Sermon: Are We Alone In the Universe? Why the Question Should Matter To Us by Amit Mehta

2020 August 30
by DoMC

Are We Alone In the Universe?  Why the Question Should Matter To Us

Amit Mehta

First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn

August 30, 2020

From the moment I first heard it, I’ve felt challenged by our seventh principle.  “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence” makes me ask, “really?  All existence?”  Planet earth, sure.  We’ve all got a soft spot for earth.  But our observable universe is ten to the sixtieth power bigger, in an actual universe that may be infinite.  

How are we spiritually connected with our neighboring galaxy Andromeda, let alone the trillion galaxies farther out.  Why does Andromeda matter for our lives on earth?  

Rev. Gary Kowalski answers that we and everything comprise stardust, so linked.  But I, for one, don’t feel satisfied if no other stardust is consciously self-aware.  So to approach those questions – to bring the Seventh Principle down to earth and send it up into the stars – we must, I believe, invoke an ancient mystery, are we alone in the universe? 


Before Copernicus, we assumed no.  Beyond the sky lived other intelligences: spirits, angels, demons, and Gods.  After Copernuics, we also assumed no.  Why would God create so many worlds without populating them?   And doesn’t Darwin imply complex life inevitable?  What makes earth so special?

Since childhood, the prospect of Extraterrestrial Intelligence triggered in me the same emotions I felt when I proposed to Marci – happy, excited, and nervous.  Like fairies and dinosaurs, Extraterrestrial Intelligence let my imagination run wild.  But Extraterrestrial Intelligence could be, unlike fairies, real, and, unlike dinosaurs, real now.  Also, I did eventually outgrow fairies and dinosaurs.  

I never outgrew space aliens, which makes me seem an overgrown kid today, but it wouldn’t have back when:  For centuries after Copernicus, the notion of Extraterrestrial Intelligence gripped humanity.  We desperately wanted to exist other contemplating, technological, philosophical beings with whom we could eventually compare notes.  

Not just scientists.  In 1781 Immanuel Kant wrote, “I should not hesitate to stake my all on the truth of the proposition… that at least some of the planets which we see are inhabited.”  Thinkers from Kant to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine felt captivated by the prospect of Extraterrestrial Intelligence.

Today, outside Hollywood, not so much.  SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, evokes images of geeks in dark rooms listening to radio waves.  We’ll perk up if they find anything, but otherwise respond with a shrug.  We don’t know if anyone’s out there, so why fret about it? 

In that, humans have regressed.  We had it right before.  We – especially UU’s – should keep the question “are we alone?” top of mind for four reasons:

  1. It’s one of the great mysteries of our existence

  2. It’s inherently humbling 

  3. It hits our sweet spot, religious but not necessarily supernatural

  4. Searching helps humanity, even if we find no one 

(1) It’s one of our greatest mysteries

Who are we?  

Start with biology.  Like ferns, we comprise cells and friendly microbes, coded through DNA and composed of the dominant chemistry in the universe – carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, all the classics.  Like other animals, we have a rich physical, social, emotional, and mental life, including love of music and art. 

Our genesis as life, or as intelligent life, may have followed a chance occurrence that happened just once.   Don’t let the septillion stars fool you.  The odds of senscience around any given sun may be one in a septillion, if which we’re probably it, a freakish, unnecessary hiccup in an otherwise unconscious universe.  As David Grinspoon remarks: “There are no known facts about life in the universe, except that it has happened at least once.”

Astronomy buffs will recognize Tabby’s Star, called “the most mysterious star in the universe” because of large, irregular interruptions of its light.  Now let’s imagine that from Tabby’s Star, we detect radiation signatures of a Dyson sphere, an engineering megaproject to encapsulate a sun and harness most of its energy.  No contact (a simple message will take three thousand years roundtrip) but we see them.  

Now repeat the question, who are we?  

A second intelligence, so close by, would necessarily mean the heavens swim in intelligent life.  We’d conclude that primordial hydrogen had to evolve to eventually ask where it came from, here and everywhere.  That would change the game: intelligence as a cosmic imperative, baked into the physics of a universe we can truly call our natural home.  That we could call a spirit of life which interconnects us with all existence… breathing life, literally, into the seventh principle and into Rev. Forrest Church’s assertion that the universe was pregnant with us from inception.  

But what would make us special?  Not our ability to build on written thoughts, control fire, build computers, or, probably, write literature or poetry.  The answer’s not obvious.  Finding Extraterrestrial Intelligence would put us on one pedestal but knock us clear off another.  

