Faith and the Scientific Imagination
( This piece was originally published (for pay) here in the Catholic Herald as Aliens need Christ’s redemption, too. Richard Dawkins on his website reprinted it without permission (and without paying me), and the comments boxes are filled with vitriol by folk who by their own admission did not read the article. Rather than having Mr. Dawkins maintain the only version on the web, I reprint it here to archive it.)
The Times reports that Father Jose Gabriel Funes, the Vatican’s chief astronomer, condones the idea that we have fellows among the stars, Little Green Men, so to speak, who are our brothers in Christ.
Fr Funes said that just as there existed a “multiplicity of creatures on Earth”, so there could exist “other beings created by God, including intelligent ones. We cannot place limits on God’s creative freedom.” St Francis of Assisi had described our fellow creatures on Earth as our brothers and sisters, “so why can we not also speak of our extra terrestrial brothers? They too would be part of Creation.” He said that aliens, like humans, would be able to benefit from the redemption offered by Jesus Christ and “the mercy of God”.
The newsmen regard this as news only because they are hypnotised by the concept that religion and science are antithetical, so to hear a Jesuit Vatican astronomer speculating about science fiction amuses and astounds them. This is merely a sad commentary on the ignorance of newsmen, who seem not to know the noble role the Jesuits have always played in the history of higher education, or what the role her handmaiden science fills in relation to the Church.
Nonetheless, this little article suggests several questions that lead us to interesting speculation.
How do intelligent aliens, souls on other worlds like Earth, fit into the Christian scheme of the universe? If aliens were discovered, would that pose a challenge to Christian teaching, or would the question be of no great novelty? Does the idea of extraterrestrial civilisation shock Christian theology?
In the Christian scheme of things, the mortality of man, and his hope of immortality, spring from specific acts of individual men; original sin springs from the disobedience of Adam, and redemption from the crucifixion of Christ. Once we introduce other worlds into the Christian scheme, inhabited not by angels but by created beings like men, what becomes of the acts of Adam, or of Christ? How can anything that was done on Earth, for good or ill, have any significance for any world but our own?
The discovery of intelligent extraterrestrial life would call into question man’s uniqueness. It would ask how man is made in the image of God, if other men of other worlds are nothing like us in body or mind.
It would call into question the Fall. How would those on planet Vulcan or Tatooine (for example) be affected by the original sin of Adam on Earth? These are not the sons of Adam or the daughters of Eve. Why would they be mortal? The curse of Adam does not fall on them.
It would call into question the redemption. How would the crucifixion, taking place on Sol III, in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way, in any way help or affect the suffering of some intelligent hive-mind of wormy methane-breathing sea-creatures in a red-sunned world of a dwarf galaxy lost in the swarms of galaxies forming the Corona Borealis Supercluster, one billion light years away?
It would call into question the wisdom of the Great Commission to preach the Gospel to all creatures. A ray of light leaving our sun now, or a radio signal carrying the Gospel, will never reach that world of sea-worms until an immensity of aeons pass. One billion years ago – to give us an idea of the time scale – the first multicellular organisms appeared on Earth. The message could never arrive in time: no signal could be strong enough, across that impassable abyss of time and space, to be heard.
Science has shocked theology before: both the theory of Darwin and the findings of geology make a literal reading of the Fall of Man or the account of the Deluge of Noah problematic. The question of extraterrestrial intelligence is different. It is specifically a science fiction question, not a scientific one.
An average, well-read, modern men would be dumbfounded if it were discovered that we were alone in the universe. And yet, so far, there is not one scintilla of evidence, not even an ambiguous scrap, to suggest life exists on any planet but our own. Ironically, the belief that we are not alone in the universe is such a firm article of faith with the average well-read modern man that even to envision an empty cosmos is nigh impossible for him. But it is an article of faith nonetheless. If the modern scientific account of how planets form and life begins were correct, we have every reason to believe the night sky would be ringing with the radio signals of hundreds and thousands and millions of technologically advanced civilisations. So far, we have heard not one peep.
