Saturday, May 27, 2023

Five Cosmological Theories of How It All Ends, And How They Are All Incomprehensibly Mysterious


The cosmological theory of the Big Crunch predicts that eventually the Universe will collapse upon itself, because the expansion of the Universe initiated at the Big Bang will begin to slow down through the force of gravity on matter until the Universe collapses back into something like a black hole, although this would be far in the future, probably tens of billions of years.

Deciding the plausibility of this theory depends on measuring the expansion rate of the Universe.  In the late 1990s, some cosmologists determined that far from slowing down, the expansion of the Universe was actually speeding up, which seemed to show that the Universe would be eternally expanding, and thus the Big Crunch theory must be false.


If the expansion of the Universe is accelerating, that suggests that the Universe will end in Heat Death.  Here "heat" means not "warmth" but rather the "disordered motion of particles or energy"--entropy.  According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, in any isolated system, the total entropy or state of disorder must increase.  If the Universe can be considered an isolated system, then it must evolve towards increasing disorder or decay, in which no organized structures can exist.  Most cosmologists consider this Heat Death the most likely fate of the Universe.

The problem with this theory of Heat Death, however, is that it depends upon some ideas that are so deeply mysterious that no one can understand them.  For example, dark energy is a hypothetical form of energy permeating all of space that tends to accelerate the expansion of the Universe.  If dark energy keeps a constant density as the Universe expands, then we get Heat Death.

But while dark energy is believed by some cosmologists to constitute about 70% of the total energy in the observable universe, dark energy is invisible and undetectable in laboratory experiments.  If it is real, it must arise from a new kind of physics that no one understands today.  As Mack says, dark energy is "a sure sign of some new physics beyond our current understanding" (2020, 106).


While the evolution of dark energy as a cosmological constant keeps a constant density as the Universe expands leading eventually to Heat Death, with "phantom dark energy," the density increases, and we get the Big Rip, in which everything in the Universe--even spacetime itself--is progressively torn apart.  First, the clusters of star galaxies begin to drift apart and then dissipate.  Next, the Earth drifts away from the Sun, and the Moon drifts away from the Earth.  Every structure begins to strain from the expanding space within it.  Planets explode.  Then atoms and molecules unravel from the expanding space within all matter.  Even the nuclei at the centers of atoms are torn apart.  But maybe we shouldn't worry about this because it is estimated that the earliest possible Big Rip is somewhere around 200 billion years in the future (Mack 2020, 114-15).

When Robert Caldwell and his colleagues first wrote about this in 1999, they explained their term "phantom dark energy":  "A phantom is something which is apparent to the sight or other senses but has no corporeal existence--an appropriate description for a form of energy necessarily described by unorthodox physics" (Caldwell 2002, 23).  In other words, no one understands what this means or whether it has any real "corporeal existence," because it is beyond comprehension through the established laws of physics.


                            Paul Sutter on False Vacuum Decay and the End of the Universe

Like Paul Sutter, Katie Mack explains the possibility of the Universe ending through vacuum decay by considering the Higgs field that permeates the Universe.  The Higgs field is a field of energy that is accompanied by a fundamental particle known as the Higgs boson, which interacts with other particles, and through this interaction, these particles gain mass.  Without the Higgs field, particles would not have the mass required to attract one another, which supports the physical structure of the Universe as we know it.

In 2012, the Higgs boson was detected at the Large Hadron Collider.  In 2013, the Higgs effect was proven at the LHC.

The value of a field can change depending upon its potential.  You can imagine the potential of the Higgs field as a pebble rolling down a slope into a valley, and the shape of that slope represents the potential.  Just as a pebble will roll to the bottom of a valley, the Higgs field will seek the lowest-energy state, where the potential is at its lowest value, which is its vacuum state.  The problem, however, is that the bottom might not really be the bottom.  There might be another vacuum state at a lower part of the potential that will be its true vacuum state.  Look at it this way:

Mack explains: "Each valley in the potential is a possible state of the Universe.  If our Higgs field lives in the higher valley (the false vacuum), it could transition to the other state (the true vacuum" via a high-energy event (marked 'fluctuations' on the diagram) or via quantum tunneling.  If we live in a false vacuum universe, a transition of the Higgs field to the true vacuum would be catastrophic" (Mack 2020, 143).

And by "catastrophic," she means that everything in the Universe would be annihilated.  It would start with the formation of a tiny bubble of true vacuum.  The world within that bubble would be governed by a physics with laws different from those that govern our Universe.  As that bubble expanded at the speed of light, the forces that previously held particles together in atoms and nuclei would no longer function, and consequently would be dissolved.

Mack reassures us: "it's for the best that you don't see it coming."
". . . if you happen to be standing nearby when the bubble appears, you won't notice it.  Something coming at you at the speed of light is invisible--any little glint warning you of its approach arrives at the same time as the thing itself.  There is no possible way to see it coming, or even to know that anything has gone wrong.  If it approaches you from below, there will be a couple of nanoseconds during which your feet no longer exist while your brain still thinks it is looking at them.  Fortunately, the process is also entirely painless: at no point will your nerve impulses be able to catch up with your disintegration by the bubble.  It's a mercy, really."

She also observes:

"In fact, it's entirely possible that, as we sit here now, calmly drinking our tea, vacuum decay has already occurred.  Maybe we're lucky and the bubble is beyond our cosmic horizon, swallowing up galaxies we would never have known.  Or maybe it is, cosmically speaking, right next door, quietly approaching with relativistic stealth, destined to catch us unawares, between breaths" (2020, 145-46).

Even without fully understanding what this all means, it's easy enough to see that the plausibility of this theory of how the Universe could be destroyed by a false vacuum decay depends on the claim that our Higgs field is indeed in a false vacuum or a "metastable state"--somewhat stable but not fully so.  

As she often does, Mack contradicts herself on this point.  On the one hand, she says that "the best data we have" confirms this claim that our Higgs field is in a false vacuum (143).  On the other hand, she says there are good reasons to doubt this.

"If we conclude that our vacuum really is unstable, this may be incompatible with the theory of cosmic inflation [in the first nanoseconds after the Big Bang].  The quantum fluctuations during inflation, or the ambient heat afterward, seem like they should have been sufficient to trigger vacuum decay in the first moments of the cosmos, negating our very existence.  Clearly, that didn't happen.  Which suggests either we don't understand the early universe, or vacuum decay was never possible at all."

"Whether or not you trust early universe theories, taking vacuum decay seriously depends on placing a great deal of trust in the Standard Model of particle physics, which we know cannot be the whole story.  Dark matter, dark energy, and the incompatibility of quantum mechanics and general relativity all point to there being something more to the universe than what we can currently write down.  Whatever comes along to replace the Standard Model might, by the by, save us from even having to vaguely worry about a wayward bubble of quantum death" (154-55).

But then there's still at least one more cosmological theory of how the Universe might end.


According to a "bouncing" or "cyclic" cosmology, the Universe began as a bounce from a pre-Big Bang universe to our current universe, which will in turn come to an end, but will then be bounced into a new universe.  One version of this cosmology is the ekpyrotic scenario.  "Ekpyrotic" comes from the Greek for "conflagration," which is associated with the ancient Stoic cosmology in which the universe goes through an eternal cycle of fiery birth, death, and fiery rebirth. 

The ekpyrotic Universe is grounded in the idea of "braneworld" from superstring theory.  String theory is a theoretical framework for physics in which the particles of particle physics are replaced by one-dimensional strings. But some string theorists have said that these strings could be multidimensional.  A multidimensional string is called a "brane"--short for "membrane."

The ekpyrotic theorist can say that our Universe lives on a three-dimensional brane within a larger space of multiple branes.  When two branes collide, this produces a new universe--that's the "bounce"--and this can become an eternal cycle of collisions and bounces.  This is a kind of multiverse theory insofar as the multiple branes can be understood as multiple universes.

There are many problems with this theory, however.  The most obvious is that there is no observational evidence for string theory or multiverse theory, because--as I have indicated in a previous post--looking for hypothetical strings and other universes reaches beyond the range of human observational experience, and therefore these hypothetical realities are in principle untestable and unfalsifiable.

