Near the end of his life, the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis give a final interview to journalist Sherwood Eliot Wirt. One of the topics they discussed was the possibility of intelligent life on other planets -- a subject that interested Lewis, a fact made obvious in his trilogy of science fiction novels.
This is a subject that can be addressed in a secular manner, of course.
At the same time, if intelligent life is found on another planet, this does raise certain questions for those who believe in a God that -- one way or another -- created heaven and earth. To cut to the chase: What actions would this kind of God need to take to provide redemption on other worlds, if they are as sinful and fallen as this one?
For example, there was this exchange in that 1963 Lewis interview:
Wirt: Do you think there will be widespread travel in space?
Lewis: “I look forward with horror to contact with the other inhabited planets, if there are such. We would only transport to them all of our sin and our acquisitiveness, and establish a new colonialism. I can’t bear to think of it. But if we on earth were to get right with God, of course, all would be changed. Once we find ourselves spiritually awakened, we can go to outer space and take the good things with us. That is quite a different matter.”
Now, flip that coin over and look at the other side. What are the theological implications of evidence that this world is truly unique, that intelligent life does not exist elsewhere?
With that in mind, consider this weekend's think piece, which ran at Vox under this sobering double-decker headline:
Why haven’t we found aliens yet?
A new paper on the Fermi paradox convincingly shows why we will probably never find aliens.
Unless I have missed something, this long piece is totally free of any content linked to religion, at least in a positive sense. The absence of any religious implications -- even the obvious points that would raised by an atheist or agnostic -- is rather striking. The author, by the way, is Liv Boeree, who is identified as, "a science communicator and TV host specializing in astrophysics, rationality, and poker."
Here is a crucial section, after a reference to decades of projects such as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI):
Yet the universe continues to appear devoid of life.
Now, a team of researchers at the University of Oxford brings a new perspective to this conundrum. In early June, Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler, and Toby Ord of the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) released a paper that may solve the Fermi paradox -- the discrepancy between our expected existence of alien signals and the universe’s apparent lack of them -- once and for all.
Using fresh statistical methods, the paper re-asks the question “Are we alone?” and draws some groundbreaking conclusions: We Earthlings are not only likely to be the sole intelligence in the Milky Way, but there is about a 50 percent chance we are alone in the entire observable universe.
While the findings are helpful for thinking about the likelihood of aliens, they may be even more important for reframing our approach to the risk of extinction that life on Earth may face in the near future.
As physicist Enrico Fermi famously exclaimed in 1950: “Where is everybody?”
He had been pondering the surprising lack of evidence of other life outside of our planet. In a universe that had been around for some 14 billion years, and in that time developed more than a billion trillion stars, Fermi reasoned there simply must be other intelligent civilizations out there. So where are they?
We still don’t know, and the Fermi paradox has only strengthened with time. Since the 1950s, humans have walked on the moon, sent a probe beyond our solar system, and even sent an electric sports car into orbit around the sun for fun. If we can go from rudimentary wooden tools to these feats of engineering in under a million years, surely there would have been ample opportunity in our 13.8 billion-year-old universe for other civilizations to have progressed to a similar level -- and far beyond -- already?
Now, unless I have missed something, the Vox team simple decided not to GO THERE in terms of asking any questions that mixed physics with metaphysics.
Meanwhile, scientists keep trying to do a better job of "organizing" their ignorance, noted Boeree. The paper in question offers the following:
This two-stage process produced striking results: Based upon the current state of astrobiological knowledge, there’s a 53 to 99.6 percent chance we are the only civilization in this galaxy and a 39 to 85 percent chance we are the only one in the observable universe.
This implies that life as we know it is incomprehensibly rare, and if other intelligences exist, they are probably far beyond the cosmological horizon and therefore forever invisible to us.
It's an old question, but one implied by these new results: What are the odds of the random creation of this planet and intelligent life?
Read it all. And if I missed any relevant information elsewhere about this research, please let me know.
FIRST IMAGE: NASA/Caltech graphic.