A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Are We Alone in the Universe? The Unique Character of Our Existence

Since I was a boy, I have been a Star Trek fan. I would sit in front of the TV watching Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise explore a galaxy teeming with alien life of all shapes and sizes and colors. Seeking out new life and new civilizations was the exciting challenge in the Star Trek universe, and civilizations built by intelligent humanoids were practically everywhere. Could such a vision of the cosmos be true? Is there intelligent life out there?

Polls indicate that anywhere from 60-80% of Americans believe there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe. On a basic level, this makes much sense. Our galaxy is vast and there are an estimated 100 billion galaxies out there in the heavens. One doesn't have to be a Ph.D in mathematics to draw the obvious conclusion that intelligent life has evolved elsewhere. Unlike the Star Trek universe, life may not be teeming throughout the cosmos, but surely we earthlings are not alone as the only civilization.

Well, enter someone who dares to challenge the conventional wisdom and who mounts quite an argument for the very real possibility that we are indeed the only intelligent life that exists anywhere. Astrophysicist, John Gribbin in his book, Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique, writes, that while the galaxy might be a giant warehouse containing all the spare parts needed for life,

...it seems likely that earth-like planets are rare. But even if other earths were common, my view is that while life itself may be common, the kind of intelligent, technological civilization that has emerged on Earth may be unique, at least in our Milky Way Galaxy.... The Milky Way contains a few hundred billion stars, but almost certainly contains only one intelligent civilization. In that sense, our civilization is alone and special (pp. xiv-xv).
So what evidence leads Gribbin to what seems to so many to be a counter-intuitive conclusion? Quite simply, it's the unique events throughout the evolutionary process in our part of the galaxy and on earth as well and how those events uniquely came together to create the conditions necessary for intelligent life to evolve. In chapter after chapter Gribbon makes a compelling case (to this novice anyway) that our existence is not ordinary, but rather quite amazingly extraordinary. Not only did the formation of our solar system happen at just the right time, the earth was also fortunate enough to be in a stable solar system at that with planets in basically stable orbits. Indeed, those stable orbits would not have been possible without the influence of the gas giant Jupiter over millions of years. Without Jupiter there would be no life on earth. Also, our sun is just the right size and age for life to develop and without the moon and all that it has contributed, our existence would never have been possible.

Moreover, there were the necessary events that needed to take place to make the earth rich in minerals and fossil fuels that was singularly necessary for technological civilizations to develop. Such minerals may be present throughout the universe, but lots of different things need to come together to make a world rich in such many and various metals. And without life in plant and animal form, there are no fossil fuels. That too is extraordinary. And while we shudder to think that earth may collide with a large asteroid in the future, it was such collisions in the past that paved the way for intelligent life to evolve. An asteroid may have killed off the dinosaurs, but it gave mammals the upper hand in the evolutionary process. And if all of this isn't incredible enough, the evolution of life on earth could have taken a very different turn producing no intelligent beings had it not been for other unique events coming together in quite timely fashion. In other words, Gribbin is arguing that winning the lottery is a sure bet compared to what needs to happen to produce an intelligent civilization on any planet. I simply have given a brief and selective summary of the unique billions of years scenario Gribbin takes us through in his book. As the evidence mounts throughout the book, Gribbin's argument becomes more and more convincing.

Gribbin does not deal with the God question in his book and he gives no clue as to his metaphysical convictions if any, but he does write the following in the Preface,
Whether or not you see the hand of God in any of this, it would mean that we are the most technologically advanced civilization in the Universe, and the only witnesses with an understanding of the origin and nature of the Universe itself (p. xv).
As I read Alone in the Universe I thought several times of Psalm 8 which recognizes human smallness in vastness of the cosmos, while at the same time occupying a unique place in the sight of God.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

While intelligent life elsewhere in the universe cannot be ruled out, Gribbin doesn't think we should be too optimistic. And if there are intelligent and technologically advanced civilizations out there somewhere in the heavens, and if we could board a starship and visit them, we would likely find out that our cosmos is quite unlike the Star Trek universe where life is literally everywhere in the Milky Way.

For some the idea of being alone in the universe may be rather depressing, but at least a future Captain Kirk will not have to worry too often about violating the Prime Directive.


Donald Sensing said...

There is an increasing number of scientists taking this position, quite apart from any religious reference.

I posted a lot about it, along with an online slideshow, in, "Hello, Universe. Anyone home?"

A tidbit:

Since life began on earth, biologists estimate there have been 50 billion species. But only one species (us) has developed high intelligence. High intelligence offers no apparent survival advantage for species, says Harvard biologist Ernst Mayr. Hence it is so rare that it may be a “one off.”

Which is to say, we may be it.

Donald Sensing said...

Another point occurs to me. Let us suppose for argument's sake that the observable universe contains 200 billion species of at least equal intelligence to human beings.

Sounds like a lot?

It's only an average of one per galaxy.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for the helpful comments.

Dan said...

A few years ago Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards wrote The Privileged Planet. Previously Gonzalez had written an article about the earth residing in the "galactic habitable zone." He explains how a number of things that needed to line up for life to exist on earth.

Richards works with the philosophical aspects associated with the work.

They make the argument for intelligent design more from inference than from direct argumentation (if I remember correctly).


Dr. Tony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr. Tony said...

I have a couple of his other books and feel that he does a good job explaining things. So it would be logical to think that he is making a good point in this book as well.

When I checked to see which of his books I have (one dealing with quantum physics and cats, the other dealing with DNA) I discovered that he wrote a book on the effect of Jupiter and the demise of this planet. A view which, thankfully, he has since rejected.

Are we alone in the universe? Are we unique? I think the two questions are mutually exclusive. We are unique, otherwise discussions such as this one may not be taking place. Are we alone?

That's an entirely different subject matter. We have been postulating, hypothesizing, theorizing, and just plain guess since Frank Drake put forth his equation in 1961.

I am reminded of a question Carl Sagan posed to his students, "How shall we determine if there is intelligent life on Mars?" One student replied, "Ask them; a negative answer is just as valid."

It may be that those other life forms "out there" know what is here on earth and just don't want to bother us right now. :)

Allan R. Bevere said...

Thanks, Tony...

Ultimately we can't say for certainty whether intelligent life exists elsewhere, but what the book reinforced for me was that with what has to happen to develop intelligent life, the idea that such intelligence is teeming throughout the galaxy is unlikely. Having said that, a one off thing such has happened on earth may have indeed happened somewhere else as well.