Lost in Space

Like most religions, Scientism has its articles of faith.

Science, the study of nature, has a premise — the scientific method — but no required beliefs about the unseen.

Scientism, by contrast — the conviction that there is and can be nothing beyond the reach of our physical senses and instruments — possesses a dogma as sacrosanct as any religion’s.

Among its unchallengeable doctrines is an abiding faith in the absence of a Creator, in the all-pervading rule of chance in the universe. Unfolding from that axiom is the conviction that life materialized naturally from inanimate matter; and that the diversity of life on earth emerged from the trinity of a common single-celled ancestor, random mutation and natural selection.

Which leads in turn to another of Scientism’s creeds: that life must exist beyond our planet.

For if chance is the loom on which the universe’s fabric lies stretched, there is no reason that only a single, unremarkable planet in a single, unremarkable solar system in a single, unremarkable galaxy — a solitary orb in a universe of billions of stars and their satellites — would alone have spawned life and, eventually, intelligent life.

During the same eons that allowed natural processes on Earth to progress from inert elements to iPods and their owners, countless other worlds should have done no worse. Indeed, should have done considerably better.

And yet, like the elusive laboratory experiment actually demonstrating the evolution of one species into another, the search for intelligent life beyond our planet has, thus far, come up empty.

Not, though, for lack of trying.

Back in 1960, the first SETI, or “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence,” effort was made, utilizing a radio telescope to examine star systems. In the 1970s and 1980s other SETI efforts were launched; among them, the “Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay” (META) and META II, which searched the southern sky.

Plaques depicting the location of Earth in the galaxy and solar system and what humans look like were launched aboard the Pioneer probes in 1972 and 1973; and the Voyager probes in 1977 provided similar information on two golden records, which also included recordings of pictures and sounds of Earth. In 1974, the Arecibo message, which included simply coded information about chemistry and terrestrial life, was beamed into space.

In the 1990s, the “Billion-channel ExtraTerrestrial Assay” (BETA) was created, as well as a project sponsored by The Planetary Society that harnesses the computing power of five million volunteers’ computers to crunch numbers that might reveal patterns indicative of intelligent life beyond our planet. Over 19 billion hours of processing time have so far been consumed by the project.

So far, though, nothing. Nary a peep nor a pattern.

The dearth of any sign of intelligent life beyond our own planet doesn’t prove anything, of course. It’s a big universe.

But from the Jewish perspective, the absence of any reply to our shout-outs isn’t surprising. The Torah refers to many peoples, but all are presumably earthly. Man, in Judaism’s view, was created by G-d here on earth. No mention is made, at least in exoteric texts, of any parallel production.

Not that there is anything in the Torah to conclusively preclude the existence of life on other worlds. Rudimentary life, after all, exists in earthly places unmentioned in the Torah — from undersea volcanic vents to Amazonian jungle canopies. The discovery of life on other worlds would be an unexpected development but hardly cause any believing Jew a crisis of conscience.

Even intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, while it would be more surprising still, would no more challenge a Torah-centered worldview than the discovery of some previously unknown aboriginal population in an unexplored corner of earth. G-d created much that was discovered by man only with time.

For those, however, who desperately want to believe in humanity’s mediocrity, the apparent biological silence of the universe should be troubling.

Perhaps, they explain reassuringly, life’s development is contingent on a very specific chemical matrix. But that, of course, just begs the question, returning us to the uniqueness of earth, and of man.

Confessors of the creed of Scientism are anxiously awaiting the conclusion of a recent $420 million space mission. On August 4, the Phoenix Mars Lander lifted off from Cape Canaveral to search, when it lands ten months hence, for evidence of life on the Red Planet. Although two rovers have been sending data from Mars for years, the Phoenix Lander is to drill in the Martian equivalent of Earth’s arctic, believed to be a relatively bio-friendly environment, and will chemically analyze its soil and ice, in the hope of finding signs of life, past or present.

Should the tests in fact yield evidence of even the most rudimentary life, it will help keep hope alive in the hearts of Scientism’s high priests that other advanced civilizations might yet one day announce themselves. If, however, Phoenix comes up empty in its biology-quest, it will serve to further furrow the brows of those true believers. Or it should.

Either way, believers in a Creator will be untroubled. Whether there is biological life, simple or advanced, out there may be unknown to us. What we do know, though, is that we’re not alone.

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16 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    If some space probe sighted a minyan of local life-forms davening on another planet, would an advocate of scientism be pleased or displeased?

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Rabbi Avi Shafran: Either way, believers in a Creator will be untroubled. Whether there is biological life, simple or advanced, out there may be unknown to us.

