“Astrobiology, Cosmotheology, and the Biological Universe:
Implications for Religion and Theology”
Steven J Dick
Recent discoveries in astronomy and astrobiology strongly indicate the need for a transformation of established theologies and suggest possibilities for new cosmically-oriented theologies such as cosmotheology. In particular the Biological Universe, the idea that intelligent life in the universe is common, necessitates a reconciliation of this new universe with dogmas of the Abrahamic religions in the same way that Thomas Aquinas tried to reconcile natural philosophy and Christianity in 13th century Europe. Other religions and their associated theologies will be less affected but still need to incorporate the cosmic perspective. In particular, discoveries in astronomy and astrobiology resonate with the dynamism of process theology in the sense that all theologies must take into account cosmic evolution and the possibilities of a biological universe in which life may be part of the very fabric of the universe. These discoveries also strongly suggest a denial of supernaturalism, a critical eye toward the epistemological status of revelation, and a rethinking of the nature of God and the sacred in the tradition of religious naturalism. In contrast to traditional theologies, human destiny is most universally couched in cosmic terms. The endeavor of transforming current theologies and creating new cosmic theologies is broadly characterized as astrotheology, a new and increasingly robust discipline that embraces the possibility of a more universal theology common to all intelligence in the cosmos. Astrotheology and its various flavors such as cosmotheology are part of a restructuring of our worldviews, a necessary endeavor as we internalize the realities of the new universe.
“Astrobiology, Astrotheology, and Cosmic Consciousness”
Like every natural science, astrobiology gathers objective data about the cosmos. But the data of astrobiology excites and even inspires the human soul. Astrotheology learns from astrobiological data while trying to account for its inspiring implications, for its subjective impact. Earthlings are growing in cosmic consciousness, at least in the minimal sense of being aware of possible intelligent consciousness living on exoplanets in the Milky Way. When contact with an extraterrestrial civilization is established, will the interchange of human and alien consciousness lead to a fusing of horizons, so to speak? Can we rightfully expect an expansion if not a deepening of human understanding, knowledge, and awareness? Might we test giving voice to a more intense cosmic consciousness with the physics of David Bohm and the metaphysics of Whiteheadian process theology?
“Religious Belief and the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life:
What’s Worldview Got to Do with It?”
Constance M. Bertka
Astrobiology studies life in the universe, exploring from the perspective of an interdisciplinary science three general questions: “Where did we come from?”; “Are we alone?”; “Where are we going?” As a defined discipline Astrobiology is relatively new, but these questions are old, popular with scholars, including theologians, and non-scholars alike. While we can’t currently answer the question, “Are we alone?” with a definitive “no,” over the last couple of decades astronomers have discovered that planets around other stars are common and that some are rocky planets in locations around their stars comparable to earth’s location to our sun. Our first extraterrestrial life discovery is an increasingly reasonable expectation. How might this discovery impact worldviews, particularly theological perspectives and religious belief? The discussion around this question is multilayered. Academics within theological traditions answer differently than academics outside of those traditions and the religious beliefs of those outside the academic environment are likely moved by other concerns.
The question of worldview impact also falls within the context of how the relationship between science and religion is viewed. Some argue that a new cosmic consciousness will be awakened by the discovery of extraterrestrial life, decentralizing humanity and threatening belief in a classical supernatural image of God. But process theologians have already proposed revision of the classical view of God and though they have been at work for decades, the more traditional view still thrives. Will the discovery of extraterrestrial life increase the popularity of process theology? Perhaps the answer will hinge in part on normalizing science and religion discussions, breaking down siloed worldviews. Not only theologians but the scientific community writ large needs to be concerned with a broader conversation and one that reaches beyond academia. Recent efforts by the scientific community to support this broader conversation are encouraging, conflict between science and religion is falling out of fashion but work towards integration, where significant worldview change might happen, is still elusive. Without this work we are likely to prefer a mental shortcut, seeking out and accepting information that accords with our prior beliefs while dismissing information that does not- protecting our worldviews.
