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Does SETI Have Implications for the Question of “Cosmic Purpose?”

Whether the universe has any “point” or “purpose” to it is a question that religions must always be concerned about, perhaps above all else. Religions can put up with all kinds of scientific ideas as long as they do not contradict the sense that the whole of things is meaningful. They can survive the news that the Earth is not the center of the universe, that human beings are descended from simian ancestors and that the universe is 15 billion years old. What they cannot abide, however, is the suspecial that the whole of things is pointless.See W. T. Stace, "Man Against Darkness," The Atlantic Monthly CLXXXII (Sept. 1948), p. 54.

It is worth asking, therefore, how the search for ETI might bear upon the question of cosmic purpose and, by implication, on the meaning and mission of our own lives. Any serious religious reflection on cosmology takes the question of purpose to be both unavoidable and central, and so it is especially for this reason that theological reflections on SETI seem appropriate in the context of the present book.

Generally speaking, "purpose" means orientation toward the realization of a value. So, to say that the universe has a purpose would be to imply that it is oriented toward the realization of something intrinsically good or valuable. Cosmic purpose does not have to imply a particular finis or end. Purpose is not identical with a predetermined plan or design, both of which tend to close off the future in a suffocating way. All we need in order to affirm cosmic purpose is an awareness that something of undeniable importance is going on in the universe, and that it is doing so in a way that is tied essentially and not just accidentally to the whole of the cosmos.

Of course, in an unfinished universe there will by definition always be ambiguity. And so here and now we will look intensely for whatever indicators we can find to support our own suspicions, whether these be pessimistic or hopeful. Accordingly, it would seem relevant to our understanding of what this universe is all about, that we try to find out whether intelligent life is abundantly distributed throughout the cosmos, or, for that matter, whether it exists only here on Earth. Certainly the existence of ETI would force us to reexamine the claim by evolutionists such as Ernst Mayr, Jacques Monod, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and many others that life and intelligence are the results of utterly improbable, purely random statistical aberrations in an overwhelmingly lifeless and mindless universe. In this respect SETI would seem to have theological importance.

However, it is not good form, theologically speaking, to make the credibility of a religious sense of cosmic purpose contingent upon the vicissitudes of scientific exploration. And so the discovery of ETI cannot be looked to as a deciding factor on a question of such vital religious importance as that of cosmic purpose. Anyway, one cannot help suspecting that scientific thinkers already inclined to think of the universe as "pointless" would persist in looking for ways to understand and explain even an abundant distribution of intelligent life in the cosmos as no less the consequence of blind chance and impersonal physical laws than life and intelligence on Earth now seem to them to be. If the physics of the early universe has come upon coincidences, constants and initial conditions predisposed toward the emergence of carbon-based life and intelligence, then scientific thinkers already conditioned to explanation in terms of "chance" and "necessity" alone will have no trouble speculatively conjuring up an infinity of mindless universes within whose amplitude our own mind-birthing cosmos can present itself as an unintelligible and impersonal accident. Some scientific thinkers have in this way already adjusted their cosmic pessimism to the Big Bang universe after the intellectually more appealing eternal universe of traditional materialism was challenged by the cosmology of Einstein, LeMaitre and Hubble. And so there is little doubt that the discovery of ETI would scarcely change the minds of those already comfortable with the notion of an essentially mindless universe devoid of meaning.

For this reason, then, our reflections on SETI throw us back once again on the question of what our own intelligence, even it turns out to be the sole instance of it in the cosmos, might imply as far as the character, and possible purposiveness, of the universe is concerned. As I noted earlier, any process that moves incrementally toward the establishment or intensification of intrinsic value could be called purposeful. If so, then might we not plausibly claim that a universe that proceeds over the course of its history - however long and meandering this journey through time may be - toward the establishment of intelligent life, is a purposeful one? Even if intelligent life manifests itself only on one planet could it not still be considered a property of the cosmos as a whole, especially in the light of recent astrophysics?Other essays in this volume give the details of the so-called "anthropic" character of the universe.In this case the existence of our own intelligent life would be sufficient of itself to render the universe meaningful, and the discovery of ETI would not add anything qualitatively new to this judgment.

After all, intelligence itself is the most indubitable instance we have of intrinsic value. If you find yourself doubting or denying what I have just said, it is only because you are now at this moment spontaneously acknowledging the value of your own intelligence. It is impossible for you consistently to deny the intrinsic importance of your intelligence. By issuing judgments about the truth-status of the assertions I have just made you have already demonstrated how deeply you treasure your own mind and its capacity to understand, criticize and know.

Now if what I have just said is correct - and you really can't doubt it without proving my point - then the existence of even one instance, or one planetary outpost, of intelligence in this vast universe might be enough to make the whole story that leads up to its existence a purposeful one, especially if that story is continuous with and ingredient in the emergence of intelligent life. Now that with the help of physics and astrophysics we understand how intricately our own intelligence is connected to the fifteen billion year cosmic story, and to the physical features of the universe from the very earliest microseconds of cosmic time, to assert that the universe is inherently purposeless seems arbitrary at best. In view of the spontaneous (and undeniable) valuation of your own intelligence on the one hand, and our new scientific understanding of the cosmic process constitutive of your intelligence on the other, you cannot but wonder about the coherence of any claim that the universe is inherently pointless. To argue in complete seriousness that the cosmos is ultimately unintelligible, or even to entertain doubts about the purposiveness of this patently mind-bearing universe, would at this point in our scientific understanding of the cosmos seem to sabotage the very mind that is making such an assertion.

The point to be made here with respect to SETI and cosmic purpose is that the existence of intelligent life on Earth, whether it exists elsewhere or not, may already tell us something about the essential nature of the whole universe. Perhaps we do not need to have any other instances of intelligent life to convince us that this is an essentially mind-bearing universe.

However, even aside from the point I have just made, SETI may eventually have some implications for the question of cosmic purpose. Let us recall that the modern loss of a sense of cosmic purpose is ultimately rooted in the modern expulsion of mind from nature - by Cartesian dualism, classical mechanism and modern scientism. It is not out of science itself but out of the assumed mindlessness of nature that the historically recent and culturally provincial idea arose that the cosmos is pointless and that the appearance of our own intelligence, therefore, is a purely accidental one. An essentially mindless universe would seem to be a purposeless one, but a universe in which intelligent life is an essential rather than accidental property could hardly be called purposeless. And so, any future discovery that instances of intelligence occur abundantly in the universe could not help but place the burden of proof upon those who see no intrinsic connection between mind and the rest of nature.

Contributed by: Dr. Jack Haught

Cosmic Questions

Are We Alone? Topic Index
Theology After Contact: Religion and Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life

Does SETI Have Implications for the Question of “Cosmic Purpose?”

What Would Happen to the Idea of God?
The Question of Human Importance
The Question of Religious Particularity
Are Extraterrestrials Religious?
Available Frameworks for a "Theology after Contact"


Jack Haught

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Did the Universe Have a Beginning?
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