Aliens, Religion, and our Place in the Universe
One of the big questions I have been wrestling with lately has been how the existence of aliens impacts religion. Albeit I approach this subject from the perspective of a Christian, I suspect the same issues arise with all major religions that are premised on humanity’s special place in the universe.
The kind of alien I am referring to is an extraterrestial life form that possesses the level of conciousness that we attribute to animals. Notice I did not specifiy whether this species would be more intellectual advanced than ours, because I think different philosophical questions arise depening on where on the intellect spectrum this species lies. I am going to narrow down the thought process to 2 scenarios.
Aliens turn out to be just another animal species, except in space!
The real problem from a Christian perspective in this scenario lies with the story of Noah and The Great Flood in the Old Testament. Genesis 7:21–23 states
“And all flesh perished that moved upon the earth, both fowl, and cattle, and beast, and every swarming thing that swarmeth upon the earth, and every man; all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, whatsoever was in the dry land, died. And He blotted out every living substance which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and creeping thing, and fowl of the heaven; and they were blotted out from the earth; and Noah only was left, and they that were with him in the ark.
Some don’t even interpret this story literally (after all, dinosaurs were clearly not included in Noah’s Ark) but rather as an allusion to the overflooding in Mesopotamia that many other cultures refer to in their own way. However, a literal interpretation of the flood would indeed preclude the existence of aliens unless either they arose AFTER the flood or they are grouped with dinos among the beings not selected to be saved by this cataclysmic event.
If we were to take the story metaphorically as opposed to literally however, we would have a new interesting question: why were aliens spared from the flood?
Aliens turn out to be more or just as advanced as we are in cognitive terms
In this scenario, the aliens possess the intellectual ability to set up a civilization IE a society organized by some collective order. We can speculate all we want over what such a civilization would look like, but regardless of the specifics, it would look extremely foreign to the human eye. The converse is also true, for any sentient alien looking over humanity would be on some level puzzled by the structure of our society.
I posed this scenario to the pastor of my church and, very much to my surprise, he replied by saying that he would actually be suprised if humanity’s story is the only story in the universe. Unpacking that a little bit, he appeared to imply that although God holds a special relationship with humanity, we might not be the only species he created with conciousness and he thus loves above the rest of creation. Stemming from that, maybe God incarnated itself through Jesus to save humanity from itself, redirecting it towards a better future, but He may have also done something similar with another or many other sentient species across the universe.
Initially I was puzzled by this idea. Theologically, humans are imperfect creatures that can be tempted into evil, and thus need salvation through faith in God. Are aliens also imperfect and evil? If yes, did God also incarnated himself to save them? That’s one possibility out of many. Among those, there is also a scenario in which the extra-terrestial civilization is closer to our conception of angels IE perfect being with conciousness yet no free will because they can only do what’s good. In that case, would those aliens even need salvation? Has God revelaed itself to them in any way?
The spectrum of possibilities
On one end of the spectrum we have aliens as unsophisticated animals: creatures that for theological and philosophical purposes have no real value. The other end of the specture holds aliens as angels, so perfect that the sight of humanity’s imperfection would appear entirely incompatible with their understanding of the universe. In between these two extremes, there is the possibility of aliens being just as advanced and flawed as humans, or them being as hyper-rational and loosely deterministic like a robot with artifical intelligence.
All of these possibilities sharply force theistic philosophers to reconsider the perspective by which humanity processes knowledge, and the relationship humanity has with God. Sure, it appears to directly contradict one of the foundations of the Bible and most relligions as a whole, but there is also the possibility that the universe is structured this way for a reason.
Falsifiability of God
Scientific philosopher Kark Popper established the principle of falsifiability as a way to reject theories that cannot be proven conclusively because they are simply vague. Essentially, if a theory or an idea has no mechanism to be disproven, no way to be proven false, then it should be rejected irrespectively of the evidence in favor of it because the theory/idea itself could never be proven decisively. It was such a revolutionary concept that it now frames the way science and philosophy construct theories and hypothesis.
Usually, falsification is one approach by which philosophers attempt to reject a notion of God. After all, “you can’t disprove God’s existence because God can be defined in a way that escapes all sorts of logical contradictions and so on”. For a long time I had difficulty reconciliting falsifiability and the existence of God, because if there was a way to logically deduce God’s existence then free will and faith become irrelevalant. AFter pondering over the alien question however, it clicked with me that maybe the existence of God can be falsifiable.
If we accept the premise that the existence of sentient aliens excludes the possiblity of a traditional God because of its necessary special relationship with humanity, then there is a mechanism by which the existence of God can be disproven. For example, if we had a super-powerful radar-like machine that can check with accuracy whether a planet holds sentient alien life, and if that same instrument could operate at such a speed that it could check the entire universe quickly enough that we can derive conclusions based upon its reading, then in the scenario in which the machine finds no sentient aliens we would have proof to reject the existence of God. Much in the same way, if the alien-checking-machine found no sentient aliens, then we would have conclusive evidence that God does exist. This is because of the Drake equation, which uses modern physics and math to estimate the probability of alien life in the Milky Way alone to be extremely high.
However, as mentioned earlier, the existence of God cannot be proved conclusively because such proof would nullify the necessity of faith, which a core tenant of the very defiinion of God in the traditional way. If we have conlusive evidence for the existence of God, do we really have any free will to choose to believe otherwise?
I am beginning to believe that the universe was structured in such a way to force humanity to ponder over God’s existence. The stars already forced primal civilizations to come up with explanations for the existence of something so foreign. The existence of other planets, especially the ones with the conditions to make life possible, forced the modern man to wonder if there is truly anything special about humanity. And now the possibility of alien life has given us the perfect context, a great thought-experiment, to determine that the existence of God cannot be outrigth rejected purely on grounds of falsifiability.
At the end of the day, it’s a matter of perspective. One can look at the vastness of space and complexity of universe and deduce that humanity is just an evolutionary accident, and completely meaningless in any cosmic sense, or they can look at creation and our development as humanity as a series of clues left by a our creator to come and find him.
This article was originally posted on my own site.