Unmanned Space Exploration

Prometheus has me thinking about space travel again. The impossibility of humans traversing any meaningful distance away from Earth will not disappear anytime soon. The solution that sci fi reverts to is usually some version of ‘hypersleep’ or stasis. Personally, I don’t that will ever be feasible either. This leads to the possibility of unmanned missions, which I think offer far more promise in our current condition.

Stephen Hawking has said:

Robotic missions are much cheaper and may provide more scientific information, but they don’t catch the public imagination in the same way, and they don’t spread the human race into space, which I’m arguing should be our long-term strategy. If the human race is to continue for another million years, we will have to boldly go where no one has gone before.

While I agree that current robotic missions aren’t all that exciting (the Mars Rovers for example), I think a sustained vision of unmanned space travel could inspire us given developments on earth. The explosion of unmanned aircraft during the last decade means that we may soon adjust to flying on pilotless airplanes. There are already demonstrations of aircraft that might be able to fly in the Martian atmosphere. And given the advances of humanoid-type robots (see the video below), is it far-fetched to imagine a future crew staffed by android / robots and unmanned vehicles for the atmosphere and the ground?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mclbVTIYG8E]

I don’t know, maybe something like this?

[vimeo 33025640 w=500 h=281]

Given that moisture farming might not be so far-fetched either, maybe we could send out missions to our neighboring planets who could do things like mining, construction, research and reconnaissance. Constructing communications sites on the Moon and other locations to build a space internet would facilitate communication for future missions deeper into space. Video transmission from robotic missions would give us the ability to do a lot of human-like things without the expense and trouble of actually sending humans into hostile environments.

This seems like a more logical first wave of off world exploration to me, and it seems pretty doable even with current technology if the will to do it arises.

A Theology of Space Travel 1.8

On the third day, God created the Earth. The stars, planets and indeed the universe was made on the fourth day. Thus, the earth is the centerpiece of creation, it is, in some sense, the most important place in the Universe although our modern cosmology teaches us that it is an insignificant speck in the cosmos. Just as life radiated out from the Garden of Eden into the wider world and covenant life radiated out from Israel to the Nations, we can expect life to radiate out from our garden home to other planets.


The other planets might conceivably contain plant life. Although earthen plants were created on the third day, when God spread out the expanse of the heavens on day four, he might have included edible plants on the other planets as a preparation for our arrival there in the future. Animals were created on days five and six, not in tandem with or before the other planets, and I doubt that they were created or could be self-sustaining on off-earth worlds. We do have a picture of how to get animals to these future homes however, and it is in the person of Noah.

Just as Noah delivered the animals to a renewed earth by traveling through a watery expanse, future colonizers can carry animals of all kinds through space to a new world. While the technological challenges to this seem insurmountable in our time, the passage of time coupled with technological progress guided by the Holy Spirit may provide avenues to this possibility in the future. Theologian James Jordan often refers to the biologist Rupert Sheldrake and his theory of morphic fields related to humanity and the cosmos. As Jordan puts it:

Sheldrake argues that while there is no inheritance of acquired characteristics in the genetic sense, there is such an inheritance in a field” sense. Each animal, crystal, human society, etc. has a “type,” and that “type” changes in time in response to changed conditions and as a result of habitual reinforcement. Changes in “type” of affect entire populations of a given kind of creature, and usually happen in response to catastrophic changes in environment. Such patterns or habits of existence exist at various hierarchical levels, so that as regards human life, certain sub-groups within a nation may become loosely patterned toward certain occupations, while the nation itself may become loosely patterned toward certain orientations, and the human race as a whole is being patterned by God’s hand toward her fulfillment and destiny.

Jordan cites Sheldrakian morphic changes as a reason for humans breaking into different colors, sizes and so on after the Flood. He speculates that humans and animals would undergo further catastrophic changes once removed to other planets.

