The Briefing 02-27-17

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Are we alone in the universe? Discovery of seven earth-size planets prompts perennial speculation

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In recently discovered essay, Winston Churchill ponders life on other planets and the "Goldilocks" zone

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Why does a NY Times article about babies learning language in the womb not use the word "fetus"?

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The Briefing

February 27, 2017

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Monday, February 27, 2017, I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Are we alone in the universe? Discovery of seven earth-size planets prompts perennial speculation

Human being simply can’t help asking some very important questions, and it’s clear that one of those questions comes down to whether or not we are alone in the universe, alone as life similar to human life, alone as conscious life. That leads us to several headlines in recent days, including one in the Wall Street Journal,

“Seven Earth-Size Worlds Discovered Orbiting Nearby Star”

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As Robert Lee Hotz reports for the Journal,

“Seven alien worlds about the size of Earth have been discovered orbiting a tiny nearby star, and six of them appear warm enough that liquid water—necessary for life—could exist on their surfaces,”

This according to European astronomers last week in the journal, Nature. The Wall Street Journal continued,

“Called Trappist-1, the dwarf star, located about 40 light years away from Earth in the constellation Aquarius, is so small that it is barely bigger than Jupiter, the largest planet in our own solar system. Yet it is home to the largest collection of Earth-sized planets found in the galaxy so far”

One of the scientists involved in the study said,

“The star is so small and cold that the planets are temperate, which means they could have liquid water and possibly life on their surface.”

The Journal goes on to say,

“The discovery adds to mounting evidence that billions of such worlds may exist in the Milky Way galaxy, the researchers said. The new findings “indicate that these planets are even more common than previously thought…. All told, astronomers have confirmed the existence of more than 3,500 exoplanets,”

That’s what they’re called in recent years. Astronomers have begun referring to these exoplanets as worlds that surround distant stars, and we’re now told that 22 of them, that’s 15 plus the newly announced seven, might be “considered potentially habitable”

Now that word “potentially” is really, really important there, “potentially habitable.” A later, one-sentence paragraph about three quarters through the Wall Street Journal article says,

“There is no evidence so far that life exists on any of these newly found exoplanets.”

Now wait just a minute. That’s misleading by understatement. Actually there is no evidence so far that life exists anywhere in the universe outside planet earth. That’s not to say that we as Christians deny that such life might exist, at least in some form, but it is to say that there’s an excitability in these headlines that is completely unjustified by the stories themselves and the research behind them.

But there’s something really, really telling in all of this. Immanuel Kant, one of the most important philosophers of the Enlightenment, got it exactly right when he said that the two most perplexing questions had to do with the starry heavens above and the moral life within.

In terms of worldview analysis, Immanuel Kant got it exactly right in these terms, there are indeed two universes of our unavoidable concern and imagination. They’re, first of all, the universe outside of us—and that would include the entire cosmos, not just the world that we can see with our eyes and experience with our senses—but also even more importantly perhaps, the universe within. That includes, as Kant said, our moral life, but is expanded to our entire intellectual experience and to our consciousness and experience of being a self. A thinking Christian can’t avoid dealing with those two huge universes of concern. But that’s true of every single intelligent being. This is where Christians understand that at least a part of what it means to be made in the image of God is that we can’t help asking questions about both of these universes, the universe without and the universe within.

But there’s also something very telling in the fact that there are so many people today who are simply overly excited about even the latest scientific discovery, indicating that it just might be that out of the 3500 exoplanets yet identified, 22 of them just might be potentially under some circumstance habitable. The closer you look at the research, it’s very clear that there is a huge amount of conditionality here. That word “potentially” covers a great deal of scientific territory. In the Wall Street Journal article, just consider these words,

“Discussing their find at a news briefing, the researchers speculated that conditions on three of the worlds might allow for the existence of oceans, but they acknowledged that they have no direct evidence of water on any of these alien planets, nor do they know whether any of them have an atmosphere.”

