Wednesday, May 14, 2008

500 posts, so now you can believe in aliens

Aliens visit Congress
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Today marks my 500th post on this blog. What does this mean? First, that I'm halfway to one thousand posts. Second, that I have a lot to say, but not much that is important. And third, that you probably have a lot of catch-up reading to do. But, 500 is just a number, and only slightly more impressive than 499, and less impressive than 501. So, onward and upward!

Today I saw this story saying that the Vatican says its okay to believe in aliens. Huzzah! But, wait, what does the pope really mean?

First, the statement is not from Pope Benedict. It is from an interview with Father Jose Funes, the Director of the Vatican Observatory. I met Fr. Funes when I was working at Steward Observatory in Tucson, AZ. The Vatican Observatory has some offices in the same building on the campus of the University of Arizona, and they have a telescope on the same Arizona mountain where the Large Binocular Telescope is located. Fr. Funes is a good man and a solid scientist.

Second, Funes's statements don't mean that the Vatican is claiming to know that there are aliens in the Universe, but that he feels that if aliens exist, their presence is reconcilable with Christian beliefs. I think it is laudable that the Catholic Church is trying to stay ahead of the game, after centuries of supposed opposition to scientifically-proven facts (this was more an appearance than truth, but the Catholic Church has many times failed to make clear that it accepts most scientific findings, and has made some notable mistakes).

Third, the statement is only addressing the existence of alien life somewhere in the Universe, and is not making any claim about UFOs or alien visitors to Earth. While most scientists have come to believe that life may be common in the Universe, the overwhelming majority don't believe that Earth has been visited by aliens (myself included).

As for myself, I am not Catholic, so I can't comment on what the interview might mean for members of the Catholic Church. But I think it does help to show that the antagonism between science and religion does not need to exist. Science is very good at exploring how the Universe works, but the rational philosophy behind science is not always useful. For example, science is not able to address emotional or moral issues. Sure, science might be able to tell us about the biology of love and hate and conflict and peace, but it cannot make value judgements. Religion is one way of addressing those value judgements. But religious beliefs do not explain the workings of our DNA or the plumbing of volcanoes.

Too often, scientists take quite irrational stances against religion,often in response to irrational stances taken by deeply religious but scientifically ignorant people, and a never-ending spiral of talking past each other and illogical arguments and slanderous statements and general pig-headedness prevails. I long ago stopped trying to be a moderating voice in the discussion, because people on both sides of the issue took a "you're either with us or against us" view, an attitude that produces little progress but copious quantities of bitterness wherever it arises. I laud Fr. Funes and others who are a bit braver and thicker-skinned than I am, trying to bring some ounce of sanity to a discussion too often sabotaged by extremists on all sides.

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