Christianity and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

A review of <em>Science, Religion and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence</em> by David Wilkinson.

Science, Religion and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
David Wilkinson
Oxford University Press, 240pp, £25

In 1960 in West Virginia, the astronomer Frank Drake initiated the first systematic scientific attempt to scan the heavens for alien communication. Today, SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), which requires significant investments of money and hope, remains the most daring attempt to settle the question of whether we are alone in the universe or whether, at some point in time, on some faraway, spinning extrasolar planet, other forms of intelligent life evolved.

For some, a single clear sign – a purposeful blip in the background radio hum of the universe – would be enough to change for ever their understanding of the universe and, in particular, the place of human beings within it. Above all, it is Christians whose belief system would require the most recalibration: they are devoted to a biblical understanding of man’s position in the universe and believe that the unique events of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection confirmed the special relationship between a creator God and His earthbound creation. The late-18th-century thinker Thomas Paine declared in The Age of Reason that anyone who believes himself to be both a Christian and a reasonable defender of the idea of the existence of other worlds has “thought but little of either”.

This book is a brave riposte to Paine. David Wilkinson, a professor of theology and religion at Durham University, is both an astronomer and a Christian. He holds PhDs in theoretical astrophysics and systematic theology. Here he undertakes to examine the consequences for Christian thinking of the latest developments in the search for extraterrestrial life. A Methodist, he scrupulously investigates the science involved and offers a detailed reconsideration of that science in the light of his and other Christian beliefs.

In the 3rd century BC, the Greek philosopher Epicurus wrote: “There are infinite worlds both like and unlike ours . . . We must believe that in all worlds there are living creatures.” For over 2,500 years human beings have speculated about life beyond our planet. The logic of infinity has seemed to require the belief that somewhere, whether in this or another, parallel universe, the purposeful (or purposeless) accidents that brought about our existence have achieved the same for little green men or other, unimaginable forms of life. As Wilkinson points out, philosophers and scientists in the Judaeo-Christian tradition have often been at the forefront of such thinking, their faith in a benign, all-powerful God leading them to assume an inherent order in the natural world and to exult in His capacity to encourage life extravagantly throughout the universe.

Set against this candid presumption in favour of extraterrestrial intelligence have been two lines of thought. Some Christians, attached to the biblical account of God’s special relationship with human beings, have considered it blasphemous to challenge earth’s central place in God’s plan (Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600 for his temerity to do so). From an opposing perspective, evolutionary biologists from Charles Darwin up to the present day have teased out the multitudinous improbabilities of the evolution of any life at all, let alone intelligent life. For some contemporary cosmologists, it has come to seem almost miraculous how perfectly aligned these chances have been in the case of our “goldilocks” planet – and therefore practically impossible that the same could occur elsewhere. As Wilkinson puts it, even if we were to find traces of primitive life on Mars, “It is a long way to proceed from archaea to an accountant.”

Wilkinson valiantly defends SETI from every corner, however. With one foot on the rock of science, he tackles the paradox, enunciated in 1950 by the physicist Enrico Fermi, that if earth is not special in having intelligent life, “Where is everybody?” With his other foot on the rock of faith, he explores how Christian thinkers have extended the reach of salvation to the furthest limits of the known and unknown universe while imagining hopefully that on other planets there may have been no apple, and so no sin.

The difficulty is that, despite this straddling, the book falls into two halves. The uneasy fit between evidence-based science and Christian apologetics is exacerbated by the unnecessary attention that Wilkinson gives to wacky theories about UFOs and other fantasies and by the absence of analysis of the perspectives of the other major religions. His argument is thorough rather than elegant and on some occasions he irritatingly fails to identify beyond the name the authorities he quotes, so that the reader has to check the position they occupy in the debate.

In keeping with the teaching of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who urged those eager to embrace the idea of extraterrestrial life to “be not so positive”, Wilkinson is carefully agnostic about its eventual discovery. However, it is clear that, for him, as for many Christians, “the eternal silence of those infinite spaces”, as Pascal put it, offers a greater existential threat than the demotion of earth’s centrality that the discovery of extraterrestrials would require.

Emma Crichton-Miller is a journalist and producer

Judeo-Christian philosophers have been at the forefront of the search for alien life. Photo : Beth Hoeckel (Main)

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Friedrich Nietzsche, the conqueror with the iron hand

Gavin Jacobson considers the great philosopher’s plan for society as revealed in Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon.

In 1893 Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche returned to her mother’s adopted home town of Naumburg in Germany. She had been living in Paraguay with her husband, Bernhard Förster, a nationalist and anti-Semite who had founded an Aryan colony to begin “the purification and rebirth of the human race”. Elisabeth’s brother, Friedrich Nietzsche, had condemned her husband’s anti-Semitism and her decision to join him in South America. The experiment failed in any case. Blighted by disease, poor harvests and intercommunal strife, the outpost collapsed in two years. Förster committed suicide in 1889. Around this time, Nietzsche began his final descent into madness and Elisabeth came back to take care of him and his legacy.

