Life Beyond Earth
Why do we care so much about extraterrestrial life? What does this teach us about philosophy, science, and the origin of life? And what would confirming alien life mean for Christianity
Interest in alien life and UFOs skyrocketed (pun intended) in June, as the US military announced it would release a report on UFO sightings. The report came out exactly a month ago. It was a bit disappointing, and it really didn’t change the debate on alien life. However, it made me realize just how philosophical that topic is. Read on as I explore how philosophy, science, science fiction, the origin of life, and Christianity all converge here.
The “UFO Report”
On June 25th, the American Office of the Director of National Intelligence published its highly anticipated “Preliminary Assessment on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” or UAP. The report discusses 144 UAP events, with only one fully explained. It was “a large deflating balloon.”
It’s worth stressing that these events are real; they were not hallucinations or visions from military personnel. 80 out of the 144 events were confirmed through data from multiple sensors. This doesn’t mean that the US military has UFO detectors; it just means that ordinary military sensors, like radar and video cameras, picked up signals consistent with the events reported.
Tentative explanations for these UAP events include clutter, atmospheric phenomena, and the possibility of foreign adversary weapons programs. (American classified programs were ruled out.) But the report’s upfront conclusion is that “the limited amount of high-quality reporting on [UAP] hampers our ability to draw firm conclusions about [their] nature or intent.”
The Philosophy of Alien Life
Why do we care so much about extraterrestrial life? You can say it’s science, or you can say it’s literature – science fiction. I think that one way or the other, ultimately, it’s all philosophy. Here’s why.
The depiction of alien life as intelligent, capable of thinking and communicating and traveling, falls on science fiction, not so much science per se. Note that science fiction is fiction about science; it’s literature, not science. That’s not to say that it hasn’t anticipated and even inspired important scientific endeavors; all the same, it’s not science. But in any case, it’s telling that the alien civilizations it portrays are highly idealized. In addition to high technology, these alien races have solved society’s hardest problems: health, labor, the economy, equality, justice, peace… In fact, it’s often implied that advanced technology brings about these other benefits, or at least that they go hand in hand. It’s all very philosophical, and I’ll come back to these ideas of science fiction later this year.
On the other hand, if we stick to purely scientific themes, you find a lot of interest in alien life from a space exploration perspective. And that’s also twofold. On one hand, space exploration in and of itself has a proven track record of expanding our knowledge about nature, and of developing and improving our technology, which is pretty cool. On the other hand, believing that science proves that life came out of nothing makes space exploration attractive, because it could provide more details and answers regarding this process.
However, at that point, we’re firmly back in the camp of philosophy – not science. I know that sounds controversial, so let me explain. Part of the problem stems from the fact that “evolution” is an overloaded term. And I like the way Dr. Stephen Meyer breaks it down. Dr. Meyer is the director of the Discovery Institute’s Center of Science and Culture. Writing about evolution, Dr. Meyer explains that this word has at least three meanings or senses. At its core, “evolution” speaks of “change over time.” This includes ideas like genetics and small changes in species observed over short periods of time. All of it is solid science, and generally uncontested.
A second meaning implies that if this is sort of “played backwards” in time, it suggests that all life, all known genetic diversity, devolves into a single, simple life form that becomes, as it were, the “root” of the “tree of life.” This is where things begin to get contested, even between scientists. This idea of a single source of all biological diversity is known as monophyletic. An alternative is the polyphyletic view – that we have, so to speak, several small trees of connected species that don’t necessarily share a single common ancestor.
And the third meaning of evolution, even more contested, implies that the monophyletic tree of life evolved into all we know today purely by virtue of random mutations that were naturally selected, or filtered.
At some point beyond the pure science of the first meaning, a philosophical presupposition seeps through the foundation: that life must have originated by itself, with no external intervention. But even the purely scientific implications of these philosophical musings are hotly contested. There’s the monophyletic versus polyphyletic debate, which I already mentioned. There’s the idea of irreducible complexity – organisms or mechanisms that couldn’t function or survive at all if they were any simpler than they are, which questions the notion that they evolved from a random mutation of a previous, simpler functioning form.
There’s the idea of information. Life is made up of quasi-digital instructions. DNA is information. But information doesn’t evolve from nothing. If anything, thermodynamics points to a loss of information and order in any closed system left to its own devices. The Cambrian explosion illustrates this problem well.
There’s also the issue of orphan genes, ones that have no homologous in other species and don’t really fit the monophyletic viewpoint.
One last thing I’ll mention is this. I find it fascinating that not all naturalistic thinkers believe that the size of the universe, and the non-created nature they ascribe to life, imply that life is abundant throughout galaxies. You could think that a naturalistic worldview would incentivize this thinking. If life originated at random from basic components, it would seem a matter of probability for other worlds in the universe to harbor some form of life. But thinkers like atheist biologist Richard Dawkins believe otherwise. As noted by Dr. William Lane Craig on this very topic of alien life, Dawkins actually thinks that the origin of life is so hard, so rare, that it must only have started once. Mind you, this is the man who defined biology as “the study of things that give an appearance of being designed.” This is not some half-hearted naturalist.
A Theology of Alien Life?
Whether you’re talking about science fiction or science proper, the idea of alien life is eminently philosophical. This is an excellent example of a phenomenon I pointed out in the very first episode of Laity Square: philosophies that enter the public square, and even thrive in it, because they masquerade as something else, like science or literature in this case.
Having established that the matter of alien life is eminently philosophical, it is perfectly possible to discuss the Christian angle on it. Except… There isn’t much to discuss. There’s all sorts of hypothetical questions one could bring up. If sentient alien life exists elsewhere, are we expected to evangelize them? Did Jesus have to become incarnate in those other life forms and sacrifice himself for their salvation?
Alas, this is all hypothetical. I believe that the Bible is silent on the matter of alien life. This makes sense when you consider its key purpose – to tell the story of God’s redemptive plan through Jesus. It’s not primarily a science or biology book.
When it does mention science and biology, it is fundamentally correct. I already outlined the case for the origin of life, and in past episodes I’ve touched on the origin of the universe as well. But on these topics, the Bible isn’t meant to be comprehensive; it’s not meant to tell us everything there is to know about them. It being silent on alien life, I’d rather not speculate on some of these questions.
There is, however, one last question to address, and it’s this: if space exploration would ever find evidence of extraterrestrial life, even if it’s only some kind of lichen or a similarly simple life form, would that invalidate the biblical narrative of creation? And the answer, quite simply, is “no.” We need to follow the science where it will lead us, instead of imposing our pre-existing philosophical biases on it. And so far, the Bible is consistent with what impartial, pure science tells us about the world.
There is this line I like a lot about the Genesis narrative of creation. It goes more or less like this: “the narrative’s key point is not how earth was created, but that it was created” – the fact that it was created. I don’t remember where I read it – it certainly isn’t mine. But the point is that as science evolves, it simply reinforces the biblical record.
So, what’s going to happen if we find alien life one day? We’ll have to ask science for answers. And I’m confident they will expand both our scientific knowledge and what we know as general revelation – the idea that God has created an amazing universe that points to His greatness and glory. I’m fairly confident that any alien life form will simply add to this.