We Are Alone

[This blog post is the opinion of Greg Nooney and not necessarily the view of the First Unitarian Church of Sioux City.]

We are alone.

These times of staying at home, afraid of a tiny microscopic virus who can invade our fragile bodies and kill us, are times for reflection. I have been reflecting. I am now 70 yers old, and I have been reflecting on my short life, and what is left of it.

There were two things that helped me get through adolescence: religion and science fiction. Both told me that we are not alone. My Catholic upbringing told me there was a God who ruled over everything but still had enough time to specifically pay attention to me, love me, and be concerned with my welfare. He might even intervene or send one of his angels to intervene whenever I got into trouble. Science fiction taught me that we are unlikely to be alone in the universe. All the stories I read were about other species on other planets. Isaac Asimov was one of my favorite writers and even he said that in order to write a science fiction story that was true to the science, it was OK to break one or two laws, but no more than that.

So the big one was that someday we will have faster-than-light (FTL) travel. It is explained as subspace, or traveling through a wormhole, or warp speed, or jumping. All are false. There is no such thing. If there are intelligent species on other planets orbiting other stars, we will most likely never know this. We get irritated when a newscaster has a three second lapse while interviewing someone due to satellite time lapse. Can you imagine trying to carry on a conversation with someone with a fifty-year lapse? Will we ever meet an alien species? Without FTL, the only possible way to travel to another star would be with a generation ship where it might take centuries to get to another planet. I guess that is possible, but extremely unlikely.

The second one was that time was universal throughout the universe. Not true. Time is relative. If there was an intelligent species on a planet orbiting a star 50 light years from here, and I were to ask “What is happening on that planet now?” It turns out that question is a nonsense question. There is no such thing as “now.” Every planet is running on a different time line. There is no “Star date” as Star Trek relies on.

The reality is that we are alone as a species, and it is our own damn fault.

We were not the only human species to evolve on this planet. There were at least two other human species with whom we shared the planet at one time: the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. Both species became extinct. Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind suggests that Home Sapiens exterminated them, that is, forced their extinction. One could say we practiced genocide on those two human species.

Now we are alone.

Returning to religion. I have let go of the idea that there is an all-powerful deity who sets the rules, intervenes in human problems as he wishes, granting favorites to this football team and not that one, offers rain for crops in one part of the world, creating drought for another, answers prayers for those with cancer to allow them to live, but allows others to die, watches innocent children be abused and does nothing, but intervenes to allow some dude to win the lottery because he prayed harder. I have also let go of the idea that this deity demands that we worship him and obey his rules, and if we don’t, condemns us after we die to eternal suffering and torture. If there were such a creature who would choose favorites and break the laws of nature at a whim, such a creature doesn’t deserve homage, in my opinion. Such a creature ought to be challenged, as Job challenged, but in the end, not succumbed to, as Job did succumb. Also I have rejected the idea that this creature will come and rescue us from our foibles at the end of time, casting aside the unworthy and embracing those he determines to be worthy.

No, again, we are alone. The chaos we create as the dominant mammal on the planet will destroy us, or we will change it. There is no help from aliens or gods.

I remember books written by another great science fiction writer, Larry Niven, who introduced the reader to a species called Puppeteers. This species shared their planet with abundant love for one another. In fact, in the stories, the only Puppeteers humans ever met were insane because for a Puppeteer to want to travel off their planet was strong evidence of insanity. Why would any Puppeteer want to leave their planet where they loved all others of their species?

Our species is of course a long way from there. We have designed intricate and devious ways to hurt each other, over and over again. We have learned to ignore our innate sense of compassion and empathy not only for our own species, but for the other species on Earth. Our cruelty seems to have no limit.

So. We are alone. And we are hurting.

I once asked a psychiatrist friend of mine if he thought that 90% of humans are living unconsciously 90% of the time. He disagreed. He said he thought it was 99%. So what to do? What hope is there? My work is to become more mindful, to become more curious about my life, and to encourage others to become curious about their lives.

We will still be alone as a species and to some extent alone as individuals. But, perhaps, such work will make a difference, will improve our lives, remind us to love each other because there is no one else. Maybe, just maybe, we will find a way out of this mess we have created.

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  • Mark Packard
    Greg: “We are alone” is another outstanding essay/sermon. You think about, understand, and write about many things that I read about, think about and understand a fair amount about, but certainly cannot articulate as well as you do. You also integrate your understanding of science, human nature, social issues and a healthy philosophy of living well into your work. I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.