Many Worlds: The New Universe and Its Theological Implications

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"a faith which cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets."

Cosmotheology

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 “roadmap for cosmotheology” 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:

Nowhere 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.

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 “The Meaning of Life” in The Biological Universe, I wrote: “In 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.”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 “natural God” 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 “does not play dice” nor concern himself with the fate and actions of men. But Einstein's God “appears 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.”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) “the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.’’15

Such a radical change in the concept of God raises the question, “Is God necessary?” In other words, if we “retreat” 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 “intervene in human history,” 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 “holy,” the “numinous,” and the “divine,” 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 speculated that “it 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.” 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 “at home in the universe,” 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 “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless,” 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 worldview 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: . . . 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.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:

“Human 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.”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 worldview, wherein the universe, or the multi-verse, is large enough to en-compass 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.

Notes

  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 ISBN 978-0521663618 (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. Shaptey, 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, ‘‘The Biophysical Cosmology: The Place of Bioastronomy in the History of Science,” 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 3. 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, “Origins Researchers Win Gore's Ear, Not Pocketbook,” 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, “Consequences of Success in SETI: Lessons from the History of Science,” in G.S. Shostak, ed., Progress in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life (San Francisco: Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 1995), 521–532; I. Almar,
  5. The Consequences of a Discovery: Different Scenarios,” 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).
  6. Dick, “Consequences of Success in SETI,” 521–532; A. Toynbee, A Study of History, vol. 9 (London: Oxford University Press, 1954).
  7. 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, “Reconsidering the Theological and Ethical Implications of Extraterrestrial Life,” CTNS [Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences] Bulletin, 17, no. 3 (1997), 1–8.
  8. 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).
  9. M.J. Crowe, The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750–1900: The Idea of a Plurality of Worlds from Kant to Lowell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); M.J. Crowe, ‘‘A History of the Extraterrestrial Life Debate,” Zygon, 32 (June 1997), 147–162.
  10. M. Askenazi, “Not the Sons of Adam: Religious Response to ETI,” 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, “Exo-Theology: Speculations on Extra-Terrestrial Life,” CTNS Bulletin, 14, no. 3 (1994), 1–9.
  11. L. Eiseley, The Immense Journey (New York: Random House, 1957).
  12. Dick, The Biological Universe, 526.
  13. Most recently, K. Armstrong, A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993).
  14. R.W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times (New York: Avon Books, 1972), 38; A. Einstein, “Religion and Science,” in Ideas and Opinions (New York: Bonanza Books, 1954), 36–40.
  15. F. Hoyle, The Intelligent Universe (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983), especially chapters 8 and 9. Hoyle based his concept of a “large-scale intelligence” 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 “information-rich universe” 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, “is firmly within the universe, and is subservient to it” (p. 236).
  16. Einstein, “Religion and Science,” 39.
  17. 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).
  18. S. Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 154–155.
  19. On the problem of morality in relation to extraterrestrials, see M. Ruse, “Is Rape Wrong on Andromeda? An Introduction to Extraterrestrial Evolution, Science and Morality,” in E. Regis, Jr., Extraterrestrials: Science and Alien Intelligence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 43–78.
  20. G.V. Coyne, S.J., M.A. Hoskin, and O. Pedersen, eds., Gregorian Reform of the Calendar (Vatican, 1983), XXI.
  21. K. Armstrong, A History of God, 399.