In his thoughtful article “Goodbye Copernicus, Hello Universe,” astrobiologist Caleb Scharf lays out the foundations of so-called Copernican principle. The idea is central not only to astronomy but to science as a whole. The Copernican principle says that you, as an observer, are not special. You don’t live in a special time. You don’t see things from a special position. The power behind the Copernican principle is that scientists try to never, ever, ever forget its admonition as they attempt to explain the world. Relativity—with its emphasis on the lack of any privileged frame of reference—was a triumph of the Copernican worldview. Thus, from Copernicus’ perspective, you, and everything about you, is mediocre.
Now there was a time when the universe as a whole could be though of as special; it was, after all, the only one there was, by definition. The problem, however, was the universe turned out to be a little too special.
As cosmologists poked around Big Bang theory on ever-finer levels of detail, it soon became clear that getting this universe, the one we happily inhabit, seemed to be more and more unlikely. In his article, Scharf gives us the famous example carbon-12 and its special resonances. If this minor detail of nuclear physics were just a wee bit different, our existence would never be possible. It’s as if nuclear physics were fine-tuned to allow life. But this issue of fine-tuning goes way beyond carbon nuclei; it infects many aspects of cosmological physics.
Well, people will make what they want of that.
But one thing about the Copernican principle in general struck this news writer: It is simply a flat assumption. It doesn’t provide us any means of knowing when it is wrong.
As a matter of fact, there would be nothing unusual (so to speak) about any of us being unusual. You could be the only American citizen in a West African village, or the only biologist at a meeting of physicists. Our entire planet could be unusual. Making a principle of assuming it isn’t has had the unfortunate effect of advancing crackpot cosmologies on the theory that something like that must be true, otherwise the universe might show evidence of design.
Prominent molecular biologist Eugene Koonin put the case at its fatal best:
… in an infinite multiverse with a finite number of distinct macroscopic histories (each repeated an infinite number of times), emergence of even highly complex systems by chance is not just possible but inevitable. …
A final comment on “irreducible complexity” and “intelligent design”. By showing that highly complex systems, actually, can emerge by chance and, moreover, are inevitable, if extremely rare, in the universe, the present model sidesteps the issue of irreducibility and leaves no room whatsoever for any form of intelligent design.
Koonin may have unintentionally come up with the strongest argument for design; a multiverse, for which there is no evidence, is the best hope of discrediting it.