Summer schedules and total solar eclipses (see later post) are my excuses from being away from the page–well, the Blog page anyway–for so long. So, I am feeling an additional responsibility to present discussions with interesting people working in and writing about the Astrobiology field. And I think that I’ve done that 🙂 I have been most fortunate in making connections with two individuals who are active in communicating the latest science , and its implications, on the search for life elsewhere in the Universe. One gentleman is a scientist who does not identify with any faith and the other is a scientist who is also an ordained Episcopal priest. Both come at the topic of the search for life beyond Earth and what it “means” from what could be seen as opposing perspectives, but interestingly enough, they are not really that different.
I became aware of the work of Dr. Lucas Mix as the result of a fortuitous connection with a writing colleague and friend who had attended a presentation that he did in Tucson while she was there visiting her sister this past April. It was entitled “Astrobiology and the Meanings of Life” and was held at Trinity Cathedral. Knowing my interest in this topic and the nature of this blog, my colleague picked up a copy of the handout for me which contained Lucas’s contact information as well as links to his work and writings. Admittedly, it has taken me a while to get to it but I am so very glad that I did.
First–a word about Lucas. Of course, with the ease of the internet , I checked him out and knew immediately that he was someone I wanted to talk to:) Lucas is an ordained Episcopal Priest with a strong commitment to his ministry. And for those who believe that faith and science are opposing camps – they will be interested to know he is no slouch in the science department either. He holds a PhD in Evolutionary Biology from Harvard and has published 2 books: Life in Space: Astrobiology for Everyone ( Harvard Press ) and Thinking Fair: Rules for Reason in Science and Religion . He has worked for the NASA Astrobiology Institute since 1999 facilitating communication between interdisciplinary fields, has his own blog, interestingly titled “An Ecclesiastical Peculiar” and is member of an organization called ” The Society of Ordained Scientists”. I am still reading though his research paper, “Philosophy and Data in Astrobiology” , investigating the contribution of humanities research to the data of scientific research. The paper is a fascinating – and very thorough – look at how philosophical understanding clarifies the ways in which data can tell us about life. I confess to being slightly intimidated about “meeting” Lucas when I set up our phone conference and wondered if his impressive and somewhat weighty academic credentials would be a good fit for this every day language blog. I need not have worried. He was warm and personable and his responses were thoughtful and obviously informed by his passionate interest in the relationship between faith and science and his work and communication in this area. As I said to him during out introductory chat- “You are on this” to which he succinctly replied ” I am”.
Because this topic is so huge, I decided to forward 2 very focused questions ahead of time. The first is something I have often wondered, even in terms of my own personal response. I asked Lucas if he felt that the discovery of life beyond Earth,(particularly if it is intelligent life) would cause people to feel less important or “special” in the larger scheme of things or take comfort from being part of something larger ? And I wondered how their response would be impacted by their particular religious beliefs. And that would be, of course, recognizing that there would be a diversity of reactions across the human population.
Lucas astutely pointed out that an important factor in that response comes from our view of “the other”, a concept that plays out over and over again, even within our own human population. The stories we tell ourselves or are told through the media or pop culture about “the other” –whether “aliens” or just someone from another country will have a lot to do with whether we are afraid or welcoming or somewhere in between. But the stories we are told often come from our religion and Lucas says that Christianity encourages him to respond with wonder rather than fear.
His good nature is obvious when he adds “It’s always good to meet new people ” 🙂 but he adds the practical perspective of ” but whether we like them or not, rem all ains to be seen.” He says that, speaking for himself as a Christian, it’s always a good thing to meet and learn about new people. But in practice, he knows that there are branches of the Christian church that would not respond as well to the concept of aliens and other branches as well as other religions, that would respond very well. Again, speaking for himself, he sees it as being a “wonderful opportunity to learn about ourselves and our place in the Universe”.
As to whether the discovery of other life would result in people feeling less special, Lucas asks me if I have children. Yes, I tell him and grandchildren too! He asks what I would tell one of my children should they come to me and ask if they are my favourite? I chuckle in response as he points out that the appropriate response would be -“yes, you are and so is your sister and your brother.” I love this simple but profound metaphor that requires no explanation:) Lucas feels that we need to get over this “horrible fear” that a new sibling in the family is going to make our parents love us less. What a wonderful illustration of the point that God’s love is big enough to encompass all of the Universe.
Returning to the theme of the importance of stories in our culture and how they influence our attitudes toward “the other” , Lucas and I had a lively discussion about how various sci fi movies have portrayed aliens, many of those portrayals being negative. But he cautions that even stories of “good ” aliens (think “ET” and “Cocoon” as 2 good examples ) must not mislead us into thinking that aliens can save us. Aliens, if they are out there, are not God.
As a pastor, Lucas says that he really tries to highlight those stories in the Bible that communicate a ” more complex narrative of what it means to encounter the other and love the stranger”. And he clearly brings a very positive spin to the issue, which is like a breath of fresh air in the larger scheme of things. Despite the fact that we are living in fearful times, he says, our “natural inclination is one of curiosity and hope.”
One of the things that I found particularly fascinating about Lucas is his commitment to communicating the fact that science and faith can co-exist without necessarily contradicting each other. He reminds me that many of the leaders in that, such as Francis Bacon, (who, I learned from my research, is often called the “the father of empiricism”) as well as Charles Darwin, come from an Anglican tradition. He quotes Richard Hooker, one of the more famous Anglican theologians of that time , as saying and this is a paraphrase of a longer quote: ” There are two ways of knowing the world: revelation and reason. Revelation is infinitely better but reason is infinitely more common.” I really liked that quote and look at it as a reminder to people of faith of the importance of science. In the absence of revelation, it behooves us to use the reason that God gave us.
One of the things that Lucas tells me towards the end of the interview left a particular impression on me and speaks to his sincerity and passion in this “marriage ” of science and faith.
“We must bring all of our memory, reason and skill to the love of God and natural science is going to be one of the ways that we do that.”
I really believe that Lucas is working in the forefront of the field of Astrobiology as it relates to faith and science and that we will be hearing more from him in the future. He is currently working on a book on the history of definitions of life which I expect could become increasingly important as we move closer to discovering “life” beyond our home planet and coming to terms with what that means.
Lucas also does regular presentations to clergy on various aspects of faith and science. I was especially intrigued to learn that he had presented to pastors working in Silicon Valley who have a large number of software engineers in their congregation. They discussed approaches to problem solving and communication and one of the things they did was watch the Movie “Arrival ” together. ( another plug for what I feel is one of the most thought provoking sci fi movies I’ve ever seen ). Of course, upon hearing this, I had a wistful thought and wondered what it would take to get him to come up here to the Hinterland of Northern Ontario for a presentation — a long way from California, for sure. 🙂
I would encourage you to check out Lucas’s work sometime. For me, it was especially inspirational to find someone with his qualifications who is so committed to this work. We are going to need him in the future.
I would love to hear your thoughts about this interview and if you share Lucas Mix’s thoughts on the significance of our stories in how we will respond to the discovery of the ultimate “other”.