Thursday, 19 November 2009

heaven central

The universe is vast, and in that vastness there are billions of small planets orbiting small and relatively stable suns in what might be called ‘the temperate zone’, the zone around a star in which water can exist on the surface of a planet in liquid form. Earth is one such planet. It is the presence of liquid water that sustains life here. The obvious question presents itself: is there life on any of these countless other worlds?

But before we try to answer that question, we need to determine the reason, if any, for the presence of ‘intelligent’ life on Earth. For many, there is no mystery: the planet, all of its minutiae and the human race itself were created by God. Fair enough! Let us accept this as a working hypothesis. The problem is that it doesn’t get us much further, because if God did create the Earth, why did he situate it in such a vast universe? And why would he create so many planets with a cosmic environment similar to that of the Earth? Unless….

One possible answer to the second question is that he also created life on all of the other similar planets. But what does ‘create’ mean in this context? The popular interpretation is of some kind of celestial magician who conjures living creatures, even entire worlds, into existence with a wave of his hand. But this overlooks one of the defining characteristics of God—his omniscience. He would know that if he merely created the appropriate set of conditions for life to evolve, life of some kind would evolve. However, he would surely want to monitor the progress of that evolution, which even for the supreme being would be a lot to ask. Think about it. Being omnipresent for billions of years without a break would be extremely tedious. How does he manage it?

Welcome to Heaven Central. Here, row upon row of closely spaced monitor screens, each attended by an angel at a keyboard, stretches away into the infinite distance. Each screen is crowded with meters measuring a range of performance indicators for each of the small planets created ‘in the beginning’. As you might expect, an unearthly silence pervades the scene. There is no idle chatter as each angel gazes intently at the eerily glowing screen in front of them, looking for any sign that something is going awry. One can imagine that they have been carefully briefed by the boss: what to look out for; conditions that require his immediate notification; that sort of thing.

Take global warming, for example, which is probably a major problem on all of the worlds where a dominant species has reached an industrial level of development. Being omniscient is extremely useful here. Even before the puny beings who caused the problem in the first place become dimly aware that the consequence of their carelessness is a climate that is changing in ways that are impossible to predict, God has seen the end result. Oblivion. But it is too late to rewind and repair the damage done. Unknown to the hapless inhabitants of the affected planet, a tipping point has already been reached, and while they continue to dither and bicker, arguing over who caused the problem in the first place, the species races downhill to its inevitable demise.

To enable him to avoid the tedium of long-term omnipresence and to put his feet up now and again, God has ensured that everyone knows how to spot a tipping point, a point of no return. And everyone knows that he must be notified immediately whenever any of his worlds has gone beyond the invisible barrier that astrophysicists call an event horizon. It could be global warming; it could be toxic waste overload; it could be overuse of finite resources; it could be overpopulation; it could be several different factors working detrimentally in unison. God alone knows. But why else would the monitoring angels be so diligent? And so quiet.

In a workplace where nobody actually does anything and nothing appears to happen, it is unrealistic not to expect a ripple of excitement to be generated whenever an angel notices that yet another remote world has tipped itself over the edge, unless, that is, such events are common. Given that we have direct evidence from only one of these worlds, it would be unscientific to dismiss this possibility out of hand, but let us for a moment assume that it is untrue and eavesdrop on such a scene.

Across the unmeasurable span of eternity, the monitor screens appear not to change. All movement on the meters is so slow that no mortal eye could hope to detect it, but the watchful angels do not miss a thing, even if they are in fact bored stupid. But one angel has just noticed that some key indices on her screen have been changing quite quickly recently, and she is wondering whether she should inform the boss. She glances up at the board above the screen. Terra (apparently, they still use Latin in heaven). Suddenly, a voice calls out:

“Ha! Ha! Ha! Oh, dear! Look everyone. Another one’s cocked it up. That’s the third this aeon,” laughs the angel on her left as he glances across at his colleague’s screen. “Terra. Who had that in the last sweep?”

Scary scenario, eh?

However, what if God takes the long view? After all, he is God. What if that nice Mr Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is accurate? Unfortunately, we cannot expect any process whereby a planet corrects the imbalances forced upon it by short-sighted, small-minded creatures to be measurable in decades or even centuries. Or even millennia. But measure the future in tens of millions of years and we can see the big picture. It is only sixty-five million years since the final demise of the dinosaurs, and if we project that time span into the future, we can theorize that another species will have evolved to dominate the Earth. Homo sapiens will of course be extinct.

That species will have the opportunity, as H. sapiens has had, of fulfilling God’s plan. However, this is where the argument becomes annoyingly circular. Just what is God’s plan? Luckily, there is an alternative. Perhaps there is no God. Perhaps the human race really is in charge of its own destiny. Oh dear!

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