Read More: Scientific American
In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Captain James T. Kirk encounters a deity that lures him to its planet in order to abscond with the Enterprise. “What does God need with a starship?” the skeptical commander inquires. I talked to Kirk himself—William Shatner, that is—about the film when I met him at a recent conference. The original plot device for the movie, which he directed, was for the crew to go “in search of God.” Fearful that some religious adherents might be offended that the Almighty could be discoverable by a spaceship, the studio bosses insisted that the deity be a malicious extraterrestrial impersonating God for personal gain. How could a starship—or any technology designed to detect natural forces and objects—discover a supernatural God, who by definition would be beyond any such sensors? Any detectable entity would have to be a natural being, no matter how advanced, and as I have argued in this column
, “any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence
is indistinguishable from God.” Thus, Shatner's plot theme of looking for God could only turn up an ETI sufficiently advanced to appear God-like.
Perhaps herein lies the impulse to search. In his 1982 book Plurality of Worlds (Cambridge University Press), historian of science Steven J. Dick suggested that when Isaac Newton's mechanical universe replaced the medieval spiritual world, it left a lifeless void that was filled with the modern search for ETI. In his 1995 book Are We Alone? (Basic Books), physicist Paul Davies wondered: “What I am more concerned with is the extent to which the modern search for aliens is, at rock-bottom, part of an ancient religious quest.” Historian George Basalla made a similar observation in his 2006 work Civilized Life in the Universe (Oxford University Press): “The idea of the superiority of celestial beings is neither new nor scientific. It is a widespread and old belief in religious thought.”
Now there is experimental evidence in support of this hypothesis, reported in a 2017 article entitled “We Are Not Alone” in the journal Motivation and Emotion, in which North Dakota State University psychologist Clay Routledge and his colleagues found an inverse relation between religiosity and ETI beliefs. That is, those who report low levels of religious belief but high desire for meaning in life show greater belief in ETIs. In the team's first study, subjects who read an essay “arguing that human life is ultimately meaningless and cosmically insignificant” were statistically significantly more likely to believe in ETIs than those who read an essay on the “limitations of computers.”