Many Worlds: Cosmotheology
It is important that we define what we mean by â€œthe new universeâ€ before we try to study its theological implications. The essential elements of the new universe may be emphasized by comparing the view of A.R. Wallace at the turn of the century with the Space Telescope’s Hubble Deep Field at its end. The universe of Wallace, co-founder with Darwin of the theory of natural selection, was only 3,600 light years in diameter (Figure 1). It was static, gave humanity a central position, and harbored no extraterrestrials. The Hubble Deep Field (Figure 2), by contrast, reveals a universe some 12 billion light years in extent, whose central theme is cosmic evolution, full of billions of evolving galaxies floating in an Einsteinian space-time with no center. Cosmic evolution, it is conjectured, has produced not only planets, stars, and galaxies, but also life, mind, and intelligence.
The Biological Universe
While the abundance of extraterrestrial life is by no means proven, it is the view accepted by many working on the origins of life, has seemed likely to most astronomers for thirty years, and is the working hypothesis of those in the growing hybrid fields of bioastronomy and astrobiology. More than that, it is the view widely accepted by the public, as conveyed over the past forty years by the astronomers Harlow Shapley, Carl Sagan, Frank Drake, Eric Chaisson, and Armand Delsemme, among many others. This new world view of a universe full of life, produced by cosmic evolution, I call â€œthe biological universe.â€ The central assumptions of the biological universe are that planetary systems are common, that life originates wherever conditions are favorable, and that evolution culminates with intelligence. Alien morphology and intelligence may not be similar to that on Earth, but at least some who subscribe to the biological universe believe that compatible technologies (most commonly, radio astronomy) will allow us to communicate. Decipherment of an extraterrestrial message could take a slow or fast track, with diverging consequences depending on the nature of the message.(1)
Beyond the biological universe, the anthropic principle and other considerations lead us to believe that our universe may be only one of many. These, presumably, undergo their own forms of cosmic evolution, within a â€œmultiverseâ€ too vast to conceive.(2)
The transformation from the simple diagram of Wallace to the striking image presented by the Hubble Deep Field is a drastic change over one century, a new world view that theologies ignore at their peril and must eventually accommodate if they are to remain in touch with the real world. Although this accommodation took place over centuries for the Copernican world view, and is still in process for the Darwinian world view, a systematic study of the theological implications of the new universe is not only a task whose time has come, but one that is long overdue. Indeed, the decade of the 1990s has seen an upturn of interest in the general implications of the new universe, especially in connection with the existence of extraterrestrial life. In 1991-1992 NASA convened a series of workshops on the Cultural Aspects of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), as it was about to launch its SETI program. Theology was only a small part of that discussion, but the Proceedings show the richness of the questions that remain to be asked. Such meetings have had little public impact, but in the wake of claims of fossil life in Martian meteorite ALH84001, media speculations about the implications of life reached a wide and receptive audience. The interest also extends to the highest levels of government; in 1996 Vice President Al Gore convened a meeting that included several theologians to discuss the implications of possible life on Mars and beyond. The current NASA Astrobiology Roadmap recognizes as one of its four Principles â€œa broad societal interest in our subject, especially in areas such as the search for extraterrestrial life and the potential to engineer new life forms adapted to live on other worlds.â€(3)
The awareness that these questions need to be addressed, and the rudimentary discussion thus far, ought to inspire increased thought, word, and action at many levels in the near future. In this essay I emphasize the importance of history in informing this discussion and providing a foundation for it. I then indicate what elements might constitute a â€œcosmotheology,â€ the need to rethink our conception of God in light of the new universe, and the implications for human destiny.
Historical Approaches to Studying Theological Implications
Among the possible approaches to studying theological implications of the new universe, I confine myself here to historical approaches. From the point of view of the history of science, at least three areas may contribute to the study of the theological implications of the new universe. First, the history of science allows us to place the new universe in the context of past scientific world views and to make cautious use of the trajectories of these scientific world views as analogs or guides for our thinking about the potential impacts of the biological universe. Other historical analogs also may be illuminating. Second, ideas discussed during the development of the concept of cosmic evolution, including the implications of extraterrestrial life, form a background for further discussion that should be neither forgotten nor dismissed. Third, the imaginations of the best science fiction writers provide ample food for thought in the theological realm.
