A Recent Article Ponders the Rarity of Earth And How Astronomical Are the Odds Against Complex Life in the Universe!

122814We have discussed on the blog before the potential flaws in the mere statistical presumption that because there are so many stars there must be billions of other Earth-like planets in the universe that likely support life similar to ours. Why? Because it is not just one or two things that make Earth what it is; it is many, many essential things that make Earth capable of sustaining life for long enough that our civilization has been able to emerge. As these essential qualities are factored into the equation, the probability of sustained conditions capable of hosting advanced life and a civilization of intelligent beings drops very quickly.

Here are some of the factors that make Earth what it is:

  1. It is at just the right distance from the sun so that water is warm enough to melt, but not so hot as to boil and steam away into space. Water is also able, in this habitable zone, to both evaporate and condense at lower levels in the atmosphere, thus permitting a more even distribution of water and a cycle of water over dry land known as precipitation.
  2. It is in a “habitable zone” in the galaxy. Radiation and the presence of wandering planetoids make life closer to the center of galaxies unlikely.
  3. Its orbit is a nearly perfect circle rather than an “eccentric” (i.e., steep or elongated) ellipse such as that of some other planets. Steep, elliptical orbits take a planet relatively close to and then far from the sun, causing great variances in warmth and light. Earth’s almost perfectly circular orbit keeps its distance from the sun’s heat and light relatively constant.
  4. Its molten core and volcanism generate magnetic fields or belts that protect it from the most harmful rays of the sun.  Volcanism also plays a role in helping generate the atmosphere and in cycling rich minerals widely.
  5. Its sun is just the right kind of star, putting out a fairly steady amount of energy. Other types of stars are more variable in their output, making life impossible due to the extremes in warmth and light.
  6. Its fairly rapid rotation reduces the daily variation in temperature. It also makes photosynthesis possible since there is enough sunlight all over the planet.
  7. Its axis is tilted just enough relative to its orbital plane to allow seasonal variations that help complex life, but not so tilted as to make the seasons too extreme.
  8. Its moon causes tides that are just large enough to permit tidal zones (a great breeding ground for diverse forms of life), but not so severe as to destroy life.
  9. Two nearby “gas giants” (Jupiter and Saturn) attract and “catch” many wandering asteroids and comets, often keeping them from hitting Earth.

I have written more on these matters in at least two other articles:

  1. Life in the Balance – And why Earth-like planets may be rare
  2. The Earth is a Rare Jewel. A Meditation on the Glory of God in a New Discovery about our Planet

I was pleased to learn of a recent article in  the Wall Street Journal that sets forth a “rare Earth” perspective and also points to the conclusion that Earth’s perfect conditions are so astonishing as to shout “intentional design.” The article, written by Eric Metaxas, is entitled Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God – The odds of life existing on another planet grow ever longer. Intelligent design, anyone?

I’d like to present some excerpts in bold italics along with a little commentary of my own in plain, red text.

In 1966 … The same year Time [Magazine] featured the now-famous headline [Is God Dead?], the astronomer Carl Sagan announced that there were two important criteria for a planet to support life: The right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star. Given the roughly octillion—1 followed by 24 zeros—planets in the universe, there should have been about septillion—1 followed by 21 zeros—planets capable of supporting life.

Notice how silly Sagan’s pronouncements seem now. Yet when he said them, many bowed their heads to “modern science.” And those of us who had “infantile” notions of a “God” or who thought that we humans were somehow special or unique were told we had to let our little “myths” give way to “hard science.” Almost anybody can recall Sagan saying with his erudite accent, “billions and billions …” as he referred to the likelihood of life “out there.”

I personally have no problem with science changing its teaching as new evidence comes in. But I DO have a problem with people who idolize science as the definitive word on everything, and with some (not all) scientists who get credit for having advanced the “definitive” answer to all things.

Can we please get over this “science as a substitute for religion” obsession of the modern age? Let science be science, a discipline that deals with  empirical evidence from the material world. New information is always coming in. It is the nature of science to provide likely answers (e.g., hypotheses or formulas) rooted in current data. Physical science also focuses especially on what philosophy terms “material” and “efficient” causality. Catholic theology (faith), however, is rooted in definitive answers based on the unchanging revelation of God. It is not usually related to efficient and material casualty, but especially to final and formal causality.

Proper Catholic theology does not compete with the physical sciences and holds that whatever is true in the physical sciences will not contradict theological truth.

The problems and conflicts occur when many today want to hold the theories of physical science as conclusive (which quite often they are not) or to permit the physical sciences to claim to be able to answer or refute things outside the physical sciences, in the metaphysical order. For example, some scientists insist that the universe is the result of blind, random chance. But science cannot prove this and therefore should not make such claims. Formal and final causality are largely outside the realm of science. What science reasonably can say is that the existence of God is not something that it can definitively prove or reject. Science looks to secondary and material causes and must the leave metaphysical matters out of its discussions or conclusions. 

The problems on the religious side come when some seek to claim that religious accounts of the origin of the world and the causes of things are meant to be understood as scientific language. Yet often, religious accounts of origins and causes use allegory, metaphor, symbolism, and epic stories to convey truths and they need not be taken as literal, scientific accounts. Religion looks more to primary cause and to final and formal causality.

