sciencethat's what he said, by Frank Wilson

The presumption that we are not alone

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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.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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8 Responses to “The presumption that we are not alone”

  1. “Maybe we’re the sour cherry on the sundae.” I like that. And I love Lewis’s space trilogy.

  2. Are you saying that we are the best that God could do?

  3. BTW, Frank, I should have put a Ha in there because I am half-joking!

  4. Oh, I caught the Ha!, Lincoln. I would say, Jesuit-trained Catholic that I am, that Go created what he wanted to: Free individuals,giving them the chance to sin — or not. The key thing about God’s creation is that he wanted us to be free — because there can’t be love otherwise.

  5. “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.”

    Actually, such a concept doesn’t offend atheists like myself. It is, in fact, the idea that we are a fluke that makes us relatively optimistic that there are other intelligent beings in the universe. It’s a “law of large numbers” sort of thing — yes, we’re a fluke, but in a universe of such incredible size and diversity, it would be amazing that we should be the only such fluke.

    It’s not that we think life, or intelligent life, is necessarily common. But in a universe-sized universe, even miniscule chances are likely to result in more than one intelligent species.

    Rather, if we *are* the only intelligent species in the universe, and if there is no God, then I’d venture to say that we should be even more vain about our specialness.

  6. I don’t think it’s false humility at all. I think it’s statistics, those “cold equations.” It’s very much rooted in the same sense of perspective you already mentioned: the Chinese sage down at the corner of the painting, dwarfed by the rest of the landscape. That is also the perspective one finds in Robinson Jeffers’ poetry and criticism: His Inhumanism was not in fact anti-human, it was a reminder that there are other species and lives even on this planet, and we’re relative newcomers, and won’t be here forever. In other words, even if we were created by God, which Jeffers did believe, we’re not the center of the Universe, we’re just one element of it.

    As for Lewis’ space trilogy, I was quite enamored of it in my early teens. Lately having re-read it, I think like most of his allegorical writings it’s got many more flaws than jewels. Such is the general problem with all didactic fiction, of course. I wouldn’t single Lewis out as any worse than some others.

  7. Hi Brad,
    If I seemed to suggest that the notion I described offended atheists, I apologize. I was trying to get across — poorly, apparently — that such is the default view of mankind. But I do notice, reading your comment, that what you say seems to me to suggest a kind of teleology to this accidental cosmos. And that is what I find questionable — not the teleology, but the idea that a teleology is compatible with an accidental world.

  8. Frank,

    No need for apologies, no offense was taken — I was in a hurry and wasn’t careful with my response, and sometimes forget that the written word on the internet may get taken a little different than intended. I was riffin’ on your statement that the idea that we’re alone in a godless world would “offend our vanity” — by which I assume you intended to describe the vanity of humanity in general to want to feel special.

    My response was that being alone and special in the universe somewhat postulates either an insanely narrow window of chance or the existence of a supreme being that created us, either of which makes us feel special. An atheist would suppose that we [as humans] invent God as a way to justify that need to feel special. But an atheist may find life personally special and yet still not scientifically special or unique, and thus does *not* feel less special by the idea that there might be others in the universe.

    I’m not suggesting a teleology, as if the universe exists or has purpose to create life here or anywhere else — only suggesting that the odds are in favor that if we exist, someone else does somewhere too.

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