I don’t know if anyone else has noticed a seemingly profound, but ultimately silly discussion which is prevalent within popular culture.
It’s called the Fermi Paradox and it goes like this: “There are billions of stars out there like the sun. Therefore, statistically there must be billions of planets like earth where intelligent life has developed. Given the vast amount of time and the vast number of possible “other earths” there must be other intelligent life forms who have invented space travel. So where are they?
This argument sounds interesting at first sight, but on examination it is as faulty as the basic assumptions on which it is built. There are several problems with the underlying discussion:
First there is the problem of what I call size-ism. The materialist is awe struck by the vast size of the universe and the vast amounts of time he believes in. His awe before these vast quantities of time and space is rather like a religion. We all want something big to worship and the materialist, who doesn’t have a God to worship, is in awesome wonder at the bigness of time and space.
However, why should we be impressed simply by size? We do not think an elephant is better than an infant just because it is bigger. The Sahara is big, but it is full of sand and nobody lives there. Antarctica is bigger than Austria, but it is not better because it is bigger.
The cosmos is vast, so what? There may be other intelligent life forms out there, but there is no evidence so far. Furthermore, vast size and statistical musings based on that size don’t necessarily amount to much. A supposition based on statistics is still a supposition. The space and time may be vast, but the evidence so far would suggest that the earth is like a puddle of water in the Sahara. Just because the Sahara is vast and features one puddle doesn’t mean there must be another puddle in the Sahara. In fact, the vast, dry emptiness of the Sahara might be good reason to suppose that there is not another puddle.
There are other assumptions in this way of thinking which are astoundingly small minded, and they are compounded by the fact that those discussing these things invariably think they are being open minded and “thinking outside the box.” Their suppositions are based on the assumption that space and time are fixed according to the material perceptions of our own space and time. They are working according to the now outdated scientific assumptions that nature is like a fixed machine that always works according to the same fixed principles.
Thinkers like Stratford Caldecott began to apply the discoveries of modern physics to ponderings on spirituality, space and time. It may be that reality is rubbery. What seems solid turns out to be unpredictable. The fundamentals go all funny. Perhaps the cosmic is comic and what we thought was so solid and sure will turn out to be shaky and uncertain.
Too many materialists assume that the rest of the cosmos functions according to the rules of space and time which operate in our own dimension of physicality. This may not be true at all. Their perception of the vastness of the cosmos is determined by their own mortality. For mortals time is limited because their lives are limited. In other words time is limited for mortals because they are mortal.
However, once a person has left this physical and mortal existence, time, as we know it, does not exist. I am no physicist, but I believe that distance and space is also determined by time, for distance can only be measured by the time it would take to get there. I hope those who know more about such things will correct me, but wouldn’t it be right to at least surmise that if there were no constraints of time there would also be no such thing as space?
If distance is the time it takes to get somewhere, and if there is no such thing as time and we lived in an eternal ‘now’ wouldn’t the seeming vast-ness of space also disappear? I don’t know, but I do suggest that the vast ness of space and time may be an illusion based on our mortality and limited vision.
That brings us to the subject of aliens and spaceships. The Fermi Paradox suggests that there should be other civilizations on other planets that have developed technologies like ours. What! to suggest that other beings (if they exist) would be so primitive as that? To imagine that they would be so crude as to make metal containers to hurl themselves through the sky? Why not imagine that if there are other intelligences out there, that they might transport themselves and communicate in ways that are unimaginably more sophisticated than us?
What if they are able to transport themselves by their advanced mental powers? What if they are able to communicate instantly across vast spaces by mere thought? What if they exist in a complex, harmonious and beautiful relationship with one another and with the whole of creation? What if they are advanced beings who exist within the music of love and service to all things? What if they are beings of light–who communicate and travel with the speed of light?
The Christian church has believed in such advanced and amazing aliens from the beginning. We call them angels.
Finally, those who ponder Fermi’s Paradox would, presumably, shudder at the idea that a theory of the cosmos might be geocentric, or earth centered– yet their perspective, philosophically speaking, is completely geocentric. Their perception of the universe is conditioned by their geocentric understanding of the fixed nature of space and time. Their perception of other intelligent beings is based on their understanding of themselves. (“Aliens must be like us, but a little bit different”) Their perception of alien technologies is based on ours. (“They must have developed rockets too!”) In other words, the Fermi Paradox is completely geocentric and anthropocentric in its assumptions.
My problem is not that their view is geocentric, but that it is not geocentric enough. Until proven wrong, I’m quite happy to believe in a geocentric universe. Oh yes, I know that our solar system is not geocentric, but do we know that the cosmos is not geocentric? What if the entire cosmos circled around this one solar system of ours–if not physically, but at least metaphysically? Do we think this is impossible simply because our planet and our solar system seems small?
Seemingly insignificant single events change history. A minor aristocrat is murdered in an out of the way European city and two cataclysmic world wars take place. An angry friar nails theological arguments to a church door and an entire bloody revolution tumbles onward out of control. A boy decides to get drunk and a girl gets pregnant and a tyrant who rules the world is born.
Those who ponder the Fermi Paradox wonder at the vastness of all things and believe it is important. I ponder at the smallness of all things and know they are important.
Individuals change history. Small decisions matter. The Divine is in the detail. I am more interested therefore in what is small rather than what is great in size. Consequently, I am excited by the idea that the earth is, in fact, the center of the universe and that the vast realms of the cosmos surround her and regard her with tender protection and the awe struck wonder with which we might behold a newborn baby. If this is not a physical fact it is a metaphysical pondering point.
It could be that this earth is the staging ground for all that matters in the cosmos. It may well be that this planet is the battleground where the cosmic battle between good and evil reaches its climax. Crucial battles must take place somewhere. What if the war in heaven is completed here on this field of war? And what if you and I are soldiers in that cosmic and eternally important battle?
Fr Dwight Longenecker is Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Vis
it his website to browse his books and connect to his well known blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com Fr. Dwight Longenecker Website: www.dwightlongenecker.com Blog: Standing on My Head. His latest book is The Romance of Religion — Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty