Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Resolution Read, Week 8: Are Aliens Incompatible with Christian Salvation?

So last week I read up on whether Aquinas would baptise aliens. Following in that theme, this week I'm reading:

Christian Weidemann, "Christian Soteriology and Extraterrestrial Intelligence", Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 67, nos. 11/2 (2014): 418-425.

Per the abstract, this article is going to argue that the classical Christian doctrine of salvation is incompatible with the belief in non-human, extraterrestrial intelligence. This is a stronger claim than Lazzari's that we considered last week, which was simply that because Christ's incarnation as a human is a specifically human thing, if aliens do not share our human essence/nature, then human baptism would do nothing for them, leaving open the possibility that there are other ways that non-human intelligent beings could be saved. I'm curious to see why Weidemann thinks that the possibility of human salvation by itself is enough to exclude the existence of non-human extra-terrestrial intelligences. (In particular, I'm interested to see how he excludes aliens but not angels.)

Weidemann quotes Thomas Paine, "to believe that God created a plurality of [inhabited] worlds...renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous" (p. 418), and now I want to write a paper called "On the Plurality of Inhabited Worlds". I wonder if Paine is where Lewis got his title from? Anyway, Paine argues that there are other inhabited worlds, and hence Christianity is "ridiculous". I wonder if Weidemann is going to modus tollen's Paine's argument, and go from the non-ridiculousness of Christianity to our sole existence in the universe. We'll see. First, let's look at Paine's argument.

Paine's argument is the following dilemma: If there are multiple inhabited worlds in the universe, then either God was incarnated on in one, or he was incarnated in all of them. (The case in which he is incarnated into some, but not all, ends up being functionally equivalent to the first one). In the first case, Paine argues that it would be "a strange conceit" to think that out of all the inhabited worlds out there, either ours was the only one that had a fall event or, if multiple ones did, ours is the only one where Christ became incarnate. What makes us so special? In the second case, assuming that multiple worlds had fall events, then Christ would "have nothing to do than travel from world to world in an endless succession of deaths with scarcely a momentary interval of life" (p. 418). Both of these options, Paine believes, gives rise to absurdity.

But this overlooks a genuine third alternative, which we saw in my previous post -- there is more than one way that God could choose to save a fallen alien species. Maybe some get incarnations. Maybe some are gifted grace. Maybe others get something so far beyond our ken we cannot even articulate it. Now, this may itself raise the question of "why does he choose to do it one way here and another way there?" and answering that question may yet also lead us to absurdity, but it is important to point out that Paine reaches his conclusion too quickly.

In pursuit of his conclusion, Weidemann next turns to the orthodoxy expressed at the council of Chalcedon, namely, that Christ is both "truly God and truly man". He says he will argue that people who take this doctrine seriously should be concerned that the existence of non-human aliens "would undercut (their) religious beliefs" (p. 418). This...worries me. First, I hope he's not about to say that being truly God and truly man excludes Christ from being, e.g., truly Martian too. (It would be hard to see how omnipotence would not allow for Christ to have a plurality of natures.) Second, I hope he's not about to say that the Chalcedonian orthodoxy, because it is "still binding for the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and for more traditional forms of Protestantism" (p. 418) is thereby true.

I was right when I hypothesized above that Weidemann would modus tollens's Paine's modus ponens. In the first stage of his argument, he gives "a ten step argument for the claim that God's salvation extends to extraterrestrial intelligent beings" (p. 419). I won't quote the argument here, but merely comment on the various steps.

The first step that I find interesting is his invoking of the Principle of Mediocrity (a principle which finds a warm, welcoming spot in my heart): If there are many intelligent species in the universe, humans most likely to not occupy any special position w.r.t. moral goodness, intelligence, technology, etc. Therefore, if we fell, it's highly probable that it wasn't because we're special in any particular way (e.g., highly susceptible to sin), but because all intelligent species are liable to sin. The rest of the steps all seem pretty reasonable to me, though the connection between many of them is one of probability rather than necessity. Still, given what I've said in my previous post, I'm happy with the idea that there are multitudinous extraterrestrial beings God wants to -- and hence does -- save. I am pleased to see that Weidemann explicitly admits the possibility that different types of reconciliations exist for different types of intelligent beings (p. 419); so far, so good.

The next step of the argument is to show that if we accept the first part, namely that God does save myriad other intelligent beings, "adopting a Christian soteriology will lead to one of three equally unacceptable consequences" (p. 420):

  1. Extraterrestrials sinners are reconciled by the incarnation on Earth.
  2. Extraterrestrials are reconciled by incarnation elsewhere.
  3. Extraterrestrials are reconciled by some other means.

I think Lazzari has successfully dispensed with possibility (1), if we adopt a Thomistic metaphysics. Thus, I'll be concentrating on why Weidemann thinks (2) and (3) are "unacceptable".

Why can't extraterrestrials be saved through their own personal incarnation? Weidemann appeals to the uniqueness of Christ's death: "We know, however, that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him" (Romans 6:9). Well, this isn't quite uniqueness, but rather finality -- all we can take from the Romans verse is that once Christ has died on earth, he will not die again. But let's ignore the possibility that he had numerous other deaths that happened previously, and did not result in him having dominion over death. Suppose that he's right, that once Christ has died once, he cannot die again, and hence any other incarnation event is excluded. The problem is that if we accept this, we must accept that there is some special or unique status that humans have such that when Christ is incarnated as a human, this gives him the power of dominion over death. If we accept this, we must reject the Principle of Mediocrity: For then humanity/human nature is not mediocre at all, but extremely distinctive!

I'd also like to suggest a possibility that Weidemann doesn't appear to have considered: Given that God is omnitemporal, why couldn't Christ have been raised from the dead simultaneously in all incarnations, and that it is this manifold incarnation, death, and resurrection that gives him the ultimate power over death, such that he will never die any more? So I think (2) is still a live option, though Weidemann feels he's adequately discarded it. That leaves him with (3).

Why can't extraterrestrials be saved through some means other than incarnation? For this, Weidemann appeals to God's Act of Solidarity, namely, that "God's incarnating, suffering, and dying is the greatest possible (perhaps the only possible) act of solidarity with his creation" (p. 420). The only justification for this claim is that it is "essentially for the traditional Christian believer" and "abandoning [it] means abandoning traditional Christianity" (p. 420). This is not true. Let me raise again the possibility that all the incarnations, deaths, and resurrections happened simultaneously. Would not this, as opposed to a single incarnative act that excludes the vast majority of intelligent life in the universe, be the greatest possible act of solidarity? An act that is truly in solidarity with all creation, and not just created humans? I do not know of anything in Christian theology that requires that God's Act of Solidarity be in solidarity with humanity only, and assuming that it is begs the question not only against the Principle of Mediocrity (by giving humanity a special status amongst all of creation) but against the possibility at hand, that extra terrestrial intelligences can be saved as well.

In the next section, Weidemann turns to consider objections to the various steps in the argument, and I look forward to seeing whether he touches upon the points I've raised above. At first, I thought he did, as he brought up the Principle of Mediocrity. However, he in fact uses the PM, rather than rejecting it, in his dismissal of option (1), which we were happy to assent to. Furthermore, he says:

Correspondingly, is there any analogous evidence trumping PM that Earth plays a special role in God's plan for cosmic salvation?...I do not think so (p. 421).

Therefore, rejecting PM in order to deal with the objections I raise above will not be an option for Weidemann.

Concerning option (2), the first objection that Weidemann considers -- that Paul in writing Romans, and other Biblical authors who express similar sentiments, took it for granted that they were writing to a human audience, and therefore didn't, but could have, restrict their statement to "he will not die again on earth" -- is not my objection. However, Weidemann does appear to address my objection when he says, again with appeal to the Confession of Chalcedon, that "simultaneous incarnations are metaphysically impossible" (p. 421). His argument for this? Why, simply that "since the relation of identity is transitive...Jesus of Nazareth is personally identical with his counterparts at Alpha Centauri, Kronos, and numerous other places" (p. 421). The problem with this argument is that -- as is well known -- identity does not work in God the same way it does in created things, not unless you want to end up in paralogism. In fact, as an anonymous medieval author that I discussed in in my dissertation points out, when we distinguish personal and essential identity from formal identity, it is quite clear that personal identity is reflexive and symmetric, but is not transitive. God the Father is personally identical with God, and God the Son is personally identical with God, but it does not follow that God the Father is personally identical with God the Son. Therefore, we are under no obligation to accept that Jesus of Nazarath is personally identical with his counterparts in other worlds, even if all of these incarnate person are personally identical with God.

Next, Weidemann objects, against simultaneous incarnation, that no one thing can be both wholly human and wholly Klingon at the same time -- it is metaphysically impossible. But since it is also metaphysically for one thing to be both wholly human and wholly divine at the same time (which is precisely what the Chalcedonian doctrine says is true), I hardly think this is a strong objection.

Thus, we can maintain that we can straightforwardly accept that once Christ died and was resurrected, he would never die again -- he just died infinitely many times simultaneously.

Let us now finally consider Weidemann's objections to the idea that there are other means of extraterrestrial salvation, and whether he addresses my suggestion that the greatest act of solidarity would involve all creation, not humanity alone, especially in the presence of the Principle of Mediocrity. Interestingly, Weidemann suggests, by appeal to PM that if every intelligent species had its own method of salvation, well, then one of them had to have been incarnated, so why not ours? There's nothing special -- or not special -- about us that would make it less likely for us to be incarnated as opposed to any other species. As he says: "Some way of salvation God had to choose. The actual outcome is nothing to be stunned about" (p. 423). But perhaps we should be stunned at the diversity of options, when there is a perfectly plausible (as argued above) singular option, whereby every species is reconciled via incarnation. As it turns out, Weidemann thinks we have other reasons to be stunned by the fact of the human incarnation "against other means of redemption" (p. 423), because (he believes) it is unique, "one of the most remarkable events in the history of the cosmos" (p. 423). Given that it did happen, we can be surprised that it happened to us rather than to any of the other possible species.

But this assumes, contra what we've argued above, that the greatest act of solidarity with creation is the reconciliation of humanity. And if we reject that, then we do not have to reject either the rest of Christian theology, or the belief in the pervasiveness of extra-terrestrials. Win!

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