Geo016 - Exploration of Mars

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Geo016 / Exploration of Mars / (M) 3:00-5:20 / Lincoln Field 105 / Prof. James Head

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Jonathan Russ (02/18/04)

So far, this class has taken a very philosophical, humanistic approach to the study of space exploration. To me, it is very exciting that we are beginning the course this way, because too often an effort is not made to separate academic subjects from academia and link them to the real world. By having such discussions, we bring the importance of space exploration to the forefront, tying it to an interconnected world instead of simply leaving it hanging as a self-enclosed study.

As a student of music, I was very intrigued by the sheet music that was passed around the class; I would like to read the music itself to gain a more complete understanding of the view towards Mars of the time. The “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme (though not written for the movie) and the “Star Wars” theme are both centered around an open sound, utilizing fifths, fourths and octaves; it would be interesting to see if this piece is at all the same.

I reread the George Montgomery poem, “Life on Mars”, in light of our class discussion. It dawned upon me that the entire interpretation of the poem hinges upon the word “utopia”. When the word is defined as a reachable goal, the poem can be read simply as the musings of a man who is looking at the sky. However, if the word is defined as an unattainable state of perfection, the poem takes on a different character; it shows the impossibility of life on Mars being as perfect as people often dream of and thus demonstrates the implicit imperfection of sentient life here on Earth.

It is this imperfection that drives the debate surrounding science and its relationship with religion and politics. Interestingly enough, the class discussion reached the subject of one of the ultimate human vices: the lust for power. Our treatment of extraterrestrial life would entirely depend on whether the life we found were more or less powerful than us.

If humans found less powerful lifeforms on Mars (or anywhere else), it is likely that we would attempt to use them as a resource, just as militarily powerful nations have sought to use militarily weak nations throughout human history. Thus, the ages-old cycle of competition over resources resulting in strife would repeat itself; Earth would simply become more fractured as different nations sought to take control of the new discovery.

However, as one member of the class stated, the discovery of more powerful lifeforms would likely unite the international community. Just as the world united during World War Two to fight the Nazi regime, the world could unite against a species that posed a significant threat to humanity. Another, more pessimistic model would be that of World War One: a complicated system of alliances between more powerful and less powerful nations (in this case, including the new species) eventually exploding into all-out war.

Human history has been shaped by selfishness and greed. There is no reason to assume this would change with the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

An important component of the discussion surrounding religion and politics was the subject of “human specialness.” While individual people, egotistical as we all naturally are, will always find ways to view human life as superior to all other life, the official doctrine of some major religions could face major challenges if life on Mars were found. However, more progressive thinkers could probably overcome such hurdles by expanding current definitions. For example, the passage in Genesis that states that “God created man in His own image (Gen. 1:27)” seems to point to human specialness, but an infinite God could have infinite images. As a second example, the psalm that Rev. Janet Cooper-Nelson gave us in class states, “you have put all things under their [man's] feet (Psalm 88)”; just as the biblical definition of “man” was expanded to include women, so could the definition be expanded to include extraterrestrial life. This, however, would require a large leap, one that many religious figures would probably find preposterous.

To close, I will copy the email from my father articulating his views on the effects of extraterrestrial life on religious thought:

In my experience, believers of all kinds tend to see facts and draw conclusions through the prism of their own fixed positions. The discovery of extraterrestrial life would be seen by religious believers as supportive of their ideas; similarly, non-believers would grasp upon the newly found fact as proof of the correctness of their atheism.

Of course, the "logic' of things would need to change, but I find that those in either camp are usually perfectly willing to revise things to fit preconceived molds. God has been viewed as having a special covenant with man, or with a subset of man, the Jewish people to some, other ethnic groups to others. Man was made in God's image (so what the hell do the aliens look like?). Let us not forget that a man, Jesus, was thought to be the son of God who sacrificed his life for the salvation of mankind ( I mean no disrespect to the unmentioned religions of the world. ) Where do the aliens fit into these preconceived tenets? Perhaps, more importantly, do the aliens think and communicate, do they hold "religious" views and are their views relevant to our view of them in a religious world?

It would be interesting to see and read the "pro" and "con" arguments employed by each group to support their pre-existing concepts.

Our view of God would, undoubtedly, have to be reshaped to be the God, not of the world, but of the universe. A God of all creatures, human and alien. The missionaries would have to don spacesuits and head out to convert the universe (they have done this before). Imagine the Crusades on an inter-galactic level! Of course, the non-believers would finally have what they have been looking for....scientific proof that we are not alone in the universe, suggestive of a scientific order to things, suggestive of the dominance of Darwinism, suggestive that we are just another "bug" and, finally, suggestive that there is NO God. They would see the Bible, and fundamental beliefs, as having been repudiated.

The humor in it all is the fact that the "discovery" changes nothing because many humans have believed in the existence of alien life without proof. Proof just confirms that which some of us "knew" all along, or thought was so mathematically likely as to be a near certainty. With billions of galaxies, solar systems, suns and planets, other forms of life, indeed, human-like life was almost a given.

So, the believers and non-believers alike can nod, smile and say "I told ya so."



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