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God And Alien Life

Posted by spritzophrenia on October 13, 2010

A new, possibly Earth-like planet has recently been discovered. This seems to have slipped by the major news media. I can remember in the early 90s (?) when the first extra-solar planets were discovered. Now, we seem to have discovered tens if not hundreds. This is awesome!

Gliese 581 g, the planet discovered, is 20 light years from Earth with basic and essential conditions needed to support extraterrestrial life.

Earth-like exoplanets have been predicted for years by scientists in what is called the “habitable zone” around a star, but the identification and measurement of one has been called the beginning of a new era in the search for life beyond our galaxy.

Perhaps I should stress the words possibly Earth-like. Wikipedia notes Gliese 581 g has over 3 times our gravity, which I presume is still within the bounds of possibly allowing life. No giraffes, ‘though— I’m guessing any life there would be short and flat. Squashed elephants, anyone?

[Edit: See my update here.]

On Agnostic Forums this news was claimed by some to be a nail in the coffin for the “Fine Tuning argument” for the existence of God. I’ve been trying to get clear in my head exactly what a fine tuning argument claims. I think it’s something like this?

1. The existence of the universe is extremely unlikely
2. The best explanation for highly unlikely things is that a mind was responsible.
3. Therefore a mind was responsible for the universe.

The first premise is supported by most experts, for example Hawking and Mlodinow in their recent The Grand Design, where they spend almost a chapter on this question. It’s the second premise that I am mulling over. Is it always the case that we credit highly unlikely happenings to a mind? It seems intuitively right.

Eta Carinae Nebula

Eta Carinae Nebula

There is also an argument against fine tuning, which goes something like, “The universe is very unlikely, but we know it happened because we are here, therefore unlikely things do happen sometimes”. This latter kind of argument doesn’t satisfy me, it seems to be almost question-begging.

There were various comments on Agnostic Forums, a couple of which I’ll repeat here:

I would be very skeptical of any ‘scientific’ claims about ecosystems on extrasolar planets. So far we are nowhere near being able to determine an extrasolar planet’s ecosystem. Simply detecting those planets is a relatively new science. The only observational evidence we have that extrasolar planets even exist is the effect they have on the stars they orbit.


If we are not alone in the universe, man made religions need to find a way to reconcile that fact with their core doctrines.

What do you think? If we found alien life, would that be a problem for world religions?


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18 Responses to “God And Alien Life”

  1. weeeeeelllllllllll I gotta say, the whole “Fine Tuning” argument is a loaded to start with.

    Have a look at this article:
    “Was Our Universe Fine-Tuned for iPads?” You’ll get the idea.

    It’s much like saying that “The earth is perfect for human habitation” when in fact the opposite makes more sense, i.e. humans are perfectly adapted to life on earth. It’s a semantic difference, but it makes all the difference from a thought point.

    Douglas Adams puts this beautifully:
    “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.'”

    The same could be said for the universe. And if there’s humanity and life on earth, according to the Drake equation and what numbers you feed into it, there could be as many as 20,000 extra-terrestrial civilisations in our solar system alone.

    This is certainly a problem for religions, but I think some, Catholicism at least, have tried to reconcile this as all being part of God’s divine will. At the same time, it proves that there are variable which go WELL beyond the scope of religion’s knowledge, and if they are to remain relevant, the religions need to rethink their positions. Do you seriously think that an Alien race would look at Christianity and give it ANY credence at all? Or any other religion?

    • Iain said

      LOVE the iPad link. I had that very same discussion with one of my lecturers last year only I used the example of being fine tuned for iPods. Lol, that’s hilarious… obviously my version of the argument is behind the times 😉

      Unfortunately though, the Douglas Adams example (which I am very fond of) etc goes only to make short work of the “goldilocks argument” regarding instances of life found within the universe and does nothing to address the generally life-affirming and matter-allowing properties of the universe as a whole. The actual Fine-Tuning Argument is about the physical constants and why we should fine ourselves in a universe that allows any form of baryonic matter to form whatsoever let alone a particular formation that allows life.

      I don’t realistically think any of this will be a problem for religion because even if we found ET we know that religions are nothing if not adaptable: pronounce, dogmatically declare… retract in the face of undeniable facts… and pronounce again as though it were always this way.

  2. Iain said

    Hehe great tail-end video 🙂 brings back old memories.

    Several comments about Zarmina (Gliese 581 g is unofficially named “Zarmina’s World” by a co-discoverer).

    It has high gravity but also is quite a bit larger than earth, so it’s surface gravity is an entirely survivable 2-point-something g. However, considering life-forms such as those that live near deep-sea, Artic, hydrothermal vents, we can see that life can survive very happily in the very cold, the extremely hot, and at very high pressures (i.e. deep underwater where humans can’t survive). Life on Zarmina is extremely feasible if not actual.

    HOWEVER, we also know nothing about the atmosphere about Zarmina, meaning we can’t yet examine Zarmina for signs of life (methane etc). Zarmina doesn’t rotate on the same plane at earth relative to its star, meaning that we will not know anything more about it in a hurry. But, it is very close to earth (in astronomical terms) and it is probably in a “goldilocks zone” relative to its own star. Zarmina is an excellent example that life-friendly planets are probably not all that uncommon in our universe after all. Zarmina may not have life, but many more may. The existence and example of Zarmina is all that matters.

