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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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