Indeed, modern science has not yet discovered any extraterrestrial life at all, not even a mite or a microbe, despite the fact that there are several places where conditions ripe for life exist (such as the poles of Mars, the ice crevasses of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, the sunless seas of Io). Life should be abundant. So far, it is unique to Earth.
Science fiction is not science. Science fiction is the imaginative attempt to investigate (and, yes, to play with) the ideas suggested by the modern, scientific, Darwinian world-view. Science fiction is a game of the imagination: it asks us to extrapolate the wonders of a naturalistic universe.
There are no gods and no magic in a science fiction story properly so-called. Adding these elements makes it a fantasy, or, at least, a space opera or some other “soft” form of science fiction. Hard science fiction, the core of the genre, is naturalistic, and based on the Darwinian view of an evolving universe, ruled by chance, but explicable through reason.
The wary reader will note, in the midst of the rocky realism of science fiction naturalism, a continual echo of supernatural and transcendent themes: H G Wells asks us to imagine men like gods, brought to that noble state of being by scientific progress. Creatures of superior intelligence, either diabolical or angelic; resurrection and reincarnation; immortality (by machinery, by drugs, or by immortal curse); psychic unity with the world or the cosmos: all these are themes that appear with startling regularity amid what should be a naturalistic literature. Men are fascinated with notions of the divine and the magical, and we have perhaps a childish longing for the forgotten days in Eden, when all animals were our friends, and we could speak to them like brothers. Certainly tales of talking animals are popular with children, and placing the talking animals on other worlds, cat-man from Kzin, dragons from Pern, hawk-men and lion-men of Mongo, satisfies much the same longing.
Now, it is no condemnation of science fiction to say it is naturalistic. For that matter, detective stories and Westerns are naturalistic, or, at least, I can think of no whodunit solved through prayer and miracle, and I never read a Western where ghosts were banished by an exorcist armed with bell, book, and candle. What makes science fiction an oddity in naturalistic fiction is this frequent tendency to seek out supernatural themes.
Even the most iron-hearted sceptics in science fiction sometimes end up writing books filled with that yearning for the supernatural. In Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon, for example, the plot of the story is the quest for God: in the last days of the universe the gathered mind of all the cosmos, linking in telepathic unity, reach beyond the walls of time and space to seek the Creator. The God in this tale is a Darwinian one rather than a Christian one, an experimental artist with no love for His own creation, and He merely slaps the universe for its presumption in seeking Him.
Again, the Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein is a book meant to mock organised religion, but it contains so many religious concepts itself that certain readers took it quite seriously and attempted to organise the “Church of All Worlds” as described in the satirical tale. The God described here, again, is not the Christian God; it is something more egalitarian, solipsistic, and (once again) Darwinian, an enlightenment meant only for those smart enough to win the ruthless struggle for survival. But, nonetheless, it is still some notion of the divine being sought in these pages.
This is the kind of thing one never sees in a detective story (with the possible exception of The Man Who Was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton – but he is an exceptional writer in every sense of the word).
Let me tell you why this topic fascinates me. I am a science fiction writer by trade, and, until recently, a lifelong atheist. This Easter I joined the Roman Catholic Church.
It is interesting, if somewhat disorienting, to contemplate the radical revolution of my thought and belief, to see what has changed and what has stayed the same. Those born in the faith, or who convert from a merely agnostic position, I think, cannot imagine the scope such a conversion entails. It is more akin to entering a new universe than merely coming upon a new continent. It is fascinating to see what stayed the same in my life, despite the glorious earthquake that turned my view of the world topsy-turvy.
Because I was hostile to religion, and believed, all too gullibly, every slander that could be voiced against it, I had convinced myself that religion was fundamentally irrational, an enemy of progress, and something fundamentally antithetical to the modern world-view in which all science fiction stories take place.
