“In other parts of space there are other worlds and different races of men and kinds of wild beasts.”—Titus Lucretius Carus (50 BC)[i]
In order to properly assess the philosophical and theological implications of intelligent extraterrestrial biological life, it is essential to review the history of the discussion. Most folks probably assume that it was the dawn of the space age, beginning with the Russian satellite Sputnik in 1957 and culminating with Neil Armstrong taking “one giant leap for mankind” in 1969, that necessitated the ET discussion. Alternately, folks more versed in Western history might think back to the eighteenth-century “age of reason” enlightenment or perhaps even a little farther to the “Copernican revolution,” including the infamous sixteenth-century Galileo trial, as the impetus for speculation about ET. While those are certainly remarkable stepping stones, the origin of the otherworldly reaches much deeper into antiquity.
Some writers (e.g., Erich von Däniken, Zecharia Sitchin) have proposed that intelligent extraterrestrials visited Earth in prehistory and made contact with humans. They cite various artifacts and ancient texts as evidence for ET intervention. A common tenet is that the gods from most, if not all, religions were actually extraterrestrials, and their advanced technologies were wrongly interpreted by primitive peoples as supernatural abilities. Although this demythologizing is quite popular, the so-called ancient astronaut theory has been authoritatively discredited, and it is not taken seriously by most academics.[ii] In fact, a program of remythologizing offers more promise.
Scholars are in wide agreement that explicit ET discussion first appeared in the writings of the early Greeks.[iii] As early as the sixth century BC, Thales and Orpheus postulated that the moon was much like the Earth. Not much later, Philolaus is reported to have written that the moon was populated. These beliefs are part and parcel of the ancient supernatural worldview.
Thales (640–548 BC) believed in demoniacal apparitions, Plato in ghosts—deceased people who were compelled to return to the living because they were unable to disassociate themselves from their bodily passions. Democritus (fifth century BC), who could laugh so heartily at human folly, recommended that a man stung by a scorpion should sit upon an ass and whisper in the animal’s ear: “A scorpion has stung me.” He thought that the pain would thus be transferred to the ass. All the philosophers of old believed in the reality of magic.[iv]
While it is clear they believed in the paranormal, the Greek philosophers were in vigorous debate as to the ultimate nature of reality or metaphysics.
At this time, Greek thinkers had reached a conundrum concerning the fundamental laws or underlying principles of nature. In many ways, the ancient debate anticipated the modern evolutionary hullabaloo. On one side was Parmenides, convinced that because reality reflects unity, true change was impossible. On the other side was Heraclitus, who believed that the nature of existence is change. In order to reconcile conflicting schools of thought, Leucippus and his student Democritus asserted that qualitative change (in character or essence) was impossible, but quantitative change (in size or quantity) was real.[v] In other words, they contended that while things appear to change, there is an unseen static reality underneath. This reconciliation was made possible by their theory of atoms.
Originally proposed by Leucippus (fifth century BC), atomism was developed and refined by his protégé, Democritus (460–370 BC). The two intuitively suggested that all matter was composed of very small particles. The thought process went something like this: Imagine slicing a pebble in half, then in half again, and in half again, and again, and so on… This process could continue until, eventually, the pebble is reduced to a grain of sand and becomes too small to see or cut. Based on this, Democritus doubted the process could truly continue infinitely, so he proposed miniscule, indivisible units called atoms. In fact, the Greek word atomos means indivisible, and the atomists proposed an infinite number of these basic building blocks.
In this way, they solved the question of unity and change in that the arrangements of atoms were in constant flux while the atoms themselves remained stable. Furthermore, they saw no rhyme or reason governing this mix of atoms. They believed the universe was infinite in size and governed by chance. As a corollary to this, they reasoned that because the Earth and its inhabitants were formed by random combinations of atoms, it naturally followed that the same haphazard amalgamations occurred many times over. In this way, the existence of other worlds and alien life was an inevitable consequence of their worldview.
Known as the laughing philosopher, Democritus speculated that originally the universe was a swarm of atoms churning chaotically, forming larger and larger masses eventually including the Earth, planets, and stars. In antiquity, the term “world” (Greek kosmos) meant the observable universe, not a mere planet. Thus, when Democritus asserted a hodgepodge of alien worlds, it is helpful to think in terms of solar systems. According to Hippolytus, “Democritus, son of Damasippus, a native of Abdera, conferring with many gymnosophists among the Indians, and with priests in Egypt, and with astrologers and magi in Babylon…he maintained worlds to be infinite, and varying in bulk; and that in some there is neither sun nor moon, while in others that they are larger than with us, and with others more numerous.”[vi] Furthermore, he held that some worlds have life while others do not, each has a beginning and an end, and a world could be destroyed by collision with another one. Today, some historians consider Democritus the “father of modern science.”[vii] Don’t tell the donkey.
In the otherworldly discussion, the successor to Democritus was the Greek philosopher Epicurus. He wrote, “A world is a circumscribed portion of the sky, containing heavenly bodies and an earth and all the heavenly phenomenon.”[viii] From this we can tell that in the late third century BC, when Epicurus invoked the principle of plentitude to defend the existence of innumerable worlds, he meant a vast universe of solar systems. A letter to his student, Herodotus, survives as a prominent example: “There are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours. For the atoms being infinite in number…are borne far out into space.”[ix] That he believed ETs inhabited these worlds is laid bare by his assertion, “Furthermore, we must believe that in all worlds there are living creatures and plants and other things we see in this world.”[x] Although he technically was not an atheist, he was a material reductionist, because he held that even the gods and human souls were made of atoms. Epicurus, like modern deists, argued that the gods were uninvolved in human affairs. He inspired a host of followers.
Atomist thought gave rise to a system of philosophy called Epicureanism, which arguably still survives as modern material reductionism (the idea that everything is reducible to matter and energy as governed by the laws of chemistry and physics). Epicurean philosophy attracted many disciples, one of the most prominent being Titus Lucretius Carus (99–55 BC), known as Lucretius. He popularized atomism in his famous poem, “On the Nature of the Universe.” The following is a representative example:
Granted, then, that empty space extends without limit in every direction and that seeds innumerable in number are rushing on countless courses through an unfathomable universe under the impulse of perpetual motion, it is in the highest degree unlikely that this earth and sky is the only one to have been created and that all those particles of matter outside are accomplishing nothing. This follows from the fact that our world has been made by nature through the spontaneous and casual collision and the multifarious, accidental, random, and purposeless congregation and coalescence of atoms whose suddenly formed combinations could serve on each occasion as the starting point of substantial fabrics—earth and sea and sky and the races of living creatures.[xi]
A few decades before Christ was born, the Roman poet Lucretius popularized the materialist worldview, replete with populated alien worlds. Inherent is a denial of Divine Creation and providence, along with the belief that death is simply the disbanding of the atoms, which, consequently, should not be feared. Sounding much like today’s transhumanists, he boasted, “Thus religion trod down, by just reverse; victory makes us akin to the gods.”[xii] In fact, the discovery of Lucretius’ writings spawned an atomist renaissance in the sixteenth century AD that has ongoing repercussions. While atomism ran contrary to theism, more renowned philosophers opposed them.
Plato (428–348 BC) and his student Aristotle (384–322 BC) stood in opposition to the atomists and their otherworldly doctrines. Plato solved the metaphysical problem of change by arguing a theory of forms. This system posits a transcendent reality beyond the ever-changing experiential world. It consists of eternal, unchanging forms that are perceived intellectually but not by the senses.[xiii] For example, there may be many kinds of chairs, but in Plato’s thought, there is an ethereal form that defines chairness. While Christian philosophers typically reject Platonism because it undermines the doctrine of creation ex nihilo by positing uncreated self-existent forms, much of Plato’s thought is consistent with theism.
