faith and aliens

We had a fascinating and mysterious guest in October 2017.

When I say “we,” I am referring to all of us on planet earth. Space object 1I / 2017 U1 (proper name: Oumuamua, meaning “a messenger from afar”) was discovered by Robert Weryk at Haleakala Observatory on October 19. At the time, it had already made its closest approach to the Sun and was heading away from it at a relative velocity of about 54 kilometers per second.  

It was the first such visitor scientists have ever observed, and excitement and speculation about its composition and origins was widespread. It was weird and interesting and fit no categories we had devised so far to explain objects running through our cosmic neighborhood. Oumuamua is still shrouded in mystery, although recently, an interesting and plausible hypothesis has been proposed by an astronomer at NASA’s JPL regarding this interstellar fly-by.

But a Harvard astronomy professor named Avi Loeb begs to differ. He thinks it could be an artifact from an alien civilization.

Now, if that is even a remote possibility, it is not some sort of probe, because it isn’t functioning—at least not in any way astronomers can determine (yes, they looked). But perhaps there are other things it could be: a light sail, interstellar flotsam, a huge cigar; we still really don’t know, because it is small and it is mysterious and it is gone (at least, beyond where we can see it; as I write it is somewhere near Saturn).

Apparently, though, it is not mysterious enough to warrant any hypothesis. Dr.  Loeb’s ideas have been met with hoots of derision and disgusted refutation. I recently read this comment from a scientist and found it interesting and informative. Astrophysicist Paul M. Sutter from Ohio State University tweeted, “Oumuamua is not an alien spaceship, and the authors of the paper insult honest scientific inquiry to even suggest it.”

You got that, Avi? Are we clear? “We don’t know what this thing is, but we damn sure know it isn’t of alien construction, and you insult us by even asking about it!”

Okay, first of all, I think Dr. Loeb’s theory is whack-a-doodle, too. (See what I did there?) There has been no evidence gathered to this point that could begin to point to such an idea. It’s outlandish, but also kinda fun. When this visiting whatever-it-is first showed up, the scenario reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama—a fascinating novel about a visit from an uninhabited alien spacecraft. I read several articles that referred to that story as well.

But despite my personal opinion, I have an issue with Dr. Sutter’s remark. He is far more educated than I, so maybe I’m missing something, but I wonder: Why are Avi Loeb’s ideas so much detritus; an “insult” to scientific inquiry? Don’t we make amazing discoveries when we are willing to ask questions? As I understand it, here are the basic steps in any scientific inquiry:

  1. Identify the problem. A scientific observation must be objective and verifiable by others through experimentation and continued observation.
  2. Ask a question, and research the question. Determine what information and resources are available and evaluate them to help “fine tune” the question.
  3. Create a hypothesis and make a prediction. Determine, through deductive reasoning, what result(s) are expected if the hypothesis is true.
  4. Conduct experiments; collect and analyze data. Data is reviewed and analyzed to see if the results prove or disprove the hypothesis, and if the date is statistically significant, and if it can be attributed to a specific cause rather than random chance.
  5. Draw conclusions.
  6. Share results.

I am not a scientist, but it seems pretty clear to me that Dr. Loeb is identifying a problem and asking a question. His ideas are weird–really weird–but so are black holes and dark matter. At our current state of understanding and ability to monitor Oumuaua, it does not appear likely that any kind of experiment can be conducted to prove or disprove Loeb’s ideas.

That isn’t really my point, though. I am trying to understand how another scientist can mock him and reject his potential hypothesis out of hand. Sounds like rigid fundamentalism to me–a worship of scientism, not respect for science. We don’t actually know that this is not an alien artifact; at least, not by purely empirical evidence. Oumuamu is certainly “alien” in origin, in that it came from outside our solar system. However, has anyone put forward evidence that Oumuamua could not possibly be manufactured by some other race of beings?

Before dismissing his thoughts as an “insult,” perhaps rational minds could put forth clear, compelling evidence as to why they are wrong.

I constantly see the same dismissive attitude regarding the existence of God. If you are a believer in any sort of higher power, you must be uneducated or gullible–or worse. However, in the question of God’s existence, despite a prevailing western view of materialism, there are well-thought-out and clear expositions of the rationality of Christian faith. The honest inquirer will at least listen and consider, rather than assume the matter is closed.

Humans do not, and cannot know with certainty that God doesn’t exist. Of course, the skeptic will answer “You can’t know that he does exist either.” And of course the skeptic would be correct. But consider this: Men, women, and children from every tribe, tongue, and nation, in diverse and sometimes uncharted regions, for uncounted millennia, have experienced God’s love and presence in a myriad of mysterious and majestic manifestations.Throughout the world today, millions of people will proclaim that their life has been radically changed because of an encounter with a Jewish rabbi named Yeshua, who these people claim is the living Son of God. In many cases, these same people are beaten, tortured, and even killed because they refuse to renounce their trust in him.

I, too, have had this encounter, and have experienced God’s loving goodness and care in my life, and have known his guidance, and have grown to realize the authority and power of the Scriptures, and have “heard” the voice of the Holy Spirit leading me, and have felt his comfort. Not only that, over decades I have met and known people whose lives have been thoroughly, miraculously changed by submitting themselves to God.

Maybe some people reading this would discount everything I’m writing as fantasy. I would counter that of course, you can choose not to believe, but there is a lot of evidence that is pretty darned overwhelming, if you will honestly consider it. Unless you decide you know better, and your attitude is the same as the previously mentioned astrophysicist: To even consider such an idea is an insult. I know there is no God, no supernatural world.

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie “Men in Black.” A New York City police officer, played by Will Smith, has just discovered that alien beings are alive on the earth, and that their existence is a secret unknown to most of humanity, a secret closely guarded by an unofficial government organization. One of the agents for this organization is played by Tommy Lee Jones, and he sits down to talk to Smith about what Smith has just discovered. At one point in their conversation, Jones says:

Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody ‘knew’ the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago everybody ‘knew’ the earth was flat; and fifteen minutes ago, you ‘knew’ that people were alone on this planet. [Sigh.] Imagine what you’ll ‘know’ tomorrow.

When we rely on our own understanding, we truncate our imagination and shrink our world. There is so much still to be explored and understood. There is so much mystery in the cosmos. And I have found that surrounding it all, and transcending it all, is a Mystery beyond mysteries, a being of perfect love and perfect justice and unimaginable mercy. Millions of my brothers and sisters have discovered him as well.

We have come this far by faith, and we have come to know our Father’s goodness. Imagine how much more we will know tomorrow.