Science Corner

Before modernity entered into the arc that is now played out, St Anselm suggested an interior proof of God's existence. Not only did God exist, he stated; because he could imagine God, God must exist. If one could imagine the greatest thing in the universe, in all universes, then it must exist because otherwise, there would be no greatest thing and nothing would exist at the end of things; since nothing was less than something, something had to be there.

There's a neatness to Anselm, but also an insecurity, which one can find in St Thomas too. Both men were products of a Western tradition which required proof for things, but which believed that proof could emerge from intimation and faith, rather than the other way around.

Some forms of modernity are like that. Modernity was, above all, about a particular sort of objectification. It held that all things were measurable, and that things existed outside of our immediate intuition or knowledge but which could be accessed by reason. No one has ever seen a particle, for instance, or been on the surface of Pluto, and until very recently, pictures and sounds and data had never been sent from other planets. Now, of course, one can click a link and listen to the winds of Titan.

In the midst of all this passion for the actually existing, people still hope. They read into 'facts' different premises. So, for instance, economists create measures that create trust in their measures--until something comes along, a 'three sigma event', for instance, that undermines their sigils. Then they fall back on faith.

Somewhere in modernity, the faith that there are other worlds, as real as Hy-Brasil off Donegal, or St Brendan's Land, exists in the most robust of heads. I find it intriguing that the 2000s was the decade when alien belief went, if not mainstream, then without the mocking laughter of the fearful.

Let's count the ways in which the modern, objective minds of scientists and engineers and military men started to play openly with life elsewhere and else life here, in the past ten years. Alien interference with missile bases, reported in the mainstream press? Check. The potential for life on Ganymede, Europa, Titan, Mars and Asteroids? Check. Vatican conferences on exobiology, attended by leading scientists? Check. UN contact policies? Check. Abortive US announcements of extraterrestrial life? Check. Peviously serious defence ministers from NATO countries talking of aliens? Check. I could go on.

Of course, one thing is different from another. It is one thing to find potentially contaminated rocks from Mars and declare them to possibly bear fossilised life, or to note the chemical and thermic organisation of tidal moons. It's fine--indeed essential--for scientists to speculate.

It's wholly another to leap to the idea of intelligent life in the universe. Why are people with reputations to preserve now not scared of doing so, and why are so many coming forward? Is it our new medievalism in which ideas and data overlap with wish and imposed pattern as much as states, sovereignties and identities are now confused?

Scientists in a media savvy age do need funding, and you can't all ride global warming, of course, but we should also remember that the most serious of people could be prone to the maddest of ideas. The CIA's stargate programme, for instance, springs to mind, as does the Soviet 'psychic research' that produced nothing but disinformation and lunacy in the west.

One can't help but notice, however, that the idea of extraterrestrial life is now more or less normal, and not without scientific support. It seems to have leapt away from the newspaper silly season and the crustier parts of public libraries, and out of the closets at the back of scientists' minds. I wonder if that is not one of the most significant developments of the past ten years, in terms of understanding how the late West thinks about itself. Frankly, a part of me also wonders if the normalisation is some vast emergent property of disinformation campaigns, or a symptom of the breakdown of modernity--or if someone knows something that they can't directly tell?

Comments

Rita said…
Good post.

I can get rather cross with some of the comments from the Vatican observatory. They seem very keen to flirt with the idea of alien life, even suggesting "norms" for alien baptism.

Theologically,extra-terrestrial life has to be a non-starter, unless ours in the only planet where the Fall took place. There would have to be other "queens of heaven" apart from Mary, if the Word became incarnate on other worlds.

It would be nice if the Church stuck its neck out and declared the search for ET null and void. We should never be frightened of appearing backward and Medieval.

ET seriously damages our notion of the sanctity of human life.
Martin Meenagh said…
Thanks for your comment, Rita, I appreciate it.

