Random thoughts from one's subconscious as one lies in bed in the dark, before falling asleep. Does God exist?
It might be reassuring to be know that somewhere a heavenly father is watching over us--just as parents guarded us when we were very young. But is it true? We have no tangible evidence, and our testimonial evidence is quite old, from ancient forefathers whose concept of nature, we now recognize, was quite sketchy.
Does God exist? Most people have beliefs and hopes, often rather tentative and vague, also private and personal. No, I won't describe my own, either. However, lying in the dark, it occurred to me that a simple test--made privately to ourselves alone, perhaps--can decide whether we ourselves really believe in God or not.
Do space aliens exist? Is there another life in the universe?
To NASA and to much of the public, this is a central question, and answering it could be the most important reason for exploring space. Certainly, devotees of science fiction (in print and on the screen) consider it important, and if they were ever polled, they would probably reply, "with all these billions of stars and galaxies, it would be hard to imagine otherwise."
Sir Martin Rees, British astronomer royal, disagreed. Life is an unlikely phenomenon, he felt. The molecular complexity of life is so great, that if it arose by accident, this was the most rare of accidents.
But one may also view this question from a different angle. If God exists, it is irrelevant. For in that case, there indeed does exist another intelligence in the universe, one vastly greater than ours--namely, God Himself.
If God exists, the existence of plants, animals or even intelligent beings like us on some planet outside our system makes no difference. In fact, if God is omnipotent, God could have created such life anywhere or everywhere. In that case, NASA's great mission is reduced to a game of human technology, using ingenious robots to confirm what true believers have known all along.
On the other hand, if God does not exist, that game is a rather meaningful one. Are we alone, or aren't we? The true believer knows we are not. Do you? The way you answer this question--perhaps silently and just to yourself, in the dark of the night--will tell you to what camp you belong.
I suspect--mind you, a mere suspicion--that if the US population were polled on this question--"does intelligent life (other than ours) exist in the universe?"--very few will answer "of course it does, namely God." Even among people who regularly attend churches and synagogues, my hunch is that most will come down on the side of NASA.
About 11 years ago I visited Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, with a group of seniors. Identifying my affiliation as "Laboratory for Extraterrestrial Physics, Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA," I was asked by the earnest woman who led the group, "do you think extraterrestrials exist?"
One has to be truthful. I answered "I really do not know. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. So far space research has given us no answer."
"However," I said, "until we are sure that other life does exist, there is always a possibility that maybe it does not. A possibility that we may be the only ones carrying the flame of life, and if it were extinguished here, life would be extinct anywhere."
"And because of that possibility" I added, "we better be very careful with life on our planet, to make sure it survives, make sure that no human carelessness makes this world uninhabitable. It is always safer to prepare for the worst, and therefore take good care of the environment in which we live."
I guess Sir Martin would have approved.
Further ReadingRare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee, Copernicus (Springer-Verlag), 2000, ISBN 0-387-98701-0 (see reviews in: Science, 288, 625, 28 Apr 2000; and Physics Today, Sept, 2000, p. 62)
Author and Curator: Dr. David P. Stern
Mail to Dr.Stern: david("at" symbol)phy6.org .
Last updated 24 January 2007