Monday, August 20, 2012

The Gift of Life Elsewhere

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, detail

We humans tend to see ourselves as the center of all things.  It’s understandable, as we haven’t encountered anyone else in this vast universe, not even a lowly extraterrestrial bacteria as of yet. What happens when we do find life elsewhere?  We will lose our special status as the bearers of a unique haven of life in the cosmos, but what will we gain?

It means something that we are trying hard to find out.  As I write this blog, Curiosity is digging in the Martian landscape hoping to discover signs of living matter.  We are searching the heavens for extra solar planets in that tantalizing Goldilocks zone, the place where the temperature is just right and liquid water may exist and so life.

If we do find we are not alone, history suggests we will get used to it eventually, but it won’t be easy to adjust.  It may cause strife and unease.  In Western civilization, I can think of three great happenings that shook the human, egocentric view of our place and status in the cosmos.  By now most of us have accepted we don’t have a special home in the universe, that we are really just animals, and we’re often prone to irrational behavior.  It was not easy for us to accept such things about ourselves.

The first shock to our “ego” occurred in the 1500’s when Copernicus announced earth was not the center of the universe, but rather revolved around the sun.  This radical view of the cosmos was condemned by the  Church and many others as heresy.  A century later Galileo was tried and placed under house arrest for his support of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory.  Many died and suffered greatly for espousing this belief.
In the middle of the 19th century, a young scientist came along and tried to convince the world that humans were really part of nature.  Darwin published Origin of Species which took away the special status of humans as spiritually apart and above the life around us.  We are still dealing with that one. The third blow to our human “ego” came from Sigmund Freud himself, who introduced the notion that we humans are driven by internal, mental forces largely beyond our control.  Not only are we bound in a physical chain of evolution and adaptation, as Darwin argued, but our very minds are subject to powerful drives that challenge the lofty idea that we are primarily creatures of reason and logic.

What happens when we find life elsewhere?  I think we will find it eventually, although I am human and subject to such whims.  My feeling is that we will deal with another blow to our uniqueness more constructively than we have in the past.  It’s not so important to consider ourselves apart and unique as it once was.  In fact, most of us like to think of ourselves as connected, as part of a large whole.

When we first saw images of earth from space we discovered a blue planet with no borders and boundaries and that did change us for the better.  I think knowing we are not alone will as well.  Finding life elsewhere in the cosmos will be a gift for all of us, perhaps in ways we can hardly imagine.


  1. Such wise thoughts Joe! I really enjoyed reading this post!

    -Grace :)

  2. That's kind of you, Grace. Thanks for reading. I'm following the progress of Curiosity on Mars and hoping...

  3. hi joseph
    nice posting u have, i really get many benefit from your article..
    keep writing friend...
    i hope u can get success from here..
    have a nice day

  4. Hello Wira
    I am happy you liked my article and am grateful for your well wishes.
    Have a nice day too.

  5. Hello Joe!

    This is another direct hit to our need to feel we are the centre of... we do not know what!

    This strain you follow here is acceptable from a scientific point of view. Chances are we are not the only settlers of this vast space, it even seems a waste if that is the case.

    There is a small point I would like to mention about these feelings that wrap us as an armour.

    This is my guess, because I can feel it, only I cannot claim it is THE TRUTH; but somehow I think it is true for ever one of us: We reached this world with an infinite vacuum into our being, we did not understand, and from the beginning we started to try to fill it with everything our mind could suggest to our brain, if we think they are two different things, or we try to fill our vacuum with everything created by this unity. First Pre-Socratic philosophers, brought the idea of a Supreme Being, then more pragmatical men were given shape to Science, which as a modern religion try to explain everything, and it was success, money, power, "The American Dream" all that what was tried as a filler, but no one of them is as infinite as our vacuum, in the case of the mystics efforts, it was exaltation, bliss, artificial induced mental situations, and punishment. But neither mystics nor scientist could do it either. Maybe with time we will develop another way to "see" the world.

    The reason make our efforts inane, I guess, is the difficulty to stay outside of ourselves, finding that the only way we can (or think we can) understand our "reality" scientifically is looking at it through five small holes in our perceptions, called "senses" and forgetting they are far from perfect. And in the mystics' cases the absolute lack of understanding of the means we try yo use.

    If we follow Mr. Isaac Newton in our everyday world everything goes fine, but as soon as we start to follow Quantum Mechanics, the Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, starts to tell us we do not know everything and that it is probable we never reached the bliss of total knowledge.

    As a minor point I like to mention that from my scanty knowledge of this deep thing I feel Scientists and Mystics the same sort of messengers, the similitude stays in that I, as a person cannot prove, personally, they are right because I have not the training of one or the other, and the difference between those beings is that one try to use the five senses and the other do not stop there, but try to make good any disposition on the Universe.

    Just a concoction of ideas that eyed truth as its champion, but has not the notions to prove it right! :)

    Nice post! You just make a good stirring of the mind!

    Thank you!

  6. Thank you for the thoughtful comment. Quantum mechanics is a bit of a conundrum. I hope we do develop other ways to "see" the world, but I would say that both mysticism and science may offer the possibility of filling that void. Perhaps the key is to first try to understand what it means to understand. In the mean time there is joy in the wonder of it all.

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