“Astrobiological Searches for Shared Knowledge”
In this paper, I present arguments for the claim that humans and extraterrestrials will share common axiological and biological domains. I begin with a “partners in crime” argument that explores the partnership among biology, mathematics, and ethics. I outline important parallels between the scientific search for extraterrestrial life and pursuits of mathematical and ethical knowledge. These parallels justify an appeal for consistency in our reasoning. I identify and explain shared epistemic challenges in each of these domains, arguing that value is as real and as detectable as life and as mathematical truths. But the question remains: How real are these things? To answer this crucial question, I first address demarcation concerns regarding the difference between life and non-life. The puzzles produced by these concerns mirror some of the puzzles faced by those who posit robust intrinsic value in the universe or the objective truth of mathematical claims. I then propose the following avenue of response to these puzzles. We may assume that life and value are genuinely present in other areas of the universe in the same way that we may assume mathematics is genuinely present in other areas of the universe. That is, numbers, life, and value are non-observables the effects of which we may nonetheless recognize. Reorienting extraterrestrial searches with this in mind reveals overlooked commonalities in these domains, and it indicates that we may reasonably assume that at least some extraterrestrials could recognize these commonalities as well. This approach leaves open questions regarding the groundings or sources of non-observables, and it requires that we accept potentially significant limitations regarding our and others’ knowledge of non-observables. Ultimately, this view justifies claims of the reality of life and value in the cosmos and the assumption that, at least to some extent, our mathematical, biological, and axiological understandings will be shared by others.
"A Darker Forest?
The Fermi Paradox and Extraterrestrial Spiritual Life (ETS)”
One of the more fascinating solutions answering the Fermi Paradox is the “Dark Forest”-conjecture. It states that the universe is not only biotic (ETL), but full of intelligent life (ETI). However, since the probability that the encounter of ETIs will lead to mutual destruction rather than cooperation is “astronomical,” everyone hides as behind their tree in a dark forest, and any contact will passively or actively lead to the eradication of the communicator. Is the Earth doomed? This conjecture is based on an assumption that evolution is locked, in Darwinian terms, in the survival of the fittest, and that even cooperation, as on Earth, is, if not the exception, so merely a means for self-survival and -promotion. Other philosophical resources, such as Teilhard de Chardin, A. N. Whitehead and ‘Abdu'l-Baha, side with primary religious intuitions and desires for the function of cosmic religiosity to counter exactly this assumption. The question then becomes: How does the Fermi Paradox impact not only their acceptance that life is ubiquitous (ETL) and suggestive of the appearance of intelligent lifeforms (ETI) in our universe, but that evolution tends to foster the emergence of spiritual lifeforms (ETS) which actually strive to overcome this evolutionary, biotic condition of self-assertion and the survival strategies of competition and expansion?
"From Negation to Exemplification:
A Deeper Whiteheadian Cosmotheology"
Andrew M. Davis
For decades, Steven J. Dick has been a longstanding advocate of the development of “cosmotheology” as a scientifically rooted endeavor which uses our best understanding of nature to “inform a much broader range of theological discussion.” Cosmotheology as Dick defines it revolves around the use of our ever-expanding knowledge of the universe to “modify, expand or change entirely” current theologies. Central to these theological changes, Dick insists, is the rejection of anthropocentrism and supernaturalism: human beings are relegated to the cosmological periphery and there is nothing beyond the natural world. These commitments converge in Dick’s affirmation of both scientific and religious naturalism: nature is all there is and a creative evolutionary universe devoid of “God” suffices to inspire the reverence, awe and meaning traditionally assigned to the religious sphere. Dick’s six core “principles” of cosmotheology thus consist primarily in a series of cosmological negations of human existence and experience and ultimately, an ontological negation of God. While admitting that his proposal is perhaps better termed “cosmophilosophy” rather than “cosmotheology,” Dick ironically leaves open the possibility that advanced extraterrestrials in the “biological universe” may have something akin to the traditional theological attributes.
