It has been a few days since the big announcement that a U.S. navy seal team succeeded in kill mission aimed at Osama bin Laden. Sure, we may have captured him and then shot him in the head, rather than attempting to try him in court. But if anyone’s death was justified by the AUMF, it was this guy.
As Justice Robert Jackson said when he opened the Nuremberg Trials:
The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.
And we still are giving trials to Nazis, even if they are 97 years old and living in Hungary. Neat! Just don’t be a Muslim who actually hasn’t killed anyone yet, or you won’t get a trial, even if you are a U.S. citizen.
Well, whatever. I’m bummed. Not about the whole due process thing. But because back in those horrifying few hours after we killed terrorism forever, but before we knew it, there was vast speculation about what it was the President was going to say on the TV.
I was hoping for aliens.
I was disappointed that it wasn’t aliens.
And while German TV may have implied that bin Laden was Cardassian killed by a rogue group of Federation Maquis forces, time has revealed that little bit (like the story of bin Laden using his wife as a human shield) not to be intended as a factual statement.
Which got me thinking about aliens. Specifically, the fact that Catholics invented aliens. Its true!
Aristotle was all like: The prime mover could only make one world. And then the Catholic Church was all: Nuh uh, God can do whatever he wants. And people were like: even make other worlds with people on them? And the Church said sure, though they probably won’t be saved by Jesus. And then I wrote a paper about it as an undergrad.
So read this awful undergrad paper I wrote years ago, if you want: (pdf: Mintz Catholic aliens)
Close Encounters of the Christian Kind, by Evan Mintz
In Medieval Europe, Arabic trade and newfound interest spurred the great minds of the continent to rediscover Greek works of science and philosophy. However, in 1277 Bishop Etienne Tempier officially condemned a list of Aristotelian teachings, marking 219 teachings as heresy. While the Catholic Church may have appeared to be shutting down scientific inquiry for the sake of dogma, its condemnation of Aristotelian ideas forced thinkers to seek new models of the universe that the ancient Greeks had wrongly ruled out.
While his strong Catholic views may have overly influenced Pierre Duhem’s idea that this ushered in the scientific revolution, one cannot deny the condemnation’s effect upon scientific research.
Notably, condemnation number 34, “that the First Cause cannot make many worlds,” suddenly changed the face of the universe.
By claiming that God is omnipotent and could create many worlds if he chose, the Catholic Church thrust earth into a galaxy of potential aliens. Indeed, throughout the scientific revolution, Christian dogma started and encouraged speculation on and the search for extraterrestrial life.
Even before Copernicus’ discovery of a heliocentric universe and Galileo’s discoveries on the planets, Church members speculated on other inhabited worlds, given God’s limitless power to create them. Most notable is Nikolaus Krebs, also known as Nicholas of Cusanus, who in 1439 wrote De Docta Ignorantia (Of Learned Ignorance).
In this treatise, he speculated on God, Christ and the Universe, attempting to discover facts about them using his own observation, grasp of mathematics and metaphysical deduction while holding a heliocentric universe. At one part, he discusses the possibility of other “inhabitants in the region of the sun and other stars.”
In it, he admits his own limited ability to divine facts about them, considering that the rest of the universe is “unknown to us” and thus “those inhabitants remain altogether unknown.”
However, Nicholas did attempt to deduct facts from his own knowledge, asserting that on the sun “there are inhabitants which are more solar, brilliant, illustrious, and intellectual — being even more spiritlike than [those] on the moon, where [the inhabitants] are more moonlike, and than [those] on the earth, [where they are] more material and more solidified.”
While these speculations may seem somewhat childish or fantastical, it is amazing that someone would even speculate about life on these worlds before Galileo’s telescope revealed them to be more than ethereal crystal spheres. Indeed, Nicholas’ status as a Cardinal and invitation to the Council of Basel hints that ties to the Catholic dogma on God’s ultimate power encouraged pluralistic thought, or at least tolerated it.
Despite his Christianity-driven curiosity, Nicholas of Cusanus speculated largely on metaphysics. Copernican revelations of earth as merely another planet around a star gave scientific legitimacy to the prospect of multiple worlds, with philosopher, astronomer and Dominican Priest Giordano Bruno as one of the first to grasp onto this new idea. Bruno asserted in his De l’infinito universo e mondi (On the Infinite Universe and Worlds) that there are “countless suns; not in a single earth, a single world, but in a thousand thousand … cultivated worlds.”
However, Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600. Many look to Bruno as a martyr in the war between science and religion, dying at the hands of the Church for his support of a Copernican universe. Even Walt Whitman described him as an “old-world martyr” who should be held “in our New World’s thankfulest heart and memory.”
However, considering the Church’s support of Nicholas of Cusanus’ multiple worlds and its lack of a clear Catholic policy on heliocentric theory at the time leads one to doubt his death as a martyr for science. Indeed, while many opposed Copernicus’ theory because it deduced truth without need for God, Bruno relied on the dogma of God’s ultimate power to deduce infinite worlds. As he stated in his Confession of Faith before the Inquisition: “I believe in an infinite universe as the (necessary) effect of the infinite divine power. The reason of this is that I have always regarded it as something unworthy of the divine power and goodness, that, being able to produce another world, nay, infinite other worlds besides this one, it should produce only a finite world; whence I have maintained that there are infinite particular worlds, similar of this of the earth.”
Indeed, his cosmological system seems directly in line with the Church’s Condemnation of 1277 and his views of a Copernican universe did not merit death as such views were officially heresy only after 1616.
While the records justifying Bruno’s burning at the stake have been lost, his other publications on magic and denying Christ’s divinity, combined with the mass hysteria of the inquisition, provide a much better explanation for his death.
Indeed, while some may look to Bruno’s unfortunate end as proof that the Church opposed a pluralistic view of the universe, further insight proves otherwise.
However, scientific discoveries of the time seemed to discredit Bruno’s view of planets around other stars. While Bruno’s conception of extra-solar planets was definitively justified in 1995, Galileo’s discoveries of moons around Jupiter but not other stars seemed to prove Bruno wrong. However, Galileo’s discovery of mountains and other information on the moon and other planets turned the solar system into a collection of earthlike globes rather than metaphysical spheres, adding to the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Astronomer Johannas Kepler took Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s moons as a sign that there must be life on Jupiter. As he noted in a letter to Galileo: “Our moon exists for us on the earth, not for the other globes. Those four little moons exist for Jupiter, not for us. Each planet in turn, together with its occupants, is served by its own satellites. From this line of reasoning we deduce with the highest degree of probability that Jupiter is inhabited.”
Indeed, Galileo’s discoveries led many, including Kepler, to postulate on the existence of life on the other planets. However, while Kepler was very familiar with Galileo’s works, he did not oppose the Church. In fact, he spent much of his work attempting to support Christian perceptions of the universe and man’s place in it. Indeed, the existence of other life would take away from man’s special place. Kepler recognized these religious issues of extraterrestrial life, wondering: “if there are globes in the heaven similar to our earth, do we vie with them over who occupies the better portion of the universe? For if their globes are nobler, we are not the noblest of rational creatures. Then how can all things be for man’s sake? How can we be the masters of God’s handiwork?”
Indeed, Kepler recognized the contradiction between the necessity of an all powerful God creating multiple worlds while still maintaining humanity’s place at the center. While there may be other life and other worlds, humanity must be the highest. Therefore, Kepler made arguments for the sun as the center of the universe. He claimed that observations support that the stars circulate around our sun, which is more distant from the rest of the stars than they are from each other, placing us “in the very bosom of the world.”
Furthermore, the sun is “more splendid” than the other stars, making it a deserving center to the earth.
However, placing the sun at the center removes the earth from its proper central location. To combat this, Kepler argued that the earth is “in the middle of the principle globes,” between the Sun, Venus and Mercury on one side and Mars, Jupiter and Saturn on the other.
From this middle position, man has not only the best for himself, but the best to observe the rest of God’s creations, supposedly able to “view all the planets” while potential inhabitants of the other planets would not be able to properly view God’s creation that is the solar system.
Indeed, Kepler goes through a rather intense argument to set up a world with the earth in the center but still holding other life. It could have been easier for Kepler to dismiss the possibility of other life, but to do so would go against belief in an all-powerful God. Therefore, to maintain his Christian beliefs and scientific observations, he had to establish this view of the universe with the sun at the center. Furthermore, when Kepler did address these other worlds, he speculated on them in a manner befitting an all-powerful God. If the worlds were created as an expression of God’s power, then he would have had no point in repeating himself and thus all the worlds should be different. As Kepler notes: “What is the use of an unlimited number of worlds, if every single one of them contains all of perfection within itself?”
This concept of exactly different multiple worlds goes against a scientific and logical perspective of life on other worlds, which holds that life, if it exists on other worlds, would on worlds similar to ours since we already know life can exist in this sort of environment. However, Kepler’s inspiration comes not from scientific inquiry, but the Church, continuing a line of Christianity driven astronomers speculating on extraterrestrial life. However, not every Christian held the same belief that Kepler did, with many viewing a Copernican solar system as contrary to the Bible. During one of his travels to Wurteemberg to defend his mother against charges of witchcraft, Kepler and his friends were attacked by a Lutheran theologian, who held up the Bible against astronomy. “He was convinced that he was drawing form Scripture weapons with which to assail us. Finally, becoming enraged by our self-defense, he raised his voice and, calling on everything sacred as witness, he shouted that this teaching was ‘in conflict with all reason.’”
Kepler could have rejected the religious arguments as unnecessary, trumping them with scientific support. But instead he holds on to the Scripture, retorting to the theologian: “If the usefulness, necessity, and possibility of this [Copernican] teaching were understood by your narrow mind, you yourself would long ago have discounted the force of the arguments drawn from the Scripture.”
Indeed, instead of dismissing the Bible as wrong, Kepler dismisses the attacking theologian instead, claiming that he merely does not understand the Copernican system and that there is nothing in his Scripture to dismiss it. Indeed, it seems Kepler finds justification and even inspiration for his beliefs in the Bible, rather than opposition.
Another thinker who used Christian thought to justify a plurality of worlds was Dominican monk Tommaso Campanella. Like Bruno, he was persecuted under the inquisition, serving twenty-seven years in jail at Naples.
And like Bruno, many point to his astronomical beliefs as the reason for his persecution. In his 1623 novel on a utopian state, Civitas Solis, Campanella presents a Solarian alien race, whom he explains “are uncertain whether there are other worlds besides ours, but they think it is madness to claim that there is nothing [in space]; for they say that neither in the world nor outside it is there nothing, and nothingness is incompatible with God, the infinite Being.”
Indeed, Christian doctrine on an all powerful God leads Campanella to believe in alien life. However, this belief did not lead to his incarceration, but instead it was his political opposition to Spanish rule and aim to establish a “communistic commonwealth.”
Indeed, the Church again seemed to encourage its adherents to seek out alien life, with perceived persecution because of the belief, like in Bruno’s case, actually tied to other reasons.
Across the channel, religiously inspired English thinkers speculated on the existence of alien life and other worlds as well. Rev. John Wilkins, while serving as bishop of Chester, published a book in 1638 arguing for multiple worlds titled The Discovery of a World in the Moone: or, A Discourse Tending to Prove, that ‘tis Probable there May Be Another Habitable World in that Planet. In this work, Wilkins speculated on alien life, referring to the works of those who came before him and his contemporaries, including Nicholas of Cusanus, Campanella and Kepler. The influence of previous Christianity-driven alien spectators is most obvious in Proposition XIII of That the Moon may be a World, “That it is probably there may be inhabitants in this other world; but of what kind they are, is uncertain.” He goes back 200 years to Nicholas of Cusanus, noting Nicholas’ observation that since we do not know the exact region where other lifeforms dwell, we cannot know about them exactly , but can still speculate and discern.
This direct reference to Nicholas demonstrates the influence the Church had on later thinkers, as even the non-Catholic Wilkins was under the sway of the Condemnations of 1277 via Nicholas’ ideas, not to mention the overarching Christian idea of an all-powerful God. Indeed, Wilkins expressed this sentiment of the necessity of God creating life as he speculates on the possible life in the universe: “Inhabitants of that [other] world are not men as we are; but some other kind of creature which bear some proportion and likeness to our natures. Or it may be, they are of a quite different nature from any thing here below, such as no imagination can describe; our understandings being capable only of such things as have entered by our sense, or else such mixed natures as may be composed from them. Now, there may be many other species of creatures beside those that are already known in the world; there is a great chasm betwixt the nature of men and angels; it may be the inhabitants of the planets are of a middle nature between both these. It is not improbable that God might create some of all kinds, that so he might more completely glorify himself in the works of his power and wisdom.”
Like many before him, Wilkins notes that for the glory of God’s power, he must have created other forms of life. Furthermore, by rejecting an ability to discern them through physical means, he demonstrates a reliance upon religion as a driving force for his thought, emphasizing the importance Christianity had in driving speculation on alien life. He makes the bridge between this extraterrestrial speculation and religion complete when he places angel-like beings as the inhabitants of other worlds, relying on Christian dogma as a guiding force rather than attempted logical deduction. Indeed, this helped solve Kepler’s issue of man’s place in the universe, given the possibility of other life. Like Kepler, Wilkins realized that many Christians opposed Copernican views and a pluralistic universe. Therefore, in Proposition two of his That the Earth may be a Planet, Wilkins turned to the scriptures to support his positions, asserting “that there is not any place in scriptures, from which (being rightly understood) we may infer the diurnal motion of the sun or heavens.”
He addressed the situations where the sun and stars are described as rising for falling, where the sun stands still in the story of Joshua and the “wonder in the days of Hezekiah, when the sun went back ten degrees,” all of which on the surface seem to conclude that motion is caused by the heavens rotating.
However, he justified that the Holy Ghost, who communicated the Scriptures in truth to the writers, did “accommodate himself unto the conceit of the vulgar, and the usual opinion: whereas, if in the more proper phrase it had been said, that the earth did rise and set; or that the earth stood still, &c. the people who had been unacquainted with that secret in philosophy, would not have understood the meaning of it.”
Indeed, like Kepler, Wilkins sees support for his cosmological views in the Bible, relying upon religion rather than pure science to back his position. He even pointed to other places in the Bible where the Holy Ghost did “plainly conform his expression unto the error of our conceits; and does not speak of divers things as they are in themselves, but as they appear unto us.”
His statement demonstrates that while translations of the Scripture have in the past proven to be adapted to the current beliefs and therefore could have in his time, the complete power of God could not be compromised, and neither could his necessary creation of multiple worlds. Though he could have ignored religion in the search for astronomical truth, being safe from prosecution in Britain, Wilkins had a need to justify his position on a religious basis, seemingly driven by it. In the end, Rev. Wilkins’ consistent references to the works of Nicholas of Cusasus, Campanella and Kepler, and even passing mentions of Bruno, demonstrate the flow of an important historical narrative of the belief in extraterrestrial life stemming from Christian belief in an all-powerful God.
Driven by this Christian dogma, Wilkins at one point even speculated on “conveyance to this other world; and if there be inhabitants there, to have commerce with them.”
This speculation on travel to the moon started a trend of the attempted proving or disproving of lunar life, with competing lunar maps often claiming the existence of moon-dwelling “selenites” or claiming that “no men dwell on the moon.”
However, just before the publication of Wilkins’ popular text, Bishop Francis Godwin published a lunar voyage tale titled The Man in the Moone: or A Discourse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales, the Speedy Messenger.
Indeed, it seems rather notable that another man of the Christian cloth felt the need to speculate on extraterrestrial life — adding to the tradition of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusasus, priest Bruno, monk Campanella and Reverend Wilkins.
However, over time the Church perceived these pluralistic beliefs, though often founded by the most devout, to be threats. Despite arguments inspired by Christian dogma and arguments to ensure accordance with dogma, there was still a fear that belief in other planets could pose a threat to Christianity, not to mention its threatening common tie to the Copernican system. French priest and scientist Pierre Gassendi, who was known for stressing that a Christian God could act freely could create a multiplicity of worlds, received a letter from the rector of the College of Dijon, condemning his ideas: “If the earth is doubtless one of the planets and also has inhabitants, then it is well to believe that inhabitants exist on the other planets and are not lacking in the fixed stars, that they are even of a superior nature and in proportion as the other stars surpass the earth in size and perfection. This will raise doubts about Genesis which says that the earth was made before the stars and that they were created on the fourth day to illuminate the earth and measure the seasons and years. Then in turn the entire economy of the Word incarnate and of scriptured truth will be rendered suspect.”
Despite previous consolations between man’s place and God’s ability to create other worlds, the gap was apparently too great to grasp. Given perceived attacks on the Church by protestant groups, scientific discoveries and political upheaval during this time, the Church’s growing intolerance of multiple worlds is understandable. Indeed, the idea of alien life on other worlds would seem like even more of a threat as it migrated from the realm of the Church and Christian scholar to the public realm. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle made the greatest step into the public sphere in his 1686 Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds. Seemingly inspired by Wilkins’ own work in his novelistic prose, de Fontenelle elucidated Copernican and Cartesian theories of the universe, speculating on extraterrestrial life while ensuring to clarify them as non-human in attempting to avoid scriptural issues.
He described Mercury’s inhabitants as “savages” who “never think deeply on anything” due to the strong light and extreme heat.” Venus is “favorable for love matches,” whose inhabitants resemble “Moors of Grenada … full of verve and fire, always amorous, writing verses, loving music.”
However, unlike previous speculators on alien life, he did not resort to God as influence, merely attempts to woo a young girl with knowledge of the universe. Indeed, de Fontenelle cut the tie between Christianity and the search for other worlds, as this philosophe had little sympathy for those “tender … in Religious issues” and thus eliminated God and Christian dogma from the otherworldly spheres.
The separation was mutual, as the Church placed his book on the banned Index only a year after its first publication. However, while the Church declared de Fontenelle’s book heresy, the public declared it a delight. His non-scientific approach to scientific discoveries made him extremely popular. As translations of his work spread throughout Europe, scientific inquiry into other worlds finally entered the public sphere. With his book, de Fontenelle diverted into the secular world the Church’s speculations of life on other worlds. And with its condemnation, it seems as if the Church had set out to destroy the extraterrestrial starchild it inadvertently created some four hundred years earlier.
However, the Church’s condemnation and apparent extraterrestrial schism did not prevent future thinkers from gaining inspiration from God’s power to speculate on other worlds. With the posthumous 1698 publication of his Cosmotheoros, Christiaan Huygens placed a capstone of sorts on the speculation of extraterrestrial life. He addressed Nicholas of Cusanus’, Bruno’s, Kepler’s de Fontenelle’s ideas and largely condemned them for not going far enough.
He used God as a starting point for attempted deduction of facts, notably asserting that every planet must have some sort of rational animal to “enjoy the Fruits, and adore the wise Creator of them.” However, he also engaged in a very scientific analysis of the possibility of life on planets within our solar system, finding evidence to the contrary, though not limiting what he did not know outside the universe.
