I love imagining what it would be like to live on other planets. What if the Orion Nebula filled the sky each night—a giant specter spreading its gossamer wings over our heads? Imagine if rings of fragmented rock tens of thousands of miles wide encircled the planet, rings that could be clearly seen during the day splitting the sky in half, ice crystals in the rings refracting the light in a beautiful spectrum of colors. Or what if our planet orbited two stars? How would that affect our mythos? Our philosophies? Our religions? How would we define ourselves differently?
The latter cosmic phenomenon we don’t have to imagine anymore. The Kepler probe discovered a planet (called Kepler-16b) that is part of a binary solar system. This is the first empirical proof of a planetary body orbiting two stars. Though only a gas giant (which makes watching a dual sunset from its surface a bit difficult), 16b brings up a host of possibilities—with intriguing implications. Civilizations use physical environment to define their societies. The Egyptians worshiped the sun god Ra. On planet 16b, Ra would have a younger brother. They would battle daily for supremacy of the sky, one occasionally eclipsing the other. Moral lessons would perhaps be drawn from their cosmic duel: “Though the two brothers fought throughout the day, in the evening they both came to rest on the same horizon.” Monotheism would perhaps be an entirely alien concept (pun intended).
There are biological implications as well. Life forms on that planet would probably be less sensitive to light, and be able to endure our hottest days of the year without any complaint. And if a planet found itself orbiting between the two stars, there would be no night. Eyes would never evolve to see in the dark (except for cave dwelling animals or creatures that lived underwater).
This is all speculation, of course. But it emphasizes how physical circumstances play a large role in how not only our species evolves, but how our philosophies and religions evolve. If I follow that line of logic long enough, I could argue that physical circumstances define purpose. Meaning is a construct created as our experiences wind their way through physical circumstances. The objects that surround us are more than just inanimate objects (what Jean-Paul Sartre called the thing-in-itself) existing solely outside of our consciousness. They become part of us as we interact with them. Existence is a duality between the mind and external objects.
I could stare at the concept images of 16b all day, imagining how different my life and our civilization would be if Earth orbited two stars. I’m cynical enough to declare that our more malevolent behaviors would never be truncated by a change in scenery. But I’m optimistic enough to concede that possibilities, future possibilities of individuals and of societies, can be created and destroyed by mere objects shifting our perspectives and playing a dynamic part in how we define ourselves.
Check out the NASA article about Kepler-16b: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/news/kepler-16b.html