Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Evolution, Space Aliens, and Two Millennia of Dealing With People

Up to a bit less than a thousand years ago, quite a few European Christians probably assumed that:
  • Earth was maybe a few thousand miles across
  • The entire universe might be several times as big as Earth1
    • Was thousands of years old
Some folks still assume that the universe is a relatively cozy little affair. It's a belief that won't interfere with everyday life.2

Change Happens

Bishop Ussher, not a Catholic bishop, by the way, worked out how old the whole of Creation was - using some of the best Protestant Bibles of the 17th century as his research equipment. He came up with 4004 BC as the year that God made the entire universe.

In the 19th century, some serious thinkers claimed that things change, therefore God doesn't exist. (March 20, 2009) They said that their idea was very 'scientific.' A remarkable number of folks took them seriously.

Over-simplified? Yes, but I think I've got the gist of the Darwin/Huxley thing. As it percolated through society, anyway. The last I checked, folks are still arguing both sides of that debate. Quite seriously. And loudly.

Me? I figure that
  • Change happens
  • God's more patient than I am
  • I'm not going to tell God what He can and can't do

Discussion, Not Rants, at the Holy See

There's been discussion of evolution - among many other things - at the Vatican. Discussion, not podium-pounding or sloganeering.

Why haven't we got some self-assured, simple (or simplistic) Final Answer?

For starters, the Catholic Church is about making disciples of all nations.3

Studying how the universe works is important. So is writing user's manuals. But neither is the job of the successors of Peter. (January 14, 2011)

As far as I can tell, nobody's put together a really satisfactory explanation for why critters living now don't always look like critters that lived here before:
"...This problem has occupied scientists since the last century and involves vast layers of public opinion...."
(John Paul II, "Man Is a Spiritual and Corporeal Being" (April 16, 1986))
I've put a longer excerpt from that document near the end of this post.4

Earth Exists, Therefore There is No God??!

What I think gets lost in the shouting is that there are at least three things involved in the idea of 'evolution:'
  • Science
    • Systematically studying the physical world
  • Secularism
    • Wanting religion to go away
  • Christianity
    • Hasn't gone away
      • For about two millennia now
Over-simplified? Of course.

Do I think a person must either 'believe in' science, or worship God? No.5 (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)

What do I think about science and faith?
  • One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is understanding
    (Catechism, 1831)
    • To the extent that science yields understanding and knowledge, science might be considered a gift of the Holy Spirit
      • Or, not: that's speculation on my part
  • Science is useful for telling us how things work
    • But it won't show us why we exist
      (Catechism, 2293)
I certainly don't see the existence of a universe which exhibits some degree of predictability as 'proof' that God does not exist.6

I'd like to see a day when more:
  • Folks who think God is real would realize that "science" and "secularism" aren't the same thing
  • Folks who don't want God to exist would realize that Fred (God Hates You) Phelps and his ilk are not all there is to religion
Outfits like the Phelps' church aren't, in my considered opinion, even representative of American Protestants. (June 14, 2011)

Of course, nobody's under an obligation to follow my preferences. Which is probably just as well. Free will and all that. More topics.

Space Aliens

The current idea of evolution is fairly new - no more than a century or so old.

Speculation about whether or not we're alone in the universe? Not so much.

The '50s, with those occasionally-awful movies - like I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) - were not the first time that folks wondered whether there was life 'out there.' That should be no surprise: We can see Earth's moon: and even without telescopes folks were able to put together reasonably plausible models of a universe that might be big. Really, really, big.

Some folks saw (literally and figuratively) a vast universe, and thought there could be other worlds like Earth. Other folks decided they didn't like that idea, and said so.

There was, I gather, quite a bit of discussion.

Then the Catholic Church stepped in, and made a rule about the discussion. Catholics are forbidden to assume that life can't exist elsewhere. And have been, since the 13th century.7

Flying Saucers?

Do I "believe in" space aliens? Flying saucers? Interstellar tea pots? Hardly. Not in the sense that I'm waiting for space people to come with revelations to save humanity and inaugurate a sort of secular utopia. Some aspects of the flying saucer craze seemed perilously close to idolatry.8 More topics.

Do I think it's possible that life exists on other worlds? That people who are spirit and matter, as we are, but not human, might live somewhere in this vast universe? Yes.

Like I said, I'm not going to tell God what He can and can't do.

