The Meaning of Life

A Sermon about Extraterrestrials

The discovery of equipment from extraterrestrial civilizations will have a profound impact on humanity. The newly announced Galileo Project will search for such relics near Earth. How could it change us?

Shofar. Credit: Zachi Evenor

During the Jewish High-Holidays, Rob Dobrusin, an Emeritus Rabbi at the Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, e-mailed me that he gave a sermon about my book, Extraterrestrial, and posted the transcript on his blog. I was humbled to hear that and thanked him.

But to my surprise, this was not the end of the associated correspondence since the sermon was posted on Twitter and was followed instantly with 6 retweets and 30 likes. A member of the congregation who heard the sermon was intrigued enough to ask me whether I believe that humans are made in the Image of God. As a scientist, I concurred with this notion as long as we identify God with Nature, similarly to the view advocated by the rational philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. Just as I hit ”send,” I received another message from a colleague who noted: “Next time we meet for dinner, my wife and I will ask you to give us a sermon.” To which I replied: “I would never lead a congregation whose members agree with me. It is unnecessary.”

A few minutes later, a Harvard historian, Professor Erez Manela, wrote to me: “It’s striking how your work is shaping religious sermons but not surprising given how it bleeds into questions of the meaning of life and humanity’s place in the universe.” And a Princeton astronomer, Professor Neta Bahcall, e-mailed: “Very interesting how this has reached and touched such important and unexpected places.”

Here’s hoping that evidence for more intelligent beings would inspire us to ignore our small differences and cooperate as equal members of the human species.

The barrage of messages implied that the possible existence of intelligent extraterrestrials touches upon the most fundamental aspects of human existence. The physical entities that astronomers study routinely, such as stars, black hole, dark matter or the cosmic microwave background, obey the strict the laws of physics and lack the freedom associated with human consciousness. Finding extraterrestrials would feel like discovering cosmic relatives whom we never met, that can unravel secrets from our past. The implications of their existence are looming too large to be encapsulated by scientific equations, and extend well beyond the halls of academia.

The recently announced Galileo Project aims to employ the standard scientific method in finding out whether technological equipment from extraterrestrial civilizations exists near Earth, as hinted by the UAP Report to Congress or the discovery of the weird interstellar object, `Oumuamua. Finding that we are not the smartest species out there could have broad implications to our most fundamental questions:

  • What is the meaning of life? If these other actors had been around for a larger fraction of the past 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang, they may have acquired a better perspective. It is presumptuous of us to grasp this meaning based on less than ten thousand years of our recorded history.
  • Does God exist? If we mean by that: “someone that can create life or new universes”, and if their scientific understanding of biology and quantum-gravity is well ahead of ours, then they might possess the abilities that our religious texts assigned to a divine power. In fact, we are close to creating synthetic life in our laboratories only a century into our recent scientific development.
  • What happens after death? The extraterrestrials might teach us how to extend our life expectancy by orders of magnitude with advanced technologies. If death can be postponed enough, then this question loses its urgency.
  • How should humans treat each other? The realization that there is a far more advanced species out there, will make our genetic variations less significant and convince us to treat each other as equal members of the human species.
  • What should be our long-term goals? A broader perspective of the realities far from Earth will reshape our goals in maintaining longevity by venturing into space. Our eggs should not be in only one basket.
  • What happened before the Big Bang? What is Dark Matter and Dark Energy? What happens inside a black hole? and other scientific puzzles. If extraterrestrial science is far more advanced than ours, we might find answers to our unsolved questions. Just as opening a random page in a recipe book does not land on the best cake possible, humans may not be the smartest beings since the Big Bang.

We can continue down this list of existential questions without limit. For now, thinking about extraterrestrials might allow us to imagine a better version of ourselves. In the dating scene — sometimes you find what you are looking for. We should stay hopeful as the Galileo Project searches for signs of cosmic neighbors out there. And while we are waiting for new data, let us improve ourselves so that we will deserve their respect when we meet them.

If I were a Rabbi, this would have been my sermon.

Avi Loeb is the founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020).

He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos.”

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Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb

Avi Loeb is the Frank B. Baird Jr Professor of Science and Institute director at Harvard University and is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial”.