Extraterrestrial Life and Intelligence

– Cosmo-Psychology?  – Consequences?

5-07-05a

What Is Life and Intelligence?

Intelligent Life on Other Celestial Bodies?

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What Can We Say about the Minds of Extraterrestrial Intelligent Beings?

Cosmo-Psychology?

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Possible Consequences for Us?

Resulting Fundamental Philosophical and Theological Questions

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This essay is only Part 6 of a larger essay. 

Read the full essay by going to “Evolution:  Understanding Physical and Mental Existence”

That essay is now available in the following separate sections:

1.  Cosmogony, Cosmic Evolution, Evolution of Earth

2.  Origin of Life, Molecular Biology, Natural Evolution, Humans

3.  The Origin, Evolution, and Function of the Human Mind

4.  The Origin, Evolution, and Functions of Societies and Cultures

5.  “Intelligent Design Theory” vs. Evolution, Response of Science, Concerns of Theology

6.  Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Cosmo-Psychology?  Consequences for Us?  (this essay)

7.  The Future and Expected End of Mankind and the Universe

8.  Closing Comments and Conclusions

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Content:

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Introduction                                                                                                             1

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1.  What Is Life and Intelligence, Intelligent Life on Other Celestial Bodies?       2

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2.  The Minds of Extraterrestrial Intelligent Beings, “Cosmo-Psychology”?                   5

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3.  Possible Consequences for Us on Earth?  

Resulting Fundamental Philosophical and Theological Questions?         8

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Introduction:

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When we pause for a moment in our busy life – at lunch, during a holiday, on vacation – we can perceive the wonderful and sometimes cruel existence we live in – the universe, nature on this planet Earth, our surroundings, our body, our mind.  In trying to understand this existence, we find that everything in our world is evolving – has always been evolving and will continue to do so.  If we want to understand our existence, we should attempt to understand this evolution.

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Not too many years ago, one of the early NASA space projects provided the very first and rather beautiful pictures of Earth as seen from outer space.  Astronomic telescopes had already provided excellent pictures of distant galaxies.  Now we could visualize how our own “Milky Way” galaxy would look with the tiny spot of our Sun as one of a billion others somewhere in its outer reaches – and a still smaller, blue planet, "Earth”, whirling around that tiny sun – about four billion times already since its appearance.  That small Earth is our only home, but our brains that evolved only a few ten thousand years ago allow our minds to span the universe in time and space.  What were the starting conditions, principles, laws, and forces of nature that let this evolution occur?

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Recent progress in astronomy has taught us how our universe originated in one spot some 14 billion years ago and has been expanding in all directions ever since.  What happened in time and space that, out of the original burst of energy at that time, finally we humans, with all our exceptional talents, came to exist and live on this tiny planet where we now are – and to develop the mental capabilities we now have?

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A few key aspects of Creation and evolution appear to be fundamental to the understanding of what occurred.  They are especially surprising and impressive [1]

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Come along on a mental voyage – to explore the existence we live in – from the vastness of the universe to submicroscopic molecular life, the virtual phenomena of the mind, and unfolding civilizations – from an origin in the distant past to an expected end in the distant future!

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This essay is only one part (Part 6) of a larger overview of all of existence in the essay “Evolution: Understanding Our Physical and Mental Existence”, to be found on the website www.schwab-writings.com in the Section, “Science and Evolution”.

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1.  What Is Life and Intelligence?  Intelligent Life on Other Celestial Bodies?

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A living molecule can be defined as one that multiplies (in basically similar configuration), uses resources from its environment (energy and chemicals), and evolves or adapts to its changing environment.  It is somewhat arbitrary to require “life” to include metabolism (internal chemical processes), growth (“directed development”), and the content of special “hereditary information” beyond just being what it is.[2] 

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When talking about extraterrestrial life, the field of “astrobiology”, it is commonly assumed that such life must also be based on organic compounds utilizing carbon, since only carbon permits the formation of such a variety of molecules and the formation of such complex molecular structures or materials.  Silicon is a distant second-best.  Water must be available as the most common solvent for the transportation of chemical compounds.  Methane is a distant second-best to water.  Such assumptions ultimately lead to concepts of life not too different from ours on Earth.   

