An ex-girlfriend and I once discussed the idea of life on other planets. I, of course, told her that I was rather certain life had developed all over the universe, but that the universe is such a dangerous place that probably most of it gets routinely wiped out by Mass Extinction Events (more, more, more, more, more, more) before it has a chance to get offworld, develop tech powerful enough to sustain it after a MEE, and that would be why we never see any evidence of anyone else out there.
I was flabbergasted to hear her thoughts on the subject. She said she believed that there couldn’t be aliens, because, according to her, God created us and we are special and therefore there cannot be intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Now, I know that this accords with some older theological arguments, but to me the idea was stupendously simplistic. After all, couldn’t an infinitely powerful deity create any damn thing it pleased? Might we not be wrong in our sense that we’re special in that particular way? And does one expect one’s deity so clearly to follow one’s own personal notions of how it ought to function? Not only that, but isn’t one’s faith in a deity based on its being exactly like X or Y on shaky ground? If aliens landed, what kind of philosophical conundrum would she be in then?
The September issue of The Atlantic contains an article by physicist Paul Davies titled, E.T. and God attempts to grapple with some of those questions and more.
I’m familiar with some of Davies’ work, especially his interest in the so-called “anthropic principle”. I don’t hold him in disregard for his association with that lunatic of theoscience, Frank Tipler in holding the idea of the anthropic principle important. They’re right to point out that it’s because of a massive number of tiny details and rules of the universe that we’re here: for example, the weight of hydrogen is such that if it were different by even 1%, there’d be no life in our universe because matter either wouldn’t have congealed (if it was too light), or would not have dispersed enough to allow for the formation of galaxies after the Big Bang (if it was too heavy). Sure, I don’t like the interpretation they put forward of this, which is the strong anthropic principle: the vague implication that the rules of the universe seem set up to give rise to complexity… seeming set up, meaning someone or something set them up. I do criticize Davies for being a little too eager to push this “strong” anthropic principle interpretation in science popularizations, but plenty of other science writers do that sort of thing.
Anyway, the article’s got some rather silly ideas about morality’s universality… the very notion making sense across lines of species, for example, is one. If a species of aliens evolved out of a much different base species, one that was say less gregarious than us, then I imagine it would have a far different set of basic assumptions about right and wrong, and probably be horrified at some of what we generally think important in terms of good or bad.
And I think that Davies, while he knows his physics, probably doesn’t know humans all that well. To ask the question about whether aliens would share our “spirituality” is to gloss over the question of what precisely that is. A good scientist is more likely to ask, what is this thing we refer to as spirituality, and how did it come to be in humans so universally? Davies should spend some time reading books by evolutionary biologists, especially the book I’ve mentioned here and elsewhere by Pascal Boyer, titled Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. If Davies knew more about why humans are religious, he might ask more interesting and constructive questions about what sorts of analogues aliens might have to this facet of human experience.
But the article is, anyway, worth a look. And I should say, it’s much less crackpot than a lot of things, such as this foolish and embarrassing email from the future. All I can say is, the being that wrote that email doesn’t even know how to use apostrophes properly in modern English. Pbbbbbt.