February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
March 3, 2011
Journalists seem to reserve a special inanity for questions pertaining to space travel and extraterrestrial life. The New York Times is particularly heinous, uncritically cheering any and all claims for our manifest destiny on Mars or for the wonders of space tourism or the International Space Station (which has produced less scientific return on the dollar than any project ever conceived by human genius except the Superconducting Supercollider, which cost $12 billion but was shuttered before producing any science at all). Each and every shuttle trip to nowhere is headlined as if it were science news, which it isn’t, any more than every flight from LaGuardia to Heathwick is science news.
But for really breathtaking silliness you have to get God into the picture. So in a recent Times article on the Kepler telescope’s search for planets circling other stars—which is going well, by the way, with over 400 candidates identified in the first year—science writer Dennis Overbye offers this bit of perspective:
This is more than just an intellectual exercise, scientists say. Traditional religious images of ourselves as God’s creatures, or even of God, could be in for a rough time if we ever discover pond scum living by completely alien chemical rules on some moon or planet, let alone the Borg — the alien race ruled by a collective mind on “Star Trek” — inhabiting some distant realm.
As a scientifically trained person, I can’t help wondering about mechanism. Exactly how would the discovery of, say, arsenic-eating pond scum inhabiting the salty oceans beneath the icy crust of Europa, Jupiter’s sixth moon, affect “traditional religious images of ourselves as God’s creatures, or even of God”? But such inquiries are futile. Probably the writer contemplated no mechanism: no connected thought lay behind his words at all. Such statements arise, I think, from a vague presumption that all religious believers occupy an essentially pre-Copernican thought-world and would therefore be utterly undone by the discovery that pond scum thrives in the sky.
But what about the Borg? Or any simple, solid datum showing that among the Universe’s 32 trillion or so stars there are other intelligent beings on at least one planet? A single positive report from the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) people, whose computers sift interstellar radio noise around the clock for this very thing, would suffice. It could happen any day — or it might never happen. But what if it did? What would be the effect on religious believers?
Well, we could always consult a physics journal to find out. Seriously. In the latest issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, devoted to the “mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences,” we find the following question pondered:
Is one earthly incarnation in Jesus Christ enough for the entire cosmos, or should we expect multiple incarnations on multiple planets?
This extraordinary question is asked by theologian Ted Peters of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in his article “The implications of the discovery of extra-terrestrial life for religion” (Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A (2011) 369, 644–655).
To read such phrases in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society—whose title, by the way, does not refer to “philosophy” as we departmentalize it today but dates to 1665, when what we call “science” was still called “natural philosophy”—made my sanity teeter. The question itself only added to my disorientation: it seemed so obviously, perfectly unanswerable. Why would one even ask? Hadn’t C. S. Lewis made the point clearly enough half a century ago? “Here of course we ask for what is not merely unknown but, unless God should reveal it, wholly unknowable” (“Religion and Rocketry,” 1958). Peters wasn’t going to answer this question, was he?
No, thank goodness. He did find, however, that famous theologians like Paul Tillich and Karl Rahner have opined on this very subject, and produced some interesting quotations to prove it. Judging by Peters’s account and some unscientific Googling of my own, the most popular idea among a wide range of Christianities seems to be, unsurprisingly, that God might well have made other intelligent races, and that if so, God can be trusted to care for them in some way or other, so not to worry. Some theologians have argued since the Middle Ages that the “plenitude of God,” God’s infinite creative potential, argues for or even necessitates a plurality of worlds, presumably inhabited. Catholic doctrinal declarations have, over the centuries, gone both ways (many worlds, one world). Today, it seems relatively hard to find Christians willing to pronounce on doctrinal grounds that ours is the only intelligent race in the universe: one such is Ken Ham, a prominent young-Earth creationist who maintains that “One can postulate endlessly about possibilities of intelligent life in outer space, but I believe a Christian worldview, built on the Bible, rejects such a possibility.”
So Peters’s question is unanswerable: but then, so are most of the questions theologians ponder. And I do not think all such efforts wasted. The inquiry he proposes may be exactly the sort that can shed fresh light on religious ideas—incarnation, redemption, salvation—even though no real conclusions can ever be reached.
