The other day I was watching an episode of the PBS program Nova titled “Alien Planets Revealed”. The episode began in grand fashion as the narrator set up the search for earth-like planets and the life that may exist on them. Eventually the program introduction built up to the following dramatic conclusion:
Whoa, this is heady stuff!
I agree with the narrator that the question “Are we alone?” is the ultimate question. Unfortunately, the narrator interprets that question in a very strange fashion by reducing it to the scientific question of whether life has evolved on other planets. To be sure, that is a great and endlessly fascinating question (especially the exobiological speculations) but it most surely is not the ultimate question. And it isn’t hard to see why.
Imagine, for example, that we discover in a few decades that some organic sludge is growing on X-543q-q. That would be a truly extraordinary discovery, one for the ages. But would anybody conclude that the discovery of this organic sludge on another planet was the final answer to the ultimate question? “Now we know that we’re not alone! There be sludge!”
So let’s up the ante. Let’s say that we next discover ferns growing on 98i-543-J-1. Would this be the answer to the ultimate question?
How about mammal like creatures on 853-58-tu-1e-e?
Okay, how about this: humanoid like intelligent creatures that bear a striking resemblance (in appearance and behavior) to the crude, belching, vulgar alien-creature “Paul” featured in the movie of the same name?
Er, no, definitely not that.
All these discoveries would be extraordinary, no doubt about it. But they’d be nothing like the answer to that ultimate question.
So just what are we asking when we pose the ultimate question “Are we alone?”
That isn’t hard to figure out. We’re asking whether there is such a being as God, a personal being who is the perfect expression of all those properties we consider constitutive of a maximally great, necessary being, one who created and sustains the universe and is guiding it for his providential purposes, who explains its origin and its destiny.
That’s the kind of being we’re asking about.
Incidentally, when people ask questions like “What created God?” they’re revealing that they don’t understand the nature of the answer. “God” is not merely one more thing like sludge, and ferns and mammals and Paul the alien. That’s precisely why the question “Are we alone?” functions on a different level from finite, contingent creatures.
Now for an interesting question: Why does it matter that Nova got this question wrong?
The reason is because this reflects the all-too-common tendency of the modern mind to set aside (ignore?) the most fundamental and important questions like “Does God exist?” and replace them with milquetoast substitutes like “Do any extraterrestrial sludge, ferns, mammals and/or humanoid aliens exist?”
Once again, the discovery of extraterrestrial life would be amazing, but it wouldn’t answer our deepest questions.
Not even close.
You can watch the entire Nova episode here: