In his Christmas Day Wall Street Journal article, author Eric Metaxas promises that he will explain how science makes a “relatively recent case for God’s existence.” He then spends a significant part of the op-ed telling us that scientists have been looking for life sustaining planets since the 1960s but have yet to find any. Metaxas reminds readers that Congress defunded the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) in 1993. He then tells us that researchers continue to look but that “As of 2014, researchers have discovered precisely bubkis—0 followed by nothing.”
In addition to the absence of habitable planets, Metaxas says humans shouldn’t be here.
As factors continued to be discovered, the number of possible planets hit zero, and kept going. In other words, the odds turned against any planet in the universe supporting life, including this one. Probability said that even we shouldn’t be here.
As I read the article, I had the nagging feeling that something wasn’t right.
On examination of NASA’s program to discover habitable planets, I found information which tells a very different story than told by Metaxas in the WSJ. For instance, in February 2014, NASA announced discovery of a “motherlode” of exoplanets, four of which orbited their stars in a habitable zone. Then in April, NASA announced the discovery of a potentially habitable planet about the size of Earth. Watch:
And then just a week ago, NASA announced that the Kepler mission has discovered 1,000 planets with a total of eight being in the habitable zone. In contrast to the pessimism implied by Metaxas, planet hunters seemed pleased with the results of their work:
“With each new discovery of these small, possibly rocky worlds, our confidence strengthens in the determination of the true frequency of planets like Earth,” said co-author Doug Caldwell, SETI Institute Kepler scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. “The day is on the horizon when we’ll know how common temperate, rocky planets like Earth are.”
While eight is not a gazillion; as of now, it isn’t bubkis either.
However, it is not particularly scientific or helpful in any sense to pick a side and declare the debate over. While NASA’s planet hunters are optimistic, some experts are skeptical about life on other planets. Furthermore, the newly discovered planets might not be habitable, or they might not even exist. Recently, a team from University of Texas in Austin provided data which cast doubt on the existence of planets orbiting in the habitable zone of dwarf star Gliese 581. However, the scientific attitude is to pursue the evidence wherever it leads. The technology to find evidence of such planets is in very early stages and with advancements may lead to better understanding.
Lead researcher Paul Robertson in the Gliese study takes the position that the techniques which allowed his team to rule out a planet orbiting Gliese will allow them to find other real planets in the future. In the McDonald Observatory press release on the study, Robertson said:
While it is unfortunate to find that two such promising planets do not exist, we feel that the results of this study will ultimately lead to more Earth-like planets.
In light of their findings, I asked another member of the UT-Austin team, Michael Endl research scientist at the McDonald Observatory at UT-Austin, his view of Metaxas’ article. I wondered if he was pessimistic about finding habitable planets since he had helped disprove one such planet existed. In reply, Endl said:
One common mistake that Metaxas does is to take the null result from SETI and draw the incorrect conclusion that this means life is rare. Complex, intelligent, technological life might be sparse but simple life might be quite common. For most of its time, Earth was a planet inhabited by microbes. There could be less complex life on habitable planets around every single star in the night sky and we wouldn’t know it.
Regarding the future of planet hunting, Endl is ebullient:
NASA’s Kepler mission has already shown that small planets are common around other stars, and soon we will know how common Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of Sun-like stars in the Kepler field are. New missions like TESS, K2 and PLATO will find more of these planets closer to us, around nearby stars. And with the next generation of large aperture ground-based telescopes, as well as new space telescopes, like the James-Webb Space Telescope, we might be able to probe some of them for bio-signatures in their atmospheres.
I also asked Endl for a list of the 200 criteria for planetary life mentioned by Metaxas. Endl replied:
This is also bogus. There is no list of criteria that scientists use. You can make this list arbitrarily long or short, depending on your viewpoint. Sagan was talking in the broadest terms, distance to star and mass/radius of the planet. Since we do not know what criteria are really needed for life to form, such a list is very artificial.
The more I gather evidence, the more I am feeling like the WSJ op-ed is both outdated and premature. It is outdated because Metaxas primarily relied on a 2006 statement from a retired political scientist (Peter Schenkel) as an authority to discredit the search for habitable planets when, in fact, there is currently great optimism about the Kepler research program and technological advances among scientists. However, the article is premature in that the search for habitable planets has a long way to go with numerous advances in technology to come. We know more than Metaxas told us but we don’t know enough to say much for certain. Thus, it is hard to sustain enthusiasm about the article’s premise.
It is tempting to scold Metaxas for taking us all on a ride by failing to incorporate a more complete and accurate picture of his topic. However, I want to conclude more positively.
I don’t take strong issue with one of the points Metaxas brings us. There are times when scientific research work dovetails nicely with what we believe about God. I point out this common ground frequently in my classes. For instance, I think the social psychological study of self-serving bias provides a nice point of contact with my theological views of human depravity. Likewise, I think the work on ostracism and attachment match up nicely with theological conceptions of humans existing in the image of God. However, I don’t think we can push this too hard in areas where our knowledge is tentative. As Kurtis McCathern pointed out yesterday, studying the cosmos looking for God could lead us to several different images, some of which might be hazardous to our preconceptions.
In another context, I summarized my approach to faith and science:
I start with the premise that science is no threat to faith. If scientific work seems to conflict with tenets of my religion, I accept the tension until I understand things better. Extending that belief to history, I do not need the founders to be evangelicals in order to enjoy and defend American freedom for people of my faith, another faith, and no faith.
Loving God with all my mind doesn’t mean splitting it in two. If a study of science or history tells me something uncomfortable, I do not retool the science or history to make me comfortable. I walk by faith, live with the tension, and accept what is in front of my face.
Finally, I actually agree with Metaxas’ WSJ conclusion: this universe and our place in it is a miracle. My personal belief is that it is a miracle brought about somehow by God. However, I don’t need science to tell me that. I know it when I listen to Led Zeppelin with a friend over tacos, hear my granddaughter say Papa, hold my grandson, watch my children grow and change, and experience the love and kindness of my wife. And after surviving open heart surgery a little over two years ago, I am more convinced than ever that every minute of life is a miracle.