God in the Age of Alien Earths


Four hundred and thirteen years ago to the day, on February, 17 1600, the mystic philosopher, and some would  argue,scientist, Giordano Bruno, was handed over by the Catholic Church to the civil authorities in Rome and burned to death in the Campo de’ Fiori. Burning at the stake was a punishment that aimed at the annihilation of the person. The scattering of a body’s ashes, like Bruno’s ashes were scattered into the Tiber river, was not as many now look on similar rituals, a way of connecting a person forever into the fabric of a place they find for whatever reason sacred, but a way to cast a person out from the human world from which they came. It was the way “soulless” creatures such as animals were treated in death.

The “crimes” for which Bruno was executed revolved around his holding heretical beliefs, that is ideas which were directly in contradiction to the teachings of the Church.The idea common today that Bruno was not so much a condemned religious heretic as the first martyr in the conflict between science and religion gained traction only in the late 19th century, and is if not false, is doubtless overly simplistic.  Only one of the charges against Bruno dealt with a scientific rather than a religious question, or at the very least what should have been considered a scientific hypothesis alone. Bruno was charged with believing the existence of, in the words of the Inquisition, “the plurality of worlds”.

What was meant by the plurality of worlds? Primarily it meant Bruno had argued for the belief in more earths than our own, that there were many worlds with life and sentient creatures not merely similar but perhaps, given his belief in infinities, identical or only slightly different from the those on our own earth. What we see when we witness Bruno trying to apply the new Copernican astronomy along with his own ideas regarding infinity to Christian theology is a Christian narrative stretched to the breaking point. Bruno wrote:

I can imagine an infinite number of worlds like the earth, with a Garden of Eden on each one. In all these Gardens of Eden, half the Adams and Eves will not eat the fruit of knowledge, but half will. But half of infinity is infinity, so an infinite number of worlds will fall from grace and there will be an infinite number of crucifixions. Therefore, either there is one unique Jesus who goes from one world to another, or there are an infinite number of Jesuses. Since a single Jesus visiting an infinite number of earths one at a time would take an infinite amount of time, there must be an infinite number of Jesuses. Therefore, God must create an infinite number of Christs.  *

What drew Bruno to the attention of Inquisitors was, I think, less the fact that he contradicted scriptures than the fact that he drew theological implications from the new view of the Universe provided by Copernicus and in light of his own ideas regarding infinity. This matter of the drawing of theological implications by someone outside of the Church hierarchy was a matter for which the Church had become particularly defensive and aggressive during Bruno’s time given this was the very power that had slipped from its fingers with Martin Luther and lay at the root of much of its then raging conflict with Protestants.

Yet, this drawing of specifically Christian theological implications was something Bruno had to do give the fact that any discussion regarding the question of cosmological meaning by someone living in a Christian society had to be done within Christian terms.  What I mean by the phrase cosmological meaning is what might be called the “big questions”. They include questions that were answered almost solely by religion until the modern era, but are now the prerogative of science, questions such as “what is the nature of the world?” “what is its origin?” “what is its ultimate fate?” ,but also questions that really can’t be answered by science even today, questions such as “what is the role of humanity in the future of the Universe?”, or “what is our place in the cosmic scheme of things?”. At the time Bruno was writing there existed no real philosophical or other discourse which might address these sorts of questions, questions that had been reopened by the new science that wasn’t tightly woven with Christian theology.

The fact that Bruno was more likely a theological rather than a scientific martyr can be seen in the experience of the thinker who spurred much of his brilliant imagination. No one had really cared when Copernicus, 60 years before Bruno, had shown that a heliocentric model of the solar system was the best way to predict the orbits of the planets. Church authorities did care when Galileo in 1610 with his book The Starry Messenger was not only able to show that the Copernican Theory was no mere piece of mathematical fancy-footwork that had little to do with reality, but was an observable fact, and that, as was Bruno had argued, objects in the heavens in some sense were worlds like earth- the moon had mountains, and Jupiter itself was orbited a series of moons, but this too might have been for different reasons than at first seem.

