Even the tabloid press had the pictures of the star system with no less than seven earth -sized, earth-type planets all within the optimal distance of their star for habitability. For reasons unknown to me, the system, which is 40 light years from earth, has been christiened “Trappist 1.” If this is on the assumption that it maintains silence, it may turn out to be seriously mistaken. With hundreds of exoplanets now known to exist, and our capacity to spot them increasing all the time, there is perhaps a chance that I’ll live to see the first contact between life on earth and life on another planet, whether that contact is in the form of confirmation that some sort of life exists elsewhere, or of a message from another civilisation, or much less likely, the arrival in the earth of beings from space.
The distances are against personal visits, except by people who have solved the problem of travelling at the speed of light, or have discovered short-cuts in the fabric of spacetime. On the other hand a message from Tappist 1 would take only 40 years to get here, and it may have been sent some time ago.
For the purposes of this blog, let’s assume that the Trappists have sent us an unmistakable message with extensive information and video about their planet and their very advanced civilisation, and that all the efforts of govenments to hide this information have been unsuccessful. What difference would this make to our lives?
My guess is that it would lead in some quarters to a loss of confidence: not only are we not unique, we are not the most advanced form of life in the universe. Doubtless we might hope to learn from the Trappists, but if they are as wise as they are advanced, would they be willing to tell us any of their secrets? Quite a range of human thinking and acting has been based on the assumption that we are the the most intelligent creature known to us. If, as we think, knowldege is power, does the contact from the Trappists not also mean that we are less powerful than we imagined? I think that although we have often enough envisaged such contact in our fictions, its actuality would be a profound shock to every aspect of our sciences, philosophies cultures….and religions.
Unlike our sciences, most of our religions and their sacred texts come from a pre-scientific age, and contain statements and assumptions that are already contested by our own best knowledge. The Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in particular, have assumed that God is mainly concerned with earthlings, even if he is also the god of the universe. In particukar, God has communicated his absolute truth to earthlings, via selected or uniquely engendered male messengers. How will these powerful traditions cope with being revealed as local rather than universal, time-bound, rather than eternal? How would biblical and Qur’anic fundamentalists cope with with evidnce that their sacred texts have not revealed the whole truth?
Doubtless we would want to hear from the Trappists whether they have any equivalent of our religions or whether their responses to the mystery of the universe and the purpose of life, are solely scientific, aesthetic or ethical. As a follower of Jesus I would not expect to hear that they believed in a human son of God. Given that they are more like our bacteria than any other earth creatures and identify themselves as networks of billions of single cell organisms, their notion of a perfect creature is likely to be very different from ours. They have told us that their mode of learning, like that of bacteria, is based on the exchange and mutation of cells rather than the electrical coding of information accomplished by the human brain. They have ahown us images of creatures on their planet that are a little like human beings with muscled bodies, eyes, and the ability to stand upright, but these are used by the Trappists as mobile homes for networks of their own species.
They congratulate us that our sciences are universal in scope, and suggest, to the annoyance of our scientists that they must have learned this crucial truth from our religions. They commend the universal scope of both our sciences and our religions as crucial growth points for our civilisation.
I would want to tell them the story of Jesus, but perhaps because as networks of replaceable cells they never die, they may have no stories of their own. Stories, having a beginning, middle and end, may only be produced by intelligent creatures who die. They might not be able to understand the death of Jesus. Where might I begin a dialogue that touched their fundamental concerns as well as mine?
1. Because they are aware of the universe, we could share our understanding and appreciation of its processes.
2. Because they are self-concious intelligent living beings, they will appreciate the intricacy and value of all life, SO
a) I can communicate my dislike of everything which degrades or destroys life and
b) my love of everything that nurtures life and enables it to flourish
I can hope that even if they do not completely share these feelings, that they will understand them and have equivalents in their own souls and culture. If so, we will be able to have a dialogue which is based nothing more than our common existence as intelligent life in the same universe. We will moreover be talking about the fundamental issues with which our religions deal. In learning about how they protect life from destructive forces and how they nurture their own life and the living beings of their planet, I would be ready to hear of nurturing events which happen amongst them but are said to come also from beyond them, that is, theor experience of a “beyond” in the midst of life, which is for me the experience of God.
I think that although our sciences and cultures might be so far apart that no equal exchange could take place but only their instruction of us, our appreciation of the same universe, of good and evil and of God, could be a true conversation of equal partners: of life forms committed to the common miracle of life.