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Let’s try an experiment in thought of a different form of life.  Let us assume that some distant star has a planet like Jupiter, also with a large singular spot.  Let us assume that this spot is a vent throwing vapor high into its atmosphere, whatever the vapor consists of.  Let us also assume that the vapor condenses into flakes, much like our snowflakes on Earth.  The cumulus cloud of that vapor above the vent may be such that a large quantity of the flakes, when falling down, are sucked back into the rising vapor stream and go on being re-cycled, through many cycles.  When they become large enough, the flakes break up and each particle becomes the nucleus of a new flake.  The flakes “propagate” and use the resources of their environment.

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The vapor from the vent contains small amounts of exotic material.  This can lead to special formations or deformations along the branches of the flakes.  Flakes with certain of those special formations are more apt to absorb vapor for their growth, thereby depriving others of this supply.  Soon, such special flakes outnumber and, finally, replace the other flakes.  As newer special formations appear through chance events, a certain evolution takes place.

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The margins of the cumulus cloud can present different environments and can lead to adapted evolutions [3].  For example, the lower sides of the cloud may present “dryer” areas where only certain flakes prevail.  The higher areas may present “colder” areas of thinner vapor, where other flakes prevail.  This would be a form of adaptive evolution. 

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Do the flakes in the cloud present a special form of “life”?

Can an advanced robot containing a super-computer ever be considered to be living?  What if consciousness, decision-making, creativity, and some “personality” – see the discussions in the various essays in the section “Brain, Mind” on the website www.schwab-writings.com) – should, to some degree, all be reproducible in an advanced computer of the future?

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Can a virtual being ever be considered living?  A virtual being shall be defined as a software-simulated being – having only a virtual existence within the electromagnetic realities of a local or global data processing system.  As discussed in the above-indicated essay #1 about cosmogony, electromagnetic fields are rather abstract phenomena in empty space.  As indicated in that essay, all phenomena of existence are, ultimately, only expressions of fields.  Are all phenomena of existence only virtual?  

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Thinking in more realistic terms, advanced extraterrestrial life should be expected to use carbon compounds for its materials.  As discussed in essay #2 indicated above, about the origin of life, the precursor “organic” molecules and building blocks of RNA most likely arrived on Earth aboard icy comets or meteorites.  Consequently, they are expected to be available throughout the universe.  This lets the appearance of life similar to ours on other celestial bodies appear quite likely.  The evolution of such life may have started billions of years before ours and, consequently, may have led much further than our evolution on Earth – and may have gone in different directions.  In cosmic terms, we may just be a unique side-branch of cosmic evolution – fascinatingly interesting as we are.

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Furthermore, if such life is “advanced” – and, consequently, derived from evolution – such life would need some blueprints of its structure upon multiplication, whether cell-by-cell or in toto.  Carbon-compound chains are quite suitable for use as complex memory – unless nature can develop some two- or three-dimensional memory molecules, thereby accomplishing even more than our one-dimensional DNA helix. 

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The evolution of such basic “blueprint” molecules over time, in evolution toward higher complexity of the derived organism, can move in many different directions – as evidenced by the myriad species that evolved on Earth through the ages.  This would indicate an absolutely unpredictable diversification of evolution on other suitable places in the universe.

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But, after all, to prosper, evolution must follow opportunities.  Consequently, evolution cannot diverge arbitrarily.  Evolution must “converge” on organisms that can prosper within the given niches of the environment. 

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As discussed in essay #2 on the evolution of life, the converging of evolution on organisms that have sensors and can move and that, consequently, have actuators and some control function between the sensors and actuators is indicated only in case of predatory behavior – on Earth prompted by the oxygen-based energy cycle already mentioned.  This leads to organisms that contain systems for sensory signal communication, signal processing or control, and motion control of actuators, corresponding to our nervous system that began to develop with the most primitive animals.  Advanced control centers can be compared to “brains” and the control process to “thought”.  In other words, certain energy cycles lead to predatory behavior and, therefore, to evolution toward brains, rudimentary as these may be. 