    Another point about the comment from the Agnostic Forums re: the fine-tuning argument. No and no. This does NOT undermine the fine-tuning argument whatsoever. There are two arguments (1) the fine tuning argument and (2) the goldilocks argument. The first is about the entire Universe and the second is about earth specifically.
    In a universe that is not very hostile to life after all, the idea that an observer finds herself on a planet that is suitable for her own form of life is entirely unimpressive. This is the best use of the anthropic principle: the observer MUST come into existence in a place that allows for existence to occur.
    However, neither Earth nor Zarmina fail to even scratch the Fine-Tuning Argument. That ANY form of matter exists at all, whether it be planets, stars, galaxies, or even simply atoms at all, is due to the fact that our universe allows ANY form of matter to occur at all. Tweak the physical properties of matter by even the slightest amount and we get no universe, a universe of fire, a universe consisting of a black hole, a universe where everything simply exploded apart and dissipated etc. Out of all of the possible ways to arrange the physical constants, only a very few provide ANY kind of viable universe whatsoever. That is what is amazing.

    The point is: if the big bang was truly spontaneous and random, why should any form of viable universe form.
    The reason why the theists like this is because in both cases (the theist and the atheist paradigm) we may be able to find ourselves in existence as we do, but only in the case of theism is this highly likely. In the case of atheists, they simply have to marvel at their luck. This is not a “proof” for god, per se, but it provides a rational basis of belief.

    [I don’t like the Fine-Tuning argument, and have reasons why, but at this stage I prefer to play the Devil’s, erm, God’s Advocate.]

  3. I posted an answer here and it’s not showing up?

  4. leesis said

    Of course all is ‘in my humble opinion’…but to the guts of the issue for me…

    These continual scientific discoveries affirm for me a conclusion I came to at about eighteen. It basically said that neither scientist nor theologian nor philosopher, even all put together has accessed more than a drop of the ocean that we call Life…god being one part thereof. As such none are right and yet there are truths in all of them. So I started hunting for those truths.

    “What do you think? If we found alien life, would that be a problem for world religions?”

    Bluntly for most yes and that will be to all a great loss.

    Proponents of most theologies…but particularly I am referring to the ones I know the best; Christianity, Islam and Judaism…must move now (before we meet aliens :))and accept that they need to drop the concepts of ‘right’, ‘one way’ ‘truth’.

    And you know it scares me that they won’t. Not just because they are still killing over these concepts but also because the religious theologians aren’t any worse than any other group of folk. It is one of the big things that hold individuals back as well. We just can’t stand up and say “shit…we got that wrong”.

    Imagine an acknowledgement from, for example the Roman Catholic Establishment (which is long over due such a statement)…imagine a pope saying

    “…these interpretations came about because of human nature…human politics…human power games. We f—-d it big time. But its 2010. We know better now. So we are going to strip away all that we know to be a result of human power games, we are going to open up to all knowledge areas, we are going to open any secret archives any where and…”

    I wish the people that are ‘religions’ could do this. Because I also absolutely know that these ‘I’m right you’re wrong’ games and political power games have retarded our spiritual (for lack of a better word) knowledge for at least two thousand years. But I just don’t know if any of these establishments have enough ‘emotionally mature’ folk to pull this off.

    ‘Cause after all people are still killing over theological opinions. The pope’s still saying me being gay is more dangerous than climate change. The Bishops in Uganda are still demanding conversion for food. The Catholics ban condoms inviting HIV.

    Aliens? They’d probably write another thesis on why Jesus wasn’t a pacifist and holy war is acceptable.

    I so hope we can do better than that though.

    • Wow, you’ve written a really significant and well-written reply here Leesa.

      “[Religions]need to drop the concepts of ‘right’, ‘one way’ ‘truth’.”

      I think I see your point here. I wonder how it would work? I wonder if it’s possible to hold onto being ‘right’ with a little more humility? That’s a hard one, to believe something without thinking it’s ‘right’.

      “It is one of the big things that hold individuals back as well. We just can’t stand up and say ‘shit…we got that wrong’.”

      I TOTALLY agree. Being able to admit you’re wrong easily and freely is one of the most crucial things in this whole area, and in philosophy too. It’s what I took from Socrates. I try to model that. It’s not easy sometimes.


  5. […] God And Alien Life […]

  6. 'Seph said

    I very much like the idea of a Biocentric Universe.
    …it also lends itself to a sort of Symbiotic God. A “God” that’s the summation of our (all) Life.

    …just meandering thoughts

    • Iain said

      Me too. There are lots of interesting analogies between the organisational behaviour of organisms at many different levels. It has occurred to me many times how much human cities spread across the earth like bacteria on a plum stone, how human traffic flow passes through arterial routes like blood cells in a vein, or how the earth itself is in some senses a metaphor for a single organism like humans are made from trillions of foreign bacterial cells.

      People who adhere to a functionalist theory of mind might agree that it is entirely possible that some larger system may arise to form a functioning “mind” on a scale greater than it is possible for humans to even imagine. Now, I don’t actually THINK that such a mind exists but I absolutely love the idea.

    • I have a feeling a particular theory in christian theology talks about God “evolving” over time. Can’t remember its name, can you? It’s not regarded as orthodox

  7. 'Seph said

    Sorta like the idea of a oosphere

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