Harmony of Bible and Science Presented in a Series of Articles
08 Is Intelligent Life Elsewhere in the Universe?
Bible and Science – Is Intelligent Life Elsewhere in the Universe?
The heaven, even the heavens, are the LORD’S:
but the earth hath he given to the children of men (Psa. 115:16).
On September 5, 1977, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched Voyager 1, the first of two unmanned spacecraft designed to explore the planets of our solar system and eventually to enter regions beyond.1 In the winter of 2003-04, Voyager reached the limits of our solar system and enter interstellar space. It will be thousands of years before this spacecraft encounters another star, but in the event that it survives to do so there is a capsule on board that has information in it to convey to any possible intelligent alien species that Voyager was sent by a “thinking” race known as mankind. Of course, if an intelligent species were to find it and reply we wouldn’t know anything on earth for thousands of years into the future, unless of course this alien race has discovered something about bridging space that is thus far beyond our comprehension.
Another project that has attempted to explore for intelligent life beyond earth is SETI, which stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The idea of this investigation was/is to use powerful radio telescopes to search the sky for microwave signals that might have an intelligible pattern. A few years later similar attempts were launched to explore for powerful laser signals that might convey messages. These explorations are all based on the reasoning that if there were intelligent races elsewhere in our galaxy they must also have developed radio and lasers and might be trying to contact other species. Government funding first sponsored the SETI project, but that source soon got discouraged with the lack of results. Such efforts continue today under private auspices. So far, with more than a decade of searching, no definitive results have been forthcoming though literally tens of millions of dollars have been spent in the quest.
Is Earth unique?
Why is there such intense interest in the search for intelligent life beyond planet earth? The idea of finding living species elsewhere certainly captures the public imagination. One need only consider the fabulous amount of money that is made on films and television science fiction epics such as “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” and their multifarious clones. If we could communicate with another intelligent species elsewhere in the universe there are a host of gnawing questions that would be asked and the answers could profoundly change the human race. Chief among these queries would be: Does an alien race elsewhere believe in a God? And does that God have a plan of salvation for that species?
For most of human history, mankind has thought that the earth was the center of a rather small universe with the moon and planets revolving around us with a few thousand stars arrayed in a canopy above. From the work commencing with Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton down to Einstein, Hubble and Hawking (and many others), it is now accepted that the universe is a very vast place with literally billions of galaxies, each containing billions of star systems. The probability that there are planets elsewhere in the universe that are similar to earth becomes quite high. If there are many other stars with planetary systems, there is the further possibility that some other intelligent life form might exist. Such alien species might be similar to us, or might be markedly different from our image yet still be rational beings. Nevertheless, until relatively recently, scientists were very skeptical that any form of intelligent life could be found elsewhere in the universe. In the last few years, new, more powerful instruments, such as the Hubble space telescope, and the 400-inchMountKecktelescope in Hawaii, have found abundant evidence that there are planets orbiting other nearby stars. We cannot tell yet whether or not any of these planets have earth-like conditions, but at least it is now fairly certain that other solar-type systems exist with planetary satellites.
Earth’s delicate balance
While wondering about the possibility of life elsewhere, scientists have also come to the remarkable conclusion that this universe we inhabit is exquisitely fine-tuned so that life can exist in it. The physical constants that determine the structure of the universe are set within such close limits that even the smallest change in their values would lead to complete instability such that heavens would never have formed, or, if they had, would have been so short lived that we wouldn’t be around to observe anything. A few examples should suffice to make the point.