Moreover, cyclic cosmology faces a fundamental problem shared with all other cosmological theories to explain the end of the Universe--physicists cannot reach any agreement on any of the theories.  Mack admits this: "Unfortunately, despite decades of hard work and extraordinary calculations, we haven't yet settled on a theory that's broadly accepted by the physics community" (161).


Mack reports that even though they cannot agree on any one theory of how the Universe will end, physicists do agree that the Universe must somehow come to an end eventually, even if the end is far off in the cosmic future.  So, then they must wonder what this tells us about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life.

Mack has interviewed many physicists and asked them about this: What does it mean to us if the Universe must end?  Hiranya Peiris summed up her answer in one word: "sad."

"It's very depressing," she said.  "I don't know what else to say about it.  I give talks where I mention that this is probably the fate of the universe, and people have cried" (206).

Mack likes to quote from one of the earliest papers on vacuum decay by Sidney Coleman and Frank De Luccia.  Once the true vacuum bubble forms, everything inside it will collapse gravitationally within microseconds (154).  Then they wrote:

"This is disheartening.  The possibility that we are living in a false vacuum has never been a cheering one to contemplate.  Vacuum decay is the ultimate ecological catastrophe; in a new vacuum there are new constants of nature; after vacuum decay, not only is life as we know it impossible, so is chemistry as we know it.  However, one could always draw stoic comfort from the possibility that perhaps in the course of time the new vacuum would sustain, if not life as we know it, at least some structures capable of knowing joy.  This possibility has now been eliminated" (Coleman and De Luccia 1980, 3314).

Surely, this must be what Leo Strauss saw as the "most terrible truth" of evolutionary science as taught by Lucretius: "nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable."  And yet while most human beings would be crushed by this terrible truth, Strauss argued, those few human beings who can live the intellectual life of philosophy or science--devoted to Reason rather than Revelation--can bear this truth, because for them the intellectual understanding of the nature of reality, including the terrible truths of nature, is in itself deeply satisfying.

Mack and many of her colleagues in physics and cosmology seem to partly agree with Strauss about this.  They agree with him that understanding the nature of the Universe--including how it must end--is satisfying.  

Mack concludes her book by reporting an interview with a scientist who says that contemplating the end of the Universe in Heat Death isn't depressing or boring for her but "cold and beautiful."  "Even if we can do nothing to change it, that knowledge . . . even if that knowledge goes away, if all humans die, that knowledge right now is incredible. . . . I am delighted that we get to live at a time in the universe when we can see dark energy and not be ripped apart by it.  But that means the whole point is that you understand it, and then you enjoy it, and then . . . 'so long and thanks for all the fish.'  Cool."

As the last word for her book, Mack repeats that word: Cool.

But even if understanding that the Universe and everything in it must die is cool for scientists like herself, is it cool for everyone else?  Strauss thought not.  He thought that for thousands of years philosophers and scientists understood the need to hide such terrible truths by writing esoterically to avoid harming that great multitude of human beings who would be crushed by learning such truths, and who needed the comforting belief in the religious conception of the Universe as divinely created by a Creator who loved and cared for human beings.

Clearly, scientists like Mack think Strauss is wrong about this.  They accept the claim of the modern Lucretian Enlightenment that scientists and philosophers should openly share their understanding of nature with the general public, even when that understanding might seem at first deeply disturbing.  This is evident with someone like Mack who writes about science for a popular audience, and who often writes in a comic tone about the inevitable end of the Universe.  Evidently, she assumes that she can convince her readers, including those who are not devoted to the life of science, that understanding the terrible truths of modern science is cool.

But then when Mack and her colleagues say that "the whole point is that you understand it," we might wonder--do they really understand it?  After all, she repeatedly admits that the dominant components of the cosmos--such as dark matter and dark energy--are "beyond our current understanding" and "completely mysterious"--and "in that sense we don't understand at all" (106, 180-81).  So here she contradicts herself by both affirming and denying that scientists really understand the nature of the Universe.

She could resolve the contradiction by saying that by "understanding" she means the Socratic understanding of one's ignorance.  As scientists probe ever deeper and farther into nature, they discover the limits of human observational experience of the Universe.  And so, for example, we can infer the reality of phenomena like dark matter and dark energy; but since we cannot directly observe or detect them, we cannot fully understand them or explain them.  This illustrates how the evolutionary adaptation of the human mind gives us a reliable but fallible understanding of the world.

As long as the human mind faces such fundamental mysteries of nature that cannot be dispelled by reason alone, those of us who appeal to Reason as the ultimate authority cannot refute those who appeal to Revelation as the ultimate authority for understanding the nature of reality.  And so, for example, an atheistic scientist like Mack cannot refute a Christian scientist like Deborah Haarsma who argues that the scientific understanding of the Universe cannot refute the religious understanding of why the Universe is so fine-tuned for human life.

This leaves an opening for appealing to Revelation to explain how the Universe will end.  That will be the topic for the next post.


Coleman, Sidney, and Frank De Luccia. 1980. "Gravitational Effects on and of Vacuum Decay." Physical Review D 21: 3305-3315.

Mack, Katie. 2020. The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking). New York: Scribner.


Monday, May 22, 2023

The End of Everything: Rational Cosmology or Revealed Eschatology?


          Some Astronomers Have Reported the First Observation of a Star Consuming a Planet

"In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever beasts invented knowledge.  That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of 'world history'--yet only a minute.  After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die."

Friedrich Nietzsche, "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense."

If everything must come to an end--and I mean EVERYTHING--should that cause us to worry?

For instance, recently some astronomers have reported the first direct observation of a star eating a planet (De et al. 2023; Naoz 2023).  If this shows us what is likely to happen when the Sun eats the Earth, should we worry about that, because it means the end of the world as we know it?  Or should we say that since this deadly fate of the Earth is probably at least 5 billions of years in the future, this is too far off to bother us today?  

Should we worry that not only must the Earth come to an end, but even the entire Universe?  If the Universe must end, when and how will it end?  If the Universe must end, is this the "most terrible truth" of Lucretian science--as Leo Strauss said--so terrible that we cannot think about it without becoming sad because it deprives our life of all meaning and purpose?  Or should our understanding of this truth fill us with awe?

Can we answer such questions by Reason alone--through the science of cosmology?  Or should we have a religious faith in the Revelation of eternal life after death with "a new Heaven and a new Earth," with a final divine judgment of the saved (going to Heaven) and the damned (going to Hell)?  

Can we resolve the apparent tension here between Reason and Revelation?  Does the freedom of thought and speech in a liberal social order rightly allow for an open debate between Reason and Revelation over these questions about our place in the cosmos?  Or does any morally healthy society require the enforcement of religious orthodoxy about the ultimate meaning and purpose of human life in the universe?  Must that enforcement of orthodoxy be legally coercive?  Or can it come from the natural associations of familial life and the voluntary associations of civil society without legal coercion?

I'm sorry.  I do have a bad habit of asking too many questions to which I don't have the answers.  But here I go anyway.


The New York Times article on astronomers spotting a dying star swallowing a large planet says that this shows us "a grisly sneak peak of the literal end of the world."  But identifying this as the "end of the world" depends on what one means by "the world."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the primary definition of "world" is "the state or realm of human existence on earth."  But one of the secondary definitions of world is "the material universe or the cosmos."  In the first sense, the end of the world will probably come in five billion years, because from what we know about the evolution of stars, the Sun will by then expand into a red-giant star, which will incinerate all life on Earth, and later the Earth is likely to be absorbed by the expanding Sun.  But while this would end "human existence on earth," we can imagine that if the human species survives for five billion years, by then humans might have migrated elsewhere in the Solar System or even beyond the Solar System.  Or, the human species might have evolved into some transhuman species or cyborg.

Even so, the end of human existence on earth might seem "grisly" as the reporter says, because it's the end of the world as we know it.  But there's an even grislier prospect--the end of the whole "material universe"--because this would be the end not just of human life but all life, and even all ordered structures.  This would be what Leo Strauss identified as the "most terrible truth" of Lucretian atomistic evolution--that "nothing lovable is eternal or sempiternal or deathless, or that the eternal is not lovable."

We must wonder, then, whether modern cosmology confirms this terrible truth, and if so, what does this mean for our sense of purpose or meaning in the cosmos?  Or can religious eschatology persuade us that there is an eternal life that is lovable?


Scientists at Johns Hopkins University have recently produced an online interactive map of the universe.  Using the data collected by astrophysicists, artist Pablo Carlos Budassi has produced a logarithmic map of the observable universe.

What you see here are the large-scale outer limits of the observable universe.  The Big Bang is dated at about 13.8 billion years ago.  At about 370,000 years after the Big Bang, the first atoms (hydrogen and helium) were formed, and these atoms released photons that can still be detected today as the cosmic microwave background radiation.  This is the oldest direct observation we have of the universe.  This is the outer limit of the observable universe.  So, on any map of the universe, the period before this is dark because it is not detectable by human observers with telescopes.

Moving down to the small-scale limits of the observable universe--the atomic and subatomic particles and forces--the limits are set by our instruments for detecting microscopic reality--microscopes and particle colliders.  Beyond the limits of the Large Hadron Collider, the subatomic world is not detectable.

I have written about this previously as showing the limits on the scale of human observational experience of nature.  Here is an image of the "Ends of Evidence."  The white area is the range of scales within human experience.  The grey area is outside that range.  You can click on the image to enlarge it.

At the small scale, microscopes have extended our experience beyond our visual reach, and particle colliders have extended our reach much deeper.  We have gone from scales of centimeters to millionths of a millionth of a millionth of a centimeter.  But we have reasons to believe that the fundamental constituents of nature that string theory attempts to describe lie at a distance scale 10 million billion times smaller than the resolving power of the Large Hadron Collider.  

At the cosmic scale, telescopes have extended our experience of the astronomical universe.  I have written about how the James Webb Space Telescope is extending our view deep into the earliest history of the Universe.  But no telescope will ever look beyond our Universe's cosmic horizon and see the other universes assumed by the multiverse hypothesis.

Many scientists have inferred from this that the superstring theory and the multiverse theory are not really scientific theories because they are in principle beyond experimental and observational testing and thus beyond the scientific method that depends on empirical testing and falsification.  This points to the ineluctable limits of scientific reasoning and thus suggests that complete human understanding of the natural universe by reason alone is impossible, because the human mind has evolved as an evolutionary adaptation for exploring the ordinary range of human experience, which does not encompass the whole universe.

This bears upon the question of the end of the Universe, because we cannot know whether with the end of our observable Universe, there might still be other universes.


Cosmologists have considered five possible ways that the Universe could end:  Heat Death, the Big Crunch, the Big Rip, Vacuum Decay, and the Big Bounce.  The Wikipedia articles on these five possibilities and on the "Ultimate Fate of the Universe" are all pretty good.  But the best account of all of this that I have seen is Katie Mack's book The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) (Scribner, 2020).  She also has some good YouTube videos.

                                             Katie Mack on the Death of the Universe

                                                    Katie Mack's Poem "Disorientation"

In my next post, I will examine those five cosmological theories of how the Universe might end.  And then I will consider how this scientific cosmology compares with religious eschatology.


De, Kishalay, et al. 2023. "An Infrared Transient from a Star Engulfing a Planet." Nature 617 (May 4): 55-60.

Mack, Katie. 2020.  The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking).  New York: Scribner.

Naoz, Smadar. 2023. "Planet Swallowed After Veering Too Close to Its Star." Nature 617 (May 4): 38-39.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

The Theme Song for The Big Bang Theory--Scientific Cosmology or Divine Creation?


The Big Bang Theory was one of the most popular television shows of all time, and its reruns continue to attract viewers.  It ran on CBS from 2007 to 2019, with 279 episodes over 12 seasons.  

The theme song that begins each episode was written and sung by a Canadian singing group named the "Barenaked Ladies."  Here's the full song, which goes beyond the first nine lines broadcast on the show.

Our whole universe was in a hot dense state
Then nearly 14 billion years ago, expansion started (wait)
The Earth began to cool
The autotrophs began to drool
Neanderthals developed tools
We built a wall (we built the pyramids)
Math, science, history, unraveling the mystery
That all started with the big bang
Since the dawn of man is really not that long
As every galaxy was formed in less time than it takes to sing this song
A fraction of a second and the elements were made
The bipeds stood up straight
The dinosaurs all met their fate
They tried to leap, but they were late
And they all died (they froze their asses off)
The oceans and Pangaea
See ya, wouldn't wanna be set in motion by the same big bang
It all started with the big bang
It's expanding ever outward but one day
It will pause and start to go the other way
Collapsing ever inward, we won't be here, it won't be heard
Our best and brightest figure that it'll make an even bigger bang
Australopithecus would really have been sick of us
Debating how we're here, they're catching deer (we're catching viruses)
Religion or astronomy, Descartes or Deuteronomy
It all started with the big bang

Music and mythology, Einstein and astrology
It all started with the big bang
It all started with the big bang

The first sentence is a remarkably pithy and accurate statement of the Big Bang Theory:  "Our whole universe was in a hot dense state, then nearly fourteen billion years ago, expansion started."  Notice that this offers a purely scientific account of the origin and evolutionary history of the universe with no reference to God as the Creator of it all.  Here there is no "in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."  It recognizes both science and religion as products of human cultural evolution: "Religion or astronomy, Descartes or Deuteronomy.  It all started with the big bang!"  But it relies on science rather than religion to explain the evolution of the universe.

This is fitting for a show that is all about scientists who are also atheists.  Almost all of the leading characters are scientists.  Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter are physicists at Caltech.  Howard Wolowitz is an aerospace engineer.  Raj Koothrappali is an astrophysicist.  Bernadette Rostenkowski is a microbiologist.  Amy Farrah Fowler is a neuroscientist.  Actually, the actress who plays Amy--Mayim Bialik--has a Ph.D. in neuroscience.  The only leading character who is not a scientist is Penny, who is a waitress.  Her ignorance of science becomes a running joke.  The comic theme running through the show is the social awkwardness and autistic behavior of all these nerdy scientists.

To make sure the scientific discussions were accurate, David Saltzberg, a professor of physics and astronomy at UCLA, served as the science advisor.  Also, Mayim Bialik sometimes offered advice about biology.  Some prominent scientists were so interested in the show that they were willing to make cameo appearances, which included Stephen Hawking and Neil de Grassie Tyson.  

Hawking and Tyson are both atheistic scientists.  I have written about Hawking's atheism.  But I have also written about many prominent scientists today who are religious believers--such as Francis Collins, Owen Gingerich, and Deborah Haarsma.  That The Big Bang Theory makes no reference to scientists like this suggests that the producers and writers for this show are deliberately promoting the claim that modern science must be atheistic.

Much of the show revolves around Sheldon and his life story.  He grew up in East Texas in a Southern Baptist family that struggled to understand him because he was a child prodigy with an IQ of 187, who used his intelligence to make scientific arguments against religious belief.

Since 2017, CBS has broadcast a spin-off prequel--Young Sheldon--about Sheldon's childhood in the 1980s and 1990s.  The theme of scientific cosmology as supporting atheism against religious belief continues in this show.  

Pastor Jeff is the minister of the Southern Baptist church where the Cooper family goes every Sunday.  The young Sheldon is determined to show everyone that he can use science to refute Pastor Jeff's religious beliefs by arguing that the Bible's story of Creation is denied by the evidence for the natural evolution of the universe and human life.

One example of this conflict between science and religion is the third episode of the second season (airing on October 4, 2018) entitled "A Crisis of Faith and Octopus Aliens."  This episode begins with the Cooper family attending church on a Sunday.  Pastor Jeff is delivering his sermon, and suddenly Sheldon raises his hand to ask a question.  He challenges Pastor Jeff to tell him what God would look like in an alien planet inhabited by octopuses.  Would God look like an octopus?  Jeff struggles to answer.

Then, that Sunday afternoon, Sheldon's mother Mary receives a phone call and is told that the 17-year-old daughter of her friend Stephanie Hanson had died in an accident.  Mary and her husband George go to the funeral.  Throughout the week, Mary is troubled by the question of why an all-good God would torture a good Christian like Stephanie by killing her innocent child.  She talks with Pastor Jeff, but he cannot give her a satisfactory answer.

On Saturday night, Mary takes her mother to a bar named "Lucky's Place," where they drink and play billiards.  She tells her mother about her religious struggle and how this has depressed her mood.  She is drunk, and she is driven home by her mother.  Her husband George takes her to bed.

