The universe is big. I mean amazingly, astonishingly, stupidly big. You cannot imagine how big the universe really is. Not even the best scientists know how big it is, because even though our universe is 13.8 billion years old, light travelling from the edge of the universe hasn’t even had time to reach us yet. That’s big.
Even though the universe is mostly empty space, it’s such an amazingly huge space that it can be mostly empty and still contain more stuff than we can possibly imagine. Scientists estimate that there are approximately 10 billion galaxies just in the observable universe (the part we can see — remember, we have no idea how much is out there we can’t see). The average galaxy contains about 100 billion stars. That means there are about one billion trillion stars in the observable universe alone!
Given the incomprehensible hugeness of that number, even if only a small percentage of those stars have planets, and only a small percentage of those planets have life, and only a small percentage of that life is intelligent, it seems reasonable to assume that there is intelligent life out there, somewhere. We are not alone.
Ponder the implications. What would the discovery of alien life mean for us as a species? How might we think of ourselves differently, knowing we are not so unique?
The prospect of extra-terrestrial life also brings up some interesting theological questions. Would they have immortal souls? Would they have experienced a Fall, similar to our own? Would God become Incarnate on their worlds, as well? How might their salvation be brought about? If we ever met an E.T., would we need to evangelize it? What if it came to evangelize us?
These are all very fascinating things to think about. But there is another equally fascinating possibility. What if we are alone?
It is tempting to believe in the the existence of alien life based on probability. But when it comes to empirical data, the universe looks like a pretty lonely place. In the book, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?, Vatican astronomer (and Jesuit) Guy Consolmagno states:
I want to state, with whatever authority I have as a scientist and as one of the ‘Official Astronomers’ at the Vatican Observatory: Neither I, nor anyone I know, has any evidence that extraterrestrials exist. I do not know of any credible evidence at all that there has ever been contact of any form between extraterrestrial aliens and Earth. Period.
All the scientific data we have now indicates that we are the only intelligent species in the universe. Maybe more data will be forthcoming that will one day prove that conclusion to be wrong. But then again, maybe it won’t. And while the idea of alien life introduces some interesting theological questions, the idea of there not being alien life begs its own question. Namely: Why would God create such an unfathomably large universe for only one intelligent species?
I can think of at least three reasons.
Have you ever created a universe? I haven’t. So I have no idea how it’s done or how much space, time, energy and matter might be required to set things in motion so that at a certain time, on a certain planet, you and I might appear. It could be that all that vastness described above is all for our benefit.
Science tells us that every atom on earth was forged in the belly of a long-dead star. Our little solar system is not an independent outfit. Everything in the universe effects and is effected by everything else (even if just minutely). Maybe all of it is necessary to bring about the conditions for human life to evolve and flourish on our precious little planet.
There is something in our human nature that makes us want to reach out, push boundaries, cross borders and climb mountains. We, as a species, are explorers. It’s why we have spread across the globe in such a relatively short amount of time (cosmically speaking). And it’s why the globe can’t hold us. We’ve already left this celestial orb and set foot on another, and one day we will do it again.
Maybe God made the universe so large and full of wonder so that from now until the end of time, human kind will never run out of frontiers. There will always be something new to explore. Thanks, God.
3) Beauty & Wonder
Do you know who likes to sit outside at night and stare up at the stars? Every poet, philosopher, theologian, scientist, artist, mystic or sage that has ever been born. Gabriela Mistral called beauty “God’s shadow on the universe.” Maybe God made a universe so awe-inspiring for the precise purpose of inspiring us. But why did it have to be so big? Because only something so big as to defy all measure could possibly hint at the infinite greatness of the One who created it.
I suspect that we will never know for sure whether we are alone in the universe. It is rather hard to prove a negative, especially on a universal scale. I am reasonably certain that there is no alien life in my closet. I haven’t had time to check the rest of creation yet. But until we discover cosmic neighbors, all indication is that we are alone — at least as far as physical intelligent life.
Of course, as Catholics, we do believe in extra-terrestrial species of a sorts — they are called angels. But that will have to be another article…