SETI: What If?

Contacting extraterrestrial intelligence, meeting people whose ancestors developed on another world, has been a staple of pulp fiction for generations.

Lately, it’s become a matter for serious discussion. I’ll be looking at an op-ed’s take on how learning that we’re not alone might affect folks with various religious beliefs. I’ll also share what I expect: and what I don’t.

  1. Aliens, Religion, and Two Jesuits
  2. Sense and Nonsense

Faith, Reason, and the Human Spirit

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:89; 63:23; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2)….”
(“Fides et Ratio,” Pope Saint John Paul II (September 14, 1998))

Faith and reason, science and religion, get along fine; or should. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159, 2293)

I’ve talked about God, Aristotle, and the Condemnation of 1277, before. (December 9, 2016; December 2, 2016)

We live in a universe filled with wonders, unfolding in accord with physical laws which we are beginning to understand. This is a good thing. (Catechism, 32, 283, 339)

I’ve said this before — no matter where we look, we can see “wonderful things.” The trick is learning to notice them. (September 30, 2016)

1. Aliens, Religion, and Two Jesuits

(From BBC Future, used w/o permission.)

If we made contact with aliens, how would religions react?
Brandon Ambrosino, BBC Future (December 16, 2016)

“In 2014, Nasa awarded $1.1M to the Center for Theological Inquiry, an ecumenical research institute in New Jersey, to study ‘the societal implications of astrobiology’.

Some were enraged. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which promotes the division between Church and state, asked Nasa to revoke the grant, and threatened to sue if Nasa didn’t comply. While the FFR stated that their concern was the commingling of government and religious organisations, they also made it clear that they thought the grant was a waste of money. ‘Science should not concern itself with how its progress will impact faith-based beliefs.’…”

Oddly enough, I almost agree with the FFRF’s statement about a NASA-funded study of how scientific research might affect ‘religious folks’ and others.

I can also see why NASA might want to know how folks might react to news of extraterrestrial life. If nothing else, it could help NASA decide how they break the news.

Let’s back up a little, and look at why folks at NASA would care how the American public feels about anything.

NASA is an American government agency, dependent on federal funding. Voters don’t have direct control over the NASA budget, but can indirectly affect what elected officials say they’ll do.

Quite a few Americans say that religion is at least somewhat important in our lives. (Wikipedia)

If officials learned about religion from high school social studies, movies and wacky media personalities, they might associate religion with torch-wielding mobs, televangelists, and the Salem witch trials.

Someone with that sort of background might reasonably want to know whether ‘those people’ would snap after learning about extraterrestrial life.

About keeping the state out of religion and vice versa, I think that’s a good idea.

The Catholic Church is not political. Individual Catholics may think some party or form of government is best, but the Church really is καθολικός, katholikos, universal, not tied to one era or culture. (July 24, 2016)

Catholics can work within any system; as long as a local regime works for the common good, and citizens are okay with how their country’s authorities work. (Catechism, 1901; “Gaudium et spes,” 28, 42; Pope Blessed Paul VI (December 7, 1965))

That doesn’t mean that Catholics should blindly go along with whatever the local boss says. I’d be expected to at least mention that genocide is a bad idea, for example. (Catechism, 22442246, 2313)

Respect for competent authority is a good idea. Blind obedience isn’t. (Catechism, 1900, 1951, 2155, 22422243, 2267)

Searching Beyond the Solar System

(From Jon Lomberg, for the Smithsonian Institution for display in National Air and Space Museum; via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Jon Lomberg’s illustration showing the Kepler spacecraft’s search volume.)

Mars looked like a pretty good home for extraterrestrial life, until 1894. I talked about Mars, science, and pulp fiction, last week. (December 16, 2016)

I remember when high school science textbooks still mentioned stellar collisions and near-misses as plausible explanations for how the Solar System began.

If that’s the way planetary systems usually form, we might eventually find the other star involved in our beginnings. But space is vast, and stellar collisions rare: except, maybe, for places like globular clusters.

Variations on the ‘collision/near miss’ explanation replaced the second star with a cloud of interstellar gas; but they still made finding extrasolar planets seem unlikely, at best.

In 1978 A. J. R. Prentice applied what we’d been learning about the universe to the nebular hypothesis. There’s a great deal left to learn about how planetary systems start, but the nebular hypothesis is still a pretty good match with what we’ve found. (December 9, 2016)

Worlds Next Door

(From European Southern Observatory (ESO)/L. Calçada, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(An artist’s impression shows a sunset on the super-Earth Gliese 667 Cc.)

