Is there life on Mars?

May 26, 2024 23:31

For eons, humanity has been fixated upon a very peculiar question: is there life beyond Earth? Is Outer Space inhabitable by a large human population? Could there be a planet out there in the universe that happens to be livable and capable of sustaining life – but, more importantly, accessible by humanity?

What if there were life on Venus, or Saturn, or Mars?

I am no astrophysicist or biologist. Yet I have received some (limited) training in a discipline that allows me to muse over questions beyond the “surly bonds of the Earth”. Indeed, in lieu of directly answering the question, let us turn our attention to the philosophical and intellectual roots of it. Why, if at all, should we care for the question of whether extra-terrestrial life exists? What is it in this question that tickles our fancy?

The most obvious answer lies with the cosmic nature of our curiosity and knowledge inquisitions. Humanity has long been drawn to the endless abyss that is the cosmos – not only in the physical or metaphysical sense, through star-gazing, heated and intense debates between Galileo and the folklore of yore over whether the Earth is the center of the universe, the reflections and pontification of Heraclitus and Herodotus, ancient Greek philosophers who found time, space, and the universe fascinating foods and roots for thought.

Yet there is also the more abstract and symbolic sense in which the question is interpreted – with many associating the cosmos with the Big Ask: “Why are we here? Where did we come from?” Understanding what lies in the heavens above, seemingly offers us insights into life below. After all, the Chinese referred to the world we live in as “All under Heaven” (Tianxia).

We are desperate to find out if there is life out there. Yet we remain paradoxically torn over the answer we would like to hear.

On one hand, many amongst us wish to believe – and want to continue to believe, even despite potentially contrary facts – that our existence is unique: that humanity is sui generis, special, and cannot be imitated or replaced by alternative life forms. It is this sense of privileged solitude that gives rise to the veneer of self-superiority grounding our attitudes towards the world around us. We justify the exploitation of the environment, our flirtations with potentially world-ending technology, and the implicit hierarchy undergirding our treatment of non-human animals, through invoking the cliched assertion – that we are the ‘highest’ life-form there could be in the known universe. What is our benchmark for “highest” or “lowest”, you may ask? No answer is needed: the sheer fact of our privileged solitude suffices in legitimating, for us, the powers we believe we could permissibly exercise. It also lends credibility to our hubristic zeal in pursuing the actions we see ourselves as entitled to, unfazed by their moral consequences.

Yet there is also the other side of the story. To be alone, is naturally a frightening thought. To be the only world that manages to survive the extraordinarily harsh conditions of the universe’s long arc of historical evolution – a vulnerable or fragile world, if you will, per the popular conjecture – gives us a twisted sense of noblesse oblige. A cognizance of responsibility that typically remains at the back of our minds, that nevertheless chips away at our fundamental self-worth and sense of security.

Furthermore, what if we are no more than a fluke, and a fluke whose continued existence is neither guaranteed nor likely? What if life remains an anomaly, an exception, and an interruption in the long arc of empty, vacuous history? For Planet Earth to be the sole planet bearing the fruits of life in the universe, is a rather cumbersome and onerous thought – for it suggests there is no Plan B; no one who could come to our rescue if our planet is in distress; no alternative recourse for those of us who seek an escape from the stifling homogeneity and the cacophony of constructed and contrived values underpinning the behaviours of the 8 billion on this planet. We don’t have a choice. We all bear responsibility to make this gigantic experiment work, and to keep this ship afloat.

Now there are of course select techno-optimists who would argue that our ability to travel through space, to settle upon other planets, to turn them into our own homes, is what gives us that second chance – that ability to pursue and seek out a new life, free from the shackles of a planet left ruinous and contaminated by climate change, pandemics, deceit and mendacity, vitriol and violence. “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Or so the cliched saying goes. A fresh start!

But this argument misses the point. “Is there life on Mars?” is not merely a question about whether Mars can be inhabited by humans. It hints at the deeper, more enticing question that the physicist Ye Wenjie in The Three Body Problem asked herself, as she sent out that fateful message to outer space: could humanity be redeemed by a civilisation that is not our own? Could an extraterrestrial civilisation salvage us from our excesses? Or is there no hope for such redemption, for there is no one out there, or, alternatively, for aliens and humanity alike all share the inevitable thirst for power and dominance?

We yearn and crave for a more hopeful future for humanity, yet inadvertently project our high hopes onto the unknown, the distant, and the tangibly intangibles. Such projection drives us to want to find out answers about unanswerable questions. It is this endless search, this constant dissatisfaction with the answers that we already possess, that has fueled our interest in space exploration, tourism, and, eventually, settlement.

David Bowie indirectly addressed the titular question in his eponymous song. “Take a look at the law man, beating up the wrong guy. Oh man – wonder if he’ll ever know, he’s in the best-selling show. Is there life on Mars?”

I don’t think we can ever, truly, know. We will know what we want to know, and refuse to know what we really ought to know.

Assistant Professor, HKU