Thursday, October 17, 2013

Life in the Universe, God, and Getting a Grip

I've noticed two basic schools of thought about life on other planets.

On the one hand are folks who think life can and probably does exist throughout the universe, wherever conditions permit.

On the other are those who seem to think that life on Earth is wildly unlikely, and probably doesn't exist anywhere else.

Back in 2004, someone wrote a book which came close to claiming that life couldn't have started, much less survived, on Earth. I'm exaggerating, but not by much. I still have a copy. It was well-written, with reasoning based on a particular selection of facts.

The author may be right, or not.

Increasingly Informed Speculation

We don't know how common life is: yet.

Folks who support the 'crowded universe' school, and those who think we're alone, have been debating at least since 1277, when the Church said that Catholics must not claim that other worlds cannot exist.

Come to think of it, the 'alone' school said they were right because Aristotle didn't think there were other worlds, about two dozen centuries back now. This debate has been going on for a long time.

We've learned quite a bit in the last few decades. Other planets are much less like Earth than some imagined, but we live in a galaxy where billions of worlds circle other stars.

Many stories from the golden age of science fiction were wildly wrong. Tales of thriving high-tech civilizations of Martians, colorfully weird natives of Venus, and an assortment of other intelligent life living on the outer planets and/or their moons are still entertaining: but they are now fantasy, not science.

(Frank R. Paul, from the collection of Fabio Feminò, via Tales of Future Past, David S. Zondy, used w/o permission)
"...The idea that Mars was alive was a perfectly respectable position in the '30s. Even scientists who declared Mars a 'dead' planet admitted that there were probably mosses and lichens to be found...."
(Mars, Tales of Future Past)

Faith and Reason, Religion and Science

Someday my native culture may outgrow the notion that faith is incompatible with reason, and that science opposes religion.

That hasn't happened yet. I still stumble into folks wrangling over whether God agrees with a 17th century Calvinist, or doesn't exist because life changes.

I don't agree with either side.

Getting a Grip

As a Catholic, I must accept the Bible as Sacred Scripture.1 That does not mean that I must ignore facts, stop thinking, or assume that the first and second chapters of Genesis are from a science textbook.

We live in a vast, ancient, and evolving creation. Telling God that we disapprove does not make sense. Admiring the Almighty's work does.2

Humans are animals: but we are more than just animals. This is okay.3

We knew that God made our bodies from the stuff of this creation. Now we know more about that creative act. This is okay, too.4

I've been over this sort of thing before:

1 A ten-point list "for fruitful Scripture reading:"
  • "Understanding the Bible"
    Mary Elizabeth Sperry, Associate Director for Utilization of the New American Bible, USCCB
2 We live in a vast, ancient, and evolving creation. Telling God that we disapprove does not make sense. Admiring the Almighty's work does.
"The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: 'It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements. . . for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.'121"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 283)
3 Humans are different. This is okay.
"...While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage. However it is to be explained, the decisive factor in human origins was a continually increasing brain size, culminating in that of homo sapiens. With the development of the human brain, the nature and rate of evolution were permanently altered: with the introduction of the uniquely human factors of consciousness, intentionality, freedom and creativity, biological evolution was recast as social and cultural evolution..."
("Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God," International Theological Commission, 63. (July 23, 2004))
4 We knew that God made our bodies from the stuff of this creation. Now we know more about that creative act. This is okay, too.
"...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...."
("Man Is a Spiritual and Corporeal Being," John Paul II (April 16, 1986))

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

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.