Sunday, 29 May 2016

Habitable Planets Are Probably Commonplace.

Kepler-62f (Artist's impression).
A planet in the 'habitable zone' of a star located about 1,200 light-years from Earth.

Credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle
A planet 1,200 light-years away is a good prospect for a habitable world: Researchers combine climate, orbit models to show that Kepler-62f might be able to sustain life -- ScienceDaily.

News that astronomers have identified yet another possibly habitable planet raises a number of questions for religion, especially the Abrahamic religions, and even more so for creationist fundamentalism based on a literal reading of the Bible or Qur'an.

Both these books portray a Universe created especially for Earth-bound human beings and a creator god who has, or wants, a close relationship with these specially-created Earthlings. Both Christianity and Islam insist that their god created humans simply to worship it. The entire Universe is supposedly here for somewhere for humans to live as they worship this creator god.

Part of this superstition is that everything was created for this purpose, exactly as it is today; that Earth was created with just the right conditions, in a Universe with just the right conditions so that there would be humans to do the worshipping. However, the existence of thousands of planets orbiting far-away suns at the right distance for the right conditions on which living things could exist pretty much as they do on Earth, gives the lie to the claim that Earth was a special creation. It would seem that Earth is nothing out of the ordinary so far as its orbital distance from its star and so far as its temperature and chemical composition is concerned. There are probably countless millions of such planets in the entire Universe.

It also raises the distinct possibility that self-replicating molecules could have arisen very many times throughout the Universe, giving rise eventually to complex and diverse life on other planets by much the same process that gave rise to it here.

Although intelligent life, depending on the definition of intelligence, has arisen a few times on Earth and has undoubtedly arisen at least twice and probably more times in the Homo genus, the sort of intelligence that could conceive of a creator god, let alone worship it, seems to be a rare result of evolution. Leaving aside Skinner's pigeons, there are few signs that other species have become religious and certainly not in the sense of projecting their own image and characteristics onto an invisible, imaginary deity and feeling the need to talk to it and assign causality to it.

The notion that the endpoint (the purpose even) of evolution was to produce modern, intelligent humans is fundamentally wrong and have never been the scientific view. It is based on nothing more than arrogant anthropocentrism. In fact, the 'endpoint' in so far as the present state of living species can be called an endpoint, of most species evolution is not intelligence as we understand it. It is unlikely then that any given habitable planet would have an evolved species on it capable of understanding the idea of deities, let alone worshipping some.

We can be as certain as it's possible to be that even if species capable of being religious had evolved, their religions would be as different to those on Earth as those on Earth are different to one another. We know from history that as Europeans discovered previously unknown peoples around the world, no two of them happened to have the same religion. Whatever religion our African ancestors might have had has splintered and diversified even more rapidly that the founder population that left Africa diversified into different linguistic, cultural and morphological types and it's still happening today. Today, there are some 40,000 different Christian sects alone.

By contrast, science always tends to converge on a single understanding and a single interpretation of the observable evidence. It matters not the culture, language, religion or social norms of the scientists, convergence is always and only towards consensus based on what the evidence shows.

Now, for the same creationist view of the origins of the Universe, of Earth, of living things and their relationships to one another, as creationists on Earth have, as with science, creationists on another planet would need to start off with the same evidence for their view so that they can reach a consensus of opinion over what that evidence means, or their views will be nothing more than essentially random, evidence-free guesses and there will be as many different strains of creationism as there are religions and origin myths.

Lastly, any of these planets could easily have conditions that are more favourable to humans from Earth than Earth is. They may not be so seismically active so fewer earthquakes, fewer volcanoes, fewer tsunamis. They may not have frozen polar regions. They may not have ocean depths or high mountains where most life, including human life, is unsustainable. They may have suns which will last longer than Earth's sun, they may have less ionising radiation, fewer toxic chemicals, less extremes of weather. In short, they may be significantly better than Earth vis á vis the support of life.

Where then will this leave the fundamentalist idea that a perfect god created Earth and gave it just the right conditions to sustain humans while they worshipped it? Where will it leave the idea that evolution can't happen and that human life was created just to worship the creator, and everything else was created for the convenience of humans?

Perhaps creationists can explain this and say what evidence they think intelligent being on another planet would have found that a creator deity actually exists and that the diversity of life there was the result of special creation. Presumably this would be the same as the evidence they think there is for those conclusions about life on this planet, so perhaps they could tell my readers what that is, exactly, where we may see it and how it can be examined and tested - the way science validates its evidence.

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