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But are “emotions” required – or more? 

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Nervous systems appeared several hundred million years ago, providing motoric reflexive as well as “emotional” control (for example, in “fight or flight” reactions).  But higher forms of brains appeared only recently, 500 million years after the beginning of animal evolution.  Why did none develop earlier during the past hundreds of million years?  Why did the “convergence” on this level of natural existence not occur earlier, and in other species? [4] 

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It is possible that the development of larger brains occurs only after the evolutionary transition through some narrow passages that we do not understand yet – then leading to the expansion into evolutionary niches based on higher intelligence.

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Regarding those “narrow passages” toward the development of complex brains and intelligence, some scientists think that it is the development of language (based on some physiological changes facilitating the production of language) that is needed for the development of higher intelligence. 

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Others see the need for three-dimensional vision (requiring front-viewing eyes).  This is needed for the development and usage of tools – and the development of freely usable, skill-supporting frontal limbs (arms and hands).  Such frontal limbs were not available to dinosaurs and are not available to other animals with large brains (elephants, whales).

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Once such a certain narrow passage in evolution is breached, brain development may occur swiftly, having then taken only 2 million years from higher animals to humans. 

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Is this passage likely to occur in extraterrestrial life?  If one subtracts the long period of mammal suppression during the dominance of the dinosaurs, the development to brains can possibly be seen in a much shorter time than 500 million years.  On Earth it required less than 65 million years – and the development of large brains only 2 million years from there – a very short time interval in cosmic terms.

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Can one expect intelligent life on other celestial bodies?  How likely or unlikely is intelligent life on other celestial bodies, “extraterrestrial intelligence”?  Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee discuss this subject in their book [5].  They present convincing arguments that primitive life may exist in many places in the universe, specifically since extremophile bacteria have been found to prosper in great heat at deep sea volcanic vents or deep in rocks, as well as under the permanent ice and snow of Antarctica.  Life with higher intelligence, however, would possibly exist nowhere else but on Earth, they argue, since intelligent life takes too much time to evolve.  Instabilities or the repetitive “catastrophes” (see the discussion in above-indicated essays #1 and #2 on the evolution of Earth and life on Earth) do not allow this to happen [6].

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This assessment appears somewhat subjective and, possibly, emotionally pessimistic.  The resilience of life and evolution on Earth through numerous catastrophes, as discussed in other essays, seems to indicate that the evolution of life, once begun somewhere, is rather persistent. 

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Furthermore, evolution’s progress being as uneven as demonstrated, may not need as much time to arrive at higher intelligence as it did on Earth.  Fortuitous combinations of genetic change and environmental change may bring intelligence much faster than on Earth.

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Peter Ulmschneider, in his Intelligent Life in the Universe  [7], provides an in-depth analysis of the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life and the likelihood of finding any.  He arrives at the expectation that extraterrestrial intelligence should be quite common in the universe (about 4,000 such colonies now existing, he believes, in our galaxy alone).  

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2.  The Minds of Extraterrestrial Intelligent Beings, “Cosmo-Psychology” 

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If there are other intelligent beings in the universe, what can one say about their possible mental characteristics?  They, too, must have undergone evolution, not having arrived in the possession of higher capabilities from their beginning on.  Any evolution is caused by random or probabilistic events that change the inheritance of characteristics with subsequent selection of the most suitable or fittest. 

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Most writers assume that other intelligent beings in the universe should be quite different from us on Earth.  Regarding extraterrestrial intelligence, however, one can say that, in order to accomplish anything of importance, any other intelligent beings in the universe must also live in some form of cooperation with many individuals, even in what we might call civilizations.  Furthermore, some evolution is necessary for a civilization to arrive at a higher level of technological accomplishment that we could perceive from Earth.

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Evolution implies concepts such as stronger/weaker or correct/incorrect; it also presupposes some competition or fight to allow the more successful one to prevail.

