Of worldviews, fears and aliens
In 1978, BBC Radio 4 aired a comedy science fiction series created by Douglas Adams, which was later adapted into several other formats and became an international multimedia phenomenon. The series, called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, follows the adventures of Arthur Dent, a hapless Englishman who travels across the galaxy after the earth is destroyed by an alien race in order to build a hyperspace bypass.
Adams introduces his story this way:
Far out in the unchartered backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
As it turns out, most lifeforms on earth—particularly humans—are utterly oblivious to the existence of aliens. Humans believe that they are the most advanced lifeforms in the universe, when in fact the entire planet they inhabit is nothing more than a supercomputer designed to discover the Question to the Answer about Life, the Universe and Everything. (The answer is known to be 42, but the question itself remains a mystery.) As the story unfolds, you learn that the hyperspace bypass was actually just an excuse to destroy the planet; in fact, Gag Halfrunt, personal psychologist to Zaphod Beeblebrox, President of the Galaxy, hired Vogons to destroy the earth because he feared that his profession would be threatened if the Ultimate Question to the Ultimate Answer was discovered.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of multitudes of science fiction stories in which humans are portrayed as one of the most primitive intelligent life forms in existence. The science fiction genre is, of course, a popular one, which plays on the widely held belief that humans cannot possibly be the only form of intelligent life in the universe. But while this belief translates itself into an endless array of science fiction stories, the results of this conviction are not relegated to the realm of science fiction alone.
In July this year, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner announced a project called Breakthrough Listen, which has committed to plough $100 million over a ten year period into the biggest scientific search ever undertaken for signs of intelligent life beyond earth. For all our fictional imagination, no sign of intelligent alien life has ever been detected. Many find this fact downright disconcerting.
Back in 1950, Italian astronomer Enrico Fermi wondered why humans had never heard from any other intelligent life in the universe. If life had evolved on earth, he reasoned, surely it must have evolved somewhere else in the universe. And if other lifeforms are more intelligent and advanced than humans, why haven’t alien races colonised entire galaxies? The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) website figures that an advanced alien race could colonise the entire Milky Way within ten million years, a comparatively short period given the age of the galaxy, which is roughly ten thousand million years.1 Simply put, where are all the aliens?
Thinking through this issue, Fermi suggested several possibilities for interplanetary silence, and his postulations became known as the Fermi Paradox.
As a first possible explanation for the lack of alien communication, the Fermi Paradox suggests that, with our most advanced communication tools, space might simply be too big for us to communicate with other planets. We are talking about thousands of light years between planets in our own galaxy, not to mention other galaxies. Two-way communication may simply be impossible.
A second explanation suggests that we’ve simply not looked hard enough. This is the problem that the aforementioned Breakthrough Listen project is seeking to address. Perhaps we simply need to double up on our efforts to look for signs of other intelligent life.
The Fermi Paradox suggests, as a third possible explanation, what it calls the Great Filter. Simply put, the Great Filter is a point at which a civilisation is destroyed (or destroys itself) when it reaches a certain level of sophistication. It could be that other civilisations have destroyed themselves (or have been destroyed) before they ever reached the ability to communicate with us—and we could well be heading in the same direction.
Fourth, other, more advance, races may simply consider us too primitive to bother communicating with. Perhaps there are aliens out there, but they are waiting for us to reach a certain level of technological sophistication before they will make contact with us.
The final possibility is that humans are alone in the universe. One YouTube video, created to explain the Fermi Paradox, asks, “Does that thought scare you?” and answers, “If it does, you’re having the correct emotional reaction.” After all, if we are alone, human civilisation is the only example of intelligent life in the universe. If we destroy ourselves, it may be the end of all intelligent life for all time. As Jonathan O’Callaghan puts it,
Until we find evidence to the contrary, though, we are by ourselves on this small ball of rock hurtling through the cosmos. We are the only example we know of sentient life in the universe. That makes humanity, and Earth, incredibly special, and we should be doing all we can to preserve this fascinating and lonely life-harboring world we inhabit.
From a secular worldview perspective, the thought that we are alone is not a pleasant one. O’Callaghan calls it “unnerving,” and Arthur C. Clarke once said that this thought (and, in fact, the thought that we are not alone) is “terrifying.”2
The biblical worldview is, of course, very different. O’Callaghan is absolutely spot on when he calls “humanity, and Earth, incredibly special.” But we—and our planet—are “incredibly special” not only because we are alone in the universe,3 but because we were created by an eternal God. The universe was designed to display the creative power and glory of God (Psalm 19:1–7), not to sustain life. Earth was uniquely fashioned as a habitation for life, with particular reference to human life, created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27). Humans are not, as Adams suggests, “ape-descended,” but carefully and lovingly fashioned by an eternal Creator in his own image. This makes us highly intelligent rather than “amazingly primitive.”
The Christian worldview also leaves no room for fear in this regard.
A secularist might find the existence of alien life terrifying because it is generally assumed that aliens would be more advanced than humans with the capabilities to destroy humanity. A powerful, antagonistic alien race might well be terrifying. What if Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum are not available to save the day?
The secular worldview might also find the nonexistence of aliens terrifying because, as explained, that presents humanity with the tremendous responsibility of preserving exclusive sentient life. What if we mess it up? We shoulder a huge burden if that is the case.
The Christian worldview, on the other hand, portrays God as an all-powerful, beneficent being. God loves his creation and does not intend to destroy it. “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22). God once destroyed all human life—bar eight individuals—but he has promised he will not do so again (Genesis 8:21). And since he is all powerful, there is no chance of something outside of his control destroying his creation.
Adams speaks of “a small unregarded yellow sun” and “an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet.” Once again, this makes sense according to a secular worldview. If we consider the sheer size of the universe—even of our little galaxy—one small planet and its inhabitants hardly seem significant. And yet when the psalmist considered this very thing, he concluded that humanity is significant:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
The Christian worldview shows that our “small … yellow sun” is actually highly regarded, and our “little blue-green planet” is incredibly significant. And they are highly regarded and incredibly significant because God both created and sustains them, and because he created them to be the habitat for his most special, advanced creation: humanity.
- These are figures presented by SETI. I am personally a young earth creationist. The dates stated here do not reflect my personal views. ↩
- Clarke famously said, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” ↩
- While the Bible does not outright deny the existence of intelligent alien life, its emphasis on the uniqueness of humanity and its habitation leaves little room to suppose that God did create intelligent life elsewhere. ↩