Plato believed the world was unique because it was a representation of a single creator. He conceived of the demiurge, a Greek term for an artisan or craftsman responsible for the creation and maintenance of the material universe. His student, Aristotle, carried this line of thinking forward in his notion of a “prime mover” seen in book 12 of his Metaphysics, in which he employed the phrase, “something which moves other things without being moved by anything,”[xiv] giving rise to the popular term, “unmoved mover.” It is from this Aristotelian idea that the cosmological argument for the existence of God derives. He further suggests that because this prime mover set the celestial realm in motion, it follows that there is only one heaven. This necessitates a brief discussion of ancient cosmology.
The ancient Greek word often translated “world” is kosmos, which generally meant “order.” It carried the idea of bringing order from chaos and—beg your pardon, ladies—this is the idea behind the English term “cosmetics.” Over time, it came to represent the Creation order, the observable universe. A Greek lexicon offers discussion:
The spatial sense of κόσμος and its identification with the universe are found in Plato, though the older idea of world order is still present. For Plato the cosmos is the universe…inasmuch as in it all individual things and creatures, heaven and earth, gods and men, are brought into unity by a universal order.[xv]
Thus, a cosmos is orderly because it obeys physical laws. Yet, apart from God, this seems unlikely. It follows that if reality was ultimately chaotic, as the atomists believed, science would not be possible. Accordingly, when Carl Sagan began his classic television show with “The cosmos is all there is” he was mistaken. The order observed by science needs an explanation not provided in nature. It must indeed originate from super-nature. The universe follows discernible laws, and chaos cannot account for such behavior. Thus, when Plato and Aristotle argued against a plurality of worlds, it entailed an argument against the chaotic randomness of the atomists. They were appropriately arguing for lawful order and design, albeit with an incorrect understanding of physics.
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Aristotle believed that the Earth was the geographical center of the cosmos, and, therefore, the Earth was exceptional as a life-supporting planet. Interestingly, he was opposed by Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos (310–230 BC), who placed the sun at the center long before Copernicus. Nevertheless, because the stars are so much farther away than anyone then imagined, their expected movement relative to each other as the Earth moves around the sun (parallax) was undetectable. Thus, Aristarchus’ speculation, although accurate, was not demonstrable, and Aristotle’s geocentrism won the day. In fact, Aristotle’s errant cosmology would hold sway for nearly two thousand years, most likely because it accounted for the observed order better than the chaos associated with the competition.
Aristotle also believed that all matter consists of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. One of the basic tenets of his cosmology was the doctrine of natural motion and place. This meant that earth (as in soil or matter) moved toward the Earth, water flowed toward the sea, fire moved away from the Earth, and air occupied the space in between. From this he reasoned that, by natural law, all earth is concentrated into our spherical planet; thus, no other worlds could exist. Aristotle wrote:
Either, therefore, the initial assumptions must be rejected, or there must be only one center and one circumference; and given this latter fact, it follows from the same evidence and by the same compulsion, that the world must be unique. There cannot be several worlds.[xvi]
He thought unity demanded it. In his classic text, On the Heavens, he devotes two entire chapters to the refutation of the existence of other worlds. Of course, we now know that the universe is much bigger than he ever imagined but, even so, his idea of singular “uncaused cause” has gained traction given the standard model of Big Bang cosmology. This “uncreated creator” idea is used in the New Testament in precisely this context.
In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul delivered his famous sermon on the Areopagus in Athens to a group of Epicureans and Stoics who were curious about his strange new teachings. They called Paul a “babbler,” which in the Greek text reads spermologos, an Athenian slang word meaning “one who picks up seeds.” The insult suggested a person who pecks at ideas like a bird pecks at seeds and then spouts them off without fully comprehending what he is saying. Jeering aside, Paul skillfully quoted Greek poets and declared the identity of their “unknown god” as the “God that made the world [kosmos] and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). In other words, Paul is arguing for the unmoved mover, the one God who created the entire universe and everything within. Of course, this idea and his preaching of the resurrection of the dead surely brought scorn from the atomist Epicureans. Accordingly, some mocked, others wanted another hearing, and a few came to saving faith in Christ. As Christianity grew, Epicureanism, with its many inhabited worlds, waned. However, even today, Epicurean ideas appeal to humanists.
