Mankind has always been concerned with extraterrestrial life, ranging from ancient mythology immortalizing the idea of supernatural beings descending to Earth to mix among mortals all the way to our modern fears expressed in science fiction films like District 9, Battle LA and Edge of Tomorrow. Are these fears founded? Are we alone in the Universe? Which would be worse, to be all alone in the infinitude of stars or to be surrounded by potentially dangerous forces beyond our control? Luckily I am not the first person to consider this question and I will defer to the many authorities who also discuss these questions.
First I would like to consider the ongoing search for extraterrestrial life in our galaxy that is actively performed by many professional and amateur astronomers around the world. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, better known as SETI, is run by a private, nonprofit organization called the SETI Institute, which is dedicated to scientific research, education and public outreach. According to www.seti.org, “the mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.”
Now, many people immediately discredit anyone who takes the idea of intelligent aliens seriously. Admittedly, pretty much every claim of alien abductions and unidentified flying objects (UFOs) has been unfounded and lacked even the beginnings of credible evidence. Rather, the argument for intelligent life existing in the universe is grounded in statistics and logical reasoning, instead of wild tales of abduction, vivisection and impregnation.
Frank Drake, a famous astronomer at Cornell, developed an equation to model the probable number of advanced, communicating extraterrestrial civilizations within the Milky Way Galaxy. Although there are several ways to calculate this, according to Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos, the Drake Equation is: N = Ns * Fp * Ne * Fl * Fi * Fc * FL, where N is the probable final number of communicable civilizations within the Milky Way, Ns is the best estimate of the number of stars in the Milky Way, Fp is the fraction of these stars that have planetary systems, Ne is the average number of planets per planetary system suitable for life in some way, Fl is the fraction of those suitable planets where life actually arises, Fi is the fraction of life bearing planets which give rise to intelligent life, Fc is the fraction of intelligent civilizations that are able to communicate with each other, and lastly FL is the fraction of the planet’s lifetime that a communicable civilization is alive.
According to an email interview with Mississippi State Assistant Professor of Astronomy, Dr. Angelle Tanner, some acceptable educated estimates are an Fp of .5, and an Ne of about 3 planets per solar system. Dr. Tanner warns that the variables get complicated and that the Kepler Space Telescope program that she is working with is trying to determine these very numbers.
We should consider that many earthlike planets may be outside of the habitable zone judging from our own solar system, and they could still harbor life due to other sources of energy or different chemical interactions. Therefore, a group of reasonable values, which are under research and debate, are N* = Three Hundred Billion stars, Fp = 1/2, Ne = 3 planets, Fl = 1/100, Fi = 1/100, Fc = 1/100, and FL = 1/1,000 (assuming that one out of a thousand civilizations are either new or have never destroyed themselves violently). Multiplying these particular numbers together yields a possible number of civilizations in the galaxy of about 450. Obviously the lower boundary for this number is one, because we exist, but it could also be the case that the probability for all the correct factors to come into play for the development of life is much less likely than we think, such that life only appears once in every few galaxies. Regardless of the range of numbers, from thousands per galaxy to one in every thousand galaxies, it should be apparent that due to the sheer size of the universe (which contains billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, etc.) it is not unlikely that there are aliens somewhere out there. With such immense scale it seems more remarkable that we would be alone than if we were completely surrounded by alien life.
The Drake Equation is not meant to be taken as an empirical statement about the exact number of aliens in the galaxy, it is really just useful to get into the ballpark and help us understand the scale of our galaxy and what we should expect to be out there. Regardless of the improbability of advanced communicating civilizations existing, if even one besides us exists anywhere in the entire universe there are immediate philosophical and religious implications. These implications matter from the perspective that we are not alone as sentient beings on just one lone planet. We can decide that we are not alone either from the assumption of the development of life elsewhere from the Drake Equation, or ideally because of a future empirical discovery of life somewhere else.
From a philosophical perspective, if you hold to any theory of materialism or ontological naturalism then it will not really matter if there is life somewhere else, but what I want to talk about are the implications for dualism, the idea which says that there are two fundamental essences in the world. In Dualism there is the physical realm, ruled by physics and dealing with objects which can be fully understood by empirical methodology, and there is the realm of the soul or mind which is independent to some degree from the physical world.
There are varying degrees of dualism, some of which will not care if aliens have souls. One variety of dualism states that the realm of the mind (what we might call conscious perception or even the soul) is a product of the two aspects of every object in the universe, the physical and the mental. This dual-aspect theory could either claim the whole universe is composed of both a physical and a mental part which both interact causally somehow, or it could say the mental world is subordinated to the physical and is not able to act as independently as we would like to imagine but is the product of physical interactions and brain chemistry. In either case there could be some conflict over extraterrestrial intelligence or non-human conscious activity, but only to the same degree that our human souls are not fully understood.
There is also the idea of mental phenomena being an emergent result of complexity in a physical system. A good example for this is from Isaac Asimov in his book Foundation’s Edge where he proposes the theory that all physical objects having some amount of mental existence governed by new laws of physics. Asimov’s mentalic existence is determined by the complexity of a system, where doors and walls are capable of the minutest thoughts of linearity and sturdiness, while complex humans and robots are capable of monumental feats of telepathy and mind control.
