A couple of thousand years ago, we didn’t know much about how the universe works. It’s no surprise that our ancestors came up with a mishmash of beliefs about nature, humans, and our place in the cosmos.
What is a consistent source of surprise is that so many people still cling to these dusty beliefs, no matter what variety of silliness it leads them to. One of the foundational beliefs of mainstream Western religions is that humans are somehow special in God’s eyes. Could anything shake us from such a conviction? Majikthise and Cynical-C point to one such thought experiment: a story from Catholic News Service about whether space aliens have souls. What would happen to our belief in our own singular status within creation if we found that there were other sentient beings out there, capable of thoughts and feelings and launching wars of choice?
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno has thought about it, and reached an interesting conclusion: it wouldn’t change anything.
He said his aim with the booklet was to reassure Catholics “that you shouldn’t be afraid of these questions” and that “no matter what we learn, it doesn’t invalidate what we already know” and believe. In other words, scientific study and discovery and religion enrich one another, not cancel out each other.
If new forms of life were to be discovered or highly advanced beings from outer space were to touch down on planet Earth, it would not mean “everything we believe in is wrong,” rather, “we’re going to find out that everything is truer in ways we couldn’t even yet have imagined,” he said.
Not to be nit-picky, but the motto “no matter what we learn, it doesn’t invalidate what we already know” is not evidence that science and religion enrich each other, it is evidence of precisely the opposite. The distinguishing feature of science is precisely that it stands ready to invalidate its previous theories on the basis of new evidence. We approach the universe with an open mind, struggling to understand what it has to tell us; we don’t figure things out ahead of time and use the universe to fabricate a flattering story about ourselves.
But the next sentence was my favorite:
The Book of Genesis describes two stories of creation, and science, too, has more than one version of how the cosmos may have come into being.
That’s a tad misleading right there. Genesis does indeed have two stories of creation, one right after the other (the first starts at Genesis 1:1, the second at Genesis 2:4). The two versions are completely contradictory — in the first, God creates plants, and then animals, and then man and woman simultaneously; in the second, God creates man out of dust, then plants a garden, and woman is only an afterthought. And everyone knows why there are two mutually exclusive stories right after each other: they came from two different texts, written by different people at different times, edited together later into a single document. Fascinating as history, but not a stable foundation on which to build a view of the universe.
Scientists, it’s true, have lots of versions of how the cosmos may have come into being; heck, I have one myself. That’s how we work; we throw ideas out there, compare them to other pieces of information, and toss out the ones that don’t work. If new information comes along, we’re hoping that it conforms to our personally favorite ideas, but if not, that’s exciting and we look forward to learning something.
And when those space aliens get here, I’m definitely going to ask them what they think about the anthropic principle.