Yet, Galileo probably got himself in hot water with the Church as much for his pugnaciousness as for his science. He did, after all, name the dim-witted character who argues for a geocentric model in his book, Simplistico, a character with whom it doesn’t take much imagination to see the Pope himself. In the end, Galileo fared far better than Bruno, not being burned, but merely confined to the limits of his home.

That the Church didn’t much care about philosophical arguments for life on other worlds so long as no theological implications were drawn, and that its brutal reaction to Bruno was driven in part by its then raging conflict with “heresies” throughout Europe during Bruno’s time seems to be the conclusion one should draw from the reaction, or better lack of reaction, to Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, published in 1686 after the religious wars had died down. The reaction to Fontenelle’s work, to which science-fiction writers ever since owe their lineage, was that no one batted an eye .  No Catholic or Protestant theologian took note of the work. Despite its popularity, no one ever attempted to ban it or burn it as had happened with the works of both Bruno and Galileo not to mention the fact that Fontenelle was never accused of heresy, tortured, put on trial or imprisoned in his home or anywhere else.

Fontenelle’s Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds is a dialogue between a philosopher (presumably Fontenelle himself)  and a marquess, a noblewoman of refinement and leisure as such person existed before the French monarchy went to rot, that takes place while the pair take a series of walks in her garden under the beauty of the night sky.   

The first chapter in Conversations has the philosopher establish, despite all appearances, the reality of the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system whereas the rest is a superb piece of early science fiction in which the philosopher
discusses what life might be like on earth’s moon and her sister planets.

The resolution of telescopes wasn’t all that great in Fontenelle’s day, though it was a heck of alot better than looking at things through the naked eye. It was thus easy to confuse smooth areas on the moon lacking mountains or craters for large bodies of water, which is why we have things like The Sea of Tranquility, features that were themselves mapped and named by the Jesuit scholars Giovanni Battista Riccioli, and Francesco Maria Grimaldi.

What makes Fontenelle’s Conversations, despite its sometimes jarring Eurocentrism, and the droll background of a caricature of  philosopher engaged in a flirtatious dance with a caricature of a noblewoman, is not that he projects the kind of life found on earth outward, but that he argues that we may be blinded to its possibility beyond earth by sticking too close to our own experience, and should therefore try to reason our way from the type of planet we are talking about to the kinds of life that might be found upon it.

Fontenelle’s philosopher in Conversations states that  “the moon is an earth too and a habitable world” (p. 30). He speculates that our belief that it is lifeless no doubt resembles ancient belief that there could be no life at the antipodes of the earth- its poles. Our position is somewhat akin to that of American Indians that had no idea that whole civilizations existed over the oceans, and that someday we will be able to communicate with beings from the moon, whether initiated by us or them.

The revolution in the way we looked into space thanks the telescope, or the way we looked at the geography of the earth on account of Columbus and those that followed him, weren’t the only revolutions that upended the view of the world of early modern Europe. There was also the new world brought to us by the invention of the microscope, and it is here that Fontenelle thinks we can see a glimpse of just how deep the profusion of living forms in the Universe, especially ones that defy our expectations run:

A mulberry leaf is a little world inhabited by multitudes of these invisible worms which to them is a country of vast extent. What mountains what abysses are there in it? (pp. 71-72)

Fontenelle with two centuries to go before evolution would become known, assumes that life will have to be suited for the environment in which it exists. In leaps we with our knowledge likely find ridiculous, but which are close in spirit to the truth of the matter the philosopher speculates on what life might be like in environments very different from the earth: The arid moon bathed in long stretches of light and darkness, the hothouses of Mercury and Venus the frigid enormity of Jupiter and Saturn. (For whatever reason he has no interest in Mars.)

