Although it is not an established fact that the universe contains many worlds with life on them, there is good reason to think it does.
Until the mid 1990s there were two big uncertainties regarding life in the universe. We didn't know what proportion of stars have planets going round them, and we didn't know what the chances are of life getting started on a planet where living things could survive.
Astronomers have now established that a high proportion of stars do in fact have planets going round them. Even if the proportion of habitable planets is quite small, it does not seem likely that Earth is only habitable planet in the universe.
We still don't know how likely it is that life will get started on any particular world. It is logically conceivable that a planet may be habitable without being inhabited. It could be that the origin of life on Earth was a one-off event like a casino win against extremely long odds, unlikely to be repeated anywhere else.
But recent scientific work regarding the origin of life suggests that the process was not at any stage purely random, although chance and probability played their part in it. Rather, life is thought to have emerged out of an energy-rich system of carbon-based molecules, whose behaviour was shaped by the laws of chemistry and thermodynamics, as well as by mathematical principles governing complex systems. It was less like a casino win than a crystallisation. (See the page Clockmaker, casino or crystallization.) On other planets with similar starting conditions, the same sort of thing can be expected to happen.
Because chance does play a part in chemical and biological evolution, life on other worlds will not be a duplicate of life on Earth. It will, however be comparable to life on Earth.
After all, it has been established since the days of Isaac Newton that the same underlying principles of physics apply elsewhere in space as here on the Earth. And since the mid nineteenth century, thanks to the science of spectroscopy, it has been established that the stars and planets are made of the same chemical elements found here; although an element rare on one planet or star may be common in another. Thus, life on other planets will be shaped by familiar principles of physics, chemistry, and systems theory; although these familiar principles will be operating in unfamiliar circumstances.
As on Earth, life elsewhere in the universe can be expected to include a range of organisms, from comparatively simple forms comparable to bacteria, to life-forms as complex and adaptable as human beings. However, because more complex organisms take longer to evolve and require more energy, they are likely to be less common than simpler organisms.
What does the idea of a universe fertile with life say about the place of us human beings in the big picture?
A question raised in seventeenth century by Johannes Kepler, one of the pioneers of modern astronomy:
If there are globes in the heavens similar to our earth, do we vie with them over who occupies a better portion of the universe? … Then how can all things be for man's sake? How can we be the masters of God's handiwork? 1
In 1904, the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace wrote:
the old idea that all the planets were inhabited, and that all the stars existed for the sake of other planets, which planets existed to develop life… would imply that man is an animal and nothing more, is of no importance in the universe… 2
If the idea of other inhabited planets can diminish our species' collective sense of self-importance, is that a reason for turning our minds away from it? Or is it, on the contrary, an excellent reason for taking the question seriously?
What does the idea of a universe fertile with life say about the religions we practise here on Earth?
In the sixteenth century, the Christian theologian Philipp Melanchthon rejected the then-new idea that other planets are worlds like the Earth, on the following grounds:
It must not be imagined that there are many worlds, because it must not be imagined that Christ died and was resurrected more often, nor must it be thought that in any other world without the knowledge of the Son of God, that men would be restored to eternal life. 3
In 1968, the philosopher Roland Puccetti argued that a universe with multiple inhabited worlds would be a challenge to all the religions that exist on Earth, because of the element of "particularism" found in each of them: the way each religion associates the sacred with someone or something specific, for instance with a particular person, place, or event. 4
Perhaps it is time to distinguish between the particular and the incomparable.
The idea of a universe fertile with life, is entirely compatible with the idea of sacredness (ultimate value) in nature and culture. It is entirely compatible with the idea that within nature and culture (here on Earth or elsewhere) there are particular persons, places, or events with particular value (sacredness).
But is a universe of life compatible with the idea that anyone or anything here on Earth, past or present, has incomparable value? If we consider it possible that the universe contains many other worlds as rich in life as our own, how can we know that any person, place or event here on Earth is incomparable?
History suggests that religion does need to be grounded in the particular. In India, for instance, the Upaniṣadic teachings about the all-pervading Spirit did not take away the need for devatas, gurus, sacred places.
But is it necessary to think of any particular person, place or event as incomparable? What if nothing is incomparable, except the all-pervading Spirit itself?
We humans have often pictured our gods and goddesses in human form. Even a four-armed figure, as used to represent Kālī, Śiva, and Kṛṣṇa, is a small variation on the body-plan of our own species. However, there are other traditional ways of picturing the divine. For instance, Kālī has been identified with the Kalpataru, the tree of fulfilment, and the many incarnations of Viṣṇu include Matsya, the fish, and Kurma, the tortoise.
If we consider the known diversity of life on Earth (including the plankton, corals, fungi, flowers, fish, insects, and mammals), and then consider what the prospects are for possible life-forms throughout the universe, it becomes difficult to think of the human form as the image of the universal creative and consuming power we call God or the Goddess. However, we may still think of the human form as an image of the God/dess, and one of particular relevance to ourselves.
The poet Alice Meynell (1847 – 1922), who was a Catholic and a suffragette, accepted a diversity of divine forms and incarnations in the cosmos:
With this ambiguous earth
His dealings have been told us. These abide:
The signal to a maid, the human birth,
The lesson, and the young Man crucified...
But in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.
O, be prepared, my soul!
To read the inconceivable, to scan
The myriad forms of God those stars unroll
When, in our turn, we show to them a Man. 5
Colin Robinson, October 2013
1 Kepler's Conversation with Galileo's Sidereal Messenger, trans Edward Rosen, NY 1975. Cited Steven Dick, The Biological Universe, Cambridge U.P., 1996, p 515.
3 Melanchthon, Initia doctrinae physicae, Wittenberg, 1550, fol. 43. Cited Steven Dick, The Biological Universe, Cambridge U.P., 1996, p 515
4 Roland Puccetti, Persons: a Study of Possible Moral Agents in the Universe, London, 1968. Cited Steven Dick, The Biological Universe, Cambridge U.P., 1996, p 524.
5 Alice Meynell, "Christ in the Universe", at Poetry Archive, (accessed 13 Oct 2013)
© Colin Robinson 2013
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