Responding to UFOs in the News

BY GUEST WRITER – JUNE 25, 2019

Is the US government interested in the UFO phenomenon again? A recent spate of news reports indicates so. What does this development mean for Bible believers who are skeptical of the idea? And how can Christians respond respectfully and helpfully?

 

More UFOs Being Reported

As of May 2019, the US Navy has drafted new guidelines for pilots and other military personnel to report encounters with “unidentified aerial phenomena,” usually called unidentified flying objects (UFOs).1 The guidelines are designed to destigmatize self-reporting of such observations and allow for assessments of them. According to the reports, there has been an uptick since 2015 in the number and frequency of unknown but “highly advanced” aircraft encroaching on US Navy aircraft and strike groups and overflying governmental facilities. Descriptions of these aircraft vary. Sometimes they are described as flying “tic tacs” and sometimes as oblong spheres. Most importantly, however, these objects act in ways that defy the laws of physics.

This news comes on the heels of a recently reported effort by the US to conduct research into “unexplained aerial phenomena” (UAP).In 2017, Politico reporter revealed that the Defense Intelligence Agency had funded more than $20 million of research into an Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program (AATIP) from 2007 to 2012. This research effort came at the request of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). At best, the research projects were intended to determine whether Russia or China were testing advanced propulsion systems; at worst, to determine whether such exotic (i.e., alien) technology could “enhance the human condition.” The five-year study was terminated in 2012, with little results from the research.

 

What to Think about This Recent News

In our book, Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, Hugh Ross, Ken Samples, and I evaluate the US experience of the UFO and extraterrestrial phenomena. We do so through the prism of physics, philosophy, theology, government conspiracies, classified military research, and the occult. Several points can be brought to bear for those intrigued by this latest news and who seek to understand what it means.

First, most research shows that the vast majority (95–99%) of all UFO sightings have natural explanations. We give examples in the book where most sightings had naturally occurring explanations, including misperception, faulty instrumentation, and the like. This high number of false identifications remains constant over a long period of time (since 1947). Most of these reports can be explained by natural phenomena, including classified government research into new technologies.

Second, there remains a small residual number (1–5%) of sightings that cannot be explained naturally. We call this the residual UFO, or RUFO phenomenon. RUFO activity fails to conform to the laws of physics, just as these pilots have reported.

As with our military pilots, however, there exists a problem. These pilots are highly trained and very credible witnesses. In our book, we identify credible witnesses to real, but nonphysical phenomena that include UFOs. What things are real but nonphysical? The mind, unlike the brain, is real though nonphysical. As Christians, we believe that spirits are both real and nonphysical. Also, God is both real and transcends the physical dimensions of space-time. RUFOs, however, are not benevolent. We hypothesize they are, in fact, demonic.

We discovered something else as well. The credible witnesses to incredible physical phenomena we studied had open doors to the occult. Because so many investigations into UFO phenomena fail to ask the questions we pose, this can be best seen with the people who have reported alien abductions or contacts. These open doors could easily have been the result of “innocent” activities like participating in seances, Ouija board games, fortune telling or tarot card readings at a party early in life. Or, they could be the result of something more concerning, such as active involvement in cults, the occult and New Age religion.

This news will likely continue to generate public interest, but for reasons that may not be obvious. As reported in Politico, Bob Bigelow was a regular contributor to Harry Reid’s Senate campaign, and was the one that encouraged the Senator to launch the AATIP program in the first place. As founder of Bigelow Aerospace, he was also the recipient of some of AATIP research funding. He is an outspoken proponent that extraterrestrial visitors frequently travel to earth. In addition, the head of the AATIP program, Luis Elizondo, resigned from the Pentagon in October 2017, complaining that the administration was not taking these research efforts seriously enough. Both men have now joined with other, likeminded people to launch a for-profit company called To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science to continue promoting these ideas. They have a television series, titled Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation, on The History Channel, which premiered May 31 of this year.

