The other day NASA announced that its Kepler planet-finding mission has identified its first Earth-like habitable world: Kepler-22b. It’s larger than the Earth, but not nearly so large as the gas planets of our own solar system. More importantly, Kepler-22b is close enough to its parent star to hold water, but not so close that the water is vaporized. This is a key discovery, because liquid water is a prerequisite for life as we know it.
Soon on the heels of NASA’s announcement, HuffPost published a piece by Seth Shostak, a senior researcher at the SETI institute. In the article, Shostak meditates on human specialness: “As of today, you—and the flora and fauna that veneer the Earth—are the only known life in the cosmos. You are incredibly exceptional.” This may not last: “Of all the many new planets found in the last 16 years, Kepler-22b may be the most likely to have inhabitants. And if it is, prepare to ratchet down your self-image.”
This kind of language always alarms me a little. Not that it’s necessarily wrong, but it seems to assume that we only ascribe specialness to life because of its scarcity. It applies a kind of supply-and-demand model to life, and it’s not clear that such a move is warranted.
In fact, the discovery of life on Kepler-22b could have the opposite effect: It could make us feel more special. It could crank our up self-image. Especially if the aliens turn out to be far superior to us in intelligence and technology.
How? If they turned out to believe in God.
A few hours ago a friend pointed me toward a science fiction novel I’ve never read: Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer (Tom Doherty, 2000). He told me that the story centers on discussions between an atheistic scientist and an alien who believes in God.
Devout extraterrestrials! I laughed out loud at first; the idea seemed preposterous. But then I wondered, Why? It’s not such a strange notion, really; from the perspective of any E.T.’s out there, most of us are exactly that.
What if theism is universal? What if over the next century we were to discover hundreds of highly advanced theistic civilizations in our galaxy alone? What if humanity’s tendency toward belief in a single benevolent God (ultimate reality, whatever) is hard-wired into all intelligent life?
As the number of such civilizations would grow, the less special we would become, at least in the narrow sense of mere numbers. But, with every such civilization, a loving God would seem all that more likely, and in that light our specialness would increase.
This is just a far-out way of saying: If the religious among us are right about the claim of a benevolent God, our specialness—here, now—has nothing whatever to do with Shostak’s economics of scarcity.