The next day, Sunday, she does not go to church, and she does not say a prayer at the family dinner.  Her husband and children are shocked to see these signs that she is doubting her faith in God.

Later, in the evening, Sheldon comes out to the front porch of their house to talk with her and attempt to comfort her.  Here's the scene:

Notice that even though Sheldon is an atheist, he makes a scientific argument for the existence of God based on the "fine-tuning" of the universe.  The strength of gravity must be mathematically precise--neither too strong nor too weak--to make it possible for the universe to exist as a place where human life can emerge.  Isn't it unlikely that that could be just an accident?  Doesn't this logically suggest the need for God to design the precise conditions that make the universe and life possible?  Sheldon indicates that he is still an atheist, but he does see this as a scientifically logical argument for religious belief.

Mary responds by saying that her problem with God is not a matter of logic in her head but what she feels in her heart.  Sheldon then makes another argument that might appeal to her heart.  In a world of over five billion people, how likely is it that I would have the one woman who is a perfect mom for me?  Mary is moved by this, and she thanks God for giving her Sheldon as her child.  In the voice-over, the adult Sheldon tells the viewers that he didn't tell his mom that he shouldn't have to share credit with God for making the argument that comforted her.

One of the YouTube clips of this scene has a comment from "B Sharp" about Sheldon's first argument:  "I love Young Sheldon, and this is a sweet moment.  However, Sheldon is using the fine-tuning apologetics argument, which is fallacious.  The universe wasn't created for humans.  Humans evolved to exist in this universe."

One could also respond in a similar way to Sheldon's second argument.  That a son loves his mother is not an unlikely event that requires some supernatural intervention, because parent-child bonding is an evolutionary adaptation of human nature.

But then what if evolved human nature includes a natural desire for religious understanding--for transcendence and transcendent meaning?  This emotional desire is not based on pure logic, and therefore it cannot be refuted by logical argument.  And, therefore, as Rebecca Goldstein has shown, the emotional longing for religious transcendence prevails over scientific reasoning, particularly when science faces fundamental mysteries in the universe that cannot ever be explained by reason alone; and thus Revelation cannot be refuted by Reason.  Perhaps this is what Mary Cooper meant when she pointed to what she felt in her heart.

Nevertheless, the fine-tuning argument is one of the best scientific arguments for God as the Intelligent Designer of the universe.  Christian astrophysicists like Owen Gingerich and Deborah Haarsma like to invoke this argument.  And yet, I have written some posts indicating the flaws in this line of reasoning.

It is not really clear, for example, that scientific cosmology shows that the universe is precisely fine-tuned for life, and particularly human life.  Most cosmologists agree that the universe will come to an end, and that all life will be extinguished.  Consider, again, the theme song for The Big Bang Theory:

"It's expanding ever outward, but one day it will pause and start to go the other way, collapsing ever inward, we won't be here, it won't be heard.  Our best and brightest future that it'll make an even bigger bang!"

Does the end of the universe in a big collapse mean that far from being fine-tuned for life, the universe has been fine-tuned for death?  Or should we have faith in those eschatological religions that promise eternal life after death?

That's the topic for the next post.

Sunday, May 14, 2023

A Critical Assessment of Leon Kass's Thought and a Defense of Darwinian Liberal Education: A New Book Chapter

I have a chapter on Leon Kass's thought in a book recently published by Rowman & Littlefield--Thinking Through Science and Technology: Philosophy, Religion, and Politics in an Engineered World, edited by Glen Miller, Helena Mateus Jeronimo, and Qin Zhu.  The title of this book plays off the title of Carl Mitcham's Thinking Through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy (University of Chicago Press, 1994).  Many of the authors in this new book have collaborated with or been engaged with Mitcham in his life-long philosophic study of modern science, technology, and engineering.  I worked with Mitcham when he was the Editor-In-Chief of the four-volume Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics (Macmillan Reference, Thompson Gale, 2005).  I was one of the three associate editors for that book.

Anyone who wants to think philosophically about science and technology will want to read this book.  Unfortunately, it's an expensive book--$155 ($127 at Amazon).  But you do get a lot for your money, because it's a big book of 582 pages with 27 chapters divided into five parts: "Philosophy and Technology," "Philosophy and Engineering," "Religion, Science, and Technology," "Science and Technology Studies," and "Science and Technology Policy."  Many of the authors are the most prominent people in the field--such as Albert Borgmann, Andrew Feenberg, Carl Mitcham, and Daniel Sarewitz.  

Most of the authors are scornful of modern science and technology as having a morally and intellectually degrading influence on human life.  In that respect, I am out of place in this book, because I regard the Baconian project for science and technology as morally and intellectually defensible.  This is manifest in some of my articles for the Encyclopeda of Science, Technology, and Ethics--such as "Francis Bacon," "Biotech Ethics," and "Evolutionary Ethics."

Most of the material in my chapter ("Bioethics, Philosophy, and Religious Wisdom: A Critical Assessment of Leon Kass's Thought") comes from my many blog posts on Kass over the past 15 years--in particular, "Atheistic Religiosity in Leon Kass's Reading of the Bible" (December 28, 2021), "Leon Kass's Bioethics in Darwinian Liberal Education" (January 12, 2022), and "Leon Kass's Mistaken View of Science" (November 21, 2018).

In their "Introduction" to the book, the editors summarize my chapter in two sentences: "Larry Arnhart submits Leon Kass's historical progression of philosophical, religious, and scientific beliefs to the test, assessing their coherence and how they influenced his views on human nature, human dignity, and the appropriate limits of biotechnology.  While Kass advocated for 'a richer bioethics' informed by classics in the Western tradition to discern those limits, Arnhart instead argues for a Darwinian science of human nature as part of liberal education" (7).

That second sentence is inaccurate.  Far from rejecting Kass's "richer bioethics," I argue that it should be part of my proposed Darwinian liberal education.  My main criticism of Kass is that while what I am defending resembles what Kass proposed in Toward a More Natural Science in 1985, Kass later scorned the Darwinian naturalistic ethics of this first book, beginning with the publication in 2002 of his essay "The Permanent Limitations of Biology."  Part of this move away from his earlier scientific naturalism is Kass's atheistic religiosity in his books on the Hebrew Bible.  But then, to add to the confusion, Kass returned to his earlier naturalistic ethics in his work with the President's Council on Bioethics (2001-2005), particularly in the Council's Beyond Therapy report.

Monday, May 08, 2023

The Conservative Nihilism of Roger Scruton's Atheistic Religiosity: A Response to Daniel Mahoney

I have argued that there is a Kantian conservative tradition of atheistic religiosity expressed in people like Roger Scruton and Leon Kass, which resembles the Dionysian religiosity of Friedrich Nietzsche.  Atheistic religiosity is for those who want the "magic of religious feeling" as an expression of the human mind's "religious instinct," but without having to believe in the real existence of God independent of the human mind.  They don't believe in the literal truth of Christianity or any other religion.  And yet they want to have a sense of the sacred that comes from religious emotions, but without the need to believe any religious doctrines.  They believe that God is dead, but they also believe that human beings need to satisfy their religious longings for transcendence and redemption if they are to escape the nihilism that they fear comes from the death of God.

In the April issue of First Things, Carl Trueman offered a similar interpretation of Scruton's religious longings.  Although Trueman saw that religious themes became prominent in Scruton's later work, he wondered "whether Scruton believed in God or whether he simply believed that God was a good idea."  He asked, "was Scruton's God a theological reality or an anthropological one?"  He observed: "I fear that Scruton is too faithful a student of Kant to engage with the deeper metaphysical claims that, say, Christianity makes.  Throughout his work . . . it is always the experiential reality of the sense of the sacred and the good things that flow from it that he addresses.  But is that really enough?"  He also observed: "Scruton is vulnerable to the criticism that the place he ascribes to the religious instinct simply supports his own cultural and political tastes, granting them a veneer of authority.  Is his thinking thus a castle--albeit a magnificent and beautiful castle--floating precariously in mid-air?  Or, more controversially, is it a conservative expression of nihilism, with values likely to devalue themselves over time through lack of any solid, transcendent foundation?"  Thus did Trueman point to what I have identified as Scruton's atheistic religiosity--affirming the anthropological need for God without affirming the theological reality of God's existence.

