Feb 18 2009

The Next Great Awakening: part 4

Category: religion,science,theologyharmonicminer @ 10:04 am

The previous post in this series is here.

Scientists have been promising for some time now that we’re likely to find intelligent, technological species all over the universe, starting in our galaxy.

Maybe, maybe not.

There’s the Fermi Paradox, which essentially boils down to the question, if the universe has so many intelligent life-forms, why don’t we hear from them, or see any evidence OF them?

If interstellar travel is possible, even the “slow” kind nearly within the reach of Earth technology, then it would only take from 5 million to 50 million years to colonize the galaxy. This is a relatively small amount of time on a geological scale, let alone a cosmological one. Since there are many stars older than the sun, or since intelligent life might have evolved earlier elsewhere, the question then becomes why the galaxy has not been colonized already.

Consider:  how long will it take for the human race to create self-replicating space probes able to “live off the land” so to speak, using local materials to create copies of themselves, and move on to the next star system and do it again?  How long to create interstellar space flight systems of some kind?  Think big.  100 years?  1000 years?  10,000 years?  If ANY species in the galaxy ever reached this point (it would only take ONE, in all the history of the galaxy), and if that point was reached even 50 million years ago (a mere eyeblink in a galaxy perhaps 10 billion years old, or more), then we should see evidence of it, assuming these space probes have multiplied as designed, and probably overlapped various star systems many times over by now.  The first time we began broadcasting, we should have been noticed, assuming that an intelligence that wanted to send such probes was interested in other intelligent beings (of course, the first thing they would have seen from TV broadcasts may have convinced them we were all idiots….).

So:  unless every other gregarious, curious race died before it could create such technology, or unless we are the first in the history of the galaxy (neither of which is consistent with the notion that the human race is “ordinary”), we may very well be alone.

Then there’s the Rare Earth perspective, essentially itself an extension of the anthropic principle, or more properly, a list of evidence in favor of the anthropic principle.  Essentially, it’s all about the fine-tuning of the universe, our galaxy, our solar system, and our planet, for human life, particularly intelligent, technological human life.

Anthropic reasoning typically concludes that the stability of structures essential for life, from atomic nuclei to the whole universe, depends on delicate balances between different fundamental forces. These balances are believed to occur only in a tiny fraction of possible universes — so that this universe appears fine-tuned for life. Anthropic reasoning attempts to explain and quantify this fine tuning.

Related to this is the Privileged Planet hypothesis, the notion that the Earth is uniquely placed in our galaxy, and our galaxy uniquely placed in its local cluster and that local cluster in its super-cluster to allow the universe to be carefully observed and understood, with almost any other place being too bright (too many stars too close) or too dark (too many obscuring gas clouds).

All of that provides some context for this report claiming that the Milky Way Galaxy has ‘billions of Earths’

There could be one hundred billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy, a US conference has heard.

Dr Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution of Science said many of these worlds could be inhabited by simple lifeforms.

He was speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

So far, telescopes have been able to detect just over 300 planets outside our Solar System.

Very few of these would be capable of supporting life, however. Most are gas giants like our Jupiter, and many orbit so close to their parent stars that any microbes would have to survive roasting temperatures.

But, based on the limited numbers of planets found so far, Dr Boss has estimated that each Sun-like star has on average one “Earth-like” planet.

This simple calculation means there would be huge numbers capable of supporting life.

“Not only are they probably habitable but they probably are also going to be inhabited,” Dr Boss told BBC News. “But I think that most likely the nearby ‘Earths’ are going to be inhabited with things which are perhaps more common to what Earth was like three or four billion years ago.” That means bacterial lifeforms.

Outside of the obvious fact that this report is just a wild guess by a scientist (since not a single Earth-like planet around a Sun-like star, or any other star, has yet been found), why do you suppose that a scientist incautious enough to make the claim is so cautious about the likely development of advanced life (meaning anything more than bacteria)?  The answer is pretty simple.

Scientists really don’t have a fuzzy clue how life on Earth began so fast (in an eye-blink in geological time) just after it was cooling off from the Late Heavy Bombardment.  Forget all the nonsense you’ve heard and read about “billions and billions of years in the primordial soup” allowing life to spontaneously generate.  First, there was no primordial soup.  Second, life appears to have begun within just a very few million years of the time Earth cooled enough to allow it to survive.  This is not something scientists talk about much to the public, but it’s a hot topic at conventions, workshops, etc.