The philosopher is overawed by the diversity of a Universe filled with life, and acknowledges the stars are suns like our own. Around many of these stars will circle planets, although a diversity of types of solar systems will be found. The marquess recoils from the scale of all this life and its ungraspable diversity. Such a richness makes her own life seem far too small. Yet, the philosopher thinks this should not impact our appreciation for the specialness of what is in front of us, an ability which has been implanted in us by nature.

“They cannot spoil fine eyes or a pretty mouth their value is still the same in spite of all the worlds that can possibly exist.” (p. 105)

As to life in the solar system we, three and some centuries after Fontenelle, of course, know better. Our exploration of the moons and planets that along with us circle our sun might be written as a tragic tale of the failure to find any life in our neighborhood other than our own. Fontenelle’s marquess had anticipated a reason for this- the Goldilocks Zone, the fact that the earth appears to orbit the sun at just the right distance from the sun. Like the famous porridge, neither too hot nor too cold.

I am sure said the Marchioness we have one great convenience in the situation of our world it is not so hot as Mercury and Venus nor so cold as Jupiter or Saturn and our country is so temperately placed that we have no excess either of heat or cold I have heard of a philosopher who gave thanks to nature that he was born a man and not a beast a Greek and not a Barbarian and for my part I render thanks that I am seated in the mildest planet of the universe and in one of the most temperate regions of that planet. (p. 99)

Yet, our own day might give new life to the dream of Fontenelle’s philosopher. This at least is the story one finds in another remarkable and much more recent book-  Dimitar Sasselov’ The Life of Super-Earths: How the Hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet.  Sasselov book lays out how astronomers have in the last decade identified a huge number of extra-solar planets, and through amazing instruments, especially NASA’s aptly named Kepler Probe , are seeking out such bodies in the Goldilocks Zone around near earth planets.

Many of the extrasolar  planets so far discovered turnout to be something quite different from our earth, especially in terms of scale. They are much bigger than our own “big” blue marble, only a little smaller than Uranus- hence the term “super-earth”.  Sasselov’ tries to show how life on such planets might be even more ideally suited for life than the earth itself which is almost as small as dead planets such as Mars that are not large enough to hold complex atmospheres and engender internal processes such as plate tectonics,and is nowhere near the limit of big living planets that might be water worlds of pure ocean, a limit that is closer to the size of Uranus.  Planets much larger such as Saturn or Jupiter are not good places for life to take hold with too much atmospheric complexity and gravity for fragile life forms. We are Goldilocks here too, but we have baby bear’s bowl.

Life requires the kinds of complex elements that make up our own planet, and it is supposed, any super-earths. It is only recently,  Sasselov argues, that the generation of stars in the Universe has aged enough to produce these necessary elements. Hence the silence of the Universe today likely reflects the fact that we are one of the first to the party. But it will be a long celebration, with more than 10 times the age of the Universe- 150 billion years- of excellent conditions for life to take hold in front of it. Fontenelle would leap for joy at the diversity!

The Kepler Probe is helping us find planets located in the Goldilocks Zone using the same method Galileo used for identifying Jupiter’s moons. It is locating transits- moments when an object passes, in this case, in front of a parent star. It will take other techniques and instruments to gauge whether life is present on such planets when identified, but Sasselov is pretty confident that we are on the verge of finding life outside the solar system. Thus, in his view, we are about to complete the revolution started by Copernicus.

In one of those strange coincidences of intellectual history, Sasselov, is proposing the use of updated ideas and tools to understand life beyond the solar system that can be found in Fontenelle’s Conversations. Sasselov thinks we should be able to use the new synthetic biology, the heir to the philosopher’s microbiology, to create in the lab life forms that might have evolved in any of the distinct worlds we find, which, as Fontenelle claimed in a much more simplified form will be different from life on earth because they have evolved (not his word) to match the conditions found there. Sasselov thinks synthetic biology will allow us to reset the clock back to the very beginning of life and run experiments in how these life forms might have evolved given conditions that are different, in terms of composition, temperature, pressure etc. from those on earth.

