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Thursday, May 15, 2008

ET Phone The Vatican

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In one of yesterday's posts, The Vatican, Aliens, Ahmadinejad, Hillary, Operation Chaos and Bill Shatner, Too - This Post Has It All I talked about a story in which a Vatican astronomer said that the possible existence of intelligent aliens wouldn't "contradict belief in God". As I mentioned then, the impact of contact with extraterrestrials on religion was a topic that I've been interested in for some time and I'd done some research on it.

Well judging by the rather noticeable spike in my traffic yesterday (and my traffic software's ability to pinpoint what posts are getting attention) it would seem that I'm not the only one interested in the subject. So, it seemed like a good idea to revisit my previous research and do a bit more and I came up with some fascinating things.

As I had remembered yesterday, the "news" that the Catholic Church had no real problem with the idea of intelligent alien life wasn't news at all. Not only isn't the Vatican intimidated by the discovery of alien intelligence in particular but it isn't intimidated by scientific discovery in general, even having its own Pontifical Academy of Sciences, manned by very real and forthcoming scientists as you can see here. If you're interested the Vatican's take on science there is a terrific audio series now on YouTube in which Brother Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory talks about a wide range of scientific issues and their interrelationship with religion. The first one is below:

Consolmagno is a delightful and amazingly unpretentious man who wrote the booklet (published in 2005) in the upper left corner of this post which, as its sub-title states is about "Catholic Belief and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life". Consolmagno did a great interview with (of all things) Astrobiology Magazine, some of which follows:

AM: You're at an astrobiology conference, and the goal of astrobiology is to understand the origin of life on Earth and to search for life elsewhere, including other intelligent life. So let's just go for the big prize. Suppose another intelligent species is discovered. What would that do to the Church's beliefs about God creating the universe, and Earth, and the creatures on Earth, and sending his only son - which is what it says in the book - to this planet, where there is an intelligent species, perhaps one among millions?

GC: There are five hypotheticals there. So, "I don't know," "I don't know" and "How the heck could I know?" But, I'm also a science fiction fan --

AM: Have you read "The Sparrow"?

GC: Yes, and I hated it. But that's a whole different issue. Nobody in that book had a sense of humor. Nobody in that book knew how to laugh.

But here are three scenarios. The most likely one: We find an intelligent civilization and there's no way in creation we can communicate with them because they're so alien to us. We can't talk to dolphins now. In which case, we'll never know.

The number of stars in the visible universe is estimated to be ten times more than the number of grains of sand on Earth and eleven times the number of cups of water in all the Earth's oceans-- or 70 sextillion, or 70,000,000,000,
000,000,000,000 [seven followed by twenty-two zeros].

Second scenario: We find the intelligent civilization. We can communicate. We discover that they have the two essentials that theologians talk about for the human soul, intelligence and free will. They know who they are, they're self-aware, and they're able to do something about it. I think dogs are self-aware, but they don't have a whole lot of free will. Maybe computers are the same sort of thing. Human beings have to have both.

That means if you're going to have freedom, you've got the capability of doing right and wrong. There is evil in the world, that's an observed fact. There is the need to overcome evil in the world. There's that need for salvation that we all have. I can't imagine they wouldn't need it, if they've got the same freedom we've got.

If you want to trade good bible quotes, here's one: The beginning of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word." The Word is, of course, Jesus, the Word is the second person of the Trinity, the Word is the salvation, the Word is the incarnation of God in the universe, who according to the Gospel is there before the universe was made. The one point in space-time that's the same on every timeline. So that the salvation occurs and is made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ here.

Is it possible that there are other Words in other languages to other cultures? Beats the heck out of me. But that's scenario number two. And people have talked about that for hundreds of years, the idea that there could be other lives - this is classic Catholic poetry. And that's what it is, it's poetry, it's not theology. 'Cause it's so many hypotheticals.

A third scenario: We find a dozen civilizations out there, and a bunch of Jehovah's witnesses go up and convert them all. At the end of the day, every civilization is Christian, except the human race is still not too sure about this. I mean, anything's possible.
The rest of the interview is well worth reading as is this interview with the Catholic News Service in which Consolmagno quotes an obviously very secure Pope John Paul II who once told a group of scientists the reason he wasn't afraid of scientific inquiry,

"Truth does not contradict truth," meaning scientific truths will never eradicate religious truths and vice versa.

All of the above raises a lot questions. Does the Church believe aliens have souls? Why? How would the Church view aliens' place in the universe vis-a-vis humans? There is plenty of material here for conversation and I have more research as well, so if people would like comment, please feel free.

I'll be doing further updates in the future but this looks like a good starting point.

American Papist comments, too

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