How to Respond

For Christians, there are some things we can do. Opinion surveys continue to show that at least 50% of Americans believe either in UFOs or extraterrestrials.3 Because of this widespread belief, most Christians will know someone with an interest in—maybe even a fascination with—these stories. I would recommend several things. First, get equipped for understanding UFOs, the precursor to the current UAP phenomenon. Our book can help readers get the background, history, and evidence needed to understand the phenomenon. Second, listen attentively and talk respectfully with those fascinated or enthused by them. Ask questions to elicit their or their friends’ interest. And third, see our book chapter dedicated to showing how you can help people close any doors they’ve opened to the occult. You may have the opportunity to show them how to allow the genuinely real but nonphysical power of God to enter into their life. As 1 Peter 3:15 commands us, “Always be ready.”

Endnotes
  1. Bryan Bender, “U.S. Navy Drafting New Guidelines for Reporting UFOs,” Politico, April 23, 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/04/23/us-navy-guidelines-reporting-ufos-1375290. See also Marina Koren, “Just Don’t Call Them UFOs,” The Atlantic, April 27, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/04/us-military-wants-pilots-report-ufos-despite-stigma/588232; and Deanna Paul, “How Angry Pilots Got the Navy to Stop Dismissing UFO Sightings,” Washington Post, April 25, 2019, https://www.msn.com/en-au/news/world/how-angry-pilots-got-the-navy-to-stop-dismissing-ufo-sightings/ar-BBWgtkj.
  2. Bryan Bender, “The Pentagon’s Secret Search for UFOs,” Politico, December 16, 2017, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/12/16/pentagon-ufo-search-harry-reid-216111.
  3. Jason Walsh, “Poll: Have You Had a UFO ‘experience’?,” Sonoma Index-Tribune, April 25, 2019, https://www.sonomanews.com/opinion/9535048-181/poll-have-you-had-a?sba=AAS.

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About Reasons to Believe

RTB’s mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature. Learn More »

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A Christian Perspective on Pagan and Secular Belief Systems

BY KENNETH R. SAMPLES – JUNE 4, 2019

How are Christians to view systems of thought that are rooted in pagan or secular beliefs? Are non-Christian belief systems so filled with error that Christians can learn nothing from them? Are they so foreign that they only corrupt Christian truth?

Or is there important revelatory common ground made available to all people that allows non-Christians to discover critical truths about life and the world? Could that discovery of truth mean that Christians can learn from pagan or secular sources?

This controversial question of how Christians should view non-Christian belief systems goes back a long way in Christian history. In the ancient world, the question centered on Christianity’s relationship to Greco-Roman philosophy. Two early and prominent Christian church fathers in the ancient world came up with different answers to this challenging issue. Interestingly, both of these Christian thinkers were noted North African church fathers.

Tertullian’s Antithesis Perspective

Tertullian (c. 160–220) was a Latin, North African church father who was educated in the subjects of law and rhetoric and was an engaging writer. He converted to Christianity in midlife. Unique, bold, and temperamental, he served as an apologist and polemicist for early Christianity at a time when the faith encountered a hostile Roman culture.

Tertullian’s view of Christianity’s relationship to pagan philosophy reflects a clear antithesis (a clash of opposition). He strongly believed that Christians had no need or use for pagan philosophy. In his mind, pagan philosophy contaminated and corrupted the one true Christian faith.

Here’s Tertullian at his polemical best:

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon who himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the Gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.1

Augustine’s Critical Appropriation Perspective

Augustine (354–430) was a prolific author, a robust theologian, an insightful philosopher, and a tenacious apologist for the truth of historic Christianity. He is a universal Christian voice within Western Christendom and remains as important to Protestants as he is to Catholics.

Augustine recognized that pagan philosophy certainly involved false beliefs about God, the world, and the human condition. He saw a clash of worldview between Christian theology and pagan philosophy. But he also recognized that pagans were made in the image of God and were the recipients of general revelation and common grace. Thus, pagans got certain things wrong but also some things right about reality and moral goodness (Acts 17:22–30).

Here’s Augustine commenting on the Platonist philosophers’ nearness and farness to truth:

Platonist philosophers excel all others in reputation and authority, just because they are nearer to the truth than the rest, even though they are a long way from it.2

For Augustine, philosophy is a handmaid (servant) to theology. But pagan philosophy should not be accepted or rejected in totality. Rather, pagan philosophy needs to go through a critical appropriation. In Augustine’s thinking, the Platonists possess the divine image, general revelation, and common grace; thus their keen philosophical insights put them near or “nearer to the truth.” But original sin distorts truth and without special revelation (Christ, the gospel) they are still “a long way from it.”

Augustine’s thinking on this topic became the consensus position. For example, the great Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) followed Augustine’s critical appropriation model when forming his Christian-Aristotelian synthesis. Here’s Christian theologian Gerald McDermott’s description of Aquinas’s approach to evaluating the philosophy of Aristotle:

Thomas accepted from Aristotle what he thought was in accord with Christian doctrine, rejected what he thought was not (and explained why), and used some of Aristotle’s categories to help teach Christian faith.3

What We Can Learn

Though they got some important ideas wrong, the great Greek philosophers still had deep insights about such realities as truth, goodness, and beauty. But how do the ancient pagan religions compare to today’s world religions? Well, the ancient pagan religions were a lot like contemporary non-Christian world religions. They got a lot wrong (false gods and false beliefs about humanity) but they also got some critical issues right (for example, a sense of the divine and important aspects about morality).

I think Augustine’s model is superior to that of Tertullian when it comes to explaining how Christianity can relate to other belief systems. As Christians, we grant that people in other religious systems get important things right by a revelation of truth that is given to all (Psalm 19). Yet we must also appreciate the inevitable errors and distortions due to idolatry (false gods and immoral practices) that are inherent in non-Christian religions (Romans 1:18–28). This common ground affords Christians the opportunity to build responsible bridges that can hopefully lead to sharing the gospel message with people who don’t know Christ.

Reflections: Your Turn

Is it biblical to think non-Christian religions will always combine some basic truths mixed with deeply false ideas about God? If so, why? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Resources

Endnotes
  1. As cited in Alister E. McGrath, ed., The Christian Theology Reader, 2nd. ed. (Oxford, Blackwell, 2001), 7-8.
  2. St. Augustine, The City of God, Henry Bettenson trans. (New York: Penguin, 1984), Book 11, section 5, 434.
  3. Gerald R. McDermott, The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010), 65.

About Reasons to Believe

RTB’s mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature. Learn More »

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The Righteousness Of Creation Can Be Shown In The God Equation

By Will Myers

God created the universe though His Son and by His Son.  God sent His Son into time to save us from spiritual death, and give us eternal life. By Romans 1:20 we can understand that righteousness began with the physical laws alone with the spiritual laws. So, Christ Jesus, the Son of God, came to fulfill all law.

Romans 1:20; “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

The Supremacy of the Son of God ] The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
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For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:

Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
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The scholars of apologetics have come to the understanding that there are two perfect books; the book of nature and the book of life. The book of nature are our physical laws and the book of life are our spiritual laws. Neither book can correct the other because both are perfect. The spiritual laws does not contradict any law of physics and vice versa. If a circumstance presents a false interpretation the other book can help correct the interpretation of the first book. The spiritual book (Bible) is first for man to receive eternal life. The book of nature (Physics) is for support of man and part guidelines unto the Son Of God.
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The book of nature, creation, induces the concept of oneness, unity. in which led mankind unto perceiving the concept of one God.  There is a God Equation in creation, the book of nature. It is UspaceVspace=Q whereas Uspace is God’s perfect righteousness, and Vspace is the nexuses observed. The Q IS; thing that IS; what is observed; what has been made. The Book of Psalms 19:1-2 supports the formal:
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The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
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Matthew 4:4; “Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The “mouth of God” includes the cosmos and the atmosphere above us and everything else.  
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What is the God Equation good for? Besides verifying that God is impressing one God from the cosmos each night, the equation verifies Paul of Romans 1:20 as being righteous. This is only the beginning. The equation can not give life but only point toward our Savior, Christ Jesus Who fulfills all laws. For He is the only One that can give us eternal life.
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Scientific Discovery & God: The Solar System Part 2

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In part 1 of this series, I discussed how scientific evidence demonstrates that the universe had a beginning and that such a notion best comports with the expectations of theism over atheistic naturalism. Yet that conspicuous beginning took secular scientists by complete surprise. In this article I will briefly discuss what the expectations of secular scientists concerning our solar system were, and what science has revealed. The results will also show which worldview— naturalism or theism—is preferred.1

Our Solar System

The consensus of secular scientists a quarter century ago when it came to our part of the galaxy was that the solar system was garden-variety typical. The thought was that our solar system was no different from any number of other systems throughout our galaxy or even throughout the expansive universe. Scientists viewed the Sun, Earth, and Moon in our system as being in no particular way uncommon or special. This was a broader implication of the Copernican principle (the idea that the earth does not rest in a privileged or special physical position in the universe).

