The Paradox of Man’s Enduring Quest for Intelligent Life in the Cosmos
Two new planets were discovered last week.
They were found some 1,200 light years from Earth and were given the suitably sci-fi names of Kepler 62f and 62e. They revolve around a sun called Kepler 62, the name Kepler coming from the NASA spacecraft that discovered this remote little corner of the cosmos.
Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has definitively discovered 115 new planets, with almost another 3,000 more possibilities waiting to be confirmed. It is said that overall, using a variety of instruments, scientists have identified close to 1,000 “exoplanets” – that is, planets beyond the confines of our galaxy.
So why do Kepler 62f and 62e deserve special attention? Because they are the two most Earth-like planets yet discovered by man. Kepler 62f and 62e are the two outermost of five planets revolving around Kepler 62, a star smaller and dimmer than our own sun. The planets’ distance from their sun, coupled with their size (more or less half again the size of Earth), make them appropriate environments for the presence of liquid water, the sine qua non of life. In fact, one scientist has surmised that Kepler 62f and 62e are largely ocean worlds.
The desire to find life, especially conscious life, somewhere else in the cosmos is one aspect of the spirit of progress that defines contemporary culture. Once upon a time, man understood himself as placed in the center of the physical cosmos, a placement which had theological and psychological as well as cosmological significance. The universe was understood, in the words of Romano Guardini, as “a symbolic hierarchy which linked all things in a rich and diversified unity.” Everything had its place and its meaning in the great symphony of being. “The angels and the saints in eternity, the stars in the heavens, the objects of nature, man and his soul, human society…appeared as a harmony whose meaning was eternal.”
With the advent of modern science and technology this symbolic hierarchy was dismantled. Man’s understanding of his place in the cosmos – again, understanding “place” not only cosmologically but also psychologically and theologically – was shaken at its foundations. As Guardini observes, “The new world seemed a fabric woven of innumerable parts, a fabric which expanded in all directions. Even as this new world view affirmed a freedom of space it denied to human existence its own proper place.”
This new understanding of the cosmos was for many a call to exploration. Long before we had the technology to put a man on the moon, the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe had captured the human imagination.
But why, exactly, is it so important for us to know we are not alone?
Writing recently in the webzine Aeon, Matthew Battles opines that in large part it has to do with modern man’s need to affirm meaning for himself in what, by all appearances, looks like a pretty meaningless universe. Referring to the gilt copper disks containing information about our civilization that went up with the Voyager missions in the late 1970s, Battles calls them “an acknowledgement of our cosmic insignificance, paired with pride in the craft that pried that knowledge loose from the world.”
So do we yearn to communicate with other beings in the cosmos because, at bottom, we recognize that, for all our modern achievements, we are adrift in a vacuum of infinite expansion? Is it simply that we are looking to be comforted by the knowledge that we are not alone in our distress?
But if we are alone in the cosmos, if consciousness is so rare a flower that only one tiny planet in the entire universe has ever been able to produce it, then one possible implication, as Ross Douthat recently conjectured in a column on the Kepler discovery, is that man has regained his privileged position of centrality. We are once again very special beings.
This kind of privilege, however, won’t help much. The conception of man’s centrality in the cosmos that reigned in the West from Aristotle to Shakespeare was not a function of mere uniqueness, but of being linked to an ultimate cause of explanation. And with the coming of Christianity, our understanding of the benevolence of this ultimate cause deepened; we found ourselves as the pride of a Father’s eye. Without God, that is, as the maker and sustainer of cosmic order, we human beings are still, however unique in our being, still groping for an ultimate purpose to it all. Most relevant here are the praises of Psalm 8, full of wonderment:
When I see the heavens, the work of your hands,
the moon and the stars which you arranged,
what is man that you should keep him in mind,
mortal man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god;
with glory and honor you crowned him,
gave him power over the works of your hand,
put all things under his feet.
In 1983 the novelist Walker Percy, much influenced by Guardini’s articulation of modern man’s cosmic displacement, published an uproarious parody of a self-help book, Lost in the Cosmos. In it Percy sought to help modern man at least to become aware of his predicament as a kind of shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe, a being who knows prodigious amounts about the physical universe, yet next to nothing about himself. One chapter is entitled, “Why Carl Sagan is so Anxious to Establish Communication with an ETI (Extraterrestrial Intelligence).” Percy considers that Sagan is just lonely. But why? “Sagan is lonely,” writes Percy, “because once everything in the Cosmos, including man, is reduced to the sphere of immanence, matter in interaction, there is no one left to talk to except other transcending intelligences from other worlds.”
Even if intelligent life exists out there on Kepler 62f and 62e, our contact with it will ultimately prove as fruitless and lonely as our contact with our nearest neighbor–who, after all, is often just as strange to us as any alien on Star Trek. We will remain lost in the cosmos until we understand it once again as a kosmos – an “order” necessarily implying a Being who lovingly put it that way.
Daniel McInerny is an author, journalist, philosopher, and member of Aleteia's Editorial Board. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @thecomicmuse.