Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Reader question: What about life on other planets?

Europa from NASA's Galileo probe.
A reader wrote and asked,
I'm seeing on the news lately that NASA is trying to raise money to go to one of Jupiter's moons called Europa to search for life. Do you think if they do find life swimming under the ice there or on any other planet that it would undermine the Bible and creation, and maybe prove abiogenesis?
Short answer: No.

Historical answer: Let's see, 150 years after Darwin, we still have Bible-believing creationists.  Even after Australopithecus and Archaeopteryx and all the other fossils that are supposed to show evolution.  Even after the human genome project, which supposedly shows our kinship with apes.  Even after relentless promotion on TV and other media.  Bible-believing creationists are still here.  Why would some weird critter from Europa suddenly change that?  I don't think it would.  Actually, I'm sure it wouldn't.

Philosophical answer (probably the one you wanted): Does the Bible ever say that God only created life here on earth?  No, it does not.  Could God have made some bacteria on Mars or some worms on Europa?  Sure, why not?  God is big enough and creative enough and awesome enough to do that.  It's not a big deal.

Would it "prove" abiogenesis?  No, of course not.  The only way to "prove" abiogenesis is to do it.  Just finding life somewhere other than earth would not "prove" abiogenesis, because we would still wonder where that life came from.  The only reason finding life elsewhere than earth would be a big deal is if you already think that abiogenesis must be the explanation for the existence of living things.  If that's the case, then you should get excited about extraterrestrial critters.  As I understand it, the reasoning goes like this:

  1. Life is extremely complicated, and it's hard to imagine how it could have emerged from nonliving chemicals.  Pure randomness is an unlikely source of life.
  2. Since life exists here and randomness seems an unlikely explanation, then life must be a natural outcome of certain circumstances.  In other words, if chance can't explain it, then maybe there's a natural law that would explain the emergence of life given the right circumstances.
  3. If I find life on another planet, then the randomness explanation for the origin of life becomes even more improbable.  Two independent improbable events are always more improbable; imagine someone hitting the Powerball Lottery twice in one lifetime.  On the other hand, the idea that there is some unknown natural law that guarantees the emergence of life when the conditions are right becomes more likely if life exists in places other than just earth.
But here's the key: If you don't think that life must have emerged without supernatural help, then all of that reasoning isn't really all that interesting.  You have a third option:  It wasn't chance, and it wasn't natural law that accounts for life.  Life was created intentionally.  (Yes, I am drawing on Dembski's filter; thanks for noticing.)

I should add that the reasoning in #3 fails if there is a third option that has nothing to do with extraterrestrial life.  That reasoning only works if both of your options make some kind of prediction about life on other planets.  Random accidents would predict that life will be rare, but natural law would predict that life should be common (if the circumstances are met).  The third option of creation makes no prediction about life on other planets, but life on other planets is not incompatible with creation.  So if creation is an option (which it is), then the discovery of life on other planets would not help you choose between chance, law, or creation.

Now I suppose a good Intelligent Design advocate would dispute what I just said because they would claim that life is "specified" and that there is enough information just on this planet to conclude that life is designed.  If that floats your boat, great.  I don't think it matters too much because I'm simply contrasting those who already think creation explains life and those who do not.  The question was about the Bible and creation, not about what persuasive use we might make of the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

So what would it mean if we found some weird critters living on another planet?  Personally, I would be pretty excited.  I would really, really want to go check it out myself.  Theologically, my perception of God as Creator would get a little bit bigger.  Some scientists would go on and on about how important it is to our understanding of the origin of life on this planet, and I would just shrug my shoulders.  That's pretty much it.

Do you have a question about science and the Bible?  Send it in!  Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.