Saturday, September 4, 2010

Life on Mars?

Viking lander in 1976. Credit: NASA
In the summer of 1976, the American Bicentennial celebration gave a red, white, and blue tincture to many other events.  When NASA’s two Viking landers touched down on Mars, the event seemed proof of American exceptionalism and the triumph of science.  The landers, for those who do not remember, carried robot laboratories that conducted experiments to find evidence of life on Mars.  Word soon came, however, that the robots found no such evidence.  Today, NASA has announced that the original results may have been a false negative.  There may indeed be life on Mars, or at least there may be the organic molecules from which life is assembled.  Once more we contemplate a universe in which the uniquely reassuring message of religion may have to account for evidence inconsistent with sacred tradition.

Assume for the moment that this latest palm slap to NASA’s brow means we eventually will find life on Mars.  If science confirms life anywhere but Earth, religion will face the problem of assimilating the new evidence into an already rich, complete theology.  It is not the first time science has brought such a challenge to the faithful.  Galileo, whom the Catholic Church placed under house arrest in 1633 for his support of the Copernican system,  eventually found his way back to respectability in 1992 when Pope John Paul II declared the affair a tragic mistake.  Copernicus had theorized—and Galileo had proven with his telescope—that the Sun, not the Earth, is at the center of the solar system.  While this demotion of humanity’s home from the center of everything to just one planet among many is thoroughly accepted among the faithful today, it is unclear what effect the discovery of extraterrestrial life would have on belief.

For the advances of scientific understanding often require concessions from religion.  To the extent religious people have accepted such concessions, they have also accepted changes in their creed.  Sometimes religious organizations have modified their dogma, sometimes just the accompanying theory.  In the Galileo affair, for instance, the theory that the Sun and the planets moved around the Earth was not part of Church dogma per se, but it was part of the Aristotelian model of the Cosmos accepted by the Church at that time.  This point may explain why Galileo was never excommunicated, despite popular belief to the contrary.  Of course, Galileo formally recanted his opinions, and his recantation may fully explain Church leniency in his case.  In any event, the Church eventually abandoned Aristotle’s cosmology, and in doing so assimilated new evidence into its traditions.

Inevitably, every such step involves a greater or lesser shift in how we understand religious texts.  The Bible, for example, is fairly clear on the idea that the Sun goes around the Earth.  Joshua X, 12-13, takes it as given that the Sun and Moon are in motion around the stationary Earth:  “12:  Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon.  13: And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.”  These days, such passages are taken as metaphorical.  CONSVLTVS is no scholar of the Bible, but he suspects that long ago they were not.  Why?  In part because there is still a residue of unaltered geocentrism even in the Internet age.

To return to the latest news from NASA, today’s story falls far short of announcing life on Mars.  It is only that a few experiments years ago, which seemed to rule out organics in Martian soil, may very well have destroyed the substances for which they were looking.  So, Mars may contain organic compounds after all.  If we eventually do discover life there, then we will have to confront seriously the idea that life is common in the universe.  Given the immensity of the universe, we may someday have to accept that Earth’s living species are an insignificant fraction of perhaps googols of created beings.  In such a universe, how can we interpret stories like Noah and the Ark?

In the face of such supra-Biblical enormities, religion remains vigorous.  Some adherents simply deny the findings of science, such as those linked above who insist the Sun goes around the Earth.  While this approach has the advantages of clarity and energy, those who take it are fewer than those who expand the number of verses in the Bible they are prepared to take as metaphor.  Besides, doctrinal consistency is not the hallmark of many people who attend church.  We all know divorced Catholics, to pick one example out of legions offered by all denominations, who take their theology as if it were served on a buffet.  So, in the end, extraterrestrial life might be accommodated without much fuss.

Still, it would ever so slightly weaken the force behind religious prohibitions.  The more provisionally we take religious texts, the less emphatically we are likely to follow their commandments.  We see this effect clearly today, when growing pluralities of the American population are behaving in ways absolutely (and effectively) forbidden in the very same Republic two generations ago.  Apologists for moral decline insist that the apparent rise in conduct that was once considered sinful is an artifact of the new openness.  That is, people misbehaved just as much in the past, it’s only that back then they hid it better.  Such claims are interesting when applied to previously closeted behavior, such as adultery, but utterly fatuous when applied to conduct we can quantify.  For example, however much hidden adultery there may have been in 1955, it could hardly approach the free-love behavior of 1975 and after.  Still, the nature of old fashioned adultery does make it hard to measure.  For illegitimacy, on the other hand, birth and marriage records tell an empirical account.  We can compare the number of babies born to unmarried mothers in 1955 and today, and the results are astonishing.  As reported in the New York Times, even as late as the 1980s the overall illegitimacy rate was around 11%; by 2007, it had climbed to 40%.  During the same period, there was certainly not a fourfold decline in religious belief, so we can at least conclude that religious prohibitions are functioning with less force than heretofore.

These facts present a true conundrum.  On the one hand, science has beneficially stripped away many old beliefs and traditions.  On the other hand, we do not know how to live without them.  The more religion assimilates new evidence, the less force it retains with which to bolster our better impulses and contain our worser selves.  Internet geocentrists excepted, almost anyone reading these words on an electronic device would surely reject the rejection of science.  At the same time, where human conduct is not governed by moral force it will be governed by political force.  The most obvious example of this priniciple is to be found in our prisons.  As the nuclear family died in Black America, the crime rate soared.  (All serious evidence supports the immediate intuition that these facts are causally related—more on that another time.)  The rest of the population responded with mandatory sentencing rules, some of them crystallized in such laws as the California “three-strikes” legislation.  Today, there is good news about the crime rate, which is in decline, but shameful news about our overcrowded prisons.

Whether we control our own conduct through our own religious and moral precepts, or whether the state intervenes to enforce the lowest common denominator of socially acceptable behavior, we cannot live under anarchy.  Order is essential to civilization.  For most of history, this order has come from external forces like police and kings.  In a few cases a few people have maintained their freedom through liberty under law.  This ordered liberty has only existed where religious principles restrained the natural barbarity of Man.  Such priniciples need not be Christian to be socially effective, but their content must approximate the Ten Commandments.  Moreover, they must be held with fervor by the majority of citizens.  Otherwise, history teaches us that we are unlikely to remain free.


  1. There's a big argument going on in scientific circles about The Singularity, in which machine consciousness and intelligence surpass the natural capacity of humans. Since this is a human-made consciousness, the debate is how to make it safe, so it will not deem ordinary mortals defective and kill us. The possible answers to this question are: make the uberdenker (neologism alert!) a slave unable to judge humans inferior OR give it all the mental and moral capacities we have, let it judge and "hope" it is benign. The theoretical arguments in the latter camp are over the possibilities of programming such a thing: what moral lessons should we build in? Shudder. Hell, we can't even figure out what moral lessons to teach ourselves. In this meditation, I always end up laughing. Someday the committee that programs this monster will approve the Ten Commandments.

  2. GTChristie, among the minority beliefs I hold is that while human consciousness is biological in origin, it is more than just algorithmic. According to my view—shared by a few scientists like Roger Penrose—consciousness depends on science we have yet to discover. The AI community asserts that it is just an emergent phenomenon of computation. That is, if you program a large enough computer with just the right software, it wakes up. I grant that the right software on a large enough computer could simulate consciousness, but I hold it would only be a simulation. If I am right, then there will be no technological Singularity until we figure out the real mechanism of consciousness and also figure out how to generate it outside of a brain. That’s all pretty speculative, but it’s enough to say I don’t think we have to worry about Terminator or Matrix scenarios this century. Still, if I’m wrong, then frankly I don’t give any credence to those who think they can control a hard-takeoff Singularity via moral programming. The essence of the Singularity is that the artificial intelligence will self-optimize. If it can’t do that, there won’t be Vinge’s intellectual runaway. This is a long way of saying, if there is a Singularity, we won’t have to worry about human culture, tradition, or religious extremists. This blog will be instantly pointless. But who can live with that attitude?