A sensibly-cautious list of possibly-habitable exoplanets included Proxima Centauri b, Wolf 1061c, and Gliese 667 Cc; all within two dozen light years of us.

We may be alone, but the odds of finding some sort of life elsewhere keep looking better, as we find more roughly Earth-size planets in their stars’ habitable zones.1

Getting back to that BBC Future article, what if we find life on another world a few years from now?

Just to make it more interesting, let’s say we hit the jackpot.

They contact us: arriving in a reassuringly-recognizable spacecraft no more than a few miles across. Think a scaled-up version of the British Interplanetary Society’s Project Icarus interstellar probe, the Daedalus.


(From “Realistic Interstellar Travel,” Les Johnson, NASA, used w/o permission.)
(Illustration of the British Interplanetary Society’s Project Icarus interstellar probe.)

“…Would the discovery make believers feel insignificant, and as a consequence, cause people to question their faith?

I would argue that this concern is misguided. The claim that God is involved with and moved by humans has never required an Earth-centric theology. The Psalms, sacred to both Jews and Christians, claim that God has given names to all the stars. According to the Talmud, God spends his night flying throughout 18,000 worlds. And Islam insists that ‘all things in the heavens and on the Earth’ are Allah’s, as the Koran says, implying that his rule extends well beyond one tiny planet. The same texts are unequivocally clear that human beings are special to God, who seems fairly able to multitask.

Second, we don’t reserve the word ‘special’ only for unrepeatable, unique, isolated phenomena. As Peters says, the discovery of life elsewhere in the Universe would not compromise God’s love for Earth life, ‘just as a parent’s love for a child is not compromised because that child has a brother or sister’. If you believe in a God, why assume he is only able to love a few of his starchildren?…”
(Brandon Ambrosino, BBC Future)

No matter how cute and cuddly the aliens looked, I’m pretty sure some folks would panic.

Others might assume they were benevolent missionaries, sent to save humanity from ourselves — or start worshiping them as gods. That would be a very bad idea. (Catechism, 21122114)

I’d be astounded if con artists didn’t start collecting donations for ‘non-profit’ groups with names like “Earth Defense League” and “Seekers of Celestial Enlightenment.”

Those who insist that their version of the Bible is literally true, by their standards, might have a hard time adjusting. Or maybe not.

And I figure the usual changes would be rung on the ‘religion and science don’t mix’ theme. Folks who seem convinced that religion is obsolete would declare that since non-human people exist, God doesn’t.

Meanwhile, loudly-pious folks who apparently don’t approve of what we’ve learned since 1277 might claim that the alien delegation isn’t there, or that it’s some sort of plot. (December 2, 2016; July 29, 2016)

“Our Cousins in the Cosmos”

(From NASA, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

“…Thomas Paine famously tackled this question in his 1794 Age of Reason, in a discussion of multiple worlds. A belief in an infinite plurality of worlds, argued Paine, ‘renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air’. It isn’t possible to affirm both simultaneously, he wrote, and ‘he who thinks that he believes in both has thought but little of either.’ Isn’t it preposterous to believe God ‘should quit the care of all the rest’ of the worlds he’s created, to come and die in this one? On the other hand, ‘are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation’ had their own similar visitations from this God? If that’s true, Paine concludes, then that person would ‘have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of deaths, with scarcely a momentary interval of life’….

…But there’s another way of looking at the problem, which doesn’t occur to Paine: maybe God’s incarnation within Earth’s history ‘works’ for all creatures throughout the Universe. This is the option George Coyne, Jesuit priest and former director of the Vatican Observatory, explores in his 2010 book ‘Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological Implications.’

” ‘How could he be God and leave extra-terrestrials in their sin? God chose a very specific way to redeem human beings. He sent his only Son, Jesus, to them… Did God do this for extra-terrestrials? There is deeply embedded in Christian theology… the notion of the universality of God’s redemption and even the notion that all creation, even the inanimate, participates in some way in his redemption.’…”
(Brandon Ambrosino, BBC Future)

My hat’s off to Brandon Ambrosino for quoting Thomas Paine and Brother George Coyne.

But Brother Coyne didn’t write the whole book. “Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological Implications,” was edited by Steven J. Dick. (Templeton Foundation Press (2010) ISBN 1-890151-42-4)

It’s a collection of short pieces by Christian de Duve; Paul C. W. Davies; Christopher P. McKay; Martin J. Rees; Lee Smolin; Arthur Peacocke; John Leslie; Freeman J. Dyson; Jill Cornell Tarter; Ernan McMullin; and George V. Coyne, S. J..

