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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?”Martin Vorel

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.

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7 replies to this post
  1. A really interesting piece! I’ve been interested in space going back to the late 60’s, when I was just barely old enough to catch the Apollo program as it was entering its prime. One reason I think some people (like Carl Sagan) were so interested in aliens was that, not being religious, they needed some superior beings to worship or at least look up to. That seemed to be the message of Sagan’s novel “Cosmos” as well as Arthur C Clarke’s “2001 A Space Odessy” and, for that matter, Stephen Spielberg’s “Close Encounters” and “ET”.

    • Actually, I need to correct myself. The Carl Sagan book that I meant to refer to was “Contact” not “Cosmos”, which was nonfiction.

  2. The idea that there are billions of suns, so there must be life is like making the argument that the ocean is huge so there must be alien submarines in it, somewhere.
    The belief that there is other Life in the Universe has no basis in any scientific theory. There is good reason to believe there is no life in the Universe, except us; the many “just right” events in the creating of the Universe had almost a zero probability of happening. We wouldn’t be here if someone hadn’t put their thumb on the scale of creation; the probability is just too great, against it.
    Scientists know this fact and if they don’t come up with something better to explain why and how we are here; there are going to be a lot of crying atheist scientists.

  3. Your analogy between an oasis and the Earth is faulty. There is life in the desert outside oases. There is life even in the polar regions and at the bottom of the sea. Fermi’s paradox, if I remember correctly, was not about how many aliens there should be out there but if they were out there why didn’t we know about it? His point was that they probably weren’t there. Outside of sci-fi (I am a fan) it seems that the theory is gaining traction that Earth is rare (but not unique). Curiosity helped inspire explorers to leave Europe in search of other lands (where would you be without them) instead of assuming that there was nothing out there.

  4. Dear Father Longenecker,

    1. The Law of Humility: if life occurred in our solar system, why could it not have occurred elsewhere? This is valid question to ask and the Fermi Paradox is trying to address that. A corollary to this law is that if water seems essential to life on Earth, then, again, the Law of Humility suggests that water would also be an essential ingredient elsewhere. Please note: elsewhere does not mean everywhere. The Fermi Paradox is not attempting to tabulate every manner in which life might have originated in the universe, but life as we know it.

    2. Universal versus local law of time and space: The Big Bang Theory admits of a universal framework of time, which is predicated by Einstein General Theory of Relativity. Indeed, if time is not just a measure of change but an essential component of the fabric of the cosmos, then there is no reason to think the rules that regulates time and space should differ from one region to another within the cosmos

    3. Fermi’s equation: This equation is not trying to tell us how many civilizations our own galaxy contains. Rather, it is setting into sharper focus a valid scientific question: if the universe is teaming with life, then why have we not seen any of it? To do so, one is then compelled to construct a framework, a model if you will of the galaxy that can sustain life as we know it. It’s a worthy scientific attempt, even if the model is rather crude. One needs to consider the existence of a moon to support the tides, tectonic activity for the replenishing of ozone, natural resources present in the shallow depths, and additional factors that are necessary for advanced technologies to develop. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t discount Fermi’s Paradox outright. After all, it can serve as a great introduction that can bridge science and faith.

  5. Jesus’ death and resurrection was a one-time event for the entire universe. It was for us alone. We are the only intelligent life. Call me a simpleton, but my confidence is undaunted.

  6. What made science possible in Christian Europe was the decision to measure, in contrast to the Muslim world, where measurement of the phenomena of the universe was taken as a kind of assault on God. Increasingly refined measurement, increasingly extensive measurement, is an important engine of scientific advance. As we are able to see farther and to detect more exactly what is in the farthest regions of the universe, the fact that we do not detect other life must drive us more and more to the conclusion that we don’t detect life “out there” not because we haven’t looked, not because we have not the capacity to see it, but because it’s just not there.

    The great problem remains that the universe is a mystery in the sense that although it yields to rational inquiry, it is so large and complex that it so far as always remained open to further and deeper examination. (As an aside, we could wish that people understood that this is what is meant by “mystery” in Catholic belief — not that it is irrational, but that we can never fully comprehend it. In that way, it is no different from the universe at large.) The point at which we will be able to say we’ve examined it all and there’s nothing there will never come. For one thing, many will say that there is more beyond what we can theoretically observe. There is no way to answer this, unless we can find a reason to say that there is no more to explore, that we’ve seen it all, and we are alone. It’s the only way to prove a negative.

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