Parker J. Cole’s recent article on the Neflix 4 part miniseries title “Alien Worlds” stirred something in my mind, something I want to point out about how Christians who decide to produce speculative fiction are overall less limited in talking about aliens than are writers of realistic or “hard” science fiction who do not believe in God. This is true in spite of the fact some Christian writers are leery of tackling the subject of aliens because of some theological issues the concept of aliens raises for some people.
The Atheistic Evolutionary Worldview of Alien Worlds
Before we examine the freedom Christians have in portraying alien life, let’s look at the worldview that underpinned the miniseries Alien Worlds that Parker talked about in specific detail. I’d summarize the essentially atheistic philosophy behind Alien Worlds as follows:
- Earth Not Special: We live in a vast universe in which we can observe no particular structural reason Earth is special (and we cast aside religious teaching about our world being special as myopic superstition). Therefore life on Earth should not be seen as special.
- Same Conditions, Same Chance for Life: Since life on Earth is not special, life arising here but not obviously on places like the moon and Mercury must mean that conditions like Earth’s would allow life to arise anywhere with similar conditions.
- Liquid Water the Key: Specifically, places in the universe that can hold liquid water should produce DNA-based life, just as liquid water is full of life on Planet Earth, even when that water is extremely hot, cold, salty, or toxic.
- “Goldilocks Planets” Should Have Liquid Water: Therefore exoplanets of sufficient size to retain an atmosphere should have one and should also have liquid water (an atmosphere protects liquid water and keeps it from vacuum evaporation), that is, if the planets are not too close or too far from their sun (if they are in the “Goldilocks zone”).
- Some “Goldilocks” Planets Quite Different from us: However, some of the planets able to meet point 4 are radically different from Earth. Alien Worlds examines four such planets: the first, with both more gravity and a thicker atmosphere than Earth; the second, a planet tidally locked with a red dwarf sun; the third, a world supposedly even more ideal for life than Earth; the fourth, a star where life began long before Earth, where supposedly a highly advanced civilization could thrive.
- An Abundance of Life Necessary: Since the universe holds uncounted billions of exoplanets with conditions that support liquid water, even ones in some ways quite different from Earth, the universe must be teeming with life.
- Darwinism Shapes Life Throughout the Universe: Life, once it exists, must follow rules like life on Earth. We can expect struggles for survival to dominate the interactions of species, as well as sexual selection and social cooperation and death and reproduction, just as we see such things on Earth, but with local twists in specifically how Darwinism affects life on each planet. Which was mostly what Alien Worlds discussed (though it also talked about conditions allowing life to exist at all).
A Scientific Criticism of the Evolutionary Worldview of Alien Worlds
Just talking about evidence and scientific reason, there are a number of criticisms that can be lobbed at the worldview behind Alien Worlds:
- Single Origin of Earth’s Life: All life forms occurring on Earth have genes in common with other life forms. So if the argument is that life arose by the forces of nature just doing what they do, that action, the transition from non-life to life (abiogenesis) would have to have happened only once on Earth. Which, since the Earth is vast with many separate environments, would seem to imply life generating itself is difficult. If difficult, it may have been extremely unlikely even here and therefore the universe may have many water planets devoid of life. (Note of course Intelligent Design people would say the common genetic material in life would stem from a common designer of all life.)
- Science Overestimated Extraterrestrial Life Before: Early analysis of planets like Venus and Mars led people to assume they had abundant life. Venus is within the “Goldilocks zone” of our sun but is a hellhole with an atmosphere almost one hundred times as dense as our own and hot enough to melt led. Venus, as far as current science knows, is utterly devoid of life. Mars is too small to retain enough atmosphere for liquid water on its surface, but this issue used to be unknown. In other words, past theories that assumed abundant life in the Solar System proved to be wrong because of unanticipated factors. Should we really think there would be no unanticipated factors concerning life around other stars?
- Science Wrong About Planetary Formation in the Past: This point is like 2, but worth pointing out separately. Someone who doesn’t read science of the past and old science fiction may think the discovery of exoplanets by various means has greatly increased the number of inhabitable planets thought to exist in the galaxy. In fact, the opposite is true. Given the lack of information, scientific speculation of, say, the 1950s, assumed that planets of all types were abundant. Further, it was assumed that small rocky planets must form closer to the sun, because solar radiation would move too much light materials away to form gas giants. It was also assumed that planets, in contrast to asteroids and comets, must generally follow circular orbits, since the accretion disk around a star is mostly circular. Discovered exoplanets explode those theories of the past. Planets so large they must be gas giants hug closer to many stars than Mercury. Many planets have wildly elliptical orbits. Many star systems seem to have only one planet–at least as far as anyone can tell. And the majority of discovered planets are nowhere near the “Goldilocks Zone.” So, if scientific discoveries of the past greatly reduced the number of planets imagined to be suitable for life, who’s to say that won’t happen again?
