Astrophysics and Metaphysics

Are there aliens out there? Nothing is more likely to grab headlines than the latest speculation about extraterrestrial life. Here, a Vatican theologian speculates and organizes a conference; there, a scientist says he’s analyzed 500 planets and is convinced that the cosmos is a cold, empty and lifeless place. Still others insist the sheer size of the universe makes it probable, even certain, that we are not alone.

There are three fallacies involved in the speculation about life beyond our planet. First is what might be called “sizeism”: the fallacious belief that because something is big, it must be important. The sizeist says, “Because the universe is so vast, it must have other life forms.” But not necessarily: The Sahara is vast — vastly uninhabitable. Size alone doesn’t indicate importance. An elephant is not more important than a human infant, and one small spring of water in the desert is far more important than the rest of the desert.

The earth is a miraculously beautiful home for the human race. The more we study the cosmos, the more we understand the amazing balance of factors in play that make life on earth so abundant. We are taught not to be geocentric because we know the earth moves around the sun — but from another perspective, perhaps a geocentric understanding of the world is not so silly. If the whole cosmos is void of intelligent life, perhaps it could be seen as one vast casket to contain the jewel that is earth. Perhaps the earth, in her delicate orbit, interacts and connects with the cosmos in a way that makes it the lynchpin and theĀ raison d’etre of the whole universe. We all know how one seemingly insignificant detail in an intricately plotted story may be the fulcrum on which every element in the story hinges. Perhaps our tiny planet is the all-important center around which the rest of the cosmos turns.

The second fallacy the alien hunters fall into might be called “anthrocentrism.” This is the idea that aliens would probably look like us, with the same kind of biological structures and needs that we have. Perhaps their heads would be bigger, but they would essentially be like us — or, if not like us, then something else from our world. We imagine aliens like us because we can’t really imagine anything outside of us and our world.

This fallacy is a natural part of our limitations. We do not have the tools in our imagination toolbox to imagine anything totally separate from our world. That’s why all the monsters and aliens who inhabit our fiction are made up of things we already know — just put together in a different way.

This limitation on the imagination is linked to a more fundamental fallacy among the alien hunters, and this is a sort of crude materialism. They are looking for life as we know it here on earth, but they miss the obvious point that, if there is some sort of life out there, it will most certainly not be what we know. Their naive materialism has them sending radio signals out into space, thinking that someone might tune in. They peer into their telescopes, hoping to see a metal aircraft from another planet heading this way. Their materialism limits them to looking for life on other planets that would be like life here. They cannot dream of the possibility that life elsewhere may exist totally outside the parameters and definitions of what we call life.

Once the idea that life on other planets may not be anything at all like life here, and that the whole infrastructure and code for life may be utterly foreign to us, the quest becomes so wide open and beyond our imagining as to be impossible.

 

What the literally minded materialists don’t see is that, at this moment, the cosmos is actually burgeoning with other intelligent life forms. Furthermore, they have been in contact with the human race for eons. There is a developed understanding of them, and millions of ordinary people believe in them. They populate the universe with a superabundance that we cannot understand. I am, of course, referring to celestial angels and fallen demons.

Angels and demons are real entities, but they exist in a parallel realm to our physical universe. While our own physical cosmos of planets and solar systems might be barren, it is possible that there are far more types and species of intelligent beings in other realms than we can ever imagine. That these parallel realms exist cannot be proved or disproved using the scientific method because, by definition, the scientific method can only test things in the measurable physical realm.

In a way, the scientist who is looking for aliens who drive spaceships to earth from other planets is like the proverbial idiot who took apart a clock to find time. They are looking in the wrong place and in the wrong way. Limited by their obsession with the physical realm, they cannot imagine that what they are looking for already exists right in front of their noses, and that those of us who believe in angels and demons are okay with it.

What we need, therefore, is less astrophysics and more metaphysics. Instead of exploring outer space, we need to explore inner space; for it is within the human psyche, within the vast cosmos of the human consciousness, that we explore realms unknown and encounter creatures more wonderful and terrible than we could have imagined. Furthermore, it is from the great spiritual traditions of our race that we have mapped the territory, recorded the encounters from another realm, and analyzed and attempted to understand our commerce with this alternate cosmos.

In a way, then, the saints are like spiritual astronauts. They are the ones who boldly go where others fear to tread. They are the ones who have ventured into the great beyond and come back to tell the tale; and what they tell us is that other worlds do exist, and other beings live and move in realms beyond our imagining.

What they also tell us is that, while these beings and worlds exist, they are not to be our main occupation. We have another vocation. For us, that occupation is the daily round and the common task. We are to be down to earth because earth is our home — and this realm, ordered by time and the circuit of seasons, is where we do business for our short span of life. It is through this physical realm of time and space that we connect most effectively with all that is beyond. Within the flux of daily life and struggle, eternal connections are made. It is here that we are allied with angels, where souls are forged, and where our eventual passage to another world, populated with glorious beings, is validated and confirmed.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker

By

Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

  • digdigby

    G.K. Chesterton made the wonderful point: telescopes made the universe smaller. The microscope makes it bigger. It is a good rule of thumb.

  • Doug Moore

    Those amazingly beautiful pictures taken from space, of the luminous earth, does lend credence to this idea. Thank You.

  • dch

    “In a way, the scientist who is looking for aliens who drive spaceships to earth from other planets is like the proverbial idiot who took apart a clock to find time.”

    This is a mispresentation of what astronmists and exo-biologists are doing. Will the writer please provide the names and institutions of any scientists who are looking through telescopes for “aliens who drive spaceships”?

  • dch

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/ne…r_planets/

    This is what the real space science looks like in action.
    No mention of alien spaceships to befound.

  • Rich Browner

    This article is embarassing in my opinion. It almost appears that the author needs to eschew any idea that there could be life elsewhere.

    He says scientists are like the proverbial idiot who took apart a clock to find time? Honestly?

    Is the author aware of the Church’s teaching about the reasonableness of faith, and that science and faith can and do rely on each other?

    There could be a fallacy in this article called intellectual laziness.

  • Maureen

    1. The point of this essay is not SETI stuff, but rather angel stuff. You don’t need a SETI program to find angels or God. You don’t need to feel alone in the universe if you don’t find rational physical alien beings with technology and language somewhat like ours. That’s the point. If you want another essay than this one, obviously commenters are free to write it.

    2. Obviously SETI people are well aware that they are doing the equivalent of the drunk looking for keys under the streetlamp. But it’s the logical way to look for rational physical beings with technologies somewhat like ours. Otherwise, you’d just have to hope to stumble across them. But if there are rational physical beings with technologies like ours, and they’re within detection range, so are we of them. So yeah, obviously we gotta look, for entirely practical reasons. The keys aren’t going to come to life and bite you or take over your house, but the aliens might. smilies/smiley.gif

  • Robert Wirth

    I was born in 1944, am a cradle Catholic, and have been reading SF since I was about 10. I really do believe that if there are intelligent (physical) beings out there who are smart enough to traverse space, they’re also smart enough to stay away from us and not let us know they exist. No kidding.

  • MarylandBill

    With respect to Father Longenecker, I think he has basically shown that he completely misunderstands quite a bit about the search for intelligent life in our Universe. I would like to address the fallacies that he claims drives the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

    I am going to start with the second and third fallacy. Father Longenecker claims that it is driven by a false materialism and and anthro-centrism that limits our views about what life might look like in the Universe. I would submit that the limitation is more practical than anything else. The Physical Sciences (and in this I am including biology as well as physics, chemistry and astronomy) are by definition limited to the physical world. They are fundamentally incapable of addressing meta-physical questions. Further, scientists can well imagine life, even intelligent life very, very different from us (I can point out some great SF books written by scientists for examples of this), the problem is that such life is unlikely to interact with us in a meaningful way.

    The first fallacy that Father Longenecker mentioned was that scientists looking for life where sizeists. I suppose there is something to this, but without evidence, to reject this position, we risk falling into another fallacy, exceptionalism. Our Sun is but one of 100 billion suns (estimated) in our galaxy and our galaxy is but one of billions already known. Our sun is not particularly special in respect to its characteristics. Indeed it would be remarkable indeed if our Universe did not contain at least some worlds that were similar enough to ours to support life like ours (whether they actually hold such life is another question).

    Now, does life (at least life like ours) exist out in our universe, in our plane of existence? No one one really knows. That is the whole point of scientific research; they want to answer these questions. Suggesting that we simply look at the metaphysical world essentially ignores the particular question that scientists are asking and it is unfair to suggest that they are simply materialists because they are asking these questions. If we find life reasonably similar to ours in the Universe, that teaches something about God, if we find we are unique, I think that also teaches us something about God.

  • Fr Matthew Green

    I have done fairly familiar with the philosophical and scientific discussion of the possibility of extraterrestrial life. While I appreciate the point that Fr Longenecker is trying to make, I found the way he made it to be inaccurate and logically flawed. I posted my response on my blog, here: http://advenus.wordpress.com/2…ngenecker/

  • AT

    Agree, considering over 80 billion galaxies in the visible universe, there must be other life out there. Considering the variety of types galaxies, these life forms are probably equally varied, but probably within certain bounds, as with galaxies. In this regard the recent (disputed) discovery of variations of the fine-structure constant, if true, may have also an impact on the possible presence and variation of life in the universe.

