I suppose most people have heard “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” sung by the drug dealer Sportin’ Life in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The song voices doubts about certain passages in the Bible. But the title phrase is applicable to a range of assumptions well beyond that.
It is, for example, widely assumed that Earth cannot possibly be the only life-bearing planet in the universe, given how vast the universe is and how many planets there must be. In fact, of 2,326 planets so far spotted by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, 10 are said to be about the size of Earth and orbiting their suns in what is called a “habitable zone.” Kepler-22b in particular looks promising. Temperature there seems to be around 72 degrees and it circles a star much like our sun.
I don’t really get emotionally engaged by this. It’s fascinating either way.
But if there’s anybody out there like us, they sure have been hearing from us for a bit. We’ve been transmitting radio waves their way for decades now. But they don’t seem to have called back.
That doesn’t mean they’re not there, however.
C. S. Lewis wrote a space trilogy involving Earth, Mars, and Venus. Mars, it turned out, was called Malacandra by its inhabitants, and it was a world that had never fallen from grace, in the sense that the Abrahamic religions posit that mankind did. Perelandra, as Venus would come to be known to its inhabitants, is portrayed as facing trial, the outcome of which will be whether it is fallen or not.
Well, obviously an unfallen world would be wary of making contact with a fallen one. And another fallen one like ours could prove highly problematic. Its inhabitants might actually be worse than we are and more intelligent and technologically advanced. Bad news for us.
I find the opposite theory more interesting. I am fascinated by the possibility that we are the only things like us in all the world. Maybe it takes an entire universe to come up with anything like us, inconsistent and contradictory, at odds with each other and ourselves, smart and mean, needful and grasping. Maybe we’re the sour cherry on the sundae.
Or maybe we’re just perspective figures — those little humans placed in a lower corner of a landscape painting in order to give the viewer some sense of the height of the waterfall those little people are standing in front of.
I think that theists are especially comfortable with this. After all, God, being himself a singularity, would naturally create something singular, something once in eternity. And he wouldn’t have to mull over possibilities, or try out different models. That’s one of the perks of being omniscient.
There is something else to consider: This presumption that we are not alone is grounded in false humility. If we are alone, and there is no God, then we are a fluke, pure and simple, and that offends our vanity. That we, wonderful we, should be the merest accident cannot possibly be the case. And so we piously recite our solemn credo that we are not alone.
We do, as noted above, have some evidence that there are other places like our own. There is, however, no evidence at all that anybody lives there.