Sunday, January 31, 2010

On Space Travel

In the last post, we saw that from a scientific perspective, the odds are astronomic against there being even one life-support planet in this universe without supernatural design.* In this post, I will nonetheless pretend that intelligent life might exist out there, and discuss the difficulties in our ever encountering it.

For ET-believers like Carl Sagan, the sheer number of stars suggests that there are many civilizations out there, some of them more intelligent than we, and some of them much older and farther along (technologically) than we. It is these assumptions that for such believers justify scouring space for their communications (as in the SETI Project).

But realistically there are fatal problems to any hypothetical advanced civilization in physically contacting us. And these problems have nothing to do with level of technology (as is generally assumed), and everything to do with the physical laws of the universe.

As is discussed in much more depth in the book Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, there are physical limits to space travel speeds that make crossing the distances between stars in our universe physically impossible (or, at least, an endeavor necessarily spanning the lifetimes of many generations of the ETs in question). I know this is hard to hear for those of us raised on Star Trek and Star Wars, but I was asked here for scientific thoughts, not fictional stories.

Moreover, as astronomers continue to look for potential life-support planets outside our solar system, they are systematically eliminating all systems within any remotely reasonable distance from Earth.

So, the latest scientific discoveries have demonstrated the extreme unlikelihood of life anywhere else in the universe. In addition, the physics of the universe are such that travel across space is prohibitive for even a hypothetical advanced being. All of this, then, begs the question
What of all the sightings--of UFOs and ETs--and reports of actual encounters with and abductions by aliens?
I'll focus on that question in the next post.

*If God made other life-support planets and then created life on them, He has chosen not to reveal that to us. Part of C.S. Lewis' motivation in writing his Space Trilogy was to show that extra-terrestrial life would not be inconsistent with Christianity.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


I had a question texted in while I was handling Q&A at Redux last Sunday. It read,
What are your thoughts on Aliens, scientifically and scripturally?
I'm going to assume that the questioner had in mind extra-terrestrials, as opposed to immigrants with or without legal standing. (I have thoughts about that, too, but will save those for another time.)

I guess this question encompasses several others. Is there intelligent life on other planets? If so, can it contact us? If so, has it? If not, what do we make of the reported UFO sightings and even those of actual encounters, including claims of having been inside of alien spaceships?

Let me begin my answer with a physics/astronomy tutorial. Some of the most fascinating (and relevant) research of the past several decades can be summed up in the idea known as the 'anthropic principle.' It was not all that long ago that astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan told millions of TV viewers as often as he could that there were probably billions of planets out there capable of supporting advanced life. And to generations of Americans who grew up with Star Trek, and then Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, Star Trek the Next Generation, and such, this idea of a universe teeming with life seemed to resonate.

But a whole lot of better science has since told us that it's just not so. (This research was going on in Sagan's day, but by that period of his life, his metaphysical and scientific views had formed; his beliefs took on a religious fervor, and he was no longer open to new research developments. Sagan is not alone among scientists who become close-minded later in life.)

For the past 3 decades and more, astronomers and physicists have discovered that the universe itself, our galaxy, and our solar system are incredibly fine-tuned to make human life on Earth possible. That is, the characteristics and measurements of the physical constants of our universe, the nature and age of our galaxy, the position within our galaxy of our sun, and everything about our solar system fall within extremely narrow ranges (among the large theoretical ranges) that allow for life on just a single planet, this one. The list of such fine-tuned characteristics is now nearly 200, but still the best place I know for a partial list is the book by astronomer Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos.

Combining all of these characteristics and their improbabilities yields a single likelihood--a one-in-a-[large number] chance of finding life anywhere in the universe. (I could insert that large number, but it grows weekly as new design characteristics are identified. Suffice it to say that...) The odds against there being even a single life support planet in the whole universe are astronomical, and this takes into account the fact that so impressed Sagan, that there are billions and billions of stars and galaxies out there. Even so, it is beyond the realm of statistical likelihood that even one planet contains life.*

So the first answer is that it is extremely unlikely that any other life support planets exist, that indeed the ability of even our planet to support life requires a supernatural explanation. In the next post I'll pretend nonetheless that such life does exist, and explain why it is extremely improbable that such life would ever find us.

* This doesn't even address the problem of the origin of life, The anthropic principle has as its referrent the ability of the universe to support life, with the origin of life being an additional and independent problem.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


A couple of months ago at my church, Antioch, we started a second service, which we call Redux. There is no sermon in Redux, but the meat of the service is a question-and-answer period. The point is to restore the conversation, to make it okay to ask questions and raise doubts and even criticisms. We do this confident in the knowledge that the Christian world- and life-view really do represent the uniquely accurate understanding of the world in which we live.

