Somewhere, Out There

With Pope Francis’s impending visit, the New York-Philadelphia corridor is abuzz with discussions of traffic and commuting disruptions. From a little further away, Irish Central is reporting that the Vatican chief astronomer has gone onto record stating that he believes in extraterrestrial life. (Despite the headline, the article doesn’t say anything about UFOs, and the astronomer, Fr. Funes, is noted as saying that he doesn’t believe extraterrestrials are flying here.) The real issue, however, is metaphysical, rather than physical. How would life elsewhere impact theology? Long ago the Vatican expressed some comfort with the idea of evolution. As early as Augustine of Hippo, thinkers have noted that reason cannot contradict truth and still be convincing. The evidence for evolution, overwhelming as it is, falls under that rubric. Life in space, at least according to orthodox science, is more a matter of mathematical certainty rather than experiential. And like any scientific idea, not all scientists agree with the astronomical odds in favor of life in space.

Funes, according to the article by Frances Mulraney, believes that aliens are not fallen races in need of salvation. The grand master plan laid out in the Bible was unique to this world only. Human beings sinned, we required divine intervention, and, as you’d expect from a Christian source, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God’s only son. It does raise interesting questions about what the aliens might think of a chosen race. How could you not think yourself superior if you had no need of God’s special attention? One can only hope that ET isn’t the jealous sort.

Photo credit: John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: John Fowler, Wikimedia Commons

For years those who speculate about non-earth-based life have argued over how religions would handle the news that humanity isn’t alone. Would religious observance increase or decrease? It might depend on what our fellow universalists have to tell us. This, in a nutshell, is the dilemma of ancient religions. Founded when worldviews were pre-scientific, back when the earth was the center of everything, they didn’t add an infinite universe into the equation. And infinity always complicates things. Fr. Funes says the Bible isn’t a science book, and indeed, biblical scholars have long known that to be the case. It’s the contingencies outside the ordinary of two millennia ago that are most worrying to literalists. Even with all we have learned of science, we have a great deal yet to comprehend. Religion is a uniquely human response to an uncertain universe. And since ours is apparently infinite and expanding, religion may very well be something we’ll need to take with us to the stars.

What If?

EncounteringETIA game that parenting books used to recommend was called “What if?”. It was an imagination game played by parents with their children to teach them about “stranger danger” in a way that wasn’t too scary. We naturally, it seems, fear the other. “What if?” kept coming to me as I read John Hart’s book Encountering ETI. ETI is a bit more precise than the more familiar ET, whom everyone knows, is an extra-terrestrial. The I stands for intelligence. What happens, in order words, when we meet extra-terrestrial intelligence? I very much admire academics such as Hart who are willing to ask what is such a necessary question. The point of the book is much more an ethical than a speculative one since human history has pretty much documented what happens when the Discovery Doctrine is applied. Natives (or TI, terrestrial intelligence, if you will) at the hands of newcomers with the Discovery Doctrine, are soon wiped out. History has repeated the story far too many times. Scientists such as Stephen Hawking even apply that to us, saying that if ETI arrives we will be exterminated. Hart takes a much more balanced look at the question.

Part of the problem is that we, as a society, have been taught to laugh at those who’ve seen UFOs. UFO stands for Unidentified Flying Object, and many people can’t identify what they see in the sky. But we all really know what I’m talking about. Those who’ve seen what may be non-terrestrial flying machines are automatically classed with the mentally unstable and ridiculed into silence. Thus it has been since the 1950s, despite foreign (!) governments and their militaries admitting that yes, we see things and we don’t know what they are. France, Argentina, and Russia, for example, have opened the files to some extent. The point that Hart makes is well taken—if we ridicule so automatically, will we be prepared when they arrive? Shouldn’t we be thinking about this now that scientists are discovering there are likely billions of planets in the Goldilocks Zone (capable of supporting life)? Ah, but it is so hard to let go of racial superiority! Homo sapiens sapiens are pretty impressed with themselves. As if nothing better could be conceived. Perhaps this is original sin.

