Are We Alone?


Many people are fascinated by the Drake equation, which is said by enthusiasts (and Sheldon Cooper) to estimate the number of planets in the Milky Way Galaxy (or, in some minds, the universe) that could have intelligent life. Recent remote explorations of Mars have suggested that there may have been life on that planet at some time in the past, perhaps even that there is still some kind of microbial life there now. Science fiction thrives on speculation that other galaxies are inhabited by someone and/or that human beings could colonize other worlds. Elon Musk, inspired by his reading of the Dune and Foundation trilogies, believes that space colonization is the way to save humanity from extinction.

Supposedly more sober minds ponder the theological and philosophical implications of extraterrestrial life: Would religion survive such a revelation? Could our anthropocentric theologies survive the knowledge that there are other civilizations somewhere out there, which perhaps would have very different notions of both the questions and the answers that we think of as essential to religion? In Christian terms (and this seems to be a worry primarily within Christian cultures), did Christ die to save all those aliens, too? Or does each planet require its own redemption? Or are we the only planet to have fallen from grace (i.e., are all the other inhabited planets still in a state of Eden? Did their creatures in the image of God choose better than Adam and Eve? Are they, Gnostic-like, angels or demigods, watching our passion play unfold?)

Or worse. Would the discovery of (or our being discovered by) extraterrestrials put an end to religion for good? Some philosophers think so, and the discovery would certainly be an existential challenge to religion as we have always conceived it, that is, again, the Christian conception, which has always assumed a teleological narrative of history that puts mankind at the very center of the struggle between good (God, Jerusalem, spirit) and evil (Satan, Babylon, the flesh, etc.), culminating in the final triumph of good and the restoration of creation to its original innocence. This is not the narrative of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other non-Western religions, so perhaps for them the existence of extraterrestrials would be no problem.

It is both scientifically and popularly assumed that, given the infinity of space and the multi-multitudes of stars and planets, that there must be life elsewhere, likely many elsewheres, in the universe, some of which must be much more advanced than we are (oddly, the opposite, being much less advanced, is less often mentioned, but it’s perfectly possible that there are planets out there populated by nothing more complex than bacteria or slime mold); assumed even though we have no proof of any kind that in fact there are any other inhabited planets. So even if a scientist asserts his certain belief that there has to be life elsewhere in the universe he is indulging in science fiction or some form of religion.

But there is another possibility not to be unquestioningly dismissed, one that Marilynne Robinson posits in her most recent collection of essays, “The Givenness of Things”: What if “for all we know to the contrary, there is just one minor planet in a limitless field of stars where apple trees blossom and where songs are sung”? Would that not “grant an important centrality to that planet”? For Robinson that centrality would be a religious one; it would suggest that there is some likely divine reason for only one living planet, contrary as it is to (limited) human reason.

But even from a purely secularist viewpoint, to know that there is no other living planet, no other intelligent life than ourselves, and that if we were to go extinct there might not ever again be such intelligent life (no songs being sung, no theories being proposed, no knowledge of the kind we honor with that name); and worse, that if somehow we managed to extinguish all sensate life from this planet, perhaps never again to be formed; that to know that there is no escape or rescue, nor even an end to ourselves at the hands or tentacles of a superior alien race—to know that would put the responsibility for our own fate and that of all life permanently and squarely in our own hands and no others.

And isn’t that, from a practical point of view, exactly the position we are in? Colonies on Mars are a dangerous fantasy; colonies further out in the galaxy or the reaches of the universe more improbable than fairy tales. The human body evolved on this planet and is adapted (and adaptable) to no other. The location of any other planet that might have some form of life is many light years away—and remember that a light year means the distance it takes light a year to travel (5,878,499,810,000 miles); multiply that by 1400 to get the distance from earth to the nearest earth “twin,” a planet that by the way would be even less hospitable to humans than Mars. And of course, we know of no way to transport humans and cargo at anywhere near the speed of light. Planets even further out, and getting further away as the universe continues to expand, might as well, for practical purposes, not exist at all. In sum, it can make no difference to us if there are other inhabited planets. We are for all intents and purposes truly alone in the universe.

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