There is an idea I’ve held in my head a long time, from the time when I was a child. It is that the universe is a very large place, holding an impossible number of stars with an uncountable number of orbiting planets, and that therefore there must be other sentient life in the universe. In fact, there likely is quite a lot of other sentient life in the universe—an unimaginably diverse mixture of creatures evolved out of their own unique planetary contexts that, in all likelihood, would often come across so alien to us that at times we would not even recognize them as sentient beings if they were staring us in the face.
Of course, I have no proof of this, no true certainty. But I do have what I consider very good odds, based on the limited knowledge we have of the universe and its immensity. Given even that little bit we know, how could the above paragraph not be true?
It’s fun to think about what those other creatures may look like or be like, how they may live, how they may think and interact with the world around them. It’s also very hard to think about that, because it’s very hard to imagine something truly alien, without touchstone to all the basic elements of life we take as granted and necessary. What would it even mean for lifeforms to evolve over billions of years on a different planet? In what ways would a different planet fashion a different biology? Would all the biological necessities that we attribute to the evolution of life hold true across different planets? Or would different environments create different necessities?
The frank reality is that our definitions of life are based on rules designed around our observations of life on this planet. Which means our definitions are not hard and fast rules; they are not laws; supposed biological necessities are nothing of the sort; they are simply assumptions based on a series of observations necessarily confined to Earth. It is entirely plausible that the rules built around our observations of life on this planet are not applicable to all other planets. They may be applicable with some variation to some planets, mind you, but the notion that the rules of life on this planet are the rules of life everywhere strikes me as a dangerous assumption given the universe’s scale. It strikes me as even more dangerous given that those rules have been hard to define even here, on this planet, and they have had to be expanded due to ongoing observation. In other words, we don’t have a clear sense yet of how to define life on this planet; what are the odds we know how to recognize it everywhere else?
What that opens up to my mind is a fascination that is two fold. The first is the question of what might life look like—and how might it live and behave—on other planets. The second is, are we sure we’re aware of all the life here on our own planet?
In some ways, we know we aren’t aware of all the life here on our own planet, if only because it is so hard to define what constitutes life. As this article notes, the question of whether a virus is alive is an open debate. Viruses demonstrate five key indications of being alive, but some biologists don’t consider them alive because their survival is dependent on other living cells. Why this would suggest they are not alive is a strange concept, to my mind, and may be a good demonstration of the way in which we take for granted the intricacy of the ecosystems that support us. After all, it is hardly a stretch to note that the earth itself is akin to a living cell, and that our own survival is utterly dependent upon our residence within it.
But that aside, the takeaway here is that the definition of life even on this planet remains one of debate. In addition to that debate, the scientific community has found new forms of life originally unknown. The 1977 discovery of deep sea hydrothermal vents changed the views of life on Earth. And within the last few years, further examination of microscopic organisms called hemimastigotes suggested that they might constitute an entirely new kingdom of life. No doubt in future years there will be new discoveries and new controversies as to what exactly constitutes “life” on this mysterious planet we call home.
To my mind, though, this raises a broader question about our limited definitions of life. It’s not just that we may find new forms of life that otherwise are familiar; or that we may realize that organisms we were already aware of are stranger than we thought; but that perhaps there are kinds of life even here on Earth that are utterly alien to what we imagine life to be, or that do not behave according to the rules we have set down. It may not only be on other planets where life takes on bizarre alien forms; what if such life exists right here on our own planet but because it doesn’t conform to our expectations, we don’t notice it?
After all, we think we have some grasp on the boundaries of the material world, but we don’t really. We know how gravity works and can define its impacts through mathematical equations, but we don’t actually know what physically creates gravity’s effects. Similarly, physicists postulate that the vast majority of the universe is made up of dark matter, but it has never been observed and it is unknown if it actually exists; or if it does, what it actually is. It is something that we have evidence of existing, but that we cannot actually observe or confirm exists.
What’s interesting about that to me is how close that sounds to the gods. Human religion and mythology has postulated the existence of a god or gods throughout our known history, attributing observed and experienced phenomena to those beings, but we have not through standard scientific process been able to confirm their existence. (One might argue confirmation through other means, but we will set that aside for the moment.) However, there is evidence that can be explained by their existence, no matter how strenuously your average materialist may object to such a proclamation.
Well, what if the gods—or what we take as the gods, as well as a host of other religious beings—are simply another life form found here on earth, but arranged under a set of rules that diverge from what we normally think of as life? What if they are perfectly real but not made out of matter as we understand and recognize it? Corey Powell, for instance, in an article in Discover Magazine, questions whether there may be dark life, made out of dark matter. If there is, it could function as a shadow universe overlaying our own light matter universe—what we tend to think of as the whole of existence but that physicists believe is not. Could gods be made of dark matter? Why not?
I don’t know that I actually think the gods, should they exist, are made out of dark matter. But there’s no particular reason that it could not be the case—or that, more likely, the world features other strange realities that we are too often incapable or unwilling to see. We cannot comprehend what we haven’t seen or experienced, because our understanding of the world is rooted in our individual and collective experiences. Humans, at the end of the day, are not gods; we are extremely limited in our view of the universe, both physically and mentally. This is a far more complex place than we can comprehend.
And yet we do have individual and collective experiences of disembodied and non-human beings. Not all of us do, but most humans throughout history have. From a modern, scientific materialist standpoint, those are often dismissed as superstition or misunderstood phenomena. Yet the world is a mysterious place, and we are limited in our understanding of it. Are we sure that an unknown world doesn’t exist around us, peeking through in mystic experiences and unknown phenomena? I’m not so sure we should dismiss the possibilities of mystery. In fact, I think we should embrace them. And as this series of blog posts continues, I’ll be doing just that.
Author’s Note: This is the first in what I tentatively plan as a series of “The World as Mystery” posts. To stay apprised of new blog posts and other new content on this site, sign up for my email list below. Thanks!