The latter two approaches bear on the content of a possible cosmotheology, while the first addresses its diffusion. In addition to these approaches, a knowledge of history also contributes in broader ways, notably by careful attention to the history and evolution of religions and their accompanying theologies.
The Trajectories of World Views and Other Analogs
As I suggest in The Biological Universe, the idea of a universe full of life is more than just another theory or hypothesis; it is rather a kind of world view, which we may call the biophysical cosmology or simply the biological universe. The Gallup polls tell us that the majority of well-educated Americans today subscribe to the biological universe, and a large number even believe the aliens have arrived. At one extreme, in 1996, thirty-nine people in the Heaven’s Gate cult went so far as to willingly give up their lives to the supposed aliens; millions more believe in alien abductions, and still more hold an extraterrestrial interpretation for UFOs. Nor is interest in these ideas by any means confined to the United States. We need not agree that aliens have arrived on Earth to believe that cosmic evolution may end in intelligence throughout the universe, that this may be seen as a world view analogous to Copernicanism and Darwinism, and that we would naturally expect the biological universe to have implications for many fields, just as Copernicanism and Darwinism have.
This, then, is my first conclusion: studying the rich literature in history of science of the implications of the Copernican, Darwinian, and other world views may help guide us in discussing the implications of the biological universe. Studies have shown, for example, how Darwin’s theory had distinctive impacts over the short term and the long term, and among scientists, theologians, and other segments of the population. The exploration of implications, including theological implications, is a stage in the development of any major world view and is also for the biological universe (Table 1)(4) . At the same time it is important to emphasize that in no way can these analogs predict an outcome, which will depend in any case on the circumstances of discovery.
Other historical analogs also are possible. If the contact is remote intellectual contact rather than physical contact, one might invoke the transmission of Greek knowledge to the Latin West via the Arabs in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. What historian Arnold Toynbee called â€œencounters between civilizations in timeâ€ are particularly apt comparisons because they deal with the transmission of knowledge from noncontemporary civilizations across time. If the contact is physical, there are ample cases (usually negative) of culture contact on Earth. Each of these contact scenarios also carries theological implications.(5)
Of course, we might argue that no historical analogs are valid, because the information acquired will be unlike anything that has ever happened on Earth before. While this is possible, it assumes substantive message content and rapid decipherment, neither of which is assured. Historical analogs provide a starting point, grounded in human behavior and experience, for discussion of a whole range of issues.
Issues from the Extraterrestrial Life Debate
As cosmic evolution has become more widely accepted in the twentieth century, a variety of philosophical and ethical questions have been discussed.(6) The role of chance and necessity in the context of the origin of life, for example, received a classic treatment in Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity (1971) and is a constant theme running through the extraterrestrial life debate. The problems of self-organization in the origin of life, directionality in evolution, and the nature and possibility of objective knowledge are intrinsic to the matrix of questions surrounding the biological universe. We need to be aware of this history as background for any further discussion of theological implications.
Furthermore, as a subset of the history of cosmic evolution, the history of the extraterrestrial life debate is a rich source of ideas on theological implications. The concept of life on other worlds has been a religious challenge, at least in the Christian world, since the fifteenth century, when it was asked in one of the numerous commentaries on Aristotle’s works â€œWhether Christ by dying on this earth could redeem the inhabitants of another world.â€ The standard answer was that he could, because Christ could not die in another world. Because the medieval Scholastics did not believe other worlds actually existed, however, the whole exercise for them was academic.
