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SETI and God
by Robert J. Sawyer (email sawyer @

Okay, here's a thought: what if an Encyclopedia Galactica is radioed to us by aliens, and it contains proof of the existence of God?

I'm not talking about the God of the Bible or the Torah or the Qur'an. But I am talking about an intelligent designer -- a creator of the universe.

I'm a science-fiction writer, and, despite our antithetical worldviews, I like to quip that SF writers and creationists have a lot in common: we both try to twist the evidence science has uncovered into the most dramatically interesting interpretation.

For instance, a few years ago, astronomers announced that some stars seemed to be billions of years older than the universe. Well, that was a perfect SF conundrum, and I wrote a novel about it (the Hugo Award-nominated Starplex), in which beings in the far future were sending stars back in time to increase the mass of the early universe so as to slow its expansion.

But young-earth creationists had already had a go at a similar problem. They think the world was created around 4000 B.C., which makes it hard to account for the starlight from the Andromeda galaxy seeming to be two million years old. "Ah hah!" they crow. "A clever intelligence must have created the universe with that starlight already en route to us!"

Both my SF solution and the creationist spin are fantastic. But the difference between SF writers and creationists is that we writers usually aren't as likely to believe the stories we make up.

Still, what if, through SETI, we do receive that long hoped for repository of all the knowledge of an infinitely more advanced race? And what if, as I suggested above, it includes proof that we live in a created universe?

A ridiculous premise for a science-fiction writer to be discussing, you say? Not at all. SF has long been full of created universes, from Theodore Sturgeon's "Microscopic God" through Gregory Benford's Cosm. True, those were sub-universes within our own, made by humans.

But remember the woman who didn't believe that Earth revolved around the sun, but rather asserted that it sat on the back of a giant turtle? When asked what the turtle was sitting on, she replied, "It's turtles all the way down." If we can conceive, in our best speculations today, of creating a universe, why couldn't this universe, the one we call home, be the product of someone else's science experiment?

After all, there is a real movement among some scientists called "intelligent design" that argues that our universe shows deliberate fine-tuning in its fundamental parameters, such as the ratio of respective strengths of the four fundamental forces (electromagnetism, gravity, and the weak and strong nuclear interactions). If the ratios were only slightly different, our universe either would never have developed any elements beyond helium, or would have almost immediately collapsed back down in a big crunch. Either way, no intelligent life would ever have existed.

Now, yes, there is an excellent argument against intelligent design. Sure, the parameters of this universe seem carefully tweaked -- but what if there are countless other parallel universes, or there were countless other big-bang/big-crunch cycles before the current one, and each of those universes had different physical constants? If you have enough rolls of the dice, the winning combination is bound to come up eventually by pure chance -- no need for any sort of God.

Right now, we don't know if such parallel universes existed or do now exist. But someday we will know. Maybe not in a decade, maybe not in a century, maybe not in a millennium. Eventually, though, our science will answer that question.

But perhaps we won't have to wait. If the "L" in Drake's famous equation -- the lifetime of a technological civilization -- isn't capped by a tendency for all thinking beings to destroy themselves, SETI may give us access to knowledge that we wouldn't otherwise obtain for millions of years. And that knowledge might include the revelation that we exist inside a supracosmic petri dish, that our universe is somebody else's science project.

And at that point, even though we might have only begun to communicate with extraterrestrials, we'll have another quest ahead of us, for a new level of contact -- with our own creator. SETI, you see, will never end, so long as it's turtles all the way down ...

Editor's Note: Nebula Award winning science fiction author Robert J. Sawyer specializes in first-contact scenarios, in books such as Starplex, Illegal Alien, Factoring Humanity, and his latest novel, Hominids, just out from Tor. His 2000 novel Calculating God was edged out for the Hugo Award by Harry Potter. Rob lives in Ontario, Canada, and writes knowledeably about SETI. For more information, see his web site at:

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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