Some of the things I’ve been reading lately got me thinking about aliens and spirituality. I know that sounds weird. I’ll explain.
I read an article recently that suggest there may be far more planets around stars than previously assumed. More solid (i.e. earth-like) planets, no less. Another article announced the discovery of the farthest galaxy yet seen. Then there was the announcement that Jill Tarter, the former director of research for SETI (and apparently the inspiration for Ellie Arrowway in Carl Sagan’s Contact) is resigning after 30 years of searching the skies.
I was also intrigued by an article suggesting that Neanderthals might have been making cave paintings before humans – implying that they possessed a manner of conceptual thought similar to our human ancestors 40,000 years ago. Aboriginal cave paintings were also recently discovered that date back 28,000 years. For comparison, the famous cave painting of Lascaux are estimated to be only around 17,000 years old.
These news items got me to wondering about the human cognitive leap to thinking beyond ourselves to contemplating and representing the world around us and how, over time, this has evolved into two similar quests – the scientific quest to know the outer world and the spiritual quest to know the inner world.
The spiritual quest seems to have begun in earnest well before the scientific quest. The cave paintings of our ancestors (and our doomed Neanderthal cousins) point to a shift in cognitive behavior, a shift that would eventually give rise not only to conceptions about existence after death and the belief in unseen realms, but shamanistic rituals to make contact with these other worlds and states of mind. While all human cultures seem to have developed some manner of religious belief, it isn’t until the Axial Age that the spiritual quest moved beyond the purview of a few select shamans and into a wider human experience.
It’s interesting that this spiritual quest of the Axial age also gave rise to the nascent scientific quest in the form of Greek, and later Roman, philosophy. And this search for gnosis, or knowledge, became later in neo-platonic philosophy and Christian mysticism a gnostic search for spiritual knowledge. These two quests became intertwined over the ages. The relationship between mysticism and science in fascinatingly intertwined. Carl Jung explored the relationship between alchemy, the Renaissance precursor to chemistry and physics, and the inner spiritual quest. Erik Davis has a great book called Techgnosis that explores this relationship rather thoroughly
But what does this all have to do with SETI? The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence is in some ways the ultimate scientific search for knowledge – the search for other beings who can contemplate the nature of the universe. How might they conceive of the universe and what could we learn from them? It’s a search beyond ourselves, and I suspect that it requires a focus and devotion from the scientists who pursue it that is similar in nature to the resolve of the mystics who seek inner spiritual knowledge.
The scientists searching for life ( and hopefully intelligent life) must shoulder the burden of a daunting task with no guarantee of success in their lifetime. While the universe contains 120 billion+ galaxies (possibly as many as 500 billion) and our Milky Way Galaxy contains between 200-400 billion stars, only some 10% maybe in the galactic habitable zone (not too much radiation or stellar activity). Of these stars the search is for those with solid planets in a solar habitable zone (not to warm or hot with the possibility of liquid water). And if the star has a planet that could support life the question becomes how likely that is and how long it might take. This is all explored in the Drake Equation – a rough guess sort of way of predicting the possible number of worlds where life might arise.
Personally, I suspect that the conditions for life are fairly plentiful and that life (of some kind) will be fairly plentiful in the galactic habitable zone. The universe seems, by its very nature, to evolve (change over time) from states of lesser complexity to states of greater complexity. In our case from matter to life to mind (and to spirit) as Ken Wilber phrased it – reworking the Great Chain of Being via Pierre Teilhard De Chardin.
But the time scale is the important thing. It took billions of years for life to develop on our planet and more billions to evolve a species that was capable of cave paintings. And how lucky are we that this evolution resulted in the civilizations of Summer and Mesopotamia rather than the ignominious demise experienced by the Neanderthals.
And now, we have evolved our minds to the point where our knowledge of the universe gives us the knowledge of how to destroy ourselves.
I came across a quote by Carl Sagan related to all of this. Speaking about a hypothetical message from the stars he said:
“an invaluable piece of knowledge: that it is possible to avoid the dangers of the period through which we are now passing…” Furthermore, according to Sagan, “it is possible that among the first contents of such a message may be detailed prescriptions for the avoidance of technological disaster, for a passage through adolescence to maturity.”
To me the answer to this question is found in the spiritual quest – not the search for a supernatural being, but the search within for a direct experience of the divine nature of the universe. A search that takes one beyond our usual limited sense of ego-self to embrace all of humanity, all of life, all of the universe. The successful spiritual quest results in a spiritual worldview, a perspective that could potentially see past our human frailties to solve the problems that plague and endanger us individually and collectively
So, it’s possible that the message we might receive from some distant alien society would not be an encyclopedia galactic or a scientific manual, but rather a treatise of ancient spiritual wisdom. Our potential first contact could as easily be with a species a million years more spiritually advanced as technologically sophisticated.
Of course it’s also possible we’ll be contacted by aliens with no spiritual dispositions who are only interested in trading cooking recipes.