The current theory judged most likely by many exo-biologists is that the Earth was seeded with life from some other planet.  No kidding, some of the most brilliant and prominent believe exactly this.

So Alan Boss is loathe to suggest many intelligent species elsewhere (he surely knows all about the Fermi Paradox), but he’s willing to take a swing at the notion that whatever seeded life on Earth may have done so elsewhere, though of course it isn’t going to be something he talks about a lot.  Sounds too much like science fiction, don’t you know?  Or some wild notion that God goes around the universe seeding life…  can’t have that, either.

Also omitted from Boss’ theory is that the Earth has been a reasonably safe place for the development of advanced life because it is between two spiral arms of our galaxy, not IN one of them, which would surely have been deadly for advanced life due to radiation, super-nova proximity, etc., not to mention being a lousy place from which to observe the galaxy or the universe….  ever try looking at the stars from downtown Las Vegas?  The vast majority of Boss’ “earthlike” planets would be in star systems hostile to advanced life.

Much of this is nicely presented in Why the Universe is the way it is, by Hugh Ross.  You may or may not agree with all his conclusions, but I think you’ll find it a very provocative read.

So, why is all this in “The Next Great Awakening” series?

Because the more unique we understand ourselves to be in the universe, the more personal a God we might be willing to consider.  Science has been telling us for a few centuries now that we are not unique, not particularly special, that we were essentially inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, that whatever God there may be obviously viewed humans as a minor sidelight in creation (if indeed there IS a “creation”), that there are probably millions of other intelligent species in the universe, and so we don’t really matter that much….  with a corollary that maybe even the EARTH itself is more important than silly little US, the current ruling paradigm of the eco-pagans.

A representative sentiment:

The non-scientist’s relation to modern science is basically craven: we look to its discoveries and technology to save us from disease, to give us a faster ride and a softer life, and at the same time we shrink from what it has to tell us of our perilous and insignificant place in the cosmos. Not that threats to our safety and significance were absent from the pre-scientific world, or that arguments against a God-bestowed human grandeur were lacking before Darwin. But our century’s revelations of unthinkable largeness and unimaginable smallness, of abysmal stretches of geological time when we were nothing, of supernumerary galaxies and indeterminate subatomic behavior, of a kind of mad mathematical violence at the heart of matter have scorched us deeper than we know.

But much has changed since 1985 when Updike wrote the above.  Starting with the Big Bang theory decades earlier, continuing with the failure of biology to account for how life can possibly have begun (despite early optimism in the 1950s), and reinforced by the bewildering amount of fine-tuning required in the universe, our solar system, and Earth, in order for us to exist at all, let alone in a place where we can survive long enough as a civilization to develop high technology, and then for that place to be one of the few places where life might exist that also allows direct observation of the rest of the universe, we have seen science in the last 60-70 years begin to point, gradually, to the very special place humans have in Creation.  In fact, many hints of the foregoing were there in 1985, but perhaps Updike didn’t know it, because scientists weren’t talking about it in the lay media.

I believe that the incredible fine tuning of the universe is a story that needs to be told constantly by Christians, not in fear of what science may reveal, but in celebration that maybe, just maybe, science is about to “come home”, to point to basic facts of the relationship of humans to Creation that the church has taught for millennia.

Even if we someday learn of other intelligent civilizations, it is already obvious that they will be very rare.  And if they exist at all, I strongly suspect they will have their own revelation, one that is bound to have many parallels to our own, since it will have come from the same Source.  Of course, there is also the chance that they represent so thoroughly fallen a society that maybe we should have kept our mouths shut.  Go and reread the Screwtape Letters sometime.

Just to stimulate your thinking in this direction, there’s a very interesting science fiction book, Calculating God, which proceeds from the assumption that the aliens who visit us are theists.  The book takes many liberties, of course…  but it’s an intriguing idea that the aliens may show up on Earth as missionaries.

In the meantime, exactly how long will it take science to consider Creation itself as a scientific theory?  Let’s stake out some territory here…  if no alien races have been found in, say, 100 years, can we say they aren’t there?  Or 1000 years?  It’s not looking good for SETI these days…..

The next post in this series will be here.

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