Faith & Science
Could Atheism Survive the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life?
Recently, NASA granted a million dollars to the Center of Theological Inquiry to study the theological, humanitarian, and social implications in the event that extraterrestrial life is ever discovered. It was another reminder of related discussions, over the years, of whether religion could survive the discovery of life on other planets.
I think, though, that the concern is misdirected. The real question is whether atheism could survive.
There are at least two points to consider here. First, God is the Artist of Hidden Beauty. Second, getting mind-staggeringly lucky twice would strongly suggest that “something is going on here.”
The Artist of Hidden Beauty
In the early 1980s I spent many a fascinating hour down on my hands and knees in the forest undergrowth, engaged in macrophotography of all sorts of wonderful, tiny things. It occurred to me, about 35 years ago as I was polishing my ’65 Ford Custom that God wasn’t like us when it came to making things look nice. Ford Motor Corp. only made the sheet metal look nice on the outside where people would see it, but nature was filled with beauty that no one would ever see.
At that moment, the question popped into my head, “What about all those possible planets throughout the universe?” Amazing plant and animal life on other planets would be exactly what I would expect to see from the One who creates beauty simply for the sake of beauty, even if no human will ever enjoy it. Consideration of alien beings with eternal souls does raise some deeper issues, however space here prevents me from an adequate discussion of this possibility. Suffice it to say that, from my own Christian perspective, plant and animal life on other planets would not be in the least surprising, God being the Artist that He is.
A friend of mine worked for the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation and occasionally entertained me with stories of how they would identify and solve cases of lottery fraud. In each case, the tip-off would be something unusually improbable, such as an unusual number of wins from the same store.
When it comes to the idea that life spontaneously self-assembled itself in the past, thousands of our brightest minds have worked on the problem for over half a century with no prospect of success in the foreseeable future. In fact, the more we learn, the more we realize how difficult the problem is.1 The challenge is three-fold. First, we have to figure out how intelligent scientists can create a simple life form from scratch in the lab. Second, having done it ourselves, we have to see if realistic natural processes can do the same thing. The third problem is vastly more difficult: figure out how the information to build life forms gets encoded in these self-replicating molecules without an intelligent programmer. We are still working on the first problem, with no hint of success on the horizon. That might be significant, right there.
A 2011 article in Scientific American, “Pssst! Don’t tell the creationists, but scientists don’t have a clue how life began,” summarized our lack of progress in the lab.2 Of course, there are plenty of scenarios, but creative story-telling should not be confused with doing science, or making scientific discoveries. With regard to “thousands of papers” published each year in the field of evolution, as Austin Hughes wrote, “This vast outpouring of pseudo-Darwinian hype has been genuinely harmful to the credibility of evolutionary biology as a science.”3
Evolutionary biologist Eugene Koonin, meanwhile, calculates the probability of a simple replication-translation system, just one key component, to be less than 1 chance in 10^1,018 making it unlikely that life will ever spontaneously self-assemble anywhere in the universe.4 His proposed solution is a near-infinite number of universes, something we might call a “multiverse of the gaps.” My own work, using data from the Protein Family Database, produces results consistent with Koonin’s estimate.5 Indeed, we would need a vast number of universes all working on the problem to get lucky enough to see life spontaneously assemble itself in just one of them.
Here’s the Point:
The probability of life spontaneously self-assembling anywhere in this universe is mind-staggeringly unlikely; essentially zero. If you are so unquestioningly naïve as to believe we just got incredibly lucky, then bless your soul.
If we were to discover extraterrestrial life, however, then we would have had to get mind-staggeringly lucky two times! Like the forensic detectives at the lotteries commission, a thinking person would have to start operating on the well-founded suspicion that “something is going on.”
On the other hand, the existence of life and beauty elsewhere in the universe is not at all surprising under the hypothesis of a Creator who is the Artist of Hidden Beauty. Indeed, logic dictates the existence of a supernatural creator, as I have shown here,6 and our observations of the universe indicate it was specifically designed to support life.
The discovery of extraterrestrial life would be the death knell for atheism, at least for the thinking atheist. On the other hand, such a discovery should not be in the least surprising, if there is a supernatural Creator who has designed the universe to support life, and has brought about life and beauty throughout the universe, even if no human ever gets to see it.
(1) “The RNA world hypothesis: The worst theory of the early evolution of life (except for all the others),” Biology Direct, 2012.
(2) “Pssst! Don’t tell the creationists, but scientists don’t have a clue how life began,” Scientific American, 2011.
(3) “The origin of adaptive phenotypes,” PNAS, 2008.
(4) The Logic of Chance: The Nature and Origin of Biological Evolution, Eugene V. Koonin, 2011.
(5) “Computing the ‘Best Case’ Probability of Proteins from actual data, and the falsification of an Essential Prediction of Darwinian Theory,” Kirk Durston, Contemplations.
(6) “A simple but elegant argument for the existence of God,” Kirk Durston, Contemplations.
Photo credit: Kirk Durston.
Cross-posted at Contemplations.