Review of the meeting on extraterrestrials

I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback from those who attended the meeting on Saturday. For those who missed it, the video should be available in a few weeks. Here are some of my impressions and responses.

  • We heard good scientific arguments from Bijan Nemati and Jay Richards that from a purely naturalistic standpoint, the conditions needed for life are so difficult to satisfy that it is unlikely that life evolved elsewhere in our galaxy.  If there is other life nearby, it would have to be miraculously originated.
  • Ken Samples drew an important distinction  between reports of “aerial phenomena” and reports of “alien encounters/abduction”. The latter might actually be interaction with demonic spirits. In general, in the meeting there was consensus that we should take seriously the fact that the Bible says there are angels and demons, and Ken Samples showed that much of the literature of believers in aliens overlaps with the occult.
  • Regarding aerial phenomena, new life has been given to these stories in recent years by a number of recent reports of video cameras picking up flying objects that seem to violate the laws of physics, including disappearing. My first impression as someone who works with CCD cameras was that there are many ways to have false images on them; in the meeting on Saturday I wondered why other experts had not considered this. It turns out that some have; see this story: https://www.foxnews.com/science/astrophysicist-explains-why-reported-ufos-fail-to-impress-him. This story also notes the possibility of other countries releasing decoys/drones to cause our military to switch on radar, to detect our radar capabilities. There is a long history of nations making false radar images to confuse enemies.
    To really have a confirmed event, I would want to see several things together:  a) simultaneous data from more than one camera, or from a camera and radar, of the same object. One camera or one radar can fail and give false images (especially blurry blobs that disappear) but it is unlikely two would fail in the same way at the same time, looking at one object from different angles;  b) I would want to see that under the conditions of (a), the object actually exceeds human-designed capability (after all, by Occam’s razor the most likely source of a flying object is human construction). To my knowledge, we don’t have this yet.
  • Jonathan Barlow made the case for taking “exotheology” seriously as a field of theology, even if only for how to think about flora and fauna on other planets. In regard to intelligent life, he made the point that we know from Scripture that having rationality and moral responsibility is *not* sufficient to say that a type of life has the image of God, since we know angels and demons have both rationality and a moral nature. This led to interesting discussion about how this also may relate to possible artificial intelligence and hominids who might have existed before or concurrently with Adam and Eve.
  • Gavin Ortlund made a good point that people who invoke many-worlds are invoking something unknown and mysterious to explain things, and so are pretty much on the same playing field as Christians who believe in God. He, Ken Samples, and other speakers discussed how for many people, aliens give them “hope” and belief in something transcendent beyond our world.
  • Jay Richards made a good point that atheists like Carl Sagan seem to make a “heads I win, tails you lose argument”— if there is no alien life, this counts as evidence against Christianity because it makes us alone in an uncaring universe, but if there is alien life, it counts as evidence against Christianity, because their view of Christianity is that it is entirely anthropocentric. In essence, their argument is purely from volume— spatial small size implies metaphysical insignificance.
    Several speakers made the point that historically, Christian theologians going back to the early church viewed it as natural to assume that the heavenly spheres are filled with beings. These might include angels and demons but also other beings we don’t know about. Jonathan Barlow showed that it would have been a majority view, however, to not think there was another earth like ours. In general, historical Christianity is not nearly as anthropocentric as atheists would tend to say, and would be comfortable with the idea of vast reaches of space and time that glorify God, without people there.
  • Christology would say that Christ shares human blood and dies only once, not many times, which makes any theory of salvation and redemption for non-human aliens problematic. But this doesn’t rule out alien life as such.
Astrophysics, Cosmology, Darwinism, Human exceptionalism, Intelligent Design, Materialism, SETI

Aliens in the news everywhere!

Our topic of “Is there intelligent life in outer space?” for our upcoming webinar (see this link) seems to be very timely, as alien life is popping up all over the news in the past few months.

Astrophysics, News, SETI

Schedule and details for the May 29 meeting on “Is there intelligent life in outer space? What are the stakes?”

“Is there intelligent life in outer space? What are the stakes?”

May 29, 2021. Webinar only. To register, go to this page.

