Proxima b is a challenge to materialism, according to David Klinghoffer

David Klinghoffer, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, thinks the discovery of a relatively close, relatively Earth-like planet presents a challenge not only to evolutionary theory (Klinghoffer thinks every new discovery presents a challenge to evolutionary theory), but to any materialist worldview (“Put Up or Shut Up for Evolution? Nearest ‘Habitable’ Planet Found Orbiting Proxima Centauri“):

For materialists, the origin of life and the evolution of complex, even intelligent creatures needs to be a sure thing, or close to it, given a suitable planetary environment.
Really? Why? Let’s parse this a bit. First, he doesn’t limit his assertion to astrobiologists, evolutionary biologists, or even to scientists. Nope, it applies to materialists. Materialists are, roughly, people who consider the material world to be all there is. What exactly does materialism have to do with complex life being everywhere it can be? I’m definitely a materialist, and I’m not at all convinced that the evolution of complex life is a sure thing. In fact, I can only think of one person I’ve ever heard say such a thing, and I think he’s full of shit. There is nothing in materialism that says that life couldn’t be rare, that life couldn’t be common but complex life rare, or even that suitable planetary environments couldn’t be rare. The evidence seems to be piling up against that last one, but it’s by no means a necessary implication of materialism.
So we’re off to a bad start, assigning views to our opponents that they don’t hold. I feel like there’s a name for that…
Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow. Wikimedia Commons.

Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow (or straw man). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

D minus so far, and downhill from there:

All is celebration until it sinks in that with every discovery of a seemingly near-Earth-like planet, evolutionism comes a step closer to a put-up-or-shut-up moment. Unguided evolution must be baked into the cake, not only on Earth but anywhere like Earth. It must be something blind forces accomplish readily. If it could ever be known that only one planet in the cosmos was graced with biology, that would pose an insurmountable difficulty for Darwinists.

Life could be common, or life could be rare; we really don’t know. What we do know is that most or (probably) all life on Earth descended from a common ancestor, and we have no reason to suppose that it originated from anything other than natural processes. Finding an independent origin of life would be great, not because it would have any bearing on the validity of evolutionary theory but because it would tell us a great deal about how much of the history of life on Earth was inevitable and how much contingent. But Klinghoffer thinks rare life is “an insurmountable difficulty for Darwinists” and thus evidence of intelligent design. Except when he doesn’t:

…if so far all the data point toward life not spontaneously assembling, powered by the mere warming rays of our sun or another star, then if it were to turn out that the galaxy really does brim with life, wouldn’t that at least be highly suggestive of some intelligence, some designer, having seeded it there?

Of course if life exists on our planet alone, that’s also a problem for materialists. Sometimes it puzzles me that they keep pushing the notion of a widely inhabited cosmos. Whether the idea is true or not, it seems to be, for them, a lose-lose proposition while being for us a win-win.

These win-wins seem to happen a lot for intelligent design! As I said previously:

…if multicellularity is really complicated, that’s evidence for intelligent design. But if multicellularity is really simple, that’s evidence for intelligent design.


If the human and chimp genomes are very different, that’s evidence for intelligent design. But if the human and chimp genomes are very similar, that’s evidence for intelligent design.

Now we can add another example: If life is common, that’s evidence for intelligent design. But if life is rare, that’s evidence for intelligent design. Everything is evidence of your theory when you haven’t internalized the concept of falsifiability. It’s heads I win, tails you lose all over again (and maybe evidence that I should vary my writing style more).

Stable links:
Anglada-Escudé, G., P. J. Amado, J. Barnes, Z. M. Berdiñas, R. P. Butler, G. A. L. Coleman, J. S. Jenkins, H. R. A. Jones, I. De Cueva, S. Dreizler, M. Endl, B. Giesers, V. Sandra, Y. Tsapras, M. Tuomi, M. Zechmeister, C. Rodrίguez-López, L. F. Sarmiento, J. P. Strachan, Y. Tsapras, Zechmeister, M. Tuomi, and M. Zechmeister. 2016. A terrestrial planet candidate in a temperate orbit around Proxima Centauri. Nature, doi: 10.1038/nature19106.


  1. says

    It’s starting to look like it’s pretty easy for life to get going. Earth is, what, 5 billion years old, and life started three billion years ago? So – give or take a couple billion years on a newly-formed planet and you’ve got critters. There ought to be critters all over the universe. Most of them probably haven’t evolved technology or republicans, tho.

