An Easter Message from S.E.T.I.–part 1

This is the first part of a two-part series. I hope you enjoy it enough to tune in for the second half! And please, do not take it too seriously.

If science were Christianity, Mars would be the empty tomb of Christ and all of the orbiters, rovers and probes that we have sent out in search of extra-terrestrial life would be as the angel, asking, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

Scientists have been searching for signs of life on the moon, on Venus, inside the Sun, on Mars, in meteorites, on comets, on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn and around planets circling distant stars since at least the 16th century, if not earlier. So far, they have been utterly unsuccessful.

Imagine the faith it takes to believe, in the face of centuries of failure, that what you have been seeking for is not a dead dream, that it is out there, somewhere in the wide universe, very much alive. This is a trial to test even the truest heart and yet, just like Mary Magdalene speaking to the angel before the empty tomb, many scientists stop and ask their interplanetary probes, “where have you laid him?” Their faith in the existence of alien life is such that they are unable to accept the reality of life’s absence; it must be hiding somewhere under a rock, in a subglacial ocean or in the spray of a hydrocarbon geyser.

It is understandable for a person to suspend, if only for a minute or an hour, their sense of disbelief and to hope against all odds that their hearts’ desire really is true. When hearing of Jesus’ resurrection, however, his own disciples couldn’t maintain such a leap of faith even for the duration of Easter morning, a grand total of about four hours. In fact, they only accepted his resurrection as real after seeing him in person, after touching his wounds and hearing him speak. In other words, after seeing the evidence. How scientific of them.

Compare this with the fact that many scientists have, without a single shred of evidence, been sustaining their own belief in alien life for close to half a millennium. You cannot help but be astounded at the strength of their faith.

Of course, this analogy between scientists’ faith in the existence of extra-terrestrial life and Christian belief in the resurrection of Christ is imperfect. A fundamental difference is that belief in the resurrection is an absolute requirement for anyone who calls themselves Christian, while there is certainly no requirement for scientists to believe in aliens. This distinction illustrates the profound difference between Christian and scientific claims about truth. According to Christian dogma, truth is God-given and eternal. In addition, for Christians, the fact of the resurrection is not open to revision with the discovery of new evidence.

In contrast, scientific practice essentially equates truth with current knowledge. As our knowledge of the universe grows and changes, our understanding of what is and isn’t true does as well. Copernicus’ discovery that the Earth orbits the sun, for example, overturned the centuries-long accepted truth that the Earth was the centre of the universe.

But science’s reliance on hard evidence and experimental results doesn’t seem to apply to the case of alien life. As astrophysicist Frank Drake noted, the primary result of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, a research project which scans the skies for radio signals from alien civilizations) is the knowledge “that the sky is not littered with powerful microwave transmitters.” Despite an estimated cost of more than $14.2 billion over the past three decades for various telescopes, satellites and interplanetary probes, no one has discovered any direct evidence of alien life.

And yet, an informal survey conducted at a 2005 conference during which the European Space Agency presented findings on Mars’ atmosphere revealed that 75% of the people present agreed that bacteria once lived on Mars, while roughly 25% agreed that bacteria inhabit the planet today. Though this survey was neither comprehensive nor rigorous, it demonstrates that the lack of evidence for alien life has not deterred a large portion of the scientific community from a belief in extraterrestrial life. Indeed, believers have included some of the most illustrious scientists and thinkers of modern history, including Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Nikola Tesla, William Herschel, Immanuel Kant and Benjamin Franklin.

The second half of this article will be posted soon.

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