    Ori: What are the things that will trouble believers in a Creator?

  3. Avigdor M'Bawlmawr says:

    No doubt the followers of Scientism look to space wisdom and meaning. The late Carl Sagan was an excellent example of a Jew (a Kohain?) looking for ultimate meaning in extraterrestrial life.

    Yet the creation of the earth in a naturalistic way has much to commend it, both scientifically and religiously. When Pirkei Avos lists the 10 things HKB”H created on the eve of the Sabbath, dinosaur bones weren’t among them. And Chazal teach us Hashem hates miracles. We see that He makes laws of nature just as He does Torah laws for man.

    Let us not make the natural world a god, and let us not make ignorance of the world G-d created a religion.

    Good Shabbos.

  4. Shmuel says:

    Rabbi Shafran’s excellent article makes the common mistake of ascribing to scientism the axiom that there is (c”v) no Creator. In fact, what scientism does is assume that the laws of nature as we see it today have been constant. It then uses this axiom to see if it can explain other phenomena. When an inconsistancy arises it tries to redefine the laws of nature to encompass prior observations and predict others. Prior to this approach people would not even search fo explanations or causes of phenomena. In scientism belief in a Boreh Olam is not excluded per se (some might call this the G-d of the gaps). Bnei Torah understand that the scientific approach has allowed for discovery of how HKBH works His world.

  5. Moshe P. Mann says:

    I would like to respond to Rabbi Shafran’s thoughtful essay, but it is quite difficult, being that it is not very clear what exactly his point is. Neverless, I will give it a shot.

    Rabbi Shafran begins by differentiating between the scientific method, which has helped bring about the plethora of technological wonders of which Rabbi Shafran presumably considers a legitimate enterprise, and Scientism, only the latter of which claims that there is nothing beyond our physical senses. But that’s exactly what allows the scientific method to proceed. Otherwise, how could we design computers, robots, and rocket ships using observable engineering phenomenon? Maybe there are invisible goblins that are making it work! What, just because you don’t see these goblins, you think they’re not there? Why, you wicked Scientism-ist!!! 🙂

    Next, Rabbi Shafran implies IIUC that the current mission to find life on Mars is an example of Scientism. But only a few paragraphs later, he admits that there is nothing in the Torah to preclude the existence of life on other planets! Why then is he accusing the scientists of Scientism, some of them Orthodox Jews, if even the Torah itself has no problem with their expeditions? Surely these expeditions are no more heretical than the many projects already in place searching for new species on our own Planet Earth.

    Then Rabbi Shafran seems to imply that the lack of signs of extraterrestrial life should discourage us from continuing the search. Why that’s exactly the reason that scientists continue!! If we had all the answers, we wouldn’t need look for more!! Isn’t searching for the undiscovered what science is all about?

    And besides, there are already many promising indicators of extraterrestrial life, such as the recently discovered planet HD-209458-b with water vapor. Now if the Intelligent Design klowns pulled out their calculators and applied their (absolutely laughable) miscalculations to the probability of water developing spontaneously as they already did to the probability of life developing spontaneously, I am sure that they would come up with some astronomically low number. But that number means nothing because we already know that it exists!

    Even if there would continue to be no signs of extraterrestrial life, that would not be a cause for dissappointment. Remember that there was “nary a peep” of a proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem – until 357 years later.

    Is Rabbi Shafran decrying the vast sums of money spent on such expeditions? All I can say with respect to that is that most educated people would agree that that money is better spent on that than it is on moochers living off of welfare, but that’s a whole other controversy 🙂

    Until we can appreciate the scientific enterprise, I remain an agnostic 🙁

  6. Yehoshua Mandelcorn says:

    “Scientism, by contrast—the conviction that there is and can be nothing beyond the reach of our physical senses and instruments—possesses a dogma as sacrosanct as any religion’s.”
    Per the latest models, most of the universe is beyond the “cosmic horizon” and can never be observed due to the speed of light limit. Also, black holes can never be observed.
    I am also known as “DallasJew”.

  7. joel rich says:

    Interesting post. How many true followers does this movement have?

  8. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Not that there is anything in the Torah to conclusively preclude the existence of life on other worlds…Either way, believers in a Creator will be untroubled. Whether there is biological life, simple or advanced, out there may be unknown to us. What we do know, though, is that we’re not alone.”

    I agree. As mentioned, this was an issue in the 1960’s(before my day, to be sure, but I’ve read about it). I believe that Rabbi Norman Lamm in “Challenge” and Tradition Magazine discusses it, as well as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in one of his books.

