Monday, December 9, 2013

The Question of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Within a Biblical World-View

The SETI Institute (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence; SETI rhymes with Betty) is an intriguing idea. It is based on the notion that the mathematical probability of intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe is high enough that such a search is justified. The question of whether we have the technology to discover such life is another matter. As it stands now, our technology allows us only to detect that life (if it exists) through the reception of radio waves:

Within the limits of our existing technology, any practical search for distant intelligent life must necessarily be a search for some manifestation of a distant technology. In each of its last four decadal reviews, the National Research Council has emphasized the relevance and importance of searching for evidence of the electromagnetic signature of distant civilizations. -- SETI Institute

The Drake Equation, developed by Frank Drake, which he presented in 1961, serves as a benchmark formula to estimate the number of likely intelligent civilizations that might be out there. For those who are mathematically inclined the equation is in this footnote.[1]

File:Frank Drake - edit.jpg

Having written Broca’s Brain in 1974, Carl Sagan would have been aware of the equation, and I assume his remarks in that book about the calculated figure are based on it:

File:Carl Sagan Planetary Society.JPG
When we do the arithmetic, the sorts of numbers we come up with are, characteristically, around a million technical civilizations [in our galaxy]. A million civilizations is a breathtakingly large number, and it is exhilarating to imagine the diversity, lifestyles, and commerce of those million worlds. But the Milky Way Galaxy contains some 250 billion stars, and even with a million civilizations, less than one star in 200,000 would have a planet inhabited by an advanced civilization. -- Broca’s Brain, p 315.

As a Christian, I am intrigued by the notion of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Not dog-like or chimpanzee-like intelligence, but the kind that one would find in a civilization that has language and technology. Sagan and SETI contemplate the existence of such civilizations based on an evolutionary world-view:

How many planets exists that might support life? Indeed, what is required for life to exist? How does life start? How does it evolve, and what fabulous creatures can evolution produce? How often do intelligent creatures appear in the giant tapestry of life? It is exactly these questions that are being addressed by the scientists of the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe.

The estimated appearance of such life is grounded in an evolutionary colored formula of probability that by necessity must ignore the real Origin of Life, i.e., the very first moment that anything existed in which life could supposedly evolve. The probability is exactly zero seeing that the Origin we are talking about here is the coming into existence of something out of nothing, which, logically and naturally speaking, is impossible. So the Drake Equation and Sagan’s estimates assume the existence of something already there. They also assume that life arises, evolves, and reaches a point in which it becomes self-aware, intelligent, and technologically savvy.

Setting aside the question of whether it is legitimate to ignore such a profound and basic matter as the Origin of Life, and whether the evolutionary qualifications of the formula are sound, the idea of probability is striking. From a Christian world-view, probability is something that is built into the nature of things. The probability of flipping a coin with the predicted result of tails coming up one hundred times in a row is the same as any other pattern for a hundred flips. It is a mathematical phenomenon and mathematics are as much the creation of God as anything else. I suspect that the probability of tails showing up a hundred times in a row just one time over a million tries could be determined. Likewise, over ten million, or a hundred million, or two-hundred million. In each case, the probability would be higher than before. If we consider these probabilities Biblically, they are there because God built them into the creation. To refine the point, they are there for a purpose, for God does not do anything that does not have a purpose to accomplish all his holy will (Eph 1:11) and to bring glory to him in the end (John 11:4; 1 Cor 10:31; 2 Cor 1:20).

There is absolutely nothing in the Bible that speaks of or even hints that there are extra-terrestrials out there. One far-fetched interpretation, which I heard once, involved the parable of the lost sheep. It took the ninety-nine sheep to represent this world and the one sheep that was lost to represent another world. It is loaded with problems of internal consistency not to mention complete ignorance of the textual and theological context of the parable.

If I were to look for a hint that God might have extra-terrestrials in mind, I would look to what the Scriptures say about the eschatological future, which is little in comparison to what it says of the pre-eschatological present. The fact that saints shall reign with Christ (2 Tim 2:12; Rev 22:5) might imply a cosmic reign that will take place in galaxies throughout the universe. Imagine having a whole galaxy to rule! For arguments sake, let’s assume that our reign will involve galactic oversight. Would the intelligent beings in our galaxy be new with the new creation (2 Peter 3:10-13)? That is, does their existence depend on the renewal of the creation? If so, they do not exist now. We know that they would be righteous and holy servants of God since no sin will exist then. However, looking to the future does not help us with the present except to say that if they might exist then (because God deems it to be good), they might exist now (for the same reason).

If we just look at the way God does things in terms of probability, it is a legitimate question to ask how probable it is that God has created other intelligent civilizations out there. I think the answer would have to be that it is probable. Perhaps, highly probable. If the Drake Equation with all of its added evolutionary baggage finds it probable for one star in two-hundred thousand in our galaxy alone to be suitable for life (meaning life as we know it on our planet), what are the odds if we take that baggage away?

Assuming an unencumbered Drake’s Equation has merit and validity, we are faced with an even bigger question. The creation in its present state is groaning under the curse of Adam’s sin and is awaiting the day of redemption – the revelation of the saints in glory (Rom 8:18-22). Assuming there are intelligent civilizations out there, they are civilizations that exist in a cursed universe. The bigger question is this, Are they God-lovers or God-haters? If they have been made in God’s image as we are, they would be under a divinely stipulated set of commandments as the human race is. Presumably those commandments are similar to our ten commandments. Idolatry, murder, lying, cheating, coveting and such would definitely be off the table because they are inherently contrary to the nature of God. The Sabbath? Perhaps not a requirement but something like it. Have the extra-terrestrials kept those commandments or broken them? If they have kept them, what is it like for unfallen image-bearers to live in a cursed creation? If they have broken them, what hope do they have for redemption?

All of this is speculative. These are not the kinds of questions that theologians are occupied with (thankfully). But they are the kind that Christian writers of speculative fiction are. They open up a wealth of fiction opportunities, because they are questions that reside within a legitimate Biblical world-view. And because of that, such speculative fiction can bring out profound truths about God and his redemptive purposes in Christ.

[1] N = R* • fp • ne • fl • fi • fc • L
N = The number of civilizations in The Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable.
R* =The rate of formation of stars suitable for the development of intelligent life.
fp = The fraction of those stars with planetary systems.
ne = The number of planets, per solar system, with an environment suitable for life.
fl = The fraction of suitable planets on which life actually appears.
fi = The fraction of life bearing planets on which intelligent life emerges.
fc = The fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space.
L = The length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

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