Sunday, September 3, 2017

Earth 2.0: Bad News for God?

This post is a reprint of something I wrote in response to a piece that first appeared on a Huffington Post blog on July 23, 2015. It was written by Jeff Schweitzer, who is a scientist and former White House policy analyst. Mr. Schweitzer has published several popular-type works, including Beyond Cosmic Dice, a book about purpose and meaning in life without God. I think this topic is worth considering, since a somewhat frequent claim leveled as problematic for theism is the existence of aliens or other extraterrestrial life. 

The post begins with news of exoplanet Kepler-452b, announced (then) as a new discovery by NASA. Kepler 452b is an “earth-like” planet, which orbits the Kepler-452 star about 1400 light years away from our solar system. Although in this blog post he uses the word “religion”, it is clear Schweitzer is leveling his guns squarely at the Christian faith.  His argument seems clear: Christian theism is false because it must continually change to accommodate scientific discovery and because the Bible provides erroneous creation narratives and omissions.

This piece doesn’t seem to be written in the spirit of joy over an exciting new cosmological discovery. It doesn’t seem to be written to illuminate those who may be ignorant of such amazing occurrences and their practical importance. Rather, the impression one gets is that Mr. Schweitzer has an axe to grind. He wants to use the news of the discovery of Kepler-452b as a springboard to attack Christian theism. Though, I suppose, he did give us some fair warning in the post title.

A recurring idea throughout this piece, along with other writings by Mr. Schweitzer, is a wooden Biblical understanding. Hermeneutics seem relatively unimportant. We also find him attacking various straw men as he moves along in this piece,  either unaware he is doing so or ambivalent. 

Although it is a short post and Mr. Schweitzer has written more substantive material elsewhere, I thought it worth evaluating due to the subject matter and the aspect of the scientific discovery. I will evaluate most of the article chronologically, though some jumping was warranted. 

“With this discovery, we come ever closer to the idea that life is common in the universe. Perhaps you are not convinced. That is OK; let me speculate what would happen should we ever find evidence of life beyond earth even if you think such discovery unlikely. I would like here to preempt what will certainly be a re-write of history on the part of the world's major religions. I predict with great confidence that all will come out and say such a discovery is completely consistent with religious teachings. My goal here is to declare this as nonsense before it happens…”

Apparently, Schweitzer wants to be on record now so he can say some kind of “I told you so!” when intelligent life is discovered on other planets at some point in the future and Christianity “contorts itself” to accepting this truth.

Schweitzer continues: “Let us be clear that the Bible is unambiguous about creation: the earth is the center of the universe, only humans were made in the image of god, and all life was created in six days. All life in all the heavens. In six days. So when we discover that life exists or existed elsewhere in our solar system or on a planet orbiting another star in the Milky Way, or in a planetary system in another galaxy, we will see a huge effort to square that circle with amazing twists of logic and contorted justifications...”

Here Schweitzer does not make a distinction between “life” and “intelligent life.” But, on naturalism, the distinction may not be important. For he might hold that intelligent life could develop from non-intelligent life by means of natural selection acting on random mutations (or some other theory). I am unsure of which evolutionary models predict complex biological life forms to develop in such scenarios. On the majority of the literature, it seems evolutionary biologists deem the likelihood of the development of human life itself so remote that it is unlikely to occur anywhere else in the observable universe. Further, I believe that Schweitzer’s argument here rests in large part on the discovery of complex biological systems in other parts of the cosmos. His postulation of the future position the Christian faith doesn’t seem to present any kind of dilemma if, say, only bacteria or fungus was discovered on another planet at some point in the future which never evolved into anything else.

Schweitzer dives into the deep end of the Biblical hermeneutic pool. He takes a strong position in favor of the literal 24 hour/solar creation day view to support his thesis and dismisses out of hand any other understanding of the Genesis text. While it is not clear how deep his real understanding of Genesis is, it is safe to say the conclusions on which his main arguments rest in this piece are not necessarily consensus among Christian scholars and theologians. 

Schweitzer goes on to quote Genesis 1:26 -27 (though the article says Genesis 1:1) writing: “Nothing in that [passage(s)] mentions alien worlds, which of course the ancients knew nothing about. Man was told to rule over the fish on the earth, not on other planets. But god would have known of these alien worlds, so it is curious he did not instruct the authors to include the language.”