All times Eastern Time

10:00 AM   Bijan Nemati

“Waiting for ETI: A Christian Scientific Perspective on Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence”

In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus published his heliocentric theory in the classic work “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.” His idea challenged the long-standing geocentric cosmology that had reigned since the days of Aristotle. The modern-day “Copernican Principle,” meant to generalize that famous paradigm shift, holds that neither humanity nor the Earth which it inhabits can be “special.” Rather, these must be mere examples of what is repeated innumerable times in the Universe. An extension of this principle, to include the history of life on Earth, led most 20th century scientists to believe that extra-terrestrial life must be ubiquitous. It was against this expectation that by 1950, in a lunchtime conversation with colleagues, physicist Enrico Fermi famously quipped “Where is everybody?” The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, or SETI, project has spent the last half-century looking for a telltale signal, and has come up short. In this talk, we examine from a Christian perspective the likelihood for extra-terrestrial life, taking into account what we have learned about extra-solar planets over the last two decades.

Bio: Bijan Nemati left Iran, his country of birth, in the weeks before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. He finished high school in the U.S. and studied physics in college. He received his Ph.D. in high energy physics from the University of Washington, and it was also there that he became a Christian. During his post-doctoral work at Cornell’s particle accelerator facility, he became interested in scientific apologetics, and has appeared in various documentaries on intelligent design, including the Privileged Planet and Science Uprising. For the last 20 years, he has been working on advanced space telescopes for astrophysics and exoplanet detection, mostly at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and most recently as a Principal Research Scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

10:50 AM   Kenneth Samples

“A Christian Perspective on the Space Aliens of the UFO Phenomenon”

This talk will briefly examine the UFO phenomenon identifying the three broad explanatory theories concerning “ufology.” The talk will also exam the general view of space aliens as set forth in common UFO experience and religion.

Bio: Kenneth Richard Samples is a senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe, an organization dedicated to demonstrating the compatibility of science and Christianity. Kenneth earned a BA in social science with an emphasis in history and philosophy from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. He worked for several years as senior research consultant and correspondence editor at the Christian Research Institute and regularly cohosted popular call-in radio program The Bible Answer Man. Today, Kenneth is author of several books, including Classic Christian Thinkers, Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, and his latest book, Christianity Cross Examined.

11:40 AM   Jay Richards

“The Privileged Planet and the Rarity of Habitable Planets”

A common way of organizing our speculations about extraterrestrial life is with the Drake Equation. The problem, as someone once quipped, that it is, in effect, a way of compressing a great deal of ignorance in a small amount of space. That is, there’s little certainty about the various factors. Still, we do know enough already, from both our knowledge of chemistry and astrobiology, to suspect that habitable planets are likely to be extremely rare, relative to uninhabitable ones. Moreover, we should suspect that any habitable planets will be highly earthlike. This alone is an interesting conclusion, but there’s more to it. It appears that habitable, earthlike planets, are also the best platforms, overall, for a diverse array of scientific discoveries. This suggests that the universe is not only fine tuned for life, but for scientific discovery as well.

Bio: Jay Richards, Ph.D., O.P., is a Research Assistant Professor in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and the Executive Editor of The Stream. He is author of more than a dozen books including the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated (2013) and Indivisible (2012), as well as Money, Greed, and God (winner of a 2010 Templeton Enterprise Award). He is also co-author of The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (2004) with astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez. He is also creator and executive producer of several documentaries, including three that have appeared widely on PBS. Richards’ articles and essays have been published in The Harvard Business Review, Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Washington Post, Forbes, Fox News, National Review Online, The Hill, Investor’s Business Daily, Washington Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Huffington Post, The Federalist, The American Spectator, The Daily Caller, and many other publications. He has written and lectured on a wide range of topics, including culture, economics, public policy, natural science, technology, and the environment.

12:30 PM   Jonathan Barlow

“Towards a Protestant Christian Exotheology”

Thinking theologically about the possibility of plant, animal, or even sentient life native to non-earth locations impacts every Christian systematic theological category. From controversial ontological questions (e.g., what kinds of created beings exist?), to tamer questions about the centrality of human life in the larger created cosmos and the ethics of space travel, the nascent field known as exotheology provides a fascinating perspective from which to consider traditional theological commonplaces. Protestant systematic theology, especially of a variety that emphasizes the authority, sufficiency, and perspicuity of scripture, constrains speculation and establishes certain guardrails within which answers may be given to these questions. In this presentation, Barlow will discuss the history of Christian exotheology and attempt to sketch the meta-theological contours of a systematic exotheology that is both Christian and Protestant.