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The mental composition of other beings in space does not necessarily have to include emotions (see the successful societies of insects).  For all social animals and humans on Earth, the caring for offspring and clan-members, the forming of friendship bonds in reciprocity of services, and the providing of personal sacrifices (as in defense) for the benefit of the community constitute the foundation of “emotions” and ethics.  Are some extraterrestrial civilizations nothing but emotionless, utilitarian insects?  Coherence in extraterrestrial civilization may be merely, and solely, utilitarian.

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On the other hand, the mental composition of extraterrestrial civilizations may possibly include not fewer dimensions than ours, comprising reason and emotions, but additional ones, as unknown to humans – consequently, not imaginable by us – as any beings without emotions could not imagine our emotions.

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The following paragraphs present a more systematic approach to predicting the origin, evolution, and function of the minds of extraterrestrial intelligent beings, this effort to be called “cosmo-psychology”:

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Evolution toward higher complexity in this world usually follows the “Combinatorial Principle”:  Initially, the basic phenomena of existence in our world are granular, being composed of some small components which are available in a certain diversity of types (categories).  These small components are capable of being combined to form hierarchically larger components, which then offer new dimensions of existence (sometimes called the phenomenon of “emergence”).  This principle of granulation in categorical diversity and subsequent hierarchical composition into larger structures can be found in particle physics, biochemistry, biology (ultimately leading to large, complex organisms), and in human mental development (see the above-indicated essay #3, “Origin, Evolution, and Function of the Human Mind”).

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As in the case of the human mind, one can expect that the minds of extraterrestrial intelligent beings began their evolution with small elements – for example, by means of the first few elements of useful memory appearing in the above-indicated “control” function (between sensors and actuators) of simple predecessor organisms in the course of their evolution – or by the first elements of communication (for us, sounds or the simplest of words) which they could formulate.  Some such elements will be mentioned later.  Let us give these simple elements of the nascent “mind” a name – calling them by a Greek term “noöns” (derived from “noös”), or by en English term “spiritons” (corresponding to the term “Begriffe” in German).  It is postulated that, in the course of the mental evolution of extraterrestrial beings, the simple spiritons were combined into macro-spiritons (of hierarchical higher complexity and wider coverage) and those into mega-spiritons.

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The following spiritons can be expected in the minds of extraterrestrial intelligent beings:

-        Descriptive terms:  terms for detailed geometric features of the terrain they live in, of circular or conical form.  Their own bodily shapes and forms may result in terms for dots, lines, triangles, quadrangles, pyramids, and cubes.  If we ever receive signals from them, the extraterrestrials must be able to perceive electromagnetic frequencies and may have terms for certain bands of frequencies (“colors” in our terms) – unless  they will signal us by gravity waves!

-        Basic numeric terms: one, two, three …. and so on.

-        The terms of mental “logic”:  “and”, “or”, “not”, and “equal” – as used not only in philosophical logic, but also in the “gates” of all control mechanisms – and terms for “right” (correct) and “wrong” (incorrect).

-        Basic terms to express “time” – as derived from any cyclic events in their existence, for example, the rotation of their planet or any radiation frequency (e.g., common absorption lines in universal spectra).

-        Basic terms related to their social structure:  individual, functions of individuals.

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The following macro-spiritons can be expected:

-        Simple combinations of descriptive terms:  Combinations of figures – e.g., the totality of their bodies.

-        Simple mathematical functions: plus, minus, multiply, divide – a term for prime numbers – terms indicating “all” or “none” or partial quantities (e.g., “half”).

-        More complex control and communication components or functions (antennas, amplifiers, arithmetic units, and more).

-        Larger units of time.

-        More advanced terms related to their social structure:  Leaders,  followers, larger functions (resource providers, waste removal, law givers, law enforcers, warriors, engineers?) – terms for adding/gaining/hiring or deleting/firing/dismissing/losing.

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The following mega-spiritons can be expected:

-        Cosmic configurations (galaxies and their spiral arms), clusters, comets.

-        Mathematical operands: integrals, differentials, Laplace transforms, and more.

-        Control centers (“computers” in our terms).