In any case it’s likely to be a very long time before we find out. We’re certainly not going to be going to these planets in order to investigate them. One of the things The Journal left out is that when it tells us that the planets are 40 lightyears from Earth, that can be put in different terms. That would be 235,000,000,000,000 miles. That’s a trip we’re not going to make, but it just might be that other investigations, including the deployment of NASA’s $8.7 billion James Webb Space Telescope, might indeed make a difference in terms of determining what kind of atmosphere or surface conditions might be on these planets. But again, that’s a long way off, and there’s likely to be a continuation of the qualifier in any of these discoveries, that is, potentially.

But there are other things that should interest is here. For one thing, it’s very clear that many people have some kind of us hope that there just might be habitable planets beyond Earth. Some of those who hold to an extreme form of an ecological worldview, including the belief that we are headed in evidently for a catastrophe in which planet earth will be inhospitable for human beings. They seem to have the hope that somehow we might be able to transfer human beings to another planet. But in this case, they simply have to read their own catastrophic projections, because there’s no way even if their projections were to be true that in any foreseeable future we would even know whether these planets might be hospitable to human life, much less available for life.

There’s something else in all of this for Christians to reflect upon, and it comes down once again to the eclipse of Christianity in terms of the popular imagination, what we might describe as the continued evidence of the secularization of the Western mind. It comes down to this. So long as the Christian understanding of the creation of the world by God and God’s special creation of human beings as the creatures in his image, so long as that worldview held sway, there really wasn’t that much interest in whether or not there just might be life on some other planet light-years and light-years away from us. But now that there is the eclipse of the Christian worldview, there seems to be a particular urgency to the human imagination in the secular age, trying to figure out if we are alone. Because having eclipsed the knowledge of God, they seem to be now preoccupied with whether there might be the existence of other conscious creatures out there somewhere in the universe. And of course at least some people are already asking if those creatures did exist, would they be friendly?

In recently discovered essay, Winston Churchill ponders life on other planets and the "Goldilocks" zone

Along these same lines, it was very interesting that at just about the same time this European study was announced, it was also announced that a previously unknown manuscript written by Sir Winston Churchill had been discovered. It was discovered at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri.

Just as a footnote, it was there at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri that Winston Churchill gave his famous Iron Curtain Address, making very clear the threat of the Soviet Union and its satellites in the aftermath of World War II. But there was recently discovered there an 11-page typed draft probably written for a popular newspaper there in Britain when the then-future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom asked the question, Are we alone in space?

Now the original manuscript was written in 1939, notably that is the year that Britain was dragged into World War II and the world effectively found itself at war once again. We are now told that it was updated in the 1950s when Churchill changed the title from “Are We Alone in Space?” to “Are We Alone in the Universe?” That reflects something of a changed vocabulary about such matters between the years 1939 and the last years of the 1950s. Winston Churchill began his essay talking about the vastness of the universe, and of course that was a vastness that had only become really, really clear during the 20th century, not only in terms of observations, but also in terms of the theories proposed by astronomers and physicists during the 20th century, most notably the theories advanced by Albert Einstein.

It is not known if Churchill wrote the article by request, or whether he just wrote it planning to send it to a newspaper. In any event, it never saw the light of day. The reason for that is probably quite simple. In terms of 1939, the world was immediately at war and so consumed with that war that it didn’t have time to consider whether or not we’re alone in space. By the end of the 1950s, events were turning out very quickly in terms of what became the space race. Churchill might’ve been a bit more reluctant to enter into the conversation at that point, but Churchill’s insights are absolutely remarkable traced back to 1939. Here you’re talking about a scientific layman, but he had identified two of the most crucial issues in terms of the question as to whether or not there might be life on other planets. Those two issues are water and temperature. Scientists describe those two things together as creating a so-called habitable zone or a Goldilocks zone—that is, a planet that would be close enough to the sun to be warm enough, but far enough from the sun that it wouldn’t be consumed, as in Goldilocks’ “not too hot, not too cold, but just right.”