Epicureans and Christians maintain a timeless clash of worldview. It is from the pen of a third-century AD Christian, Lactantius, that the “Riddle of Epicurus,” a famous argument against the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent, and providential God (or gods), was preserved:
God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can. If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak—and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful—which is equally foreign to god’s nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?[xvii]
This challenge, broadly known as the problem of evil, inspired two thousand years of apologetics. While an exhaustive answer is beyond the scope of this series, it is enough to say that it is logically possible for God to have morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil. Furthermore, the book of Revelation promises that God will, indeed, one day vanquish evil (Revelation 21:4). It is also important to note that, despite many uninformed skeptics, it is agreed in academia, atheists included, that the logical or deductive problem of evil has been answered decisively by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga in his famous book, God, Freedom, and Evil (1974).
In retrospect, we must acknowledge the astonishing prescience of the early atomist thinkers in that modern science has confirmed some of their physical reasoning. These ideas inspired modern atomic theory in the hands of scientists with a Christian worldview, like Robert Boyle. Nevertheless, the atomists are the philosophical ancestors of material reductionism, the dominant metaphysic associated with atheism. Even so, we want to avoid the genetic fallacy, the logical error of dismissing a proposition solely on the basis of its source. Yet, Christians who believe in inhabited extraterrestrial worlds should be cognizant that, given its lineage, such a disposition makes for extremely strange bedfellows.
Because Genesis affirms that God created the universe, early Christians were much more attracted to Aristotelian ideas than those of the atomists. Consequently, Aristotle’s doctrine of natural place influenced early Christians to believe that all entities existing away from the Earth were necessarily spirits. The doctrine demanded that material beings were earthbound and that beings like angels residing above the Earth, by definition extraterrestrial, were not physical. The church fathers also took exception with atomism’s inherent rejection of Intelligent Design. Concerning this fundamental disagreement, little has changed. However, more important is that Scripture casts mankind as the central player in the cosmic drama. Christ incarnated as a man, the last Adam, and the Bible centers on God’s plan for humans.
All of the patristic authors who addressed the plurality of worlds, with the exception of one, spoke against it as a heresy. In fact, it is from Hippolytus’ Refutation of All Heresies that we get some early information about the atomists quoted above. The fourth-century bishop of Brescia, Philastrius, wrote, “There is another heresy that says that there are infinite and innumerable worlds, according to the empty opinion of certain philosophers—since Scripture has said that there is one world and teaches us about one world—taking this view from the apocrypha of the prophets, that is from the secrets, as the pagans themselves called them.”[xviii] Thus, early on, Christian apologists connected it to the occult. In fact, plurality was uniformly condemned except by Origen (185–254 AD), who was troubled by God’s seeming inactivity prior to Creation. Origen wrote, “If the world had its beginning in time, what was God doing before the world began? For it is at once impious and absurd to say that the nature of God is inactive and immovable.”[xix] In other words, because Origen could not imagine that God was idle in eternity past, he thought there must have been previous worlds.