This paper argues that Dick’s laudable project can be considerably strengthened by Whitehead’s bio-centric cosmophilosophy (the “philosophy of organism”) which culminates in (rather than negates) a robust naturalistic cosmotheology that is actually deserving of the name. Demonstrating this requires showing how Dick’s cosmological negations can be transformed into metaphysical exemplifications. While Dick holds that the creative evolution at the heart of his own “cosmotheology” has limited resonance with Whitehead’s (and Teilhard de Chardin’s) process theology, a deeper investigation of Whitehead’s cosmotheological metaphysics effectively challenges and widens Dick’s proposal. For Whitehead, human experience while cosmologically peripheral is nevertheless metaphysically central: their existence and experience exemplifies fundamental metaphysical principles of an organic, experiential and axiological character that are essential to a creative evolutionary universe at all scales. Rather than being the great supernatural “exception” to metaphysical principles, “invoked to save their collapse,” Whitehead’s God is their “chief exemplification.” Whitehead’s wider naturalism coupled with his theological realism allow for imaginative metaphysical continuity in our reflection all the way “down” and all the way “up” the biological universe: from terrestrial and extra-terrestrial life to the culminating life of God. What is more, Whitehead’s vision arguably re-integrates and resolves outstanding metaphysical problems that remain unanswered by Dick’s proposal (and those of others). These problems surround the presuppositions of cosmic evolutionary novelty, including the metaphysical basis for objective rational, aesthetic, and ethical (or moral) values and their association with ontologically real possibilities in the nature of things. Whitehead therefore offers a wider cosmotheology that includes Dick’s naturalistic intuitions while also transcending his conceptual and explanatory limitations.
"Prospects for a Universal Philosophy of Organism"
There are a number of recent discoveries and developments in biology that seem evidently congenial from process philosophical and theological perspectives. Take for example, the discovery of “quorum sensing” functions and other anticipatory directive/non-random-adaptive environmental response phenomena in microbial societies, which may be interpreted as verifying essentially teleological (non-Darwinian, neo-Lamarkian) and cooperative-altruistic dynamics in the environmental responses of these individual and collective organisms. Increasingly—and often with real cogency—process thinkers are engaging with this new biology in order to make the case that process metaphysics can better explain these observational realities than can the dominant alternative philosophical perspectives (see the growing “biophilosophy” movement that is an outgrowth from contemporary process thought). This is an appropriate and productive response to this ongoing science. Yet, if we are to remain true to Whitehead’s conception of the proper function and mode of philosophical inquiry, we must also discipline ourselves, to maintain a certain degree of critical distance from these developments, and we must acknowledge that there are some other recent discoveries and developments that may be seen as potentially cutting against common principles or presuppositions of process thought. Take for example, elegant mechanistic modeling of the developmental pathways of the molecular regimes associated with the evolution of particular planetary chemical systems.
Moreover, if the ultimate aim is to demonstrate the ongoing relevance of Whiteheadian—or neoWhiteheadian—process thought as a universalizable metaphysical perspective, then we must also recognize the fundamental ways in which our biological and physical, as well as our philosophical and theological, concepts and categories necessarily, to some degree, reflect the contingent particularities of the evolution of the particular planet (and solar system) on (in) which we have emerged and by which we have been conditioned. Just as philosophy and theology have always needed to be mindful of the problem of anthropocentrism, we now understand, better and more specifically than ever before, the extent to which our thinking is also prone to the more generic problem of “terracentrism.”