A more serious phase began in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, under the impetus of the Copernican theory. The Roman Inquisition burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 in part because of his belief in an infinite number of worlds. Galileo’s observations hardly had been committed to print when Kepler wondered, â€œIf there are globes in the heavens similar to our earth, do we vie with them over who occupies a better portion of the universe? For if their globes are nobler, we are not the noblest of rational creatures. Then how can all things be for man’s sake? How can we be the masters of God’s handiwork?â€ (If that sounds familiar, it may be because H.G. Wells used it as the prelude to his War of the Worlds in 1897). Seventeenth-century writers weighed scriptural objections to the idea of life on other worlds against the benefits to natural theology in a Newtonian universe that otherwise seemed to have little need for God. In the end natural theology largely won out, so that extraterrestrials were widely accepted by the beginning of the eighteenth century, resulting in what William Derham (1715) termed â€œastrotheology.â€(7)
By the end of the eighteenth century, Thomas Paine bluntly stated in his Age of Reason that extraterrestrials and Christianity did not mix, and â€œhe who thinks he believes in both has thought but little of either.â€ Paine made no secret of the fact that he accepted other worlds. A great deal of thought subsequently went into analyzing the relationship between the two; during the numerous nineteenth century discussions of the subject some rejected Christianity, others rejected a plurality of worlds, and still others found ways to reconcile the two.(8)
In the twentieth century the discussion has, until recently, been more muted or expressed in science fiction. Nevertheless, a pattern begins to emerge in the twentieth century. In interviews with twenty-one religious authorities from a variety of religions, one researcher found that none of the authorities believed extraterrestrial intelligence created a theological or religious problem, not even the seventeen who were virtually certain extraterrestrial intelligence existed. Internal to religions, flexibility seems to be the watchword, whereas those external to religion proclaim the imminent death of religions after such a wrenching discovery as extraterrestrial intelligence. Either way, it is difficult to disagree with Arthur C. Clarke, who wrote in his 1951 volume The Exploration of Space that some people â€œare afraid that the crossing of space, and above all contact with intelligent but nonhuman races, may destroy the foundations of their religious faith. They may be right, but in any event their attitude is one which does not bear logical examination-for a faith which cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets.â€(9)
Role of the Imagination
Although science fiction is often dismissed by serious scholars (and much of it should be), the best of it is a source of original thought that should not be ignored. And of course the alien has been one of the perennial themes of science fiction.
Among authors who should be considered in this category are David Lindsay, whose A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) uses alien beings in a search for deeper reality; the British philosopher Olaf Stapledon, whose Star Maker (1937) universe was full of aliens seeking the meaning of life and mind in the universe; C.S. Lewis, whose Silent Planet trilogy placed Christianity in a cosmic context; and Arthur C. Clarke, whose Childhood’s End (1953) also involved a religious vision. Carl Sagan’s Contact not only depicted one possible theological reaction to the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, but also broached the question of theological versus scientific truth. Most recently, Mary Dorrit Russell’s The Sparrow (1997) and its sequel Children of God (1998) delivered a wrenching story about a Jesuit mission of first contact.
All these science fiction stories, and many more, contain well-considered ideas in the context of the new world view of cosmic evolution. When transferred onto the medium of television or film, they reach an even broader audience with higher emotional impact, although not always with facts that should be viewed as confirming the biological universe. The popularity of Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979), E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), and Independence Day (1996); the more cerebral ideas of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Contact (1997); and the growing numbers of Star Trekkers and X-Files fans around the world represent a phenomenon that is more than just entertainment. These stories of mythic proportion broaden our horizons; they force us to consider our place in the universe; they make us wonder whether the universe is full of good, as in E.T., or evil, as in Alien. And they make us realize that terrestrial concepts of God and theology are only a subset of the possible.
Some might argue that we should not change our theologies until we know with more certainty the ultimate outcome of cosmic evolution. That is why so much now hinges on the search for planetary systems, on experiments and observations related to the origin of life, and on studies of the evolution of life and intelligence. But the probable truth we now face is that cosmic evolution ends with the biological universe, although one can certainly argue how abundant intelligence might be. That the origin of terrestrial life occurred 3.8 billion years ago, shortly after the heavy bombardment of the Earth ceased, may be a clue that single-celled organisms originate rather easily, perhaps with the help of organic molecules from space. But the fact that for two billion years bacteria ruled the Earth until even the nucleated (eukaryotic) cell was evolved and that another billion years passed until multicellular life proliferated in the Cambrian explosion, might argue for a universe full of bacteria. On the other hand, optimists argue that in a universe more than twelve billion years old (even though some of that time was needed to generate the elements for life in several generations of stars), not only has intelligence had time to evolve, but it is likely to be immensely older and therefore more advanced than homo sapiens. Even if it turns out that intelligence is not abundant, it is clear that we will never return to Wallace’s small universe, much less the anthropocentric universe extant when many of the world’s major religions were born.