-        Complex timing schemes, terms for sequences, “before” and “later”, history, the concept of “evolution”, and concepts of motion.

-        Advanced social and cultural terms:  Constitution, economic systems.

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There must be rules for the combination of spiritons to form macro-spiritons and mega-spiritons (the grammar) and the corresponding terms would be of special interest, especially when going beyond logic or mathematical terms.  These terms would express their thought processes – e.g., terms for logic, invention, intuition.

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In the human brain and mind, creativity and mental progress is provided through a combinatorial process involving existing memory elements, new perceptions, and their interconnectivity, see the two essay on “Creativity” in the “Brain, Mind” section of the website www.schwab-writings.  While this interconnectivity is multidimensional, the human mind is tied to a linear progression of thought – somewhat like the search results of Google being provided in a linear sequence.  It is not – as one may wish – that the human mind looks down on all the elements of knowledge and perception spread out before it like a tinker-toy set and then chooses the most suitable piece to progress the building.  Would it be possible that an extraterrestrial mind would have a better approach to creativity, a two-dimensional search capability or better, could look down on all the pieces of the puzzle in parallel?  Would that require that their speech is better than linear, not like ours is?  Is that the problem why we have not been successful with the SETI-project, because we should be able to look in parallel at more than one string of signals arriving in a linear mode?  

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As indicated before, terms for some “religious” concepts can be expected and would be of special interest: “creation” of the universe, “revelation”, “meaning, purpose, direction” of evolution.  But terms for emotions – or for completely different mental dimensions – may or may not be found among extraterrestrials.

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The next step would be the development of an understanding for behavior.  Here, the basic controlling assumptions would be:

-        Diversity of individuals within their societies (as necessary for evolution), terms for “equal” and “different”.

-        Hierarchical ranking of individuals (as necessary in forming societies), terms for “dominate” and “subordinate”.

-        Competitiveness (as a foundation of evolution), even “fighting”.

-        Terms for “generate” and “destroy”, “birth” or “death”.

-        Assessment of correct or incorrect regarding the results of their thoughts or actions.

-        Assessment of beneficial or damaging of the results of their behavior, terms for “useful” and “useless”.

-        Gradual assessments of “better” or “worse”, “superior” or “inferior”.

-        Dynamics of behavior.

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It would be an interesting experiment to construct a “cosmic” language (using arbitrary symbols) and attempt to conduct a dialog based on the above-assumed spiritons, the likely rules for their combination, and expected forms of behavior.  What could we, and what could we not, communicate or understand if communicated to us?

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3.  Possible Consequences for Us on Earth?

Resulting Fundamental Philosophical and Theological Questions?:

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Astronomic distances and the limiting speed of light will make any two-way conversation with extraterrestrial civilizations nearly impossible.  But one-way communication may be received from them.  The consequences of receiving information about, or from, extraterrestrial intelligence could include the sciences, technology, medicine, philosophy, and theology – even art.

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New scientific knowledge may be related to the ultimate questions of cosmogony, cosmology, the “great unified theory”, and the origin of life, possibly with consequences in energy production and genetics.

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Technology information may be helpful, or it may create serious problems.  For example, if a method were communicated to produce abundant amounts of food in a very large “factory” at very low cost, the problems of hunger in the world might be solved, but all agriculture and, thereby, the sustenance of still a very large part of the human population would be socially and economically disrupted.  The same could be said about the possible replacement of lumber, coal, or oil by other materials or merely about processes that became available through “celestial” communication. 

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Superior medical knowledge, as welcome as it would be for all the suffering, would also increase the growth and aging of Earth’s population – with not only economic and social, but also environmental consequences.  Could we permit ongoing procreation on Earth if there were no more death?

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Are there any philosophical or theological expectations or consequences connected with the possible discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence? 

