“Where is everybody?”
That is the question famed physicist Enrico Fermi asked in 1950 about the absence of contact with alien life.
Today the question is known as the Fermi paradox. It describes the apparent contradiction between the probability that the vast universe must certainly be home to other earth-like planets and civilizations—and the absence of any evidence they exist.
Over the decades, there have been many attempts to explain the Fermi paradox. Sone say alien life is either not able to contact us or unwilling to do so. Others say we are not sophisticated enough as a species to communicate with them.
Underneath it all is a feeling that we just can’t be alone in the universe—there must be something, or someone else, out there.
But now a team of researchers at the University of Oxford says no.
According to paper released in June by Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler, and Toby Ord of the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI), and titled “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox,” there is a high probability “of there being no other intelligent life in our observable universe, and thus that there should be little surprise when we fail to detect any signs of it.”
This result, they go on to say, “dissolves the Fermi paradox, and in doing so removes any need to invoke speculative mechanisms by which civilizations would inevitably fail to have observable effects upon the universe.”
The authors are not making a definitive claim about whether or not aliens exist. They are just suggesting that the preponderance of evidence indicates we are likely alone.
Such a conclusion has a number of implications for science—none of which I am qualified to explore—and also for religion.
The question of whether human beings are unique and have a special relationship with God has prompted a great deal of speculation about what it would mean for religion if it could be proved that aliens existed.
The question led Vanderbilt University professor of astronomy David Weintraub to write a book on the topic, titled Religions and Extraterrestrial Life.
In the book, Weintraub describes the view of different religions about extraterrestrial life—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and others.
He concludes that Asian religions would have the least difficulty in accepting the discovery of extraterrestrial life.
For example, some Hindu thinkers have speculated that humans may be reincarnated as aliens, and vice versa. And Buddhist cosmology includes thousands of inhabited worlds.
He says there are passages in the Qur’an that appear to support the idea that spiritual beings exist on other planets, but notes that these beings may not practice Islam as it is practiced on Earth.
Weintraub found very little in Judaic scriptures or rabbinical writings on the subject. He quotes a Jewish scholar who asserts that the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence wouldn’t change the special relationship God has with the Jewish people.
As for Christians, he says that Roman Catholics have done the most thinking about the possibility of life on other worlds.
Protestant thinking is all over the map, in keeping with the thousands of different denominations that make up the Protestant world—some are open to it, while others deny it could be possible.
One commonality across Christianity is the belief that the need for salvation is universal, and the saving power of God must apply everywhere.
All of this may be moot, of course, if the paper by the Future of Humanity Institute is correct.
But that raises another question for people of faith: If this planet is indeed all that there is when it comes to intelligent life, how should we be treating it?
Right now, there are significant debates about fossil fuels, pipelines, use of plastics, and climate change—not to mention the ongoing threat of nuclear war. What is the religious response to those issues? What is our religious responsibility to this planet?
As for me, I don’t know if aliens exist—and neither do the world’s top scientists. So until we hear differently, I’m inclined to side with Carl Sagan who said in his book, Pale Blue Dot:
“In all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life . . . the Earth is where we make our stand.”
From the July 27, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press.