In the June/July issue of First Things, there is a letter from Daniel J. Mahoney disputing Trueman's interpretation of Scruton.  He writes:  "Even after Scruton left his 'apprenticeship in atheism,' as he once called it, he never became or wished to become a theologian or a metaphysician.  His approach remained eminently phenomenological, defending those intimations of the transcendent that come to sight in the 'life world' of lived experience and mutual moral accountability.  Trueman suggests that this approach, eschewing traditional metaphysics, likely veils the 'conservative expression of nihilism,' defending a 'religious instinct' that ultimately points to nothing beyond itself."

Trueman cannot be right about this, Mahoney insists, because "Scruton was the sworn enemy of every form of nihilism."  He cites an essay by Mark Dooley ("Roger Scruton Was No Atheist") as proving that Scruton was not an atheist.

The first problem with Mahoney's argument is that he fails to see that the most fervent critics of atheistic nihilism are themselves nihilists who turn to atheistic religiosity in their attempt to escape what they fear to be the degrading consequences of nihilism.  The preeminent example of this is Nietzsche.  Even as he announced that "God is dead," he lamented the debasing effects that this would have on human beings who would no longer be elevated by transcendent longings for the divine.  To avoid this, he professed his faith in the religion of Dionysus that would allow him to be the most pious of those who do not believe in God.

The second problem with Mahoney's argument is that he concedes Trueman's point that Scruton's God is a subjective projection of the human mind's longing that has no objective reality.  Notice that Mahoney admits that Scruton's religion was purely "phenomenological"--rooted in human "lived experience"--but with no foundation in theological or metaphysical truth.  So, even though God is dead, human beings need to believe that He is alive; and that need is satisfied by Scruton's atheistic religiosity.

It should also be noted that in the essay by Dooley cited by Mahoney, Dooley never says that Scruton believed in the real existence of God independently of the human mind.  Dooley's point is that Scruton scorned the "evangelical atheists" like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  Attacking evangelical atheists is exactly what one should expect of a religious atheist.

Thursday, May 04, 2023

The Lockean Liberalism of King Charles III's New Testament Christian Monarchy

The St. Edward's Crown of the British monarch was made for the coronation of Charles II in 1661, after the previous crown was melted down in 1649, following the execution of Charles I.  It is made of solid gold and set with precious stones.  It is surmounted with the Cross of Jesus.

The coronation of Charles III and his wife, Camilla, as king and queen of the United Kingdom will take place Saturday, May 6, at Westminster Abbey.  It will begin at 11:00 am London time and 6:00 am Eastern time in the U.S.  This will be the 40th royal coronation at Westminster Abbey since that of William the Conqueror in 1066.

That Charles has chosen the name Charles III evokes the unsettled history of the monarchy under Charles I, who was beheaded by English revolutionaries, and Charles II, who restored the monarchy in 1660, after the interregnum (1649-1660), and tried to restore a Filmerian divine right absolute monarchy.  This name might also suggest that King Charles III will correct the mistakes made by Charles I and Charles II by moving away from the absolutist Christian monarchy of the Stuart dynasty to the classical liberal Christian monarchy of the House of Windsor.  That will be made clear by the coronation designed by Charles, which combines traditional symbols of the coronation that go back as far as the Coronation Rite of King Edgar in 973 with the new symbolism of monarchy in a liberal social order.  

The best source of information about the coronation is the official website.  The "Authorised Coronation Liturgy with Commentary" is particularly helpful, and I will be citing that document.  

Ian Bradley has an essay on the religious significance of the coronation.  Bradley is the author of the newly published book God Save the King: The Sacred Nature of Monarchy.

I have written about the evolutionary rise and fall of monarchy by symbolic cultural group selection, and about the silly arguments from Alt-Right theorists like Curtis Yarvin for restoring a Filmerian absolute monarchy as the best regime.  I have also argued that the New Testament teaches Lockean classical liberalism.  Now we will see in this coronation the ritual symbolism of a New Testament Christian monarchy.

The most striking feature of the coronation ceremony is how it manifests the sacred nature of monarchic authority as invested with the sanctity of Biblical religion.  But there's an inherent tension in this appeal to Biblical religion for political authority, because the Old Testament and the New Testament offer contradictory teachings about the divine authority of political rule.  The Old Testament in its account of how God chose the rulers of the people of Israel to enforce obedience to the Mosaic law favors theocracy, in which religious authorities coercively enforce Judaism and punish those outside the Jewish faith.  This has allowed many Christians to invoke the Old Testament as supporting a Christian theocracy, in which Christian kings rule by divine right to coercively enforce the Christian faith and punish heretics, infidels, and atheists.  By contrast, the New Testament suggests a separation of church and state, so that those in the church cannot coercively enforce their faith, and there is no legal establishment of religion.  This has allowed some Christians to invoke the New Testament as supporting religious liberty and toleration, so that churches become voluntary associations that cannot use legal coercion to enforce their faith.

In the debate over the divine right of kings in 17th century England, Christians like Robert Filmer embraced the theocratic tradition of the Old Testament to justify the absolute power of the Stuart monarchs as the "defenders of the faith"--that is, the faith of the Church of England--against those who did not share that faith.  On the other side of the debate, Christians like Roger Williams and John Locke interpreted the New Testament as denying this theocratic denial of religious liberty.  That's what I mean when I say that the New Testament teaches Lockean liberalism.

Now, in the Coronation Liturgy for King Charles III--as designed by Charles himself--we can see a subtle interweaving of Old Testament and New Testament traditions that reconciles the conflicts between them by favoring the Lockean liberalism of the New Testament.

Let's start at the beginning of the planned coronation.  At the head of the coronation procession into Westminster Abbey will be "faith leaders and representatives from the Jewish, Sunni and Shia Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Bahai and Zoroastrian communities" (2).  They will be followed by the procession of ecumenical leaders of the Christian faith, which will include not just the Anglican Church, but also the Greek Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, and other Christian churches in Great Britain.  This has never happened in any previous coronation of the British monarch.

A crucial part of every coronation has been identifying the monarch as the "Defender of the Faith," which means defender of the Church of England as opposed to all other faiths, whether Christian or non-Christian.  In the 16th century, "Defender of the Faith" was the title given by Pope Leo X to King Henry VIII for his defense of Catholicism.  But then when Henry broke with Rome to form his own English Church, he held onto the title with the idea that he would be defending the Anglicanism of the Church of England against Catholics and Christian dissenters.

Charles has had a life-long fascination with all faiths.  And in 1994, he said that as heir to the throne, he saw himself as less "defender of the faith" and more as "defender of faith"--of all the religious faiths.  He said, "People have fought to the death over these things, which seems to me a peculiar waste of people's energy, when we're all actually aiming for the same ultimate goal."  Although Charles' mother--Elizabeth II--was a devout Anglican Christian, she agreed with him about this.  She once said, "The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly underappreciated.  Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions.  Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country."  She also said that "gently and assuredly, the Church of England hs created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely" (7).  In a reception at Buckingham Palace days after his mother's funeral, Charles said that his mother was right about this, and that his Anglican faith committed him to "the common good of freedom."  That's what I mean by the Lockean liberalism of his New Testament Christian monarchy.  Actually, Charles has gone beyond Locke in arguing for defending the freedom of Catholics and atheists.

Early in the coronation as planned by Charles, he will be presented with the Bible as the guide for his rule (6).  Then, the Archbishop of Canterbury will administer the Coronation Oath by declaring: "Your Majesty, the Church established by law, whose settlement you will swear to maintain, is committed to the true profession of the Gospel, and, in so doing, will seek to foster an environment in which people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely.  The Coronation Oath has stood for centuries and is enshrined in law" (7).

Notice that he invokes the Gospel of the New Testament and interprets it as ensuring that "people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely," which departs from the Mosaic theocracy of the Old Testament.

After taking the Oath, Charles will recite a private prayer, which concludes: "Grant that I may be a blessing to all they children, of every faith and conviction, that together we may discover the ways of gentleness and be led into the paths of peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen" (9).  To keep religious peace, Charles will secure freedom for "every faith and conviction."

Not long after this, the Prime Minister--Rishi Sunak--will read from the New Testament book of Colossians (11).  This is remarkable because Sunak is Hindu, and yet he can be comfortable reading a New Testament passage.