As Cambridge Professor Paul Davies remarks, “the consequences of [a SETI] success would…[have] a greater impact on humanity than the discoveries of Copernucius, Darwin, and Einstein put together.”


(2) It’s inherently humbling

Unlike faiths that profess revealed answers to big questions, ours encourages us to ask humbly and acknowledge we may find no clear answer but instead orbit a hazy one.  That makes us unique among religions.

SETI also feels like that.  

When my grandparents were young adults, humanity hoped to find intelligence on Mars or Venus.  Now after launching 200 probes into our backyard – through engineering feats that make me feel proud to be human – we hope at most to find primitive life under the icy surfaces of moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn.

Looking to the stars, for sixty years we’ve listened for radio signals directed at us.  So far, just an eerie silence.  

We’ve searched a billion suns for radiation signatures of Dyson spheres.  So far nothing.  We’ve searched 100,000 galaxies for radiation signatures of galaxy-wide civilizations harnessing most of the energy from most of their suns.  No sign of that galactic empire in a galaxy far, far away. 

Since 1992 we’ve detected planets orbiting neighboring stars.  By 2030 we’ll detect their atmospheric gases.  Monumental achievements both, but they can give at best circumstantial evidence of primitive life – on some worlds orbiting the closest 72 stars, of the 200 billion in our galaxy, of 1 trillion galaxies.  

Zuckerberg is funding postage stamp-sized spacecraft to reach our neighboring star Proxima Centauri, and send back pictures by 2070.  A planet like earth orbits Proxima Centauri.  My toddler daughters may see pictures of it in their fifties, but it will take at least that long, for worlds orbiting just the one nearest star. 

SETI’s tough.

Nobel-laureate Enrico Fermi once argued that if anyone’s out there, they should already be here.  Leading civilizations in our galaxy should predate us by ten billion years, so they should have long since colonized the Milky Way, maybe using self-replicating intelligent machines – like a designer virus that infects the galaxy.  So where is everyone?  

This “Fermi Paradox” has baffled us for seventy years.  Oxford Professor Milan Cirkovic today calls it “the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science.”  Popular lay answers include the wild animal preserve hypothesis: Extraterrestrial Intelligences isolate and hide from us deliberately.  Another is the anthill hypothesis: Extraterrestrial Intelligences regard us like we would an anthill.  We stare them in the face, as uncomprehending as ants looking at a building.  Their form may transcend our ability to perceive and comprehend.  

So we haven’t found them in ways we’ve tried; we may not know how to try; we may be ants incapable of trying right; and they may use tech ten billion years ahead of ours to confound our attempts.

SETI’s tough.

Unlike God, Extraterrestrial Intelligence has no worldly faith in an ancient revealed answer.  History professor George Basalla nonetheless calls SETI faith-based.  He argues that after decades of failing, continued effort resembles religious zeal.

Yeah, maybe.  But it’s a UU kind of religious zeal.  I’ll quote SETI’s Director of Interstellar Message Composition (really a job title!), Douglas Vakoch, who is (not coincidentally, I believe) a Unitarian Universalist:

“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.   SETI requires an acceptance of ambiguity… It is… uncomfortable not having the answers, but we need to accept that… with what we now know, the best… most honest thing we can do, is live with a sense of ambiguity.”

SETI humbles not like the question of God but rather like the mind body problem – a deep and difficult mystery that strikes the core of who we are and can, in principle, eventually be solved unambiguously, with replicable data.  We have eyes on that prize, which to me makes the ambiguity electrifying, not frustrating, even if we can only help our distant descendants solve it.  Or not.  Maybe, as they say, the journey is everything, if which we’re blessed.


(3) It’s religious but not necessarily supernatural.  

Like our religions, SETI posits astral superintelligences living beyond our skies or ethereally among us.  Like Gods, Extraterrestrial Intelligence may take forms we can’t perceive or comprehend, but we think we’d know if we saw.  To quote Margaret Wertheim: “What are [Extraterrestrial Intelligences] and their ilk… if not incarnated angels, beings from the stars made manifest in flesh?” 

But unlike Gods, SETI brooks nothing supernatural.  An Extraterrestrial Intelligence ten billion years old may be to us what we are to the amoeba, so in power and knowledge eclipsing most Gods we’ve worshipped, like Mayan, Norse, Aztec, or Greek.  As Arthur Clarke remarked, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  But it’s not magic.  Nothing about Extraterrestrial Intelligence or SETI need violate natural law.  Fantastically powerful superintelligences beyond the sky, yes, but nothing supernatural.  

