Posted by jlwile on November 28, 2011
Dr. Seth Shostak has a B.S. in physics from Princeton and a PhD in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology. Obviously, then, he knows a thing or two about astronomy. His original research started out using radio telescopes to measure the motion of distant galaxies, but for quite some time now, he has been involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). He is currently the senior astronomer at the SETI institute.
In a recent report, CNN interviewed him to lead off a discussion about the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Here’s what he said:
…one thing that strikes you is that every time we learn something new about the universe, what we learn is that our situation doesn’t seem to be all that special, and that suggests that life is not all that special, either.
When I heard that statement, the first thing I wondered was, “How can such a well-educated astronomer say something that absurd?” Really? Our situation isn’t all that special? We live on a special planet that orbits a special star (at just the right distance) that resides in a special part of the galaxy. Yet our situation isn’t all that special?
And then there’s the last part of the statement. Life isn’t all that special? Really? Even with all our technology, we can’t come close to making it. Indeed, single-celled organisms can stitch DNA together better than we can. Despite a lot of looking, we haven’t found life anywhere else in the universe. Nevertheless, according to Dr. Shostak, it isn’t all that special.
I was hoping that the rest of the video would explain how in the world anyone could consider such a statement to be even remotely reasonable. However, it never did.
The best the report could do is highlight some results from the Kepler project, a NASA mission that is trying to find planets that are roughly the same size as earth. According to one of the scientists that works on the project, Kepler’s results indicate that earth-sized planets are abundant in our galaxy. Another scientist says that the results indicate that there should be many billions of earth-sized planets in our galaxy alone.
Now that sounds really good, but the problem is that when you consider all the factors necessary for life to exist, you find out that many billions of planets don’t even come close to ensuring that all those factors will come together. Indeed, Dr. Hugh Ross, an astronomer himself, calculates the probability that all the (known) processes necessary for life could be found together in any planet. He finds the odds to be 1 in 1099. Given the approximation that there are “only” 1022 planets in the universe, it is clear that the chance of finding another planet that is habitable for life is pretty much zero, at least assuming all of these amazing processes came together as a result of random chance.
This is where I find the whole extraterrestrial life question fascinating. Most naturalists assume that life must be very common in the universe. On the other hand, most creationists I read don’t think there is life on any other planet in the universe. It would seem to me that each camp should think just the opposite. After all, life is so wildly improbable to begin with that if you think it is all the result of random chance, you should be astonished that it happened anywhere in the universe. Given that we know it happened once here on earth, the thought of it happening twice is simply ridiculous. On the other hand, if life was created by God, then He could certainly create life a second time, a third time, a fourth time, etc., etc.
Thus, I would think that a naturalist should be incredibly skeptical that life could exist anywhere else in the universe. A creationist, on the other hand, should be very open to the idea that life exists elsewhere in the universe. I most certainly am. Of course, since I try to follow the data, I must quickly add that since there are no data to support the existence of extraterrestrial life, I don’t have any reason to believe that it exists. I just don’t have any reason to believe that it doesn’t exist.
Regardless of whether or not life exists on other planets, however, the data tell me quite clearly that life is incredibly special. To say otherwise requires that you ignore most of what we know about this planet and the life that inhabits it!