After my conversion, I found, to my chagrin and pleasant surprise, something nearly the opposite was the case. Of the great public figures the only one speaking in favour of the role of reason in modern life turns out to be the Pope. While modern philosophers idle away their time deconstructing the meaning of language, and telling us nothing means anything, St Thomas Aquinas in his magnificent Summa erects such a complex and complete logical argument that even the latest atheist book off the presses must confront and wrestle with the Thomistic arguments (usually, it must be said, to their discomfort). That is a powerful use of reason, if it commands a living and pertinent argument centuries after it was written.
Reason is not antithetical to religion. Reason, if anything, is the powerful ally of the Church, and grows dangerous to her when, like anything, it is abused, pulled out of its proper role.
The harmony of the teachings of religion and the findings of science – and I mean real science, not the implications that some writers attempt to take from it – I take to be too obvious to require any defence in this space. If Copernicus and Newton found no jar between natural philosophy and theology, neither can I. Catholics are not Evangelicals; for us, the findings of science increase our awe at the wisdom and power of God, and we know more of Him by studying His handiwork.
Science fiction, then, cannot challenge religion on any serious scientific grounds. But science fiction represents an emotional or thematic idea, a moral atmosphere, which reflects our imaginings about the naturalistic and scientific world-view. Science fiction cannot shock theology as science can, but it can shock the imagination.
Men can indeed lose their faith through a loss of imagination. Many are lost to the faith, merely because the modern and scientific view of the world leaves no room in their imagination for God. The heavens are filled with stars and nebulae, quasars and radio stars, gas giants and black holes, and roaring x-ray sources. Where are the saints and angels? Where are the pearly gates, the streets of gold, and the tree of life?
It is not a logical argument, but instead an inability to look behind the tapestry of facts and speculations making up the naturalistic and scientific image of the universe, its appalling size and emptiness, the appalling cruelty and waste of the random Darwinian process of evolution, and to see the Hand of God weaving that tapestry.
This question is not exactly new. The first mention in literature of rational but non-human beings occupying the stars appears in Book III of John Milton’s majestic Paradise Lost. In this scene, Lucifer is winging his way down through the firmament (the “first region” of creation) toward the unspoilt Earth, his prey, and on either side passes the stars. Of these stars, the poet says:
… without longer pause
Down right into the world’s first region throws
His flight precipitant, and winds with ease
Through the pure marble air his oblique way
Amongst innumerable stars, that shone
Stars distant, but nigh hand seemed other worlds;
Or other worlds they seemed, or happy isles,
Like those Hesperian gardens famed of old,
Fortunate fields, and groves, and flowery vales,
Thrice happy isles; but who dwelt happy there
He staid not to inquire…
Paradise Lost cannot rightly be called “science fiction”, but it shares with science fiction the sense of wonder at the intricacy of the cosmos, a concern for scientific accuracy – Milton was familiar with the most scholarly learning of his time – and a willingness to place scenes in unearthly settings. From Eden to Heaven to the flaming furnaces of Hell, to the wider tumult of chaos, or the splendours of the surface of the golden sun, the poet visits all these strange and imaginative locations with his pen.
Milton seems to have no difficulty with imagining the stars as other worlds, happy islands filled with life. The implication is that, had man not fallen, we might be in communion with them, rejoicing in our fellow created beings, and by gradual stages mount up to heaven. Presumably, these spirits, untouched by the crime of Adam, dwell still among the stars, unremoved from their original bliss, unfallen. Milton, at least, can introduce the concept of other inhibitors of other worlds without a jar to his Christian theme.
Yet some writers see this question of extraterrestrial intelligence as a severe challenge to Christianity, even fatal. Bertrand Russell, for example, in “The Theologian’s Nightmare” (from Fact and Fiction, 1961) has a pious man in a dream reach the afterworld only to discover, in despair, that the learned but alien librarians there can find no record of the Milky Way galaxy, much less the Solar System or the Earth – in the cosmic scheme of things, the Milky Way is simply too small to come to the notice of Heaven. The inconspicuous motes, called planets, circling one tiny sun out of billions are not of any note, nor are the parasitic mites occupying the surface of one of the smaller ones.
