Schall in Outer Space

Certain friends, on seeing the above title, will hint that Schall has never been anywhere else but in “outer space.” Still, the topic is current given the Zuckerberg/Hawking proposal to spend one hundred million dollars to find “outer space” life. No doubt, a few will still insist that the money would be better spent on the poor. I do not think that way. The capacity to zoom around the cosmos has already taught us many things that redound to the help of the poor.

This spatial enterprise does not expect to find God out there. The voyagers, were they to run into Him, which isn’t likely, would not recognize Him. Thinking of space and life beyond our planet is not something that Zuckerberg/Hawking came up with by themselves. Space speculation goes back a long way in human literature. Man’s first landing on the Moon (July 20, 1969) is now ancient history. Many distant unmanned voyages to planets and asteroids have taken place since then. We have not managed to make it outside our own solar system. That does not prevent us from thinking about it.

C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy was also a theological reflection on the relation between space and man’s situation before God. Quite frequently, we come across fictional or quasi-scientific discussion of whether this planet has been or is being visited by other rational creatures, who have figured out how to find life on other planets such as our own. These imagined creatures visiting us are mostly configured in odd shapes and sizes. Usually they betray the mark of good and evil, mostly evil, though the race of rational beings in Lewis’ Perelandra was benign; it had not fallen, like our first parents. We earthlings caused most of the problems. All non-fallen races in the universe were already in contact with each other.

What explains this renewed drive to find life in outer space? Why is it worthwhile to spend all that cash on its uncertain accomplishment? One suspects in the case of some scientists at least, a theological bent to show that God does not exist. Just how finding life in another planet would suggest this conclusion is not that clear. It would seem that some divine cause exists that would explain both creaturely existences.


Many hypotheses go into searching for rational life in outer space. The first is that billions of planets capable of supporting a human-type life exist in the universe. At least some of these have managed to figure out all the scientific problems of space travel and life on alien planets. Since we have already done much of this calculation with our own minds, no reason exists why others may not be ahead of us.

Moreover, they will be as curious as we are about life in other space environs. Therefore, they are searching for us by radio, spacecraft, or other means. We can probably communicate with them, when found, by using the scientific knowledge and constants that enabled them to reach us. Once we find them, assuming they do not want to plunder us or we them, we can settle down and learn from one another.

Many assume that our Creator intended this encounter to take place eventually. We can postulate problems such as whether Christ was also to redeem the creatures on the newly found Planet X14 of Epsilon Canis Majoris. But we already have the same problem with the unbaptized. No theological reason rejects the possibility of life in other solar systems. Theology can also argue that we are the only rational race in the universe.

At present we are dependent on facts. We have not found any other such races, nor, as far as we know, have they found us. Whether the $100 million investment will reveal anything more than what we already know remains to be seen. I see no harm in trying, provided that the information is provable and available to all to examine its validity. For what it is worth, I would be just as happy if they did find something as if they did not. Either conclusion, if based on ascertainable facts, would be the truth we are searching for when we undertook the efforts in the first place.

Still, one aspect of this endeavor fascinates me. It is not the wanting to meet extra-terrestrial characters, which would be fascinating. That would likely produce the same problems that arise in meeting the man next door. Rather, it is the existence of knowledge itself, the kind that accurately aims a camera at a moon of Saturn. Why do the calculations, that we understand, work in this universe?

A correlation exists between knowledge derived from the universe and thought. Why is this? Neither causes itself to exist. Indeed, knowledge seems to exist before the universe itself. Were it not first there, the universe could not exist at all. Why is that? Perhaps alien intelligences could help us go deeper into that question.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019