One concrete implication of the recognition of our terracentric perspective is that we must look beyond “life” as a category around which we construct our most general claims. Over time, the concept of “life” has become, if anything, theoretically more, not less, problematic, especially in light of recent developments in a number of diverse (but increasingly intersecting) areas ranging from prebiotic chemical evolution and evolutionary virology, to planetary chemistry and astrobiology. I will argue, therefore, that the more general category of “organism,” as constructed in Whitehead’s thought, is not only a better candidate than “life” for universalizability, but also it has the additional advantage of reflecting the ultimate convergence (non-dualism) of both “physical” (non-biological) and “biological” phenomena, under the rubric of a more generic ontological category. This, in turn, allows for the ultimate clarification of both the common and the disparate elements characterizing what we refer to as “living” and “non-living” phenomena. It also suggests a cosmic application of this category with what I take to be productive theological implications.
"The Smallest Leap of Faith:
A New Worldview for a Postmodern World?"
Kelly C. Smith
It is undeniable that religion provides a sense of purpose, ethical direction, and social belonging that most human beings for most of recorded history have found to be profoundly important. But it is equally undeniable that its supernatural metaphysics and dogmatic conservatism have retarded society’s progress in many ways and caused untold human suffering. An obvious question is thus: Is it possible to preserve the beneficial aspects of religion but excise the problematic ones?
Immanuel Kant fathered the postmodern age with his devastating critique of the possibility of human knowledge of the Ultimate. However, Kant himself was far from skeptical about the possibility of objective human knowledge - as long as its claims were carefully qualified. The key to understanding this seeming contradiction is his (often misunderstood) transcendental method. The method offers a way to have our postmodern skepticism concerning traditional religious supernaturalism and still eat our metaphysical cake, as it were.
Combining a transcendental approach with new scientific findings about the nature of the universe may allow us transcend the stalemate between scientific rationalism and faith, constructing a belief system which blends positive elements of each perspective. Scientists in a number of disciplines are beginning to hypothesize that the universe naturally creates complexity. On the one hand, this undercuts the most common justification for belief in the supernatural, since there is no need for divine intervention to explain things that occur naturally. On the other hand, it invites those so inclined to view themselves as part of a universal telos involving the creation of complexity. Such a move requires only the smallest step of faith to adopt and may provide believers with the sense of purpose, ethical foundation, and social support they long for while sidestepping conflict with the essential claims and methods of science.
"The Cosmological Context of the Hot Spring Abiogenesis Hypothesis"
Matt Segall & Bruce Damer
The question of how life on earth first arose has puzzled researchers since the inception of the modern science of biology around the turn of the 19th century. Advances in complex systems science and the study of non-equilibrium thermodynamics have helped close the gaps between physics, chemistry, and living organization, but many questions remain unanswered. This presentation will examine the cosmological context and metaphysical implications of a leading candidate for the origins of life in Astrobiology: the “Hot Spring Hypothesis for an Origin of Life.” Connections will be drawn between key concepts from Whitehead’s Philosophy of Organism and the astrophysical, geochemical, and protocellular processes described in the Hot Spring Hypothesis. For example, clear analogies are evident between the production of novelty via the process of concrescence and the liposomal combinatorial selection processes driven by wet-dry cycling in shallow freshwater ponds. Further convergence is seen in Whitehead’s account of the “sheltering” of living societies by environmental layers of social order and the importance of environmental rhythms and other conditions in making possible otherwise highly improbable chemical reactions. The question of whether the Whiteheadian notion of an “aim at satisfaction” may play any role in the emergence of self-organizing, self-producing protocells will also be explored. Finally, the social, ethical, and spiritual implications of our growing scientific knowledge of life’s origins will be discussed.
