Doctor Who, Dogen, and the Fermi Paradox (or Happy New Year 2018)

Jesus. It’s 2018. That’s like Blade Runner or something. No wait. Blade Runner is next year. We’d better start working on those androids and off-world colonies.

I spent Christmas at my sister’s place outside Nashville. While I was there, my nephew Ben and I watched episode one of series ten of Doctor Who. In that episode, the Doctor explains the nature of time like this, “The passage of time is an illusion and life is the magician, because life only lets you see one day at a time. You remember being alive yesterday, you hope you’re going to be alive tomorrow, so it feels like you are traveling one to the other but nobody’s moving anywhere! Movies don’t really move, they’re just pictures — lots and lots of pictures, all of them still, none of them moving, just frozen moments. But if you experience those pictures one after the other, then everything comes alive.”

This sounds remarkably like my teacher, Gudo Nishijima’s explanation of the nature of time. He even used the same metaphor of frames of film. Nishijima got his ideas from Dogen who said that each day consists of 6,400,099,180 individual moments (in Shukke Kudoku). Each moment is its own infinite universe. Each passes by so quickly we can’t comprehend it.

In his essay Uji (Being-Time), Dogen says, “Because [real existence] is only this exact moment, all moments of existence-time are the whole of time, and all existent things and all existent phenomena are time. The whole of existence, the whole universe, exists in individual moments of time.”

2017 was the whole universe. 2018 is the whole universe.

When I make myself a sandwich I am amazed that sandwiches exist. How improbable is that? How astonishing is it that, in the vast universe, I exist in a place in which there are sandwiches? Throughout most of this endless universe, there are no sandwiches. Sandwiches can’t even exist on most planets. There’s no wheat to make the bread. There’s no magnetic field and ozone layer to repel harmful radiation and allow a stable atmosphere to exist for untold millions of years for that wheat to grow in. There are no beings capable of making a sandwich. And there is no peanut butter anywhere for zillions of miles.

Over the holidays, I finished reading a book called Where is Everybody: Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life by Stephen Webb. What I didn’t know when I ordered it was that there is a revised version that looks at seventy-five solutions to the Fermi Paradox. Gotta get that one too, I guess.

The Fermi Paradox was a question posed by physicist Enrico Fermi. He said that the Earth does not appear to be unique. There must be lots of planets like this one. And, if that’s so, there must be lots of civilizations similar to ours. In fact, since the universe is so vastly old, there must be tons of civilizations far older and more advanced than ours. If that’s so, then why don’t we see any evidence of them?

Anyway, at the end of the book — spoiler alert — Webb concludes that it’s very possible that our civilization is, in fact, unique. He guesses that there may be no other technologically advanced civilizations anywhere in our galaxy, or even anywhere in the group of galaxies to which ours belongs.

He thinks that life may be fairly common, and that we may yet find lifeforms elsewhere even right here in our own solar system. He figures that there are probably loads of plants and animals — or things analogous to plants and animals — all over the galaxy. Some of them may even be intelligent. But he thinks that creatures like us, who build complex technological societies, who travel to other planets, and who wonder about the existence of creatures like us, are extremely rare.

He makes a very persuasive argument to support this. It’s impossible to summarize in just a few words. But it’s based on the understanding that humanlike creatures are not the inevitable outcome of evolution, that the very existence of a planet with a stable temperature and an atmosphere capable of supporting life is vastly improbable, that such seemingly unrelated things as the fact that our planet has an extremely large moon for its size may be necessary to make creatures like us possible, and so on.

Buddhists say that it is extraordinarily rare to be born as a human being. They say that being born as a human is the best situation in which to realize the truth. Maybe they’re right.

Maybe in the whole vast universe there is nothing like us.

Maybe there are no sandwiches anywhere else but here.

Even if Stephen Webb is wrong, even if we find that the mysterious object circling Tabby’s Star is a Dyson sphere or a gigantic blast shield built to protect a civilization on a planet orbiting it from the rays of a nearby supernova, I think the Buddhists were correct, that human life is rare and precious. Every day that I’m alive I am astounded by life itself. By sandwiches and busses, by ants and artichokes, by cereal bowls and snails… It’s all so damned incredible. Like literally incredible.

So happy new year, everybody. I hope this one is a good one for you!

 

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