Science and theology are often talking about the same things but using different perspectives. Hence, they need not be seen as at war if each respects its own discipline and territory.

With such spectacular odds [which Sagan set forth], the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence [SETI], a large, expensive collection of private and publicly funded projects launched in the 1960s, was sure to turn up something soon. Scientists listened with a vast radio telescopic network…But as years passed, the silence from the rest of the universe was deafening … bupkis—0 followed by nothing. Some reading this will want to get defensive and say, “There are lots of reasons for the silence, including the vast distances of space.”  But read on …

What happened? As our knowledge of the universe increased, it became clear that there were far more factors necessary for life than Sagan supposed. His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting … Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart. [e.g.] Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit Earth’s surface. The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing.

I listed just a few of those 200 parameters above. Note, too, that the argument being advanced is not merely a statistical one. The argument being advanced is one known as “irreducible complexity.”  

Irreducible complexity refers to the argument that for complex systems (like life) to exist, many things must all come together in just the right way for the system to exist or work at all. It is not workable if just some of the things are present. All must be present for the system to exist and work.

Thus, for our eyes to work, a LOT of things need to be in place and “just so.” One cannot have just a retina. There must also be a cornea, fluid in just the right condition, just the right sort of tissue to form the lens, just the right distance between the cornea and the retina, just the right sort of muscles to adjust for the light conditions, just the right sort of photosensitive cells in the retina, etc. And those are just the macroscopic requirements. There are also many microscopic requirements of every cell, and every part of every cell in the eye that must come together just so for the eye to be the eye and to function properly.

It is hard to imagine how things of this complexity could simply come together randomly and blindly. But whatever the origin of complex systems, the statistical likelihood of them existing at all gets very small, very quickly when we consider everything that must happen for them to exist and function. And that is the case being made here about Earth and the complexity of life here.

Even SETI proponents acknowledged the problem … The early estimates … may no longer be tenable.”

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.

Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? Can every one of those many parameters have been perfect by accident? At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces? … The appearance of design is overwhelming … the hypothesis that there is a Creator … gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.”

I think today that many who bristle at “intelligent design” do so more from a visceral and perhaps anti-religious stance than from a truly scientific one. As said above, I am not asking scientists to declare that science can prove God exists. That is not the purpose of science. Neither am I asking them to accept the Judeo-Christian concept of God.

But if I went to Mars and found a fully functioning computer lab in a cave there I would be scientifically justified in concluding that intelligent life had put it there. I might not even be sure that it was “Martians” who had created it. Maybe the Russians had secretly gotten to Mars before us and left it there. But simply to conclude that there was strong evidence that the computer lab was designed and built by intelligent beings would not be unscientific.

And that is true here, too. The more we learn of the incredible complexity of life and of ecosystems and their irreducible complexity, the more reasonable it seems to posit an intelligent cause to it all, or to theorize that the many necessary elements were intentionally brought together by some outside force that is intelligent or purposeful. I do not ask scientists to suddenly line up to enter RCIA, only that they draw reasonable conclusions even if they are only provisional (as are most scientific conclusions).

Well, the combox is open for comments. I’d like to propose some ground rules because, sadly, most discussions on these sorts of topics generate more heat than light. (The Wall Street Journal article generated a LOT of comments: 2197 COMMENTS.)

  1. PLEASE avoid personal attacks. Write to the issue.
  2. PLEASE do not address comments or questions to me. Speak to the issue and to one another.
  3. Surely, I always appreciate kind remarks about the article, etc.
  4. But if you have a critique of the article, please remember that I am not the point; the article is the point.
  5. Quote the article and say what you think or why you disagree, and interact with one another.
  6. There is no need to “take down” the blogger. Even if you think I am an idiot or am hopelessly misinformed, that it not the point; the article is the point.
  7. Say what you mean and mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.

70 Replies to “A Recent Article Ponders the Rarity of Earth And How Astronomical Are the Odds Against Complex Life in the Universe!”

  1. Kind of makes one wonder how so many people can be so blind. Not just people who never think about these things, or who aren’t capable of making the connections, but those supposedly educated people can’t make the connection. Maybe they are just afraid.

  2. pointed out just how special the earth is and just how carefully it has been positioned just to make human life possible, sustainable and enjoyable…yes, I have to include “enjoyable” because a huge number of us actually enjoy our lives here despite the niggles, the problems and the setbacks.
    I attribute this to a loving, caring God!

  3. I’ve always taken the view that the odds of existence of extraterrestrial life in the universe is either 0/1 or 1/1 depending on whether God willed for life to exist on other planets or not. It seems to me that for the Christian, the size of the universe does not mean that other life must exist. Since I do not know the answer to that question, I tend to be “agnostic” on the idea of extraterrestrial life, neither accepting nor denying it. I do recognize that the absence of proof of such life is not proof of absence.

    But I imagine for the atheist who considers life a matter of statistical probability, it is a matter of calculating the odds of finding a planet capable of supporting life and the odds that life would form on it. So I imagine my formula of 0/1 and 1/1 would seem alien (as it were) to them.