It is prudent, then, to proceed with what I call â€œcosmotheology.â€ Cosmotheology, as I define it, means using our ever-growing knowledge of the universe to modify, expand, or change entirely our current theologies, whatever they may be. In short, cosmotheology takes into account what we know about the cosmos. Let us begin with some general principles of any cosmotheology, examine the possible role of God in cosmotheology, and broach the implications of extraterrestrials for human destiny. Finally, I suggest that a â€œroadmap for cosmotheologyâ€ would encourage more systematic study.
Principles of Cosmotheology
Cosmotheology is to be distinguished from Derham’s eighteenth-century astrotheology in that the main thrust of the former is not to offer proof of God or God’s attributes, but to use Nature to inform a much broader range of theological discussion. The history of the extraterrestrial life debate gives us some idea of the elements of a cosmotheology as perceived by our predecessors. Although we need not be bound by their limits, the problems of the new universe for Christianity are fairly clear, and will become clearer for other religions as their attitudes toward life on other worlds become better known. Whatever the tenets of a specific religion, we offer five general principles for cosmotheology.
1. Cosmotheology must take into account that humanity is in no way physically central in the universe; we are located on a small planet around a star on the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy. Although we have known this now for most of the century, and although it gives urgency to the religious questions (especially the Incarnation) raised in the wake of the Copernican theory, this revelation has resulted in no change of doctrine to any of the world’s anthropocentric religions.
2. Cosmotheology must take into account that humanity probably is not central biologically. We may be unique in the sense that Loren Eiseley so poetically wrote when he said:
â€œNowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness. There may be wisdom; there may be power; somewhere across space great instruments, handled by strange, manipulative organs, may stare vainly at our floating cloud wrack, their owners yearning as we yearn. Nevertheless, in the nature of life and in the principles of evolution we have had our answer. Of men elsewhere, and beyond, there will be none forever.â€ (10)
But uniqueness of form does not make us central to the story of the universe. Nor, one would think, should it make us the special object of attention of any deity.
3. Cosmotheology must take into account that humanity is most likely somewhere near the bottom, or at best midway, in the great chain of intelligent beings in the universe. This follows from the age of the universe and the youth of our species. The universe is in excess of ten billion years old. The genus homo evolved only two million years ago, and archaic homo sapiens only 500,000 years ago. Homo sapiens sapiens is considerably younger than that, and terrestrial civilization and history cover only a few millennia. Even taking into account that the universe needed billions of years to generate the ingredients for life, if nature does select for intelligence, it has probably been doing so at numerous sites long before we arrived on the scene. Surely this has relevance to the question of our relation to any universal deity.
4. Cosmotheology must be open to radically new conceptions of God, not necessarily the God of the ancients, nor the God of human imagination, but a God grounded in cosmic evolution, the biological universe, and the three principles stated above.
5. Cosmotheology must have a moral dimension, extended to include all species in the universe-a reverence and respect for life that we find difficult enough to foster on Earth. While the challenge of this principle should not be underestimated, it will perhaps also make us realize that homo sapiens is one, after all, despite superficial differences.
In my opinion, religions will adjust to these cosmotheological principles because the alternative is extinction. The adjustment will be most wrenching for those monotheistic religions that see man in the image of God (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), a one-to-one relationship with a single Godhead. It will be less wrenching for Eastern religions that teach salvation through individual enlightenment (Buddhism and Hinduism) rather than through a Savior, or that are this-worldly (Confucianism) rather than otherworldly. The adjustment will not be to the physical world, as in Copernicanism, nor to the biological world, as in Darwinism, where man descended from the apes but still remained at the top of the terrestrial world. Rather the adjustment will be to the biological universe, in which intelligences are likely to be superior to us for reasons stated above.