There’s a preview copy on Google Books. The preview skips part of Coyne’s contribution, which runs from page 177 to 188.

Brother George Coyne gave a quick overview of original sin, the Catholic version,2 then started speculating about our hypothetical neighbors. I put a longer excerpt near the end of this post.3

“…Did our extraterrestrials sin in this way?
“God freely chose to redeem human beings from their sin. Did he do this also for extraterrestrials? Now we are getting even more hypothetical, since we are determining what God, who is absolutely free, would freely choose to do. …
“…After this whole sequence of hypotheses, increasingly more difficult to make, theologians must accept a serious responsibility to re-think some fundamental realities within the context of religious belief. What is a human being? Could Jesus Christ, fully a human being, exist on more than one planet at more than one time? … But God has also spoken in the Book of Nature. While we may not need him, in fact should not need him, as a source of rational explanation, we can learn much about the manner in which he loves and, indeed, much about ourselves, from the best of science, both the life sciences and the physical sciences.”
(George V. Coyne, S. J, The Evolution of Intelligent Life on Earth and possibly Elsewhere: Reflections from a Religious Tradition, pp. 187-188; “Many Worlds…,” Steven J. Dick, editor (2010) [emphasis mine])

Bottom line, as I see it, is that we don’t know if we have neighbors.

If we do — God gave us brains; so we should be able to figure out what sort of folks they are, and how God has been dealing with them.

I also think Brother Guy Consolmagno, another Jesuit, is right about how “alien” “our cousins in the cosmos” would be. (September 2, 2016)

“…Frankly, if you think about it, any creatures on other planets, subject to the same laws of chemistry and physics as us, made of the same kinds of atoms, with an awareness and a will recognizably like ours would be at the very least our cousins in the cosmos. They would be so similar to us in all the essentials that I don’t think you’d even have the right to call them aliens.”
(“Brother Astronomer;” Chapter Three, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? — Brother Guy Consolmagno (2000))

2. Sense and Nonsense

Arrival” hit theaters in September, giving film critics, assorted experts, and folks like me, something to talk about. I haven’t seen the movie, but these folk may have:

There’s also the usual assortment of imaginative headlines, like “UFO Researchers: 82 Alien Species Are Currently In Contact With Earth” (The Inquisitr) and “Extraterrestrial Exposé: Vatican to Reveal Its Best-Kept Alien Secrets Soon?” (Nature World News).

Some of those alternative-reality sites are a bit intrusive, digitally, so I won’t provide links.

About interstellar conspiracies and all that: no, I do not think that Area 51 is a cover story for a Reptilian embassy secretly allied with the Montauk people. Nifty story idea, though.

Protocol? What Protocol?

The “SETI expert” is Seth Shostak, the SETI Institute’s senior astronomer. SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is still a science in search of a subject.

But it is a science, and being taken seriously. (December 2, 2016; September 16, 2016)

Contact with extraterrestrial civilizations has been moving out of pulp science fiction and into serious debate.

I think the discussions are interesting, and may be useful.

I also think the various post-detection policies are funny, partly for Seth Shostak’s reason.

My guess is that if we get visitors, or pick up a signal from elsewhere, we’ll be making up policies and protocols as we go: occasionally learning from our mistakes. And, probably, making some of the same old mistakes again.

Honestly, how many folks seriously believe we can make detailed plans for contact with folks who aren’t human, and (probably) have been around much longer than we have? (December 16, 2016)

If we learn that we’re not alone by finding physical evidence, like the alien analog of a 50-gallon oil drum: maybe some government or organization will ‘manage’ the knowledge for a while.

Depending on how many folks had seen the evidence, officials might keep that up for several years.4

If the physical evidence is one or more folks who aren’t human, in person, officials still might try to keep the hoi polli away from “their” discovery. How long that lasts might depend on how patient our visitors are.

Speculation and Mr. Chuckles

I hope we have neighbors.

For one thing, we’d have opportunities to learn which parts of “human nature” we share with all people: and which are uniquely “human,” resulting from our being this particular sort of ‘clay.’ (November 18, 2016; September 23, 2016; July 15, 2016)

If we do share this universe with other people, I’d be very surprised if they look much like us. Folks like Mr. Chuckles there might be the most reassuringly ‘human’ in appearance of the lot. They might think we look weird, too, and that’s another topic.

