A new study suggests there are 8.8 billion potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way galaxy. Habitable is defined by, among other things, the Goldilocks zone, that magical narrow band of space extending around a sun where temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold, where water can exist as a liquid.
Liquid water is a prerequisite for life as we know it. So are a lot of other things, but stick with that for the moment. Goldilocks planets awash in water stand a better chance of harboring complex life. Complex life has a better chance of evolving toward intelligence. (There is some question about us having reached it, but for my purposes here we will lay that aside.)
So far as we know Earth is the only Goldilocks planet where the inhabitants wonder about inhabitants elsewhere. Yet if the Earth is only one out of 8.8 billion other planets, each neatly zoned around a friendly home sun, surely one or more is home to ET. The mathematical probability forbids flat denial of ETs existence.
Still, I dont think so, not anymore. I once did, but Ive given it up. Once upon a time, mind you, I had the Drake Equation memorized. Now, Im a thorough skeptic.
My skepticism, Ill admit, seems unfounded and I cant say it even rises to the level of an instinct. No, for me us being home alone is more a growing wearisome fretfulness edging to outright irritation, like being stood up by a blind date that never shows and doesnt even call with an excuse.
There are numerous scenarios explaining ETs Great Silence, as its called. The Great Filter seems about as good as any, depressing as it is with its array of all the things that can go wrong. Life is hard, it says, and we are a one-off exhibit proving it.
While a lot of speculation around intelligent extraterrestrials centers on what if we are not alone, there is another question: What if we are?
If we are alone, for starters, we can forget about alien invasion. Admittedly, that sweeps away a good deal of the sci-fi work of Harry Turtledove, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and David Brin, among others, but doubtless the relief we would feel makes up for that loss.
We would no longer fear space-faring marauders looting our planet of its gold, water, chlorophyll, oxygen and what not. Nor would we be concerned about extraterrestrial environmental terrorists scouring us from the face of the Earth, as the 2008 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still suggested.
We could no longer blame aliens for cattle mutilations; instead, we could refocus responsibility back toward teenage Satanists, as in the early 1980s. The incessant chatter over Roswell would stop, mostly, and we might at least consign Area 51s hidden conspiracies to those of a more earthly sort, stealth bombers or the Aurora Project or the like.
Despite these examples, I dont think being alone is a necessarily a good thing, even if it does allay some of our worries.
The second creation account in Genesis says we are the ones responsible for naming the elements of creation as we find them, where we find them. It would have been nice, I think, had God chosen to spread that responsibility around a bit by including our silent unknown neighbors, if any, thereby making them less silent and better known. Being a one-off exception in the universe means we are not only alone, but inevitably lonely. As unimaginably large as our galactic neighborhood is, the place turns out to be very, very small and not nearly large enough to encompass our imagination.
More than that, there isnt anybody coming to fish us out of our humanity. Amid all the short- and long-term challenges we face, it would be encouraging to know somebody else made it. Where is the cosmological template for living successfully in the universe, unless a race of successful extraterrestrials is around to share it with us?
If we are alone, it is up to us to write our own survival guide. If it is all on us, that is as unnerving as it is daunting. It means if there is a remedy to human folly, we will find it only among humans. Our voice in creation resonates in an echo chamber and we are the only ones to hear it.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church , assistant pastor of St. Matthews Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary. His book Speaking of the Dead is nearing completion. His previous On the Square articles can be found here .