I am a Christian with many highly-overthought theological opinions. I am also something of a scientific researcher through my day job. And I believe in the likely existence of something that is recognizably life outside our planet. None of this is in contradiction.
As I’ve written before, defining life is itself difficult. I know that I’m alive, and I accept on a combination of faith and reason that my fellow men are also alive. It seems only sensible to me to say that other animals are alive, especially with my modern worldview that says there is no intrinsic physical difference between us. When I come to microorganisms, I have much less confidence in the proclamation, and with plants I’m flat-out skeptical. What are the qualities of life? Try to list them, and then watch this video of Theo Jansen’s beach creatures. Are they alive?
Of course not. Likewise, other structures exhibiting lifelike properties — whether engineered or not — are similarly dismissed. Perhaps it is a certain holiness, a divine sanction, that separates life from the lifelike. Or perhaps it is merely our delusion.
Some would put forward that certain well-characterized biological structures (DNA, etc) must be present for something to be considered life. I see no reason for this arbitrary physical distinction. In fact, I believe it is simply wrong. Life as it has evolved on earth has centered around these structures, because it was through them that life in this self-contained system was realized. There is no reason to believe this must be so in foreign systems (although there are reasonable arguments based on self-organization of their constituent atoms, but even that may not hold up in other regions of the universe).
So anyway, from a purely physical perspective, the case has been made many times by people smarter than me that life probably does exist out there. I’m not completely convinced, especially because I’m still uncertain of what life is in a physical sense, but I’m reasonably enough persuaded to go along with it.
As a Christian, I believe that life on this planet is, regardless of the physical mechanisms by which it has been realized, created and sustained by an act of divine will. I see nothing in that formula that insists life was only created at one time and in one place — in fact, it is created repeatedly, continually, in many places on earth. Christians even believe in the creation and sustenance of unphysical lives in the angels and demons, and in the life of God Himself. It’s all the same “life”. What in this contradicts God’s creating life, or allowing/causing its physical forms to assemble, elsewhere?
I’m not the only one thinking about this and failing to find an argument against it. The Vatican has also taken an interest in astrobiology. The burden of argument is on those who say extraterrestrial life is impossible, and, until they may convince me theologically, I’m not jumping ship.
In humanity’s childhood, nobody ever really needed to ask “when does life begin?” or “when does life end?” But now that we have come so far in our understanding of the mechanisms by which physical reality operates, there are no longer clear boundaries. The problem, as I see it, is that we have a clear sense that by virtue of our minds and of our consciousness (and, depending on who you ask, of our capacity for communion with the divine), there is something that makes human life distinct from generic biological life. But that’s not really something we can measure. At the same time, we can keep zooming in on the components of biological life and measure them, and start to discover very fuzzy boundaries between life and death.
Demarcating the beginning and end of human life is the closest thing we have to “scientifically” measuring, quantifying, and describing it. Toward this, many will say that we can simply take a biological definition of life, insist on the presence of human DNA, and voila, there we have our answer. Others will swoop in and say that this is not quite the definition of life most people intend when speaking of human life — after all, we don’t mean life in the same way that bacteria have life, and many don’t mean life in the same way that simpler animals have life. Some will tie it to another concept altogether, one that they may or may not believe transcends physical order — personhood.
A particularly nasty abuse of this latter approach is to insist on a certain socializing as a rite of passage in acquiring personhood, and therefore the fullness of life and humanity. The abuses here are many — consider the boy raised by wolves. He could have had human social interaction, and may still have the capacity for it, but by this requirement, he is not really a person. What of the comatose? What of the severely mentally disabled? None of them are living people according to this view, all too prevalent amongst academics. I had a class back in college in which the majority position in the classroom was in favor of this view. And it may be gaining alarming influence outside the halls of the academy:
“The fetus, given the opportunity to develop properly before birth, and given the essential early socializing experiences and sufficient nourishing food during the crucial early years after birth, will ultimately develop into a human being,” John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote in Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions.
In the past, defining life had major implications for the abortion debate, as focus centered on the start of life. Then came the euthanasia debate, which usually focused on quality of life and ownership of one’s own life. But now, there is a real danger that if views like this one become widespread, a new debate could emerge: no longer sovereignty over one’s own life, but sovereignty of an intellectual elite over the biological lives of unpersons diverting scarce resources away from persons. This is not eugenics, because it is not aimed at the construction of a master race, but it does share a common means in putting people down like dogs for the benefit of a larger abstraction in society.
And let’s not forget the end of life. (I particularly enjoyed reading this rumination on it.) We have already had this foray; if you will recall, just a few short years ago Terri Schiavo died because she lacked consciousness and was therefore not a legally-protected human life. Her life was judged to have already ended, even though she persisted to live biologically. A very nasty and mean-spirited eruption followed. Those among us who believed this tantamount to murder were mocked and reviled as stupid zealots. And a woman died. Don’t let yourself think that debate is over.
I’ve only touched on physical (or as I’ve been calling it, biological) life and mental (conscious) life. What about a sort of life that carries with it strong moral imperatives, but that a very large minority believes does not even exist — spiritual life? That is the real ghost in all of these debates, but good luck measuring it by the standards of the new order of reason.
Edit: If you’re interested in how to go about thinking about when life begins, you may enjoy reading Abortion and the Architecture of Reality by some guy named Sean.