Hart, whose book is subtitled Aliens in Avatar and the Americas, takes the possibility of visitation at face value. I’m sure it has impacted his career somewhat. The wise choice, it seems to me, is to take seriously what is almost a dead certainty—we are not the only life in the universe. Ironically, the idea that we are is largely based on the Bible. Genesis makes a pretty clear statement that we are God’s best idea. We’ve largely dropped God from the picture, so we, as humans, now occupy the top rung. And when we find humans different from ourselves we ask how we might exploit them to our advantage. (Here’s where Avatar comes in.) Hart’s book, as readable as it is affordable, is one that any thinker should take seriously. It is a book of ethics, writ large. Universal ethics, one might say. The aliens may not land in our lifetime, but chances are pretty good that they’re out there somewhere. It might be best to take some time to clean up the house before guests arrive.

ET vs UAC

When I first heard of “unaccompanied alien children,” I hope I might be forgiven for thinking about ET. Or EBEs as they’re sometimes called, “Extraterrestrial Biological Entities.” Instead UACs are serious enough to be assigned their own acronym, and serious politicians are making themselves frantic over the proper response. Should we allow children refugees from Latin America into the “land of opportunity?” This is a matter that calls for immediate debate! But should it? I am an American, but I am also a human being. And a parent. To me few things are more depressing than politics getting in the way of care for children. We fear their Spanish-speaking ways and incipient indigence. At the same time we as taxpayers fund Fundamentalist Mormons in their polygamy, reproducing beyond their ability to pay for themselves. The IRS turns a blind eye to those who claim food stamps and eschew birth control. There are children with nothing in this world standing at the door, and we debate whether to let them in.

I saw a recent opinion survey of major Christian bodies in the United States and their opinions on whether the children should be allowed to enter. White evangelicals came in dead last for the compassionate response of sanctuary. Meanwhile, reading the humanist literature, there is a strong sense that the ethics of this situation demand a, well, humanistic response. These are children, not political chattels. We will not purposefully endanger our own children. In fact, it is a criminal offense to do so. When it comes to somebody else’s children, we fuss and fume and I don’t hear many Fundamentalists saying “What would Jesus do?” in this case. Probably because the answer is clear: let the children come unto me.

Some decisions should be easy to make. Children are not political liabilities. They are often victims of adult complications of a world where a hug would solve many more problem than a gun or a bomb. I’m not sure when compassion became so calculating. I’m old enough to know that there are no easy answers, but I do believe some difficult decisions can be made much easier. Excepting Native Americans, all of our ancestors once entered this continent, largely without permission, as outsiders. Granted, they felt compelled to come—some voluntarily, some not. When their hosts suggested the party was over, they refused to leave. Now their descendants can’t decide whether children are a threat or not. We insist on their right to be born, but we don’t necessarily want to give them a home. When ET went home we all cried. Our tears for our own kind, apparently, are a scarce resource on this planet.

Are we all really just another brick in the wall? (Photo credit: Noir, WikiCommons)

Are we all really just another brick in the wall? (Photo credit: Noir, WikiCommons)

Goldilocks Comes of Age

NASA's Goldilocks, image credit Lynette Cook

“Even a simple single-cell bacteria or the equivalent of shower mold would shake perceptions about the uniqueness of life on earth.” So writes Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press concerning GJ581g, a newly discovered “Goldilocks planet.” This extra-solar-system planet is just the right distance from its sun, which is neither too hot nor too cold, and just the right size, neither too big nor too small, to hold an atmosphere and liquid water. This is the necessary environment for life as we know it to evolve. Like the life in the grout in my shower. It is an exciting prospect. This discovery suggests that other planets contain the right stuff for primordial soup, and the implication is, once again, that the earth must relinquish its place at the center of the known universe.

It is a curious notion that we share, quaintly parochial, that the earth is somehow special. The idea is an inherently religious one. Ancient peoples, beginning at least with the Sumerians, understood their world as apparent reality. The sky moves around us, not vice versa. Human beings, the apex of primate evolution, see the universe through self-crafted lenses. Lenses that we keep close to our eyes at all times. If there is life out there, and they come here, they will be the outsiders. We were here first. The Bible helps to shore up this homocentrism; the crowning achievement of divinity, according to Genesis 1, is us. Even scientists have long been reluctant to release the idea that we might just be one among many, a single, relatively common occurrence of life in a vast, indeed endless, universe.

Our species evolved as a religious one, feeling that God somehow gave us opposable thumbs and flexible vocal cords for a reason. (Presumably because God has opposable thumbs and flexible vocal cords.) From the very earliest of times we have considered ourselves unique on this planet and unique in this universe. Although reason has long suggested otherwise, and although scientists would often be the last to admit that it is a religious idea, we have grasped tightly to human singularity and defied the universe to prove us wrong. Once we actually discover that life out there, what will we do? If our past track record is any indication, we’ll head to that planet with Clorox in our hands and a divine mandate in our heads.

The Truth is in Here?

Constantly trawling for the shattered detritus of truth that rests scattered around our lonely little planet, I have often supposed they were here. I have never seen them, but in the Drake Equation there is a high probability that they exist. And now the newspaper says they may have been here all along. And closer than we thought.

Aliens. These latter-day angels and explorers of the cosmos are often pictured like E-T or the little gray aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The latest findings suggest they could even be quite a bit smaller than that. Paul Davies, a physicist from Arizona State, believes that life may have developed multiple times on earth, and perhaps some of the googol of microbes on our planet may have their origins in space. These potentially extraterrestrial microbes, he stated could be “right under our noses – or even in our noses.” Yikes! Time to put up the intergalactic “No Trespassing” sign!

Stop the alien menace!

In all seriousness, however, this concept of multiple origins of life, I fear, will be latched onto and misread by our Creationist fellow-life forms. I can see the fingers stiff from grasping at straws claiming that now there is scientific proof that different species do have different origins, thank you Mr. Darwin. The price to pay, if they apply logic, however, is not one evolutionary track, but many.

The movie Creation, focusing on Darwin, opened this past weekend in the United States. Delayed because of concerns that Americans can’t handle the truth, this film about Darwin’s sad voyage to the inevitable truth of natural selection will surely raise evangelical ire. Nevertheless, we did not design this world we evolved into, we simply inherited it. And the closer we peer at it, the more complex it becomes. These multiple evolutionary tracks may also explain the origin of Creationists – could they come from different stock than scientifically minded folk? In any case, the news today provides yet another reason to keep our noses clean and our eyes on the skies.

Let’s Do the Time-Warp Again!

Yesterday MSNBC reported that the Vatican has again called for a conference involving serious scientists to discuss the implications of astrobiology — life in space. Despite the mocking sneers of the media, growing numbers of serious thinkers are doing the calculations and scratching their heads. When I was a child, I was assured that earth-like planets elsewhere in the universe were virtually impossible, statically. Now we know of several rocky orbs circling distant suns. Our own sudden advances in technology have started some to think that if we raced from heavier-than-air flight to the moon in only 66 years, and from landline to audio implant in about a century, maybe other intelligent life could do the same? What would the implications be for the geocentric world of Genesis and the Gospels?

The Catholic Church and Science are hardly best buddies; frequently they are not even on speaking terms. No, the tide did not change to a warm embrace with the (centuries late) apology to Galileo or the sudden realization under John Paul II that evolution is “more than just a theory.” All one has to do is think of the issue of stem-cell research and the eagerly offered hand is suddenly withdrawn. But on the issue of aliens, perhaps the church can race ahead of the projected God-of-the-gaps, do an end-run, and be ready to embrace E.T. when he finally makes himself known.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful that the Vatican has embraced evolution and thumbed its Roman nose to the creationists. (They deserve even more than that!) I am glad they are considering the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life. There is, however, a nagging doubt in my mind that they may be coming to the conclusion that the late Larry Norman once did that “if there’s life on other planets, then I’m sure that he must know, and he’s been there once already and has died to save their souls.” What good is advancement in science if mythology refuses to budge? What would an extra-terrestrial priest look like? What if they don’t have blood to fill their chalices? Do they have trumpet-horns on their saucers to announce the second coming? Yes, let’s explore our universe, but let’s not forget to update our credibility meters as well.

ETpriest

Our father which art in heaven?