    Interesting article, Msgr.

  4. This is a sound argument which supports St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument and St. Thomas Aquinas’ 5 proofs on the existence of God.

    In the light of “Irreducible complexity” associated with the existence of humanlife, it is interesting to note that simple means by which we are able to reason that God exists.

  5. Once a scientist, like Sagan, draws a conclusion off limited scientific evidence, he is no longer a scientist.

    For me, I will scientifically wait until all the data/evidence is in before abandoning God!

  6. There is strong scientific evidence in DNA studies that humans migrated out of Africa across into Asia somewhere near Yemen and then moved out to populate the rest of the planet. This is not what we would arrive at intuitively by looking at the many a varied peoples that now inhabit this planet. I do not presume to know or understand the mind of God. If as science tells us the Big Bang occured around 150 Billion years ago, and humans did not arrive until a few thousand years ago, maybe our mental time scales just do not work to perceive even dimly what God has created. It is possible that the Earth will be to the Universe what Africa was to the Earth; the home of our race. This may not be the most probable answer but we also may equally not understand the equation and all the variables that truly make up the answer.

  7. I read the article in the Wall Street Journal last week. As a scientist, I applaud the writer for his clarity and bravery to tackle this subject in such a public forum. It is difficult to stand before your peers and subject your scientific judgment to their scrutiny. To do so in regard to theological ideas (especially when defending the idea of the existence of God) is truly an act of our Lord’s prompting.

    Thank you, Msgr. for the comments you included. To the more non-scientific thought processes, they make the arguments/defenses easier to understand.

    As I have grown and matured, I have often marveled at the utter incomprehensible complexity of our world, from the smallest microbe to the largest oak tree, from our own capacity for thought and reason to our very life itself. God the creator has always seemed the one and only reason that all of it could ever exist.

  8. Photosynthesis (plants converting solar energy) is the basis of our food chain, and all the life that we normally experience depends upon it. This analysis is based on which planets could offer a photosynthetic eco-system.

    However, even on earth, we have life that is not dependent upon the sun, or upon being in the orbital temperate zone, or having an near perfect orbit, or even having an atmosphere. There is life deep at the bottom of the ocean which is exists in a chemosynthetic eco-system, drawing its nutrition from chemicals expelled from the earth itself and being warned by thermal vents. Technically, any planet with a molten core could provide all the heat needed for life.

    This is why we think it is possible there could be life on the moons of Jupiter such as Europa and Ganymede were evidence suggest subterranean oceans and molten cores. With that in mind, the possibility of life-sustaining planets increases exponentially.

  9. #8 on the moon should be expanded a bit. Not just any moon will suffice. It has to be a large moon, large in proporation to the planet it orbits. Earth could not have attracted the moon naturally, the moon is too big. Although we have no true idea how it got there, it would have had to have been extraordinary circumstances, such as a collision. Which means a one-time incident occurred. Which in turn means the probability of another planet out there having that exact same or very similar one-time incident leaving an extra-large moon, as well as meeting all the other conditions listed in the numbered list, is almost nill.

    1. Andrea,
      I REALLY like your focus on how amazing our moon is. I compare it to how amazing Mary is and how she reflects the mystery of Christ to us in so many wonderful ways.

  10. It is astonishing that we keep searching for life outside of our planet as if we were lonely. God being infinite cannot create anything that does not have that quality within it. In an infinite creation, no matter where you are at, you are at the center. God placed you at the center of His infinite creation. How could he have loved you more? How could we ask for more? Our lives are eternal and we are not alone. Just look around.

  11. Very interesting. For a deep excursion into this topic and other related issues, I recommend an excellent book by Fr. Robert Spitzer, “New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy.” It is by no means light reading, but it is comprehensible to people such as myself who are neither physicists nor philosophers. Fortunately, Fr. Spitzer is both, and has a rare ability to explain difficult ideas so others can understand them, or at least follow their reasoning. Of particular note to this discussion is his explanation of how the values of the “universal constants” are such that in several instances, a variation of almost unimaginably small magnitude one way or the other would render the existence of life impossible anywhere in our universe. I have probably already misstated something in trying to go this far, so please consult Fr. Spitzer’s book for the real story. You won’t regret it.

    Happy New Year to all!

  12. I just finished Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu and found it a very balanced approach for viewing the unfolding of the universe as a creative process that is still going on. A great work for many other concepts such as our psychological evolution and the nature of evil along as it relates to passivities of diminishment involved in this creative process that all Christians should be familiar with, imho.

  13. Very good post Father, and keep it up. I hate these silly arguments about science versus religion in this so-called modern age of ours. In the Middle Ages, some argued about just how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. The arguments today are similarly nonsensical.

    What I see with my eyes and hear with my ears does not compromise my faith; otherwise you’d have to call me Saint Thomas! Deus Vuit!

  14. Let’s not forget who formulated the Big Bang Theory in the first place: A Catholic priest!

  15. While there is validity in statistical arguments, there are no such arguments that the probability of life elsewhere is exactly zero, (0.0). For me the thought of life elsewhere has not to do with statistics, but rather the answer to this question: Why did God make such a very, very, huge universe? So we can see twinkles in the night sky, so that astronomers would have something to do, or … ?

