Big Ideas, Little Green Men

It’s common to have issues with the notion of a higher power. That can be difficult because it’s integral to most recovery programs. I’ve had issues with this myself; though I was exposed to several (probably too many) religions when I was younger, I’m definitely not a religious person. I simply wasn’t used to having faith in anything, or at least what I thought faith was, and that caused issues with the first few steps in this program.

I bounced around from one concept to another, but always ended up having that higher power be an extension of myself – I didn’t want to disappoint someone or something. It wasn’t a purely outside influence, it was my own interpretation of the consequences of failure. How can I surrender to my dog, unless I’m actually just surrendering to the idea that I don’t want to let my dog down? How can I have my family be my higher power when I’m simply trying to make them proud – from my perspective – through my own actions?

And then one evening, as happens more often than I’d like to admit, I found myself thinking about aliens. This is the point where people will probably think I’ve lost it (or the rest of it), but it tracks, so stay with me. I’ve always been concerned with aliens. I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit sneaking glances at the night sky and thinking, “tonight’s the night” – so far, I’ve had no luck. To this day, I still pester a friend in our chat room who was in the branch of the military most commonly associated with extraterrestrial affairs, and to this day she denies any knowledge. I almost believe her.

Eventually, I started thinking about why we don’t have any real evidence for them. Why, if these creatures exist and are so interested in visiting our planet, would they hide from us? Why are the only witnesses usually isolated from society, under the influence, or in positions of extreme stress? There are credible reports, sure, but there isn’t any true, concrete evidence; I wish there was. But that led me to a lecture that put a few things into perspective, and it helped me find a higher power along the way.

I’ll briefly summarize the key points. Generally, there are considered to be barriers of entry to membership in the civilized universe, and certain things have to happen in a certain order for life – anything more than bacteria, really – to exist. Each of these barriers to entry has a probability of occurring, and so you’ve got to factor all of these things together to understand why we, humanity, might actually be alone (or alone insofar as we’re too far away to visit).

The planet has to be of a certain mass and composition and be a certain distance away from a certain kind of star. It needs to rotate at a certain speed, and it needs to have a moon of a certain size orbiting the planet itself to correct for a wild axial tilt. The planet itself needs to be old enough to be the proper temperature, have a stable crust, preferably the building blocks of life so you don’t have to rely on meteors to introduce them. After all of that, the planet itself needs to avoid extinction level events frequently enough for life to develop and evolve.

If the probability of that doesn’t impress you, there are factors beyond origin. If life does develop, it needs to develop in such a way that the concept of communication, and by extension the concept of community, evolves. This life needs to ensure that it develops certain technologies – the wheel, agriculture, what have you – so that slight environmental changes don’t wipe them out. And to get to the point where we’d have our feared little green men, they’d have to develop the technology for interstellar travel before they managed to blow themselves up.

Generally speaking, every single one of those things has about a one in one thousand chance of happening. And that is a very long list of things. While the probability of alien life existing is high (yes, you nerds, I’ve heard of the Fermi paradox), the probability of them showing up over our cornfields to create intergalactic graffiti is extremely low. And that makes us special. We shouldn’t, by the odds, exist. Yet here we are, reading or writing blogs on the internet in our pajamas.

This is where it sunk in for me; if it’s really so impossible for us to exist, there has to be a higher power of some sort. Whether you want to attribute our being here to a religion – or simply the concept that we do exist when we should not – we’ve beaten the odds on so many things it’s almost absurd. You have to admit there’s something to it. It could be an all-knowing, all-seeing deity. It could be luck.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that while the universe is massive and we are a very small part of it, we are also incredibly unique and have an obligation to live our lives to the fullest. It’s very easy to go the other way on this: if we’re so insignificant, then why bother? To contest that, I’d simply say: because we can.

By extension, consider the not-so-small matter of Pascal’s wager. For those of you who didn’t spend too much time on computer science in the 90s or philosophy electives, it generally states that it’s best to behave yourself if there is a God, because if there is, you’re good. If there isn’t, what’s the harm? If you don’t behave and there isn’t a God, you’re still fine – but if you don’t behave and there is, you’re in trouble. That isn’t to say that a higher power is out to punish you, but it does frame the notion in a way that’s hard to dispute. It doesn’t hurt to have a little faith.

Your higher power can be anything, that’s true. It can be God, it can even be the aliens I’m no longer so sure I’ll meet one day. It just needs to be something – a person, a deity, an object, some concept, some philosophical tenet – that you can consider to be greater than you, more powerful than you in the grand scheme of things, something you can look to for advice or inspiration, something that requires a little bit of faith, and something that, of course, makes you feel important in a cold, unfeeling universe.

You don’t have to be religious. You may have to spend a couple of decades watching a lot of science fiction. You may even need to question your own faith or lack thereof. But there’s a higher power out there for all of us, and luckily enough, we’re all allowed our own.

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