A Natural God? The Role of God in Cosmotheology
It is entirely possible that in contemplating changes to current theological doctrines of particular religions we are too parochial in our thinking. In a chapter on â€œThe Meaning of Lifeâ€ in The Biological Universe, I wrote:
â€œIn the end, the effect on theology and religion may be quite different from any impact on the narrow religious doctrines that have been discussed during the twentieth century. It may be that in learning of alien religions, of alien ways of relating to superior beings, the scope of terrestrial religion will be greatly expanded in ways that we cannot foresee.â€ (11)
This is, in fact, very likely, and nowhere more than in our basic concept of God, which may need to undergo wholesale transformation. The basis for this new concept might be found in the discussion of extraterrestrial intelligence; indeed, in some ways SETI may be seen as a religious quest. This is not a characterization that SETI proponents favor, but SETI is, after all, a search for a superior intelligence, for knowledge (omniscience?), for wisdom, and perhaps for power (omnipotence?). The major difference is that the intelligence is not supernatural. This brings us to the concept of a â€œnatural Godâ€ as opposed to the supernatural God of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions.
The concept of a natural God – a God in the universe rather than outside it-seems so unnatural to human minds (especially in the Western world) because we have been conditioned to believe otherwise; indeed, it is heretical to most established monotheistic religions. This idea of a supernatural God is, of course, a historical artifact, a product of the evolution of human thought. It was the great innovation of the Judaic tradition, which began about four thousand years ago, to conceive over the course of centuries a single, omnipotent, and supernatural Yahweh. That concept was developed in the context of the political, economic, and social conditions of the ancient Near East. Although it has proven a resilient and flexible concept, a supernatural God is no different from other powerful ideas developed throughout history, in the sense that it is useful, persistent, and subject to change. Moreover, considering the divergence of human ideas of God, there is no basis for expecting convergence of theistic ideas by intelligences on other planets throughout the universe. Unless, that is, there is some scientific basis for it.
The subsequent spread of the idea of this supernatural God, and its reforms in the Christian and Islamic traditions, has been the subject of numerous books over the centuries.(12) It need hardly be said, however, that the historical evolution of this idea, and its widespread acceptance in Judaic, Christian, and Islamic cultures, does not necessarily make it true. Why, we may well ask, could God not be natural? Although this raises the specter of pantheism, the natural God we have in mind is not the God of Spinoza for whom God was indwelling in nature. Our natural God is compatible with the concept of Einstein, for whom God â€œdoes not play diceâ€ nor concern himself with the fate and actions of men. But Einstein’s God â€œappears as the physical world itself, with its infinitely marvelous structure operating at atomic level with the beauty of a craftsman’s wristwatch, and at stellar level with the majesty of a massive cyclotron.â€(13)
Closer to what we mean by a natural God is the concept raised fifteen years ago in a popular work of the iconoclastic British astronomer Fred Hoyle. In his volume The Intelligent Universe, Hoyle proposed that God may be a superior but worldly intelligence, and he used the concept to explain why the universe is fit for life and why life increases in complexity, in contrast to everything around it, which is in chaos or decay.(14) We need not accept that interpretation to posit the existence of a natural God with many of the same characteristics as the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with the major exception that the God of nature is, by definition, not supernatural, not transcendent in the sense of being outside the world.
A major effect of the concept of a natural God is that it has the capacity to reconcile science and religion. For those with a vested interest in the supernatural God of most standard religions, this may be too great a sacrifice for reconciliation. But consider the benefits. A natural God is an intelligence in and of the world, a God amenable to scientific methods, or at least approachable by them. A supernatural God incorporates a concept all scientists reject in connection with their science. For some, this may be precisely the point: that God cannot be, and should not be, approachable by science. But for Einstein and many other scientists (perhaps expressed in a different way for the latter) â€œthe cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.â€(15)
Such a radical change in the concept of God raises the question, â€œIs God necessary?â€ In other words, if we â€œretreatâ€ to a natural God, why have God at all? This is analogous to the question asked in the wake of Newton’s theory of gravitation: if gravitation kept the solar system working, what need was there of God? This was a difficult question to answer, but Newtonians countered by promoting natural theology – the idea that the magnificence of the universe was a reflection of the magnificence and power of the Creator. We need not adopt a similar strategy; the point is that advanced extraterrestrial intelligence could possess many of the same characteristics now attributed to the supernatural God of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. Such advanced intelligence could have fine tuned the physical constants, thus explaining the conundrum of the anthropic principle. In principle, it could even â€œintervene in human history,â€ the touchstone principle of the Christian faith, not to mention of the UFO and alien abductee advocates.