Actually, I think it'd be more puzzling if we were living in the only place among all these stars, where people lived - and tried to understand how things worked. And why.

The Catholic Church

I'm not surprised that Catholics are forbidden to say that God couldn't have created other worlds that support living creatures.

I'm also not surprised that the Catholic Church hasn't reached a 'final' answer to the convoluted mess of assumptions, wishful thinking, and serious research that we call "evolution." That debate has only been going on for maybe two centuries now.

The Church has been dealing with the strengths and frailties of humanity for about two thousand years: drawing on records and traditions going back at least 15 centuries before my Lord was born.9 By our standards, the Victorian era ideas about evolution are still 'new business.'

Whether or not you take the Catholic Church seriously is up to you. I suggest, though, that you consider why, and how, successors of Peter10 managed to endure for about two thousand years: while nations and empires rose and fell, languages and cultures changed.

We haven't done a perfect job of following my Lord's orders,3 and that's another topic.

Realize, though, that after I started learning what the Catholic Church really was, I coverted to Catholicism.

Related posts:

1 There's a very brief overview of one ancient model of the universe in The New American Bible/s footnote 2 of Genesis:1

2 Actually, some folks would find their jobs rather awkward, if they took Bishop Ussher seriously. A 17th-century Biblical literalist's insistence on Earth not existing before 4004 B.C. might interfere with a geologist's work.

And I doubt NASA would let someone who insisted on a "Biblical" cosmology anywhere near the programming that guides robot spaceship to other planets.

Come to think of it: Bayonne, New Jersey, isn't mentioned once in the Bible. But I've yet to hear a radio preacher insist that Bayonne is a lie told by evil scientists. I've been over God, creation, and getting a grip, before. Quite often. Including this:
3 For about two millennia now, the Church has been carrying out these orders:
"11Then Jesus approached and said to them, 'All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore,12 and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.13 And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.' " (Matthew 28:18-20)
4 Every now and then there's something in the news about what (each time) seems to startle the reporter - folks at the Vatican are thinking about evolution. Not yelling about it. Not saying 'is not, is not, is not!!' - Thinking about the idea.

Here's an excerpt from something on the Vatican's website that was written in 1986, citing a document written in 1950:
"...In modern times the theory of evolution has raised a special difficulty against the revealed doctrine about the creation of man as a being composed of soul and body. With their own methods, many natural scientists study the problem of the origin of human life on earth. Some maintain, contrary to other colleagues of theirs, not only the existence of a link between man and the ensemble of nature, but also his derivation from the higher animal species. This problem has occupied scientists since the last century and involves vast layers of public opinion.

"The reply of the Magisterium was offered in the encyclical Humani Generis of Pius XII in 1950. In it we read: 'The magisterium of the Church is not opposed to the theory of evolution being the object of investigation and discussion among experts. Here the theory of evolution is understood as an investigation of the origin of the human body from pre-existing living matter, for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold firmly that souls are created immediately by God...' (DS 3896).

"It can therefore be said that, from the viewpoint of the doctrine of the faith, there are no difficulties in explaining the origin of man in regard to the body, by means of the theory of evolution. But it must be added that this hypothesis proposes only a probability, not a scientific certainty. However, the doctrine of faith invariably affirms that man's spiritual soul is created directly by God. According to the hypothesis mentioned, it is possible that the human body, following the order impressed by the Creator on the energies of life, could have been gradually prepared in the forms of antecedent living beings. However, the human soul, on which man's humanity definitively depends, cannot emerge from matter, since the soul is of a spiritual nature...."
(John Paul II, "Man Is a Spiritual and Corporeal Being" (April 16, 1986))
5 I've written about the false dichotomy of science and religion, faith and reason, before:
6 I've suspected that one reason the Catholic Church annoys so many 'serious thinkers' is that the Holy See won't accept the 'sophisticated' notion that 'because the physical world exists, the soul cannot exist.'

Then there's the matter of most Americans understanding English - and that being just one of the many languages used by Catholics.

I've found that a document's footnotes sometimes are at least as valuable as the what they annotate:
"...34 The whole text of the letter is in: Pontifical Academy (2003), 370-374. Embarrassingly enough the English translation there ('new knowledge has led to the recognition of more than one hypothesis in the theory of evolution) of the French original of this passage is wrong. On the Vatican website there is only a Spanish version: 'Hoy, casi medio siglo después de la publicación de la encíclica, nuevos conocimientos llevan a pensar que la teoría de la evolución es más que una hipótesis'. (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/ john_paul_ii/messages/pont_messages/1996/documents/hf_jp-ii_mes_19961022_evoluzione_ sp.html). The French original and a correct English translation were published in John Paul II (1997).

"35 This evaluation is, however - again in the terminology of Vatican epistemology - contradicted by Pope Benedict, who maintains that John Paul II 'had reasons, when he said this ['evolution more than a hypothesis']. But it holds at the same time that the theory of evolution is not yet a complete scientifically verified theory'. (Horn/Wiedenhöfer, eds., 2007, 151). Whatever the Pope may mean - as is well known there is no 'verification' of theories - he certainly wants to play down the evaluation of his predecessor...."
(Pontifica Adademia Scientiarvm, Acta 20, "Scientific Insights into the Evolution of the Universe and of Life" The Proceedings of the Plenary Session 31 October - 4 November 2008 (pdf) p. 460 (2009))
7 Toward the end of Europe's Middle Ages, European scholars had studied the works of Aristotle, and took what the ancient Greek said very seriously. So far, so good: Aristotle was a very smart man, and made huge contributions to Western Civilization.

Aristotle doesn't seem to have liked the idea that there could be worlds other than the one we live on. At any rate, he said that we're on the only habitable place.

That's just one man's opinion. But when that man is Aristotle, it makes a difference:
"...Beginning about 1100 a.d., text after text of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle reached the West, and Christians were suddenly confronted with a unified, well- constructed account of the universe, an account written by a pagan. Aristotle denied that there could be a plurality of worlds. Of course, if there could not be a plurality of worlds, then the question of extraterrestrials was moot.

"There were three reactions to Aristotle's purely natural, non-Christian philosophical account: vehement rejection (the radical Augustinians), careful embrace (St. Thomas), and passionate embrace (the radical Aristotelians).

"Around 1265 a conflict between the two radical wings began to heat up, resulting in the famous (or, for Thomists, infamous) 219 Propositions in 1277, issued by the bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier. Proposition 27 condemns all who hold the Aristotelian position 'that the first cause cannot make more than one world.'

"It should be stressed that the aim of this condemnation was not to affirm a plurality of worlds but to affirm God's omnipotence against any account of nature that seemed to restrict God's powers. Aristotle's insistence that there could only be one world accorded nicely with the Genesis account of creation, but it appeared to the radical Augustinians to make God the servant of natural necessity rather than its master...."
("Alien Ideas Christianity and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life," Benjamin D. Wiker, Crisis 20, no. 10 (November 2002))
A little over seven centuries later, we still don't know for sure whether there's life anywhere except on Earth. I don't "believe in" flying saucers. On the other hand, since I'm a practicing Catholic, I can't say that God couldn't have created a space-time continuum with more than one planet that supports life.

8 "Idolatry" isn't just about worshiping statues:
"Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says, 'You cannot serve God and mammon.'44 Many martyrs died for not adoring 'the Beast'45 refusing even to simulate such worship. Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God.46" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2113)
9 Abram/Abraham may have moved out of Ur about 4,000 years ago. Or as recently as 3,500 years back. Considering how often languages and calendar systems have changed over the last 35 centuries, I don't regard "early part of the second millennium B.C." as an unreasonable sort of estimate. Not considering the condition that detailed records of, say, the Sumerians are in today.
"...With the story of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (⇒ Genesis 11:27-⇒ 50:26), the character of the narrative changes. While we do not view the account of the patriarchs as history in the strict sense, nevertheless certain of the matters recounted from the time of Abraham onward can be placed in the actual historical and social framework of the Near East in the early part of the second millennium B.C. (2000-1500), and documented by non-biblical sources....." (Preface to the New American Bible)
10 The authority my Lord gave Peter has been handed down for about two millennia, from pope to pope - and to parish church down the street. I've mentioned this before. (June 15, 2011) But remember, I'm "some guy with a blog." Look it up. (Matthew 16:15-19; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 816, 857, 832-838, 857, 880-887, for starters)


Brigid said...

Repetitive much? "I certainly don't see the existence of a universe which exists"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


Right! Fixed / revised - thanks!

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.