    But I also think Father has a point about “sizeism”. Considering the number and complexity of different chemical reactions per second per mass of a human, if one further adds a coefficient to account for highly complex functions, like feelings, and one compares a mother with to an average star, I would be ready to bet that the former is far, far bigger. Based on this alternative way of measuring the universe, humans, as God’s creations, are enormous, indeed.

    And, as a Catholic, I don’t need an astrophysicist to teach me about angles or demons. They are no aliens, but daily companions as I struggle trough my daily life…

  • AT
  • Mary

    Even if every star had a dozen planets and every single one had life on it — the universe is still mostly gone to waste — the overwhelming majority of it is dead space, so much as to make all the matter a rounding error.

    As for the idea that there must be other life out there — we don’t know the odds of life appearing. Very, very, very long odds do sometimes occur only once.

  • Jen M.

    is not a scientific argument at all. God wrote us a love letter in the bible. it is the still unfolding relationship of Lover and beloved. When i got married and had kids i finally realized why aliens don’t make sense to me. i would be utterly betrayed and devastated if my husband came home one day and said to me that he loved me so much that he had given up everything to be with me and created a family and life with me and then told me that he had another family on the other side of the world. to me, aliens are inconsistent with God’s nature. he doesn’t lie, or hide. mystery, yes, but other intelligent life that we haven’t been told about is deception and not how God deals with us. this doesn’t mean that i would lose my faith if aliens did show up. God is God and this rationale comes from my limited human understanding, so if they do exist, i’m sure his explanation would be good. but i have limited human understanding and in what i have been given to understand of God, there are no aliens.
    i also agree with the metaphysical or theological geocentric idea fr. mentioned. i’m obviously not a scientist, but this is something i have thought about and usually end up being the only one who doesn’t believe in aliens so it was nice to see someone at least a little bit on my side smilies/smiley.gif

  • Ismael

    This is an interesting article. I think most critics of Fr. Longenecker here failed to read the whole article and just think Fr. L. was just ‘alien bashing’.

    I do think that there is serious possibility for physical aliens to exist out there, although I share the opinion of many of my fellow physicists that contact among two different alien cultures is very difficult if not virtually impossible.

    True there are billions and billions of planets out there, but at the same time the distance between inhabitable planets might be insurmountable.

    Also alien life might be so alien we might fail to recognize it.

    So, no matter how probable alien life is, there is still the problem of ever contacting an alien life.

    Metaphysically, however, one might argue that since the gap between mankind and angels is so wide, it’s possible that there are physical creatures more advanced than us, closer resembling heavenly creatures.

    In this regard Fr. L. I like your comparison of saints as ‘spiritual astronauts’!

  • Bob

    Anyone seriously interested in this topic should read C.S. Lewis’s “Religion and Rocketry”. You can find it in his collection of essays called “The World’s Last Night”. Although written many decades ago, it remains very current. As far as I am concerned, it is still the best word on this subject yet.

    Also – to Jen M: Whether or not the Bible mentions aliens is completely irrelevant. After all, there is no mention whatsoever in scripture of North and South America, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist!

  • MarylandBill

    Mary,
    Just two thoughts. The first is in reaction to the notion that the vast majority of space is simply empty and that all the matter in it is simply a rounding error. Honestly, this is a common misconception. “Empty” space is actually filled with energy and virtual particles that form a boiling cauldron where particles and their anti-particles spontaneously emerge and then destroy themselves. Further, the energy and matter in the Universe is ultimately needed for all of that space to exist.

    The second thought is regarding the long odds. The whole point of looking is ultimately to try to quantify those odds. The Universe is huge and we have just begun the search. There have been some hints that microscopic life might have existed once on Mars; we thus have reason to believe that life might not be unique to Earth. Unless we look though, we will never know one way or the other.

  • Bob

    I’d like to add to my posting above that I myself am no great believer in extraterrestrial intelligence. I am completely agnostic on the subject. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least were we to learn that we were completely alone in the Milky Way, and likewise I would not be surprised if we discovered that someone was out there after all. I do suspect the odds are greatly against it, however.

    But I WOULD be surprised to not find life of any sort on other worlds (such as microbes, or plants and unintelligent animals).

  • Kirth N Roach

    I thought this was a very astute and brief examination of astrophysics and metaphysics. It speaks of inward dimensions and outward realms; of aliens all around us but beyond us– corporeal and incorporeal beings, not at all like what we might imagine.

