Reverend Jose Gabriel Funes, the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, was quoted in an Associated Press article as saying that any extraterrestrials, if they exist, would be “extraterrestrial brothers”. Apparently, Ref. Funes was interviewed on the topic of the interaction between the Roman Catholic Church and science in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
In some respects, this interview was probably pointless. Extraterrestrial bacteria, never mind intelligent organisms, have yet to be discovered even within our own solar system, never mind outside it. So who cares, right?
The problem is that scientists continue to launch powerful instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope and its eventual successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is systematically scanning the sky, looking for unusual patterns in the background that might indicate intelligent life. The Kepler mission will search for Earth-sized planets orbiting 100,000 of the Sun’s nearest neighbor stars. And with yet more Mars missions planned, including at least a few intended to return samples to the Earth and to do biological assays on the Martian surface itself, the chance that we’ll discover that life evolved somewhere else in the universe is going up, up, up.
And billions of people will not handle well the fact that Earth-evolved life is not unique in the universe. Massive numbers of people (55% of the population of the U.S. according to a Gallup poll in 2007) disbelieve in evolution even though the scientific evidence for it is overwhelming. And this because the supposed inerrancy of a book or five written 1400 to 4000 years ago when humanity lacked the knowledge and ability to understand the facts of how the universe functions. Imagine what would probably happen if tomorrow we suddenly discovered, with nearly complete certainty, that life had evolved independently of Earth somewhere else in the universe. To quote Agent Kay from the Men In Black movie:
A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.
Or, to put it another way, if people are offended by the idea that they might be related to chimpanzees and poo-throwing monkeys, imagine how offended they’d be to find out that their God created bacteria or rotationally-symmetric trilateral intelligent beings somewhere else in the universe. Care to guess how would that sit with the whole “created in God’s image” thing?
That’s why this admission by the Jesuit in charge of the Vatican Observatory is so important. It points that at least one of the major religious powers on the planet is thinking about the theological ramifications of extraterrestrial life instead of doing the theological equivalent of closing your eyes, sticking your fingers in your ears, and shouting “la la la la la” at the top of your lungs. And if the Roman Catholic Church is thinking about this, then there’s a good chance that they’ll be able to help keep their collective flock under control when extraterrestrial life is discovered.
I can only hope that other, more conservative (Southern Baptist), less centralized (Judaism and Islam), and less authoritarian (Buddhism) faiths are doing the same.
Thanks to Mike Pecaut for pointing this one out.