Extraterrestrial life is a fact. Aliens do exist. You heard it here.
Well, okay, let me qualify that: we’re virtually certain they exist.
This week, BBC had an article describing eight new planets which might harbor life: in fact, they’ve dubbed one of them the “most Earth-like alien world” yet.
Actually, this isn’t really news: astronomers have guestimated there are trillions of planets in the universe which could support life: half a billion in our own galaxy alone. This latest announcement just moves some of them from the hypothetical column to the actual column, and volleys one of them to the top of the list as a candidate for us to start exchanging emails with.
The reasoning goes like this. Life as we know it can only exist on a planet orbiting within a very narrow range of distances from a star, which they call the ‘habitable zone’. For example, Mars is just a little too far from the sun and is borderline too cold, while Venus is just a little too close and therefore too hot. Earth, on the other hand, is just the right distance from the sun to support life like ours.
Our many telescopes, satellites and space probes have shown us that there are at least a gajillion stars out there. We would suspect that some of those could have one or more planets, and as time goes on, we’re collecting the evidence needed to put check marks beside some of them. If only a small percentage of those planets are in the habitable zone, then, well, one percent of a gajillion is still quite a lot. Hey, we’re among friends: let’s call it trillions.
Of course, this doesn’t take into account forms of life completely different from our own … ones not based on carbon molecules, or not needing solar energy or warmth, or possibly not even having material / physical bodies.
But none of that means those planets necessarily have life on them. It only sets the stage for the possibility of life. Actually, many stages. What exactly is the probability? So far, we only have “an n of one“. (that’s what scientists say when they mean “we threw the dice once and came up with lucky seven!“) The first and only planet we know to be found in a habitable zone … Earth … has life on it. Anecdotal evidence.
But adherents of evolutionary theory will maintain that if the conditions are right, there is some statistical possibility that inert chemicals on any planet can assemble into some kind of primitive life form. And once you have that, the sky’s the limit. Anything’s possible.
This is where fact and faith encounter each other. I’ve blogged previously and wrote a whole chapter in my book explaining why atheists might be exercising just as much faith as theists. As a case in point, let me quote from George Wald, winner of the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: “Time is in fact the hero of the plot. The time with which we have to deal is of the order of two billion years. What we regard as impossible on the basis of human experience is meaningless here. Given so much time, the ‘impossible’ becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait: time itself performs the miracles.” The first time I read that, I had to pick myself off the floor after a laughing fit. Who says atheists don’t have faith? Richard Dawkins is noted for many similar faith statements.
So there we have it: we can now be “virtually certain” that life exists out there.
Not that we have any reason to be too worried about any encounter of the third kind. Those stars with their orbiting planets are light years away. If aliens from that leading candidate I referred to above in the BBC article were intelligent enough to build a rocket that could reach the speed of light, it would still take almost 500 years to get here. On the other hand, if their space travel was only as good as the best we can do … the Helios space probe which reached 240,000 km/h (Rosetta, the probe we heard a lot about last year, only reached 30,000 km/h) … it would still take over two million years to get to us.
And that’s assuming that the alien life became intelligent enough to develop that kind of technology in the first place. In the past 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history, how many of our own life forms have developed that kind of technology? One. Out of an estimated 8.7 million species currently accounted for, not including those that went extinct or that haven’t yet been discovered. So another highly unlikely event.
A few months ago, CBC interviewed the emeritus Harvard professor Andrew O. Wilson about his thoughts on “ET”. He gave many scientific reasons to justify his predictions of what they would look like, their physiology, and what they might do (and not do). It’s a fun read if you like the idea of applying hard-core science to a very hypothetical topic. You might be reassured by one thing he felt strongly about: they wouldn’t colonize Earth (read the article to get his explanation).
So, how would you respond if you found out Klingons or ET were indeed known, verifiable facts?
Would it stir up the kind of hysteria generated by Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of War of the Worlds (perhaps you only know of Hollywood’s 2005 version of this story, starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning). Rumors had it that people chose suicide, or at least that some prevented attempted suicides. None of those rumors were substantiated, but no one can deny there was mass panic and fear.
Or are you more like Mel Gibson’s daughter in Signs, when she says to her father after being woken up by an alien invader in her bedroom: “Dad, there’s a monster outside my room, can I have a glass of water?”
Or do you embrace this possibility the same way Jodie Foster’s character did in Contact? (for me, one of the best movies to address the faith versus science debate, and in it they deal with all kinds of theological issues on this subject).
A while ago I came across an article which talked about how various world religions might deal with the existence of ET. It’s a very short and interesting read, although I felt their comments about Evangelical Christianity were far from flattering. Not at all representative of my own Christian views, nor those of many other of my fellow believers. But apparently those comments did resonate with at least one other reader of that article, who commented that aliens, if they exist, would all be going to hell because they would have been born in original sin (“everything is tainted by the sin of Adam“) but being aliens, they wouldn’t have access to the Gospel.
The article also claimed that Evangelicals could not tolerate the existence of aliens because “humans … are the singular focus of God’s creative attention …“. (That same kind of egocentric arrogance gave us the belief that the solar system revolves around the Earth, and that humans are the pinnacle species of evolution [according to some atheists] or the crown of creation [according to some theists]). My own view is the same as that of Jodie Foster’s character in Contact: “The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us… seems like an awful waste of space.”
Would aliens out there have their own religion? I blogged last week about how religion is a thoroughly intrinsic characteristic of humans, like language and tool making. Or would we end up bringing that to them, the way Europeans did to other races when they explored Earth’s continents? Did you know we have a Bible for Klingons? I kid you not.
Finally, a few paragraphs up I mentioned Andrew O. Wilson and his very carefully reasoned thoughts on ET. One other thing he said caught my attention: he felt certain they would be moral creatures. Referring to the forces of natural selection, group competition and altruism, he predicted they would be more akin to angels than to demons. Interesting.
The fact remains that if there were some kind of alien life form that had developed to the point of being able to traverse the distances across our galaxy, it would be far, far, far more advanced than ourselves. Compared to them, we would appear like amoeba. Or looking at it from the other end of the telescope: compared to us, they would seem like gods.
It makes me wonder, then, why some atheists can be so convinced there is no God, and yet be so comfortable with the idea of alien life which might some day interact with our own. Why/how can they say something like: “I believe in the letter ‘a’, and the letter ‘b’, and the letter ‘c’, and … all the way up to the letter ‘y’. But I just can’t or won’t believe the letter ‘z’“?
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