April 27, 2020

This Post is Old!

The post you are reading is years old and may not represent my current views. I started blogging around the time I first began to study philosophy, age 17. In my view, the point of philosophy is to expose our beliefs to rational scrutiny so we can revise them and get better beliefs that are more likely to be true. That's what I've been up to all these years, and this blog has been part of that process. For my latest thoughts, please see the front page.

Space Aliens and Skeptical Theism

Early modern philosophers, like 21st century theistic philosophers, often employ a strategy known as 'skeptical theism'. The basic idea is that we can't make empirical arguments against the existence of God because we don't know enough to make any judgment about whether our observations are consistent with the kind of universe God would or would not create.

Here's one kind of consideration a skeptical theist can appeal to: there's probably intelligent life on other planets (otherwise, as Carl Sagan famously observed, it'd be an awful lot of wasted space). We have no idea what conditions are like for these beings, or how they figure into God's plan. If present-day humans are just a tiny fraction of all the intelligent beings God created, why think we're so important in the grand scheme of things that God's goodness can be judged based on conditions faced by humans?

Here's a surprising observation: it's the early modern philosophers, and not the 21st century philosophers, who go around appealing to space aliens.

This post was occasioned by my discovery of an instance of this argument I hadn't noticed before. In her Occasional Thoughts in Reference to a Vertuous or Christian Life (1705), Damaris Cudworth Masham considers the Deistic objection that if divine revelation was really necessary for a truly virtuous life then God would have made this revelation available to all people in all times and places. But according to Christianity, adequate revelation is available only to those who live in times and places where they can receive cultural transmission from 1st century Judea. Masham responds, in part, as follows:

The Objection here made turns only upon the unaccountableness of the Divine Wisdom herein to our Understandings...Whilst we have an assurance highly Rational (from those numberless Worlds which surround us) that we are but a small part of the Intellectual Creation of our Maker...[we] cannot tell but that to know much more than we do, in this State, of the intire Scheme of Providence with respect to the whole extent of intelligent Beings, may be necessary to our seeing the Beauty of any one part of the design of our Creator. (pp. 111-112)

The first time I skimmed through this text (skipping the parentheses, as one often does when skimming), I thought she might be talking about angels. But when Masham appeals to "those numberless Worlds which surround us" she's clearly alluding to modern astronomical discoveries. Galileo's discovery of mountains and valleys on the moon was generally taken to be evidence that all the planets were rocky bodies like earth on which people might live. Further, heliocentrism was taken to support the idea that the earth is a planet like other planets and the sun is a star like other stars (hence, the other stars likely have habitable planets). For a truly delightful 17th century 'popular science' treatment of these issues, see Fontenelle's Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds. (Masham would likely have been familiar with the 1686 French original.)

A more famous version of the argument from skeptical theist argument from space aliens occurs five years later in Leibniz's Theodicy:

To-day, whatever bounds are given or not given to the universe, it must be acknowledged that there is an infinite number of globes, as great as and greater than ours, which have as much right as it to hold rational inhabitants, though it follows not at all that they are human. It is only one planet, that is to say one of the six principal satellites of our sun; and as all fixed stars are suns also, we see how small a thing our earth is in relation to visible things, since it is only an appendix of one amongst them. It may be that all suns are peopled only by blessed creatures, and nothing constrains us to think that many are damned, for few instances or few samples suffice to show the advantage which good extracts from evil. Moreover, since there is no reason for the belief that there are stars everywhere, is it not possible that there may be a great space beyond the region of the stars? Whether it be the Empyrean Heaven, or not, this immense space encircling all this region may in any case be filled with happiness and glory. It can be imagined as like the Ocean, whither flow the rivers of all blessed creatures, when they shall have reached their perfection in the system of the stars. What will become of the consideration of our globe and its inhabitants? Will it not be something incomparably less than a physical point, since our earth is as a point in comparison with the distance of some fixed stars? Thus since the proportion of that part of the universe which we know is almost lost in nothingness compared with that which is unknown, and which we yet have cause to assume, and since all the evils that may be raised in objection before us are in this near nothingness, haply it may be that all evils are almost nothingness in comparison with the good things which are in the universe. (sect. 19)

A less happy occurrence of the skeptical theist argument from space aliens can be found later in the book:

As for the number of the damned, even though it should be incomparably greater among men than the number of the saved, that would not preclude the possibility that in the universe the happy creatures infinitely outnumber those who are unhappy...if anyone asks why God gives not to all the grace of conversion, the question is of a different nature, having no relation to the present maxim. I have already answered it in a sense, not in order to find God's reasons, but to show that he cannot lack such, and that there are no opposing reasons of any validity. Moreover, we know that sometimes whole cities are destroyed and the inhabitants put to the sword, to inspire terror in the rest. That may serve to shorten a great war or a rebellion, and would mean a saving of blood through the shedding of it: there is no decimation there. We cannot assert, indeed, that the wicked of our globe are punished so severely in order to intimidate the inhabitants of the other globes and to make them better. Yet an abundance of reasons in the universal harmony which are unknown to us, because we know not sufficiently the extent of the city of God, nor the form of the general republic of spirits, nor even the whole architecture of bodies, may produce the same effect. (sect. 133)

This enthusiasm for space aliens in the context of defences of theism is part of a broader phenomenon in early modern philosophy. There is a popular narrative of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment as ages in which reason and science overcome faith and religion. Of course this has some truth in it, and there are many well-documented instances of religious traditionalists and church authorities fighting against (what we now call) science. But anyone who has spent much time reading early modern texts must be well aware that a very different sentiment about the relation between science and religion was quite widespread in the period. This is perhaps best expressed by Samuel Clarke:

the larger the improvements and discoveries are which are daily made in astronomy and natural philosophy, the more clearly is the question continually determined to the shame and confusion of the atheists. (Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God [1705], sect. 9, Vailati p. 51)

According to writers in the period, one of the "discoveries...made in astronomy" is that there are probably lots and lots of intelligent aliens. Defenders of theism like to hypothesize that these aliens are probably very happy.

Update (12 May, 2020): When I wrote this post a couple weeks ago, I knew I remembered one more example, but I couldn't find it. The quotation I was looking for is this one:
would you argue that a state was ill administered, or judge of the manners of its citizens, by the disorders committed in the gaol or dungeon?...for aught we know, this spot with the few sinners on it bears no greater proportion to the universe of intelligences, than a dungeon does to a kingdom. It seems we are led not only by revelation, but by common sense, observing and inferring from the analogy of things, to conclude there are innumerable orders of intelligent beings more happy and more perfect than man: whose life is but a span, and whose place, this earthly globe, is but a point, in respect of the whole system of God's creation. (Berkeley, Alciphron [1732], sect. 4.23)
It is admittedly less clear that Berkeley is talking about space aliens and not only angels, but his mention of the 'earthly globe' as a tiny part of the physical universe is certainly suggestive of extraterrestrial physical intelligences. The phrase 'system of God's creation' also suggests 'system of the world', which was a technical term for a model of the solar system.

Posted by Kenny at April 27, 2020 3:24 PM
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I was recently surprised by this fact myself,
as I read Adam Roberts' History of Science Fiction:


It is a pretty dull read (quite unlike his own fiction)
but covers the very early stuff (see the contents),
as it describes the origin of science fiction in this use of space aliens.

Posted by: Martin Cooke at April 28, 2020 12:36 AM

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