Monthly Archives: December 2011

Google Returns Religious Perspectives on Aliens

Recently NASA came across Keppler-22b, a planet with an ecosystem much like our own. The planet is approximately 600 light-years away. This means that if someone could travel at the speed of light — 186,282 miles per second for you imperial weights and measurements readers — it would take 600 years to reach Keppler-22b. Because I am curious about various perceptions, a question that surfaced when first reading this article was, “I wonder how different religions would regard the discovery of Keppler-22b?”

No doubt, practitioners of the religion of science and technology are ecstatic about such a discovery, as religion requires an institutionalized system of attitudes, beliefs and practices (this, for example, is why the Roman military was both an institution and a religion, replete with gods and demigod leaders, Julius Caesar notwithstanding). The word religious, in turn, is defined as anything “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity,” and “scrupulously and conscientiously faithful.” So if you’re protractedly wound up pretty good about something, that is effectively your religion. In the most general terms. At least in this context.

Without traveling too far down the theoretical road of objectivity and subjectivity, and how objectivity can never be achieved but how we must constantly pursue it, the discovery of Keppler-22b is going to produce conversations from different religious quarters. I did a quick google search to pinpoint the major religious quarters and how they perceive such discoveries, and following are the results.

The results are listed in chronological order from when the major religion formed. The methodology for finding the articles stemmed from how I punched in (using Google) the first inquiry, which read, “Pope on life in universe.” To keep it standardized, “Pope” is replaced with “Hinduism,” “Buddhism,” “Judiasm,” “Pope” (for Christianity), and “Islam.”  A cursory sampling of the first 15 articles (with the exception of wikipedia links — until I amend this as well) google produces will be consulted and referenced.

This list represents the major religions, and a major religion is defined as one that has the largest following. The below list relies on whatever computational algorithm google was using as of December 6, 2011.

Hinduism: The phrase “Hinduism on life in universe” yielded the normal wikipedia links, and it also brought up this prophetic or teleological piece on Hinduism and world cycles. The conclusion said,

“There is no scientific support for the Hindu theory of world cycles. Further, current scientific theory contradicts Hindu theory in many respects. It is best to begin by acknowledging this truth, as such an acknowledgement can form the basis for interesting discussions of the different ways of knowing that underly the more specific differences. Such, however, must be the substance of another paper.”

Fair enough. Hinduism relies on cycles (predictive modeling is a scientific phrase analogous to “cycles”), and there are some projections from this wikipedia sublink (the methodology was slightly revised for Hinduism). Nonetheless, Hinduism seems to allow for an analysis of analysis (which is described above as forming “the basis for interesting discussions of the different ways of knowing that underly the more specific differences.”).

Buddhism: when “Buddhism on life in the universe” was entered, google returned this article on “The Ten Worlds” of Buddhism at the top. An article that keeps the methodology in mind while being pertinent to the question on religious perceptions of life in the universe came in the form of this 2008 piece by Walter Jayawardhana entitled, “Scientist says Buddhism showed there’s life in space.” Chandra Wickramasinghe (a Cardiff University Mathematician and Astronomer) said (or is quoted in the article as saying), “Buddhism talks about a multitude of planetary systems and an infinity of ‘inhabited worlds’.” Okay, so that squares up the (or one of the) Buddhist perceptions.

Judaism: when “Judaism on life in the universe” was entered, the google algorithm listed this piece number 13 in order (again, in an attempt to bring substance to this blog posting, the methodology was tweaked a bit). The site says the Torah provides some metaphors for life on other planets, and the website’s interpretation of it gives the reader quite a bit of confidence about one’s place in the cosmos:

…man is endowed with a divine soul that towers over even the highest angels. [and] One of the first to discuss the question of extraterrestrial life in general was Rabbi Chasdai Crescas (Or Hashem 4:2). After a lengthy discussion, he comes to the conclusion that there is nothing in Jewish theology to preclude the existence of life on other worlds. As possible evidence for extraterrestrial life, he quotes the Talmudic teaching (Avoda Zara 3b) that “God flies through 18,000 worlds.” Since they require His providence, we may assume that they are inhabited.