Postmillenial Christians should rejoice in these possibilities. God has provided for expansion, dominion and worship of Christ to take hold across the Universe. Learning how to tend the waste places of Earth should teach us how to colonize and bring life to other planets. The Church will in the future be confronted with how to bring the sacramental life and the Scripture to these places, it cannot be left to a secular sphere. A society capable of reaching the planets would potentially be the Second or Fifth Christendom, and so the configuration of the Church might be very different at that time.

A Theology of Space Travel 1.7

There is an article out today on the number of possible “Earths” in the Milky Way. The number may be low or high, depending on your point of view.

One idea that has occurred to me from a theological standpoint is that our propensity to idolatry and the worship of everything from bugs to the Sun make it highly unlikely that there is other human-type life in the Universe. I wouldn’t extrapolate to plant and animal life, but it seems to me that if we encountered another sentient species in our present state of maturity, we would probably fall to worshipping them at some point. Just a thought.

A Theology of Space Travel 1.6

Anglican, Arian and later Baptist scholar William Whiston authored A New Theory of the Earth, From its Original to the Consummation of All Things. In it, he argues that it seems absurd that our vast universe is made only for the use of man, as on page 71:

But then as to the consequence, that therefore the Creation is no farther to be extended, or at least not so far as here it must otherwise be, to the Sun and Planets; nay, with the most to the inumberable Systems of the fix’d Stars; ‘tis to me so natural an necessary, that methinks ‘tis perfectly needless to go about the Proof of it. That so vast and noble a System, consisting of so many, so remote, so different, and so glorious Bodies, should be made only for the Use of Man, is so wild a Fancy, that it deserves any other Treatment sooner than a serious Confutation; and one may better think silently with one’s self, than with due deference and decency speak, what naturally arises in one’s Mind on this occasion.

If ‘tis an Instance of, or consistent with, the Divine Wisdom, to make thousands of glorious Bodies for the sole Use of a few fallen or rebellious Creatures, which were to live for a little while upon one of the most inconsiderable of them! To create an innumerable Multitude of Suns and Planets, and place them at prodigious Distances from us and from one another (the greatest part of which were never seen till the late Invention of the Telescope; and of such as are visible, the Sun excepted, the single Moon, as despicable a Body as it is, in comparison to the most of the others, is much more beneficial to us than they all put together) for the mere Convenience of one little Earth! If ‘tis wise and rational to make the Sun more than 220,000 times as big as that Globe it was to serve, only that it might be plac’d above 80 Millions of Miles of Miles off (for in a nearer Position it would have scorch’d and burnt, instead of warm’d and invigorated the Earth) when a small fiery Ball plac’d near us would have done as well! To make a vast Number of Planets (every way as capable of Creatures of their own) only for the Sake of us on Earth…

He also believed that the universe contained other beings who might have a different nature than our own on pages 93-94:

I cannot imagine that God is peculiarly fond of any particular Parts of the material Creation, or any more a Respecter of some Inanimate Bodies, than of Persons. He no doubt equally makes use of them all, according to their several Kinds and Capacities, in the Service of the various Species of intelligent Creatures, and in the bringing about the great Periods of Nature, and the Decrees of Heaven; which as they are in great measure unknown to us, so may they regard rational Beings very different and remote from us and our Concerns.

If we duly reflect on the infinite Nature, and unlimited Perfections, of the Divine Being, the Creator and Original of all Things; as well as on the Number, Vastness, and Glory of those his Works which are within our View, we shall see Reason to confess, there may be Millions of nobler intellectual Beings interposed between Man and God; and the whole World might be more reasonably suppos’d made at the Creation, and for the sole use of any one Species of those, than of Mankind. If therefore we be unwilling to be our selves excluded from a Share in the Intentions and Designs of Heaven, let us not exclude any other rational Creatures from the same; but be willing to suppose that as this Earth was form’d in six Days for the Sake of Man, so were the rest of the heavenly Bodies, form’d at other proper times for the Sake of other of God’s Creatures; for whom Providence ought to be allow’d to have taken a pro-portionable Care, and made a suitable Provision, as we our selves find has been done with regard to us and our Affairs.

