Embrace Uncertainty by Rev. Jonathan Rogers

This morning’s worship on the theme of “Embrace Uncertainty” is the first service in a series entitled “In the Mystery of the Hour”. We’ll be singing “Gathered Here” wrapped around a quote near the top of each of our services, which is very special to me because that was the sung invocation at my home congregation in Waterville, Maine, and I think I’ve sung it more than any other UU hymn. Also, as those of you who have ever physically stood near me during a service will have suspected, I am a big fan of hymns that require relatively little vocal range!

In one of our readings this morning, Siew Yong quotes Paramahamsa Nithyananda, writing: “There are some moments where you can change the matter and get rid of uncertainty but there are some moments where you just have to live with it.” The balance between getting rid of uncertainty and just having to live with it is indeed subtle and tricky, and it is always changing. But we are called to work on living with uncertainty, because, as theologian James Carse tells us: healthy religion encourages a “higher ignorance” which enables openness to continual learning and growth. Embracing uncertainty makes us better able to understand and enact a broader range of possibilities than if we claim false certainty.

Let’s take for example the question of whether extraterrestrial intelligent life exists in our galaxy. On the one hand, the drive to eliminate uncertainty has inspired and does inspire elegant and complex scientific theories and investigations, and I can hardly imagine a world where humans don’t strive to learn more about other life in the Universe. At the same time, if such striving is not accompanied by a framework of accepting uncertainty, one can easily be overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness and fear when pondering the cosmos. We are facing multiple existential threats as a species on this planet right now, and it is natural to look up into the sky to hope that if humans are no more, our planetarily unique capacity for awe, wonder, and appreciation will not disappear from the Universe with us. I believe that the divine is the sum of all that exists, and that in increasing our knowledge of the Universe we are participating in the process of God getting to know God’s self.  There’s a lot of theological pressure in feeling that if humans go, the ability to marvel at all creation goes with us! And yet, there are significant emotional and philosophical reasons to not only find a way to be OK with not knowing, but to actively hope that we do not find out anytime soon. More on that in a moment.

First, let’s affirm that getting rid of uncertainty can sometimes be a good thing. Yes, the desire to reject uncertainty can sometimes be a way to avoid the uncomfortable state of not knowing, but it is also a robust engine of curiosity and rigor in scientific advancement, and we would not be good Unitarian Universalists if we did not acknowledge and celebrate such scientific advancement. When it comes to the question of extraterrestrial life in the Universe, we are at a weird and stressful place right now. In the last hundred years, our knowledge of the cosmos and our place in it has grown exponentially, and yet very basic questions like whether we are the only life in the known Universe remain unanswered. Those of us who are called by the fourth principle of Unitarian Universalism to affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning are asked to hold as best we can the mountains of insight and information that have come from fields like astronomy and astrophysics, while simultaneously accepting that the progress we’ve made on one of the most attractive questions in this whole area… is at best symbolized by the shrug emoji!  It’s potentially great practice for those looking to embrace uncertainty.

One of the fun places you can go with questions of extraterrestrial life in the Universe is theories of why life has not evolved in other places, so far as we know. And one of the more fascinating threads you can start pulling at in this realm is the notion that stellar supernovae have been too frequent and powerful in the Milky Way for most of our galaxy’s existence to permit the evolution of intelligent life.

The theory goes like this: when a large star is at the end of its life, it will collapse in on itself in an event called a supernova, and in the process will send out lots of radiation to its nearby area of the galaxy. Huge amounts of high-energy gamma-rays and x-rays are emitted. The radiation can be hugely damaging to lifeforms and may eliminate any life that has developed on the planets in a very broad swath of space. In fact, the whole inner part of our galaxy is considered by many astrophysicists to be too dense with supernovae for any intelligent life to have developed on planets in that inner area. If you go too far out from the center, there are not considered to be enough metals in that part of the galaxy for planets to form. Metallicity and frequency of supernovae are two of the variables used to determine the probability of intelligent life at a star a given distance and time from the center of the Milky Way and its formation. Two additional variables are the Star Formation Rate and the likelihood the planet has existed for long enough for intelligent life to evolve on it, which we estimate to be about 4 billion years based on that’s how long it’s taken so far on Earth. For a given location [(r, t) where “r” is the radius of that location from the center of the galaxy and “t” is the time of the star’s formation] then in our galaxy, the probability of it being inhabitable by intelligent life is thus calculated as the product of the Star Formation Rate, the probability of proper metallicity, the probability of enough time for life to evolve, and the probability of a supernova event having killed off some or all of the life on a planet in that location.  We are left with an annulus, or a ring, between 4 and 10 kiloparsecs from the center of the Milky Way, where the emergence of intelligent life is even considered possible. So, for example, our sun is about 8 kiloparsecs from the center of the Milky Way. For Star Wars fans it may be helpful to note that is a little less than 700 Kessel Runs. For Star Trek fans, it is worth noting that one can measure that line along the galactic meridian separating Alpha Quadrant and Beta Quadrant. Our Sun also has an age of about 4.6 billion years. It is thus close to the most likely circumstances for having intelligent life, although there are stars with slightly higher ages and lower galactocentric distances that have higher likelihoods of harboring intelligent life. Whew!

