Exploring the Unknown
A sufficiently advanced scientific civilization could create life or maybe even a baby universe in its laboratories, and hence acquire qualities that were assigned by humans to God. Would the encounter with an advanced technological gadget, such as the 100th version of the iPhone, inspire the same sense of awe for a present-day Silicon Valley entrepreneur as the burning bush did for Moses?
Imagine two hypothetical futures for humanity. One in which humanity continues on its tumultuous path, immersed in traditional religious beliefs along with modern notions of science and technology, while allocating major resources to deal with political conflicts, wars, pandemics and climate change on the two-dimensional surface of Earth. In the second hypothetical future, humanity explores the third dimension of space and allocates resources to study the possible existence of extraterrestrials with superhuman abilities as a motivation for its own aspirations.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed “God is dead” and substituted for it the notion of the Übermensch (superhuman). He meant the Übermensch to represent a spiritual evolution of self-awareness, overcoming views on morality and justice that stem from beliefs related to the notion of God in traditional religions. The scientific discovery of extraterrestrials would give a whole new meaning to the transition he envisioned.
Despite Nietzsche’s attempt to remove past belief systems from the future of humanity, the scientific exploration of the unknown resonates with spirituality. During the Jewish High-Holidays last year, Rob Dobrusin, an Emeritus Rabbi at the Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, wrote a sermon about my book, Extraterrestrial, and posted the transcript on his blog. My Harvard colleague, Erez Manela, wrote to me: “It’s striking how your work is shaping religious sermons but not surprising given how it bleeds into questions of the meaning of life and humanity’s place in the universe.” When a cover story about my research appeared in the Jewish Orthodox Magazine “Ami”, another Harvard colleague, Stephen Greenblatt, noted “It looks like the Orthodox are more open-minded to this line of work than some of your colleagues.”
This brings up a fundamental difference between the universal scientific experience of discovering extraterrestrial technological relics and the personal nature of religious belief. The scientific method is guided by evidence gathered by instruments that are calibrated and yield reproducible results. The instruments collect quantitative data that can be analyzed by all scientists and the resulting knowledge is shared in peer-reviewed publications. Science avoids using humans as detectors but instead uses instruments to shift the discussion from the realm of the subjective and qualitative to the realm of the objective and quantitative. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, center on the individual and on the human experience, as argued by the philosopher and theologian, Martin Buber.
The distinction between the personal human experience and the universal measurements by scientific instruments motivates the transition between the anecdotal reports of military personnel and civilians about Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) and the rigorous scientific methodology adopted by the Galileo Project to collect quantitative data with a suite of state-of-the-art instruments and publish the findings in peer-reviewed journals.
But the scientific search for objects with an extraterrestrial technological origin could be different from the study of dark matter particles of cosmic origin. The dark matter which dominates the cosmic mass budget of matter involves passive physical constituents. However, an advanced gadget equipped with artificial intelligence and machine learning may be as complex as humans, displaying sentient qualities and having a “ghost in the machine”. The interaction with sentient technological systems would not only give us a new perspective on what it means to be superhuman, but will also clarify what it means to be human.
Genesis 1:27 states that “God created mankind in his own image.” Nietzsche counter-argued that “man makes god in his own image.” The scientific discovery of sentient extraterrestrial gadgets might suggest a third option, consistent with the ethics of diversity and inclusion: “the experience is shared by all manifestations of intelligence in our universe.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021.