What if we aren’t alone after all?

Richard Swan

3321456 290x300 What if we aren’t alone after all?Throughout history there have been visionaries, dreamers – or madmen, according to one’s point of view. In the Book of Revelation, Saint John claimed to have seen ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. Chaucer, in the Dream Vision The House of Fame, travels into the heavens on the back of an eagle, which tells him that ‘in this region, certeyn, dwelleth many a citezeyn’. Giordano Bruno in the sixteenth century argued for an infinite number of inhabited worlds, with intelligent beings existing on other planets throughout the universe.

And until two hundred years ago, the visionaries and the dreamers had reason on their side. The belief that the universe was only a few thousand years old was so commonplace that Shakespeare’s Rosalind could mention it in passing: ‘The poor world is almost 6,000 years old.’ In such a young universe only intelligent design could be a satisfactory explanation for complexity and diversity, and a God-created universe could contain all kinds of wonders. It is no surprise that William Blake saw angels in the trees of Peckham Rye, and that Emanuel Swedenborg claimed he had conversed with spirits from Mars, Venus, Mercury, Saturn, Jupiter and the moon.

But within these last two centuries our understanding of the universe has been transformed, as has our knowledge of life on Earth. Geology gave us the timescale necessary for evolution to take place; Darwin and Wallace proposed the mechanism, for which DNA and genetics provide the tools. On Earth we have discovered that we are not alone; instead of being a unique species, we now realise that homo sapiens is but one member of a large family of hominids. It is only the recent extinction of the last of these, the Neanderthals, that has given us the illusion of being unique.

The change has been from speculation to investigation, from vision to observation. Every decade has furthered our knowledge and understanding, to the point we have at last reached: we are on the threshold of discovering planets that could harbour life like ours, life that we could recognise and investigate on a scientific basis. The pace of discovery is rapid and accelerating, because we recognise the significance of the search and are devoting enormous resources to it. Twenty years ago we had no positive evidence of the existence of extrasolar planets. Now we know of 700, and the Kepler mission indicates that there may be 50 billion in our galaxy alone. Already the astrophysicist Steven Vogt has claimed that the likelihood of life existing on the unromantically named planet Gliese 581g is ‘100%’.

What would be the consequences of such a discovery, even if it were of the merest microbial life form on a planet orbiting a distant star? Our species has developed its beliefs, its cultures, its religions on the basis of our uniqueness, on the theory that the universe was designed expressly, perhaps solely, for us. Incontrovertible proof that we are not alone would force us to re-examine all our knowledge, to build new theories of life, its origins, its diversity, perhaps its purpose. If we discover one life form we will discover many, for the universe is huge and the number of stars almost uncountable. Somewhere out there, almost certainly, would be life forms that possess intelligence recognisably like our own, for they will have developed by the same laws of evolution, bound by the same physics and chemistry that we know on Earth.

It is an exciting time to be alive. We stand maybe on the very verge of revelation, one that is less mystical than Saint John’s, but one which we can all understand and share, and which would affect the hearts and minds of every one of us.

Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Institute of Ideas’ Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.

Richard Swan is a writer, teacher, and former vice-principal of Harvey Grammar School, Folkestone. He is producing the Battle of Ideas session Life Off Earth: are there aliens out there? which takes place on Sunday 30 October.

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  • Brian Steere

    take any relationship – any at all – with any one or thing, and see if you can allow it to be the intimate embrace of your full awareness now.
    Aloneness is withholding the extension of your presence. (Your love).

    This is a secret to the lonely – who think that something else has to occur in order to be distracted from aloneness – which is felt to be a painful existential reality. But an all oneness that intimately embraces all that it is – and is aware of – is hardly bored, disconnected or trapped in a mind in a body in a mechanical universe of death ;-)

    It is true, we can subscribe to thoughts that seem to mean conflicting things – but what could this mean except that we are choosing to be conflicted and play both sides?

    So in a sense I am agreeing that there is an aloneness that is associated with taking thought for oneself at all. But I do not regard the latter as inherent to a communioned sense of Self – for want of a better word.

    Thinking – in the sense that I am using it – cripples the intuitive feeling being. Like being an anemone with its tentacles crunched inwards and knotted up in convolutions.

    But yes – scary – that is the draw of the mind to drama, excitement. challenge and a feeling of thrill not unlike a drug – but that’s not sharing life – though its on the menu to choose if you want it.

    The thoughts that carry the feeling of alone do not have to be used. “I notice feelings of aloneness” allows a spacious relationship that can feel what is beneath the experience – whereas “I feel alone” elicits identification and reaction – resulting in leaving it unfelt and unrelated with.

    We can only discover now.

  • David Heffron

    Ah… but who created god? Aaaaaaah! Got you there!

    I’d like to thank a 5 year old child for thinging of this patently obvious argument.

  • David Heffron

    Nah, that’s rubbish. 9/11 was a terrorist attack. People who think it was an inside job are rightly regarded as nut cases.

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