Tag: Vanderbilt University

Other inhabited worlds, and the implications of finding one.

This is profoundly important.

Well it is to me and Jean and, I suspect, it will be to many other people.

I am an atheist. So is Jean. We have been all our lives. I think that many of you who follow this blog know that. The love that we have for our dogs, and all our animals, plus the beauty that is all around us in nature is enough. (Now I am not naive enough to realise that there are many, literally millions, that don’t have the same fortune in their lives.)

The Conversation recently republished an essay by David Weintraub that was first published in 2014. It is at the core of our existence and I am delighted to have the permission to republish it for you.


Is your religion ready to meet ET

 Professor of Astronomy, Vanderbilt University

November 5th, 2014

Square away your personal philosophy now; proof of life beyond earth is coming. Stargazing image via http://www.shutterstock.com

How will humankind react after astronomers hand over rock-solid scientific evidence for the existence of life beyond the Earth? No more speculating. No more wondering. The moment scientists announce this discovery, everything will change. Not least of all, our philosophies and religions will need to incorporate the new information.

Searching for signs of life

Astronomers have now identified thousands of planets in orbit around other stars. At the current rate of discovery, millions more will be found this century.

Having already found the physical planets, astronomers are now searching for our biological neighbors. Over the next fifty years, they will begin the tantalizing, detailed study of millions of planets, looking for evidence of the presence of life on or below the surfaces or in the atmospheres of those planets.

And it’s very likely that astronomers will find it. Despite the fact that more than one-third of Americans surveyed believe that aliens have already visited Earth, the first evidence of life beyond our planet probably won’t be radio signals, little green men or flying saucers. Instead, a 21st century Galileo, using an enormous, 50-meter-diameter telescope, will collect light from the atmospheres of distant planets, looking for the signatures of biologically significant molecules.

Astronomers filter that light from far away through spectrometers – high-tech prisms that tease the light apart into its many distinct wavelengths. They’re looking for the telltale fingerprints of molecules that would not exist in abundance in these atmospheres in the absence of living things. The spectroscopic data will tell whether a planet’s environment has been altered in ways that point to biological processes at work.

What is our place in the universe? Woman image via http://www.shutterstock.com

If we aren’t alone, who are we?

With the discovery in a distant planet’s light spectrum of a chemical that could only be produced by living creatures, humankind will have the opportunity to read a new page in the book of knowledge. We will no longer be speculating about whether other beings exist in the universe. We will know that we not alone.

An affirmative answer to the question “Does life exist anywhere else in the universe beyond Earth?” would raise immediate and profoundly important cosmotheological questions about our place in the universe. If extraterrestrial others exist, then my religion and my religious beliefs and practices might not be universal. If my religion is not universally applicable to all extraterrestrial others, perhaps my religion need not be offered to, let alone forced on, all terrestrial others. Ultimately, we might learn some important lessons applicable here at home just from considering the possibility of life beyond our planet.

In my book, I investigated the sacred writings of the world’s most widely practiced religions, asking what each religion has to say about the uniqueness or non-uniqueness of life on Earth, and how, or if, a particular religion would work on other planets in distant parts of the universe.

Extrasolar sinners?

Let’s examine a seemingly simple yet exceedingly complex theological question: could extraterrestrials be Christians? If Jesus died in order to redeem humanity from the state of sin into which humans are born, does the death and resurrection of Jesus, on Earth, also redeem other sentient beings from a similar state of sin? If so, why are the extraterrestrials sinful? Is sin built into the very fabric of the space and time of the universe? Or can life exist in parts of the universe without being in a state of sin and therefore without the need of redemption and thus without the need for Christianity? Many different solutions to these puzzles involving Christian theology have been put forward. None of them yet satisfy all Christians.

Mormon worlds

Mormon scripture clearly teaches that other inhabited worlds exist and that “the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (Doctrines and Covenants 76:24). The Earth, however, is a favored world in Mormonism, because Jesus, as understood by Mormons, lived and was resurrected only on Earth. In addition, Mormon so-called intelligences can only achieve their own spiritual goals during their lives on Earth, not during lifetimes on other worlds. Thus, for Mormons, the Earth might not be the physical center of the universe but it is the most favored place in the universe. Such a view implies that all other worlds are, somehow, lesser worlds than Earth.

Bahá’í without bias

Members of the Bahá’í Faith have a view of the universe that has no bias for or against the Earth as a special place or for against humans as a special sentient species. The principles of the Bahá’í Faith – unifying society, abandoning prejudice, equalizing opportunities for all people, eliminating poverty – are about humans on Earth. The Bahá’í faithful would expect any creatures anywhere in the universe to worship the same God as do humans, but to do so according to their own, world-specific ways.