  16. When does improbability become proof for design? Maybe it never can, but it sure begs lots of questions, I think that the harumphing and hostility to designer theory by many in the scientific community comes across as utterly stubborn. The odds of it all being “random chance” are, mathematically speaking, wildly fanciful. I think we can say that!

  17. A couple questions.

    1. What existed before the Big Bang?

    2. What sparked the Big Bang?

    I don’t think I have ever heard any scientist try to theorize about these two questions. It is funny to me. They are reluctant to go where no man has gone before.

    And therein lies the issue with militant science. Man. These intelligent scientists/creatures fear what they cannot know or control. The fear it so much as to belittle anyone who would offer a supernatural explanation, even when that explanation validates their own work.

    God is not the issue, nor really, is science. Man alone is the issue that stands between the two. God and science go together in such amazing ways. One only needs a little faith to see that.

    1. I want to caution you in two ways:

      (1) Before the big bang, assuming the big bang is the beginning of time, is not a coherent concept. It is like asking what is north of the north pole. Now it is possible that the big bang was not the absolute beginning to physical reality. If this is the case however, there may be time before the big bang, we just may not know much about it at this point.

      (2) I do not think scientists know for sure “what sparked the big bang.” But as far as I can tell, there are a number of possibilities about how the universe began (how the big bang happened I guess, I am not a physicist) that physicists consider.

      I think that we have to realize something: It does not matter what happened at the big bang, if there was a “before” the big bang, or what “sparked” the big bang. The problem is that we tend to think of creation in terms of God causing the universe, THEN the universe coming into being. God snaps his fingers, there is a miracle known as the big bang, and the universe gets rolling. From a Catholic point of view, this is incorrect. The universe, in its entirety, from beginning to end, is best understood as a story written by God (of course this raises questions about free-will but leave those aside). Just as our stories are products of the minds of the authors, so too is God’s story a product of His mind.

      The beginning of the story is not especially important. The story is in need of an author regardless of how it began. Similarly, it is the entire story beginning through end, which needs an author. Likewise with God, it is all of reality (besides God) that needs a cause- from beginning to end- regardless of what happened in the first moments of the physical universe. The reasons to hold this are numerous: any traditional causal (be it design, cosmological, etc.) argument for God will do. Focusing on the big bang makes it seem as though this is where we need God. From a Catholic perspective, it is the entire history of the universe that needs God as its cause because the universe is not the kind of thing in principle which can exist on its own. As far as I can tell, the only thing that the big bang tells us that is relevant is that the physical universe likely began and therefore cannot be considered self-existing, otherwise, it would have always existed. Even that conclusion however, can be established in other ways.

      1. Tom, thank you for your response. I understood very little, such concepts are way above my intelligence level.

        Since you seem to be very knowledgeable, can you provide theory on why the earth is round, as opposed to egg shaped or oval? It appears most planets are illustrated round as well, though I am not sure if that would be accurate.

        Thanks again.

        1. I am not sure why the earth is round, I do not know the relevant science here. A few points:

          (1) The earth is round because God made it round, it is also round because of certain natural processes. The important thing is that God uses these natural causes to accomplish His ends, analogous to how He used the Apostles to spread the Gospel.

          (2) The point of the article above is not changed by why the earth is shaped the way it is. The earth is certainly conducive to life in a way that no other known planets are. Life is very special and very rare. The idea is that there are many ingredients to the recipe of life and they all have to be “just right.” This does not prove God exists, but it does help us marvel at His creation. Many other theological points may be drawn from the rarity of life.

          (3) My point in the above comment doesn’t have much to do with the shape of the earth. I am actually just pointing out that belief in God does not depend on the scientific details behind the beginning of our universe. God is like the author who is writing the story which is our world. This is true regardless of the details of this story, or how it began, God is still just as much the author no matter what.


    1. If we are going to be true to both science and faith, we must admit that it is hard to understand how the Universe is fallen–considering that the natural world in its conditions were the same before the arrival of Man and so the fall of Man. Perhaps it is better to say that humans are fallen and our *relationship* to the natural world is disrupted.

      Indeed nature was red in tooth and claw before we came along…

      1. My comment was based on Romans 8: 22-23: “22 The whole of nature, as we know, groans in a common travail all the while.[4] 23 And not only do we see that, but we ourselves do the same . . .” Maybe I don’t understand it. Please explain.

      2. Patric,
        We don’t still don’t know without a doubt that “nature was red in tooth and claw before we came along”. This claim is not indisputable scientifically and rather doubtful theologically. Eventually we may resolve the apparent contradictions but they cannot be assumed unless one has no faith.

  18. I don’t think most scientists believe their are “billions” of other Earth like planets out there. However, with potentially billions of planet type systems in space, even if the odds are a billion to one of having an earth like planet, that makes pretty good odds that there are at least some earth like planets out there.

  19. I appreciated this artlcle and especially think people need to understand your point that faith has final causality as its focus while science has material causality as its focus. This point right here would help solve the scandal many give off of Christianity being an ignorant or mythical faith. If people realized the proper scope of faith and science and the questions they are asking–the Why vs. the What–then they would see faith as being the fuller picture to reality, one in which science has a critical, helpful, and good role to play.