First let’s consider Coulomb’s law of electromagnetism. This law states that the force (F) between two electric charges (Q1 and Q2) is equal to a constant (C) times the product of the charges divided by the distance (r) between them squared. In mathematical form this equation looks like: F = C Q1 Q2 / r2.0000000000000000
Forget the details of the math, but recognize that when we square the distance between these two charges it is a very precise number. The number in the exponent is not 2.000001, but exactly “2” to many decimal places of accuracy. Even the smallest change in that power law makes electromagnetism unstable. Since it is electromagnetic forces that hold every atom in the universe together, we can readily appreciate that something very strange is going on! Similar preciseness is required in the exponent governing Newton’s gravitational law. So extraordinary is this result that the physicist John Wheeler commented: “Slight variations in the physical laws such as gravity or electromagnetism would make life impossible…the necessity to produce life lies at the center of the universe’s whole machinery and design.”2
Further examples of fine balance
In fact, the further we inquire, the more we are astounded by the extremely small numerical limits that are placed not only on the physical laws, but also on the physical constants in order for there to be a stable universe (i.e. one that doesn’t form and then immediately implode). An example that comes to mind is the inequality limits, which determine the stability of stars. The range for this parameter is a number that is accurate to 39 decimal places! A small difference in the 38thdecimal place would ensure that no star with the properties of our Sun would exist in the entire universe. Stars would either be blue giants (burning up rapidly) or red dwarfs (far too cool to provide sufficient energy for life). Under these conditions no star like our Sun could ever have existed.
Another extremely fortunate circumstance is the fine balance in chemical forces, which permits carbon-based life forms. The molecules that constitute all livings cells are composed of very complex combinations of atoms mostly dependent on carbon-based (organic) chemistry. The carbon atom is capable of a wide range of binding properties depending on the local environment of surrounding atoms. Carbon-carbon bonds in a covalent state3 form the structure commonly known as diamond, but many other bond states are possible with various other elements. There are literally millions of variations of carbon-based chemical compounds. No other element is capable of this type of chemistry. Even the smallest change in the diverse bonding properties of carbon would make life on this planet impossible.4
Given all these circumstances we are either incredibly lucky or else something very special has happened to make our universe suitable for our existence. While most scientists don’t believe in luck, they also prefer to reject the notion of intelligent design by an omniscient creator. What then is their scientific alternative?
The atheist’s alternative
The scientific alternative that some physicists prefer is called the anthropic principle. The general idea of this principle is that the reason we seem to find our universe so hospitable to life is because this just happens to be the universe we inhabit. Under the guise of this principle, we have to accept the idea that there are possibly multitudes of other universes with properties far different from ours and in these universes life, as we know it, may be impossible.
These issues were discussed at a recent conference at Case Western ReserveUniversity.5 The basic postulate of the anthropic principle really isn’t very different philosophically from the fundamental premise of evolutionary theory, i.e. a pure probability argument. The idea is that, if you have enough universes out there, then by pure chance one is bound to be suitable for life and we just happen to live in that one.
Naturally, this argument does away with the idea of intelligent design by a creator. Under the guise of the anthropic principle, our universe resulted neither from a creator, nor from pure luck, but rather as a result of happenstance. This is a subtle difference, but a comforting one to scientists who prefer to reject God, but don’t have any other explanation for the incredible uniqueness of the physical laws which make life possible in our universe. It also is apparent that no current means exist for observing beyond the limits of our own universe; hence the anthropic principle remains more of a philosophical idea than a physical reality. Dr. Lawrence Krauss is quoted in the New York Times as saying that the anthropic principle is “a way of killing time when physicists didn’t have a better idea.”6
A more rational approach
There are a number of scientists who simply don’t buy the idea of pure luck or happenstance to explain the uniqueness of the physical laws that make life possible in our universe. The physicist Paul Davies has said, “The equations of physics have in them incredible simplicity, elegance and beauty. That in itself is sufficient to prove to me that there must be a God who is responsible for these laws and responsible for the universe.”7 To which I say amen!
The Bible’s position
One may quibble about whether scientists believe in luck or happenstance, as an explanation for the existence of mankind, but it is clear that the one thing they nearly all agree upon is the unique ability of our universe to foster life. Hence the search for intelligent life has a sound scientific basis and no doubt efforts will continue to try to make contact with other beings elsewhere in the universe despite the futility of waiting tens of thousands of years for a possible reply. On the other hand, what does the Bible say about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe? The astonishing answer from the perspective of scripture is that the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is virtually certain! Let’s examine this assertion further.
