Is there life?

Are we alone in the universe?

Last year the Royal Society held a conference on the topic, “The detection of extra-terrestrial life and consequences for science and society.” The proceedings appeared recently in an issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, and it includes articles by scientists, philosophers, and theologians who wonder about the implications for religion of discovering intelligent species elsewhere in the cosmos. What might their presence say, for example, about salvation or the human role in a cosmic plan (if any)?

These are misleading questions. I think a far more honest, relevant and challenging question for philosophy and religion is what their *absence* says about humanity and its purpose.

The conference was stimulated in part by the recent discovery of hundreds of extra-solar planets – planets around stars other than our sun. In fact, to date over a thousand extra-solar planets (or possible planets waiting confirmation) have been reported. The spin has been that because planets are common, alien civilizations must be abundant. But that doesn’t follow; hence my challenge to theologians and philosophers. The evidence so far does not alter the improbability of any extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) existing near enough to us to matter.

In the July issue of the American Scientist I published a paper called “Alone in the Universe” describing why. First is the recognition that recent results in extrasolar planet research highlight the tremendous variety of planetary systems that exist in nature – a diverse range of strange environments that is considerably broader than had been imagined before the first one was discovered only about fifteen years ago. Earth-like analogs may or may not be common – it is still too early to know – but now we do know that many other kinds of solar systems exist, and they containing strange planets with exotic properties that are probably unsuitable for evolving a civilization.

The critical point is that even in a nearly infinite universe with a nearly infinite numbers of stars, possible civilizations are almost surely too far away from us to matter. That is, we cannot even know about them, because relativity and the finite speed of light put them hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of generations removed from us. And among the only 30 million stars close enough to communicate with in a short time – I pick 100 human generations (about 1000 years) – there are not likely to be any aliens. My article goes into the arguments and the counter-arguments in much more detail. The results indicate that we are alone in the universe “for all practical purposes” — that is, we are not likely to make contact with an alien intelligence, or even to know if one exists, for at least 100 human generations, and perhaps for very much longer.

This conclusion has fundamental implications for our self-perception, and for environmental, ethical, and religious behavior. Most of the respondents in the Royal Society volume and related publications wonder how the impact of first contact with ETI might change our view of ourselves or of God while expressing sentiments about our cosmic smallness and ordinariness. The volume cites Bishop Krister Stendahl’s reaction to possible ETI: “It seems always great to me, when God’s world gets a little bigger, [that] I get a somewhat more true view of my place and my smallness in that universe.” This is an appropriate and humble reaction. But it also echoes the common, unsupported belief in a Copernican principle of mediocrity in which people are comfortable thinking of themselves as cosmically irrelevant and free of any grand responsibility. But human beings are not an insignificant cosmic species! We are rare and precious. The Earth is an exceptional gift. We must rely on ourselves. Perhaps too, we have responsibilities.

The “Misanthropic Principle” is my observation that, in a universe whose physical parameters are amazingly well suited for intelligent life (the “Anthropic Principle”), the environments and situations necessary for intelligence to develop are extraordinarily rare.

To moderate the title of this piece, let me first emphasize that as a theist I think we are not alone spiritually. But if we Earthlings are alone in our cosmic neighborhood for all practical purposes, then how do we respond? I write on science and religion from a Jewish perspective. For the record, the traditional Jewish perspective on ETI, based on one passage in the Bible (Judges 5:23) as expounded in the Talmud, is sanguine. I suggest that a Jewish view of the Misanthropic Principle offers some insights into accountability, the social / environmental imperative, and even a cosmic role for humanity. It means that we are blessed, and we should have pride. Being alone may be good news – not depressing news. The Jewish view of the state of being blessed offers us some important insights into behavior as well. Since Biblical times, added blessings or favors carry with them added responsibilities. In particular, they include obligations to deal compassionately with other people, and to attend to the welfare of larger community and the environment.

The Kabbalists and other Jewish mystics wove a deeper layer of meaning into this perspective, arguing that responsibility and caring were not only important to self and society, they were essential to the very welfare of the cosmos. Humanity actually plays a role in perfecting the world – termed “tikkun olam.” I explore what this latter notion might mean in a modern, physical context in my book, “Let There Be Light: Modern Cosmology and the Kabbalah.” Quantum mechanics remains ontologically mysterious, and still includes incompletely understood implications about the world and conscious observers. Some physicists, most famously John Wheeler, have suggested that the Universe created conscious beings in order to observe it and thus bring it to reality. In this quantum mechanical sense our consciousness is much more than a mere chemical accident.

If we are truly alone in the observable universe, then we play a crucial – not a peripheral – role in the cosmic order. We are not simply inert matter; we are somehow self-consciousness. This makes all the difference. If we are not alone, then we share in this purpose with other conscious beings. Hopefully, an awareness of our rare capabilities will make us more sensitive to our task “to serve the Earth and to protect it (Gen 2:15).”

You can read more about this in the Author’s Articles.

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