    Looking to faith as providing one set of answers, the more fundamental answers, and science as providing another set avoids the “God of the Gaps” argument some Christians fall into. However, unless I read you incorrectly, I believe you may have fallen into this error at the end of your post. You explained the human eye as being so complex and therefore unlikely due to chance. However, science does speak to these issues and in these terms; evolution is a natural process. To think of it in terms of divine intervention would be to fall prey to the “God of the Gaps.”

    The difference between the eye example and the origin of life in general is the difference between the random chance of a Universe bringing about a planet with life and a specific organ forming, under natural process, on that planet. It is safe to talk about God in the former example, because he is the Ultimate origin of the Universe. If there is a material Universe with small odds of bringing about life, and there is life, we must talk about the origin of such a Universe. But God is the one that wills creation into existence and endows all natural processes, including evolution, with life-giving power. And He knows from all time how the human eye will brought into existence through these natural processes. It is not necessary to look at each individual phenomenon on Earth and try to understand its complexity in terms of a Divine source when we understand that everything is ultimately from God.

    Again, I am not saying you meant this. But this is a mistake many people make, including people who accept evolution but want to also say that God guides the process along the way. I am not so sure what this would mean, though. His Providence exists of course, but to say he has special guidance over evolution seems as mythical as saying Zeus causes the lightning.
    Thanks 🙂

    1. This is not an article attempting to prove the existence of God. Irreducible complexity refers here to rare earth theory. The author of the original article goes on to discuss God as the answer. But that is not really my focus

  20. If life is found on another planet the atheist will say it proves there is no God. The theist will say God put it there, praise the Lord.

  21. Thank you for the article Monsignor!

    I want to point out that it is always helpful to distinguish between the various kinds of designs. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the article, only a caution just because sometimes it is hard to understand what is meant by “design” and it often leads to confusion.

    Sometimes, intelligent design is equated with the idea that certain features of biological organisms cannot be explained by natural selection and the best explanation is an intelligent designer of some kind. Proponents of the “ID”-movement as it has come to be known often argue that the science does not identify the designer, only points to the fact that there is one. ID is basically a scientific or mathematical approach. I am not especially familiar with the main defenses of the ID-theory so I will refrain from making a decision as to what degree it is correct.

    However, one need not accept intelligent design theory as understood by people like Mike Behe in the “ID-movement.” One can certainly accept the idea the universe is intelligently designed without thinking either that natural selection is insufficient or that the ID-movement’s arguments are successful. One can think the universe is designed for completely different reasons. There are design arguments which differ from the ID-movement’s arguments. These arguments also hope to establish the world is designed however not by pointing to biology per se. (e.g. the argument from order and finality, the argument about the applicability of mathematics to the world, the argument from the fact that the world is intelligible etc.). It is important therefore to realize that whether or not the universe is intelligently designed does not stand or fall with natural selection or the ID-movement.

  22. “As Dean L. Overman complains: “Many proponents of the origin of life by chance do not bother to perform the mathematical calculations which render their conclusions highly improbable.” Stephen C. Meyer calculates that to generate a single functional protein of 150 amino acids exceeds: “1 chance in 10-180, (that’s 10 to the 180th power)” and comments “it is extremely unlikely that a random search through all the possible amino acid sequences could generate even a single relatively short functional protein in the time available since the beginning of the universe…”

  23. Does anyone remember Pangea ?
    there was no Africa.
    And it seems like several branches of early man existed.

  24. Msgr. Charles Pope is right on. Of course much more can be said about any of the factors listed which make the earth suitable for life. For instance, the moon affects the rotational speed of earth with its slowing effect. A much faster rotating earth, with high winds, etc., could not sustain complex life. Life did not just appear and progress on earth, it did so, rather, on a very unique earth-moon system. On the other hand, those who postulate the possibility of complex life on numerable planets throughout the universe do not speak very scientifically.

  25. You left out the point that some believe that earths influence is enough to melt the polar ice caps on Uranus


    the reasons why are far more interesting than the raw data. I laugh with my nieces and nephews as we consider similar points as Msgr Pope states here, leading to obvious conclusions, “It’s almost as if the whole universe was deliberately planned and created like this by some sort of, dunno’ “Supreme Being” or something………..but we all know (shrug) it just happened by accident.” Hahahahahahahahah!

  27. Very interesting article and comments. Lots of food for thought.

    One point. Just because it appears statistically improbable for life to exist on other planets (assuming that life is exactly like our own) doesn’t mean it can’t exist. Who says The Creator (God, Intelligent Designer, He, She, It, whatever you name Him) cannot choose to create other life forms? Can an artist or musician be satisfied with only one painting or composition? God can choose what He wants to create.

    I like the point – absence of proof does not mean proof of absence.

  28. There may be life on other planets that we have been unable to recognize. The conditions that make the life we are able to recognize may exist in few places, but other, non-carbon based, forms may be found in other environments. Nothing says life has to evolve there as it has evolved here.

