Thursday, November 12, 2009

Astrobiology, the Vatican, and the Meaning of Our Existence

A decade or so back, I read the serious - and unsupported - assertion that discovering life that didn't come from Earth would mean the end of religious belief. Specifically, Christianity. I'd give the title of the article, but it was years ago and I wasn't taking notes at the time.

"Everybody Knows" What Those Christians are Like

I grew up in America, so I have a pretty good idea of what the author was thinking. In several American subcultures, "Everybody knows" that religion - Christianity in particular - is completely, totally, and irrevocably against science and reason and stuff like that.

I've written about that before. (March 20, 2009)

The notion that Tony Alamo is a typical Christian leader might reflect a certain lack of awareness. On the other hand, a remarkable number of Americans, at least, take Ussher's basic assumptions seriously. And think that really believing in a relatively small, new, universe is vital to Christian belief.

In a way, the "Bible" universe is a cosier place than the boundless immensity that we live in.1 But I've learned to live with the idea that God can think big if He wants.

I think that notions like 'discovering life elsewhere will end religious belief' get traction because so many self-described Christians are convinced that the universe is no more than about 6,000 years old; that dinosaurs, trilobites and tree ferns didn't exist - or if they did, they don't have anything to do with birds, crabs and garden plants. And, make those assumptions part of the foundation of their faith.

When or if life is found elsewhere, people who don't like what's been learned in the last few centuries will have decisions to make. Some may simply decide that the extraterrestrial is another lie by the evil scientists. Others may start believing in something other than their notion of what Christianity is.

What's So Spiritual About Space Aliens?

Here's what got me started today:
"Both scientists and believers posit that life is a 'special outcome' in a 'vast and mostly inhospitable universe,' and to study this common understanding, the Vatican brought together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to work on and study astrobiology.

"The conclusions of the five-day work-study were presented today by a Jesuit priest and leading professors from Italy, France and the United States.

" 'Astrobiology is the study of life's relationship to the rest of the cosmos,' one of the professors explained. 'Its major themes include the origin of life and its precursor materials, the evolution of life on earth, and its future prospects on and off the earth.'..."

"...[University of Arizona astronomy department professor and Steward Observatory's (Tucson) Chris] Impey acknowledged that making contact with an intelligent species in space would have profound implications for our self-image.

" 'It is appropriate that a meeting on this frontier topic is hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences,' he stated. 'The motivations and methodologies might differ, but both science and religion posit life as a special outcome of a vast and mostly inhospitable universe. There is a rich middle ground for dialogue between the practitioners of astrobiology and those who seek to understand the meaning of our existence in a biological universe.'"
Note: These folks aren't members of a cargo cult, convinced that flying saucer people will solve all of our problems. They're scientists and theologians who are able to take observations and accept reasoned conclusions.

The number of known exoplanets is over 400 and rising. So far, nobody's found living creatures elsewhere. (as far as we know: a scientist, Joop Houtkooper, made an intriguing suggesting about a failed(?) Viking life experiment (Apathetic Lemming of the North (March 5, 2009))

Although we may find that life exists only on Earth, right now I wouldn't bet five cents on the assertion - and it's probably just as well that professionals are discussing what to look for. And, what to do if we find life elsewhere.

Me? I've long since decided that God can do what He wants with what He made - so I won't be shocked and dismayed if we find life elsewhere. On the other hand, I'd be more than a bit disturbed if there were people out there - and they all looked like Charlton Heston in the role of Moses.

Related posts: In the news: An updated list of posts in Apathetic Lemming of the North on:
1 "Boundless" isn't "infinite." The surface of a sphere is boundless, but has a limited area. At our present level of understanding, it looks like the three spatial dimensions we live in are not bounded, but are finite.

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Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.