The type of dualism which is probably most touchy on this subject is the variety subscribed to by Christianity, which approximates a theory called causal-interactive dualism. This says that the mental and physical worlds are very different, not even two aspects of the same substance necessarily, but yet they are able to interact so the soul is in control of the body. Therefore, in the case of religion, any sinful action performed by the soul-body system is as eternal as the soul is.
Philosophically there is not too much at stake by saying aliens could be equal to humans; ideally any issues we would have with them are just the same as we currently have regarding our own souls or non-physical minds. Religion though is another important factor, as the details move past philosophy and into the realm of faith, sin, and redemptive divine intervention on our specific planet. Having covered the cosmological argument for extraterrestrial life and having addressed at face value some philosophical concerns, I would like to undertake an examination of the implications for Christianity. I am sorry if you really do not care or agree, but this is where I think religion really gets interesting.
From a Christian perspective I think that it is fine to simply say God only created mankind with souls, or even that he only created life on Earth out of all places, but the moment we find real alien life or intelligences any such argument for the uniqueness of man falls away. How would you like it if some Vogons or Twi’leks landed here and started to tell us they alone possess any sort of metaphysical soul? If and when we make contact this is sort of what we would be doing if we totally ruled out any spiritual or religious existence for aliens and yet they existed.
One could just say that we are alone in the universe, meaning your religion does not need to change to fit a universal perspective, but I would make sure to have a backup plan in case some intergalactic monks come knocking on Earth’s door to inform us about our infidelity and their religion’s claimed superiority to yours.
In The Bible at least, Adam is placed on Earth in very recent history, with no mention of any other life forms elsewhere. In addition to the locality of humanity’s fallenness on Earth there is the claim of the fallenness of the entire universe as a result of Adam’s sin. This is a point of contention, and one view says the universe itself is not inherently fallen but it is only the humans who interact with it that are fallen, and another view says the entire universe has been cursed and altered drastically from its original form as a result of that fall.
Now this theological question becomes central when aliens show up. If those aliens are also souled beings like we are claimed to be, then how could they have been cursed as a result of Adam’s earth-based sin? Hopefully Adam only represented humans, but at the same time how could the whole universe not be totally ruined if even one of all the civilizations were to screw everything up? Would not interaction between sinful and sinless races be just about impossible without something terrible happening?
This is what C. S. Lewis addresses in his essay “Religion and Rocketry” where he considers several perspectives. He suggests that aliens could be completely unblemished, and so we should avoid contact lest we pervert them. In another book, Out of the Silent Planet, he covers the potentiality for other races to have their own salvation system, as the Martians (similar to Tolkien’s men) are ok with naturally occurring death, seeing it as natural rather than some terrible experience to be avoided. Lewis’s sequel, Perelandra, examines closely the ability for a new race to not fall in the first place as well as the precarious danger of our meddling with such a race (and in his third book he explores a wild cosmology with spirits and magic and other strange things).
So, assuming that every race gets its own chance to fall or to pass the test, if they are fallen then does the questions are does the atonement of Christ on the cross count for them too, is it even possible to not fall, and did He die for them on their world as he did here, or is it our unique responsibility to tell the universe about Christ? As I said before, a reasonable sounding option to me is this: the universe itself is not fallen; the only attribute of man which really changed after the fall of Adam was the initiation of some kind of death of the soul as a consequence of rebellion, be this due to some earlier cosmic fall or not I do not know. In this setting it would make sense for each souled race to have its own Adam figure and if they fell then later to receive a functionally identical embodiment of God the Son to bring knowledge of his prior singular act of redemption of all souls.
Now it could also be the case that there was some sort of proto-Adam, before the universe as we know it either developed or was caused to exist and this proto-Adam could have represented all sentient beings and when he fell caused all to fall and did cause the entire universe to fall, initiating death, pain, etc. If this were the case Jesus would probably come to every single civilization incarnate into its flesh to bring the news of his intercession for the punishment of the soul in his own spiritual death. I find it hard to believe that we alone of all civilizations would be charged with spreading the good news to all worlds.
What really matters in the end is not what strange idea you have about the way salvation works for aliens, but rather what is most important is God’s sovereignty over everything, regardless of how strange it may seem. The universe is a large place and could hold many independent races of aliens at the same time, and God can handle that situation just as well as just handling us all by ourselves.
Finally, I would like to quote Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson: “The discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, if and when it happens, will impart a change in human self-perception that may be impossible to anticipate.” My hope is for us to gain a cosmic perspective which shifts humanity’s focus away from our current petty arguments and towards survival as a whole in the vast and likely dangerous universe. Until we make first contact we must wait, but while we wait we can invest in astronomy and astrobiology, actively pursue philosophy, and continue sending out probes and rovers into our own solar system to discern the possibility and probability of alien life so that we will not be taken by surprise if and when aliens show up on our doorstep, or even better, when we show up on theirs.
This was originally published as a series of articles in The Reflector at Mississippi State University in 2012, and published in its current form in the 2013 edition of The Streetcar, Mississippi State’s creative arts journal.