Fr. George Rutler and Bob Moniot, Ph.D.
Delivered at the Augustine Club, Columbia University
November 5, 1997
- My job is to present to you the scientific aspects of our lecture topic. The theological questions will be discussed by Fr. Rutler.
- Scientists can say very little with certainty about whether there is life on other planets. It seems natural, since we are here, to ask if there is life elsewhere. However, this is a biased question, in which "the anthropic principle" is at work. Science cannot answer an inductive question based on a single occurrence.
- The development of radioastronomy in the 1940's made it possible to do actual experiments.
- The astronomer Paul Wrey developed an equation designed to calculate the possibility of life existing on other planets:
N = R Fp Ne Fl Fi Fc L
N = the number of civilizations with whom we can connect
R = the rate of star formation (10 stars per year in our galaxy)
Fp = the fraction of stars that develop planets
Ne = planets suitable for life
Fl = planets that actually develop life
Fi = planets that develop life that is intelligent
Fc = civilizations that communicate
L = civilizations at the stage at which communication can occur
We have begun to get an idea of what numerical values to assign to the first three variables (R, Fp and Ne). The rest are still unknown. In order to calculate the remaining variables, we need a model for how life processes occur.
- There are two primary hypotheses for the origin of life:
1. Molecules capable of self-reproduction developed from a chance combination of compounds. Based on mathematical calculations, this is highly unlikely. Some organic compounds, such as sugars and amino acids, are fairly easy to create in laboratory conditions. But the question is, how easily could these compounds reproduce themselves? Even one RNA molecule would need to have hundreds of amino acids. The possibility of this occurring is extremely tiny. It is the equivalent of a hurricane passing through a collection of spare parts and creating a Boeing 767.
This is not entirely impossible. In an infinite universe, every possibility will occur at some point. However, the chance of its occurring twice is so remote that these calculations indicate to us that nobody else is out there, at least, nobody with whom we can communicate.
2. The Copernican principle, a.k.a. the principle of mediocrity, assumes that we are nothing special. There must be some ordinary mechanism by which life came into being. However, we have not been able to identify such a mechanism. Therefore, the chances of our finding life on other planets do not appear to be very good.
- It was recently reported in the news, that a meteorite from Mars contained evidence suggestive of life. However, this evidence is controversial. In order to determine whether it supports the Copernican principle, it is necessary to answer the question as to whether this life is related to life on earth.
- With regard to the nature of our own life, evolutionary theory needs to explain why our intelligence is much higher than is needed purely for survival. A high degree of intelligence is found in every culture. However can the evolutionary hypothesis explain the existence, for example, of calculus, or of symphonies?
- If aliens do indeed exist, it is highly unlikely that they will resemble us very strongly. In conclusion, although aliens may exist, we probably will never know.
- I have had no personal contact with extraterrestrials, although I live near Grand Central Station. However, I too speak as a scientist on these matters, since theology is a science.
- A science must know its limitations. Natural science is false when it attempts to decide on the meaning of things. Likewise, theology is false when it attempts to decide on the physical nature of things.
- Father Stanley Jaki, a priest and a scientist, has stated that only a theist can believe in the possibility that life like our own exists elsewhere. The theist must resist two things:
1. Fear of hostile extraterrestrials.
2. The reduction of intelligence to biochemistry.
- The natural sciences require in an orderly universe that has a Creator. Thus, the physical sciences could have developed only in the context of a Judaeo-Christian culture. The atheist scientist is living off of this heritage even as he rejects it.
- When people ask if there is life on other planets, what they are really asking is, "What is life?" What is the nature of our being?
- We are not mere thinking machines. Our interest in the question of life on other planets grows from the fact that we have imaginations as well as intellects. The imagination is also a mental faculty and we should put it to good use in the service of reason. If we dismiss the imaginative faculty, if we rationalize instead of reasoning, we will lose our intellects and become subhuman.
- Descartes made a tremendous mistake when he decided that the human being was a "ghost in a machine." He saw the soul as a mere thing. This eventually led to his idea that reality was a mere construct. He thought that ideas do not need to conform to the way things really are. Although he considered himself a believer, Descartes was anthropocentric, building a world view of which his own mind was the center.
- The twentieth-century psychologist Victor Frankel (author of Man's Search for Meaning) has said that Freud was wrong about neurosis. Mental malfunction is caused not by repression, but by ignorance of Providence. This ignorance then leads to the "dumbing down" of a culture. Frankel stated that the problem with the generation of the 1960's is that they do not have ideas, ideas have them. This degeneration belies our notion of progress, our belief that our intelligence level is always increasing.
- In connection with the question of the meaning of our existence, we must also ask what the nature of history is. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, history is linear (as contrasted with the classical tradition in which history is cyclical). God has a purpose for the course of history. However, Satan, whose motto is "Non serviam" ("I will not serve."), wants to thwart God's purpose for history. (Satan was certainly at work in the broadcast of Mother Teresa's funeral, when a bitter critic was given full opportunity to air his views at the very moment of the consecration!)
- The question of life on other planets also touches on the question of evolution. One motive underlying this belief is the desire to get rid of superfluous culture and intellect and get back to a primitive life. Therefore, it is a combination of naturalism and romanticism.
- Lenin would not allow cosmology to be taught in the state schools. Since this study involves questions about the meaning of life, he called it "bourgeois metaphysics".
- Brunovsky likewise denied that our life had a purpose. He maintained that even termites, given enough time, could develop the telescope. According to this view, there may well be life on other planets.
- George Bernard Shaw attributed the social decline of modern times to the philosophy of "scientism". (This idea is explored in his play, Heartbreak House.)
- If we reject Brunovsky's mechanistic view of human life, the possibility of meaningful of meaningful life like our own elsewhere is infinitely tiny. If we consider its possible existence, it gives rise to interesting theological questions, such as whether life on other planets is also fallen. We cannot know.
- In the end, the focus of our search for life is not life on other planets, but God. It was God who said, "Let there be light," who brought the universe into being. And it was Christ who said,"I am the life of the world."
The following remarks were made during the Question and Answer Period:
1. In considering the possibility of life in outer space, a Christian must wonder whether Revelation is applicable on other planets.
2. Kant with his idealist epistemology is largely responsible for today's gnosticism, which holds that each individual can create his own reality. A generation ago we idealized science. Now we disregard science. Our fixation with life on other planets is really an icon of our confusion about ourselves.
3. What role should theology play in other branches of learning? What is its proper place in the university? Theology teaches us that there is a great truth that is not accessible to unaided reason.
It is revealed truth that enables the sciences to harmonize with each other. Without this unifying principle, each branch of science would become inwardly focused.
Without the help of theology, modern science is inadequate. For example, Huxley stated that Darwin could not account for consciousness, nor for the Cambrian explosion. Science without theology is also susceptible to immorality, for instance, Darwinist thinking has often led to racism.
Another human attribute that cannot easily be explained by science is what St. Thomas Aquinas called "risability", that is, the capacity for laughter, joy and delight. Among all the animals, only we have expressive faces.
4. We can question whether all parts of the universe are governed by the same physical laws as ours. If not, the entire question of the likelihood of life on other planets changes.
5. We tend to dream that the discovery of extraterrestrials will solve all our problems. This is an extension of the same utopianism that saw the New World, and later the American West, as the answer to the problems of the old. This old dream is a type of sentimentalism, which has been defined as love without an object.
6. Carl Sagan believed that the discovery of life on other planets would mean the end of organized religion.
Notes by Sara Frear