As Unitarian Universalists, part of the fifth source of wisdom we explicitly claim is “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;”. This implies that the teachings of astrophysics and the questions that field raises are part of how we live into what Carse describes as how healthy religion encourages a “higher ignorance” which enables openness to continual learning and growth.

Now, I have to admit that for me the question of extraterrestrial intelligence was a real test as to how open to continual learning and growth I am. I got caught putting my fingers on the scale. When I first heard that for the majority of it’s existence, in the majority of its geography, there have been very explainable reasons why intelligent life has not evolved in our galaxy, I was relieved. As long as future human existence is uncertain, it is comforting to me to know that even if we humans are not in the Universe anymore, there’s reason to believe that other intelligent life forms might still marvel at the awe-some nature of creation. I say that I caught myself putting my finger on the scale because, it turns out, if you are rooting for humans or other intelligent life forms to exist for the purpose of being able to appreciate the wonder and mystery of creation, you should actually NOT be hoping that we find life on other planets!

Nick Bostrom makes the case for this in his 2008 paper entitled “Why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing”. In it Bostrom addresses the Fermi Paradox, which attempts to reconcile two basic facts. The first is that, even using the most conservative estimates for all factors involved, there should be over 100,000 other planets with intelligent life on them in our Milky Way galaxy. The second is the fact that we have never observed or interacted with life on any other planet, intelligent or otherwise. Bostrom’s hypothesis is that we have not observed or interacted with any extraterrestrial life forms because there is what he calls a “great filter”, an evolutionary step that is highly improbable but required for a planet to produce an intelligent interplanetary civilization. He says “You start with billions and billions of potential germination points for life, and you end up with a sum total of zero extraterrestrial civilizations that we can observe.  The Great Filter must therefore be powerful enough— which is to say, the critical steps must be improbable enough—that even with many billions rolls of the dice, one ends up with nothing: no aliens, no spacecraft, no signals, at least none that we can detect in our neck of the woods.”

So that all sounds good and makes sense, but it’s the next deduction Bostrom makes that challenges my ability to be open to continual learning and growth somewhat. He says if there is a Great Filter, it could either be ahead of us as humans, or behind us. If it’s ahead of us, that means lots of intelligent life forms have evolved to the point we are at now, but there is some factor our species will encounter in the future that has wiped out every previous species who progressed to that point. If the Great Filter is behind us, then we may be a very rare species that has a chance to thrive where nearly all others have perished. How this relates to the search for extraterrestrial life is that if we find life forms on other planets, it means that we are less likely to be beyond the Great Filter already. For example, if the Great Filter is the beginning of life itself, then Earth is way ahead of the game and humans have a shot at existing for a long time yet. But if the Great Filter is something we haven’t achieved yet, like interplanetary colonization, then it becomes much more likely we are doomed to the same fate as the hundreds of thousands of other species who may have gotten to this point but who are not around any more. In short, finding life on other planets would be really bad news for those of us hoping that human civilization is nearer to its beginning than to its end.

Realizing that there are plausible reasons to hope that we are coming into a galactic era when more life will evolve on planets can feel encouraging, but then it is confusing to find out it’s maybe  a better sign for the future of humanity if we do not discover life on other planets than if we do. I’m honestly not sure what to hope for anymore. It seems the smart money for those who want intelligent life to proliferate is on our not finding any in our observations. But then it almost feels like you are rooting against discovery. I try my best to embrace that uncertainty.

My hope is that I can use the case of extraterrestrial intelligence to practice the kind of healthy religion that encourages a “higher ignorance” which enables openness to continual learning and growth. After all, learning about astrophysics and its implications represents most of the control I can exercise over the situation. Beyond that, it will be good to remain curious but not anxious, and remember this is not about me as an individual one way or another. My hoping that we do or do not find signs of intelligent life on other planets ultimately has little or no effect on whether that actually happens. But there are plenty of areas in my life that are filled with uncertainty, where if I can embrace that uncertainty then I will be able to be open to continual learning and growth. Several institutions that play a major role in my life, directly and indirectly, are facing greater uncertainty than they ever have in my lifetime. I’m going to keep doing everything I can to influence them in positive ways. But ultimately, control of those institutions rests beyond my hands. Once I’ve done what I can to influence things in a helpful direction, I hope to embrace their uncertain outcomes in a way that allows me to be open to learn and grow no matter what happens. May we all learn and practice the cultivation of a higher ignorance that keeps us open to the possibilities of the future! Peace, salaam, shalom, and may it be so.