But, I hasten to add, there is no accepted evidence for alien intervention on the cosmic or terrestrial level. It may be that God is necessary only from a social or psychological point of view; if that is the case, we may as well have a natural God within the realm of the real world, rather than a supernatural one with attributes so often the source of personal agony, guilt, and religious wars. Whether or not God is necessary, it may well be that another thousand years of evolution of theology will show the futility of the current division between the Heavens and the Earth – one the home of God, the other of humanity – in the same way that it took two thousand years to reject Aristotle’s celestial-terrestrial dichotomy in science. The idea of the â€œholy,â€ the â€œnuminous,â€ and the â€œdivine,â€ and the quest for the otherworldly, however, will likely remain as a part of human nature.
The success of a SETI program in which information is exchanged is bound to accelerate this evolution in human thought. In The Biological Universe, I speculated that â€œit may be that religion in a universal sense is defined as the never-ending search of each civilization for others more superior than itself. If this is true, then SETI may be science in search of religion, and astrotheology [equivalent to cosmotheology in this passage] may be the ultimate reconciliation of science with religion.â€ The need for a superior, but not supernatural, intelligence may remain at the heart of the religious quest, with the relationship between humanity and the superior intelligence radically altered in terms of today’s theologies.
Beyond Cosmotheology: Human Destiny
In the end, theology addresses questions of meaning and purpose, and thus questions of our place in the universe. In asking whether we will be â€œat home in the universe,â€ in the words of Stuart Kauffman, the answer must be that we do not know, because we still do not know where we fit in the great chain of being.(16) We know nothing about good and evil in the universe in the context of extraterrestrial civilizations. Thus, the meaning and purpose of the universe will not be known until we know more about whether or not there is a biological universe. The famous passage of Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg that â€œthe more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,â€ did not take into account the possibilities inherent in the biological universe.(17) Surely meaning and purpose in the universe would be quite different if we are its only life rather than one of many sentient races. And therefore theologies would be quite different. Human destiny would be quite different also; if we are alone, it may be our destiny to fill the universe with life. If extraterrestrial intelligence is abundant, it will be our destiny to interact with that intelligence, whether for good or ill, for life seeks out life.
It is here that the fifth cosmotheological principle comes into play. The moral dimension-a reverence and respect for extraterrestrial intelligence that may be morphologically very different from terrestrial life forms-will surely challenge a species that has come to blows over superficial racial and national differences. If we are wise, humanity will realize that our species is one, a necessary realization before we have any hope of dealing with extraterrestrial beings in a morally responsible way.(18) Whether intelligence is rare or abundant, whether life is of a lower order or a higher order than homo sapiens, human destiny is intimately connected with cosmic evolution. Our earlier message, reinforced by Arthur C. Clarke, bears repeating: any theology that ignores the facts of cosmic evolution as understood over the last century does so at the peril of being divorced from reality.
Summary: The Way Ahead
I suggest the time is ripe for us to take cosmotheology seriously, to consider how religions and their accompanying theologies should change in light of what we now know about the universe, and what we are likely to know in the future: we are not the only intelligent creatures in the universe, most likely not the most superior, and most likely not unique in any way except in biological details. It may even be time for an entirely new theology based on a transformed concept of God. The question is how to proceed. No one will disagree that all past discussions amount to sporadic suggestions, not systematic cosmotheologies. No Thomas Aquinas for cosmotheology has yet appeared to reconcile current doctrine with new world views. Nor is it clear that such reconciliation is our primary task. As I have suggested, perhaps we need to move beyond current theology, to step back and ask what we would do if we started over, given what we now know about the universe.
Unlike space projects with deadlines, theology is unaccustomed to roadmaps to lead the way. But in the sense of encouraging a systematic discussion, something analogous to a roadmap for cosmotheology, an outline of important questions and possible approaches to them, is perhaps not out of hand. In this paper I have given possible approaches to cosmotheology as a historian of science. But a more comprehensive roadmap must originate from many points of view. An important desideratum for any discipline is systematic discussion without, however, exclusion of well-considered ideas. It is important that we consider discussion in a broad way, according to the outlines of some roadmap, feeling free to wander the unexpected byways off the main freeways. At least we can define the parameters of the problem, point to the major areas of concern, and perhaps set an agenda for the future.
