On the Size of the Universe

The History Channel regularly presents learned discussions about the puzzling size of the universe. These sober analyses are carried on by grave looking professors of astronomy. They feature glimpses of distant planets and starry nights. Behind almost every lecture is the recurring issue of rational life, out there somewhere. It must be there. We must seek it; it must seek us.

One group of scientists argues that other sidereal civilizations are far more advanced than ours. They are already exploring the universe in their spaceships. Another group maintains that, at the origin of human life on our planet, we were visited by a roaming species that was responsible for our life and knowledge. We were “aliens” from the beginning. Ancient records, particularly in the Near East, cannot be explained by the primitive evolution of life as we know it. Therefore, it came from somewhere else.

What is particularly disturbing to most of these scientists is the question: “Why do we find so much space and so many stars with circling planets that could well bear a civilizational life history similar to our own?” Even though we have not actually made contact with such advanced civilizations, we are assured by the laws of probability that they are out there. Whether they are hostile or friendly we do not know. They can go either way.

The basic argument follows: Once a civilization has solved its own living problems of food, science, population, health, and well-being, its people, like ourselves, become curious about what else is “out there.” They too are impelled to devise communication and transportation mechanisms to assure themselves that they are not alone in the universe. This “being alone in the universe” seems to be the one recurring principle. That is, it cannot be that all this space, all these suns and planets, are just floating out there empty. The human mind will not accept it.

Other approaches insist that we are running out of resources. We will soon exhaust the natural reserves of this planet. We have no choice but to transport our kind to some other inhabitable place in the universe. A variation of this view is that it is our race of men who are destined to fill the universe. All of these views are based on the notion that the world is made up of intelligent, finite beings. The purpose of the world is that each inhabitable place be filled with a species of these finite beings.

The notion persists, however, that the whole universe burst into existence in an instant wherein it already contained all the theoretical and operative principles of its own existence. This beginning would unfold in an orderly manner down the ages. This approach, at least, brings up the issue of a higher intelligent being as the cause of the universe with all its planets, a universe that its origin does not need for its own existence.

The agenda that the universe contains myriads of civilizations each seeking each other in order to explain why it is not alone in the cosmos always seems to return to the same issue that constantly recurs in our own terrestrial existence. However cozy it might be for 40 trillion planetary civilizations to communicate and visit each other, would they still not feel a certain loneliness if they found out that, deep down, each civilization was itself finite and had the same perplexity about its own existence as we have of ours?

While I am fascinated with what might well exist “out there,” I suspect that the reason for the existence of any planetary system is already contained in the existence of any one of them. Thus, we really do not need to worry that much about outer space.

In the end, it will turn out that all civilizations are confronted with the same issue. Are they the cause of their own existence, or were they all included in the initial plan that brought anything into existence?

In other words, it does not really matter how many planetary civilizations can be supported in this universe. What matters is whether the rational beings found on those distant planets all have the same issue presented to them individually and corporately; namely, how do we each relate to the origin of being itself? Did we make the world, or did the world in its origins make us?

The main question is not about our loneliness in relation to terrestrial beings in other solar systems. It is about the loneliness any of us has in the universe even with each other. What is the reason any of us is here at all? The loneliness constantly expressed by the scientists on the History Channel as a reason for seeking life in other planets can only be solved by wondering why anything existed in the first place.

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.

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