In his book, Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy asked “why is Carl Sagan so lonely?” Percy’s question was prompted by the popular scientist Carl Sagan’s insistence that ET must be out there somewhere, despite the lack of any evidence to back it up. Percy believed that this insistence said more about Sagan and people like him, than it did about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life.
According to Percy, Sagan and others who reduced everything, including man, to soulless atoms, were desperate for something to transcend this purely-material existence. Not believing in God, they hoped a phone call from ET would do the trick.
Unfortunately for the scientists, thirty years after the publication of Percy’s book, we still haven’t heard from ET. And it’s not for lack of looking: Scarcely a week goes by when we don’t read or hear about yet another “earth-like” planet being discovered by astronomers.
Yet ET remains silent.
With each passing year, more and more scientists suspect that Enrico Fermi may have been right when he asked “where is everybody?” If the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligent life was as high as people say it is, why haven’t we heard from them?
Considering all that had to go “just right” to make complex life on Earth possible, a reasonable inference is that Sagan’s confidence was unwarranted. If there is intelligent complex life beyond Earth, it’s so rare and so far away that we will never know for sure.
Which prompts the question “what then?” As Percy observed, Western man may have rejected the traditional sources of meaning and purpose, but he hasn’t “outgrown” his need for meaning and purpose. Believing that you are nothing more than a collection of soulless atoms is still unbearable.
Columnist Charles Krauthammer, who suspects that Fermi was right, suggested recently that a possible source of meaning and purpose might be found in politics. While some people might scoff at the suggestion, he is onto something—if by “politics” he means the consideration of how we order our common life together.
After all, ancient Greece’s and Republican Rome’s reflections on the subject did inspire the Founding Fathers. Yet, as the Founders themselves acknowledged, that alone wasn’t enough. The kind of virtue needed to make self-government possible didn’t and couldn’t come from politics. Its source lay elsewhere: in religion, and specifically, Christianity. It was Christianity that produced the habits and customs that made their political experiment possible. Not simply because it taught people right from wrong but because of what it taught them about who they are and why we were placed on Earth.
Whatever else you can say about the people who created America — for whom there were only six planets, including Earth — they certainly weren’t lonely or lacking in purpose.
It’s modern Western man, for whom the universe literally grows bigger every day, who feels increasingly lonely and pointless. Instead of wonder, his response is apathy.
That’s because he has confused science, which is the knowledge of nature obtained through observation, with scientism, which is the “reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable.”
This confusion has left him, as Percy would put it, “lost in the Cosmos,” waiting by a phone that is unlikely to ring.