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, published in 1872 while he was a professor at the University of Basel, received marginal attention. It wasn’t until the 1890s that his writings gained a wide readership across Europe. Elisabeth soon took control of Nietzsche’s literary estate and, little by little, transformed him into an instrument of her fascist designs. She began to rework his notebooks and to clip, cross out and fabricate quotations, so that, in the public imagination, her brother went from an opponent of German nationalism to a lover of the fatherland, from the author of The Antichrist to a follower of the gospel, and from an anti-anti-Semite to a venomous ­Jew-hater. Before his death in 1900, Nietzsche had asked his sister to ensure that “no priest or anyone else utters falsehoods at my graveside, when I can no longer defend myself”. He could not have foreseen this betrayal by Elisabeth, as she cast him as the lodestar of National Socialism.

Since the 1950s, scholars have endeavoured to rescue Nietzsche from his asso­ciation with Nazism. Walter Kaufmann’s Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1950) was a formative work in which the German philosopher became a humanist and progenitor of 20th-century existentialism. His thinking was directed not at the triumph of Teutonic supremacy but at reviving, as he wrote in Twilight of the Idols (1889), an “anti-political” high culture.

The problem was that, in stripping away the layers of external disfigurement that had built up and set over the years, Kaufmann and others denied Nietzsche an interest in politics. The task that Hugo Drochon sets himself is to reinsert some political content into Nietzsche and show that he had a systematic political theory. The result is a superb case of deep intellectual renewal and the most important book to have been written about him in the past few years.

Drochon’s study takes place against the backdrop of 19th-century Europe, as that is where Nietzsche’s account of politics – the fate of democracy, the role of the state and international relations – is best understood. Nietzsche’s sane life coincided with the main political events of his time. He served as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, witnessed German unification and experienced at first hand the traits of a modern democratic order: party competition, secret ballots, voting and the influence of mass media. He also lived through Britain’s and Russia’s “great game” for control over central Asia. He went mad in the year Bismarck tended his resignation to Wilhelm II.

Drochon traces Nietzsche’s “intelligible account of modern society” in response to these events. Inspired by the Greeks – especially Plato and his mission to legislate a new state and train the men to do it – Nietzsche wanted to establish a healthy culture in which philosophy and great art could be produced. He was certain that slavery was necessary for this (a view that led to his eventual split with Wagner). The “cruel-sounding truth”, he admitted, was that “slavery belongs to the essence of culture”, as the artistic class, “a small number of Olympian men”, is released from the drudgery of daily existence to focus on producing art.

His disagreement with Wagner over the role of slavery led Nietzsche to describe the genesis and decay of the state. He saw clearly, like Hobbes, that the state of nature was “the war of all against all”. But whereas Hobbes imagined the state arising through a contract, Nietzsche saw it originating from a “conqueror with the iron hand”, who “suddenly, violently and bloodily” takes control of a people and forces it into a hierarchical society. Nietzsche then plotted its evolution, from a space within which culture flourished to the modern Kulturstaat, in which culture was appropriated for its own sake. If the state’s birth was violent, its decay was slow and was linked to Nietz­sche’s notorious phrase about the death of God: given that the Christian God was no longer a self-evident foundation of morality upon which societies could support themselves, the state faced dissolution.

Tracing with great forensic skill the minutiae of Nietzsche’s arguments across multiple sources, Drochon never loses the overall narrative thread (an occupational hazard of studying the history of political thought). Nor does he shy away from his subject’s unsavoury views. If Nietzsche’s remarks on slavery were harsh enough, his thinking on eugenics, or his physiologically inflected theories about democracy (which he regarded as the victory of a slave morality – associated with the “dark-skinned and especially dark-haired man” – over a master morality of the “Aryan conquering race”) sound even more repellent. Without wishing to justify these ideas, Drochon reminds us that theories of racial classification were prevalent and acceptable modes of inquiry in the 19th century. It would have been strange if Nietzsche had not drawn on them.

His darker side notwithstanding, many of Nietzsche’s insights speak to our politics now. He foresaw the privatisation of the state, in which “private companies” (Privatgesellschaften) would assume the business of the state, including those activities that are the “most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of the government” – that is, “protecting the private person from the private person”. He showed how democracies gave birth to aristocracies and could become hostage to a “herd morality”, majoritarianism and misarchism: “the democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate”. He explored the question of wage labour and the increasing hostility between workers and employers and predicted the erosion of trust in
public institutions.

Nietzsche also described how statesmen revive the kind of pathologies that are corrupting European and American societies at the moment: nationalism, racism, intellectual parochialism and political insularity. He knew what he was talking about: Bismarck’s power politics, a tribute to blood (war) and iron (technology), was a “petty politics” that divided nations and peoples. Nietzsche’s “great politics”, by contrast, imagined the unification of Europe led by a cultural elite, the class he termed “good Europeans”, bred by intermixing Prussian military officers and Jewish financiers. Continental union would not only constitute a geopolitical counterweight to Britain and Russia. Good Europeans would, as Drochon writes, create “a new trans-European culture, which itself is specially called on to lead a world culture”.

So, this book has come at the right time. In the light of Britain’s vote for Brexit, which threatens to take us back to a petty politics of nationalism and continental division, Nietzsche’s writings are more significant than ever. Those of us who desire a more integrated and peaceful union with our neighbours cling despairingly – and with receding hope – to his dream that, in spite of “the morbid estrangement which the nationality craze has induced and still induces among the peoples of Europe, owing also to the short-sighted and hasty-handed politicians . . . Europe wishes to be one”.

Nietzsche’s Great Politics by Hugo Drochon is published by Princeton University Press, 224pp, £34.95

Gavin Jacobson is a writer and book critic

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt