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By Marshall Connolly (Catholic Online)

7/18/2012 (2 years ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

What are the implications of discovering extraterrestrial life?

Scientists are atwitter over the notion that we may discover life in elsewhere in the universe sometime within the next century after Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a British astrophysicist, spoke at a conference in Dublin, Ireland. 

The Logos, Christ, through whom the Universe was created.

The Logos, Christ, through whom the Universe was created.

Highlights

By Marshall Connolly (Catholic Online)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

7/18/2012 (2 years ago)

Published in Europe

Keywords: extraterrestrial, life, God, science, astronomy, Catholic, belief, faith, aliens, discovery, WOW signal


LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - "I do suspect," Burnell told the conference, "we are going to get signs of life elsewhere, maybe even intelligent life, within the next century."

Burnell bases this conclusion on anticipated technological advances and current success in identifying planets that could harbor life around nearby stars.

For most astronomers, the thought that life exists elsewhere in the universe is a foregone conclusion - they're just waiting for the proof. Given the size and scope of the universe, and what has already been observed, odds are that intelligent life must certainly exist elsewhere. 

Of course, this raises a number of questions. For example, why haven't they contacted us yet? Do we see any benefit in communicating with an alien civilization? Would it be safe? What are the theological implications of discovering extraterrestrial life? And what about all those UFOs?

The late Arthur C. Clarke, quoted in an article on The Daily Galaxy, once explained why we have not likely communicated with aliens, "The fact that we have not yet found the slightest evidence for life -- much less intelligence -- beyond this Earth, does not surprise or disappoint me in the least. Our technology must still be laughably primitive, we may be like jungle savages listening for the throbbing of tom-toms while the ether around them carries more words per second than they could utter in a lifetime."

In other words, we probably have no contact with such civilizations because we remain in our technological infancy. 

Time is another reason we may have not made contact with a universe teeming with life. Carl Sagan once remarked that it was time, not distance, that made communication virtually impossible. Since communications can travel no faster than the speed of light, a conversation with an intelligent neighbor just a few hundred light years away would take a millennium or more just to exchange a greeting. And in that time, entire planets could go extinct through catastrophic events that are either stellar, or self-imposed. Meanwhile intelligence likely takes billions of years to evolve on a planet, making it rare. And there is no proof as of yet that intelligence has any long-term survival value, something that's needed to raise one's species to the level of interstellar communication. 

Last year, Stephen Hawking made headlines when he panned the optimism that some have for making contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. Drawing comparisons between the Native American experience, he suggested that extraterrestrials who could be combing the galaxy for habitable planets might not be benevolent and instead could cast covetous eyes on our vibrant, water and resource-rich planet. If so, communicating our presence could be inviting our extinction. 

There are theological questions as well. So far, man's relationship with God has been confined largely to explanations of our origins and our purpose on Earth. What happens to that understanding in a universe that is filled with intelligent life?  Research by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency that develops advanced weapons technology for the military, concluded that Christians would take the news hardest because the Christian belief system does not readily allow for the existence of other intelligent beings in the universe. However, this conclusion is disputable.


Several protestant Christian traditions, along with other world religions, do make allowances for the notion that we might not be alone in this universe. The LDS Church, the Mormons, believe in a universe populated with intelligent life. They claim to be Christian, though many Christians disagree because they do not affirm major doctrines in the ancient Creeds of the once united Christian Church.

The Catholic Church maintains an observatory and supports robust astronomical programs in its universities. The Catholic Church also counts scientists, astronauts, and cosmologists in her membership. The Church affirmed in 2009 that "that the existence of extraterrestrials does not preclude a belief in God."

Many pastors, priests, ministers and Christian church leaders do not see any conflict between the teachings of scripture and the existence of extraterrestrial life. Indeed, just as scripture does not address the existence of the dinosaurs (in any significant detail) - yet remains reliable and true on those subjects it does address -  so it will remain to believers if there were a discovery of extraterrestrial life. 

Christianity could easily accommodate the existence of life outside planet Earth. God's wisdom need not be limited to the human experience. After all, God is the creator of the universe and certainly has reason for all creation - even if that understanding remains beyond our full grasp. 

Finally, some may ask about UFO's and if they do not count as evidence of extraterrestrial life already. As far as mainstream scientists are concerned, UFO's are not verifiable evidence of life because the sightings and experiences claimed by many cannot be scientifically verified. In nearly all cases, scientific scrutiny has revealed mundane, terrestrial origins for such experiences. 

The only possible exception appears to be the WOW! signal intercepted by SETI researchers in the 70's. To this day the nature of the signal remains unexplained although it is largely agreed to be extraterrestrial in origin. Because the signal has never been heard again, it cannot be scientifically verified as actual evidence of anything and it remains an anecdote. 

Still, the possibility is out there, just out of grasp. If Brunell is correct, our children and grandchildren just may have the answer to a question that has been asked since we realized that space is far greater than our minds can readily imagine. 

 

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