References

New Theory of the Earth, From its Original to the Consummation of All Things. By William Whiston, M.A. London: Mr. Boyle’s Head, 1755.

A Theology of Space Travel 1.5

A comment by that old blogging personage Daniel Silliman on one of the articles in my previous post says:

The early American Puritan theologian Cotton Mather, for example, believed there could well be intelligent life forms elsewhere in the universe, and dealt with the jurisdictional question by supposing it possible that God’s dealing with humans and revelation in human history might be, ultimately, for the purpose of benifiting or educating the aliens. He imagines in the Triparadisus that the apocalyptic, world-wide conflagration might teach “moon men” about the sovereignty of God, for example.

This peaked my interest and so I found Mather’s work in question, the Triparadisus. In it, Mather writes about a conflagration of the Earth:

If the Satellit of this Earth walking in her Brightness, have any Reasonable Inhabitants, we know not what Refelections they will have, at the Beholding of what is done to this Globe, when they see GOD hath enkindled a Fire, & it hath devoured the Foundations thereof. Nor know we, how dire, how dismal, how doleful a Spectacle This may be to any other Planetts, if there be in them any Rational Spectators, of what Appearances may now be discovered here. [The Third Paradise VII]

A footnote from the editor says:

The belief in lunar inhabitants was not entirely new in Mather’s time; it had been popularized in Francis Godwin’s Man in the Moone. William Whitson even thought it presumptuous for man to conceive of himself as the whole focus of God’s creation and contended that there are millions of nobler intellectual beings out there in the solar system (New Theory, pt. I, pp. 71, 93).

Once again, this shows theologians of an earlier age having no problem with the idea of intelligent life existing outside of humanity on Earth. In this case, it is one of the uber-Puritans, Cotton Mather showing that these beliefs bridged the Protestant/Catholic divide.
References
The Threefold Paradise of Cotton Mather, An Edition of “Triparadisus”, edited by Reiner Smolinski, University of Georgia Press, Athens and London, 1999.

A Theology of Space Travel 1.4

Scott sent me a good link that ties in to the corpus of information I am assembling on a theology of space travel. The initial article kicking it off is an interview with Douglas Vakoch the Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI.

NCR: You have a background in comparative religions. How does this help you in your work?

It helps when I consider the societal impact of detecting and communicating with intelligent life beyond earth. As you look at where the responses were coming from when people started taking this question seriously in the past 50 years, much of it was from Catholics. After Sputnik in 1957 there was a lot of speculation about the possibility of other beings that can go into space. Early discussions about extraterrestrial intelligence included consideration of their moral status. The Catholic response was to create typologies based on the Genesis story. Are there other worlds where there was no original sin? How do salvation and redemption work and what is their scope?

Vakoch references a strand of tradition that is much richer than I thought. Reflection on other life in the Universe stretches back through Church history, although somewhat obscurely. The blog linking to the article says:

Vakoch is a humanist among the technocrats. His job is to figure out how we might communicate with intelligent aliens out there, if and when they might one day show up. I am not sure just why NCR decided to interview him. He did not have much to say about religion, except to raise the question (he did not suggest an answer) whether these aliens have original sin and are therefore in need of redemption. I am sure that this is indeed a question that would preoccupy Christians. Perhaps NCR was fantasizing about yet another dialogue center within the Vatican bureaucracy, after those for dialogue with non-Catholic Christians (the “separated brethren”), Jews, adherents of non-Judeo-Christian traditions, unbelievers—perhaps a Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Extraterrestrial Brethren (very separated ones indeed).

A comment on the blog leads to my next post…

A Theology of Space Travel 1.3

In my last post I mentioned some sources that Bishop John Wilkins used in his argument for an inhabited moon. The first source is Thomas Aquinas, who asks if there can be more than one world.

Whether There Is Only One World?

