Why did the ETI not arrive?

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Arnold Rots Arnold Rots is a former executive and retired (although still active) astrophysicist living in Waltham, MA. He has worked in observatories in the Netherlands, Virginia, West Virginia, New Mexico, India, Maryland and, finally, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, MA. He has a keen interest in theology and the organ, and enjoys playing the cello in the local orchestra and doing (speed) triathlons. For the past several decades, he has served the Alliance Church, the Boston Rectory, and the Northeast Synod. He is a member of the American Astronomical Society and a member, among others, of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Astronomers for Planet Earth.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the August 2021 edition of the PASTCF newsletter SciTech and is used here with permission.

A member of the Presbyterian Association for Science, Technology, and Christian Faith (PASTCF) recently asked me about extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) and why ETI beings haven’t contacted us yet. Let’s check the sequence of questions that would lead us to an answer or at least how we think about the question.

What are the requirements for life “as we know it” elsewhere in the universe? First, there must be a star that has a hydrogen burning lifespan of at least, say, six billion years. Second, the star must have started life billions of years after the Big Bang. Four or five billion years would be enough. The first requirement is for a star not much larger than the Sun, because very large stars burn too quickly to give life a chance. The second requirement simply says that the star cannot be born in the early universe, as this would have simply provided hydrogen and helium. We need the heavier elements produced and contributed from the interstellar material from which new stars are made, with the first large stars having completed their lifecycle. But the birth of our star should not be so recent that the potential life is too early. Finally, our star needs a rocky planet – the planets of the Jupiter class are too gaseous – and our planet needs to be in the “habitable zone” – neither too hot nor too cold.

So where are we so far? We know there are a lot of qualified stars. Check this requirement. The existence of exoplanets was first mentioned by Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) in 1584 and their existence was finally confirmed in 1995. So, exoplanets? Yes, check it out. What about the rocky planets? This can also be checked, but it took a bit longer. In the living area? Yes, but it hardly requires confirmation if we have made it this far. So, implicitly, considering how life evolved on Earth, it is likely that life is happening in many other planetary systems as well.

Would there be any pitfalls or roadblocks, however, when it comes to intelligent life? This is where it gets complicated. In the long chain of single-celled life to humans, there were many bottlenecks and cracks. There have been long periods of time where little has happened in terms of watershed events leading to significant new evolutionary developments. And there were significant external events – the impact of sound by other bodies in the solar system, the change in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, continental drift and volcanic activity.

What if dinosaurs had been allowed to remain the dominant life form on earth? Would that have permanently prevented the emergence of mammals? Or would it have led to some intelligent dinosaur species? It is extremely difficult to say how these or similar problems could affect the universal prevalence of ET.

There is another problem. In the 45 million centuries of Earth’s existence so far, it has been less than a century since intelligent life here has had the ability to communicate with ETI elsewhere in the universe, let alone to visit them. Of course, the Sun has another six billion years to travel, so this fraction may well change significantly in the future. But we also have the capacity to destroy the planet and that begs the question of how long highly intelligent societies survive on average.

Besides, it may not be self-destruction. Evolution continues and does not stop after the emergence of Homo sapiens. Pandemics occur, as we painfully know. Or other species may develop and eventually achieve dominance. We are talking here about timescales several orders of magnitude larger than written human history. So, given the uncertain window of time for communication and the fact that it will be excruciatingly slow – centuries round trip, not even to mention visits – contact with ETI becomes extremely uncertain.

Finally, there is the question of whether ETI civilizations would be interested in establishing contact. There are also serious discussions about this among humans. Some, including the late Stephen Hawking, say we shouldn’t try it ourselves, given the way we treat each other. The bottom line, then, is this: There are too many unknown unknowns to say anything with a reasonable degree of certainty about contacts of any kind between, to, or from the ETI. Of course, you are free to disagree.

Note that at the beginning I wrote “life as we know it”. Other forms of life or perhaps more exactly, are other forms of intelligence possible, forms that we cannot yet conceive? I would say, probably. We understand roughly, at least qualitatively, how the development process of earthly life works. The great unknown is how certain forms of life acquired consciousness. We understand that the chemical processes associated with DNA and the environment lead to the construction of cells and multicellular organisms, but how do they reach consciousness, even self-awareness? Or is consciousness somehow received? The flip side of this mystery is that we also cannot say for sure that there may not be other life forms or organisms that can also reach consciousness.

A related subject is astrotheology. There are serious theologians such as Lutheran Minister and Emeritus Professor Ted Peters, who are pondering how we should approach the integration of ETI, if and when we become aware of a specific species, into our theology. Some of these thoughts seem to focus on what this would mean for the doctrine of the substitute atonement. Would each ETI civilization have its own incarnation or is it the incarnation of Christ for the entire universe?

I have to say that I find these types of speculation extremely strange and irrelevant. I find it hard to take them seriously.

Another Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, tempered the discussion a bit.

The incarnation is unique for the special group in which it occurs, but it is not unique in the sense that other singular incarnations for other unique worlds are excluded. Man cannot claim to occupy the only possible place for the incarnation.

Let’s be clear, we live in a multi-religious world and, indeed, in a multi-religious society. If we have learned anything, it is that Christian religious culture does not have a monopoly on “truth”. As religion is the way in which humanity gives meaning to life and finds its true meaning, it means that religion is inextricably linked to one’s cultural identity.

As the late Dutch theologian Harry Kuitert said: “Everything that speaks from above comes from her. “

We have learned that the mission is not to preach our form of religion to people from other cultures, as this will cut them off from their culture and leave them without a rudder. I think it would be the ultimate insult, after learning this lesson, to try and make the ETI the target of the old form of conversion-centric mission. It would be geocentrism at its peak.Arnold rot is a former executive and retired astrophysicist (although still active), living in Waltham, MA. He has worked in observatories in the Netherlands, Virginia, West Virginia, New Mexico, India, Maryland and, finally, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, MA. He has a keen interest in theology and the organ, and enjoys playing the cello in the local orchestra and doing (speed) triathlons. For the past several decades, he has served the Alliance Church, the Boston Rectory, and the Northeast Synod. He is a member of the American Astronomical Society and a member, among others, of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Astronomers for Planet Earth.

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