Mark Twain thought so. In one of his finest rhetorical moments (in a career sparkling with them) he wrote:
“Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel Tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; and anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.” (Mark Twain, What is Man? And Other Philosophical Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 106.)
You have to love the whole folksy “Hmm, I dunno” schtick. But beyond the surface patina is there anything here that should trouble a theist?
The argument (insofar as there is one) seems to depend on a premise like this:
(1) If x preexisted y by a very long time then it would be absurd to think that x was created so that y could be created.
Unfortunately, there are two basic problems with this premise.
A false premise?
The first is that it doesn’t seem to be true. Let’s say that a scientist discovers the cure for cancer at the age of 95. There could be many people, that scientist included, who would say that he was put on this earth to do precisely that. And think about a cute, chubby polar bear cub being dropped into a new “Arctic World Polar Bear Habitat,” the first denizen of a project that had been under development for decades. Anybody coming to the zoo would perceive that the cub is what the habitat was built for. I reckon they would, I dunno.
Actually, I certainly hope they would. It would seem rather obvious because the habitat was created for that cub (and his family). And so it seems rather obvious that (1) is false.
Perhaps the timescale is the issue. So let’s try revising (1):
(1′) The longer the period that x preexisted y the more absurd it would be to think that x was created so that y could be created.
The scientist preexisted his discovery by decades. The polar bear habitat likewise preexisted its inhabitants by decades. But the universe preexisted human beings by billions of years. A problem?
Not necessarily. The polar bear environment preexisted its residents precisely because it took decades to make an adequate environment for them. So by analogy if it takes billions of years to create an environment in which a certain kind of creature can live then the fact that the environment was under development for billions of years prior to the creatures being introduced to it is kinda a no brainer. But more on that in a moment.
A false application?
Let’s turn to the second problem. The premise in question doesn’t apply to human beings since the major monotheisms (presumably the central target of Twain’s critique) do not claim that the universe was created for human beings. So in order to save Twain’s argument we will have to revise the premise yet again:
(1”) If x preexisted y by a very long time then it would be absurd to think that y is of special value.
Now this is more like it. The major monotheisms don’t teach that the universe was created for human beings but they do teach that human beings are created in the “image of God”. Whatever that might mean, it certainly means that they are of special value. But if (1”) is true then such a claim is in jeopardy because the universe has preexisted us by billions of years so it would seem that we cannot be special, or at least that it is absurd to think we are.
But I see no reason to accept (1”) either. After all, we all know of things that are very special and yet take a long time to produce. A pearl, for example, is more valuable than the oyster that produced it (no offense intended) and yet it takes years for the oyster to produce it. It could be that human beings are cosmic pearls. And one might say that the longer a zoo is willing to invest in developing a habitat for a potential resident, the more that potential resident must be worth. You don’t spend decades preparing for guinea pigs, but you might do so for a polar bear.
This fact provides us with a completely new premise which goes directly opposite to Twain:
(2) If x produced y then the longer that x preexisted y before producing y, the more valuable y is.
So whaddaya think? Is (2) true? Perhaps in some cases it is (like the zoo habitat). But I don’t think it is as a general rule. Like our other premises, (2) assumes too much, albeit in the opposite direction. But at the very least it is plausible to see how (2) cancels out the over-reach of (1) and its epigones.
In fact, it is compelling to think of human beings as akin to cosmic pearls. To begin with, we are composed of elements that had to be forged in cosmic furnaces which took billions of years to get up to the right temperature. And then those elements needed an appropriate environment (enter Planet Earth) on which to develop. So it is not like we could have been produced ten billion years ago. Our cosmic environment did take billions of years to develop. That fact, in itself, proves nothing either way.
But the end product just might. After all, we are self-conscious, moral agents who produce everything from stirring sonatas to stirring Sonatas (thanks to Hyundai’s 2011 model year). And so far as we can see, that is quite unique.
Yep, when you think about it, those human beings are some pretty amazing cosmic pearls I reckon, I dunno.