    • StevoR says

      I think Enrico Fermi beat you to it here, Marcus Ranum.

      Also technology may well evolve fairly regularly for certain value of “technology” but everyone knows Republicans don’t evolve!

      Incidentally not sure that its confirmed as to whether life is easily set going given the sample size of one planet so far.

    • Matthew Herron says

      Marcus Ranum, I think it’s likely that you’re right, but we don’t really know. An early start for life on Earth might suggest that it’s easy, but it certainly doesn’t prove it. The wait time for life to evolve might, for example, be between 100 million and 100 trillion years, with a mean of, say, 50 trillion, in which case life would still be rare (and Earth on the far left tail of the distribution). As StevoR mentioned, we have a sample size of one, which doesn’t tell us anything about where we are in the overall distribution.
      Klinghoffer wants to have it both ways by claiming that rare life and common life both support intelligent design, when in fact neither possibility bears on the question at all.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    If you generated a different phrasing every time the Discotutes reiterated the same point, you might produce the false impression they had an array of points.

    All they merit can be described in four letters: DD, SS.

  3. Turi says

    We do not even know if this planet is earth like at all. And even if it is like earth, so are Venus and Mars. Both have a similar size and mass to earth and are in the habitable zone around their star.
    And one is a 500 °C hot hell with a sulfur acid atmosphere, the other is a frozen wasteland with close to no atmosphere at all.

    We are not able to find out if a planet can support life yet. When the next generation of super large telescopes are able to analyse light that passed through a exo-atmosphere, we will get a better idea of the ability of a planet to support life. Right now it is hard enough to determine the exact mass of a planet and the distance to its star(s).

    But what are facts to someone who believes in ID?

  4. StevoR says

    FWIW. There are still so many unknowns about the Proximan planet beyond its orbit and approximate mass with very wide ranges in its possible temperatures and surface conditions depending on its atmosphere. An atmosphere which, of course, is as yet unknown and complicated by the fact that Proxima Centauri is a flare star and the planet is most likely tidally locked facing only one side to its red dwarf star just like our Moon has only one face that we see. An article in the latest New Scientist magazine (pages 8 & 9, Jacob Aron, 27th August 2016* ) suggested a range of planetary temperatures from minus thirty three** to the “high hundreds” in degrees Celsius – so it could be frozen solid apart from the odd blast of extreme radiation and Proximan flare wind or similar to Venus depending. It could also be a world that’s carbon rich – with an ashphelt surface over diamond core like 55 Cancris e , that’s all ocean or that’s toxic chemically or that’s had most of its atmosphere blasted away resembling a super sized Mercury or is the stripped down core of a gas or ice giant or .. ???

    We simply don’t know enough yet. Speculation is (often) fun but insufficient data. (Let’s research and send missions and study and find out more!)

    So that’s where we’re at – fantastic discovery and news, intriguing and definitely worth further investigation and study but also not quite all some have hyped the Proximan planet up to be – setting aside the whole creationist anti-materialist clap-trap.

    ..even that suitable planetary environments couldn’t be rare. The evidence seems to be piling up against that last one, but it’s by no means a necessary implication of materialism.

    Well, the evidence doesn’t say necessarily that suitable planetary environments are common – or not rare – either. At the moment the verdict is insufficient evidence but its noteworthy that Hot Jupiters probably arise through a migration process that likely prevents Earth-like planets from forming in their systems and eccentric orbits and chaotic planetary systems seem much more common than our stable and familiar clockwork arrangement. Very few – a very small percent of worlds and systems found so far are actually conducive to life based on the little we know for sure about them so far. We have a relative few planets that are roughly earth-mass in their stars Habitable Zone but also have other complicating factors that could rule them out as earth-like too. Many may be more Venus or Mars than Earth-like in surface conditions many have stars that are less luminous or more luminous and, who knows how much geology and thermohaline circulation / atmospheric / tidal factors etc .. are wrong with them for them to match our world’s habitability level. Then there’s the age of such worlds and the complications for evolution and the formation of technological extraterrestrial sentiences and so on.

    There’s the whole argument presented in ‘Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe’ (2000), a book by geologist and paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer and astrobiologist Donald E. Brownlee putting the eponymous Rare Earth hypothesis case conflicting with assumptions of earth-like habitable planets being common which is worth considering even if it may hopefully be overly pessimistic and incorrect and is fiercely disputed by others such as in Jack Cohen & Ian Stewart’s excellent rebuttal book ‘What Does a Martian Look Like: The Science of Extraterrestrial Life’*** which I’d highly recommend. However, its possible that Ward and Brownlee are right or that the truth is somewhere in between their pessimism and Cohen and Stewart (& Sagan’s) optimism. We just don’t know yet.

