Capitol Ideas

Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Search for God

There's got to be life out there, the atheistic view goes, none of it God-caused, of course.

By From the November 2011 issue

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A week doesn't go by without the announcement of new planets. "Week Brings Hail of Planets" was just the most recent report. It capped a week of "new findings about worlds beyond our own solar system," according to the Wall Street Journal. The latest marvel, 200 light years distant from Earth, has two suns. The reporter quoted John Knoll of Industrial Light & Magic as saying that this shows "science is stranger than fiction." Actually, science fiction started this whole ball rolling, but that's another story.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has gone on for more than 50 years. In 1960 Frank Drake, a Cornell University astronomer, cobbled together the Drake Equation, supposedly quantifying the likelihood that intelligent life started up on its own. Nothing has yet been found and the search is getting harder to fund. Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen put up some money which was used to build the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, but now it is "in hibernation." The University of California was supposed to operate the array, but they're broke too. Government money has dried up. Three years ago I tried to visit the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and, on a Wednesday, found the place locked up at midday. A night watchman came to the door. "Closed," he said.

What scientists are looking for, of course, is extra-terrestrial life, not rocks orbiting stars. The late novelist Michael Crichton gave an entertaining lecture at Caltech in 2003 saying that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a religion. And in a way it is. Carl Sagan, one of its leading promoters, "believed in superior beings in space, creatures so intelligent, so powerful, as to resemble gods." He affirmed that a new civilization is formed just in our galaxy every 10 years. "There are a million technical civilizations in the [Milky Way] galaxy," he believed.

That's religion. The well-known atheist Richard Dawkins shows similar tendencies. He was quoted in the New York Times the other day as saying, "It's highly plausible that in the universe there are Godlike creatures." But he was careful to add that "these Gods came into being by an explicable scientific progression of incremental evolution." (He would not have wanted to see "Gods" capitalized, however.)

Michael Crichton complained that the Drake Equation was vacuous because it had no data. Evolutionists plugged in their own numbers anyway, and in their math the probability of life arising by chance turned out to be a near certainty. All you needed was enough habitable platforms -- planets -- to work with. So that's what we're looking for. Other countries are looking, too.

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg argued in 2000 that if "calculations showed" that the odds of planets having gravity, temperature, and chemistry suitable for life were very small and "the earth on which we live were the only planet in the universe," then a "benevolent designer" would "make sense." Otherwise our "great good fortune in having come into being" would be puzzling. But now we know that lots of stars do have planets. So, Weinberg added, "we need not be surprised that chance events governed by impersonal natural laws have produced intelligent life on at least one of the planets."

Weinberg did no math here but simply assumed that the probabilities support the case he wants to make -- that life arose accidentally. No need for God then! (Sigh of relief from the materialists.) Even assuming the existence of a Goldilocks planet -- with temperature, gravity, and atmosphere seemingly friendly to life -- the likelihood that life would appear spontaneously is an unknown. (Some think it's close to zero.) Even if such life does appear, the probability that it will end up building radio telescopes and looking for other civilizations is equally unknown. That's why Crichton called the Drake Equation vacuous.

The dominant assumption today is that all science must be based on a naturalistic premise. Matter in motion is all that exists; God and supernatural phenomena are ruled out a priori. All life, then, must have been caused by the random collision of particles. People like Weinberg, Dawkins, and Steven Hawking deny that any other way of looking at the world can be called scientific. Hence their hostility to the movement called intelligent design. They're looking for intelligence but it must not have been designed. "Materialists cannot allow a divine foot in the door," the Harvard professor R. C. Lewontin said 15 years ago.

There was a famous disagreement between Stephen Jay Gould and Dawkins: was evolution "progressive"? You could make it come out either way, but Gould had a point when he said that chemical ingredients could go through a billion-year struggle to assemble themselves into a cell, only to be reduced to ash in an instant by a bolt of lightning. Maybe random events can create life, but they can certainly destroy it.

We do know that the spontaneous origin of life is improbable. All efforts to create it in laboratories have failed, as have all attempts to find it anywhere else. Maybe it exists only on Earth -- an unwelcome thought for those who decided long ago (on no evidence) that there is nothing exceptional about the human race. My own belief is that, without evidence of extraterrestrial life, news editors will soon tire of reporting on rocks floating in space ("worlds," as one reporter misleadingly called them).

BEFORE THE ENLIGHTENMENT the universal assumption was that the origin of life involved divine creation. Darwin's theory of evolution changed nothing in this regard. But evolution by natural selection couldn't get started without life so Darwin accepted in The Origin that the first life was "breathed" by "the Creator." Not that he believed in God. He later expressed a very modern animus against a creator who could have been more humane-- by designing a world without pain, for example. In a letter 10 years later, he suggested that life got started by fortuitous chemical combination in a "warm little pond."

If the present search eventually turns up an abundance of extraterrestrial life, what would the theological implications be? On the one hand it could support the current dogma that unaided natural laws can generate life. On the other, it would be reasonable to assume that if God could start life here, he could also have done so elsewhere--maybe in lots of places. Even if the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is successful, then, it would be unlikely to resolve the modern debate about the existence of God. (Maybe those newfound extraterrestrials would also have something interesting to tell us.)

Among other things, the Enlightenment inculcated a widespread faith in progress but we have lost it now. Darwin had it. So did John Stuart Mill, T. H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and a hundred other 19th century sages. The theory of evolution was its principal product. Change was identified with progress. Human nature was improving and people were becoming better people. Then came the Holocaust and the Gulag.

Over the last 50 years, we have seen something that is directly opposed to the faith in progress -- actual disparagement of the human race. Misanthropy became fashionable. The late Stephen Jay Gould loved to deride our "need to see ourselves as separate and superior." We repeatedly deplore our supposed "hubris." Few have noticed that our modern misanthropy is at odds with the evolutionist faith. And for that reason,that secular faith, which the intelligentsia is so eager for us to embrace, is going to be harder and harder to instill.

After a generation of this groundless selfdenigration, it is difficult to believe that we might actually be exceptional. Yet if SETI draws a blank, as I believe it will, we may have to confront the idea that we are the only intelligent life in the Cosmos. We could hardly be more unique than that. Maybe God put us here alone amidst all those planets, stars, and galaxies -- a nightmarish thought for our modern atheists.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).