Are there other intelligent beings somewhere out there in the cosmos? Forget science fiction. Recent news said level-headed U.S. Navy pilots reported seeing what seemed like UFOs, so classified military protocol deals with how to handle such incidents. Meanwhile, scientists, aided by new technology, have spent decades seeking to contact alien life.
Nonetheless, “perhaps humanity is truly alone,” contends Ethan Siegel, an astrophysics theorist and college teacher turned science writer, in a cover story for the June Commentary magazine. This old, old story is ever new, and perhaps it’s time for journalists to run it past some quotable theologians for an off-the-news if not off-the-wall feature.
Siegel himself offers no insights on the obvious religious implications. That’s not surprising, since he’s an atheist, albeit a Jewish one, who preaches that “everything that has ever happened in this universe requires nothing more than the laws of nature to explain them.”
Still, the questions nag. Did God, or intelligent design's Designer, create beings like us on Earth and nowhere else?
If so, why? Or, if there is intelligent life in other realms, what is God’s purpose with mere earthlings? Are those extraterrestrials “sinful” and “fallen” like us? What would this mean for Christianity’s belief that God was uniquely incarnated on Earth in Jesus Christ? And so forth.
Darwin’s theory of evolution becomes probable when vast stretches of time allow vast accumulations of genetic mutations that can undergo vast selection to yield the origin of vast species. (The Guy, no science whiz, senses that the sudden emergence of countless advanced life forms during the “Cambrian Explosion” half a billion years ago is hard to fully comprehend in such simple terms).
Probabilities also seem to tell us there just have to be many forms of intelligent life beyond those on Earth.
As Siegel lays out the situation, science established in recent times that our Milky Way is only one of 2 trillion or so galaxies, within which stars such as our sun total an unimaginable 10 to the 24th power. For life to exist, planets orbiting those suns need the right location to allow liquid water, with the right mix of other atoms. Experts calculate that such planets number 10 to the 22nd power, with more than a million in our Milky Way alone.
But then, life must emerge from non-life, Siegel continues. Yes, the necessary chemical compounds, especially 20 carbon-based amino acids, exist across the universe. “But flour, sugar, butter, and eggs are not the same as a cake”; the existence of the raw ingredients necessary for life is not the same thing as life itself. Lab science (so far) is unable to perform this trick.
Once simple life forms somehow appear, they need to survive, thrive, and reproduce. How do these crude organisms develop into complex life forms with the smarts to devise rocket ships, lift telescopes into space, and hunt for aliens? Evidence to date provides only one case where this ever occurred: Us.
“If the universe is teeming with life, then where is everybody?” Siegal demands. And if it’s just us and nobody else, how come we flawed humans were and are so successful and fortunate as to exist? Time for some theological journalism. As another Jew wondered eons ago:
“When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place, what is man that you have been mindful of him, mortal man that you have taken note of him, that You have made him little less than divine”? (Psalm 8, J.P.S. Tanakh).
On the implications for Christianity, an intriguing treatment (as on so many topics) came from Britain’s inimitable literature professor and lay theologian C.S. Lewis. This coming July 20 we’ll mark the 50th year since a human first set foot on the moon, Eleven years prior, Lewis had written a magazine article titled “Will We Lose God in Outer Space?” anthologized with a different title in “The World’s Last Night.”
Rather like atheist Siegel, theist Lewis wrote that “we do not know whether we ever shall know” but “there is not at present a shred of empirical evidence” for advanced beings out there. Lewis’s hunch was that intelligent life does not in fact exist elsewhere, or if it does we’ll only learn this when “the world will be ending.”
Lewis saw nothing from other worlds that would disrupt classic Christian belief. Does the central tenet of God coming to planet Earth as Jesus Christ the Son imply humanity’s special merit? On the contrary, the faith teaches that homo sapiens, individually and collectively, is so fallen it needs a Savior. If there are other beings in other worlds, are they wholly innocent, or also fallen, or exhibit different degrees or forms of fallenness? If fallen, would God likewise redeem them through Jesus, or through other means?
He concluded that with such thoughts “we ask for what is not merely unknown but, unless God should reveal it, wholly unknowable.” OK, but it's fun stuff for religion writers.