    My hunch, based on the Fermi Paradox and Earth’s previous geological and palaeontological history, is that life maybe relatively common in the cosmos but highly “advanced” technological sentiences like ours may be very few and far between. I’d love to be proven wrong though!

    One thing I am fairly sure of though is that this new Proximan planet isn’t going to help the creationists here and doesn’t disprove evolution as very well established by scientists here on Earth. Although it will make an interesting case for whether life can evolve there – and has and if so how it compares with our earthly lifeforms. Oh and so yeah, David Klinghoffer is talking an arkload of manure.

    * Despite that range and unknowns this article is headlined “The Earth next door” which strikes me as being rather misleading.

    ** That’s minus twenty seven point four Fahrenheit according to an online converter thingammyjig.

    *** Also published as ”Evolving the Alien: The Science of Extraterrestrial Life” good, highly readable and makes a fairly convincing case against the Rare Earth hypothesis but well – insufficient data as yet still.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    It seems to me that rare life (which seems to be the case at present as far as we know) is a much bigger obstacle to the supernaturalists than the materialists. If producing life is the “purpose” of having a universe, which seems to be what most stripes of supernaturalists believe, then rare life means that whatever power designed the universe was a pretty lousy engineer. If I announced that I was going to build a factory for making spoons, and the factory occupied several square miles, but only ever produced a single spoon, wouldn’t you conclude that my skills as a spoon manufacturer were negligible?

  6. blf says

    If I announced that I was going to build a factory for making spoons, and the factory occupied several square miles, but only ever produced a single spoon, wouldn’t you conclude that my skills as a spoon manufacturer were negligible?

    If that spoon was several kilometres long with a bowel whose capacity was many megalitres, I’d probably wonder what the feck the spoon was for, but would also be impressed that you made it. Possibly very impressed, depending on the material used, evident quality (or lack thereof), and so on. I’d also be rather worried that you might get it into your head to make the matching fork, knife, and dishwasher.

    Unless, of course, your name is Bergholt Stuttley “Bloody Stupid” Johnson, in which case I’d be in panicked flight from the Universe.

    (None of which invalidates your point.)

  7. consciousness razor says

    Yes, exactly. That’s a real issue for all such fine-tuning arguments. They’re looking for something that’s supposed to be difficult for naturalists/materialists to explain, and they just love to have it both ways. Sometimes, they turn to something like a low probability of a phenomenon we’ve observed. Often their calculations that it’s low are suspicious too (why isn’t it 100% if we observed it?), but it makes no difference. The relevant question is not whether it’s low or high per se, but whether it’s higher or lower conditional on the hypothesis that a particular sort of god exists (as opposed to the hypothesis that it doesn’t), because that is what tells you this thing is evidence for or against that sort of god. You want to know whether the chances of the god have increased or decreased given an observation (including simple/obvious ones like “life exists,” “there are many planets,” “humans have mental experiences”, etc.), not simply how likely that is with or without a god. Unlikely things do happen in the natural world — you don’t need any new fancy arguments to explain that — and that is not evidence that there’s a supernatural god, unless it can be shown that a god’s existence is more likely given it. But it could just as well be less likely depending on what the evidence is.

    If it were claimed that a god (or gods) desperately wants improbable things of whatever type, that the reason this god made the universe is to have unlikely things, then such things would be evidence for this kind of god and evidence against naturalism (which makes no such claims). Of course you probably won’t get many pieces of evidence like this, given the fact that they’re unlikely, so nobody will have much reason to believe in a god like that. There will of course be lots of high-probability things that you’d then have to try to explain away. (Religions about them also seem like they’d be a bit pointless… what would you do to worship it and why would you bother?).

    But when you claim your god wanted to make life or humans or consciousness or cheesecake or any other thing you like, then only those things are relevant and you want to know whether the boost this god gets from their existence (which may be very, very tiny) is positive or negative and whether it is enough to tip the scales. Likewise, all of the other stuff there is, which isn’t necessary for that purpose, will presumably do the opposite. In any case, you don’t much care where the evidence itself sits on the scale, but where that evidence implies the god should be on the scale.

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