Light years from Mecca

The pillars of the faith for Muslims require the faithful to pray five times every day while facing Mecca. Because determining the direction of Mecca correctly could be extremely difficult on a quickly spinning planet millions of light years from Earth, practicing the same faith on another world might not make any sense. Yet the words of the Qu’ran tell us that “Whatever beings there are in the heavens and the earth do prostrate themselves to Allah” (13:15). Can terrestrial Muslims accept that the prophetically revealed religion of Muhammad is intended only for humans on earth and that other worlds would have their own prophets?

Astronomers as paradigm-shatterers

Philosophers and scientists have forced worldviews to adapt in the past.

At certain moments throughout history, astronomers’ discoveries have exerted an outsized influence on human culture. Ancient Greek astronomers unflattened the Earth – though many then chose to forget this knowledge. Renaissance scholars Copernicus and Galileo put the Earth in motion around the Sun and moved humans away from the center of the universe. In the 20th century, Edwin Hubble eliminated the very idea that the universe has any center at all. He demonstrated that what the universe has is a beginning in time and that, bizarrely, the universe, the very fabric of three-dimensional space, is expanding.

Clearly, when astronomers offer the world bold new ideas, they don’t mess around. Another such paradigm-shattering new idea may be in the light arriving at our telescopes now.

No matter which (a)theistic background informs your theology, you may have to wrestle with the data astronomers will be bringing to houses of worship in the very near future. You will need to ask: Is my God the God of the entire universe? Is my religion a terrestrial or a universal religion? As people work to reconcile the discovery of extrasolar life with their theological and philosophical worldviews, adapting to the news of life beyond Earth will be discomfiting and perhaps even disruptive.


Now I don’t really want to open up the subject of religion but I will say that WikiPedia have a great entry about the subject. My own view is that a few hundred years ago, when life was a lot more mysterious and uncertain, believing in life after death made some sense.

But we know a lot better now despite death still being a certainty.


Dogs don’t need religion!

Global climate confusion, ongoing

Herman Daly, Ph.D, makes some very powerful points at his keynote address to the AMS workshop on Federal Climate Policy, 13th November, 2007.

Note: This video is only the first 8 minutes from what is clearly a longer address.  I have struggled to find the subsequent parts of this address, although there appear to be other versions of the address on YouTube.  However, the points raised in these first few minutes are compelling,

  • Complexity stifles policy
  • The danger of overwhelming the decision of what to do now
  • Leave it until it’s perfectly clear and the likelihood is that it will be too late
Enjoy this most stimulating speech.
If you are stimulated to dig a little deeper into Hermon E. Daly here are some snippets I came across.

Herman Daly’s Ecological Economics – An Introductory Note

By John Attarian

Mainstream opinion has it that economic growth, the democratization of affluence, and ever-increasing consumption are the formula for individual and social happiness. A thoughtful and well-informed minority emphatically disagrees. Few have contributed more to this dissent than Herman E. Daly, widely regarded as the founding father of ecological economics.

Born in 1938, Daly earned his B.A. at Rice University (1960) and Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University (1967). From 1968 to 1988 he taught economics at Louisiana State University. Then he served as Senior Economist in the World Bank’s Environmental Department until 1994, when he became a professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Affairs, his current position.

As a graduate student, Daly believed that growth would solve mankind’s problems, but three experiences radically transformed his outlook. He studied under the economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (1906-1994), whose book The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) explained the decisive economic importance of the second law of thermodynamics (the entropy law) in a closed system, the availability of useful energy always declines. Georgescu-Roegen argued that the economic process transforms natural resources into waste — that is, transforms matter-energy from a state of low entropy into a state of high entropy. Georgescu-Roegen’s great contribution, Daly observes, was “reuniting economics with its biophysical foundations.” Teaching in Brazil in the late 1960s, Daly observed explosive population growth firsthand. Reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was also influential.

Wrong to publish more but if this catches your eye, then the full article is here.  Oh, perhaps I can just include the last two paragraphs of John Attarian’s fine piece ….

Daly co-founded the scholarly journal Ecological Economics in 1989 and still serves as an associate editor. His thought is slowly attracting appreciative notice, and some honors have come his way. For the Common Good won the 1991 Grawenmeyer Award for Ideas for Improving World Order, and in 1996 Daly received the Honorary Right Livelihood Award and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Heineken Prize for Environmental Science.

Integrating theology, ethics, science, and economics, Daly’s ecological economics is the kind of comprehensive vision we too seldom see, and one of the most important and promising intellectual developments of our time. Our selection of Daly’s works is a concise yet comprehensive introduction to his thought. May he find the audience he deserves.