Russell proposes that the universe is so wide that man’s pretension that his life, his actions, or indeed his whole world occupies any significance must be dashed. We are less than one grain of sand on the shores of the blind and numberless stars. Herbert Spencer and H. G. Wells voice the same thought: modern science proves the cosmos is too big for man to be in the eye of God. Man is too small compared to the universe.
Other writers are not so worried. Russell’s conceit is dismissed with a smile by G. K. Chesterton, who remarks: “It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.” (Orthodoxy, 1908)
C. S. Lewis makes a parallel observation that there is nothing modern, nothing new, in the idea that man is small and the cosmos is large and unfriendly. Medieval man occupied a cosmos equally as large (and inhuman) as our own. Every astronomer since Ptolemy knew the ratio between the Earth and the sphere of the fixed star was “as a point to the heavens”, that is, a magnitude beyond measurement. The physical Earth, the unexplored dark forests and unimagined lands in the antipodes, Taprobane or Cathay, beyond uncharted leviathan-haunted seas, were as distant, as unreachable, to them, as the dark side of the Pluto is to us.
Finally, it must be noticed that Bertrand Russell did not include this idea in any of his serious arguments against religion. It is merely a bit of droll fantasy, to imagine a universe so large that even God is confounded by it, and cannot find His own handiwork. Theologically, the argument is rubbish. No matter how big the universe, God, omnipresent and omniscient, fills every part of it, aware of all things and upholding all things. God cannot make a universe so large that He gets lost inside it.
If the idea of a Creator wise enough to keep all His creation in mind is too difficult for the imagination of Bertrand Russell to picture, I wonder how he pictures something more prosaic, such as the force of gravity. Gravity issues from every object, large and small, from every atom in the universe, and its influence (although it diminishes with distance) never reaches nothing. Every particle, no matter how small or far away, touches every other.
I wonder why the modern mind finds no difficulty in imagining every atom in creation being influenced by the power of gravity, but somehow finds great difficulty imagining the all-knowing and ever-present Maker of those atoms numbering the hair on one’s head, or counting the planets in space, His own handiwork, and knowing the deeds of those who dwell on them.
As imaginative as they are, science fiction writers seem to be curiously cramped or one-sided in their imaginings. H. G. Wells, for example, pictures his sinister Martians as a highly-evolved and highly ruthless form of man. Since he imagined man’s brain to be his prime evolutionary advantage, Wells pictured his Martians as being composed entirely of brain, with other organs atrophied. These are creatures superior to man in intellect and wisdom. But there his imagination stops. He does not imagine, or does not care to imagine, that beings higher than man would be finer and nobler than man, in much the same way that men are capable of nobler sentiments than a dog, or a dog than a spider, a spider than a microbe. But there is no reason in science, or even in science fiction, to assume that more intelligence necessarily leads to less compassion.
C. S. Lewis had no difficulty in imagining quite a different race of Martians. The Hrossa, the Pfiltriggi, and the Sorns, are three distinct yet intelligent races, living in prelapsarian harmony and peace beneath the direct government and inspiration of the Eldil, angelic beings. Quite simply, his Martians are unfallen beings, and the Mars of Lewis is an Eden, occupied by holy beings, a sharp contrast to the grim and dying planet envisioned by Wells, occupied by creatures as cold and remorseless and deadly as the Darwinian struggle itself.
Which of the two conceptions is more realistic? Which is more imaginative? To be blunt, both are equally fantasy: Mars is a dead world, and the cosmic loneliness of the human race yearning for neighbours to share our universe cannot be answered by this cold, rust-covered, and lifeless globe. Which of the two races is more evolved, a higher race? That depends, I suppose, on what you imagine “highness” to be. I know which of the two I’d rather have come by for tea.
Armed with the conclusion, then, that it is a failure of the imagination, not a failure of theology, to find oneself unable to envision God standing behind the modern and scientific idea of visible universe, no matter how large or densely inhabited that universe might be, we now can venture a guess at how to answer the theological implications that intelligent alien life might pose.