Okay and got it. Judaism, at least in this interpretation, is okay with aliens.

Christianity: by typing in the phrase, “Pope on life in universe,” google produced this article, listed in 5th place. Published May 15, 2008 the article is entitled, “Pope’s astronomer insists alien life ‘would be part of God’s creation'”. Up until this point, I did not know that the pope had an astronomer (but I suppose it makes sense). As of 2008, the Pope’s astronomer was listed as José Gabriel Funes, unsurprisingly a Jesuit (the Jesuits are the undisputed intellectual shock-troops of the Catholic Church — historically they have occasionally gotten too smart for the Vatican, and have here and there had to physically be put down). Anyhow, Funes says “one cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God… They [the aliens] would be part of creation.”

Islam: by typing in the phrase, “Islam on life in universe,” google listed this following site as 3rd. It was produced by Al Islam: The Official Website of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and this website interprets the Quran as predicting that “man shall one day make contact with extraterrestrial life.”

Sounds good to me.

Seems like exploring that final frontier has some kind of unifying thread or thematic continuity that runs through all the major religions. I’ll end it here (since months ago I made promises to explore the final frontiers of dead-line driven reports that are due in the coming weeks).


Free Pens: The Context, Left In Situ, Interpretive Provenance, and Origin

A month or so ago Jay Krabbenhoft of Gate City Bank sent items to distribute at random around North Dakota State University’s department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies. I inscribed a short phrase at the top of a box, “FREE PENS,” all in caps — presumably to draw more attention — and below that a “HELP YOURSELF” with an arrow pointing to said pens. Only after Dr. Dennis Cooley walked by, saw the sign, and said, “Who is ‘Pens’?” did we begin a short discussion on the need for context, provenance, origin, and leaving items in situ. To Cooley (a philosopher of ethics), the sign immediately conjured up in his mind an idea of someone mistakenly or unjustly incarcerated. “‘FREE PENS’ sounds like someone’s last name who is locked up,” said Cooley, more or less. In reality, though, the sign asked visitors to take a pen (since there is a relatively low frequency of office visitors, I have since mandated that visitors leave with no-less than three pens per visit).

This in turn got me thinking about how some years ago Dr. Melinda Leach assigned her methods and theory in archaeology and anthropology class to read several American Antiquity essays, specifically those by the late Lewis Binford and the still-chugging Ian Hodder. Both perceived that they have (or had) a completely different way in which they viewed the archaeological record (Binford asserted “Processualism” and Hodder “Post-Processualism”), but the general idea is that artifacts, or material culture, are 1) left within the context in which they are found because this effectively allows the researcher to glean information from the artifacts; and 2) anyone who approaches evidence brings a certain degree of known or unknown cultural baggage and value-judgements to bear on said evidence (David Hume rambled on about this important subject at length in the 18th-century).

These two points are demonstrated when individuals engage and interact with any piece of evidence, and it is something archaeologists and historians incessantly talk about and try to communicate to collectors who hold up their collection of material culture and invariably ask, “What do you suppose this is worth?” Archaeologists and historians only know what it is worth in terms of knowledge (aka, Indiana Jones, “This belongs in a museum!”), while collectors tend to put it in bottom-line, Wall Street terms: MONEY (I am not sure, but this either is a reflection of American culture where money is fortunately and unfortunately king; or it is a universal reflection of the human condition, because unless we philosophically check ourselves we invariably gravitate toward perceptions of money which is analogous to power which is analogous to control and perceptions of prestige, fame, and so on and so forth — John Acton is attributed with the phrase, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”).

This latter theme also deals with context and perception, and it is thrown into relief when looked at more broadly: if something is perceived as valuable, then it is valuable. If a lot of people perceive it as valuable, then that something is going to be more valuable (historically, this was famously represented by tulips in Western Europe). Anyhow, oftentimes branding pens as free induces two responses: an individual either thinks they are not worth much; or philosophers of ethics think you are on some kind of moral ACLU-inspired crusade. Thus the perpetual need for continued dialog that provides context, provenance, and interpretations of origin by leaving items in situ (at least until we can get there, document it, and eventually say, “Pull it!”).