- Fermi Paradox: Since the thinking of the past was that not only is life not uncommon, intelligent life must also be common, then you’d expect at least some life to go through technological development. If even a small portion did and at some point developed radio signals, the sheer number of planets would mean the galaxy should be filled with radio messages of intelligent beings. But it isn’t. Unlike points 1-3 which are rarely the subject of discussion, this idea is talked about quite a lot by modern science and has it’s own term, the Fermi Paradox (because Enrico Fermi raised the question) and is the subject of a great deal of conjecture and debate. (I’m linking a YouTube video that presents the top disturbing speculative answers to the Fermi Paradox). The bottom line here though is some of the answers offered to the Fermi Paradox involve questioning if life really is common after all. In fact, scientist Howard Smith objects to many of the assumptions that led to the production of Alien Worlds, with a video presenting his views linked here (note the video includes metions of a Biblical worldview and philosophies of the past).
Theological Objections to the Worldview Behind Alien Worlds
These I’m not going to number here. They center around the idea that God really did create the Earth to be special, even if it doesn’t appear to be. And that the Biblical account of sin and death reveals what God intended life to live in idyllic conditions and only sin made things turn sour. Also that redemption came through Christ, who had to be human. I listed 8 objections as I answered them in a previous article, detailing why I thought someone holding a Biblical worldview could nonetheless write about aliens if he or she wanted to do so.
Our Freedom to Create Hard Sci-Fi Within a Biblical Worldview
So here’s the real point of this article: Christian creators of science fiction are not in fact limited to the way the scientific community sees the universe, whether by people who believe in alien life in the way the producers of Alien Worlds do, nor like the scientists highly skeptical of humans ever meeting aliens, like Dr. Howard Smith. Here’s some things we can do, writing hard science fiction from a Christian point of view, that atheists writing hard science fiction can’t do:
- Earth-Centric Extraterrestrial: Belief in God as the Creator of Earth as special place opens the door to creating stories in which Earth really is the only source of life. That doesn’t mean only Earth is inhabited–maybe Enoch or the Nephilim or at the Tower of Babel humans travelled into outer space. Maybe even seeded space with life elsewhere by early humans, taking with them life that’s long extinct on Earth. AND, if we allow genetic engineering or cybernetic technology among the other humans among the stars, perhaps the life we’d meet out there, that came from Earth, would be very much unlike anything on our planet.
- Earth-Mirroring Extraterrestrial: Similar to point 1, the difference would be that God as the designer of life, whether directly or providentially, could form life in such a way that living creatures very much like animals we know are living on other planets, without being direct descendants of Earth creatures. This could include a wide variety of intelligent aliens, which may resemble very much life on our planet. Say intelligent bears, octopuses, or wolves. (Hard science fiction might allow some parallelism of alien species with life on Earth–but this view could allow extraterrestrial life to be exactly the same or very similar for plausible reasons.)
- Sterile Universe: Other than our planet, science fiction could portray a vast array of alien worlds without any life at all. Stories of exploration of outer space would assume it’s a hostile environment. Stories would center around disputes among humans and efforts to colonize life from Earth on other planets.
- Evolution As Per Alien Worlds: Likewise, while not every Christian writer would choose to do so, it’s possible to see evolution as having a role intended (or at least permitted) by God. That God designed liquid water with the ability to sustain life wherever it is and that He either providentially or directly created cells on each water world and allowed or directed changes over time in that life which matched local conditions as per Alien Worlds. That is, life that would be in many ways strange to us, but would still be familiar in certain ways as well.
- Evolution Unlike Alien Worlds: Belief in God as the Creator of life means God in an act of creativity could have formed life totally unlike our own. Perhaps life based on silicon, or life that lives in liquid methane instead of liquid water, or life that thrives in plasma, etc. Christian imaginers of worlds can give reasons why such creatures could exist and develop over time, either providentially or directly, because God’s creativity surpasses what we already know about.
- Blatantly Designed Life: Life on Earth shows many signs of design–even the simplest cells are tremendously complex. While I am very skeptical that abiogenesis could happen (and you should be skeptical about it, too!) if it did happen, it would require the universe to produce an incredibly precise set of circumstances–that is, the universe itself would have to be fine-tuned to produce life in any possible scenario. Still, once life got going, the case that life evolved over time is much simpler to make–the mechanism of life could well be clever enough that a design feature would allow life to change species…though such changes could also be guided with direct intervention from God. But what if there was a planet in which it was clearly obvious there were no rudimentary or intermediate steps? Say a planet without bacteria? A planet were all life is multicellular? Or a planet with a very limited number of species, which never change? Or, life that changes over time due to sexual selection, but for which there is no population pressure because new births exactly match deaths? The producers of Alien Worlds would write this off as unrealistic, but if we believe in an inventive Creator God, then we can expect surprises in alien life. Including life for which the case for Darwinism can’t be made at any level.
In short, the worldview underpinning Alien Worlds isn’t the only way to look at things–even people who support an atheistic view of the origin of the universe may not agree with the assumptions this miniseries reflects. But as Christians interested in hard science fiction or at least in being scientifically plausible, the concept of an actively creative God, whose work science hasn’t ever been able to anticipate with certainty, opens up many possible story worlds. A creative God gives us more options, not less.
I listed six possibilities, including mirroring what’s in Alien Worlds (though of course with a different moral meaning). There’s probably possibilities I didn’t think of. What kind of story do you favor that takes an approach unlike that of Alien Worlds? Either what you’ve read or what you’d write.
Do you agree or disagree that a Biblical worldview actually expands imaginative possibilities for story worlds and world-building rather than restricts them? What other thoughts would you like to share?