Later in the coronation, there will be a thanksgiving for the Holy Coronation Oil and then the anointing of Charles with that oil.  Here we can see the Archbishop of Canterbury invoking a subtle combination of Old Testament and New Testament ideas in the anointing of the king with oil: "Blessed art thou, Sovereign God, upholding with thy grace all who are called to thy service.  Thy prophets of old anointed priests and kings to serve in thy name, and in the fullness of time thine only Son was anointed by the Holy Spirit to be the Christ, the Savior and Servant of all.  By the power of the same Spirit, bless and sanctify this oil" (15).

The Archbishop's prayer recalls how the kings of Israel (like Saul and Solomon) were anointed with consecrated olive oil in the Old Testament (1 Kings 1:32, 38-40; 1 Samuel 2:10, 10:1).  But then he immediately reminds us that Jesus in the New Testament was anointed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38).  In Greek, the word Christ means "anointed," and the Hebrew word for this is "Messiah."

As John Locke pointed out in his Letter Concerning Toleration, while the kings of Israel were anointed to rule over an "absolute theocracy," Jesus was anointed to rule over his followers by the persuasiveness of his preaching, and he never attempted to establish a Christian theocracy.  Moreover, the New Testament makes clear that the first Christian churches were voluntary associations that exercised no theocratic rule.  Locke explained:

"The Commonwealth of the Jews, different in that from all others, was an absolute Theocracy; nor was there, or could there be, any difference between that Commonwealth and the Church. . . . But there is absolutely no such thing, under the Gospel, as a Christian Commonwealth.  There are, indeed, many Cities and Kingdoms thaqt have embraced the Faith of Christ; but they have retained their ancient Form of Government; with which the Law of Christ hath not at all meddled.  He, indeed, hath taught men how, by Faith and good Works, they may attain Eternal Life.  But he instituted no Commonwealth.  He prescribed unto his Followers no new and peculiar Form of Government; Nor put he the Sword into any Magistrate's Hand, with Commission to make use of it in forcing men to forsake their former Religion, and receive his" (Hackett edition, 44-45; Liberty Fund edition, 42).

The coronation of Charles will indicate how his kingship will follow the model of Christ's persuasive kingship rather than the theocratic kingship of ancient Israel.  At the beginning of the coronation, Charles will be greeted by a Chapel Royal chorister: "Your Majesty, as children of the Kingdom of God, we welcome you in the name of the King of Kings."  Charles will respond: "In his name, and after his example, I come not to be served but to serve" (3).

Here Charles will echo the words of Jesus when he warned his followers not to strive for authoritative rule over others:  "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave--just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25-28).

It seems that Charles will be intimating here that he is a king who has no coercive authority over his people, particularly in matters of religious belief.  At most, he can only exercise the sort of persuasive authority that comes through Christian preaching, and for that he needs the persuasive symbolism of being anointed with Coronation Holy Oil.  

Rendering that oil holy required a special preparation (15).  It was from olives from groves on the Mount of Olives at the Russian Orthodox Monastery of Mary Magdalene, which is the burial place of Charles' paternal grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece, who was a Greek Orthodox believer.  The Mount of Olives, outside Jerusalem, is a holy place for Jews, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Protestants.  The olives were pressed just outside Bethlehem.  The oil was then perfumed with essential oils--sesame, rose, jasmine, cinnamon, neroli, benzoin, amber, and orange blossom.  The oil was then consecrated by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III, and the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, the Most Reverend Dr. Hosam Naoum.  Thus, this oil has an ecumenical holiness that comes from symbolic links to all the major Biblical religious traditions.

The actual anointing of Charles will be the only part of the coronation that will be hidden from both the audience in Westminster Abbey and the television cameras.  An Anointing Screen, specially designed and woven for this purpose will be arranged around the Coronation Chair.  Behind the screen, the Archbishop of Canterbury will anoint the King's hands, breast, and head (16).  Hiding this from view gives an air of mystery to this most sacred moment of the coronation.

As the King is being anointed, the Choir of Westminister Abbey will sing Georg Frederick Handel's "Zadok the Priest" anthem.  The text of this anthem has always been part of the English Coronation Rite.  But it was made famous when Handel set it to music for the coronation of George II in 1727.  Here's the text, which is based on the anointing of King Solomon in 1 Kings 1:32-35:

"Zadok the priest

"and Nathan the prophet

"anointed Solomon king.

"And all the people rejoiced and said:

"God save the King!

"Long live the King!

"May the King live forever!

"Alleluia!  Amen!"

                                                            Handel's "Zadok the Priest"

I have written about how Handel used his Biblical music (like the Messiah) to refute Deism and defend religious orthodoxy.  Does this anthem serve the same purpose by using the power of his music to support the Biblical teaching about the divine authority of rulers?

The anointing of King Charles is followed by the presentation of the regalia--the Spurs, the Sword, the Bracelets, the Robe Royal, the Stole Royal, the Orb, the Ring, the Glove, the Sceptre, and the Rod--each of which has some distinctive symbolic meaning.

Finally, the King will be crowned with the Crown of St. Edward, and all in the Abbey will shout "God save the King!"  There will be a musical fanfare, a Gun Salute, and the Abbey bells will ring for two minutes (25).

Then, for the first time in the history of coronations, the Blessing of the King will come not just from the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, but also from a Catholic archbishop, a Greek Orthodox archbishop, and from representatives of other Christian churches in Great Britain.  Such an ecumenical affirmation would have been impossible in previous coronations, even as late as the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth (26).

After the King has been enthroned, there will be oaths of allegiance.  The first will be from the "Homage of the Church of England" expressed by the  Archbishop of Canterbury.  The second will be the "Homage of Royal Blood" coming from William, the Prince of Wales: "I, William, Prince of Wales, pledge my loyalty to you and faith and truth I will bear unto you, as your liege man of life and limb.  So help me God."  This will be the most painful moment for Prince Harry--a reminder that he is far down the line of succession, and that William is most likely to be the next King.

Remarkably, this will be followed by "The Homage of the People," which is another novel move that has never been done in a coronation:

"Archbishop of Canterbury:

"I call upon all persons of goodwill of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of the other Realms and the Territories to make their homage, in heart and voice, to their undoubted King, defender of all."

"All who so desire, in the Abbey, and elsewhere, say together:


"I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors acording to law.  So help me God.

"A fanfare is played (28)."

In all previous coronations, the Homage has been pledged by the hereditary peerage in order of degree.  But now the Homage of Peers has been replaced by the Homage of the People.  Notice that this is voluntary--"all who so desire."  So, here the King explicitly recognizes that whatever persuasive authority he has over the people must come from their voluntary consent.  And to win that consent, he must convince them that he really is God's Anointed One.

Next, the King's wife--Camilla--will be crowned as the Queen Consort, and she will be anointed by the Archbishop, but without a screen, suggesting that the anointing of a consort is not as sacred as the anointing of the King (29).

Following this, there will be other ceremonies, songs, and prayers.  

After the singing of the national anthem ("God Save the King"), the King will march in procession out of the Abbey.  At the end of the procession, he will be greeted by representatives of five non-Christian faith communities:  Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, and Buddhist.  They will deliver their greeting in unison: "Your Majesty, as neighbors in faith, we acknowledge the value of public service.  We unite with people of all faiths and beliefs in thanksgiving, and in service with you for the common good" (41).

As with so much else in this coronation, this has never been done in any previous coronation.  This ending matches the beginning with the procession of faith leaders and representatives of faith communities (2).

Finally, the King goes to the Gold State Coach, which will take him back to Buckingham Palace.

                                                                  The Gold State Coach

Will it work?  

When the people are asked for their homage, will millions of people across Great Britain and the Commonwealth swear their allegiance "in heart and voice" to the King?  Will they willingly accept a monarchy that claims only a persuasive authority and not a coercive theocratic authority, and therefore a monarchy that poses no threat to the personal, political, or religious liberty of the people?  Or will they laugh or smirk as they think about how foolish Charles is to think all this religious mumbo-jumbo will persuade them that Charles is their divinely anointed King?

Great Britain is one of the most secularized societies in the world.  Some surveys report that most people identify themselves as having no religious belief.  Only a small minority of the people participate at least once a week in some kind of religious worship service.  So, we have to wonder whether the King truly believes that his appeal to the sacred character of the British monarchy will work.

