“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” – Arthur C. Clarke
NASA astronomers recently confirmed that the Kepler Space Telescope has identified an additional 715 extra-solar planets, bringing the grand total thus far cataloged to around 1700 planets just in our small corner of the universe. Basically, wherever we look, we find new planets, and sometimes even in the theoretically habitable region referred to as the “Goldilocks” zone of another star. Curiously, excepting the as of yet inconclusively verified encounters with suspicious entities rumored to be lurking in our skies, piloting UFOs, and abducting unsuspecting humans for bizarre interactions and who need not be extraterrestrial to be weird, we have yet to establish that life exists anywhere in the universe except here on earth. No overt signs of interstellar craft plying the space lanes, civilizations extinct or otherwise, or even a clear indication of the simplest microbial life outside the relatively warm embrace of our little biosphere. Sure, we can allow for the possibility that a grand conspiracy is afoot to hide evidence that we are not alone, even though we’ve repeatedly demonstrated that while the human race is especially good at ignoring things, we are terrible at deliberately hiding them. And perhaps the galaxy is teeming with advanced species that are purposefully keeping us in the dark, but everybody has that one irrepressible friend who would land on the White House lawn and say “Take Me to Your Leader”, just to be contrary. This leaves room for a logical possibility, rarely considered or seriously discussed in the anomalist and Fortean communities, that life only exists on Earth. We are increasingly loathe to talk about the possibility (remote as it may be) that mankind is eternally and disturbingly alone in a barren universe, or to consider the implications were it true. Could not the mother of all anomalies be life itself?
Astrobiologists have optimistically suggested that there could be as many as 40 billion habitable planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone. Keep in mind that a planet may very well be considered “habitable” without actually being inhabited, that is the optimal conditions for life elsewhere (as we understand them here on Earth) may very well exist on planets orbiting other stars, but what if the series of cosmic and chemical accidents required to give rise to life are a staggeringly unlikely chain of events that have to occur in a precise order to give rise to something no more complex than bacteria? The simple fact is we only have a sample of one single planet where we can identify that life has ever arisen, which makes the statistical calculations of philosophical musings like the Drake Equation a fascinating exercise, but one based on woefully inadequate data and a great deal of wishful thinking. As our technology continues to evolve, our forays into space become increasingly sophisticated, and our notion of what to look for in terms of positively identifying life on another world advances, the question may ultimately be moot as we start turning over alien rocks and baiting or hooks with alien worms. But what if that never happens, and as the boundaries of our imagination, knowledge, and exploration expand into the deep, dark universe, we still find ourselves alone?
I’m not asking anyone to shelve fondly cherished convictions that alien life exists and only awaits our discovery, only to exercise one’s mental faculties and muse upon the implications of a universe devoid of life, except for ourselves. Is this not what a good anomalist does? That is, considers the outlying possibility that the inconceivable is conceivable, and then tries to grasp with wonder and awe what the significance of such an undeniably odd reality is? What if Claudius Ptolemy’s earth-centric view of the universe, while not mechanically correct, was ontologically accurate? While we are certainly not at the physical center of the cosmos, nor even our own solar system, the absence of all life elsewhere would place us firmly at the existential center, for if we are the only thing anywhere that is capable of observing the universe are we not then the alpha and omega of all existence? Our current thinking on the subject does not seem to have proceeded far beyond that of 1st Century B.C. Roman philosopher Lucretius who commented, “Space contains such a huge supply of atoms that all eternity would not be enough time to count them and the force which drives the atoms into various places just as they have been driven together in this world. So we must realize that there are other worlds in other parts of the universe, with races of different men and different animals”, the assumption being that the mere size of the universe (perhaps infinite) implies a high probability that we are not alone, but a good gambler will remind you that high probability does not equal certainty, particularly when you don’t know the hand the other guy is holding, begging the same question posed by physicist Enrico Fermi when he pointed out that given the high estimates of the probability of life out there, the young age of our species relative to the rest of the universe, and the fact that we’ve seen no obvious signs of life elsewhere, then to paraphrase, “Where the hell is everybody?”. According to the aptly-named Fermi paradox, at any reasonable rate of interstellar travel, life could colonize the entire galaxy in just shy of a few tens of millions of years, and since there are billions of stars, billions of years older than ours, we should have bumped into somebody or something by now. One may reasonably point out that perhaps the universe is overflowing with life, just not intelligent life, but that is almost as puzzling as the idea that we might be completely alone.
Theological implications immediately come to mind. Perhaps we are a unique creation, but what omniscient, omnipotent, and loving divine beastie would be so insufferable as to create an empty universe, save for one ball of dirt in a backwater of an unimportant galaxy. I suppose it might have been an experiment that didn’t go so well, and got banned in the rest of the universe, but we’re making a lot of unfounded assumptions about the existence of super-ordinary life forms on Earth, which still poses the problem of where all these gods who like to monkey around with us came from in the first place – and shouldn’t other planets have them too, equally hard at work testing out theories of genetics and social organization? The rabbit hole one must proceed down, when firmly convinced that we are not alone in the universe, yet lacking any evidence, is a bottomless, vertigo inducing warren of conspiracies (we are being deliberately isolated), manipulations (we’re some sort of grand terrarium in an alien zoo), and speculative social theory (intelligent life inevitably blows itself up).
The most parsimonious explanation for the apparent lack of life in the universe would seem to be the “anthropic principle”, that is that the conditions of the physical universe must be compatible with the conscious life that observes it. Certainly, it is a little arrogant to say that the whole of reality exists because we’re here to write about it, but it does bear some consideration. Imagine that for life or consciousness to arise, a certain set of very specific criteria in terms of physical constants and age must be met by the universe (or universes). Perhaps we are the first universe, and first consciousness to arise. That would explain how quiet things are out there.
Why is the universe as it is? Because we are here. The universe is as it is because it meant to generate intelligent life. This insight led to the formulation of the Anthropic Principle (in 1981) which proclaims that the universe is home for man. Its composition, structure and dynamics were exquisitely balanced to enable life to emerge. As we search deeper and deeper into the underlying structure of the cosmic evolution, e are more and more convinced that the “the coincidences” may not have been so coincidental…The universe has brought life to celebrate itself. We are part of its glory. We neither deny our special place nor are unduly arrogant about it. It has just happened that we are part of the flowering of the universe. To deny this special place to Homo sapiens in the name of ideology of anti-anthropocentrism is a folly based on a new form of misanthropy; is, in fact, a form of inverted arrogance (Skolimowski, 1991, p53-54).
Apart from Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle, I suspect that our species, despite millennia of theological speculation around the uniqueness of the creation that is humanity, is wholly unprepared to discover that perhaps we are completely alone in the universe. Our UFO mythology is steeped in the disbelief that we may be the sole representatives of consciousness, if not life. And the truth is that the notion of our uniqueness, no matter how highly we think of ourselves, is desperately lonely. Perhaps our spur to reach out to the stars should not be a search for other life in the universe, as we may be resoundingly disappointed by what we find, if we find anything at all. Our inspiration can come directly from our solitude, for as poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “It is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it”. Meanwhile, it makes one think the universe better start taking us a little more seriously.
Skolimowski, Henryk. Dancing Shiva In the Ecological Age. Delhi: Clarion Books , 1991.