I watched The Martian last night, and really enjoyed it - as I did the book it was based on. It is a great and entertaining sci-fi movie, which also shows that you don't have to make the science fictional in
order to make a good sci-fi movie; the science can be accurate and still entertaining.
I heard someone describe it this way, which I loved: "Remember the scene in Apollo 13 where the engineers dump a bunch of stuff on the table and say, 'We have to find a way to get a square peg to fit in a round hole, using nothing but this?' Well that over two hours is basically The Martian."
Purely by coincidence (GIANT sarcasm here), NASA is working PR overtime right now, capitalizing on The Martian's popularity to drum up support for the often-underfunded space agency. Earlier this week they announced definitive evidence of liquid water on the Martian surface, which led many to speculate about the existence of life on Mars.
Now this has long been a trope of science and science fiction: from HG Wells to Ray Bradbury to modern SETI researchers and movies, there has always been a lot of effort focused on looking for life elsewhere. NASA has considered missions to Mars, Venus, and Europa to look for signs of life. Science news reporters breathlessly cover every exoplanet which could theoretically host life, and the Internet was full of excitement at the possibility that NASA might be giving evidence of life at its press conference earlier this week. As an avid sci-fi fan, I always read several books per year in which the search for alien life is a critical part of the plot, and perhaps because of this I have written about it three times before on this blog.
NASA is so concerned about this that our robots on Mars do not even test for signs of life, because we can't properly sterilize the craft as it enters Mars and thereby we could get a "false positive" of reporting lifeforms which we accidentally transmitted to the Martian surface. (For now, ignore the strange logic which would lead to calling a single celled bacterium on Mars "life" but considers the 13 billion cells of a fetus which has brainwaves and heartbeats "non-life.")
The Hope for E.T.
I find this to be fascinating. I think part of the fascination, at least for the atheists/naturalists of the world, is that there seems to be a belief that finding life elsewhere will somehow be a disproof of Christianity. I have heard the argument made many times, often implicitly but occasionally explicitly, whenever someone discusses the implausbility of random evolution: "You say that now, but just wait - we will find life elsewhere."
The odds against chemical evolution--that randomly, dead chemicals would form life and self-code to produce computer-like DNA--has long been an argument by theists and intelligent design proponents. The Drake Equation famously calculated the extremely small probabilities of us ever discovering life--not only would it have to chemically evolve (to form cells), but then they would have to biologically evolve (to form complex life), then they would have to intelligently evolve into a spacefaring race, then they would have to try to communicate, and then it all have to match up time-wise so that it happened in the very narrow window that we could receive and understand such a communication.
It just isn't going to happen. We can't even replicate the first step--creating life and DNA from non-live chemicals--in a lab. Just the first step! Much less all the rest.
The idea of atheists seems to be that if we can find evidence that it happened one other time--under Europa's ice sheets or on Mars' dusty surface or anywhere--then it somehow destroys the creationists improbability argument. "See," they would say, "it can happen and has happened more than once!"
The Flaw in the Logic
The flaw in the logic is that the appearance of multiple improbable scenarios only makes them even less improbable. Probabilities are calculated by combinatorial arithmetic: the more unlikely a thing is, the less likely it will happen multiple times due to randomness.
For example, imagine that you and I sit down to play poker. You shuffle and deal. I get a random hand, but you get a Royal Flush--the highest possible hand and the rarest. The odds against getting dealt a royal flush are 650,000 to 1.
Now it is possible that I might call you a cheater, no? It just seems very unlikely. 650,000-to-1 odds isn't very good. By calling you a cheater, what I'm actually saying is this: intelligent agency (you) interfered with a random process. You didn't get the hand randomly.
But let's say that you shrug your shoulders and say, "Sorry, random dude. Can't help it." You collect your winnings and go to the next table.
And at the next table, you deal...and again, deal yourself a Royal Flush on the next table.
Do you think that I and the other players will be more likely or less likely to see you as a cheater?
More likely, of course!
As unlikely as it was to happen once, it is even less likely to happen twice--especially so close together in time and space. Maybe it could happen to you twice in a life time, but right beside each other? No way!
This is the flaw in the Martian logic. Theists argue against the astronomical odds of chemical and biological evolution happening randomly. If it is also found to have happened on Mars, or Europa, or Venus, that just makes it all the more unlikely!!
[Aside--In fact, I think discovering life elsewhere would eventually be a major problem for evolutionists. For now, the inability to recreate chemical cellular and DNA evolution in a laboratory is understandable--the odds are so low and the variables so complex, that you can't expect to recreate it. But if it could happen in as varied conditions as the cold Martian dust and the sub-freezing ice of Europa and the toxic hell that is Venus--if it happens over and over and over, in such a wide range of conditions--then we should be able to recreate it more easily.]
[Aside 2--when I speak of "evolution" I am speaking of the idea of random evolution without interference from God. In other words, the idea that 'anything could have happened' and God was not in control. I am not saying that all parts of evolutionary theory are false, just that the idea that this could have happened randomly would be even more difficult to argue in such a scenario.]
Simply speaking, finding life somewhere else is a boon for creationism, not a bane.
What Would Happen If We Found Life?
What would the Christian response be if we found life? Let's say that we discovered life on Mars in the form of a single-celled organism, or got a message or monument from space a la 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Well of course, some Christians just flat out distrust scientists and would claim it was faked or whatever. This is a very small number. And some are Christians by culture only, not really committed to it, and would see this (and the excitement it would generate) as a very useful and acceptable excuse to "leave" the faith they belong to in name only.
But I think that most would have no issue with it. Why?
Well first of all--we already believe that God created animal life we can't interact with here on Earth (e.g., dinosaurs, undersea creatures, insects in the Amazon, etc.). We believe God is a prolific Creator who makes things for His glory not for us, so it is entirely possible He would create life elsewhere as well as here. I know of no major branch of theology which requires a sterile universe as a theological principle.
But secondly, we go even further than that! SETI and some atheists think intelligent life in the universe is possible...we think it is certain and indeed, has contacted us.
You didn't know that? Well, what is the definition of extraterrestrial intelligence? An intelligent being not from Earth, correct?
We have always taught that such beings DO in fact exist...angels, created by God to worship Him, some of whom are loyal to Him and some of whom followed one such angel, Satan, in rebellion (we call those demons).
We don't believe those were created on Earth but in the heavens. But we do believe that they interact with earthlings.
So we Christians--as CS Lewis pointed out--absolutely believe in intelligent ET life. We even think we have met some and know their names! (Lucifer, Gabriel, Michael, etc.)
Contrary to popular belief, Christians would have no problem assimilating Martian life into our worldview. My question is: how could a naturalist?