Monday, May 01, 2023

Does the Search for Extraterrestrial Life Deny Christianity?


                              Jupiter's Four Galilean Moons--Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto

                 The European Space Agency Launches the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE)

JUICE's Journey to Jupiter with Gravity Assist Flybys at the Sun, the Earth, and Venus

On April 14th, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched the "Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer" (JUICE) spacecraft on its way to Jupiter to explore three of the major moons of Jupiter--Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto--including a prolonged orbit around Ganymede, the largest moon in the solar system.  Because Jupiter is so far away from the Earth, and because of the need for gravity assist flybys of the Sun, Earth, and Venus, the spacecraft will not reach Jupiter until July of 2031.  In the fall of 2024, NASA will launch the Europa Clipper to explore Jupiter's Europa.  Clipper will launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, which is a more powerful launch vehicle than ESA's, and consequently Clipper will actually reach Jupiter in April 2030, a year ahead of JUICE.  

One of the primary reasons for these exploratory missions to the moons of Jupiter--and particularly, Europa and Ganymede--is to look for signs of extraterrestrial life.  We might wonder why human beings want to search for extraterrestrial life.  Is this a foolish pursuit?  What difference would it make for us if life were discovered on these moons?  

Can Christians accept this?  Or must Christians insist that we know from the Bible that the only form of extraterrestrial life is angels (supernatural spirits without bodies), and so extraterrestrial embodied life is impossible?  Or could the discovery of extraterrestrial material life beyond the Earth be understood as compatible with the central doctrines of Christianity?

The four largest moons of Jupiter were first discovered in January of 1610 by Galileo when he turned his newly invented telescope towards the night sky.  In March of that year, he published his discoveries in The Starry Messenger.  For many reasons, this was one of the most important discoveries in the history of science.  One reason was that it seemed to be clear evidence against the geocentric model of the universe and for the heliocentric Copernican model, because Jupiter's moons were orbiting around Jupiter and not around the Earth.  Another reason for the importance of this discovery is that some people saw it as suggesting the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  Johannes Kepler published a letter to Galileo, which included his claim that Galileo's discovery of the four moons made it probable that there was life on Jupiter.  After all, if Jupiter with four moons is so similar to the Earth with one moon, then why shouldn't Jupiter have living inhabitants just as the Earth does?  Galileo himself, however, cautiously resisted Kepler's suggestion.  

But despite Galileo's caution on this point, the telescopic discoveries in astronomy, beginning in the 17th century, renewed a debate over the possibility of extraterrestrial life that had begun in ancient Greece and then reappeared in the late 13th century as a debate among Christians over whether extraterrestrial life was compatible with Christianity.  The documents in this debate have been conveniently collected in one volume by Michael J. Crowe in The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, Antiquity to 1915: A Source Book (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008).  

An assessment of this debate from the perspective of a conservative Catholic has been written by Benjamin Wiker--"Alien Ideas: Christianity and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life" (Crisis Magazine, November 4, 2002).  Wiker argues that the search for extraterrestrial life is an anti-Christian attack on religion rooted in the atomistic materialism of Epicureans like Lucretius.  I have already challenged Wiker's stance in a series of posts.

Against Wiker are those Jesuit astronomers who work for the Vatican Observatory, who see no conflict between the possibility of extraterrestrial life and Christianity.  Some years ago, Jack Hitt wrote a long article on how these Catholic scientists think about this debate--"Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?" (The New York Times Magazine, May 29, 1994).

In his didactic philosophical poem--On the Nature of Things--Lucretius defends the Epicurean understanding of nature as arising from the spontaneous, random, and purposeless motions of atoms, without any need for intelligent design by the gods.  From this atomistic conception of nature, he infers that "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," and that we are bound "to acknowledge that in other regions there are other earths and various tribes of men and breeds of beasts" (2.1056, 2.1078).  He thus affirmed the plurality of worlds and extraterrestrial life.

In this way, he was opposed to Plato (particularly in the Timaeus) and Aristotle (particularly in On the Heavens and the Metaphysics), who argued that the cosmos was governed by a divine mind (Plato's Demiurge, Aristotle's Prime Mover) according to a divinely purposeful design.  They inferred from this that there was no plurality of worlds.  As Aristotle said: "the unmovable first mover is one both in definition and in number; so too, therefore, is that which is moved always and continuously; therefore, there is one heaven alone" (Metaphysics 1074a37-39).  (I have written some posts contesting these popular interpretations of Plato and Aristotle as proponents of cosmic divine teleology as opposed to the natural immanent teleology of Darwinian natural right.)

From the beginning of Christianity, many Christian theologians have embraced Christian versions of this popular interpretation of this Platonic and Aristotelian theological cosmology as opposed to Epicurean atomism, and this has led them to deny a plurality of worlds with extraterrestrial embodied life.  But beginning in the late 13th century, some Christians have seen a plurality of life-worlds in one cosmos as compatible with Christianity.

The debate here is over whether the plurality of worlds can be reconciled with the central doctrines of Christianity--particularly, the Story of Creation and the Story of Salvation.


The key Biblical text for the Story of Creation is the opening chapters of Genesis with its account of the six days of creation.  

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). On the first day, God created light and separated it from darkness.  

On the second day, God created the vault that He called "sky" to separate the water above the vault from the water below the vault. 

On the third day, God gathered the water under the sky to one place, so that the dry ground appeared.  He called the dry ground "land," and the gathered waters "seas."  He then allowed the land to produce vegetation--seed-bearing plants and trees.

On the fourth day, God let there be two great lights in the sky to separate day from night on the Earth.  The greater light (the Sun) would govern the day.  The lesser light (the Moon) would govern the night.  He also made the stars in the vault of the sky to give light on the Earth.

On the fifth day, God allowed the seas to teem with marine animals, and he allowed birds to fly above the Earth across the vault of the sky.

On the sixth day, God allowed the Earth to produce the land animals.  And then, God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the Earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the Earth" (Genesis 1:26).

The first problem for any reader of this first chapter of Genesis is deciding how much of this was intended to be interpreted as literal history and how much of it is figurative poetry.  Deciding that question is crucial for determining whether this Biblical account of Creation can be compatible with the natural sciences of cosmology, astronomy, geology, and evolutionary biology.  As I have indicated in previous posts, Christians cannot reach any agreement on this issue, which is most evident in how revelation through the Holy Spirit has failed to resolve the creation/evolution debate among Christians.

Consider what a literal reading of this first chapter would teach us.  God created everything in the Universe in six days.  The Universe is geocentric in that the Earth is at the center.  (Wiker observes that "early Christians held to a geocentric universe.")  Above the Earth, the sky is a solid vault that separates the waters above from the waters below, which is the boundary between heaven and earth.  This cosmic geography saw the sky as having a form and function similar to what was found in the ancient Near East.  Most people believed that the sky was solid.

In that solid sky, there were the Sun, the Moon, and the stars.  The Earth was the only planet in the Universe.  And the Moon was the only moon in the Universe.  The stars did not have any planets orbiting around them.

All life was found on or a little above the Earth.  So, there was no extraterrestrial life.  There were, however, divinities or spiritual beings (angels?) who lived in the heavens.  Notice that when God speaks of creating human beings, He speaks in the plural ("Let us make man in our image").  The Bible often has God speaking in the plural (for example, Gen. 3:22; 11:7; Deut. 32:8; Job 1:6; 2:1; Isa. 6:8.  Sometimes, God sits on a throne and meets in a council with "all the multitudes of heaven standing around Him" (1 Kings 22:19-23; Job 1:6; 2:1).  So, there was no extraterrestrial bodily life beyond the Earth.  Christians who believe this will have to say that the search for extraterrestrial life is foolish and anti-Christian.

Notice that if we accept the literal reading of the Bible's cosmology, we will have to say that modern science has shown that the Bible's teaching is false.  So, for example, if we think the Bible is teaching that the universe is geocentric, then this is denied by modern astronomy.

