Way back in February, we looked at the Fermi Paradox (go here for a refresher), and a reader wrote:
“It’s weird how often people mention the obvious answer that ‘They are too far away and the fastest you can travel is too slow.’ and then breeze on past it as if it doesn’t count.”
Once it is recognized that an awful lot of the dream of aliens is eschatological and poetic, not scientific, the will to believe that somehow, someway we can Star Trek some tech that will overcome the barriers God has placed in our way becomes much more understandable. We rankle at the idea of limits, both death and distance. I don’t think we are ever getting off the earth in any serious way (more on this tomorrow). Maybe a mining base on the Moon. Mayyybe a visit to Mars. But “colonizing the stars”? Ain’t never happening. It would be easier to build New York in Antarctica than a permanent Mars colony, because you don’t have to import your own oxygen atmosphere and you have Van Allen belts to ward off the death-dealing solar wind. Mars has neither and never ever will (fantasies of terraforming notwithstanding). And Antarctica is warmer than Mars at the equator on average. Colonial life on the Martian surface ain’t happening.
I assume there is life on lots of planets. I am skeptical there is a lot of complex life (RARE EARTH makes the case for why this is). I am really skeptical about the prevalence of intelligent life and deeply skeptical about a galaxy teeming with “new life and new civilizations”. The big, fat, Ockham’s Razor explanation for the Fermi Paradox that our civilization deeply and intensely resists, not because of the lack of evidence for that explanation, but in dogged spite of it, is that we aren’t hearing from anybody because nobody is there or, as my reader notes, they are so far away that they are, for all practical purposes, not there.
I think the drive to believe in Contact is, like so much else in our culture, an artifact of our Christian heritage and our deep need for an eschatology culminating in the Communion of Saints. When you stop believing in God, you don’t believe in nothing. You believe in anything.
It will be immediately replied, “Yeah, I guess atheists will believe all sorts of stupid things, like: angels, imps, cacodemons, archangels, virgin birth, living in a fish, getting all of the animals on a boat, talking bushes, turning into pillars of salt, living to be 100’s of years old…stupid atheists!”
But this is to mistake my point. I don’t think atheists any smarter or stupider than theists. I simply think that atheism is not any kind of real prophylactic against faith or even credulity. It is merely a prophylactic against certain aspects of one very particular religious tradition–the Christian tradition–while remaining massively and unconsciously indebted to that tradition, as Tom Holland (an atheist himself) has eloquently and brilliantly pointed out in his fine book DOMINION.
The curious thing is that the Christian and Jewish traditions have long insisted that Earth has been visited by created intelligences from what science fiction fans would call “other dimensions” and the Christian theological tradition refers to as “angels and devils”. But that is currently out of fashion. History takes a very long time to unfold. I wonder if those two currently divergent ways of seeing the universe will reconverge? Belief in a multiverse and belief in a created order that is more like a skyscraper than a two-storey world of “heaven and earth” seems to me perfectly compatible with the concept of angels and devils from entirely different natures or dimensions. “In my Father’s house are many mansions.”