The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Are We Alone?

The bookcase in our guestroom contains perhaps 100 books, split almost evenly between fiction and non-fiction. I place them there under the assumption that some of our guests might actually enjoy turning the pages and reading a real book in this day of eBooks and Kindles. Apparently some do. A few years ago a guest appeared at breakfast with one of my books in his hand -- a book of Irish poetry. He then noted with some surprise that I had included quite a few science fiction novels among the fiction in the bookcase. "I've never understood the attraction of science fiction," he said. "It's all so bizarre, far too weird to take seriously -- all that outer space stuff and monsters and strange planets. Nothing real. Nothing human."
Nasty Aliens on the Attack

He apparently assumed I was far too cultured to allow such "literature" to pollute my personal library and asked, "I suppose you have a few friends who actually read it?"

The question, of course, was meant to appease me, to offer an escape hatch so I could claim no personal interest in the genre. But in a rare display of honesty I replied, "No, I include them because I like them. I believe that some of today's best writing can be found in science fiction. Read almost anything by Gene Wolfe and you'll see what I mean. And don't forget, several of the famed Inklings, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, were all writers of what today would be called science fiction or fantasy."

Our conversation, which had started with such promise, seemed to deteriorate from there. My guest's real stumbling block was his refusal to suspend his disbelief: "How can you believe all that stuff? Do you really believe in UFOs and a universe filled with weird creatures in flying saucers?"

He was even more surprised when I answered, "No, not at all. In fact, I believe we humans are unique, completely alone in God's universe. Don't you agree?"

"Well," he began, tossing me another bone, "I suppose it's possible..." Then he got serious, sounding very much like the late Carl Sagan: "But not at all probable. When you consider the vast size of the universe -- billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars -- there must be countless planets that support life, even intelligent life."

"No," I said, "I believe we're the only ones. I think God created everything else just to remind us who He is."

That ended the conversation, and allowed Dear Diane to begin a new one: "Who wants waffles, and who wants eggs?"
Waffles and Eggs: A fine product of life (chickens & wheat) on earth

I found it extremely interesting, and puzzling, that I, who believe we humans are alone in the universe, should enjoy science and fantasy fiction, while my friend, who accepts the probable existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life, abhors science fiction. My excuse is that I simply enjoy a good story with interesting, well-developed characters. I also appreciate the literary challenge of creating worlds and cultures that bear little or no resemblance to our own. And yet I believe that science fiction is also fictional science. As for my friend, I can't speak for him or explain the apparent contradiction between his beliefs and his literary tastes. I never got around to asking him.

Interestingly, most scientists would agree with my friend. How can a universe so mind-bogglingly vast contain only a single planet populated by intelligent beings? Indeed, there's a group of scientists engaged in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) that has spent years scanning the universe with radio telescopes searching for signals from other civilizations. Their search is based on their belief, like that of my friend, that the universe must contain many earth-like planets on which intelligent life has evolved.

SETI Hunting for Smart Aliens
This search for extraterrestrial life was spearheaded by Frank Drake of the SETI Institute, predictably founded in California back in the 1960s. Drake devised what came to be called the Drake Equation, used to this day by those engaged in the search. Interestingly, the equation, although used by many claiming to be scientists, is highly non-scientific. Speculative at best, it is based on a series of highly subjective best guesses, all leading to even more unlikely conclusions. The "equation" estimates the number of stars in the universe, how many have planets, the number of these that could possibly sustain life, the likelihood that life will form on these habitable planets, and the probability that intelligent life will evolve...and on and on.

Based on all this guesswork, Drake and the SETI folks estimated that in our galaxy alone there are probably 10,000 or more planets supporting intelligent lifeforms that are sending signals out into space. Many of the scientists involved believe it's inevitable that we'll detect these signals from other worlds very soon.

There are a few problems, though. The SETI estimates may well be very wrong. For example, we have no idea what percentage of stars actually have planetary systems. And we certainly don't know how many planets have what could be considered habitable environments with solid surfaces, an atmosphere, and water. We don't know because we've never found one.

Most disturbingly, though, the SETI folks assume that if a planet has what they consider to be a habitable environment, then the likelihood of life forming is 100%. The thinking is that the scientific laws that govern our planet are the same throughout the universe. Since life formed on earth, it must also form on any planet with a similar environment. Recent research, however, seems to argue that the possibility of life on other planets, even those that might be most hospitable to its formation, is very low. The research is based on the premise that life on earth began very early, and it took nearly four  billion years for intelligent life to evolve. If you're really interested in all this, you can read the paper written by two Princeton astrophysicists here: Life Might Be Rare -- but to read and understand it, you might first want to pick up a doctorate in astrophysics.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth... [Gen 1:1]

We know for certain that life exists in only one small place in the entire universe: Earth. And yet we have scientists who call themselves exobiologists, those who study extraterrestrial life, despite the fact that so far they have nothing to study. Sounds like a pretty easy job to me. There also remains much speculation about the initial formation of life on earth, because scientists really don't know exactly how life came to be. And so they search the heavens for signs of intelligent life and try to create life here in the lab from scratch. To date both efforts have been futile. Through it all they struggle mightily to avoid any mention of God who will no doubt have the last word, just as He had the first Word.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men." [Jn 1:1-3]
Kinda sums it all up, doesn't it?

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