Bio: Jonathan Barlow holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Saint Louis University and a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary. He serves as an Associate Director at a research center at Mississippi State University that applies data science to education, workforce, human services, and economic development projects. Barlow serves as a ruling elder at Grace Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the Presbyterian Church in America. He grew up in south Mississippi where he enjoyed countless conversations about space exploration with his father, a career NASA employee.

1:20 PM   Panel Discussion

Beside the above speakers, we will include the following additional panelists:

David Snoke (PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) is a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh.

Gavin Ortlund (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Ojai in Ojai, California. He is the author of several books, including Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation and Why God Makes Sense in a World That Doesn’t.

Astrophysics, Biblical Interpretation, Human exceptionalism, SETI

News items January/February 2021

Call for speaker nominations. On this last item, the proposed theme for an upcoming CSS meeting is “Is there intelligent life in outer space, and what are the theological stakes?” If you know someone well qualified to talk on this topic either scientifically, philosophically, or theologically, send an email to info@christianscientific.org.

Uncategorized

Review of the October meeting (Videos now available online!)

Review of the meeting on “Is the Natural World Good or Bad?” October 24, 2020

David Snoke, University of Pittsburgh

The recordings are now available online of all the talks. To access the videos for free, if you are a CSS member, go to this link. You must be signed in with your account on the CSS website to go to this page. If you are not a CSS member, you can go directly to the video hosting site.

By all accounts that I have heard, this was one of the most fascinating CSS meetings in recent memory. For myself, having heard many of the arguments over the years on this type of issue, this meeting had many insights and scientific results that were new to me. If you didn’t catch it live, this one really is a must-see.

Jon Garvey’s talk was challenging to many participants, as many of us have been raised as Christians on the idea that the natural world is entirely “fallen”. Jon argued provocatively that Scripture doesn’t say that nature is “fallen” at all, although our relationship to it as people is. He made a convincing case that this teaching is relatively novel in Christian history, only predominant in the past 500 years or so, and we had some discussion about why this view arose. Renaissance? Reformation?

Stuart Burgess had fascinating details about his role as a senior design engineer for satellites for the European Space Agency. He pointed out that many biologists who write popular books are quick to dismiss certain elements of biological systems as bad design, who apparently have never actually designed anything or talked to real engineers. Some of the biological elements called bad design are actually ones that systems engineers value quite a bit and use in their work frequently. In fact, the trend is mostly that engineers seek to learn good design from biology. Stuart also raised the issue of living creatures that seem “well designed to kill.”

Fuz Rana gave us a very good understanding of a system often maligned as inefficient, namely the Rubisco enzyme used in distinguishing oxygen from carbon dioxide. In fact, these two simple molecules are nearly indistinguishable chemically, and Rubisco is doing its job at an optimal tradeoff of speed and accuracy. I’m pretty sure there is no synthetic way to do it better, that does not involve going to cryogenic temperatures, something obviously not an option for living systems.

Scott Minnich, by all accounts, stole the show with his talk on the black plague, presenting new, as-yet-unpublished results from his labs that show that the high mortality of the black plague can be traced back to a single mutation about 5000 years ago that caused the bacteria to lose their flagella. The human immune system is well-tuned to detect and destroy bacteria with flagella, but this mutation allows the black plague bacteria to slip under the radar and not be detected by the immune system. This finding is consistent with a view that originally, humans and parasites lived together in an ecological balance, but after the fall of humanity, some things were broken that led to imbalance and catastrophe. Scott’s work provides a strong argument for much human suffering as the result of devolution, not evolution, and also may help cure the black plague (e.g., prevent its use as a bioweapon). Not bad, Scott!

In my talk I focused on two topics. In the first, I argued that the classic “problem of evil” (how can an all-powerful and all-good God allow suffering) does not present a logical problem for the Christian, although there is much that we must accept humbly that God does not tell us. In the second part, I summarized some of the arguments in my book, that God not only created parasites and carnivores as part of his good world, but that in the rest of Scripture, he vaunts them as good, “bragging” about them, so to speak.

The panel discussion was far ranging, but one topic that comes to my mind is how our cringing at parasites may be in part due to a Gnostic/Platonist mindset that doesn’t accept that we live in an “earthy” creation with earthy bodies that are to some degree symbiotic with other organisms and not entirely under our own control.

Biblical Interpretation, Creation, Darwinism, Dysteleology, Events, Problem of evil