I’m a science fiction fan. I’m one of those guys who can tell you why Star Wars is not science fiction but Star Trek is. I can even argue why the original Star Trek is more truly science fiction than Next Generation, which often ignored the sci-fi stuff to become even more of soap opera in outer space than the original. I not only watch science fiction TV shows and movies, but read science fiction books. In terms of literary science fiction, I much prefer so-called “hard sf,” which deals with nuts and bolts and genuine scientific theories than “soft sf,” which tends to be less rigorous (the main exception being Philip K Dick, whose science was usually dubious, but who had an interesting philosophical outlook).
Recently I’ve become increasingly interested in the subject of whether or not there are intelligent creatures on other planets. I am pretty sure we will find life on other planets. In fact, I’m betting we’ll find life all over the place once we start being able to look. Probably within our own solar system.
It’s just that I’m really starting to doubt that what we’ll find will be very much like the Star Trek universe in which the Milky Way galaxy is teeming with civilizations much like our own.
By that I don’t mean to criticize Star Trek for populating the galaxy with aliens who look basically like human beings with latex lumps glued to their noses and foreheads. I understand that they have limited options when it comes to hiring actors that are not humans. I’m just starting to wonder if there are intelligent aliens in our cosmic neighborhood at all, even if they look nothing like the folks from Central Casting.
The universe is incredibly big. And most of the stuff we find here on Earth is all over the place. I think it’s fairly certain that somewhere in this vast universe there are other civilizations. But I’m starting to think that civilized life forms might be very rare. Maybe we’re the only ones in this galaxy. I hope not. But that doesn’t sound impossible to me anymore.
There’s no reason to assume that civilized life forms like us are the inevitable outcome of natural selection and evolution. The dinosaurs dominated the Earth for around 170 million years. Mammals have dominated for 65 million years. If the development of civilized creatures was inevitable, the dinosaurs would have produced an intelligent, tool-using species millions of years ago.
I recently read an article that postulated the idea that the smartest of the dinosaurs never got to be as smart as us because there was no need. Those clever dinosaurs were also equipped with sharp teeth and nasty claws. They didn’t have to develop intelligence as a survival skill the way our ancestors did. Humans are weak and nearly defenseless creatures. The only thing we had going for us was our brains. Only the very smartest proto-humans survived long enough to produce offspring. So smartness was naturally selected until we became the smartest of all animals.
Speaking of dinosaurs, paleontologists often talk about a kind of “arms race” of evolution that happened in the Late Cretaceous. As carnivorous monsters like Tyrannosaurus and Gigantosaurus started stalking the Earth, plant eaters like Ankylosaurus and Paleoscincus developed nearly impenetrable armor to defend themselves. Maybe our own development was something like that. If evidence from our planet is any indication it does seem that intelligence combined with the ability to manipulate tools is the one adaptation that trumps all others. So maybe when it does develop it almost always succeeds in producing a creature that can take over a planet.
Be that as it may, the fact that we’re here at all appears to be the result of a whole lot of incredibly chance factors. Maybe it’s a one in God-only-knows-how-many million chance that an intelligent species arises at all on any planet anywhere.
And maybe the odds are even greater that such a species survives past a certain point. We now know that humanity was nearly wiped out entirely at least once by natural factors. And given the way we like to play with nuclear and biological weapons as well as developing all sorts of other technologies that could potentially kill us, we may yet go extinct anyhow. Not to mention meteor strikes and other natural disasters. Or maybe it is the very fact that such species tend to dominate their planets that insures they don’t last very long after trying to force their worlds to conform to their selfish desires. It may be that the galaxy is littered with the remains of civilizations that didn’t make it. Let’s hope ours doesn’t become one.
Buddhist cosmology postulates the existence of all sorts of civilizations both higher and lower than ours. The universe is full of “celestial beings.” The Chinese characters used to represent this concept could also be interpreted as “beings from the sky.” Unlike our European ancestors, the Indians understood early on that the sun was the center of the solar system, that the stars were far away suns, and they even had a theory of gravity.
I don’t mean to suggest that the Buddhists of long ago were in touch with aliens. And yet it is intriguing to speculate that maybe the demigods of those old legends correspond to civilizations in outer space whose industrial revolution took place a million or even a billion years before ours, thus making their planets sort of a “higher plane” than ours. If you believe in reincarnation, it might be possible for a human being to be reborn on another world where life is much longer and better than it is here, or, in the language favored by the ancient Indians, be reborn in the a “heavenly realm.”
But that’s all just brain farts. It’s interesting to think about but it doesn’t really lead anywhere useful.
Even if there are no other civilizations millions of years more advanced than ours, the very real possibility is that we could become a civilization millions of years more advanced than ours if we can just manage not to mess everything up before we can get there. If we did make it, we human beings might become like the demigods of those old Indian stories. If we managed to do that, there’s no telling what amazing things we could do.
In his essay Inmo or “It” (sometimes translated as “Suchness”), Dogen says, “We know that we ourselves are tools that it possesses within this universe in ten directions because the body and the mind both appear in the universe, yet neither is our self.” The “it” he refers to here is the unnamable, unknowable great “it” that is the universe. The late astrophysicist, writer, and TV presenter Carl Sagan said something very much like this. He said, “We are a way for the Cosmos to come to know itself.”
Human beings may not be the inevitable outcome of biological evolution, but we may have a kind of cosmic importance that is beyond our current ability to comprehend. To a Buddhist, the universe is alive. Not metaphorically, but actually. Life isn’t just something possessed by individual animals and plants for a brief period of time and then forever lost. Life is intrinsic to the very fabric of the universe on all levels, from the inconceivably tiny subatomic world to the unthinkably large cosmos. What we human beings experience as awareness or consciousness may be something we share with literally everything that ever is, was, or could be. The consciousness we think is ours alone might actually be the consciousness of God shining through our eyes.
We human beings are capable of communicating with each other on a level of subtlety and detail that we do not find in any other species we know of at present. Our ability to share our experience may make us a unique and important part of how the universe comes to know itself.
Right now we are standing at the very beginning of a process that could have cosmic effects far beyond anything we can even imagine at present. Some of the best science fiction writers have attempted to speculate on the implications of this. But there’s no way any human being living today could ever really predict where it might go.
We’d best not fuck it up.
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July 1, 2016 Cleveland, Ohio Zero Defex at Now That’s Class!
July 4, 2016 Cleveland, Ohio Zero Defex TBA
July 8, 2016 Seattle, Washington EastWest Bookshop 7:30pm Talk & Book Signing
July 9, 2016 Seattle, Washington EastWest Bookshop 10am-3pm Workshop
September 10-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 2-Day Retreat
September 14, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland Zazen and Discussion
September 16-17, 2016 Dublin, Ireland 3-Day Retreat
September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England, 4-Day Retreat
September 27, 2016 – Wimbledon, London, England – Talk and Q&A
September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat
October 3, 2016 Turku, Finland, Talk at the University
October 4-5, Stockholm, Sweden, Talk and 1-Day-Retreat
October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab
October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture
October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
MORE EUROPEAN DATES TO BE ANNOUNCED SOON!
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
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