    1. The quest is for intelligent life. The kind that, at least statistically speaking is able to launch in to space and communicate. It is certainly possible to posit lower life forms such as bacteria or extremophiles like we have on this planet being out there. But the search at SETI is for intelligent life which according to Sagen is likely to exist on Billions and Billions of other planets.

      But apparently the folks at SETI never got your memo that life can mean anything whatsoever. They are listening for intelligent life that is able to communicate or show evidence of intelligence as Sagen and others posited. I suppose you should write them and tell them that “life” can mean anything. Then, even the silence can have meaning, and they can declare victory ask for more funding and declare that silence is actually a form of communication, ’cause whose to say other beings have to communicate at all? For you say, “nothing says” life has to evolve like here. OK, but are there no parameters? If anything can be life, everything is life and if “nothing says” what life has to be, then anyone can say what it is! Presto we HAVE discovered life elsewhere since no parameters are valid to exclude the possibility of life out there.

      But as I say, apparently they haven’t gotten your memo to engage in this form of what seems to me to be nominalism and reductionism.

      One of these days Fr. Michael you are actually going to write a comment that surprises us all since it won’t (for once) seek to make the premises of our conversation seem baseless or foolish. While still awaiting that unlikely day, I would direct you to SETI for any further discussion.

  29. There is a great book by Fr. Thomas Dubay called “The Evidential Power of Beauty” (Convergence of Science and Theology). Dubay’s book speaks to much of the discussion.

  30. There is a book entitled “Rare Earth” which goes through the arguments as to why intelligent life is probably rare in the universe. The authors are well known scientists who make a coherent argument for their position. There are scientists who agree with them and just as many who think that their position is too conservative. The point is that the above people are astronomers and other highly trained experts in who have the expertise in the field they are discussing – the possibility of life in the universe.

    The author of the Wall Street article is to my understanding not an expert in anything scientific. Many of the points in the article are simply not true or are a misunderstanding of things stated in the popular media. The Wall Street article is not a legitimate statement of the current scientific thinking about the probability of life in the universe. While I understand the Church’s position about the creation of life in the universe, the Wall Street article should not be used as support for that position.

  31. A great read on this topic is Pope Benedict’s book, “In the Beginning, A Catholic Understanding of Creation and the Fall”, available on Kindle or paper. It generates a lot of light to replace the usual heat generated by this topic. A WONDERFUL book.

  32. Let me take this opportunity to thank you for all you do Msgr.! Could you have imagined when you were ordained you would be (p)reaching out to people like me living in a small town thousands of miles away? How about a book of all your posts some day?

  33. I second Fr. Leo’s recommendation of “The Evidential Power of Beauty.” I underlined more than I didn’t and was constantly reading portions out loud to my husband. It’s a “Wow!” book.

  34. I recall Chesterton’s observation that “if there was no God, there would be no atheists.”

  35. I believe that it is highly probable that there is life throughout the universe. We know so little about what exists even in our small corner of the universe. But we do know that the universe consists of hundreds of billions of galaxies, each of which is made up of hundreds of billions of stars. The data from the Kepler telescope and other instruments confirms the existence of thousands of planets around other stars and reveals that every star should have planets. In the very small study done to date we have discovered a few stars that orbit in their stars habitable zone. Extrapolating across just our galaxy, the potential exists for hundreds of millions of potentially habitable worlds.

    Of course “potentially habitable” doesn’t mean actually habitable. For example, Venus is in our star’s habitable zone. And then there is the question as to whether life would actually evolve. Whether there is a creator who created all life on our planet through evolution or whether life evolved here through natural processes, life evolved on this planet. If it evolved here then it can evolve on other planets where conditions allow for such processes to occur.

    The idea that life is unique to our planet, and that intelligent life cannot exist elsewhere, whether created by a creator or evolving through natural processes, is in my view a hold over from times when the earth was all that was known and the stars were just lights in the sky. We know more than that now.

  36. Real progress will be made when life in the womb will be recognized to be equal to any life found under a microscope. Until that happens I don’t believe the word ‘scientist’ has much meaning. Thank you for a wonderful article and information to continue to shine light in the darkness.

  37. Irreducible complexity is compelling at first, but seems to fall prey to a tautology. Conditions necessary for life on earth may actually be sufficient but not necessary causes. Earth-like lifeforms may require earth-like condiments, but I could imagine that organisms could thrive in environments inhospitable to the majority of creatures here on earth. For instance, one could draw the conclusion that because only green plants had been found to produce their only energy, that photosynthesis requires green pigmentation. This has been dispelled with evidence of non-green algae producing energy. In other words, we know earth has life, and so we take empirical examples witnessed here and try to impose a general and absolute theory on all of creation. This inductive reasoning does not provide much in the way of evidence. I’ve always thought that the statistical reference to life on other worlds was because of the different combinations of elements and conditions on other planets could produce some life; and not specifically earth-life.