First and foremost there is the recorded fact that angels carried out the works of creation. Angels came to Abraham to announce the birth of Isaac and went on to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the course of this mission, they sat down to eat and drink with Abraham (Gen. 18:8), showing that they were corporal beings. The angels Gabriel8 and Michael9 appear in the book of Daniel and some 600 years later it appears that the same Gabriel speaks to Zacharias10 and to Mary11 the mother of Jesus. In fact, the Bible is replete with references to angelic creatures carrying out the work of the Lord.
Now surely we do not believe in angels with wings floating in the clouds above the earth, an image often expressed in the popular entertainment media, but having no basis in scripture. Since God only hath immortality (I Tim.6:16), where did the angels come from? They certainly did not coexist as immortals with the Lord from the very beginning. Moreover, where do these angels reside now when not engaged on some earthly mission?
Enoch and Elijah
There is also the curious story of Enoch (Gen. 5:24). The scriptures say he was “translated” (Heb. 11:5). What exactly does this mean? We know it cannot mean that he was given eternal life, because the scriptures plainly say that Christ was the first fruits of the race of Adam to receive immortality (I Cor. 15:20). Some have speculated that Enoch simply died and God had him buried elsewhere on this planet so that other mortal men would not worship this righteous man’s dead body. The Bible, however, does not say this and is quite explicit in giving such burial details in the case of Moses. The original word for translated literally means to transport.12 The question is transported where? It should be obvious that if the scriptures said he was removed to live out an extended mortal existence on another planet somewhere else in the universe, to await the day of redemption, no one until very recently could have possibly had a clue what that meant!
Another fascinating story to contemplate is the departure of the prophet Elijah from the earth. The Bible tells us: “And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (II Kgs. 2:11). Some have speculated that the description is one of Elijah leaving earth in a rocket ship,13 but whether or not this is true is a moot point. What is abundantly clear is that, by some means or other, Elijah (very much alive) was conveyed into the heavens to be transported somewhere else.
Finally, there is the marvelous passage in Numbers 14:21: “But as truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.” (See also Hab. 2:14). These words, in effect, constitute the prime directive of the purpose of the Lord with the earth, i.e to fill it with His glory. He didn’t create the earth in vain, He created it to be inhabited (Isa. 45:18) first with us, the sons of Adam, and eventually with a glorified race of beings perfected by trial and glorified by the gift of eternal life through His son the Lord Jesus Christ. If we believe that this is God’s purpose, with respect to the earth, can we not also accept by extension that the whole vast universe is also intended for the glory of the Lord God Almighty. Truly the earth hath he given to the children of men, and someday in the future may we be so blessed as to know and understand what He planned for the rest of the universe.
By John C. Bilello, Ann Arbor, Michigan
1.A nearly identical craft, Voyager 2, was launched a few months later on Aug. 20, 1977, with the same mission.
2.John Wheeler, Reader’s Digest, September, 1986.
3.Covalent bonds are the strongest type of chemical bonds, where electron orbitals are shared between two atoms; further details need not concern a lay reader.
4.Scientists have speculated on other types of organic chemistry based on apparently similar chemical structures from the same column in the periodic table of elements. Silicon-based organic chemistry, for example, would seem possible; substitution of Silicon for Carbon, however, simply doesn’t work in forming equivalent molecular structures suitable for life.
5.For a layman’s report on this conference see the article: “Zillions of Universes? Or Did Ours Get Lucky?” by Dennis Overbye, New York Times, October 28, 2003.
7.Paul Davies, Superforce, Simon and Schuster, New York, (1985).
8.Daniel8:16 and 9:21.
9.Daniel10:13,10:21 and 12:1. Michael is also mentioned in Jude 1:9 and Revelation 12:7.
12.Translated” = Strong’s number 3346. In Greek = metatithemi, met-at-ith´-ay-mee; from 3326 and 5087; to transfer, i.e. (literally) transport.
13.Erich Von Daniken, Chariots of the Gods: Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, Berkley Books, NY (1999).