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Astrotheology: Do Gods Need To Be Supernatural?

Khaled Desouki
AFP/Getty Images

Call it the ponderous effect of the holidays, but today I'd like to share some reflections on our search for meaning.

Humans are limited beings. We are also creative and innovative, and by the diligent application of reason and, in different but complementary ways, by exercising our artistic expression, we manage to amplify our understanding of the world and of ourselves.

One place where the sciences and the arts come together is to function as exploratory tools for extending our worldview, probing the unknown. As a result of our excursions, we often land in unexpected corners of reality. A theorem and a poem are meditations on the possible, be it the very concrete or the fictional. Our imagination uses all the resources it has to give meaning to existence.

Maybe that's why the theologian and public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that "Man is his most vexing problem." Our philosophies, our sciences and religions are attempts to comprehend who we are in spite of our shortsightedness, of the limited ways that we see and understand what's going on.

In this search, it's no surprise that religious belief works as a compass to so many people. How to explain the origin of the universe? Or of life? Or why life ends? How to explain why we have minds capable of reflecting about these kinds of complex questions? Or how the brain, taken as a bunch of neurons and synapses, manages to engender us with a sense of self? Of course, these questions are now part of cutting-edge scientific research. We live in a peculiar time, when what once was the province of religion is now part of science's daily goings-on.

We still can't answer these questions. So they keep haunting and inspiring us, which is a good thing.

One of our big dilemmas is, perhaps, the angst that comes from our ability to contemplate the nature of the divine while knowing that we will never become divine. We can easily imagine perfection, the absence of pain, immortality. But excluding musings in fiction and expectations in faith, we can't transcend our material reality, our spatial and time boundaries. Or can we?

Considering that modern science has been around for only some 400 years (if we count its beginnings from the time of Kepler and Galileo), and realizing how much we have accomplished in such a short time, imagine what we could do in another 1,000 years? Or 10,000 years if, of course, we don't self-destruct before then? We can already manipulate genes, creating new foods and creatures, and cure a whole new spectrum of illnesses. Extrapolating the current pace of technological advance to the future, some futurists are convinced that within a few decades we will get to such a deep stage of hybridization with machines that we will not be able to pull apart from them anymore. (Try being without your cell phone or computer for a week, for example.)

If these predictions come through, and it seems to me that they already are, soon we will be a new species, beyond human.

Imagine, then, that in some corner of the galaxy, other intelligent creatures also discovered some version of science. But they did so, say, a million years before us, which, in cosmic time, is not much. These creatures would now be machine-hybrids, completely different from what they once were. As Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," a theme myself and co-blogger Adam have been focusing on these past few weeks.

Perhaps "they" are only information, free-floating in coded energy fields spread across space. Perhaps they have, much beyond anything we can presently contemplate, the power to create life, choosing its properties at will. They could, for example, have created us, or some of our ancestors, as part of an experiment in their version of evolutionary genetics, or as a test bed in a study of the relation between intelligence and morality. They could, perhaps, be observing us, as we observe animals in a zoo or a laboratory. These entities, immaterial but living as self-sustaining bundles of information, could have been our creators. Would they be gods, even if not supernatural?

You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

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Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.

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