    1. On earth we already have extremophiles, so your retort works at that level. However, the SETI project and Sagen’s claim are looking for complex life, and also life intelligent enough to communicate. Thus, I would argue you have nibbled at the edges, but you have not demonstrated that irreducible complexity is a tautology. Your comment also “falls prey” to being too non-specific. I am willing to admit that as a term “life” can have a range, but at the end of the day it does have to have a meaning wherein we can test for it and conclude to it. And even if you want to quibble with that, lets just say we haven’t found “intelligence” out there, which is surprising given the age of the Universe and “billions and billions” premise of Sagen et al. The silence (lack of evidence) is not a slam-dunk, but neither should it be merely dismissed by wide open retorts like “who can really say what life is” or “we just haven’t heard anything yet” or maybe they are talking and we can’t understand….etc. At the end of the day the “billions and Billions” should also come under scrutiny for the reasons stated in the article. Maybe there aren’t billions and billions, maybe a little more is needed than mere chance and statistics for complex and intelligent life to be out there, etc. I remain open to the possibility that it is out there. Just wondering if our premises need adjusting and if the lack of evidence can or should be wholly ignored.

      1. We have barely begun to search for intelligence using methods that we think other intelligent species may use. Given the physical parameters on habitability identified to date, and limitations on habitability set out in the book “Rare Earth” and other publications, it is certainly possible that intelligent life is rare and widely separated in both space and time. We may be the only intelligent species to exist in our area of the Galaxy at this time. Or not. We do not know and will only find out by continuing the search. To question whether intelligent aliens exist anywhere based on the very limited search conducted to date is in my view extremely premature. And besides, we may have already received at least one signal – the “Wow” signal received back in the 70’s. This was a radio signal received on one occasion which was determined to be artificial but not from any known earthly source. It was never observed again but is still unexplained.

  38. “The problems on the religious side come when some seek to claim that religious accounts of the origin of the world and the causes of things are meant to be understood as scientific language. Yet often, religious accounts of origins and causes use allegory, metaphor, symbolism, and epic stories to convey truths and they need not be taken as literal, scientific accounts.”

    Father, couldn’t that reasoning be equally applied to the accounts of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, not to mention every miracle account?

  39. While the human race is certainly an extraordinary creation, I’ve always felt the “exclusivity ” of human beings is actually human arrogance disbelieving there could be any other “creation” as wonderful and exceptional as human life. I also contend that a “God” or other “supreme being” who created humans can not be limited to or “put into a box” to being only the creations we have the ability to touch and see. The universe is so infinite and our science so limited we can only theorize about whether or not there is life elsewhere in the cosmos. All it takes to debunk those claims is to postulate another qualifier to say “Life as we know it” does not exist.

  40. Would like to know if any widely accepted Mystics have had locutions about extraterrestrial life?

  41. Seems SETI and NASA already got the memo:

    Signatures of a Shadow Biosphere

    Paul C.W. Davies, Steven A. Benner, Carol E. Cleland, Charles H. Lineweaver, Christopher P. McKay, and Felisa Wolfe-Simon. Astrobiology. March 2009, 9(2): 241-249. doi:10.1089/ast.2008.0251.

    Abstract: Astrobiologists are aware that extraterrestrial life might differ from known life, and considerable thought has been given to possible signatures associated with weird forms of life on other planets. So far, however, very little attention has been paid to the possibility that our own planet might also host communities of weird life. If life arises readily in Earth-like conditions, as many astrobiologists contend, then it may well have formed many times on Earth itself, which raises the question whether one or more shadow biospheres have existed in the past or still exist today. In this paper, we discuss possible signatures of weird life and outline some simple strategies for seeking evidence of a shadow biosphere. Astrobiology 9, 241–249.

    Washington Post, 2 December 2010:

    “Before you get disappointed, realize that while not as sexy as a little green man, it is a big deal. No other life form exists off arsenic. It had long been the assumption that without six certain essential elements — carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur — life could not exist. This discovery shows “life-as-we-know-it could be much more flexible than we generally assume or can imagine,” Felisa Wolfe-Simon a NASA biochemist told the Post’s Marc Kaufman.

    1. “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine but stranger than we can imagine.” I cannot remember who made this statement – maybe Asimov- but it is true. We can only imagine what our knowledge, experience and physiology allows us to imagine. Then some fact comes along which shakes our worldview. Most likely simple life of some form exists at many locations in the universe. Maybe even in our own solar system. It may take us thousands of years of searching dead worlds around other stars before we find life. Or we could reach the first star and find an intergalactic civilization exists. We don’t know. But the more we look, the more we will know.

      The interesting question is how would we as a species respond to such a discovery. Is the Church prepared for such a discovery – even if it’s an intelligent species with no concept of a creator? I do not mean to be disrespectful by this question but am sincerely interested in your opinion.

  42. Science cannot explain the super great miracles in the Catholic Church. The miracle of the sun at Fatima, Eucharistic miracles, healing at Lourdes ,Padre Pio, Incorruptible bodies of saints, saints who lived on the Blessed Sacrament alone, Theresa Neuman and others.

  43. I found out recently that it has been discovered that our planets magnetic field is decaying. In retrospect, this should be obvious since it is formed by a gigantic circulating electric current inside our earths core and our earths core is not a super conducting metal. Since the resistance of that iron core is non-zero, that current must decay over time and thus our magnetic field along with it.