Objection 1: It would seem that there is not only one world, but many. Because, as Augustine says (QQ. 83, qu. 46), it is unfitting to say that God has created things without a reason. But for the same reason He created one, He could create many, since His power is not limited to the creation of one world; but rather it is infinite, as was shown above (Q. 25, A. 2). Therefore God has produced many worlds.

Obj. 2: Further, nature does what is best and much more does God. But it is better for there to be many worlds than one, because many good things are better than a few. Therefore many worlds have been made by God.

Obj. 3: Further, everything which has a form in matter can be multiplied in number, the species remaining the same, because multiplication in number comes from matter. But the world has a form in matter. Thus as when I say “man” I mean the form, and when I say “this man,” I mean the form in matter; so when we say “world,” the form is signified, and when we say “this world,” the form in the matter is signified. Therefore there is nothing to prevent the existence of many worlds.

On the contrary, It is said (John 1:10): “The world was made by Him,” where the world is named as one, as if only one existed.

I answer that, The very order of things created by God shows the unity of the world. For this world is called one by the unity of order, whereby some things are ordered to others. But whatever things come from God, have relation of order to each other, and to God Himself, as shown above (Q. 11, A. 3; Q. 21, A. 1). Hence it must be that all things should belong to one world. Therefore those only can assert that many worlds exist who do not acknowledge any ordaining wisdom, but rather believe in chance, as Democritus, who said that this world, besides an infinite number of other worlds, was made from a casual concourse of atoms.

Reply Obj. 1: This reason proves that the world is one because all things must be arranged in one order, and to one end. Therefore from the unity of order in things Aristotle infers (Metaph. xii, text 52) the unity of God governing all; and Plato (Tim.), from the unity of the exemplar, proves the unity of the world, as the thing designed.

Reply Obj. 2: No agent intends material plurality as the end forasmuch as material multitude has no certain limit, but of itself tends to infinity, and the infinite is opposed to the notion of end. Now when it is said that many worlds are better than one, this has reference to material order. But the best in this sense is not the intention of the divine agent; forasmuch as for the same reason it might be said that if He had made two worlds, it would be better if He had made three; and so on to infinite.

Reply Obj. 3: The world is composed of the whole of its matter. For it is not possible for there to be another earth than this one, since every earth would naturally be carried to this central one, wherever it was. The same applies to the other bodies which are part of the world.

SUMMA THEOLOGICA, PART I (“Prima Pars”), THIRD ARTICLE [I, Q. 47, Art. 3]

The second source is a letter from Pope Zacharias to Boniface about Bishop Virgilius who apparently thought that there was more than one world. LXIV [80] May 1, 748:

…As to the foolish and sinful doctrine which he teaches: if it should be made clear that he believes there is below this earth another world and other men, and also a sun and a moon, then summon a council, depose him from the office of priest, and cast him out of the Church.

A Theology of Space Travel 1.2

In the 17th century, a Bishop of the Church of England named John Wilkins wrote a book with the wordy title: A Discovery of a New World, or, A Discourse Tending to prove, that tis Probable there may be another Habitable World in the Moon.

Yes, some people back then thought that the moon was habitable, and even inhabited. This probably led to the early Mormon prophecies of preaching the restored Gospel on the Moon or the Sun. Wilkins advocated the position of an inhabited moon. In the process he listed some possible objections from the Scripture and Tradition of the Church, as follows:

But the position (say some) is directly against Scripture, for
I. Moses tells us of one World, and his History of the Creation had been very Imperfect, if God had made another.
2. Saint John speaking of Gods works, says, he made the World in the singular Number, and therefore there is but one: tis the argument of Aquinas, and he thinks that none will oppose it, but such who with Democritus esteem some blind Chance, and not any wise Providence to be the Framer of all things.
3. The Opinion of more Worlds has in Ancient times been accounted a Heresy, and Baronius affirms, that for this very reason Virgilius was cast out of his Bishopric, and Excommunicated from the Church.
4. A Fourth Argument there is urged by Aquinas; if there be more Worlds than one, then they must either be of the same, or of a divers Nature; but they are not of the same kind; for this were needless, and would argue an improvidence, since one would have no more perfection than the other; not of divers kinds, for then one of them could not be called the World or Universe, since it did not contain Universal perfection. I have cited this Argument because it is so much stood upon by Julius Caesar la Galla, one that has purposely wrote a Treatise against this Opinion which I now deliver;