I’m pretty sure that a few folks would greet the aliens the way some other primates do when startled, frightened, or angry: by screaming and throwing stuff.5 Embarrassing as that might be for both sides, it could be a first step in establishing “meaningful dialog.”

The good news, as I see it, is that some “impact assessments” reflect an understanding that we probably won’t experience a replay of European colonization of the Americas.

On the other hand, quite a few “experts” don’t seem to realize that space aliens may not have Western civilization’s current preoccupations: or be human.

Sure, well-meaning extraterrestrials might try forcing us to play nice: by their standards. That might include multilateral nuclear disarmament, universal adoption of mauve headbands, learning to write with our left hands: or something completely different.

But the newcomers could be more like Kūruš and Dārayava(h)uš, and leave us alone; as long as we didn’t make trouble.

Right now, we don’t know if we have neighbors in the universe: much less what they’d be like. I think many discussions of ‘first contact’ are like Rorschach test ink blots: telling us more about the participants than the discussion topic.

That won’t stop me from indulging in some guesswork, though.

What If?

(From D.W. Miller, via Smithsonian Institution/Smithsonian Magazine, used w/o permission.)
(Cambrian animals in the Burgess Shale, including Anomalocaris and Hallucigenia.)

A great many critters got caught and buried in a mudslide roughly 505,000,000 years ago. That mud became the Burgess Shale, a sort of snapshot of Cambrian life.

Some animals, like the Burgessochaeta worm, are modestly familiar. Others, like that five-eyed — thing — with a probably-prehensile tentacle, are only vaguely similar to some of today’s critters.

These days, nearly all largish animals on Earth have two eyes, two pairs of limbs, and a tentacle inside the mouth. Maybe that’s the only body plan possible for critters that move around. Or maybe we’re just one possible variation on a theme.

Let’s take a look over the last half-billion years or so, and see what might have happened: but didn’t.

(© Marianne Collins, via, used w/o permission.)
(Reconstruction of Yohoia tenuis, a Cambrian critter, by Marianne Collins.)

Yohoia looked a little like today’s shrimp. This arthropod was small: no more than 23 millimeters long: just under an inch. But it had two ‘arms’ ending in four spikes that look a lot like stiff fingers.

Leanchoilia was a little bigger: about five centimeters, two inches, long. The odds are pretty good that it used those whip-like feelers at the ends of its arms to find food.

I’ve no idea how likely it is that animals like these would, over the course of a half-billion years, get bigger and smarter to the point that they’d be our analogues. But I don’t think it’s impossible.

Tiny as they are, those almost-hands let me see them as looking a bit more like potential ‘people’ prototypes than the lobe-finned fish that came along later.

Up to now, I’ve been assuming that extraterrestrial intelligence has to be the sort of critter that moves around. We move around, and everybody else has to be just like us, right?

Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

Not Human – – –

Earth’s crinoids, like today’s feather stars, are animals: but don’t have much in the way of a nervous system.

Maybe that’s typical of all sessile animals: but maybe not.

Before the Permian-Triassic extinction event, about a quarter-billion years back, about two thirds of animals in Earth’s ocean were sessile, like that fossil crinoid. After the Great Dying, we had a lot more animals that moved around. That’s how it’s been ever since. On Earth.

Again, maybe that’s a universal pattern of development: or maybe not. For all I know, most folks in this galaxy may spend their lives quietly anchored to a nice, safe seafloor.

All this is speculation, of course. We may be alone in the universe: or we may find that people throughout the universe bear an uncanny resemblance to Michael Rennie and Chris Hemsworth.

Or we may learn that reality is much more interesting.

– – – Not Even Close

We do our thinking/information processing with a huge mass of nerves right behind our eyes. That’s something we have in common with other vertebrates, but it’s not the only possible nervous system architecture.

Radiata, critters like jellyfish and comb jellies, have a nerve net with no brain. They don’t seem very bright,6 and maybe critters like that can’t be very smart. What we’re learning about how their nervous systems work at least hints at that.

Then there’s the way octopuses are wired.

They act as if they’re smart, and they’ve got a brain: but not a particularly big one. About two thirds of their nerves are in their arms: which can act on their own. Small wonder we’re having a hard time learning how they process information. They’re not wired like us.

Echinoderms, starfish, sea urchins, and the like, have a simple radial nervous system: no brain, and probably not particularly smart. The point is that it’s yet another approach to nervous system architecture.

