I have always been a big fan of science fiction. Growing up I religiously followed all the latest science fiction shows, from Star Trek to Star Wars to V. I loved to consider the possibility of extra-terrestrial life and humanity’s interaction with it.
However, now that I am an adult, I don’t really think intelligent life exists outside this planet. I obviously don’t hold to this belief dogmatically, as I cannot prove it one way or another. I just think that man is unique in all of creation: a physical species with the ability to think and choose.
But what if I’m wrong? What if on another planet there is intelligent life? This is now being debated at the Vatican Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Before debating what it would mean if intelligent life exists outside our planet, I think we have to first take a step back. We first have to define “intelligent life” itself. I would define it in the classical Catholic sense: a being with a mind and a will; i.e. someone with the power to think and to choose. The only intelligent life on this planet is humanity (aside from angels), so finding animal or plant life on another planet does not constitute “intelligent life”. If we found animal or plant life on another planet, it could easily be considered part of creation which has been placed under the dominion of man.
But how would we determine if extra-terrestrial life is “intelligent”? How would we know if a species could in fact think and choose?
It could be obvious: if an alien species had developed a culture in which people engaged in art, music, philosophy and other such activities, we would know that they could think. If the species showed an understanding of love between them, we would know that they could choose. And more ominously, if the species had a history of violence and injustice, we would know that it had fallen, which would also show that it was “intelligent”.
Personally, I do not think it will be difficult to ascertain if a life is “intelligent” as I do not think such life would be very dissimilar to human life. Mankind is made in the image and likeness of God, and it is that very image and likeness which makes us “intelligent”. It follows then that any intelligent species would also be in God’s image and likeness and therefore would in some way be similar to us. So it seems to me that it would be obvious. If we encounter intelligent life on other planets, we’ll know it.
But what would that mean to our theology? I think that the big question revolves around the Fall and God’s response to the Fall. In our world, God became man to save us from ourselves. This was His solution to our Fall. Could He also incarnate Himself as another species? Someone in the article I linked above stated that “multiple incarnations is a heresy in Catholicism”. I don’t think that is true; at no time has the Church definitively ruled on such a doctrine. But it is a troubling thought nonetheless. Does it diminish the power of The Incarnation if it was instead just one incarnation among many? Or does it show God’s power even more clearly?