The arguments Schweitzer begins here, and continues sporadically, are simply non-sequiturs. Just because God did not specially reveal creation (if it indeed does exist) on other planets does not imply such a creation would be excluded from the possibility of existence. This type of reading of Scripture is common among Bible critics and is often used in criticizing the Gospel resurrection accounts. The idea behind this line of thinking seems to be that if Bible doesn’t specifically mention something, say dinosaurs or rocket ships, then Bible does not allow for their existence, or, if the Bible doesn’t explain something the way we would explain it, it must be false. Schweitzer’s conclusions likewise follow from this rationale.

Moving forward, he writes: "Let there be light" there already had been light shining bright for at least 10 billion years. He was flipping a switch that had been turned on eons before by the thermonuclear reactions in billions of stars that predate earth. That light bathed other suns and other planets long before the earth was a loose accumulation of rocks orbiting our sun. Since this is the story of all creation, these tidbits seem an important omission that will undermine the entire story when we find life elsewhere. We were late to the game of "let there be light." But this is simply another allusion to 
to a Genesis interpretation which seems incompatible with modern cosmology. I have already addressed the cursory nature of this objection. 

The big guns are then brought out: “We can also have no doubt that the earth is the center of the universe, because this is where god placed man. In the trial of Galileo, Pope Urban VIII made perfectly clear the church's understanding of god's word that the earth is unambiguously the center of the universe… Yet it would be difficult to claim the unique position of universe center if other planets held life that was zipping around in anti-gravity cars traveling at the speed of light. Clearly, if the ancients knew there was alien life, any form of life at all, the idea that the earth was the center of the universe would be more difficult to sustain. Again, though, there is no mention of alien worlds or life beyond this little blue dot.”

The Catholic Church’s medieval position on geocentricity is a well-played out argument that goes nowhere. Simply because the Catholic church was wrong in its understanding of Scripture does not mean Scripture was wrong. Further, history tells us the Catholic church – while certainly quite wrong in their reading of Scripture if indeed geocentricity was the prevailing interpretation – was concerned with other issues not related to science in the case of Galileo.

Schweitzer goes on: “None of the 66 books of the bible make any reference to life other than that created by god here on earth in that six-day period. If we discover life elsewhere, one must admit that is an oversight. So much so in fact that such a discovery must to all but the most closed minds call into question the entire story of creation, and anything that follows from that story. How could a convincing story of life's creation leave out life? Even if the story is meant to be allegorical, the omission of life elsewhere makes no sense.”

Again, Schweitzer pounds on the omission of life on other planets in the Bible as evidence of its being nonsense. Leaving this aside for now, how does the omission of life elsewhere make no sense even if the Genesis creation account is allegorical? If the creation account is allegorical, then why would the omission of life elsewhere be problematic? This just does not follow.

Next Schweitzer throws the haymaker: “Be clear I am talking here only of how just the simple existence of life elsewhere undermines religion.”

Actually, life elsewhere seems undermine Mr. Schweitzer’s worldview. On evolutionary naturalism, the odds against the existence of complex extraterrestrial life anywhere in the observable universe are incalculably improbable. Yet Mr. Schweitzer postulates the possibility of millions –even billions of earth-like planets that are – or could be – teeming with life. On naturalism, the probability of extraterrestrial life is so infinitesimal it is almost zero.  The origin of life on earth – just the origins excluding development and evolution - is so highly improbable that most naturalists admit its slight chances. Given the fine tuning of the necessary conditions for life to even be able to exist as well as the odds against development of complex information processing life forms, the burden of proof falls squarely on the naturalist to show how their view is tenable in light of extraterrestrial life.

While I am sure Mr. Schweitzer was limited in his space and time, this article was not a good allocation of either.  What this piece lacks is any hint of scientific disproof of the existence of God (which the title alluded to) or any type of critique of the scientific proofs (however minor given the space) for God. At most he calls into question the inerrancy of the Biblical creation account.

Christianity simply doesn’t speak to whether life was created elsewhere. It is not an issue of the Christian faith. It is not a central or fringe issue in the Bible.  If ET landed at the White house tomorrow morning it would not change one Christian truth. In spite of Mr. Schweitzer’s understanding, Scripture is clearly God’s revelation to man on earth. The Bible is not a science textbook, nor was it intended to be. 

Therefore, the article in question fails to live up to its title. Kepler 452-b is not bad news for God in any way. And Schweitzer has done nothing to demonstrate that it is. But since he has already picked up his toys and gone home by preemptively dismissing out of hand any theistic response to his writing, it doesn’t seem like any dialogue is really welcome. Any theistic reply will simply be written off as contortionist and revisionist. 

Christians should continue to welcome scientific discoveries such as Kepler-452b. We should marvel at them in reverence of the One who created all things. And we should continue to eagerly engage the scientific community in hopes of continuing to develop constructive dialogue. 

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