Daily Archives: June 10th, 2008

SETI Spirituality

God, I must be a glutton for punishment!

The past few posts I’ve delved into some philosophical debates and gotten some awesome comments in return, which is why I continue to poke my finger in the “Eye of the Super-Unknown”.

Maybe I’m just a pig-headed old Leatherneck who doesn’t know any better when to shut up? ;^)

That too.

So that’s why I’m posting this little piece concerning SETI:

There’s a surprising amount of overlap between seekers of extraterrestrial life and seekers of God.

Not that the folks at SETI are actually hoping to detect the deep-space transmissions of a bearded deity from SGR 1900+14, handing them off to Vatican astronomers for inscription on silicon tablets. Far from it. But in my reporting for an article on the religious implications of finding extraterrestrial intelligence, I noticed that much research was produced in collaboration between scientists and theologians.

Why this partnership between parties whose relationship typically amounts to a truce, and an uneasy one at that?

In part it’s practical: Christianity boasts a small but rich history of so-called astrotheology, particularly within the Catholic Church. It makes sense that they’d run in some of the same circles as the SETI crowd. And since discovering aliens would prompt religious self-examination — if God is universal, maybe the image of God isn’t a hairless biped called homo sapiens — and perhaps devotion, it’s probably good that they’re already talking.

Now some would say that the Catholic Church isn’t Christian anyway, so it is no surprise they have this take. Others would say that since God created us, it stands to reason He created others also, so since we exist, thus they exist.

But some people in SETI don’t have the certitude that alien civilizations exist, like there’s seekers of God who don’t have the certitude God exists. According to Douglas Vakock, the Unitarian director of SETI’s Interstellar Messaging Composition, certitude of any kind is misplaced:

“One of the greatest misconceptions about SETI is that we know in our hearts that there is life out there, and the question is whether we’re going to be the generation that finds it. That’s false,” he said. “SETI requires an acceptance of ambiguity. If there’s a virtue to SETI, it’s that it’s making ambiguity acceptable at a time when people are focused on the concrete and short-term. It is very often uncomfortable not having the answers, but we need to accept that. We try to recognize that, in this domain, with what we now know, the best we can do, the most honest thing we can do, is live with a sense of ambiguity.”

Wise words. Especially at a time when we have a probe on another planet that might very well find the environment sterile and organic compounds never formed there at all (if they can get the soil samples to sift through that is!).

I would be disappointed if Mars is found sterile and the anthropocentrists (like Nick Bostrum) are proved right. It means humanity will never have someone else to bounce philosophical questions about the Universe off from. Not to mention boring.

Maybe that’s the way it’s meant to be, humanity will always need that sense of ambiguity to drive us along the road of discovery.

The Surprising Spirituality of SETI