During my travels of the last year, people at Microsoft gave me a full demonstration and run-through of the abilities and affordances of the Kinect camera and the Xbox One. One guy showed me realtime take of the camera reading the heartbeats of the people in the room. As he was doing it, I stepped behind him and loudly clapped my hands. I watched his heart rate spike on the big screen. Discussed potentials for this technology included, yes, learning when people were getting hyped up by action movies, but also registering excitement caused by advertisements.
Here’s a fun idea. Remember Facebook’s experiment in emotional contagion? Deliberately setting some people’s Facebook timelines to show only sad things, to see what it did to them? Imagine an emotional-contagion experiment where they could access your heartrate off your smartwatch too.
- Scientific American: Which religions are more open to the idea of alien life?
- David Weintraub: Asian religions for the most part are easily accommodating. In Buddhism, for example, there are lots of worlds. Reincarnation is an important part of that view of life. I could be reincarnated in principle anywhere in the universe. There’s nothing that says I could only be reincarnated on this planet. For Buddhism, there’s no single holy book, no single holy figure who wrote anything down. There are so many big ideas and so many sacred writings, the volume of ideas is almost limitless. A Buddhist wouldn’t be surprised to find life existing in other places.
- Scientific American: Or does Jesus have to separately visit their planet?
- David Weintraub: Right. That’s a serious theological problem. Most theologians are pretty seriously averse to the idea that the son of God will have to visit every planet and get crucified on every planet.
- What if there’s another planet that’s been in existence for 100 million years before us? Do all of those creatures not get to go to heaven because the Jesus event didn’t happen until 2,000 years ago? Is that fair? It’s not for me to say.
- Some Catholic theologians are wiling to wave their hands and say it’s simply not a problem; God will take care of it. Some say it’s a serious problem. But theologically it’s a pretty interesting problem. These questions have been sitting out there for several hundred years. Two hundred years ago [American revolutionary and political philosopher] Thomas Paine put these questions out there very eloquently, and theologians started to address this and decided, yeah, this is a problem.
- Scientific American: Do any religions explicitly discuss the possibility of life beyond Earth in scripture?
- David Weintraub: The middle of the 19th century is when a whole bunch of new religions were born, and many of those religions had something to say about extraterrestrials. In Seventh-Day Adventism, for example, the founder had visions of extraterrestrials—Saturnians—in which she saw them and saw that they were pure; they had not sinned. The only sinful beings in the universe were humans on Earth. That was her solution to the Thomas Paine problem, the original sin problem. The Saturnians didn’t need Christianity because they didn’t suffer original sin.
- Scientific American: What about other religions, such as Quakers or Jews?
- David Weintraub: Quakers don’t really care if there are extraterrestrials. In Judaism it doesn’t matter—there’s very little in Hebrew scripture that relates to the question.
- Mormonism is pretty interesting. There is a clear belief in Mormonism in extraterrestrial life. All Mormons have as a goal to become exalted, to become a god. To become a god you effectively get your own planet with your own creatures on it and you’ll take good care of them. The only place in the universe where you have the opportunity to become exalted is Earth. Those Mormons that receive the highest level of exaltation will be equals with God and have their own worlds, occupied with living beings seeking their own salvation and immortality. The prophet Joseph Smith taught that these worlds are or will be inhabited by sentient beings. It is everywhere taken for granted. They’re not vague at all. There’s no doubt that the Mormons are comfortable about the idea that there are others on other worlds. They’d be unhappy if we didn’t find anybody. But they’d just say we haven’t looked hard enough.
- Scientific American: From all your research, does it seem like the discovery of extraterrestrial life is likely to have a dramatic effect on people’s religious beliefs?
- David Weintraub: I can’t think of anything that would be bigger. I think at bottom most people have this idea that we humans are pretty special creatures and that God is paying attention to us. If we find somebody else, then there are lots of somebodies, most likely. And if there are lots of somebodies, that somehow would seem to make us less important. I think that is, psychologically, what has happened a number of times in human history. When Copernicus first said the Earth goes around the sun, theologically that meant we’re not the center of the universe anymore. Later on when astronomers said the sun isn’t the center of the universe, it’s just a silly star out in the suburbs of the galaxy, that threatened our well-being again. Suddenly if there are other beings out there, I think it changes completely the way we think about our place in the universe. I think it would be truly profound to know that.