in a quadrillion!"

No, the likelihood of these factors aligning is 1/1 or 100%...simply because we're already here. If Jupiter didn't suck up those meteoroids and asteroids we wouldn't be here. If the Earth weren't the right distance from the Sun, if our Sun were a quickly dying Red Giant, if the Earth weren't the right size...etc. etc. then there would be no intelligent life here...just like the countless uninhabited solar systems out there that don't have the right mix.

They do the same thing for evolution. "The human body is so intricate that it couldn't possibly have occurred by accident." Again, the likelihood of our bodies occurring is 100%. Also, every beneficial trait did not have to be independently developed by humans. Many of these traits are shared by invertebrates, mammals, primates etc. which drastically lowers the number of mutations required.

Strictly speaking, all you can conclude from the Universe and the human body is that we're a type of "happy accident."

This is mostly just a restatement of your second rebuttal.