While Huygens still followed the historical tradition of the Christian inspired astronomer, his scientific tended towards that of the new scientific society. Indeed, other scientists continued to speculate upon alien life, and God still remained a base for deduction and the concept of other worldly necessity.
In 1277 the Catholic Church condemned Europe into a universe where multiple worlds were necessary, given God’s power. Cardinal Nicholas of Cusanus took the first logical steps on this path to the cosmos, followed by Giordano Bruno, Johannes Kepler and Tommaso Campanella. Rev. John Wilkins was able to benefit from their work and repackage a concise, religiously inspired speculation on life on other worlds. However, with the Church facing new threats and the rise of the secular society, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle inadvertently pushed the Church to abort its accidental alien child. But in the end, it was the Church’s dogma of an all-powerful God that lead these early alien seekers to wonder whether the truth is out there.
1 Hans Thijssen, “Condemnation of 1277,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2003), ed. Edward N. Zalta, 5/8/11 <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/condemnation/>.
2 “Pierre Maurice Marie Duhem,” School of Mathematics and Statistics University of St Andrews, Scotland, March 2001, 5/8/11 <http://www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Biographies/Duhem.html>.
3 Michael J. Crowe, “The Extraterrestrial Life Debate 1750-1900: The idea of a plurality of worlds from Kant to Lowell ” (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 6.
4 J.G. Hagen, “Nicholas of Cusa,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI, 2003, 5/8/11 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11060b.htm>.
5 Nicholas of Cusanus, De Docta Ignorantia, ed. Paul Wilpert (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1967) 96, 5/8/11 <http://cla.umn.edu/sites/jhopkins/DI-II-12-2000.pdf>.
6 Ibid 96.
7 Ibid 96-97
8 Giordano Bruno, De l’infinito universo e mondi (1584) as translated in Karl S. Guthke, The Last Frontier: Imagining Other Worlds, from the Copernican Revolution to Modern Science Fiction, trans. Helen Atkins, (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1983) 69.
9 Walt Witman, Untitled letter, 02/24/1890 as cited in Daniel G. Brinton and Thomas Davidson, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher and Martyr. Two addresses (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1890) introduction.
10 Daniel G. Brinton and Thomas Davidson, Giordano Bruno: Philosopher and Martyr. Two addresses (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1890) 48-49.
11 Karl S. Guthke, The Last Frontier: Imagining Other Worlds, from the Copernican Revolution to Modern Science Fiction, trans. Helen Atkins, (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1983) 111.
12 Crowe, 10.
13 Johannes Kepler, Kepler’s Conversation with Galileo’s Sidereal Messenger, trans. Edward Rosen (New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1965) 42.
14 Ibid 43.
15 Ibid 43.
16 Ibid 43.
17 Ibid 45.
18 Ibid 46.
19 Ibid 44.
20 Johannes Kepler, Somnium: The Dream, Or Posthumous Work on Lunar Astronomy, trans. Edward Rosen (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1967) 36-37.
21 Ibid 37.
22 Guthke 137.
23 Tommaso Campanella, Civitas Solis as cited in Guthke 137.
24 John R. Volz, “Tommaso Campanella,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume III, 2003, 5/8/11 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03221b.htm>.
25 Rev. John Wilkins, The Mathematical and Philosophical Works of the Right Rev. John Wilkins: Two Volumes in One, ed. Dr. L.L. Laudan (London: Frank Cass and Co. LTD., 1970) 100.
26 Ibid 102.
27 Ibid 149.
28 Ibid 150.
29 Ibid 150.
30 Ibid 159.
31 Ibid 109.
32 Crowe 14.
33 “Godwin, Francis,” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2006, Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service, 5/8/11 <http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?tocId=9037182>.
34 Crowe 18.
35 Crowe 19.
36 Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, trans. H.A. Hargreaves, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990) 49.
37 Crowe 19.
38 Christiaan Huygens, Cosmotheoros, 5/8/11 <http://www.phys.uu.nl/~huygens/cosmotheoros_en.htm#Earlier%20speculatioons>.