    Excellent article

  • TeaPot562

    C.S. Lewis examined the proposition that God created three intelligent races in his fantasy series: “Perelandra”, “Out of the Silent Planet” and “That Hideous Strength”. One of these groups had sinned, but not been redeemed; one had never fallen; and the third was Earth. His speculations may be of interest.
    TeaPot562

  • Ron

    RE: Jen M’s comment:

    Centuries ago European Christians wondered if the natives of the Americas were human, and if they were, were they in need of baptism…i.e. did they have Original Sin? This was actually a theological problem for awhile. It was decided that they were human and had Original Sin and DID need to be baptized.

    My point is if there are sentinant creatures beyond the stars, it is only for the greater glory of God. Jesus died once for our sins, and it matters little if our brothers and sisters are separated by us by a 3000 mile ocean of water, or a 3000 light year ocean of space. If these beings exist, and if they too rejected God (which I somehow doubt, I tend to think THAT dubious honor is for humanity alone), Jesus died for them too, if it was so needed.

  • Steven W.

    The premises of the three “fallacies” Father Longnecker mentions are incoherent:

    Contra Sizeism: nothing material is important or unimportant in and of itself; there must always be another thing with a telos to make a thing “important”. A spring in the desert isn’t important if there is no need for its water. In so far as the “Sizeism” fallacy fails to recognize this fact, it is itself of no importance…

    Contra Anthrocentrism: The idea that human imagination has knowable limits is incoherent. In order to recognize that the human imagination has a limit, we must first imagine something that lies outside of it. This involves a contradiction, and if somebody tries to give an example of what lies outside the purview of the human intellect he demonstrates that his example is indeed inside the purview of human intellect. One might retort by taking cover behind the idea of a “via negativia” akin to the premise of negative theology, but this approach fails too due to the fact that any negative statement can be rewritten as a positive statement, and this positive statement about the human imagination is subject to my earlier criticism.

    Contra “Contra Crude Materialism”: Given that Fr. Longnecker associates the second fallacy with the third we should question the integrity of the third after having demonstrated the second’s lack of integrity. The issue here seems not to be with science properly but with “Scientism”. Whatever my ultimate feelings are about materialism, it is clear that the question of whether or not life exists in the universe outside of our planet, can ever only be answered by physical means. We only see stars when our eyes our open gazing skyward, we never see stars by looking downward gazing at our navels; to answer questions pertaining to the physical areas surrounding stars we need to use physical means, and that is what science purports to do.

    Also Fr. Longnecker’s claim that the universe is teeming with life because realms outside the universe contain life is readily seen to be contradictory: Can we say a glass of water is hot because a pot of water is boiling somewhere else? Obviously not. Also the idea that angels have gone beyond and back is problematic because angels, as immaterial beings, have never been anywhere. To be material is to be in a place, therefore to be immaterial is not to be in a place. We say that angels act in places, but never that they are there.

    Even the saints who have experienced in some fashion the angelic realities have never been to these realities since these angelic realities preclude the idea of place. The analogy of a saint to the astronaut is then fatally flawed. A better “space themed” analogy would be to an astronomer, because astronomers see heavenly things by gazing upward beyond themselves while remaining on Earth.

    On a side note, in response to Ron’s post “Aliens”, it seems to me that St. Anselm would disagree with you in thinking that Christ also died for non-human aliens. In his book “Why God Became Man”, he explains that Christ’s atonement was to repay for the wrong’s man commits against God. The idea of repayment involves giving something, but man cannot give God anything and God cannot be repaid unless by a man. Therefore it is necessary for the Redeemer to be both God and Man. If aliens offend God by sin, then they would by St. Anselm’s logic require a Redeemer that is both “God and Alien”. Moreover, it seems to that God’s Incarnation and subsequent sacrifice of Himself for us is able to elevate humans to a state closer to God precisely because it is specific to humans. God assumed a human nature, and became incarnate in a human body. An alien would be included in the incarnation and salvation through humanity, that is to say. only insofar as they are creatures like us. But since not all creatures are saved, for instance the fallen angels, we cannot stipulate that all creatures (specifically aliens) are saved by Christ’s death and resurrection.

    Peace. I am not always so negative.

  • Maria

    I think that Fr. Longnecker’s argumentation is fine but I see a problem with Steven W. objections. The inquiry is about alien life, my view of Fr. Longnecker arguments is: first, that we cannot expect alien life based on necessity because of an infinite size of the universe. This brings to mind St. Anselm argument that God must exist because God

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