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By Fr. Dwight Longenecker, The Imaginative Conservative, October 2, 2018
Some time ago while wasting time I came across 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. But there is no evidence of other life forms having visited earth so where are they?”
The stupidity of such arguments is only compounded by the seriousness with which the argument is taken. 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 the reverence we expect in religion. We all want something big to worship and the materialist, who doesn’t have anything to worship, resides in awesome wonder at the large size of space and the impressive amount of time.
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 do not really mean doodly squat. A supposition based on statistics is still just a supposition. The evidence would suggest that the earth is like an oasis in the Sahara. Just because the Sahara is vast and supports one oasis does not demand the existence of another oasis in the Sahara.
There are other assumptions in this way of thinking which are astoundingly small minded, and they are compounded by the fact that the people 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 all fixed according to our own finite perceptions. In other words, the materialists assume 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 seems limited for mortals because they are mortal.
Time is measured not only by our mortality, but by the physical markers of time: the orbit of the earth, the light of the sun and the length of daylight. However, once a person has left this physical and mortal existence, time as we know it does not exist.
It might also be reasoned that distance and space are also determined by time, for distance can be measured by the time it takes to get there. One might therefore speculate 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? Perhaps I am raving mad, so I will leave my wild musings to be corrected by a physicist or perhaps a psychiatrist.
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? The Christian church has believed in a simple and ordinary way in the existence of such 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 largeness 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. 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.
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 it’s 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?
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is “Sand Dunes,” photographed by Martin Vorel on 15 July 2018, and depicts the Gobi desert in Mongolia.