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On account of the very slow speed (in cosmic dimensions) of light or any other signal transmission – requiring already more than four years just to reach or arrive from our closest neighbor among the stars and millions of years to reach other galaxies – it is unlikely that we can obtain the information we seek or ask for concerning specific answers from other civilizations in outer space within the foreseeable future.  Possible philosophical and very important theological consequences result, however, solely from the fact that other civilizations exist in outer space and from our knowledge of astrophysics, see the essay “Theology, Astrophysics, and the SETI Project” in the “philosophy-theology” section on the author’s website www.schwab-writings.com. 

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A deeper understanding, as possibly available to other intelligent beings in the universe,  of the dynamics of the universe and our existence could help in answering the most fundamental question of our time – of our mental evolution so far – regarding a transcendental structure of the universe.  They concern the clarification of the theological questions regarding the following concerns:

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-        Creation:  Is there a transcendental origin of existence, “God”?

-        Is there ongoing action of the creating force in the universe, the “acting God”?  This is also the question of “Intelligent Design” in evolution and of divine interference with the course of history.

-        Is there any response of the creating force to supplication?  Is there a “personal, merciful God”?

-        What is the foundation of moral codes?  Will there be a last judgment or compensation by the creating force, the “judging God”?  This is the question of a compensating afterlife.

-        The explanation of all the suffering, misery, destructiveness, and waste in this world.

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Would answers to these questions represent the end of an era of thought and faith?  It is mainly the abandoning of a faith in a last judgment with a subsequent compensating afterlife that would bring a fundamental change in the human perception of life!  

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Will there be structural changes of society with the demise of the churches and theological-hierarchical structures?

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Will there be changes in the perceived “meaning” of life when no afterlife can be expected?

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What will be the remaining ethical guidelines?  Will the loss of religion lead to nihilism and materialism – or to something else?  But certainly more will remain than materialism and selfishness!  The ongoing force of genetically given ethical emotions and behavior (for the human as a social being) and practical interest (in the family, at work, in society, business, and politics) will prevail!  New congregational life will occur with that.

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There will always be the need to fulfill our basic requirements of life – food, shelter, procreation, minimal social contact, even some aesthetic decorations.  There may always be the somewhat dubious middle level of accomplishment in wealth, public recognition, power, and entertainment.  But beyond that, the significant goals/directions will be found in mental growth (personal development, as it is the goal for all other beings in nature), dedicated service (to family, clan, others, the needy and lonely, society, and the environment), and joyful artistic expression (in aesthetics, art, and culture)!

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The consequence of the theological question may very well be seen as a second “being driven out of Paradise”, this time for good – toward increased self-reliance and self-responsibility of mankind for the conditions here on Earth.

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5-07-05



[1] An excellent presentation of cosmic and planetary evolution – also covering the origin of life on Earth, going into detail and a depth considerably beyond this essay – is presented in Peter Ulmschneider’s book, “Intelligent Life in the Universe”, published by Springer in 2003/4, ISBN 3-540-43988-9, 250 pages.  Additionally, the swift progress of astrophysics, astronomy, and molecular biology requires ongoing awareness of the newest leading publications in that field. 

[2]  This leads to the somewhat philosophical question whether viruses are “alive” since they need other organisms for some of the above functions.

[3] This was pointed out by Eva Schwab.

[4]  Squirrels and similar animals also lived in tropical trees and began to forage on the ground as the need and opportunity occurred, acquiring considerable memory and motor skills – but did not develop bipedalism, language, or higher intelligence – social predators (e.g., wolves, lions) did not develop those either – possibly having been suppressed by the evolving hominids – as mammals had been by the dinosaurs – and as competition is always the fiercest among those occupying the same niches.

[5]  See “Rare Earth” by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, published by Copernicus Books, 2000 and 2004, ISBN 0-387-95289-6.

[6] The famous “Drake” formula presents the combination of all factors related to the existence of extraterrestrial life capable of communicating with us in our own galaxy in the form of a mathematical formula.  Some factors in the formula, like the number of possible suitable planets in the universe, assume very large values.  Others, like the probability for intelligent life or the duration of extraterrestrial civilizations before they disappear again may assume very small values (in the minds of various researchers), leaving the result of the formula quite undetermined at this time.

[7] Published by Springer, 2003/4, ISBN 3-540-43988-9.