However, this initial expectation has proved to be untrue. Astrophysicists now know that our solar system exhibits an exquisite fine-tuning that allows for the emergence of complex, intelligent life. Specifically, the relationship of the Sun, Earth, and Moon provide a rare, if not unique, habitable zone for life to thrive on planet Earth. These “just right” conditions of the bodies in our part of the galaxy seem to be unmatched from what scientists know about other systems. In fact, the number and exquisite combination of factors (at least 150) that require fine-tuning to allow for life are so exceedingly improbable, through purely natural means, that the intuition of cosmic design is utterly probative.2

While scientists who embrace a purely naturalistic worldview expected the solar system to prove to be commonplace, instead they discovered a seemingly unique system. Along with the universe overall, the solar system exhibits all the narrowly drawn parameters, characteristics, and content to allow for intelligent life to emerge and thrive. This discovery has led some members of the scientific community to conclude that divine design seems intuitively obvious.

This extraordinary fine-tuning comports well with a theistic worldview, but seems out of place and unexpected from an atheistic, naturalistic perspective.3 So what would our solar system look like if theism were true? Apparently, very much like it appears right now.

In part three I’ll discuss some of Earth’s features and what scientists both anticipated and have discovered about it.

Reflections: Your Turn 

For Christians, what does living in an exquisitely fine-tuned world that allows human life to flourish invoke?

Endnotes

  1. For a discussion of naturalism and theism as worldviews, see Kenneth Richard Samples,  A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), chapters 12 and 16 respectively.
  2. For more on the fine-tuning of the universe and the solar system, see Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos, 4th ed. (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2018), 243–66.
  3. For more on the argument for God from fine-tuning, see Kenneth Richard Samples, 7 Truths That Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 113–15.
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Scientific Discovery and God: The Universe, Part 1

BY KENNETH R. SAMPLES – JANUARY 15, 2019

How did the universe come into being? The last century has revealed a stark contrast between what secular scientists expected to find regarding the big “origins” questions and what scientific research actually uncovered. In part 1 of this series, I’ll discuss how this contrast played out concerning the origin of the universe. In future installments I’ll consider, in turn, the origins of the solar system, Earth, and the human species.

Origin of the Universe

Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) speculated that the cosmos was eternal. In the eighteenth century, secular Enlightenment thinkers picked up Aristotle’s line of thought, often arguing that the physical universe was eternal in age and possibly infinite in extent. The universe was viewed as a brute reality without beginning and, therefore, without the need for a cause. Skeptic Bertrand Russell insisted, in his famous BBC debate on the existence of God with Catholic philosopher Frederick Copleston, that the universe is “just there.”

In the first half of the twentieth century, the view of cosmology known as the steady-state theory was popular among secular scientists. This view reflected the belief that the universe contained a continual energy source that allowed the cosmos to remain in a constant state of existence. Philosophically speaking, an eternal universe would seem more consistent with an atheistic, naturalistic view of reality. For if the universe is eternal, then it needs no causal explanation, thus no need to postulate God as a necessary causal agent. (Though, ironically, atheists often fail to appreciate that if God exists as an eternal and necessary being then he, too, would need no causal explanation.)

Big Bang Cosmology

Over the last twenty-five years, however, big bang cosmology has undergone extensive testing and has emerged as the prevailing scientific model for the origin of the universe. According to this well-established theory, the universe (including all matter, energy, time, and space) emerged about 14 billion years ago from a singular beginning. Thus, scientists conclude that the universe is not eternal. The basic big bang cosmological model has now replaced the steady-state theory as the prevailing origin of the universe. And while the big bang continues to be refined as a theory, most leading astrophysicists argue that it is here to stay. Multiverse theories may challenge the idea of our universe having had a singular beginning, but the multiverse remains speculative and lacks direct scientific confirmation.

A universe with a singular beginning from nothing was the last thing secular scientists thought would be discovered. The problem for the atheistic naturalist is how much big bang cosmology resembles the biblical doctrine of creation ex nihilo (God created the universe from or out of nothing [no preexisting materials]: Genesis 1:1; Proverbs 3:19; Romans 4:17; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 11:3).

Herein lies the contrast between expectation and scientific advance. Secular scientists thought they would discover an eternal, self-sufficient universe, but what they actually discovered is a universe that had a singular beginning. And now they have a contingent reality—the cosmos—in need of a necessary causal explanation. While many scientists were no doubt surprised by this discovery, Christian theologians expected it. Thus, the cutting-edge scientific discovery concerning the universe’s origin (a singular beginning of all things) seems to comport best with theism.

Reflections: Your Turn

How does big bang cosmology affect the secular claim that science backs atheism? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Resources

  • For more on the big bang and other competing cosmological theories, see Hugh Ross, The Creator and the Cosmos, 4th ed. (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2018).
  • For more on the biblical doctrine of creation ex nihilo, see Kenneth Richard Samples, A World of Difference (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 156–64.

About Reasons to Believe

RTB’s mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature. Learn More »

Support Reasons to Believe

Your support helps more people find Christ through sharing how the latest scientific discoveries affirm our faith in the God of the Bible.

DONATE NOW


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Does Animal Planning Undermine the Image of God?

BY FAZALE RANA – JANUARY 23, 2019

A few years ago, we had an all-white English Bulldog named Archie. He would lumber toward even complete strangers, eager to befriend them and earn their affections. And people happily obliged this playful pup.

Archie wasn’t just an adorable dog. He was also well trained. We taught him to ring a bell hanging from a sliding glass door in our kitchen so he could let us know when he wanted to go out. He rarely would ring the bell. Instead, he would just sit by the door and wait . . . unless the neighbor’s cat was in the backyard. Then, Archie would repeatedly bang on the bell with great urgency. He had to get the cat at all costs. Clearly, he understood the bell’s purpose. He just chose to use it for his own devices.

Anyone who has owned a cat or dog knows that these animals do remarkable things. Animals truly are intelligent creatures.

But there are some people who go so far as to argue that animal intelligence is much more like human intelligence than we might initially believe. They base this claim, in part, on a handful of high-profile studies that indicate that some animals such as great apes and ravens can problem-solve and even plan for the future—behaviors that make them like us in some important ways.

Great Apes Plan for the Future

In 2006, two German anthropologists conducted a set of experiments on bonobos and orangutans in captivity that seemingly demonstrated that these creatures can plan for the future. Specifically, the test subjects selected, transported, and saved tools for use 1 hour and 14 hours later, respectively.1

To begin the study, the researchers trained both bonobos and orangutans to use a tool to get a reward from an apparatus. In the first experiment, the researchers blocked access to the apparatus. They laid out eight tools for the apes to select—two were suitable for the task and six were unsuitable. After selecting the tools, the apes were ushered into another room where they were kept for 1 hour. The apes were then allowed back into the room and granted access to the apparatus. To gain the reward, the apes had to select the correct tool and transport it to and from the waiting area. The anthropologists observed that the apes successfully obtained the reward in 70 percent of the trials by selecting and hanging on to the correct tool as they moved from room to room.

In the second experiment, the delay between tool selection and access to the apparatus was extended to 14 hours. This experiment focused on a single female individual. Instead of taking the test subject to the waiting room, the researchers took her to a sleeping room one floor above the waiting room before returning her to the room with the apparatus. She selected and held on to to the tool for 14 hours while she moved from room to room in 11 of the 12 trials—each time successfully obtaining the reward.

On the basis of this study, the researchers concluded that great apes have the ability to plan for the future. They also argued that this ability emerged in the common ancestor of humans and great apes around 14 million years ago. So, even though we like to think of planning for the future as one of the “most formidable human cognitive achievements,”2 it doesn’t appear to be unique to human beings.

Ravens Plan for the Future

In 2017, two researchers from Lund University in Sweden demonstrated that ravens are capable of flexible planning just like the great apes.3 These cognitive scientists conducted a series of experiments with ravens, demonstrating that the large black birds can plan for future events and exert self-control for up to 17 hours prior to using a tool or bartering with humans for a reward. (Self-control is crucial for successfully planning for the future.)

The researchers taught ravens to use a tool to gain a reward from an apparatus. As part of the training phase, the test subjects also learned that other objects wouldn’t work on the apparatus.

In the first experiment, the ravens were exposed to the apparatus without access to tools. As such, they couldn’t gain the reward. Then the researchers removed the apparatus. One hour later, the ravens were taken to a different location and offered tools. Then, the researchers presented them with the apparatus 15 minutes later. On average, the raven test subjects selected and used tools to gain the reward in approximately 80 percent of the trials.

In the next experiment, the ravens were trained to barter by exchanging a token for a food reward. After the training, the ravens were taken to a different location and presented with a tray containing the token and three distractor objects by a researcher who had no history of bartering with the ravens. As with the results of the tool selection experiment, the ravens selected and used the token to successfully barter for food in approximately 80 percent of the trials.

When the scientists modified the experimental design to increase the time delay from 15 minutes to 17 hours between tool or token selection and access to the reward, the ravens successfully completed the task in nearly 90 percent of the trials.

Next, the researchers wanted to determine if the ravens could exercise self-control as part of their planning for the future. First, they presented the ravens with trays that contained a small food reward. Of course, all of the ravens took the reward. Next, the researchers offered the ravens trays that had the food reward and either tokens or tools and distractor items. By selecting the token or the tools, the ravens were ensured a larger food reward in the future. The researchers observed that the ravens selected the tool in 75 percent of the trials and the token in about 70 percent, instead of taking the small morsel of food. After selecting the tool or token, the ravens were given the opportunity to receive the reward about 15 minutes later.

The researchers concluded that, like the great apes, ravens can plan for the future. Moreover, these researchers argue that this insight opens up greater possibilities for animal cognition because, from an evolutionary perspective, ravens are regarded as avian dinosaurs. And mammals (including the great apes) are thought to have shared an evolutionary ancestor with dinosaurs 320 million years ago.

Are Humans Exceptional?

In light of these studies (and others like them), it becomes difficult to maintain that human beings are exceptional. Self-control and the ability to flexibly plan for future events is considered by many to be the cornerstone of human cognition. Planning for the future requires mental representation of temporally distant events, the ability to set aside current sensory inputs for unobservable future events, and an understanding of what current actions result in achieving a future goal.

For many Christians, such as me, the loss of human exceptionalism is concerning because if this idea is untenable, so, too, is the biblical view of human nature. According to Scripture, human beings stand apart from all other creatures because we bear God’s image. And, because every human being possesses the image of God, every human being has intrinsic worth and value. But if, in essence, human beings are no different from animals, it is challenging to maintain that we are the crown of creation, as Scripture teaches.

Yet recent work by biologist Johan Lind from Stockholm University (Sweden) indicates that the results of these two studies and others like them may be misleading. In effect, when properly interpreted, these studies pose no threat to human exceptionalism in any way. According to Lind, animals can engage in behavior that resembles flexible planning through a different behavior: associative learning.4 If so, this insight preserves the case for human exceptionalism and the image of God, because it means that only humans engage in genuine flexible planning for the future through higher-order cognitive processes.

Associative Learning and Planning for the Future

Lind points out that researchers working in artificial intelligence (AI) have long known that associative learning can produce complex behaviors in AI systems that give the appearance of having the capacity for planning. (Associative learning is the process that animals [and AI systems] use to establish an association between two stimuli or events, usually by the use of punishments or rewards.)

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Figure 1: An illustration of associative learning in dogs. Image credit: Shutterstock

Lind wonders why researchers studying animal cognition ignore the work in AI. Applying the insights from the work on AI systems, Lind developed mathematical models based on associative learning that he used to simulate results of the studies on the great apes and ravens. He discovered that associative learning produced the same behaviors as observed by the two research teams for the great apes and ravens. In other words, planning-like behavior can actually emerge through associative learning. That is, the same processes that give AI systems the capacity to beat humans in chess can, through associative learning, account for the planning-like behavior of animals.

The results of Lind’s simulations mean that it is most likely that animals “plan” for the future in ways that are entirely different from humans. In effect, the planning-like behavior of animals is an outworking of associative learning. On the other hand, humans uniquely engage in bona fide flexible planning through advanced cognitive processes such as mental time travel, among others.

Humans Are Exceptional

Even though the idea of human exceptionalism is continually under assault, it remains intact, as the latest work by Johan Lind illustrates. When the entire body of evidence is carefully weighed, there really is only one reasonable conclusion: Human beings uniquely possess advanced cognitive abilities that make possible our capacity for symbolism, open-ended generative capacity, theory of mind, and complex social interactions—scientific descriptors of the image of God.