The Magisterium of the Church has yet to rule on the theological implications of intelligent extraterrestrials. Perhaps they are wisely awaiting for alien intelligent life to be discovered first.
Nonetheless, we science fiction writers and amateur theologians, always willing to help the learned doctors of the church and to rush in where angels fear to tread, can make a few suggestions about how to answer the deep questions that First Contact with aliens might raise.
The first question concerns the uniqueness of man. If we are made in God’s image, what does that say about the men of other worlds, who may be nothing like us?
The first answer should be one of pure humility. We simply do not know what extraterrestrial life might be like. Science fiction writers, fine fellows that we are, still write in terms of our own earthly experience, and so we people our fictional worlds with men and animals somewhat like those we know. Houyhnhnms are merely horses, after all, and Vulcans merely Stoics. Truth is stranger than fiction, because we write fiction to suit ourselves, and truth is written for other purposes. Real aliens will be nothing we have foreseen.
If man is made in the image of God, and the Martians are nothing like us in body, mind or soul, humility will warn us that we do not know what the image of God truly is, because no man has seen God face to face. Any rational being, by virtue of his reason, even if his psychology is utterly non-human, would nonetheless contain a rational soul, and in this be like God. It would be rash indeed for a theologian to declare this alien race or that one is made in the image of God or is not: surely it were better to err on the side of charity, and to assume anything intelligent is worthy of the compassion we extend to fellow children of the living God.
The question of the special role of Adam in creation is one that only experience will answer. If the aliens we meet are the Sorns of C. S. Lewis, unfallen beings still living in original and Edenic bliss, the question of Adam and original sin is moot. If the aliens are the Martians of H. G. Wells, beings who sin and slay and suffer disease and die as we do, it would be an interesting anthropological question (or xenopological, if that is the word) to see if they have myths of an ancestral Golden Age, as appears in so many of the cultures of Earth. Other worlds may have other Adams who violated the terms of their bliss as we daily violate ours. Certainly nothing in Christian theology says creatures other than man might not fall from grace. The fall of Lucifer is an ancient reminder that created beings greater than man also can rebel against their Creator.
The question of the special role of Christ is a harder one: speculations that other worlds might have other Christs, or Aslans, or whatever, would seem to be ruled out by the Christian doctrine that Jesus is the only begotten son of God, the single way and the only door by which fallen man can come to the Father.
Here we can only speculate, but the speculations will be an old question in Church thought, not a new one. Since the days of St Paul, Christians have pondered the justice of God who allows whole generations of pagans, born on the bank of the Indus river, or in unexplored lands of the antipodes, beyond the edges of the maps, to live and die beyond where news of Christ might reach. These men committed no sin aside from the bad luck to be born in a land where no baptismal water has ever come.
Indeed, we need not indulge in any science fiction speculation about far worlds in distant superclusters thronged with uncounted galaxies. Here on Earth, as of the time of this writing, there are tribesmen living in a place called North Sentinel Island, whom no anthropologist has ever contacted. Once or twice when white men approached, they were driven back by spears and arrows. Nothing is known of the language, and almost nothing is known of the culture of the North Sentinel Island people. No one can speak with them. We have a few dropped tools of theirs; we have seen some of their longhouses at a distance. How can the Christian theologian answer the question about the hope of salvation for the men of North Sentinel Island? No drop of baptismal water has ever touched their brow; no crumb of the Eucharist has ever touched their lips.
No one who has studied the faith can be unaware of the several answers Christians make to this challenge. I need not repeat them here. I will only say that the same answer applies to the denizens of some world orbiting Arcturus, or some unnamed star lost in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, as applies to the denizens of North Sentinel Island. If they are saved without knowledge of Christ, nonetheless they will be saved through Christ, by some provision unknown to us; if they do not know the Laws told to the Jews on Sinai, at least they know the Laws written in the hearts of all men, or of all rational beings.
Landing on far worlds and finding strange temples to strange gods with no hint of the Christian faith there likewise would not shock the Christian, no more than the Spaniards were shocked to find Incas who worshipped idols other than Christ. It may always be a theological question why God, in His wisdom, did not have Christ appear everywhere on the world at once, to every land and nation and family: but the lore we Christians have never displays anything like this in divine action. Moses sees a burning bush, no one else, and not when he is in Pharaoh’s court, but when he is herding sheep in a strange land. Gabriel appears to Mary, nowhere else, and announces the news that is the greatest the world can ever know or dream. Jesus appoints twelve men, no more, to be his apostles. If Earthlings are the only ones to carry the good news of the Gospels to the stars, how is that so different, really, than twelve poor men from Galilee carrying this same news to the empire, or missionaries from Europe carrying it to far hemispheres? Far whatever reason it seems to be God’s pleasure to increase his grace starting with the small and weak, planting but a single seed, and spreading the faith one loaf of bread, one cup of wine, at a time.
The final question that shocks the imagination of the Christian is the question of why the Incarnation happened on Earth, little Sol III, that dust mote circling an insignificant star in the fringes of an undistinguished galaxy in the unimportant Virgo cluster of galaxies. Why here? Why us? If there is to be but one Saviour born but one time into the all-engulfing endlessness of the material universe, why pick a small blue planet at the edge of nowhere like Earth?
An egalitarian spirit would like to answer that perhaps each world has a Christ of its own. But, strictly speaking, that will not serve, not if the doctrine is true that Jesus is the only begotten Son of the Father, and Mary His only mother. It would be difficult for Catholics to picture the Queen of Angels as a throng of women, crowded like the cantina scene in Star Wars, of the various alien mothers of the various Christs of countless worlds: the Martian Mary with her antennae next to the Mary of Archernar with her eyestalks, or the shapeless chlorine-breathing amoeba known as the Mary of M31 in Andromeda.
While we could entertain the notion of Christ, after his Ascension, appearing openly or in disguise on other worlds, in the shape of a Lion in Narnia, or under the name The Conciliator on Urth, nonetheless, if Christian doctrine is true, the Son was born but once, to one woman, and in one place.
Here we can see, once again, what seems to be a theological question is really a question of the poverty of imagination. It is hard to imagine in a cosmos so wide that God would incarnate in one small world. But this is really no harder than to imagine that in a world so wide, that God would incarnate in some humble dung-ridden stable in a cave in the poorest and remotest province of the Roman Empire, and that the herald angels would seek out, not the wise and great, not the senators of almighty Rome nor the philosophers of Athens nor even the learned Levites in Jerusalem, but a band of unwashed and unlettered shepherds from the hills, to announce the heavenly tidings. Why a little world like Earth on the ragged outskirts of the galaxy? Well, why a poor province like Judea, on the ragged outskirts of the empire?
It is no cause for pride if Earth should turn out to be the only world where the Incarnation took place. God often selects the younger son, the poor fisherman, the tax-collector, the harlot and the sinner, the weakest and humblest things in the world to do his almighty work. Earth may have been selected because she is the lowest world in the galaxy, the cosmic equivalent of a stinking stable.
In any case, imagining that God selected a lowly stable for His cradle is no harder and no different than imagining God selected a lowly world for His cradle; the difference is only in the magnitude of what one’s imagination can grasp.
Indeed, the larger and older the cosmos seems to get as modern science tells us more of its weird secrets, the larger and grander must, to the Christian imagination, seem the maker of all this glory.
The width of the cosmos, the age and majesty of worlds larger than Earth, and stars larger than Sol, the mind-numbing numberlessness of galaxies and clusters of galaxies and superclusters of clusters, the titanic immensities of time, the birth and death of young suns and old ones adumbrate, all these things, unfortunately, can be used by the agnostic imagination to paint our local and tribal gods with the colours of parochial absurdity; but by the same token, all these things can be used by the healthy Christian imagination as a type or shadow to contemplate the majesty, the infinity, and the immensity of a Supreme Being greater and more gracious than any imagination can reach.