Does ET life have to be a non starter? Off the top of my head, if the incarnation was an event in time but out of it, affecting all humans before and after--even unborn--what happens if Aliens share bits of DNA or if DNA mutates in the future? The answer to that question probably reopens the arian heresy, in that the incarnation would become a vehicle for a separate, non-DNA based spirit. Secondly, what if the position that Christ saved only humans leads to humans becoming a sort of Galactic Jew, a member of a chosen race? That seems at odds with Pauline Christianity. Thirdly, if fallen angels can be incarnated into gadarene swine at the command of a creator, why not fallen life?

I think that there are very deep waters in the possibility of alien life for theologians, and they run more vast than that last time, when we debated whether Amerindians were fallen or not.

I think that there is clearly no problem for Muslims, or the Greek Orthodox, or Jews, but that there are clearly for Protestants. My own supposition is that Catholicism is universal by definition so will probably accomodate....

All of which leads to an interesting development of the logic which supports your argument not mine. If aliens could respond to the message or name of Christ, without sharing our DNA in some sort of cosmic panspermia, it would be because they were sentient and that this suggested an emergent soul. Would dolphins, pigs, or any other sentient being on earth (if we could show that they were or mutate them enough) be elevated to the status of fellow beings, who were therefore open to Christ's message?

In the very early years of contact, once it had been established, such questions would probably be devastating for congregations and the laity. Suggesting the possibility of life on other worlds was, after all, one of the reasons Giordano Bruno got himself into trouble; perhaps because the Church understood the intrinsic menace, but not the possibilities, that the concept opened up. I mean, just by following the logic of the post playfully, I'm one step away from Gnosticism, which is not great for an orthodox Catholic like myself....
Rita said…
Thanks for your reply.

I still think there are profound implications for Marian dogma if alien life forms are considered to be possible. This then becomes a profoundly Catholic problem.

You've also hit on some dangers I hadn't considered regarding the evolution of other sentinent species.

The opening chapters of Genesis have much to tell us about our special human nature; probably way beyond the scope of JPIIs Theology of the Body.
Martin Meenagh said…
I tend to agree though Marianism in its official form is a relatively recent dogma--just preceding Vatican One. I also wonder about the twinkle people reported in JPII's eye when he was asked about the creation story in Genesis and answered with the question 'which one?'.

I went looking for Benedict XVI's views after your comment, and found this, from his conversation with Peter Seewald in 'God and the World' pp120-121 in 2000;

[BXVI] : "It seems somehow obvious to suppose that we cannot be alone in this great immeasurable ocean of stars. We cannot absolutely exclude this hypothesis, because we have no cognizance of the whole breadth of God's thought and his creative work. Yet it is a fact that thus far all attempts to discover anything of this kind have failed. Meanwhile, one strand of thought, scientifically well grounded, tends to regard extraterrestrial life as being extremely improbable. Jacques Monod, for instance, who was certainly not a Christian, says that in view of everything we are able to discover about the world from a biological standpoint, the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial beings is so small as to be verging on the impossible.

What we can say is simply: We do not know. But there are no serious grounds for thinking that similar beings exist elsewhere.

On the other hand, we do know in any case that God took man, on this little speck of dust that is earth, so seriously that he came and lived here himself and has bound himself to this earth for all eternity.

That corresponds to the model fo divine action that is known to us. God always takes up exactly what seems unimportant and shows himself to man in what seems like a speck of dust, or, as in Nazareth, in a little place that is next to nowhere. Thus God always corrects our standards of judgment. It shows that what is quantitatively immeasurable belongs to a quite different order of reality from the immeasurability of the heart, as Pascal has already remarked. What is quantitative has its own indisputable status, but it is also important to see this quantitative value, for instance the infinite size of the universe, in relative terms. One single understanding and loving heart has quite another immeasurable greatness. It corresponds to a quite different order from any quantitative entity, in all its great power, but it is no less great.

Q: Would it be shown in revelation if we had relatives somwhere in space?

A: Not necessarily, because God had no intention of recounting everything to us. Revelation was not there to give us a complete knowledge of God's ideas and of all space, with no gaps in it. One of the Wisdom books, often quoted by the Fathers, says about this in one place: God has given us the world to argue about. Scientific knowledge is, so to speak, the adventure he has left to us ourselves. In revelation, on the other hand, he tells us only as much about himself as is needed for life and death"

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