But then Christian scientists (like Francis Collins and Deborah Haarsma) will say that much of the Bible uses figurative stories of the sort that would have been comprehensible to the people of the ancient Near East that were not intended to be taken as literal history.  The Bible, therefore, is not a science textbook but rather a book that tells us what we need to know about salvation.  Or, as Galileo put it, the Bible tells us "not how the heavens go," but "how to get to heaven."  The scientific study of the Book of Nature must be separated from the religious study of the Book of Scripture, although the two books should ultimately be compatible.  Many scientists (like Galileo and Darwin) and many Christian theologians (like Pope John Paul II) agree on this conception of God speaking through two books.

Moreover, Christians need not read the Book of Scripture as denying the possibility of extraterrestrial life.  For example, Thomas Chalmers was one of the leaders of Scottish evangelical Christianity in the 19th century; and he wrote extensively about how the Christian Revelation could be harmonized with the enlarged cosmos of modern astronomy that might include extraterrestrial life in many worlds beyond the Earth.  In one text, he began by quoting from the book of Psalms:
"When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou has ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" (Psalm 8:3-4)

Chalmers saw here a suggestion that God's universe is so vast and varied, extending far beyond what is visible to the naked eye, that we should see the Earth as only "one paltry and insignificant portion of it," and "how minute is the place, and how secondary is the importance of our world, amid the glories of such a surrounding magnificence."  And so, "to an eye which could spread itself over the whole, the mansion which accommodates our species might be so small as to lie wrapped in microscopical concealment; and, in reference to the only Being who possesses this universal eye, well might we say, 'What is man that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man that thou shouldest deign to visit him'" (Crowe, 245, 250, 253, 268-69).

Chalmers suggests that we can see this expansiveness of God's universe confirmed by what modern astronomy tells us about the many stars that are suns with planets orbiting around them just as our Earth orbits around its star.  And we can imagine that "worlds roll in these distant regions; and these worlds must be the mansions of life and of intelligence."  In the remote future, we can foresee that our Sun will die or the Earth will fall into it, and then our world will disappear.  But the many other worlds of life and intelligence orbiting other stars will survive.  This shows that what God did in the first chapter of Genesis to create the human world on Earth, He has done for other distant planets to create other worlds of intelligent life.  The Bible does not explicitly recognize these other worlds, but we should not assume that the Bible's silence is a denial of their existence.


If the purpose of the Bible is to teach us "how to get to heaven"--rather than "how the heavens go"--then we must consider whether the Bible's story of salvation--based on the doctrines of Adam's Fall, the Incarnation of Christ, and the redemption of humanity through Christ's sacrifice--is compatible with extraterrestrial life.  Nicholas of Cusa in 1440 seems to have been the first thinker in Latin Christianity to affirm a plurality of inhabited worlds in space.  Remarkably, despite his radical views, the Church made him a cardinal in 1448 (Crowe, 27-34).  But then a few years later, the Franciscan philosopher and theologian William Vorilong became the first Christian author to raise the question of whether the idea of a plurality of worlds could be reconciled with the Christian doctrines of divine incarnation and redemption.  

Did the people who live on other worlds beyond the Earth sin just as Adam sinned?  If they did, would Christ have to be incarnated in each world and then die in that world to redeem them?  Or would the redemptive life of Christ on Earth be enough to universally redeem those sinners in the other worlds?  Or is it possible that the people on those other worlds did not make Adam's mistake, and so they were sinless and did not need redemption?  Chalmers implied that he could not decide between these alternatives (Crowe, 26-27, 37, 220-21, 224, 229, 242, 256-58, 325-332).

Jack Hitt reports interviewing some of the Jesuit astronomers affiliated with the Vatican Observatory and asking them about the theological implications of discovering extraterrestrial intelligent life.  Would you baptize an extraterrestrial?  One priest answered, "only if he asked for it."

The Rev. George Coyne, S.J., identified himself as a Jesuit astrophysicist.  He was a close associate of Pope John Paul II and the director of the Vatican Observatory.  Hitt reports Coyne's answer to the question: "'O.K., so I meet this 'person.'  I would ask him: 'Are you intelligent?  Self-reflexive?  In the traditional sense do you have what we can call a soul?'  Good.  'Nice to meet you.'"  He says he would then find out if their civilization sinned, then if it was redeemed, then if the redeemer was a man named Jesus, and then: 'If they say, Oh yes, now you have a theological problem.  How could Jesus Christ be our redeemer on earth and of another planet and still be the one Son of God?  Could he have had several incarnations?  That's a pretty ticklish theological problem, and I don't know the answer.'"

Wiker, however, thinks the answer is clear: "we find no evidence of speculation about extraterrestrials among the early Christians.  Not only did such speculation run directly against the central doctrinal claims of Christianity, but it also smacked of Epicureanism (which entailed, among other things, the denial of the immortal, immaterial soul, heaven, and hell).  Small wonder the early Christians tossed the Epicurean package, extraterrestrials and all, into the abyss of doctrinal errors."

Furthermore, Wiker insists, not only is extraterrestrial life a doctrinal error, there is no scientific evidence for it despite many years of scientific searching for it.  But is that correct?


Wiker argues:

"By the end of the 20th century, scientists had demonstrated to all but the most zealously intransigent that--humble Earth excepted--our solar system was devoid of intelligent life and most likely devoid of any life.  Further, as biologists discovered the ever-greater complexity of living organisms and the delicate balance of conditions that make them possible, it became clearer and clearer that fewer and fewer places in the universe could meet the conditions required for even the most rudimentary forms of life."

"Yet the dismal result of the high-tech search for extraterrestrials only stirred advocates all the more, resulting in the optimistic but defensive battle cry: 'The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.'  While this might warm the dwindling fires in the enthusiast's heart, it pays little service to reason.  To be blunt, since it was the negative result of a century-long search for aliens, the absence of evidence is the evidence for absence.  What else could it be?"

But it's not quite right to speak of "the negative result of a century-long search for aliens" for three reasons.  First, it ignores the fact that the first evidence for exoplanets (planets outside the solar system) appeared only in 1996; but now, as of today, there are 5,346 confirmed exoplanets in 3,943 planetary systems with 855 having more than one planet.  There are now some estimates that there are at least 20 billion Earth-like habitable planets in the Milky Way Galaxy alone.  So, the search for extraterrestrial life on those planets has just begun within the last 25 years.

The second problem with Wiker's dismissal of the search for extraterrestrial life as a failure is that he ignores the recent intensity in the exploration of the solar system, which began in the 1970s with the first robotic exploration spacecraft, starting with the Pioneer 10 mission to Jupiter.  For example, there is plenty of evidence that the icy moons of Jupiter have liquid water oceans on them, and some of them could have geothermal and water-rock interactions on the bottom.  Europa is an ocean world entirely covered by sea ice.  Europa actually has more liquid water than does Earth!  In the 1980s, oceanographers discovered deep-sea life with a food chain based not on photosynthesis but on chemosynthesis linked to hot vents on the seafloor.  The subsurface ocean on Europa is kept liquid by heating due to tidal interaction with Jupiter. Everywhere on Earth that has these conditions gets colonized by microbial life.  Wiker says nothing about this.

That points to the third problem for Wiker.  Even though he is right that the exploration of the solar system has not found any clear evidence of extraterrestrial intelligent life, there is growing evidence for the likelihood of finding extraterrestrial microbial life (or perhaps fossil evidence of its past existence).  Increasingly, astrobiologists are concluding that microbes are the most likely forms of extraterrestrial life because the necessary conditions for such life are so much more common in the universe than the necessary conditions for intelligent life.

Wiker's insistence that we are unlikely to ever find any evidence for "even the most rudimentary forms of life" beyond the Earth is implausible, because he is silent about the growing evidence for likely conditions favorable to microbial life in places like the oceans of Europa.  Does Wiker believe that if we were to find microbes on one of the icy moons of Jupiter, that would deny the central doctrines of Christianity?

Finding microbes in the Solar System beyond the Earth or on exoplanets might not seem spectacular.  But consider the implications.  This would show that the processes that lead to the origin of life are not peculiar to the Earth, and they might be common in the Universe.  The history of life on Earth has been one of continual development from the simplest forms of life to the most complex, with every increasing degrees of living sensitivity and intelligence.  If life is a general phenomenon in the cosmos, then so is intelligence.

And with the evolutionary development of symbolic intelligence, there will be minds capable of asking questions about the intellectual and spiritual meaning of it all, and about whether their extraterrestrial souls need to be saved.