Should life be discovered on another planet in our near future, what might the impact be on traditional religion, especially in light of the current conflict between it and science? Or, to phrase the question differently, how might Bruno fare in a world where his alien earths had actually been found?

I, of course, have no way to know. My sincere hope, however, is that such a completion of the Copernican Revolution will have the effect of ending (or at least substantially decreasing) rather than exacerbating the conflict between the two domains. Right now, a good deal of the conflict between science and religion appears to be driven by the desire of religious authorities to use the language of science to make cosmological claims that support their own theological worldview, and the overreaction of the so-called New Atheists to these claims. On the one hand you have the misnomer of “creation science” that seeks to lend the air of scientific support for what are in reality religious convictions. On the other, you have the seemingly open minded view of an institution such as the Catholic Church that looks for a God that somehow resembles the God of their tradition in the “gaps” of knowledge science cannot currently explain. Seeing, for instance, in the Big Bang evidence for a creator God who brought the world into being ex nihilo- out of nothing.  This seemingly modern view inspired an entire book by the vocally atheist physicist, Lawrence Krauss, who in his A Universe From Nothing aims to show that the Universe of contemporary physics leaves no room at all for a creator God in the Christian sense.

I have complained about the militant intolerance of the New Atheist elsewhere, but agree with at least this about their critique: No religion should use the findings of science to back their theological claims, which in the end amount to a claim to exclusive say over the universal human questions of cosmological meaning. For example, followers of theistic religions: Judaism, Islam or Christianity should avoid using scientific phenomena such as the Big Bang to argue for the existence of the creator that underlies their theology because it theologically excludes the many faiths and philosophies that contain no concept of such a creator. Likewise, even if the finding of modern science appear to fit better with the concepts of a particular religion, say Buddhism, this does not mean that Buddhists can turn around and say that the moral, ethical and existential bearings of a theistic religion such as Christianity are somehow false. This is because the cosmological claims of any religion are merely secondary features rather than primary ones. Religions are above all ethical and philosophical orientations towards life on a human scale. If one finds concepts such as charity or sin the best way to establish one’s bearings towards other human beings and the human condition more generally, then the truth of this can be found only in the living out of the concepts not in the scientific reality of cosmological claims which were only secondary to the development of the faith in the first place.

As for these big questions, the ones that transcend our individual lives or even the life of our species, these questions of meaning  ideally should involve a discussion all of us, secular and religious, scientist and non-scientist, can share. In terms of its “why?” and “where?” questions that explore the issue of human purpose. These types of questions are not really resolvable in the sense that that they will never really be answered in the same way scientific questions are answered or religious beliefs and practices constitute a particular set of answers to the question of how a human being should live.

My hope is that the discovery of life elsewhere in the Milky Way, rather than result in continued conflict between religion and science (in which many of the religious play a role similar to “climate deniers” and view such an amazing scientific discovery as a cabal against their deeply held beliefs)  will encourage the religious to back off from using cosmological justifications for their faith. Instead, perhaps they will realize that the world which the modern science has revealed is far more complex and surprising than anything any sacred books contain and that their most fruitful path lie not in trying to square these two worlds and find “proofs” for their faith, but to ensure their faith provides meaning and purpose for the human beings who live within them.

In turn, I hope the New Atheists, no longer vulnerable to the belief that religion is somehow invading its intellectual turf, will stop demonizing and ridiculing religious persons whose goal has always been, even if it has so often failed, or if other non-religious paths to the same exist higher purpose exist, to be better human beings. It would be a world in which Bruno was never again burned at the stake be he scientist- or saint.

*This Bruno quote is reportedly from the Fifth Dialogue of his Cause Principle and Unity, but I have not been able while searching the text to find it. Any help would be appreciated.