A recent scientific discovery that is capturing attention is that there may be more planets like ours in our galaxy than anyone has imagined. The estimate is as many as 40 billion.

What makes this discovery exciting is that it seems to increase significantly the probability that we are not the only intelligent beings in the universe.

It is still being debated, however, just how much this probability has increased. On the one hand, it could prove to be a really big amount, since our galaxy is only one of 100 billion or so in the universe. Each of the other galaxies likely has inhabitable planets of its own, and perhaps in numbers comparable to ours.

On the other hand, there is a major problem with conjuring with probabilities of life elsewhere in the universe. Even on this planet, no one as yet knows how any living matter comes into existence from simpler atomic elements and chemical compounds. And because this is so, it can make no clear sense yet to assert probabilities of its emergence anywhere else.

People of faith might be tempted to contend that since life, and the universe which supports it, are divinely created, there is good reason to expect that we will eventually encounter beings like us throughout it. It is God’s intention that we do so.

But even if, by divine decree, every habitable planet in the universe is inhabited by creatures like us, there still would not be nearly enough of them to warrant believing that they and we are the reason for the universe in the first place. The rest of it would still look like the vast emptiness that it now appears to be.

The real question, however, is not whether there are in fact intelligent beings elsewhere in the cosmos. The real question is whether their existence could make any real difference to us.

Given what we now know about how far their planets are from us, it has to be disconcerting in the extreme to realize that there is no possibility of communicating with extra-terrestrial beings in any meaningful sense. Even travelling at the speed of light, our messages would reach their intended targets only long after we ourselves have passed from the scene.

Here, I think, is one of the greatest faith challenges we will have to face in all of our lifetimes.


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  1. Jim McConnell says:

    To me, the real question is: how do inanimate atoms combine in such a way that we become sentient beings capable of rumination? When we die, our bodies once again become a collection of inanimate atoms that have no sense of life about them at all. What, then, is this wonderful thing we call intelligent life, if not God’s expression of His love. Does it really matter whether or not there are other collections of atoms “out there” that are as fortunate as we are?

    We aren’t even sure about what makes up most of the universe. We assume that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic. However, the application of Kepler’s Third Law to the galaxies within our own cluster leads us to believe that the mass we see is only about 30% of the critical density. Because we cannot even be sure about the characteristics of the small part of the universe where we live, could this mean that “intelligent life” might be expressed very differently in other parts of the universe?

    Maybe Albert Einstein was right after all; “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity – and I’m not sure about the former”.

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