He refutes these objections as follows:

Unto the two first it may be answered, that the Negative Authority of Scripture, is not prevalent in those things which are not the Fundamentals of Religion.
[…]

But you’ll reply, though it do not necessarily conclude, yet tis probable, if there had been another world, we should have had some notice of it in Scripture.
I answer, tis as probable that the Scripture should have informed us of the Planets, they being very remarkable parts of the Creation; and yet neither Moses, nor Job, nor the Psalms, (the places most frequent in Astronomical Observations) nor any other Scripture mention any of them, but the Sun and Moon. Because the difference betwixt them and the other Stars, was known only to those who were Learned Men, and had skill in Astronomy.

His main point related to Scripture is that silence does not prove something doesn’t exist.

[…] the silence of Scripture, concerning any other World, is not Sufficient Argument to prove that there is none.

He also notes a Jesuit argument that the authority of the Church Fathers does not apply in this case, because they did not address the subject:

Mersennus a late Jesuit, proposing the question, whether or no the opinion of more Worlds than one, be Heretical and against the Faith? He answers it Negatively, because it does not Contradict any express place of Scripture, or Determination of the Church. And though (saith he) it seems to be a rash opinion, as being against the consent of the Fathers; yet, if this controversy be chiefly philosophical, then their authorities are not of such weight. Unto this it may be added, that the consent of the Fathers is prevalent only in such points as were first controverted amongst them, and then generally decided one way, and not in such other particulars as never fell under their examination and dispute.

Bishop Wilkins seems to essentially say that if Scripture and the Fathers have not authoritatively address the subject, it is fair game. I will provide a couple of sources that Wilkins referred to in my next post.

A Theology of Space Travel 1.1

There is nothing new under the sun. I thought that perhaps my speculations about space and other worlds would be new, but I am already finding evidence that this topic has been much thought of from of old. Here is Melancthon saying that there cannot be inhabitants on other planets:

We know God is a citizen of this world with us, custodian and server of this world, ruling the motion of the heavens, guiding the constellations, making this earth fruitful, and indeed watching over us; we do not contrive to have him in another world, and to watch over other men also…the Son of God is One; our master Jesus Christ was born, died and resurrected in this world. Nor does He manifest Himself elsewhere, nor elsewhere has He died or resurrected. Therefore, it must not be imagined that there are many worlds, because it must not be imagined that Christ died and was resurrected more often, nor must it be thought that in any other world without the knowledge of the Son of God, that men would be restored to eternal life.
[Initia doctrinae physicae] quoted in Steven J. Dick, Plurality of Worlds, p. 89

The uniqueness of the incarnation here on earth is a central concern of many who say that there cannot be humans on other planets.

 

A Theology of Space Travel

Is Earth our only home? As a Christian, what should we think about space travel, colonizing planets, and transforming the universe? Could other life be out there? One of my long-term goals is to think through these issues a bit from a Christian standpoint. Some of my foundational assumptions are (not in order of priority):

[1] Postmillenialism

[2] Creation

[3] Human uniqueness

[4] Endurance of the Earth

[5] Inspiration of Scripture

Postmillenialism means that we may be here for 200,000 years more before the return of Christ. James Jordan addresses this a bit in his essay, “An Antidote for Yuppie Postmillenialism.”, He writes:

…does the Bible anywhere say that planet earth is our only project? If God has given us the ability to travel to other planets, perhaps they also are to be developed and glorified as part of his universal plan – all before Christ returns. This could take hundreds of thousands of years. (One reason I enjoy the marvellous science fiction stories of Cordwainer Smith, a devout Christian, is because they communicate a feel for such a universal development and glorification.)

So I hope to dig into this from time to time, both in private and on this blog.