There has been much news coverage, during the past week, of the experimental Mars probe, Schiaparelli, which is now suspected to have exploded upon landing on Mars. No doubt, in time, another spacecraft will be sent to the Red Planet with the purpose of investigating whether there has ever been, or currently is, life there. Personally, I fail to see how this astronomically high expense can be justified, given the lack of funds alleged by our various governments to tackle the pressing problems on this, the Blue Planet. But that’s an issue apart. Listening to various scientists speculating about whether or not there is life on Mars made me wonder – how would we know for sure?
If the sophisticated machines show that there is life on Mars, then I suppose the proof will be irrefutable. If, however, they find no evidence of life, how could we be 100% certain that these findings are accurate and true, in other words, that they correspond to actual reality? I can’t see how lack of evidence can possibly be considered as proof either way.
It’s been widely observed that animals exhibit unusual behaviour and sometimes even flee before an earthquake. I don’t mean domestic animals, of course, many of whom have been overbred to serve and depend on us to the point where they have lost many of their survival instincts (once, as a teenager, I woke up in the middle of the night because I felt my bed being jolted and saw a couple of books fall off the shelf, while my dog, curled up at my feet, was fast asleep, snoring away). How do these animals know there’s an impending earthquake when human machines are unable to predict them? One can deduce that they possess a way of sensing them either through glands or other perception organs that are more refined and sophisticated than human-made machines.
In medicine, successful experiments have recently been conducted with dogs and cancer detection. It appears that dogs can “sniff” certain cancers with an accuracy rate of over 90%. This suggests that their senses are far more developed that those of humans. Many pet owners will have observed that their cats and dogs know instinctively which grass or herbs to eat in the field when they are ill. Most humans are not so in tune with their own bodies and require a doctor to tell them what to eat or not eat. One could say that the authority of technology and science has bred instinct out of us, too.
My cat, Genie, knew when I was coming home despite my erratic working hours. I’m told that about twenty minutes before I arrived, she would go and lie by the door, thus announcing to anyone at home that I was on my way. How did she know? Do you sense when your spouse/partner/flatmate is about to come home?
There are countless examples of cases where animals are aware of realities we, humans, are not, which goes to prove the limits of our perception of the world.
* * *
Humans have manufactured technologies, machines, tests and probes that are supposed to reveal more than our senses can, especially in the field of medicine. The purpose of a blood test, scan and X-ray is to detect what is, we believe, undetectable by our five senses. Machines have been known to show more sensitivity than humans. I remember one particular instance where my own experience showed this to be true. When we were living in France, a nightingale sang on the hill outside our balcony every morning at about 4 a.m. One day, my mother got up and tried recording the bird’s song on her National Panasonic cassette player. When we tried listening to it over breakfast we couldn’t hear the nightingale over the numerous rustling, humming and clicking sounds made by the other creatures of the night, which our ears were unable to pick up.
Still, I think it’s a fair assumption that we can only manufacture machines that our imagination allows us to manufacture. After all, we cannot make what we cannot imagine to be possible. By extension, our imagination is limited by our sensory perception, since it is the latter that informs us of the reality that surrounds us. Therefore, the same way as, being someone with “bat ears”, I can hear distant sounds people around me generally can’t, our knowledge of reality is made possible, and consequently also limited, by what we or our machines – designed within the span of our sensory abilities – can perceive. Just because we can’t see, hear, smell or touch something is not sufficient proof that it doesn’t exist.
* * *
On occasion, when the topic has arisen, I have been challenged by atheists to prove that there is a God. I can’t. Their conclusion was that because I can’t prove the existence of God, He doesn’t exist. I’ve responded by pointing out that they, equally, are unable to prove that He doesn’t.
I have come across people, in England, who assure me that not only do fairies exist, but that they have seen them with their own eyes. Personally, my automatic reply to anyone asking me if I believe in fairies would be, “Of course, I don’t,” but, if I were consistent with my reasoning, I would have to reply, “I don’t know. I have no experience of fairies.” After all, do I not see fairies because there are no fairies (or unicorns, or ghosts, or other apparitions) to be seen or because my senses are too obtuse to see them? I can’t answer that truthfully.
* * *
Back to Mars.
If our machines eventually detect a life form on the Red Planet, that would suggest that there is. However, if they don’t, it is equally possible that there isn’t life there and that there is. There could be a life form unlike any we can imagine, therefore undetectable by our machines and probes. It is also possible that creatures of this life form have destroyed the Schiaparelli probe, to discourage humans from encroaching on their space. And if it were so, who could blame them?
There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies…