You’ve seen the movies—from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to Men in Black to Alien. Sometimes the aliens are friendly, other times not so much. Sometimes they are funny, and others will give you nightmares.
What will alien life be like? We simply don’t know. It could be all phone calls, Reese’s Pieces, and flying bikes, or it could be creatures attaching to our faces and/or bursting from our guts. Or anything else.
Scientists’ speculations vary almost as widely as Hollywood’s. Some suggest it will be simple life—like bacteria or other simple organisms. Others suggest it will far more advanced than anything ever seen on Earth. Some say it will be very similar to life as we know it, and others suggest it will be unlike anything we can imagine.
This all raises the question of what we are to do once that first detection has been made? How do we react, be it friend or foe? This area has been dubbed astroethics, and it’s our focus in our continuing series on astrobiology.
To the best of my knowledge, the global community has not established any protocols for how we respond to any such detection. Perhaps the Men in Black already exist and have the aliens under control. Or maybe there is a secret multi-national task force on the ready. It seems that the scientific community has generally agreed to make a detection widely known, but in doing so, anyone with sufficient technology could respond. That is to say, our human response is not well-developed.
Why, you might ask? Well most of us don’t worry about an alien invasion. The closest exoplanet in the habitable zone is 4.2 light years away, and there is no sign of intelligent life on it. So a likely detection is probably biosignatures of simple life, or an exchange of messages over massive distances. The need to respond doesn’t appear to be all that urgent.
Still, life elsewhere opens up a host of questions. Lutheran theologian Ted Peters and his colleagues at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences have given us a few key categories to set the stage for such questions. For example, we must consider both their intelligence and their intent. How we respond depends on whether they have more, less, or the same level of intelligence as we do. Similarly, we must consider if they are hostile, benign, or benevolent. And any response must be framed by our Christian call to love and care for others.
Many scientists feel simple life is the most likely to be found. Does that simple life have intrinsic value? How do we treat it and its biosphere? How do we manage risks of contamination in both directions?
The questions of intelligent life grow even more complex, and they vary based on the level of intelligence and the intent. How do we determine if we must defend ourselves? What rights should aliens have? If our contact takes humans out into space, how does that change things?
The one question we can begin to consider even now is who decides how we will respond. We can’t leave it entirely to Paul Davies, SETI, or Breakthrough Listen. It is not just up to scientists or wealthy space entrepreneurs. Nor is it just for countries with active space programs. And it needs to consider a range of religious and philosophical perspectives. It requires a truly global response—something we have struggled to develop on other much more pressing issues.
- Our planet’s underwhelming (and unofficial) response plan.
- SETI’s protocols are a bit more developed.
- Paul Davies may be just the right person to greet them.
- The World Science Festival goes much deeper into the idea of alien contact.
- Check out the other posts in our series about exoplanets, defining life, aliens, and what this all means for the church.
- Ted Peters introduces some of the issues of astroethics.
- Peters considers aliens and the idea of the common good.
- NASA’s historian considers astroethics and cosmocentrism.
Needs Far and Near
My church, I expect, is a lot like yours. Alien invasion is not what we fear. There is no committee created to recommend a response protocol. Our worship leaders are not fretting over how to create a service welcoming to aliens.
Our concerns are more immediate and more local—how are we to be the body of Christ, showing God’s love and God’s grace to the world around us, especially to our most immediate neighbors. I expect the same is true of your church.
Still, I offer you a finding from our evaluation of the Scientists in Congregations (SinC) grant program. We learned that there a number of persons who want to be in churches that pay attention to topics like science. Nearly all of those 37 granted congregations saw new members looking for a “thinking” church.
Astrobiology and how to respond to alien life may not be exactly what they had in mind, but the issues are not so different from the core issues in many congregations. How do we welcome the stranger? How do we build bridges where we are otherwise divided? How do we communicate the gospel and Christ’s love to others—near and far? How do we minister to so much need? How do we work with our community to meet the need?
Another finding from our evaluation of SinC suggested that the experience of engaging faith and science translates well to an engagement with other difficult topics. Perhaps considering astroethics is merely a point of entry to other more immediate ministry goals.