The year 2000 is the four hundredth anniversary of the death of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in February 1600. Bruno’s burning occurred little more than a half century after the introduction of the Copernican theory, which fed his vision of the new universe. We now stand at about the same point after the first stirrings of the new world view known as cosmic evolution, the beginnings of the biological universe. Bruno’s anniversary, a symbol of the need for science and theology to engage in rational discussion at all levels, is an appropriate time to take stock of the implications of the new universe for theology. Bruno will be looking over our collective shoulders, amazed himself at the new universe, but hopeful that its implications will be accepted in a more rational way than in his day, when the scientific world view was dawning on the Western world. Pope John Paul II gave impetus to this hope when, on the occasion of the four hundredth anniversary of the Gregorian reform of the calendar, he wrote:
â€œ. . . it is necessary for [the] relationship between faith and science to be constantly strengthened and for any past historical incidents which may be justly interpreted as being harmful to that relationship, to be reviewed by all parties as an opportunity for reform and for pursuing more harmonious communication. In brief, it must be the sincere desire of all to learn from history so as to gain insight into the positive direction that we must take together in the future.â€ (19)
The lessons of history and of science may take us further than the pope intended, but we should not shrink from the responsibility of rational thought.
For those who would argue that theology exceeds the boundaries of rational thought, I end with the closing words of Karen Armstrong’s magisterial A History of God:
â€œHuman beings cannot endure emptiness and desolation; they will fill the vacuum by creating a new focus of meaning. The idols of fundamentalism are not good substitutes for God; if we are to create a vibrant new faith in the twenty-first century, we should, perhaps, ponder the history of God for some lessons and warnings.â€ (20)
Surely the modern cosmos may serve as a new focus of meaning; it already has for many, and the numbers are increasing. Surely the history of God teaches us that the concept will persist, but that it ought to be adjusted to our knowledge of the universe. Surely history demonstrates that the true meaning of God is not grounded in any single human culture, but in the best elements of otherworldly thinking of all of them. To this body of thought we must now add the scientific world view, wherein the universe, or the multiverse, is large enough to encompass God. As we learn more about our place in the universe, and as we physically move away from our home planet, our cosmic consciousness will only increase. With due respect for present religious traditions whose history stretches back four millennia, the natural God of cosmic evolution and the biological universe, not the supernatural God of the ancient Near East, may be the God of the next millennium. Humanity in the year 3000 will undoubtedly be transformed scientifically in ways we can only dimly perceive. Considering the fractious nature of religions and their accompanying theologies today, one can only hope that homo religiosus also will be transformed.
1. I treat the origins of the new world view in detail in S.J. Dick, The Biological Universe: The Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), and Life on Other Worlds (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). For a recent statement of extraterrestrial life in the context of origins of life, C. de Duve, Vital Dust: Life as a Cosmic Imperative (New York: Basic Books, 1995). On the conveyance of the new universe to the public, H. Shapley, Of Stars and Men (Boston: Beacon Press, 1958); C. Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), among others; F. Drake and D. Sobel, Is Anyone Out There: The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (New York: Delacorte Press, 1992); E. Chaisson, Cosmic Dawn (Boston, 1981); and A. Delsemme, Our Cosmic Origins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). S.J. Dick, â€œThe Biophysical Cosmology: The Place of Bioastronomy in the History of Science,â€ in C.B. Cosmovici et al., eds., Astronomical and Biochemical Origins and the Search for Life in the Universe (Bologna: Editrice Compositori, 1997).
2. On the multiverse and the anthropic principle J. Leslie, Universes (London and New York: Routledge, 1989); L. Smolin, The Life of the Cosmos (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); and M. Rees, Before the Beginning: Our Universe and Others (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1997).