We’re learning that how a critter is wired affects how it process information.7

Comparative psychology, studying the behavior and mental processes of non-human animals, arguably goes back to Al-Jahiz’sKitab al-Hayawan.”

That book apparently looked a lot like “Kitāb al-Hayawān,” a translation of Aristotle’s “Historia Animalium,” “De Partibus Animalium,” and “De Generatione Animalium.”

Don’t bother trying to memorize those names. There won’t be a test on this.

Most of today’s research got started in the 19th century. I think we’re still working out what sort of questions to ask, and how to organize what we have learned.

We’re making some progress, though. Apparently researchers have demonstrated that dogs, cats, pigeons, chimps, and parrots don’t all act the same way; and are pretty good at what they do. It’s a start.

If we share this universe with other folks, I think we’ll find that they have “an awareness and a will recognizably like ours,” as Brother Consolmagno said. Recognizably like, not identical.

I also strongly suspect we’ll learn that they don’t think and act exactly the same way we do: which may explain why we haven’t made contact yet, and that’s yet another topic.

More, mostly about “wonderful things” and being human:

1 Exoplanets, thousands of them, in still-growing catalogs:

2 How the Catholic Church sees original sin, sin, and the human tendency to make bad decisions:

CONCUPISCENCE: Human appetites or desires which remain disordered due to the temporal consequences of original sin, which remain even after Baptism, and which produce an inclination to sin (1264, 1426, 2515).

ORIGINAL SIN: The sin by which the first human beings disobeyed the commandment of God, choosing to follow their own will rather than God’s will. As a consequence they lost the grace of original holiness, and became subject to the law of death; sin became universally present in the world. Besides the personal sin of Adam and Eve, original sin describes the fallen state of human nature which affects every person born into the world, and from which Christ, the ‘new Adam,’ came to redeem us (396412).

SIN: An offense against God as well as a fault against reason, truth, and right conscience. Sin is a deliberate thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the eternal law of God. In judging the gravity of sin, it is customary to distinguish between mortal and venial sins (1849, 1853, 1854).”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary)

3 More of Brother George V. Coyne’s take on extraterrestrial intelligence and getting a grip:

“…Did our extraterrestrials sin in this way?
“God freely chose to redeem human beings from their sin. Did he do this also for extraterrestrials? How we are getting even more hypothetical, since we are determining what God, who is absolutely free, would freely choose to do. In fact, there are serious theological implications for our understanding of God. If God is good, and passionate, the answer is ‘yes, God did save them.’ How could he be God and leave extraterrestrials in their sin? After all, he was good to us. Why should he not be good to them? God chose a very specific way to redeem human beings. He sent his only Son, Jesus, to them and Jesus gave up his life so that human beings would be saved from their sin. Did God do this for extraterrestrials? Or did he choose another way to redeem extraterrestrials? The theological implications about God are getting every more seriously. Surely God is completely free to choose his methods. He certainly did not have to send his Son to us. But once he chose to do so, did he have to choose to redeem extraterrestrials in the same way? There is deeply embedded in Christian theology, throughout the Old and New Testament but especially in St. Paul and in St. John the Evangelist, the notion of the universality of God’s redemption and even the notion that all creation, even the inanimate, participates in some way in his redemption.
“After this whole sequence of hypotheses, increasingly more difficult to make, theologians must accept a serious responsibility to re-think some fundamental realities within the context of religious belief. What is a human being? Could Jesus Christ, fully a human being, exist on more than one planet at more than one time? We are obviously very limited today in our ability to answer such questions. We cannot rely, even theologically, solely on God’s revelation to us in the Scriptures and in the churches, since that revelation was to us and was received, therefore, in a very anthropocentric sense. But God has also spoken in the Book of Nature. While we may not need him, in fact should not need him, as a source of rational explanation, we can learn much about the manner in which he loves and, indeed, much about ourselves, from the best of science, both the life sciences and the physical sciences.”
(The Evolution of Intelligent Life on Earth and possibly Elsewhere: Reflections from a Religious Tradition; George V. Coyne, S. J, pp. 187-188; “Many Worlds…,” Steven J. Dick, editor (2010))

4 Some conspiracies have been real, which gave one physicist data to work with:

5 Throwing stuff is a very human thing to do, but it’s not uniquely human behavior. Scientists have started studying this behavior recently:

6 Box jellyfish are an exception. Some of their eyes have lenses, corneas, and retinas; and the critters act like fish:

7 We’re learning more about animals:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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