FOR PETE’S SAKE, DO NOT QUESTION FAITH
February 04, 2000
THERE are many days when, the more I learn, the less I understand. Today is one of them. I have been reading a carefully-reasoned book which argues that, across the whole infinite expanse of the universe, there is probably no intelligent life except on our planet.
The book is called Rare Earth by Seattle professors Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee.
The huge timescales needed for ”slime at the bottom of the ocean” to evolve into animal life, the uncommon steadiness of the sun’s energy output, the radius of our globe’s orbit, the angle of our axis which is governed by a single moon of particular size . . . change any of these factors and life fizzles out.
”The underlying theme is that the Earth is a charmed place,” Prof Brownlee says. ”We know of no other body which is even remotely like it.”
These facts are easy to follow. They directly contradict what I believe to be true, that there is an intelligence which guides the affairs of man, an intelligence which does not come from Earth.
It is extraterrestrial. Call it God, call it aliens — its existence proves there is life throughout the universe.
But that’s a matter of faith, and faith usually clashes with science. This isn’t hard to understand.
What puzzles me is the cloudy memory of another book. It can’t be so long ago that I read it, but the shelves in this study are so overflowing . . . there’s been more room in here since I threw out the jogging machine, but the books are balanced in vertical stacks, with a framed photo on top of almost every pile, one stack in front of the next, and I know the book is here somewhere if only I can . . .
Got it! Probability 1 by Amir Aczel says it’s a mathematical certainty that we are not alone. Applying gamblers’ equations to the number of stars in this galaxy and the billions of other galaxies, and factoring in the ease with which carbon-based lifeforms start up, Aczel crunches the numbers and says there has to be intelligent life elsewhere. Any other conclusion is scientific nonsense.
One set of facts, two opposite theories. If I had never read either book, I would have learned far less, and understood at least as much.
It is a great tragedy that, for some people, whole lives can be lived in this ever-diminishing sea of understanding. Information scorches down from every side, and slowly knowledge evaporates.
Peter Sellers, the great comic actor who died 20 years ago, lived that kind of life. I have always felt a powerful connection to him, perhaps because he could never balance the weirdness of his showbusiness life with his Jewish upbringing.
For most of his adult life he held a deep spiritual belief which he knew to be true in every detail, though he could not understand it and did not dare discuss it with friends.
When he finally explained his experience to actress Shirley Maclaine, during shooting for his last great movie, Being There, Sellers warned her frankly: ”You’re going to think I’m bonkers” — and he had driven himself half insane, trying to unravel the truth from the facts.
Sellers had died in 1964. This was a clinically established fact. During the first of eight heart attacks, he told MacLaine: ”I felt myself leave my body. I just floated out of my physical form and I saw them cart my body away to the hospital. I went with it.
”I wasn’t frightened or anything like that because I was fine; and it was my body that was in trouble. I looked around myself and I saw an incredibly beautiful bright loving white light above me. I wanted to go to that white light more than anything.
”I’ve never wanted anything more. I know there was love, real love, on the other side of the light, which was attracting me so much.
”It was kind and loving and I remember thinking, ‘That’s God’. Then I saw a hand reach through the light. I tried to touch it, to grab onto it, to clasp it so it could sweep me up and pull me through it.”
As the doctors restarted his heart, Sellers heard God’s voice tell him, ‘It’s not time. Go back and finish. It’s not time’.
Stories like this were taboo until the mid-70s, when Dr Raymond Moody published Life After Life. By 1982, a Gallup poll revealed eight million Americans claimed to have had near-death experiences. As resuscitation techniques improve, the NDE will become common-place.
Doctors in Tromso, Norway, revived a woman whose body had been trapped beneath ice for more than two hours. When rescuers pulled her out and began artificial respiration, the temperature of her corpse was 23° centigrade.
The medics patiently kept up an artificial heartbeat for three hours, slowly warming her up — until life returned. Because her mental functions had been literally frozen, the lack of blood and oxygen had not caused any brain damage.
”I’ll never fear death again,” Sellers told his wife, Britt Ekland, after his eighth heart attack. But he did fear life — ”I don’t know what it is I’m supposed to do,” he confided in MacLaine, ”or what I came back for.”
The clash between the Jewish culture which shaped him and the film world which swallowed him, between his Jewish religion and his parascientific belief, stripped Peter Sellers of confidence and understanding.
If he had trusted his faith more and questioned it less . . . But can I do the same?
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