Infinite Gods, like Hindu or Hebrew, don’t qualify, but Extraterrestrial Intelligence has challenged our infinite-God religions.  How are humans created in God’s image more so than wiser, superconscious, or more noble Extraterrestrial Intelligences?  Was the birth of Christ on earth central to the history of the universe, redeeming sinful species across a trillion galaxies?  Oooooo, Mecca is a place on earth.  Need praying aliens face it?

Other traditions cope differently.  We Hindus consider Krishna one of ten earthly God avatars, not all human, with potential for infinite avatars on other worlds, some hosting higher life forms that worthy human souls can transmigrate to after death.  We’d feel disappointed to learn that we’re alone in the universe.

If other Western religions lean geocentric, we UUs – like we Hindus – lean the other way.  Rev. Forrest Church, to put religious conflict in perspective, argued that 1.5 trillion suns exist for every person on earth.  But who cares about the numerology if no one’s out there?  His point has force if other beings, with their own creation stories, are. 


(4) Searching helps humanity, even if we find no one

A dirty secret about SETI:  The galaxy is 13 billion years old and our technological civilization, if we start the clock at the Industrial Revolution, only two hundred, the blink of an eye in cosmic time.  For Extraterrestrial Intelligence to be there when we look, they need to last for hundreds of millions if not billions of years.  Otherwise, we’ll miss each other. 

SETI necessarily searches for immortal civilizations, who had wisdom to survive their technological adolescence.  In a cosmic Darwinism, they’ll grow beyond their home worlds.  As the universe ages, they’ll approach one another and eventually connect.  That must be the cosmic story of intelligent life, if there is one.  Everyone else, the unwise intelligences, are evolutionary dead ends.  In cosmic time, they vanish as soon as they appear.  Not even a flash in the pan.  Not even a spark.

To avoid that fate, we must survive our technological adolescence and become immortal, too. 

We may not make it.  We may irreparably damage the earth’s ecology, suddenly or gradually.  Or we may suffer such damage from a catastrophic astronomical event, like a nearby supernova.  After surviving a paltry 12 thousand years since we started farming, how can we envision even one million, let alone a hundred?

Well, we’ve got a chance.  An asteroid strike destroyed the dinosaurs, but we can defend the earth from asteroids, using the nuclear weapons we now point at each other.  The dinosaurs couldn’t do that.  We can.  Environmental change wiped out many species – 96% of all species on earth between the Permian and Triassic – but they couldn’t anticipate, prevent, or adapt.  We can.

Probably within a few centuries we – in forms like cyborgs, artificial intelligence, or humans living in synthetic ecologies within fusion-powered asteroids – will get off this rock, growing our blue boat home into an armada.  (In case you found that far fetched, when my grandfather was born the moon lander was just a far fetched Joules Verne fantasy.)  Once enough of us – including our intelligent machines – set sail for the stars, we’ll survive even the end of our world.  

To reach that point, transcend our technological adolescence, and join the immortal civilizations, the next few centuries may prove critical.

Religion, including ours, puts human life in cosmic perspective.  SETI demands that same cosmic perspective which, even if we find no one, can help find wisdom to overcome threats to our survival.  Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence necessarily means we believe immortal intelligent life may have a cosmic story.  Are we part of that story, so interconnected with all existence?  Or is intelligent life on earth an evolutionary dead end?  Those are our stakes, our religious stakes, which cast the seventh principle as an aspiration not yet realized.  

To get cosmic, we need not believe in the supernatural or even find Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  We just need to believe it’s worth searching.  For SETI is in many ways a search for ourselves – who we are, what we’ll become, and how we fit into the universe.


Returning to our seventh principle, I’ll quote Rev. Forrest Gilmore: “Our seventh principle may be our… way of embrac[ing] something greater than ourselves.  The interdependent web – expressed as the spirit of life… the creative force… can help us develop that social understanding of ourselves that we… so desperately need.”

Those concepts – spirit of life, creative force, social understanding – applied to all existence, don’t fit our being a freak hiccup in an otherwise unconscious universe.  They demand that intelligent life has a cosmic story and that we view ourselves through the lens of that story, which brings us right back to SETI: an adventure that can connect us spiritually with the universe and an idea that we humans used to keep top of mind.  We can once again.

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