Now at this point Christians should immediately recognize we’re talking about what some scientists call the Cosmic Anthropic Principle. That is, the principal that makes very clear that planet Earth happens to be calibrated along with our own solar system and universe in such a way that it is precisely right for the emergence and nurturing of life, that is, precisely right. The Cosmic Anthropic Principle reminds us that if planet earth were just slightly outside its current orbit, life would be impossible because it would be to cold. On the other hand, if planet earth were to be even slightly inside its current orbit, the Earth would be too hot for life also to be possible. So we are in effect as a planet right in the middle of our own Goldilocks zone. The question is, why?

This is where Christians understand that this is a tremendous and direct testimony to the divine creation of the universe and to God’s intention on this one planet to create human beings and other forms of life. That is what is crucial to the Cosmic Anthropic Principle. In other words, it takes a great deal of denial to suggest that somehow this is just a tremendous cosmic accident. But if you do believe that it is a cosmic accident, then you must wonder if it’s an accident that has happened elsewhere also.

Churchill, we should note, had a deep interest in science. He was the first British Prime Minister to have an official scientific adviser. And Churchill amazingly got many of the crucial questions that modern astronomers are asking exactly right. The key questions do come down to whether or not there might be water on the planet and whether or not the planet would inhabit the temperate zone that would allow for life.

But Churchill was also very interested in the possibility of space travel, and he offered back in 1939, one day possibly even in the not-too-distant future, human beings might travel to the moon or perhaps even to Mars and Venus. We should note that it was 30 years exactly. It was in 1969, 30 years after 1939 that human beings did indeed first step on the moon. But as for Venus and Mars, well, we still haven’t reached those planets, and there are no current plans even to attempt to do so. Even inside our own solar system, inside our own universe, those planets are too distant for human beings to have any reasonable hope of travel under current technology. That simply puts in scale the fact that we’re talking about 235,000,000,000,000 miles from planet earth, we’re really talking about something far, far outside any possibility of our direct investigation.

Christians not only need not fear any such investigation, but we also shouldn’t fear that somehow the question of life found in other planets is going to upset our entire theological system. The reality is we simply don’t know whether there might be life elsewhere. But we do know this, when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is directed towards planet earth and towards the one creature made in the image of God. The Cosmic Anthropic Principle has to be accompanied by a cosmic theological principle, and that is this: we come to understand that God made the universe in order that on planet earth he might display his glory in the redemption of human sinners who had rebelled against him that through the blood and atoning sacrifice and through the resurrection of his own son. For the clearest testimony to this truth, we don’t look through a telescope, but rather to Scripture where we read, for example, in Colossians Chapter 1, beginning in verse 15,

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”

Now what does this tell us? It tells us that no matter what might be discovered that it is Jesus Christ who is the singular explanation for the existence of all things, and even now all things that were created through him are held together by him. Remember that in verse 16 we read,

“For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible”

To state the very least, that covers everything, everything known and yet unknown, everything discovered and not yet discovered. Christians need not worry that somehow there will be a discovery of something created by anyone other than Christ or even now held together by him. And as Colossians tells us, all things were created through him and ultimately for him.

Why does a NY Times article about babies learning language in the womb not use the word "fetus"?

Next we shift to another scientific report that should be for Christians interesting in every way, but one of the things we need to note is that the most interesting aspect of the story isn’t even reflected in the news reports. Perri Klass, a medical doctor, reports in the New York Times that,

“Language Lessons Start in the Womb”

She writes,

“New research is teasing out more of the profoundly miraculous process of language learning in babies. And it turns out that even more is going on prenatally than previously suspected.”

The study takes a look at international adoptees, that is, “babies who were adopted soon after birth and who grow up hearing a different language than what they heard in the womb”

Klass says,

“Researchers can see how what babies hear before and soon after birth affects how they perceive sounds, giving new meaning to the idea of a ‘birth language.’”

She goes on to explain,

“Experts have known for some time that newborns prefer to listen to voices speaking the language that they’ve been listening to in the womb …. Newborns can recognize the voices they’ve been hearing for the last trimester in the womb, especially the sounds that come from their mothers, and prefer those voices to the voices of strangers. They also prefer other languages with similar rhythms, rather than languages with very different rhythms.”

One of the doctors cited in the research said that

“The thinking used to be that babies didn’t actually learn phonemes — the smallest units of sound that make up words and language, that distinguish one word from another, as in ‘bag’ and ‘tag’ — until the second six months of life. But new research, including the recent adoptee study, is challenging that notion.”