However, it is important to note that Origen did not believe in the simultaneous existence of many earthlike planets with intelligent life, rather a sequence of worlds in a cycle of creation and consummation, as the Scripture posits for our Earth (Isaiah 65:17, 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). Even so, his view was widely condemned. One of the better-known church fathers, Augustine, who carried the plentitude principle into Christian theology from his Neoplatonist background, addressed the issue indirectly. Apparently, he was responding to folks like Origen who asked why God did not create sooner and, similarly, given infinite size, why He only made our world. Augustine surmises:
For if they imagine infinite spaces of time before the world, during which God could not have been idle, in like manner they may conceive outside the world infinite realms of space, in which, if any one says that the Omnipotent cannot hold His hand from working, will it not follow that they must adopt Epicurus’ dream of innumerable worlds? with this difference only, that he asserts that they are formed and destroyed by the fortuitous movements of atoms, while they will hold that they are made by God’s hand, if they maintain that, throughout the boundless immensity of space, stretching interminably in every direction round the world, God cannot rest, and that the worlds which they suppose Him to make cannot be destroyed.[xx]
As to Origen’s temporal objection, he anticipates Einstein’s concept of four-dimensional space/time with his contention that “it is vain to conceive of the past times of God’s rest, since there is no time before the world.”[xxi] In other words, it is meaningless to ponder “time” prior to Creation because time itself had a beginning. In respect to the spatial objection, his discussion seems to have foreseen Jodie Foster’s character Eleanor Arroway’s objection in the film Contact: “If it’s just us, it seems like an awful waste of space.”[xxii] We agree with Augustine that this presumes too much. Wasted space assumes one with limited resources, and God has no such limitations. The vast universe is but a drop in the bucket. Furthermore, our ignorance does not mean space has no purpose. At minimum, it reflects God’s glory (Psalms 19), and we will suggest another purpose in following entries including, “First Incursion of the Chariots of the (Fallen Star) Gods.”
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[i] John Masson, The Atomic Theory of Lucretius Contrasted with Modern Doctrines of Atoms and Evolution, (London: George Bell and Sons, 1884),70.
[ii] For more information, see: “Ancient Aliens Debunked,” last accessed January 9, 2013, http://ancientaliensdebunked.com/; “Sitchin Is Wrong,” last accessed January 9, 2013, http://www.sitchiniswrong.com/.
[iii] We are indebted to the work of scholars Michael Crowe and Stephen J. Dick for their surveys of the ET debate.
[iv] Kurt Seligmann, The History of Magic and the Occult (New York, NY: Gramercy, 1997), 48.
[v] Andrew G. M. van Melsen, “Atomism,” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, volume 1, 2nd ed. Edited by Donald M. Borchert (Detroit, MI: Gale/Cengage Learning, 2006), 384.
[vii] Jerry Coffey, “Democritus Model,” Universe Today, March 19, 2010, http://www.universetoday.com/60137/democritus-model/.
[viii] Epicurus, “Letter to Pythocles,” in Cyril Bailey, Epicurus, the Extant Remains (Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1980), 59.
[ix] Epicurus, “Letter to Herodotus,” translated by C. Bailey in The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, ed. Whitney J. Oates (New York, NY: Random House), 5.
[x] Epicurus, “Letter to Herodotus,” 13.
[xi] Titus Lucretius Carus, “On the Nature of the Universe,” translated by R.E. Latham (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1975), 91.
[xii] Lucretius, “On the Nature of the Universe,” as cited in Kurt Seligmann, The History of Magic, 81.
[xiii] Daniel Devereux, “Plato: Metaphysics” in The Blackwell Guide to Ancient Philosophy, ed. Christopher Shields (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), 78.
[xiv] Aristotle, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, ed. W. D. Ross (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), Perseus Collection, last accessed January 9, 2013, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0051:book=12:section=1072a. Translation Putnam.
[xv]Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vols. 5–9, edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 compiled by Ronald Pitkin., ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley and Gerhard Friedrich, electronic ed., 3:871 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976).
[xvi] Aristotle, On the Heavens, book 1, chapter 8, lines 11–13; as quoted in Steven J. Dick, Plurality of Worlds: The Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant (Cambridge University Press, 1984), 6.
[xviii]Philastrius, Diversarum Hereseon Liber, 86; as cited in Marie George, Christianity and Extraterrestrials?: A Catholic Perspective, Kindle ed ( iUniverse: 2005) Kindle locations 1337–1339.
[xix] Origen, De Principis, 3.5.3; as cited in Marie George, Christianity and Extraterrestrials?: A Catholic Perspective, Kindle ed ( iUniverse: 2005) Kindle locations 1295–1296.
[xx]Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. II, St. Augustin’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 207.