No, Astrobiology Has Not Made the Case for God

6/3/16
 
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By Lawrence M. Krauss,

from The New Yorker,
1/24/15:

ecently, the Wall Street Journal published a piece with the surprising title “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” At least it was surprising to me, because I hadn’t heard the news. The piece argued that new scientific evidence bolsters the claim that the appearance of life in the universe requires a miracle, and it received almost four hundred thousand Facebook shares and likes.

The author of the piece, Eric Metaxas, is not himself a scientist. Rather, he’s a writer and a TV host, and the article was a not-so-thinly-veiled attempt to resurrect the notion of intelligent design, which gives religious arguments the veneer of science—this time in a cosmological context. Life exists only on Earth and has not been found elsewhere. Moreover, the conditions that caused life to appear here are miraculous. So doesn’t that mean we must have come from a miracle at the hand of God? “Doesn’t assuming that an intelligence created these perfect conditions require far less faith than believing that a life-sustaining Earth just happened to beat the inconceivable odds to come into being?” Metaxas writes.

In response, I should begin by noting that the science of “astrobiology”—which, loosely stated, searches for signs of life elsewhere and explores the astrophysical and cosmological conditions that might allow for life to exist in our universe—is still in its infancy. Consensus on many issues has not yet been achieved, and the quality of work in the field varies significantly.

Still, what we have unequivocally learned over the past decade or so is, to paraphrase Hamlet, that there are many more things in Heaven and Earth than were dreamt of in our imagination. The opportunities for the development of life in various systems, and the possible forms of life we know of, have exploded. Metaxas believes that our increased understanding of our evolutionary history implies that the origin of life on Earth is increasingly inexplicable. But the evidence seems to point in the opposite direction.

Such a claim is fraught with statistical perils, however. The first is a familiar mistake of elaborating all the factors responsible for some specific event and calculating all the probabilities as if they were independent. In order for me to be writing this piece at this precise instant on this airplane, having done all the things I’ve done today, consider all the factors that had to be “just right”: I had to find myself in San Francisco, among all the cities in the world; the sequence of stoplights that my taxi had to traverse had to be just right, in order to get me to the airport when I did; the airport security screener had to experience a similar set of coincidences in order to be there when I needed her; same goes for the pilot. It would be easy for me to derive a set of probabilities that, when multiplied together, would produce a number so small that it would be statistically impossible for me to be here now writing.

This approach, of course, involves many fallacies. It is clear that many routes could have led to the same result. Similarly, when we consider the evolution of life on Earth, we have to ask what factors could have been different and still allowed for intelligent life.

In the meantime, both believers and non-believers are done a huge disservice when people promulgate biased and disingenuous claims that distort what current science implies and can imply about the universe. In a society in which the understanding of science is already marginal—and where, at the same time, the continued health of modern society as it meets the challenges of the twenty-first century depends, in some sense, on our ability to utilize our scientific knowledge, both to create new technologies and to help guide rational public policies—this is the last thing we need.

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