International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Many Worlds: the New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological Implications

edited by Steven J. Dick

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? If God is all powerful, then surely He could have created such beings? Given the size and scope of the totality of space, would He not be awfully wasteful had he not done so? But if there are such beings, then what of the Christian story and its implications for us? Do extra-terrestrials have a similar loving and intimate relationship with God, are they like us tainted with original sin, did the Redeemer have to come down to them and die on the Cross?

Recent scientific and technological advances, studying the possibility of life elsewhere in our solar system, and reaching out beyond for traces of intelligence in the whole of space – are there for instance planets like ours that would be capable of bearing such life? – have given greater urgency to what has traditionally been known as the “plurality of worlds” problem. This excellent collection, edited by Stephen J. Dick, the United States Naval Observatory’s historian of science, introduces the reader both to traditional issues and to the most up-to-date findings.

The collection is divided into three parts. The first, “Origin and Evolution of Life,” deals with the scientific side to the question. What do we know about the origin of life, and is our knowledge in any sense approaching a complete explanation? The consensus seems to be that we know a lot more than we did, but that we are very far from a full understanding. Indeed, so incomplete is our knowledge that some contributors, notably physicist Paul Davies, seem to think that, if ever we are to make real progress with the problem, we need a new approach and new laws, probably centering on information.

Second comes “Humanity’s Place in Cosmic Evolution.” Here the focus swings to our own species as scientists, philosophers, and theologians tackle the issues. There are some excellent discussions about complexity and the conditions for human evolution (including by the President of the Royal Society, Martin J. Rees). The late physicist-theologian Arthur Peacocke tackles the biological questions at stake here and, although he does a manful job, it would be perhaps desirable to supplement this with some further reading, perhaps the newly published Biology's First Law: The Tendency for Diversity and Complexity to Increase in Evolutionary Systems by paleontologist Daniel McShea and philosopher Robert Brandon.

Third we have “Extraterrestrial Life and Our World View.” This includes profound although clear discussions of the theological and philosophical implications of the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. In a typically brilliant review of the evidence, philosopher and Catholic priest Ernan McMullin shows both that this is a tremendously important question for Christians and that there remains much work to be done. Jesuit George V. Coyne, long-time director of the Vatican Observatory, supplements this discussion, adding more biblical detail and reflection. Then, the editor himself, who has written extensively on the history of the topic, offers a masterful summation to conclude the volume.