Extraterrestrial Intelligence and Theology, by Lawrence Fagg
Metanexus Sophia. 2004.03.12. 1,034 Words.
Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe or we are not.Both are equally terrifying. – Arthur C. Clarke
This quotation from Clarke comes to mind when considering the essay below byPhysicist Lawrence Fagg, emeritus at Catholic University. Writing in response toan article by Paul Davies that discusses the theological implications ofextraterrestrial intelligence, Fagg instead considers the theological import ofour aloneness in the universe. Confronting the likelihood of failure to detectverifiable extraterrestrial signals, Fagg suggests that the characteristics ofthe universe that yield this likelihood may help us to understand God.
Lawrence Fagg received a B.S. in Military Engineering from the US MilitaryAcademy. After discharge he pursued a career in physics, obtaining two mastersdegrees, and then receiving a Ph.D from Johns Hopkins University. Some 28 yearslater he earned an M.A. in religion from George Washington University. Fagg hasworked in the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) and at Catholic University. Fagghas published some 65 papers, two review monographs, and chapters in four editedbooks and is a Fellow of the American Physical Society. Fagg has been active inthe science and religion dialogue since 1974. He has written three books: TwoFaces of Time, The Becoming of Time: Integrating Physical and Religious Time,and Electromagnetism and the Sacred: at the Frontier of Spirit and Matter,some 15 articles in journals and edited books, all on science and religion themes.
EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELIGENCE AND THEOLOGY
Paul Davies, long a supporter of the Search Extraterrestrial Intelligence(SETI), has written an engaging article on an aspect of the subject in theSeptember issue of the Atlantic Monthly. He discussed some theological problemsthat the religions might face if an extraterrestrial intelligence were detected.He cited in particular the difficulty that Christianity could have interpretingsuch a discovery given its belief in Christ’s resurrection.
In contrast, this article suggests considering the theological implications ofthe failure to detect verifiable extraterrestrial signals. This is clearlyrelevant because there are a number of compelling reasons why we have not seensuch signals and indeed may never see them, at least not for a very long time.
First, we are fundamentally isolated by the light’s finite speed of 186,000miles per second. Another serious consideration is the time overlap problem.That is, consider the lifetime of our sun, an average star that has lived forabout 4.5 billion years and is estimated to live roughly another 6 billionbefore it consumes all of its nuclear fuel. Perhaps another star in our galaxywas born a billion years earlier (or later) and hosted a planetary civilization.
Suppose that after this civilization achieved a technology comparable to ourstoday it lived another 900 years before becoming extinct due to any of a numberof causes, such as nuclear holocaust, asteroid impact, disease, over-population,etc. Comparing the time scale of a billion years to 900 years is like comparinga year to 30 seconds.
Then there are the remarkable features of the earth and its place in the solarsystem that are uniquely favorable to life. Its orbit is essentially circularwith a diameter that allows an appropriate life-supporting temperature range.The angle of its axis with respect to the axis of the orbital plane isstabilized by the motion of a moon of the appropriate mass, thus giving us theregularity of the seasons. Experts in the theory of planetary motion tell usthat such a combination of these characteristics is a very rare phenomenon. Thelist of extraordinary circumstances fortunate for life goes on: from theexistence and movement of tectonic plates giving us our supply of iron and othermetals for our technology, to the timing of the appearance of water and oxygen,to the timing of global extinctions, etc. After the discovery of well over onehundred extra-solar planets, none approach the Earth’s special properties.
While it is clear that we must respond to our innate wonder and continue theextraterrestrial search, it is also clear that the search may possibly revealnothing. So, as a complement to Davies’ essay, I share here some speculativethoughts on the implications of the latter outcome. If we are truly alone, thenwe may be the only means the universe has of being aware of itself. Thisrealization brings with it an awesome responsibility, namely that for theself-consciousness of the universe, or at least that part of it with which wecan communicate given the finiteness of our lives and the speed of light.
We can derive some theological reflections from this isolation through the useof analogy, which has been a tool for theologians for millennia. That is, thecharacteristics of the universe may help us through analogy to understandsomething about God. For example, the very oneness of our isolation is analogousto the Oneness of God, and in a sense beings us closer to God. Furthermore, thepossibility that extraterrestrials may exist that are beyond our observationrenders much of the universe unknowable. This is analogous to God never beingcompletely knowable, reflecting the mystery of God’s divine nature.
Also, I cannot help wondering if there is not a very distant harbinger of ourutter aloneness. We now know that the universe is expanding at an acceleratingrate so that in many billions of years even the closest galaxy, Andromeda, willfade from view, leaving the universe a vast distribution of non-communicatinggalactic islands. Is this analogous to some kind of far off divine whispertelling us of the profound nature of our lonely responsibility – to preserveconsciousness and spirituality at all costs?
So it appears that we must pursue a balanced approach. On the one hand we mustnourish our primal curiosity as to whether someone is out there, for not to lookwould be stifling a thirst for knowledge that will not die. On the other hand,while it is therefore important and understandable that we seek to contact another somewhere in the universe, we may have to accept the possibility thatthe only one with which we can communicate is the transcendent Other, God.
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