Rabbi Avi Shafran: Lost In Space


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editorial1.jpgLike 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 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 Hashem 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.  Hashem 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. 


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]


  1. R’ Aryeh Kaplan ZTz”L wrote a paper on this very subject, in which he reached a slightly different conclusion than R’ Shafran. R’ Kaplan referred specifically to Shoftim 5:23, in which Dvorah curses “Meroz and its inhabitants”. The Talmud and the Zohar both tell us that Meroz is a star, and that its inhabitants are those who live around that star. R’ Kaplan further states that Avoda Zara 3b identifies 18000 worlds in which Hashem is present, and links this to Tehillim 145:13, which makes it clear that if there is intelligent life on any other planets, they too might worship Him.

    I understand R’ Shafran’s point about science and scientism, a distinction I appreciate. Still, I for one prefer the optimist’s point of view on this subject. Imagine what the scientists would say when the little green men say “but of course we worship The Creator! Doesn’t everybody on your planet do so too?” No doubt they would say life has been found, but not intelligent life…

  2. SETI is admittedly searching for a really small needle in a very, very, very large haystack. The lack of progress is not unsurprising; the universe is a mind-bogglingly enormous place, and even if there were extraterrestrial intelligent life forms out there, we would be unable to have any sort of sustained dialog with them due to the distances involved. Even if the civilization was orbiting the star nearest Earth, each back-and-forth exchange would take almost nine years. Most other stars wouldn’t even allow for a second transmission in your lifetime.

    Voyager I, the man-made object that is furthest away from Earth, is over 9.4 billion miles away. Assuming Voyager maintained its current velocity, it would take in excess of 75,000 years to reach the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, which is a mere 4.2 light years away; again, all other stars are further away, most of them fantastically so.

    In 1974, SETI broadcast a message toward a star cluster which is 25,000 light years from Earth. Even if large purple dinosaurs did live out there, it’d be 50,000 years before we heard back, SETI likely having been cut due to budgetary issues many millennia earlier, and we’d never know they wrote back.

  3. 5. He has a conclusion, and he’s forcing a proof to his conclusion from science. Scientists’ attitude is their individual business, while observations of science are objective. Whether or not extraterrestrial life is discovered has nothing to do with scientists’ attitudes, nor is it contrary to Torah.