As far as Earth goes, it seems obvious to me, and some scholars agree, that “religion” is too various and adaptable a thing for its downfall to be likely in the event that pond scum, or even Borg, are announced by NASA some fine day. In fact, there would certainly be no single reaction to such news, because there never is to anything. I have no doubt that most religious believers would have no problem accommodating it. Haven’t we been acclimated by over a century of science fiction to the idea of alien races? A few of the canonical encounter narratives were even written by Christians — C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Zenna Henderson. Proof of alien life, especially intelligent life, would be as cool as hell but theologically no biggie.
The real poser would be not if aliens were shown merely to exist, but if we found they had broadcast their religious notions in a form we could decode. Would religious believers be boggled by proof not just of alien intelligence, but of atheist alien intelligence? What about a lot of atheist alien races? Could we handle it if intelligent life proved to be galactically common, but religious belief almost unheard-of? Logically it would prove nothing, of course, but how would we feel? It’s surely no accident that the abovementioned Christian science-fiction writers all posited aliens who affirmed a religious vision of the cosmos.
Or what about the converse? How delicious to watch the neoatheists squirm if the first technically advanced alien race to be discovered turned out to be devoutly monotheist, or animist, or anything “jolly,” as Chesterton might have put it.
But . . . no. Such daydreams are idle. Not only are we very unlikely to ever acquire such knowledge, but neither side would budge far even if we did. If believers can handle the existence of millions of unbelievers on Earth, and even benefit by their criticisms, then we can handle a skyful of them. The converse would be true for unbelievers, should religion turn out to be as popular cosmically as it is terrestrially. Well (they would say), it just goes to show that in the social and/or biological evolution of social species of human or greater intelligence, religious belief is highly functional, therefore highly likely to arise and (regrettably) to persist: we must therefore reconcile ourselves to a Universe crowded with intelligent idiots. Some neoatheists might even enjoy such a condition of cosmically lonely eminence. Some already do.
In the meantime, we have surveys to comfort us. According to 1,300 responses collected by Peters, almost nobody—Christian, Buddhist, or Jewish (Muslims were omitted, oddly)—thinks that discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would rock their religious world:
Responses to Question 3: “Official confirmation of the discovery of a civilization of intelligent beings living on another planet would so undercut my beliefs that my beliefs would face a crisis.” Source: Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A (2011) 369, p. 646.
A final perspective, in the with-friends-like-these category, comes from James Funaro of Cabrillo College, who presented at a 1999 NASA workshop on “The Societal Implications of Astrobiology”:
Some scientists may assume that if extraterrestrial life is discovered science will be validated while religion will suffer irreconcilable difficulties and perhaps even collapse. If so, these scientists are underrating religion’s survivability and its usefulness as an adaptive tool. The discovery may stimulate a worldwide resurgence in religious activity. Religion may have an advantage over science as we attempt to adapt to strong and widespread emotional impact. Some of the advantages of religion include: (1) Religion has already had considerable experience dealing with ETs; (2) Religion can answer questions that science cannot; (3) Religious hypotheses may be strengthened by disproof; and (4) Religion provides a built-in, self-activating mechanism for responding to widespread societal stress. In the actual event of encountering extraterrestrial life, some of the needs of humanity as a whole may require the kind of non-scientific solutions provided by religion. Given the number of unknowns in the contact equation, we should not ignore the potential value of any of our adaptive resources.
The tone is coolly positive, but who says that mere detection of extraterrestrial intelligence (at a cosmically inaccessible distance), probably by SETI, would cause “strong and widespread emotional impact”? And do I detect a whiff of condescension in Point 1? And what’s this Point 3 stuff—what “disproof” of which religious “hypotheses” does Funaro have in mind?
If I find out, I’ll tell you. Until then, live long and prosper.
On request, I will email PDFs of all non-publically-available articles for personal use.
Larry Gilman started growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1962. Since the fifth grade he’s lived in other parts of New Jersey, in Chicago, and in Vermont, where he and his wife now hunker in the hills. He was trained as an electrical engineer but has since opted for a life of freelance writing and editing. He is Episcopalian.