The essay also tells us that the latest research was published just last month,

“In the latest study, published in January in Royal Society Open Science…. The researchers found that people born in Korea and adopted as babies or toddlers by Dutch families were able to learn to make Korean sounds significantly better than the Dutch-speaking controls who had been born into Dutch families.”

Now let’s just stop there for moment. This tells us that the research underlines that babies in the womb, especially in the last trimester, are actually both hearing and learning language, and this is a really interesting study because it’s a study that concerned babies who were adopted, having been born in Korea, in other words they heard Korean in the womb, but now living in the Netherlands. And we’re told that those babies were able to learn both to recognize and to hear and to speak those sounds from the Korean language much faster than babies who were born having heard Dutch in the womb and also being raised in the Netherlands. Dr. Klass continues,

“It was especially interesting that this effect held not only for those who had been adopted after the age of 17 months, when they would have been saying some words, but also for those adopted at under 6 months. In other words, the language heard before birth and in the first months of life had affected both sound perception and sound production, even though the change of language environment happened before the children started making those sounds themselves.”

In terms of insights in this research, it’s very clear that babies benefit by being addressed vocally even as they are in the womb. And furthermore, these researchers say babies are able to advance in language even as they hear the conversation going on around them when they’re in at least that last trimester in the womb. They are learning language even before they are born. One of the doctors put it this way,

“Talk to your baby. Your baby is picking up useful knowledge about language even though they’re not actually learning words.”

Klass goes on to say, “and your baby will like it.”

“It’s something they really love, the social interaction of you talking with them, but they’re still storing up useful knowledge whenever they hear speech.”

So as I said, this is interesting at every level. For one thing it tells us something about how babies learn even in the womb, and it also affirms the fact that the babies who hear language are learning language, both in terms of sounds and even units of language when they are not yet born. This study of adoptees who have been moved from one country and one language group to another verifies the fact that you can tell, it can be measured, that a child was able to learn Korean faster, that is to make the sounds of the Korean language, if that baby had been in Korea listening to that language in the womb, even as the baby would now be along with the other babies in this test being raised by parents in the Netherlands, and of course after birth and after adoption learning to speak Dutch.

From the Christian worldview perspective, this also affirms the centrality of language to human identity. Human beings not only, as we saw before, can’t help asking certain questions, we’re also vocalizing creatures, and our vocalizations and our communication take the form of language. And here again the Bible is very clear, even as we understand the Genesis account of the table of the nations and the tower of Babel. We are told that God actually by his own action distributed human beings according to tribes and families and ethnicities to different parts of the globe, and that every one of these families of humanity developed a language. We’re also told in terms of eschatology that at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb there will be men and women who have been redeemed from every tongue and tribe and people and nation. Remember the word “tongue,” right there in that list. That tells us that God is glorified through receiving praise and worship in the many languages, the almost uncountable languages of humanity. By the time we get to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, we’re talking about those who have been redeemed in Christ from every tongue every tribe, every people every nation.

But finally let’s note what’s missing from this story, as I said in the beginning. What’s missing is the word “fetus.” At no point in this article in the New York Times is this unborn child referred to as merely a fetus, much less as a mass of biological matter. Instead, of course, the article refers to the unborn child as a baby, as well it should. But here we see the divided inconsistent and even hypocritical mind of the modern secularist worldview, and in particular of the modern pro-abortion worldview. When the issue at hand is abortion or anything connected to what the left calls reproductive rights, well, the unborn child, the baby, is simply referred to as the fetus. But when an article like this comes telling us that this unborn child is learning even language in the womb, all of the sudden look what happens. It becomes a baby. The word “fetus” is nowhere in this article, but of course we know that this baby is always a baby, even long before this third trimester when the scientists are now telling us it can be verified that this baby is learning language even in its mother’s womb. There is of course no acknowledged pro-life point in this article, but that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s not acknowledged, but it’s there. It’s there in a very big way. It’s there for all of those who simply have ears to hear, even those, we note, in the womb.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing