News: News Archives
Telescopes and Prayer
By Mary Doria Russell
This lecture was prepared for "Science and Religion in Science Fiction," a pair of lectures sponsored by AAAS on 2 December 2004 in Washington, D.C. Russell, author of "The Sparrow," "Children of God" and other works, was ill and could not attend as scheduled; her lecture was read by Connie Bertka, director of AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion.
Hello. My name is Mary R., and I am a recovering academic.
It's been nearly twenty years since I was on a tenure track, but when I write, I must still fight the compulsion to footnote everything but theprepositions.
No matter how long it's been, I suppose I will always be an academic. Having a Ph.D. is a permanent condition. Like the Catholic priesthood. Or herpes.
In the mid-80s I taught anatomy at Case Western Reserve University's school of dentistry. Then Case ran out of baby boomers to educate, and couldn't make up the difference with foreign students.
They cut costs by eliminating the entire Basic Sciences department in the dental school. Now all the dental students have to take anatomy in the Med school, where they are bitterly resentful because they have to learn about...FEET.
So I didn't actually lose my job. I know right where it is. It's just that somebody else is doing it now.
You don't see a whole lot of want ads for paleoanthropologists with specialties in bone biology and craniofacial biomechanics. But my husband is an engineer, and he always said I'd be worth my weight in gold as a technical writer.
Granted, that was 15 pounds less gold then than it would be now, but it was damn good money for an ex-anthropologist. I made $30 an hour, and the best part was, I got to work with engineers.
I LOVE engineers. They are so creative and rational. I recommend them. If you're going to do something stupid like study anthropology or write novels, you should definitely try to marry an engineer. They're not only wonderful people, they get benefits at work. And there's been a good job market for them since the Renaissance.
I worked freelance for five years, but in 1992, there was a recession at the end of the Bush Administration... Whoa. Deja vu...
Anyway, my contracts dried up. My kid had just started first grade, and I had time on my hands, and I thought, Maybe I'll try writing a /short story/...
It sort of got away from me.
The Sparrow and its sequel Children of God are religious science fiction, a phrase that sounds oxymoronic at best and just plain moronic at worst. But stick with me here, because it's not as dumb as you'd think.
Science often begins with an IF/THEN statement. Science fiction starts with a WHAT IF question. In The Sparrow, the question was, "What if we were to detect incontrovertible evidence that human beings are not alone in the universe?" More specifically, what if human religious beliefs were challenged by that undeniable knowledge?
The discovery of just a single bacterium somewhere beyond Earth will be as revolutionary as finding out that the Earth wasn't even the center of the solar system, let alone the center of God's universe.
For Christians in particular, finding extraterrestrial life will demand as much rethinking of religion as the Age of Discovery, when Europeans found out there were whole continents not mentioned in the Bible.
How could all those new kinds of animals and plants have fit on any ark you care to imagine? And what about the two-legged things found on those continents. Were they genuine human beings with souls to save, or just animals that could be domesticated and put to work?
Those of you who are just starting out in life may want to take a look at how earlier generations came to grip with the New World, because the same kind of problem is headed your way. You may very well be members of the generation comes of age just as science and technology obtain evidence of extraterrestrial life.
Recently, three space probes went to Mars, with the express mission of finding evidence of life there. The British sent the Beagle, which was named for the ship Darwin sailed on to South America.
NASA sent two probes, and has reconfigured its research strategy. There is now a NASA Astrobiology Institute, and at the top of its agenda: the race to find life elsewhere in the solar system.
Even if nothing shows up on Mars, several of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter seem to have conditions that could support some kind of life. After all, research on our own ocean floor has revealed that life finds a way to exist in environments we human beings would find utterly hostile: in perpetual darkness, in sulfurous boiling waters, under pressures that crush steel.
There's the if/then question: IF life exists there, THEN it could be found on other planets.
Individual scientists vary in how they expect tests of this hypothesis to turn out. Many consider life on earth to be a freak event, emerging by chance. They're betting Mars and Europa will come up as empty as Earth's moon.
Others find the biology of simple microbes to be so staggeringly complex that the emergence of life must be written into the laws of nature. Life, therefore, is not freakish, but likely to be everywhere. The universe, they say, is pregnant with life.
Interestingly, cosmologists and astrophysicists are the scientists most likely to believe that microbes are too complex to be assembled by chance. Biologists, who rarely express opinions about cosmology and astrophysics, are less impressed by the microbes.
Personally, I've studied evolutionary biology, comparative anatomy, population genetics, statistics, geology, zoology, dental and bone morphologenesis, biomechanics, vertebrate and human paleontology, ethology, ethnology, ecology.
So when very smart people with Ph.Ds in math, or physics, or English Lit say things like "it's impossible for natural selection to account for life," I always have to ask, "Um, before we get started, have you ever gotten a B or better in a college-level course in biology? I just need to know what level of ignorance I'm dealing with."
It's my observation that smart people have a tendency to think that whatever they don't understand personally must be of cosmic difficulty, achievable only by forces beyond their ken.
But here's the thing of it: push biology back far enough, and you get to astrophysics. Push astrophysics back far enough, you get to cosmology and the Big Bang, and that's were scientists of both camps run out of room.
Some scientists are comfortable saying, "And before the Big Bang? It beats the hell out of me..."
Others take a hint from the maps before Columbus and say, "Here be God!" like the old maps that would say, "Here be dragons!"
That kind of god, however, has been called the God of the Gaps-- a diety who rules over whatever humans don't understand. The problem with gods like that is that they dwindle into unimportance as human knowledge grows.
So, I say: Let's give God his full majesty and glory. No pathetic little weenie god of the gaps, but Adonai, ruler of the universe, whose divine breath stirred the waters and brought life into being.
Then let's say that we do find actual, real evidence of life. And let's say that it isn't DNA-based, or that some other fact eliminates the possibility that it shares an origin with life on Earth.
In a head to head confrontation, could God survive a smackdown with ET?
Turns out, that's a question people have been dealing with for over 500 years.
Well, not the "smackdown" part...
But as Joseph Brodsky once said, "Ever since Galileo, space has been the domain of both telescopes and prayer."
Actually, I have to qualify that, by saying it's a question that's troubled Christians for over 500 years. There are lots of other theologies and religious systems that aren't significantly challenged by the idea that our species might not be God's only children.
Mormon scripture actually posits many worlds with many kinds of spiritual beings. So they're not worried about ET at all.
The Jewish covenant with God doesn't presume that God can't or won't make arrangements with other groups, human or non-. Angels, for example, have a different relationship with God, so for Jews, there's no real barrier to the idea that God might have a different covenant with ET.
I don't think Buddhists or Hindus have much trouble with this, either. I'm not sure about Muslims.
Of all the world's religions, Christianity seems to be the most species-specific. As Paul Davies wrote, "Jesus Christ is humanity's savior and redeemer. He did not die for the dolphins or gorillas, and certainly not for the proverbial little green men."
Davies says that Christian theologians who have addressed this issue fall into two camps. Some posit multiple incarnations and even multiple crucifixions, or as a prominent Anglican minister put it, "God taking on little green flesh to save little green men."
And presumably their little green girlfriends.
The Protestant theologian Paul Tillich has addressed this issue, and he has taken a stand of humility that I admire in an organism that has a brain weighing approximately one kilo.
Tillich warns that we humans aren't in a position to make the claim that Earth is the only possible place that might be chosen for an incarnation of God. The Lutheran theologian Ted Peters believes that Christianity is robust enough and flexible enough to accommodate the discovery of life elsewhere.
Catholicism tends to reject the idea of multiple incarnations. Believe it or not, there is a Vatican observatory, and there is also a Vatican astronomer named George Coyne. If you've read my books, you won't be surprised to hear that George is a Jesuit, and that he expects to be on the theological front lines if ET is discovered.
George has written that "God chose a very specific way to redeem human beings. He sent his only begotten Son to them, and Jesus gave up his life so that they would be saved from their sin. Did God do this for extraterrestrials?" George doesn't presume to answer the question, but he does say, "The theological implications are getting ever more serious."
In the view of many Christians, the idea of multiple incarnations can only be heresy. Jesus is God's ONLY begotten son. Period. No little green Jesuses can fit into this world view. As long ago as 1794, Thomas Paine --Give me liberty or give me death--that Thomas Paine argued that Christianity is simply incompatible with the existence of unearthly beings. Quote: "He who thinks he believes in both has thought but little of either."
Which puts the matter in pretty stark terms. Paine seems to be arguing that if we find little green persons, that event will disprove Christianity. You can have Christianity or little green men, but you can't have both.
I would soften this and say that finding ET would require those who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible to reassess Genesis, for example. If we find bacterial life on Mars, would that mean Mars was a rough sketch? Did God get started there and then scrap it?
Or worse, what if life on Mars is just getting started, and life on Earth an divine experiment that went horribly wrong? What if God said, "Damn. Give a species free will, and look what happens! Next time, we're sticking with the dinosaurs."
After all, Scripture tells us that God used a flood to delete Life.Earth Rev 1.0, so maybe Mars has a different operating system in beta test.
Now let's say that after many years of research, Mars turns out to be a cold dead rock. Europa's empty of life. Would that PROVE that scripture is correct?
Well, no--because the day after the NASA probe comes up empty, we could get a big fat radio transmission from ET saying, "Ready or not, here we come!"
Or maybe giant spaceships filled with big bad Bug Guys will fill our skies, and blow up landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Washington Monument, because something about human architecture really /pisses them off./
Having thoroughly confused the issue, let me try to clarify it a little. What's the difference between astrology and astronomy?
