This column first ran in The Tablet in September 2014
“Preparing for Discovery,” a two day symposium at the US Library of Congress to discuss the possible impact on society of finding life in space, was my destination [September 2014]. Discovering life outside Earth would be a major advance in understanding biology; finding intelligent life would colour how we understand being human. But it’s a magnet for our hopes and fears.
The field of astrobiology still has a hard time escaping the taint of “little green men.” Thus nearly all the speakers went out of their way to emphasize that they were Serious Scientists, viewing life and intelligence from a purely secular and, indeed, materialistic viewpoint. Constant reference was made to the “N=1” problem: how can you define life, much less intelligence, when the number of planets known to harbour life only equals one? Still, the laws of physics do provide some guideposts. And understanding the origin of that one example we do have of life, here on Earth, would certainly help us place how life might be found elsewhere.
That’s not to say that there weren’t any number of exotic ideas being promoted. Indeed, the talks were often an infuriating mixture of the profound and the absurd.
One speaker asked, why do we limit our search to either microbes or intelligence? Why do we discount other “non-human animals”? It’s a legitimate question (with a simple answer — microbes and intelligence will probably be easier to find) but it was immediately upended by the speaker’s insistence that it’s unscientific to value humans over other animals.
Is the search for life the same as the search for intelligence? By equating intelligence with calculational complexity, another speaker concluded that advanced beings would upload themselves into superintelligent computers – only to become obsolete 18 months later, I suppose.
Why do we assume that civilizations with advanced technology will also have advanced ethical systems? This certainly hasn’t been the case in human history. From that, another speaker questioned the very reality of ethics, altruism, and love. (Like extraterrestrial ponies, they're hard to observe with a telescope.)
In teaching undergraduate physics, I would always remind my students that when they come to the end of a calculation they need to take a deep breath, look at their answer, and ask themselves: does this really make sense? Or have I made a blunder somewhere along the way? It’s a step that too many of my fellow panelists seem not to have taken. Seeing the absurdities that can result from their strict application of materialism gave me a new appreciation of my own Christian faith.
Meanwhile, the audience’s questions and comments suggested that many of them were UFO true believers. Several insisted in telling me about UFO sitings that they had experienced, complete with sketchy artists’ renditions of the events. (Odd how the spread of cell phone cameras has not supplanted such drawings.)
Several reporters were more interested in the literal question of my talk’s title (“Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?”) than my more mundane musings on the reactions of both believers and atheists to possible ET sightings. Both believers and atheists insist that finding ET would vindicate their beliefs; it hasn’t shaken either side that we haven’t found them yet!
Linda Billings of the National Institute of Aerospace closed the seminar by suggesting that SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, had all the trappings of a fundamentalist religion. Blockbuster movies and overheated cable TV shows are the revival tents that fan a desperate passion for finding our nemesis, or saviour, among the extraterrestrials. Seth Shostak, of the SETI Institute, took exception; if SETI were a religion, he muttered, it would be better funded!
Given my position as fundraiser for the Vatican Observatory, I only wish that were true.