Culture At Large

Of gods and aliens

Rolf Bouma

In a recent piece for NPR, Marcelo Gleiser wonders whether we would be able to “distinguish ultra-advanced aliens from gods,” an interesting question especially in light of the recent science-fiction blockbuster Prometheus. Gleiser points out that past human societies, upon encountering unfamiliar cultures with advanced technologies, have sometimes mistaken humans for divine. His example of choice is the arrival of Europeans in the Americas.

He might have used a Biblical example. In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas are considered gods for healing a crippled man. The crowds insist that they are the gods come down in human form.

There are two telling aspects of the Acts 14 story. First, the crowds identify divinity according to the prevailing popular conception of the gods. They are like humans, only more so. They have powers that exceed that of humans, but in personality and morality they are very much like humans. So it was a relatively small step for the Greeks of Lystra to imagine Paul and Barnabas as avatars of the gods.

The second item of note is how quickly the Lystra crowds change their estimation of Paul and Barnabas. One moment they are falling on their knees to worship them; the next they are trying to tear them limb from limb. When your notions of the gods are skewed, you tend to be fickle in your affections.

When your notions of the gods are skewed, you tend to be fickle in your affections.

Two observations on Gleiser’s conjecture. First, it would be difficult for persons operating with an orthodox Christian conception of divinity to mistake a being, however technologically capable, for God.

Just consider the attributes that orthodox Christians typically ascribed to the divine. The Belgic Confession, for example, professes faith in “a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God - eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty; completely wise, just, and good, and the overflowing source of all good.” 

Let me run into a being that fits that description (ignore the imaginative challenge of “running into” a spiritual and infinite being), and I might be tempted to think that I have encountered God. However, if the being is physical, visible, mortal, changeable, finite, stumbles over questions, or has bad hair days, it is not God. It might be something really cool and makes us humans feel second-rate in the cosmos, but it is not God. So take that, you hyper-advanced alien life form: you are not God.

Second, I wonder about this propensity to think of life forms on other planets as much more advanced than we are. It is entirely possible. Nothing rules it out. But let’s take the age of the cosmos to be 13.7 billion years old, give or take a few hundred million years. If we then allow for the clumping of matter, the expansion of the universe, the development of galaxies, the emergence of solar systems with planets of the Goldilocks sort (not too hot, not too cold, but just right) and then cordon off sufficient time for the evolution of intelligent life, there is probably a reason that all the SETI programs have thus far come up empty.

If intelligent life exists elsewhere in the cosmos, we may well be among the first and none have been around long enough to send out signals that have fully traversed the interminable void between their solar system and ours. Or to have developed highly advanced technology. And they probably have no idea that we are here either since our signals have had nowhere near enough time to cross over to them. In all likelihood, we are, like them, a stealth species and likely to remain so for millennia into the future.   

What Do You Think?

  • How would you receive news of intelligent extra-terrestrial life?
  • What would you identify as the unique, inimitable qualities of God?


Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Cosmology