Resources

Endnotes
  1. Nicholas J. Mulcahy and Josep Call, “Apes Save Tools for Future Use,” Science 312 (May 19, 2006): 1038–40, doi:10.1126/science.1125456.
  2. Mulcahy and Call, “Apes Save Tools for Future Use.”
  3. Can Kabadayi and Mathias Osvath, “Ravens Parallel Great Apes in Flexible Planning for Tool-Use and Bartering,” Science 357 (July 14, 2017): 202–4, doi:10.1126/science.aam8138.
  4. Johan Lind, “What Can Associative Learning Do for Planning?” Royal Society Open Science 5 (November 28, 2018): 180778, doi:10.1098/rsos.180778.

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Earth’s Surface Water Percentage Is Fine-Tuned for Life

BY HUGROSS – MARCH 18, 2019

Seventy-one percent may seem like average, but when it comes to Earth’s surface water percentage, that number appears to be ideal for advanced civilization. A scientific agency like NASA recognizes that life cannot exist without liquid water—thus, their long-held astrobiology mantra is to “follow the water.”1 That pursuit leads astrobiology researchers to look for evidence of life or life’s remains on astronomical bodies where there is at least a possibility of surface liquid water.

However, NASA’s slogan is not helpful since water is the third most abundant molecule in the universe, right after the two different forms of molecular hydrogen, H2 and H3. The universe is “soaking wet.”

To add to the difficulty, two Harvard University astronomers, Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb, have published a paper wherein they explain how the location and quantity of liquid water on a planet’s surface seriously constrain the possibility of life.2

Problem of Too Much Water Coverage
Where astronomers are able to measure the water content of Earth-like extrasolar planets, the vast majority possess water content far exceeding that of Earth, while the remainder are bone dry. For the majority, the water fraction by weight ranges from 8 percent to 50 percent.3Earth’s water fraction is only 0.045–0.251 percent, of which just 0.02 percent is surface water.4

Any planet with a water fraction one percent or greater, where at least some of the water is liquid, will exhibit these features: (1) they will have surfaces with deep oceans and no landmasses, or (2) they will have deep subterranean oceans and be completely covered in ice. Such worlds will lack continental landmass weathering. The lack of such weathering will limit the availability of phosphates to the tiny amount generated by submarine weathering. This tiny amount might permit the existence of a small biomass of prokaryote microbes but not the existence of animals.5

Any planet with a water fraction five percent or greater will possess an ocean that is at least 100 kilometers deep. An ocean deeper than about a hundred kilometers will permit no mineral weathering at all. At the bottom of such oceans, pressures will be extreme enough to produce tetragonal (crystal-forming) ice. Tetragonal ice has a density greater than that of liquid water.6 Thus, an ice layer will form at the ocean bottom that will create a permanent barrier between the liquid water and the minerals of the planet’s interior (see figure 1). The oceans of such worlds will lack the nutrient density to support life. They will also be acidic.7

blog__inline--earths-surface-water-percentage-1

Figure 1: Water World Cross Section
Planets with a deep surface or subterranean ocean will possess a tetragonal ice layer at the ocean bottom that will permanently separate its liquid water from its mineral interior. Such an ocean will lack the nutrient density to support life. Diagram credit: Hugh Ross

Problem of Too Little Water Coverage
Planets overwhelmingly dominated by surface landmasses will face a precipitation problem. The predominant source of precipitation onto land comes from the evaporation of ocean water and landmass precipitation is proportional to the surface area of a planet’s oceans.

Another critical factor for balanced precipitation is that the larger the percentage of a planet’s surface area that is covered by land, the more uneven is its landmass precipitation distribution. Where oceans cover less than 10 percent of a planet’s surface area, very little precipitation falls on the landmasses. Most of the landmass area receives no precipitation at all. The thin strips of land that do receive precipitation are able to sustain only a tiny fraction of the net primary biological productivity that would be typical of a present-day continent or island on Earth today.

Fine-Tuned Water Coverage
For any kind of life to be possible a planet must not be 100 percent or 0 percent covered with water. Temporary microbial life can exist on a planet that is 5–25 percent covered or 80–95 percent covered.

