Finding alien life—especially intelligent alien life—would be the biggest scientific breakthrough of any year. Whether evidence was spotted in a distant galaxy by NASA, swung through our solar system on a flying hunk of metal, or caused a UFO sighting here on Earth, the discovery would ripple through both the scientific world and society at large.
So we decided to ask the Pope’s chief astronomer about the potential religious significance of such a moment. Guy Consolmagno is an astronomer, a Jesuit, director of the Vatican Observatory, and co-author of Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?
A journalist once asked Consolmagno whether he would baptize an alien. His off-the-cuff response at the time was, "Only if she asked." The last chapter of his book, which tackles six questions they’re often asked, takes a deep dive into the baptism inquiry and the philosophical value of that spontaneous response. Consolmagno and his co-author explore both the Church's principles of what it means to join the faith and its not-so-pristine history of baptizing "alien" humans.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you think a deeper appreciation for religion might change the conversation about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence?
I think a life of faith forces you to really confront what we know and don’t know, and how we proceed in the face of questions that can never be adequately answered. In the same way, certainty can be deadly to science. But the absence of certainty should never stop us from making the choices we all have to make, based on inadequate information, about where to look next or how to understand those bits we do think we know already.
I am often asked if I believe in extraterrestrial life. It’s exactly the right way to ask the question. I do not have sufficient data to say that it exists or doesn’t. But I have enough of a gut feeling—faith, if you will—that I am willing to spend some time and effort, invest some of our Observatory’s precious resources, to look.
On the other hand, we also have a bunch of other projects going on, in case the “search for life” one doesn’t pan out.
What do we need to do in order to find extraterrestrial life?
Back in the 1970s, NASA spent a billion dollars for a pair of probes on the surface of Mars that had experiments designed to detect life. What we actually learned was that the assumptions we were making about what life was, and what we might find, were pitifully naive. It was probably worth the billion dollars to learn that lesson.
A friend of mine once compared looking for extraterrestrial intelligence to looking for unicorns. We know today that there are no unicorns in the forest only because we have studied the entire forest well enough to have found every ecological niche that might be big enough to hide a unicorn.
In the same way, we can’t recognize life in the universe until we have a really good working understanding of all the other things that might be going on in the universe as well. That’s why basic science—about planets and planet formation, life and its possible environs, and the nature of the universe—has to be done, in order to even recognize what a signal of life might look like when we see it.
And that’s what we will always need to do more.
What happens if we find extraterrestrial life that doesn't appear to be intelligent?
It would really be exciting from a scientific point of view to find any sort of life other than that found on Earth. Even if life itself is very rare, it’s still worthwhile asking about the possibility of intelligence. At the end of the day, our goal is not to come up with a rigid yes-or-no idea that can be tested in a multiple choice exam. It is to come up with a deeper wisdom about life, intelligence, and the ultimate meaning of our existence. That only comes by contemplating at length good, chewy questions. Those questions don’t have simple answers (except in satires like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!)
Can Church history teach us how to better respond to aliens?
I think the bigger meta-lesson to learn from historical mistakes is to accept going in that no matter what we (or the aliens) do, we’ll both make mistakes, often with the best of intentions. That should make us both more humble and more tolerant, regardless of whom we deal with.
Do we reach out to them or wait for them to reach out to us?
If indeed we can communicate, then communication will exist even if one side or the other chooses not to “reach out.” Silence can be a particularly powerful way to speak. So once communication is possible, it is already happening. Both ways.
Would finding E.T. really matter?
Even if we were to find extraterrestrial intelligence it wouldn’t be the civilization-altering event that some think, for the simple reason that most people already expect it exists. And we’ve already factored its existence into the way we view ourselves and our place in this universe. Maybe we’ve all read too much science fiction. (Except you can never read too much science fiction.)
In your writing you refer to E.T. as "she"—why?
The fact is that even after all these years, seeing “she” instead of “he” can cause a lot of people to come up short and take notice. It stops the ideas from smoothly sliding in one ear and out the other. And that’s exactly what we wanted to do; we wanted to snap the reader out of any complacency and think of any possible alien as a real individual, not just a generic “he.”
Any parting thoughts?
In every bit of science or philosophy that we do, the important thing is to keep in mind your assumptions, especially the assumptions that you don’t even realize you are making. And that’s why discussions of aliens and baptism are worthwhile, even though I would be shocked if the issue actually came up for real anytime in the next five hundred years!
“Would you baptize an alien?” forces you to ask yourself, what is baptism all about anyway? And what makes any creature alien to us? What does it mean to be human?
More from Newsweek