Both of these human enterprises involve close observation of the motion of planets and stars. Why does astronomy count as a science, while astrology is, at best, a harmless amusement found on the comics pages at the back of newspapers?
Here's the difference. Science depends on the search for disproof, not proof.
Astrology fans are always looking for proof. I was born on August 19, and have a rather outgoing personality. Actually, I'm pretty much of a drama queen. Typical Leo, right? But what about my friend Wendy, who is very shy, hates to be noticed, won't speak up in a group, and also born on August 19th.
If astrology were a science, that would be the end of it. Instead, astrologer will say, Well, that's the exception that proves the rule.
The minute you say that /the exception proves the rule/, you're not talking about a science anymore.
Science is a collection of empirical facts organized into a body of theory that generates hypotheses that can be put to a critical test and potentially disproved.
Bertrand Russell had this example of the scientific method. You're riding along a country lane and you see 100 sheep. All 100 of them are white. Those are empirical facts. And you could legitimately hypothesize, "All sheep are white."
Maybe the next 1000 sheep you see are white. You're allowed to say this tends to support your hypothesis. You're not allowed to say, this proves all sheep are white, because if you find even ONE SHEEP who isn't white, the hypothesis is disproved. Not all sheep are white.
Sometimes scientist get so fond of a hypothesis, they refine it and hang onto it a while longer. Maybe all sheep are white ON ONE SIDE.... But again, the hypothesis is testable--you get out of the car, catch that black sheep and see what he looks like /on the other side/.
Even if individual scientists decide to have opinions or hopes or expectations about the outcome of critical tests, the scientific method insists on patience. The matter must remain open until put to a critical test and disproved.
Bertrand Russell also said that mere consideration of scale would seem to argue against mankind as the sole purpose of the universe. That's testable, but the matter remains open. Maybe the NASA probes will settle the matter next week. Maybe it will remain open for 500 years.
Religion isn't like that. "Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test," we are told in Scripture. Even if it were permissible, what kind of critical test would disprove God's existence?
Little kids try to do this all the time. "God, if you're really there, make the wind blow my bedroom door closed." No matter how that little test turns out, even kids realize it's not likely to settle anything. Faith requires, um, faith.
No matter how sophisticated our technology becomes, no matter how far we push back the gaps in human knowledge, with or without ET, there will always be fundamental existential questions for each generation to answer.
What is a life worth living, and what is a life wasted, and why? What is worth dying for, what is worth living for, and why? What shall I teach my child to value, and what shall I urge that child to avoid, and why? What am I owed by others, and what do I owe others, and why?
Human belief systems provide different sets of answers to those questions, but in all cultures, deity is embedded in the Why. Individuals range from pious to casual to skeptical to cynical about those answers and about the deities at their base, but the cultures themselves always provide a divine Why.
As an anthropologist, I would say that the idea of God gives human beings gives us a way of imagining things that we cannot observe with our senses or deduce with our logic. The idea of God gives us a way to think about things that are too large, too complex, too beautiful, too horrifying to be encompassed by a single human mind or a single human soul.
Here is a fact as reliable as any observation of Newtonian physics: music and religion exist in all known human cultures, past and present. On a species level, religion and music are as characteristic of /Homo sapiens/ as opposable thumbs, bipedalism and articulate language.
Not every human being is a musician. Not every human being is a believer in unseen spirits that influence human fate. Some of us are tone deaf and some of us are atheists, just as there are authentic human beings who lack thumbs, or cannot walk upright, or who are mute.
Many people believe that religion and science are opposites, like up and down, or black and white, or true and false, but for me, religion is very much like music.
Nobody would argue that music is the opposite of science. No one would ask if music is more true than science, or if science is more accurate than music. Nobody would expect a scientist to reject music, just because music isn't a collection of empirical facts organized into a body of theory that generates testable hypotheses.
Consider this: when a stroke destroys the ability to speak and understand spoken language, the ability to sing and to recite prayers often remains intact. We store language and rationality on the left sides of our brains, and we store music and religion on the right side.
In health, we are not required to choose between the right side and the left. In wholeness, we can avail ourselves of both telescopes and prayer.
In my experience, there is majesty to be found in the beauties and ethics of religion, in the symphonies of Beethoven, and in scientific formulations of Darwin and Einstein. To choose one kind of majesty, forsaking all others, is to impoverish yourself voluntarily.
Scientific method and religious belief are not opposites but they are fundamentally different. The moment you start looking for proof, you're not doing science anymore. And the moment you try to disprove God, you're like that little kid waiting for the door to blow shut.
In science, all sensibly phrased questions are at least potentially answerable. But the answers to questions of faith are, by their very nature, unknowable in a scientific sense. The doubt must remain part of the equation, or faith mutates into mere opinion.
The important thing is, for whole and healthy human beings, both kinds of questions are worth asking, and worth thinking deeply about. And I thank you for allowing me to raise them tonight.