3. The results of the 1991-1992 NASA meetings are recorded in J. Billingham et al., eds., Social Implications of the Detection of an Extraterrestrial Civilization: A Report of the Workshops on the Cultural Aspects of SETI (Mountain View, Calif.: SETI Press, 1999; available from the SETI Institute, 2035 Landings Dr., Mountain View, CA 94043). The vice president’s meeting is discussed in A. Lawler, â€œOrigins Researchers Win Gore’s Ear, Not Pocketbook,â€ Science, 274 (1996), 2003. The Astrobiology Roadmap is at http://astrobiology.arc.nasa.gov/roadmap/.
4. In addition to The Biological Universe and its update Life on Other Worlds, see S.J. Dick, â€œConsequences of Success in SETI: Lessons from the History of Science,â€ in G.S. Shostak, ed., Progress in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life (San Francisco: Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1995), 521-532; I. Almar, â€œThe Consequences of a Discovery: Different Scenarios,â€ Ibid., 499-505. On the impact of Darwinism, P.J. Bowler, Evolution: The History of an Idea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); D. Hull, Darwin and His Critics: The Reception of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by the Scientific Community (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973); and, for the short-term impact, P.J. Vorzimmer, Charles Darwin: The Years of Controversy: The Origin of Species and its Critics, 1859-82 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1970).
5. Dick, â€œConsequences of Success in SETI,â€ 521-532; A. Toynbee, A Study of History, vol. 9 (London: Oxford University Press, 1954).
6. P. Davies, Are We Alone? Philosophical Implications of the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995); Dick, The Biological Universe and Life on Other Worlds; E. Regis, ed., Extraterrestrials: Science and Alien Intelligence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); R.O. Randolph, M.S. Race, and C.P. McKay, â€œReconsidering the Theological and Ethical Implications of Extraterrestrial Life,â€ CTNS [Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences] Bulletin, 17, no. 3 (1997), 1-8.
7. S.J. Dick, Plurality of Worlds: The Origins of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate From Democritus to Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); William Derham, Astro-Theology: Or a Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God from a Survey of the Heavens (London, 1715).
8. M.J. Crowe, â€œThe Extraterrestrial Life Debate,â€ 1750-1900, The Idea of a Plurality of Worlds from Kant to Lowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); M.J. Crowe, â€œA History of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate,â€ Zygon, 32 (June 1997), 147-162.
9. M. Askenazi, â€œNot the Sons of Adam: Religious Response to ETI,â€ Space Policy, 8 (1992), 341-350; R. Puccetti, Persons: A Study of Possible Moral Agents in the Universe (London: MacMillan, 1968). The history of twentieth century discussions of theological implications has been given in Dick, The Biological Universe and Life on Other Worlds, and T. Peters, â€œExo-Theology: Speculations on Extra-Terrestrial Life,â€ CTNS Bulletin, 14, no. 3 (1994), 1-9.
10. L. Eiseley, The Immense Journey (New York: Random House, 1957).
11. Dick, The Biological Universe, 526.
12. Most recently, K. Armstrong, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993).
13. R.W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times (New York: Avon Books, 1972), 38; A. Einstein, â€œReligion and Science,â€ in Ideas and Opinions (New York: Bonanza Books, 1954), 36-40.
14. F. Hoyle, The Intelligent Universe (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983), especially chapters 8 and 9. Hoyle based his concept of a â€œlarge-scale intelligenceâ€ on quantum mechanics. Chapter 8 describes this intelligence as one that works in a reversed time sense, from future to past, controlling individual quantum events and giving rise to the â€œinformation-rich universeâ€ that biology represents. Chapter 9 describes an intelligence that works, like ourselves, from past to future but is superior to us. This intelligence, which in Hoyle’s view created carbon-based life, â€œis firmly within the universe, and is subservient to itâ€ (p. 236).
15. Einstein, â€œReligion and Science,â€ 39.
16. S. Kauffman, At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
17. S. Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 154-155.
18. On the problem of morality in relation to extraterrestrials, see M. Ruse, â€œIs Rape Wrong on Andromeda? An Introduction to Extraterrestrial Evolution, Science and Morality,â€ in E. Regis, Jr., Extraterrestrials: Science and Alien Intelligence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 43-78.
19. G.V. Coyne, S.J., M.A. Hoskin, and O. Pedersen, eds., Gregorian Reform of the Calendar (Vatican, 1983), XXI.
20. K. Armstrong, A History of God, 399.