Are We Alone In The Universe?
Regular columnist James Knight ponders the possibilities of alien life.
The two best known examples of a systematic attempt to evaluate the probabilities of finding alien life in the universe are the Fermi paradox and the Drake equation. They were set up a few decades ago, but were proffered to calibrate probabilities based only on modelling our galaxy (no further). Given the less sophisticated technology they were largely speculative equations - assessing the rate of star formation, the number of stars with planets, and the number that are likely habitable.
For more about the Breakthrough Listen project, click here
The trouble is, given that there are 100 billion stars just in our galaxy, and around 100 billion galaxies, both the Fermi paradox and the Drake equation proved inadequate to the cause of assessing the fraction of planets with life, and the odds of life becoming intelligent, and even more so the odds that intelligent life becomes communicative.
Recently, however, with far more sophisticated technology, the "Breakthrough Listen" project was launched, heightening our search for other life in the universe by searching planets that orbit the million stars closest to Earth and the hundred nearest galaxies. This is the biggest and most sophisticated search we've ever had, and has, for me, elicited 5 questions:
1) What are we likely to find out there?
Here's a hunch - we won't find anything. The universe existed for around 10 billion years before the earth began to form some 4.6 billion years ago, therefore if there is intelligent life on other planets much of it is likely to be a lot more advanced than we are as many of the planets we search will be older. While this comment makes a lot of assumptions about a similar evolutionary story (see below), if you imagine how much more advanced we'll be in just 500 years, consider how much more advanced a civilisation could be that had extra thousands or even millions of years to evolve.
2) Are we better off not finding each other?
If such life does exist, it would perhaps be advanced enough to have been able to find us by now. Perhaps they are watching us; perhaps they are so ultra-sophisticated that they have no need to communicate with us, rather like how we earthlings have no need to communicate with ant colonies.
Or perhaps if they stumble upon us they might see us as enough of a potential threat to challenge their supremacy in time. In which case they might wipe us out, rather like how heads of empires used to have their armies wipe out groups of peasant radicals that saw themselves as revolutionaries and future over-throwers of the ruling elite.
Alternatively, perhaps alien life out there is less evolved than we are. In which case, mutatis mutandis, judging by the way that we earthlings have treated those who are less-capable and less-powerful than us, if there were such creatures in the universe that are less developed than us, it might be better for them if we never find them.
3) What might aliens look like?
This is an intriguing question. Presumably any other life in the universe would share the commonality of having evolved from carbon-based origins (silicon is unlikely). That is to say, given that science shows that regeneration occurs most optimally at moderate temperatures, and with an increased amount of chemical variability, carbon based life is much more probable than any other kind of base.
One presumes that creatures on other planets would have had a primordial soup of some kind - therefore one wonders if natural selection on their planet would produce anything like us. Given the fecundity of qualities like wings, eyesight, vocal expressions, a central nervous system, memory and the intelligence to find food and outcompete rival species - all of which are so fecund that they've evolve multiple times independently on our planet, one wonders whether evolution on other planets would select for those same qualities. If we did find life on other planets, It wouldn't be surprising to me to see organisms possessing many (if not all) of the above qualities.
4) What if we miss life by arriving at the wrong time?
I'm not sure I've ever heard anyone ask this question - but it is worth considering, particularly after the news this Thursday that Kepler, NASA space telescope, has discovered a planet in the Milky Way similar to Earth. NASA said the Earth-like planet, named Kepler 452b, orbits a star similar to Earth's sun over the course of 385 days, and is located 1,400 light-years away from Earth.
The reason I mention our timing is that even if we do find a planet habitable for life, we have to catch it at the right period of its cosmological evolution. Kepler 452b is 6 billion years old, making it roughly 1.5 billion years older than earth - and it is getting rather hot apparently - just as our own planet will be in several billion years’ time.
Given what I said above about how biological evolution selects for fecund qualities and traits that increase the odds of genetic propagation, that 6 billion year period may well have engendered a reasonably high level of intelligent life, only to be gradually discontinued as Kepler 452b gets hotter and hotter, meaning that by the time we discovered it all trace of intelligent life has gone the same way as the evaporated oceans.
5) What are the ramifications for religious people?
Finally, a question I pondered a few years ago is whether or not the discovery of alien life on other planets might affect our religious faith. The first point of note is that in my experience atheists are bound to find a way to elicit the wrong accusations on this one. That is to say, when broaching the question of whether we are alone in the universe or whether there is life elsewhere, one ought to be mindful, first off, of the way that either answer (‘yes’ and ‘no’) is used by the atheists (rather dishonestly and disingenuously, as it happens) against Christianity.
They say that if we are the only life in the whole universe then that must prove that our being here is merely the result of the sheerest fluke. If, however, there are other planets which contain life of some kind that must prove that we are not the special creation that the Bible claims we are. Both contentions are, of course, equally spurious - but it is easy to see how atheists like to have it all their own way.
So what if we did find sophisticated life on another planet, then, complete with language, intelligence and complex multivariate societies like we have on earth - how would that affect our faith? I think it's a jolly good question. Suppose they had evolved no concept of God, and had had no incarnation, death on the cross, and resurrection in their history at all - how might you respond to that as a Christian? Could it simply mean that they are another branch of God's creation that do not require the same kind of salvation we do, or perhaps (highly questionably) no act of salvation at all?
Or might the absence of God on their planet lead us to wonder if our own religions are simply human inventions? Or, alternatively, might we stick to our faith and accept that there are things we don't understand, and accept perhaps God has not yet chosen to reveal Himself to that planet? After all, sophisticated God-fearing aliens that arrived on our planet 20,000 years ago might think the same about earth.
Personally, my faith is built on so much by way of experience, evidence, cognitive consideration and emotional conviction that I don't think the discovery of a completely God-less civilisation on another planet would shake my faith very much. Of course, the first reaction might be for us to wonder if their being bereft of the good news constitutes an urgent need for us to go share it with them (as per Matthew 28:19-20).
But that in itself brings another interesting hypothetical question: is telling the good news to a planet full of people currently unapprised of Jesus actually good news for them or is it bad news? For one presumes that if they had no knowledge of God, they could have no knowledge of sin and their need for salvation. Are they better off remaining ignorant so they are not indicted for their lack of accepting Jesus as their saviour? Would telling them be a bit like taking a deadly pandemic to their planet and then trying to provide them with the cure? Or would not telling them be like leaving them to a pandemic they already have and refusing to take them a cure?
The problem St Paul tells us in Romans 3:11 is that on earth “there is no one who understands, and no one who seeks God”, so imagine how much more this would be the case on a planet that had never even evolved the concept of God. Or might it be the case that just as God has clearly revealed Himself in the natural world (Romans 1:20) and has set eternity in the hearts of all people (Ecclesiastes 3:11), that there is no such thing in the universe as being wholly unapprised of God?
This blog post has been much more about questions than answers. I am of the view that sometimes questions are more interesting than answers - so hopefully they are questions that have got you pondering with interest.
Photo by Cheryl Empey from http://www.freeimages.com/
James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich. He is also a writer for the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
James blogs regularly at The Philosophical Muser
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