Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The God of Mars


Here is a picture of the Martian Horizon, taken from its surface. It gives me an eerie feeling. Why?

The eerie feeling is a holdover from traditional thinking that the heavens are home to the gods. We know better, but for millennia the heavens have “looked down” upon us. Now we look out from the heavens across a Martian horizon. It's a radical shift in world view.


The Mars mission is motivated in part by the search to find extraterrestrial life, or at least water, which would increase the probability that there is, or was, life on Mars. Some interviewer on NPR, asked a scientist, “Why does that matter?”

The scientist answered, “One of the greatest questions we can ask is, Are we alone?”

Finding life on Mars would instantly create a “them.” The discovery would not lead to a great insight, but rather, to a familiar pattern of human psychology: Us and Them. "We" would not be alone, because "they" were there. It would group all humanity in the most superficial sense, as "us." We would probably kill "them," because that has always been our history, our way, as a species.


I think what makes the question, “Are we alone” seem more important than it is, is a tacit logic: We believe God created life here on Earth, and presumably, life on Mars did not get there from here, so if there is life on Mars, we could conclude that God created it there too.

Therefore what?

It would mean that we living things here on Earth are not “special.” Would that be big news? It sounds like a child coming to realize that its parents have other interests. It's a childish idea.

I think what really captures people’s imagination in the question is a muddled theological argument. Millions of people watching the pictures come back from Mars will be looking not for information about Mars, but for a candid snapshot of God. Scientists themselves, it seems, are not immune from that vestigial wish.

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