"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, October 26, 2015

Are We Alone, And What Difference Does It Make?

Mabel Figgins had always wondered if there was someone ‘out there’; and she like thousands of other imaginative children laid in the soft grass of the meadow, looked up at the August sky, and wondered about infinity, space travel, and the possibility of other, alien civilizations.

Night sky

She sniffed at the comic book depictions of aliens, green with three eyes, pointy heads, and frog hands; laughed at the idea of flying saucers raining down death rays on an unsuspecting populace.  “Why should they be destructive just because we are?”, she asked; and was quick to catch on to the anthropomorphism common in science fiction.

“It sells comic books, dearest”, her mother said. “Not to mention books and movies.”

Image result for fifties comic book alien invaders


If there were superior intelligences out there, she reasoned, there was no reason why they would resemble us in the least.  In fact they probably had advanced over a billion years into pure energy without shape or form, existing everywhere, passing unnoticed because it had long ago evolved beyond human recognition.  Even more logically, such an alien life form had probably begun as energy and never knew solid form. 

More importantly, if the universe and time were infinite, then an infinite number of intelligences in limitless form, power, and presence had to exist as well.  Why should any of them have our puny brains, immune systems, and short pull-by dates? Why would they shackle themselves with our primitive social system, crude morality, and incessant, destructive adventurism?

Finally, why would civilizations even more moderately advanced even want to bother with Earth?  Surely they had long ago discovered ways to prosper without the need for iron ore, plutonium, corn, or sea water.  They might be incorporeal with a life force comprised of cosmic and gravitational waves, or energy sources not even contemplated by Man. What could Earth possibly have to offer in the way of needed resources?

“Maybe they’re just curious”, Mabel said. “Just like we are.” The government had built great satellite dishes on mountaintops and in deserts engineered to pick up any sign of intelligence – repeating patterns, prime numbers, expressions of Pi – and had spent hundreds of millions of dollars on curiosity.


“Cousins”, Mabel said. “We are looking for celestial cousins”; for that is what these alien intelligences would be, communicating with us within our specific, culturally-bound system of logic and mathematical definition. Why should advanced civilizations even operate on the same principles of Einstein, Newton, or Planck? And why should anyone assume that they were just as curious as we about having relatives in the universe.

The real reason for such curiosity, Mabel concluded many years later, was to prove or disprove the existence of God. Without a doubt advanced civilizations would not only be able to move forward and backward in time, but would have resolved the question of immortality forever.  If, for example, a civilization had evolved beyond conventional matter and energy and for whom birth and death had no meaning, then all Christian and Jewish concepts of suffering, salvation, and redemption would be meaningless. If there were no God to create our pitiful little planet, then the whole idea of Creation would be irrelevant.

Image result for renaissance images Creation 

The question of life – what happens to us after death – would be answered once and for all, thus taking the mystery out of religion, the authority out of the church, and the morality out of society. “There is no morality without immortality”, said Ivan Karamazov.

So, we are curious and fearful at the same time. While it would be nice to know that we have company in the infinitude of space-time, it is unsettling as well.  In one fell swoop, all our most cherished convictions could be dismissed and tossed in the dust bin.

“You think too much”, Mabel’s mother said to her each time she came in from the backyard anxious to share her thoughts and speculations. “Mr. Browning had it right.”

The year’s at the spring,
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hill-side’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn;
God’s in His heaven—
All’s right with the world!

“Besides”, her mother went on, “there’s plenty to worry about right here in New Brighton.”

Image result for images robert browning


Of course hope springs eternal, and a beneficent alien civilization might yet visit us and provide us with a cure for disease and ignorance, show us the way to expanded consciousness, and transform us into superior people.

“Nonsense”, said Mabel’s father, an ironic pessimist. “Given the bullshit here on earth, why do you assume that it would be better any place else? If there is any cosmic glue, it is bullshit.”

Mabel particularly liked the Mad Dreamer theory of existence.  One of these advanced civilizations is simply dreaming us.  Everything anyone does is a product of bad indigestion or good alien sex, configured according to unknown laws of consciousness.  Not only are we insignificant relative to advanced intelligences, but we don’t really exist at all.

“Imagine that!”, she said to herself.

Descartes was definitely on to something when he concluded after decades of philosophical reflection, “I think, therefore I am”; but who is the ‘I’? The Mad Dreamer? The dreamee? Is there such a thing as external reality which can be observed?

Image result for images descartes

The world, Mabel found, was pretty equally divided on the subject of Alien Intelligence.  There were those who believed that we were made in God’s image, so if there were in fact other civilizations out there, they would look exactly like us - maybe with a few unexpected wrinkles or digits, but basically the same; and above all with the same soul.  Jesus Christ would have visited those planets with ‘human life’ on them, offered redemption and salvation, and would have died on their crosses. 

There were others who assumed that in the vastness of infinity, there were an infinite number of permutations of life, and it would not be surprising to find a planet where there was an Uncle Guido, Aunt Martha, and Cousin Vic just like there is here.  Or a sector of space where nothing was visible to the naked human eye but alive with foreign energy, cosmic life patterns, and ethereal moments.

Still others said, “Whatever”; and were so mired in keeping their heads above water that all they could think about was losing their job, another unwanted pregnancy, and the delinquency of their children.  That is, most of us.  All this SETI business was all just background noise and a way to make money.  If people had this seemingly insatiable desire to read about alien civilizations, watch movies about the end of the Earth at the hands of warriors from the constellation Alpha Centauri, so be it.  Live and let live.  Everybody had the right to make a buck.

“Mabel, dear, why don’t you draw some flowers or horses instead of those creepy spacemen?”, her mother asked.

“I don’t want to”, Mabel replied and colored in the weird heads and bodies of the Invaders From Outer Space. 

“I was an ironic child”, she told a friend many years later.  “I was the Mad Dreamer who was creating space creatures and giving them a bad night.”

In any case, the banks of SETI dishes at Arecibo are probing the stars for life at the cost of billions to the taxpayer.  No one has thought through the implications of discovery, and how it would shake up everything from the Vatican to Walmart; but the need to know trumps possibility.  If nothing else, we are endlessly idealistic, hopeful, and fearless.  Maybe there is indeed somebody out there, and they are kind, compassionate, and caring.  The daily news suggests otherwise, but still…

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