    The interesting thing is that projecting the magnetic field strength back in time until our earths iron core hits it saturation limit is only about 10,000 years (constant loss) to 10,000 years (fluctuating loss) depending on events like possible N-S pole reversals (increased loss periods).

    I had not really thought about that before. The earth’s magnetic field is just something I take for granted. However, given its source, asking circulating electric current in the earths core to last millions of years unchanged is kind of like asking for a perpetual motion machine.

    So the probability of any stars being existing is next to nil (above). Hover, given many stars, the probability of a single earth like planet is also next to nil (200 criteria to fulfill). Given at most one inhabitable planet to work with, the possibility of time and chance creating a person is nil. Given that the single inhabitable planet seems 6,000 to 10,000 years old and that people seem to have been around that entire time, that implies time, chance, and evolution were not involved in the process.

    So we have a universe of stars (impossible), a habitable planet (impossible), a 6000 to 10,000 year old planet filled with people and a rich diversity of hugely complex life that have been around for this entire 6000 to 10,000 year period (also impossible – no time for evolution). How do you still ignore God in all of this?

  44. There is an excellent movie, “The Priveleged Planet” offered by “Illustra Media”.
    they have other movies: “Unlocking the Mystery Of Life”, “Darwin’s Dilemma” and “The Case for a Creator”,
    all excellent presentations.

  45. All my life I have been interested in Science. Fate has it, I believe, that this interest led me to the study of the Holy Scriptures. The Bible even enhanced my interest in everything scientific. The first time I heard Johnny Mathis singing “Fly Me to the Moon,” the lyrics and the melody were already printed in my mind. Do you want me to prove this? Pardon my voice, but I can sing it with gusto!

    I am interested about everything around me. I observe keenly how ants move, how birds fly, and how people live their lives. In my elementary grades, when I first heard the Darwinian Theory on evolution, the first doubt that came into my mind was that, if humans came from apes, why are there people with faces that look like horses and dogs?

    I am not a scientist and have never finished any degree in any branch of Science, but I always have with me a scientific attitude and approach in the study of everything I am interested in. The very recent discovery of a planet 2 light-years away from the earth, which they say is very much ‘earth-like,’ made it to the headlines of global news reports. This led to the resurrection of the very frequently asked question: Is there life in other places of the universe? Are there other planets that can sustain life much like that of the earth? I am sure of the answer! And my answer comes from the book which I have revered all my life because it is the only book that I found to be logical and scientific in answering not only the questions of hundreds of thousands of people I am favored to meet, but my own questions which I do not hear from other people. The Bible has it!

    In the book of Acts 17:26-27, it is written –

    “And He has made all nations of men of one blood to dwell on all the face of the earth, ordaining fore-appointed seasons and boundaries of their dwelling, to seek the Lord, if perhaps they might feel after Him and find Him, though indeed He is not far from each one of us.”

    The verse mentions the planet Earth, and we must especially notice the phrase “bounds of their habitation”. Scientists agree that until now, with all their sophisticated equipments, they have not yet found in the Solar system, or in our galaxy, much more in other distant galaxies, a place that can sustain or support human life. The recent planet discovered has a temperature of 300 degrees centigrade below zero, with its size, 5.5 times larger than that of the earth, and with its year, much shorter than an earth year, implying that it moves on a greater speed than the earth, and revolving on a star which is very much fainter than our sun. It is scientifically impossible for us to live in such a place, period.

    God is an exact God. Reduce the size of the earth; reduce the heat of the sun; and we will freeze. Make it a little closer to the sun and we will be baked or burned. Make it as large as Mars and our weight will be more than doubled. The Earth’s size and distance from the sun are the exact measurements needed to sustain human life! GOD MEASURED IT.

    You want proof? Read the book of Job 38:4, it says:

    “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell if you have understanding! Who has set its measurements, for you know? Or who has stretched the line on it? On what are its bases sunk, or who cast its cornerstone…”

    After all, the universe is the handy work of God’s hand. Psalms 19:1-3 has this to say:

    “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the expanse proclaims His handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor are there words; their voice is not heard.”

    Undoubtedly, there are other planets in our own galaxy and in billion other galaxies, but the reason why God created man on Earth from the dust of the ground (Genesis 2:7) is because it is the only planet in the entire universe wherein human life will comfortably fit. Think of this: The best place for your eyes is where it is now. Put them a little below, i.e., in the belly or thighs and you can imagine how ugly your person will be. Put your nose or ears in other places of your body and you will not be a work of art, as written in the book of Hebrews 2:6-7.

    “But one in a certain place testified, saying, What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him? Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands:” Human efforts and resources, which scientists devote in searching for other worlds that can sustain life, will be futile! Let us search, instead, from the Holy Scriptures the kingdom and the righteousness of God and discover a world called a “new Earth” where righteousness, peace, and love dwell (2 Peter 3:13).

    “But according to His promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”

    For more of Bro. Eli Soriano, please check out:



  46. It seems to me that most of you think about this stuff way too much. Trying to prove that which cannot be proven. Be a good person. Obey the golden rule. Don`t argue about whether it`s God`s idea, or just a good idea. Sometimes, nobody is right, and nobody is wrong. Peace.

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