However, the long-term existence of plants and animals requires a planet that efficiently recycles nutrients. This necessity mandates that there must be a rough balance between surface oceans and surface landmasses. For global high-technology human civilization to be possible, a planet that is almost exactly the size of Earth is required. Today, on Earth the oceans cover 71 percent of the surface area and landmasses cover the remaining 29 percent. Less landmass coverage means less space to accommodate a large population of humans, their animals, their farms, and their technology. More landmass coverage means less precipitation falling on the landmasses and less even distribution of that precipitation—with consequences for food crop production.

Since the origin of life 3.8 billion years ago, Earth’s landmass coverage has been steadily increasing. Evidently, humans appeared on Earth at the optimal time for them to launch and sustain global civilization.

So far, astronomers have only found worlds beyond Earth that are either 100 percent or 0 percent (surface) covered with water. That we are 71 percent covered with water and 29 percent covered with landmasses appears to be no accident, but rather a testimony of purposeful design.

Endnotes
  1. NASA Fact Sheet, “Follow the Water: Finding a Perfect Match for Life,” April 16, 2007, https://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/everydaylife/jamestown-water-fs.html.
  2. Manasvi Lingam and Abraham Loeb, “Dependence of Biological Activity on the Surface Water Fraction of Planets,” Astronomical Journal 157, no. 1 (January 3, 2019): id. 25, doi:10.3847/1538-3881/aaf420.
  3. Sheng Jin and Christoph Mordasini, “Compositional Imprints in Density-Distance-Time: A Rocky Composition for Close-In Low-Mass Exoplanets from the Location of the Valley of Evaporation,”Astrophysical Journal 853, no. 2 (February 1, 2018): id. 163, doi:10.3847/1538-4357/aa9f1e; Jingjing Chen and David Kipping, “Probabilistic Forecasting of the Masses and Radii of Other Worlds,” Astrophysical Journal 834, no. 1 (December 27, 2016): id. 17, doi:10.3847/1538-4357/834/1/17; Leslie A. Rogers, “MOST 1.6 Earth-Radius Planets Are Not Rocky,” Astrophysical Journal 801, no. 1 (March 2, 2015): id. 41, doi:10.1088/0004-637X/801/1/41; C. T. Unterborn, N. R. Hinkel, and S. J. Desch, “Updated Compositional Models of the TRAPPIST-1 Planets,” Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society 2, no. 3 (July 3, 2018): id. 116, doi:10.3847/2515-5172/aacf43; David Charbonneau et al., “A Super-Earth Transiting a Nearby Low-Mass Star,” Nature 462 (December 17, 2009): 891–94,doi:10.1038/nature08679; Linda T. Elkins-Tanton and Sara Seager, “Ranges of Atmospheric Mass and Composition of Super-Earth Exoplanets,” Astrophysical Journal 685, no. 2 (October 1, 2008): 1237–46, doi:10.1086/591433; Geoffrey Marcy, “Water World Larger Than Earth,” Nature 462 (December 17, 2009): 853–54, doi:10.1038/462853a.
  4. Richard C. Greenwood et al., “Oxygen Isotope Evidence for Accretion of Earth’s Water before a High-Energy Moon-Forming Giant Impact,” Science Advances 4, no. 3 (March 28, 2018; corrected update July 13, 2018): eaao5928, doi:10.1126/sciadv.aao5928.
  5. Jochen J. Brocks et al., “The Rise of Algae in Cryogenian Oceans and the Emergence of Animals,” Nature 548 (August 31, 2017): 578–81, doi:10.1038/nature23457; Christopher T. Reinhard et al., “Evolution of the Global Phosphorus Cycle,” Nature 541 (January 19, 2017): 386–89, doi:10.1038/nature20772.
  6. A. Levi, D. Sasselov, and M. Podolak, “Structure and Dynamics of Cold Water Super-Earths: The Case of Occluded CHand Its Outgassing,” Astrophysical Journal 792, no. 2 (August 25, 2014): id. 125, doi:10.1088/0004-637X/792/2/125.
  7. Hugh Ross, “Waterworld Planets Are Acidic, Primordial Earth Was Not,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, May 14, 2018, https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/todays-new-reason-to-believe/read/todays-new-reason-to-believe/2018/05/14/waterworld-planets-are-acidic-primordial-earth-was-not.

About Reasons to Believe

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