    Some people, though, by inclination, may not be overally concerned with this issue. For example, there is a story in Artscroll’s Rabbi Mendel Kaplan(I hope to locate the citation), where someone asked him, while travelling on the highway, about the “Torah position on life on other planets”. He answered that he is as concerned with this issue, as about the life of the people in the car in front of him!

    Then again, there are people who are concerned about this question, and indeed, theoretical questions can have an impact on our understanding of philosophy or of halacha.

  9. Sabba Hillel says:

    This is called the Fermi paradox Some people have actually suggested (though usually in science fiction novels) that it is because anyone who reaches a high enough level of “civilization” attracts the notice someone else who destroys them. Others have suggested that “people” who reach the appropriate level destroy themselves.

    In any case,those who claim that the existence or nonexistence of life in outer space “proves” anything about the Torah know neither science nor the Torah.

  10. Darya says:

    This piece on Scientism is a red herring, designed to smokescreen the recent events such as condemnation of Rabbi Slifkin, etc. It is an attempt to insinuate that science itself is an irrational belief system and as such has no standing to oppose the religious canon, no matter how obscurantist.

  11. Shia Rabinowitz says:

    What is the basis for your conclusion that scientists are searching for life on other planets because they “want to believe in humanity’s mediocrity,” rather than for the same reason that other scientific research is done; simply to expand the sum total of knowledge? You conclude that the “high priests” of the religion of “scientism” are searching for life on other planets simply because they “want to believe in humanity’s mediocrity.” If you are making such an assertion, you should be able to identify who these “high priests” are, and what evidence you have that their interest in the search for life in outer space is devoted by the desire to “believe in humanity’s mediocrity.” We know that scientists engage in all sorts of inquiry that have no current practical application. Thus, one does not need a new motivation for why scientists would inquire about life in outer space, unless there is real evidence for it.

  12. Bob Miller says:

    Some do it for the grants or the prestige or the challenge, or simply to know more.

    These don’t necessarily believe that they themselves are “mediocre.”

    As for those believe the world is completely cause-and-effect or completely random, or a bit of each, they still think and behave as if they themselves can make free choices. There is something built-in that will not allow them to inwardly accept their own publically expressed beliefs.

  13. rejewvenator says:

    I think that R. Shafran is trying to be able to say ‘well, as long as we haven’t discovered aliens, that’s exactly what we’d expect from the Torah. But if we do discover aliens, not to worry, we haven’t ruled them out anywhere.’ He’s just trying to maintain non-falsifiability. It’s extremely annoying to me because he brushes off the extent to which it would rock the world, and the worldview of just about every person in it, including the frummest Jew on earth, were intelligent aliens to be discovered. I don’t think it’s possible for us to pretend to know the impacts such an event would really have.

    But R. Shafran says ‘Everything will be fine, This has not been ruled out by the Torah, so we can simply carry on as before, surprising as this revelation may be. It’s no threat to our worldview.’ I think that this is a naive position.

  14. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Rejewvenator, history is full of discoveries that rocked the world. Discovering intelligent aliens would be a huge deal. But so was the discovery of a whole world unknown to antiquity (that “new world” of the Americas). So was the discovery of the sterilization that made modern medicine possible, or the atomic theory of matter.

    Those are all things that are orthogonal to the Torah. The Torah does not say that the Americas, germs, or atoms exist, but neither does it say they don’t. Rabbi Shafran is perfectly justified in saying that the Torah’s value won’t change is aliens are discovered or proven not to exist.

    Since the Torah speaks about laws and morality rather than objectively verifiable observations, I don’t think that it is falsifiable. The Torah itself mentions and explains miracles by false prophets (Deutronomy 13:2-6), which can be used to explain away any contrary evidence.

    Even discovering an ancient text of the Torah, different from the traditional text, wouldn’t do anything. It will always be possible that the ancient text is the bad copy, and what we have is a true copy.

  15. Toby Katz says:

    One of the high priests of scientism was Carl Sagan, who often stated that humans are a product of mere chance, and that there are millions of other civilizations in the universe. His faith was atheism, and his atheism required that humans not be the only intelligent creatures in the universe — because something that happens only once out of a billion billion billion billion times looks too much like a “miracle.”

  16. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Re my comment # 8, the source is “Reb Mendel and his Wisdom”, page 95. The larger point was that Yeshivah students should keep an uncluttered mind and only focus on what’s relevant to them, so it may have limited relevance to an appropriate discussion of the issue(Rav Aryeh Kaplan’s discussion is in his “Age of the Universe” prsentation to Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists in 1979, available online).

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