At any rate, I was given the opportunity last Sunday of fielding the questions, which spanned a range of subjects that included biblical inerrancy, the age of the earth and universe, the Sabbath, and anti-intellectualism in the church. You can go here to watch a vimeo of my answer to the latter question.

At Redux, we take questions directly from the audience, but we also allow folks to use text messaging to ask questions or offer challenges. At the end of the service, there were several text questions that I hadn't had time to address, so in the next post or two, I'll offer responses to one or more of those, including one about the existence of extra-terrestrials.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Apologetics Conference

We're hosting the second annual Apologetics Conference here in Bend, Oregon, February 19th and 20th. The theme is the reliability of the New Testament, and guest lecturers Craig Blomberg, Daniel Wallace, and Craig Hazen are coming in for this outstanding event. I'll be delivering a couple of talks during breakout sessions, one on the credibility of biblical miracles in the age of modern science and the other a New Testament textual criticism primer.

If there's any way you can make it to Bend for this Friday evening and all-day Saturday event, it will be well worth your while. Go here to register.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Transitional Forms

Not infrequently I come across the question, “What about the evidence for transitional forms? Hasn’t science proved that transitional forms exist, thereby validating Darwinian evolution?”

I understand why people might believe this to be the case. The claim that science has found transitional intermediates in the fossil record is taught in schools and universities throughout the land, and is made frequently and loudly by scientists and by the media, seemingly with the authority of evidence behind them.

But this claim has no basis in evidence, but instead is made solely because it is a fundamental and necessary prediction of Darwinian evolution.

To understand the issue, let’s take a big-picture, historical look at it. The real conflict is between two explanations for the diversity of life on Earth. The Darwinian view (or its modern synthesis, generally known as neo-Darwinism) is one. The other—the one held by all the biologists, anatomists, physiologists, and paleontologists of Darwin’s day, and the one Darwin intended to replace—I’ll call typology. Typology sought to explain—and did a very good job of explaining—the two most important characteristics of living things, which are their similarities and their differences. Biologists long knew that all life shared certain similarities, and that different groups of living things shared even more similarities with one another than with species outside their group. The typological explanation for the similarities among living things was (and is) that all things were created—and designed to fulfill their role—by the same Creator.*

But groups of living things exhibit stark differences as well. Indeed, the life forms (extant and extinct) identified by Darwin’s time fell rather neatly into groupings—“types”—that were separated, in many cases by rather large gaps. Thus, mammals all share characteristics that set them apart from birds or reptiles, and bats all share characteristics that set them apart from rodents. Typology said (and says) that gaps exist because the hypothetical things in-between (the half-reptile, half bird or the half-rodent, half bat) are nonsensical and non-functional.

Darwin, on the other hand, postulated that those gaps have been populated throughout life’s history by other living things—transitional intermediates. And on his view, there would have to have been not just one or two such forms bridging the apparent gaps, but that
the number of intermediate and transitional links, between all living and extinct species, must have been inconceivably great.
He knew that no such transitional forms were known at that time, but then paleontology was a relatively young discipline in Darwin’s day. He wrote that the fossil record was
the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory [and the reason] all the most eminent paleontologists… and all our greatest geologists… have unanimously, often vehemently, maintained the immutability of species.
So a prediction central to the verification of his theory was that further fossil digging would uncover a great many of these “inconceivably great” number of transitional forms.

For the ensuing 150 years, the history of paleontology has been primarily a search to find these forms predicted by Darwin, the evidence that would validate his theory. What has been the result? Scientists have uncovered hundreds of millions of new fossil forms. Unfortunately (for Darwin’s theory), they have invariably fallen into one of two categories—they have either fit into a type already known to science, or they have represented yet a new type, one not transitional to known types, but rather requiring yet another exceedingly vast number of transitional forms to link that type to other known ones.

Contrary to the educational and media misrepresentation, here’s the true situation as described by arguably the preeminent paleontologist of our generation. Harvard’s late Stephen Jay Gould called
the extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record… the trade secret of paleontology.
His colleague, Niles Eldredge, concurred:
We paleontologists have said that the history of life supports [the story of gradual adaptive change], all the while really knowing that it does not.
Stephen Stanley, commenting on research from Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin—where a continuous record of deposits covering millions of years led paleontologists to expect evidence for transitional forms—wrote that
the fossil record does not convincingly document a single transition from one species to another.
So the central evidentially-based prediction made by Darwin has roundly failed. That it continues to be claimed today that science has documented transitional forms has nothing to do with evidence and everything to do with the centrality of these forms to the theory. It’s really nothing more than a group wish-fulfillment exercise on the part of those who want Darwinism to be true.

* I’ll discuss in one of the next posts why typology still does a better job than neo-Darwinism of explaining the similarities among living things.