"'World's as Numerous as the Grains of Sand of the Ganges':
Cosmic Pluralism and Swami Vivekananda's Religion of the Future
Jeffery D. Long
Is there life in the universe, or the multiverse, beyond the planet Earth? Responding to this question from the perspective of philosophies of process, such as that of Alfred North Whitehead, prompts us to raise another question, “What is life?” Is there finally anything which is not, in some sense, alive? The emergence of philosophies of process, as well as a growing sense amongst thinkers in the West that consciousness (or at least experience) is in some sense foundational to existence, and not something which evolves from an essentially material reality, puts the question of life in the universe on a different level from that of simply searching for entities like ourselves. It becomes not only an empirical question, but a fundamental question of ontology. Such a situation is already envisioned in many Indian philosophical traditions that both take consciousness to be foundational to existence and take for granted that there are many planes of existence inhabited by intelligent beings. We are therefore witnessing a convergence of Indian and Western thought, in our current period, as we reflect upon the question of life in the universe and the closely related question of the nature of life itself. Over a century ago, Swami Vivekananda envisioned this convergence when he spoke of religions to come in the future. This presentation will take up the interrelated questions of, first, the nature of life, experience, and consciousness as seen in the context of the search for extraterrestrial life, and secondly, the kind of religious sensibility that emerges from reflections of this kind. The demise of religion has long been predicted by scholars who have then proven to be premature in their claims. This presentation will suggest not that religion will be destroyed or superseded as humanity engages with the possibility, and eventually the reality, of extraterrestrial life, but that it will be radically transformed by this process.
“Astrobiology without Biology:
Will AI be Our Emissary or Our Bottleneck?”
Given the difficulties of space travel for biological beings, it seems likely that our first contact with another intelligence will be through their and/or our technology. AI offers the opportunity for a presence in space that is both dynamic and functional. Thus, AI might be the best emissary to other worlds. Yet Fermi’s paradox persists. If intelligent life is out there, why have we not encountered their technology? The answer may lie in a paradox of evolutionary biology. The very nature of biological evolution may mean that technological advancement always outstrips a society’s ability to control that technology. While AI might be our best avenue to space exploration, it might also be the technological bottleneck that precludes that exploration.
“Extending the Noosphere into Intergalactic Life:
Teilhard de Chardin and the Third Axial Age”
In 1949 Karl Jaspers described a global breakthrough in human consciousness, which he described as the “axial age,” a term which has served as a heuristic marker of consciousness and human development, including the depth dimension of religion. Ewert Cousins described a second axial age ushered in by the new science and mass communication. This new age is marked by ecology, community, divine immanence and global consciousness. Teilhard de Chardin said that evolution is the rise of consciousness and described a process of theistic evolution grounded in second axial consciousness. He proposed that life is unfolding from simple, biological material life, to complex interconnected life, empowered by a divine presence, following Henri Bergson’s élan vital. Evolution continues in and through human development and is accelerating with technology toward the maximization of conscious life marked by the symbol of Omega.
This paper will examine the evolution of consciousness toward Omega by using the axial age as a paradigm of development. Attention will be given to Teilhard’s ideas on consciousness and matter and argue that the inextricable link between consciousness and matter, the drive to complex consciousness, and the development of the noosphere and computerized planetary consciousness, render the search for conscious intergalactic life the next logical step in the evolution of the Christic toward Omega. In this respect, Teilhard’s notion of the Noosphere marks the beginning of the third axial age, which will continue with interstellar exploration and the expansion of human consciousness into other life forms, a development consistent with the fecund symbol of Omega.
“The Organic Universe and Otherworldly Lives:
Bergson and Sagan”
In his 1985 Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology at the University of Glasgow (published posthumously as The Varieties of Scientific Experience), the physicist Carl Sagan reflects on the spectroscopic analysis of comets that reveal that what is “out there” (a range of organic molecules in the tails of passing comets) is very close to what is “in here” (the organic molecules in living organisms on Earth). He finds in this molecular affinity between our own bodies and the stars a reason for humility and a greater sense of continuity with other living organisms, both on this planet and in the potential forms they may take on other planets. This will form the first part of the paper. The second part will turn to Henri Bergson, for whom the fundamental connection between the material and the biological enjoyed by organisms is both a necessity of life and a critique of the limitations of the function of the intellect. This motivates the entire project of Creative Evolution, which is at once a theory of life and a theory of knowledge. Bergson sets out to identify the structures that inform our everyday knowledge of the world, including life, and to speculate on the conditions of their formation, not in a priori structures of the intellect, but rather in the evolved conditions, in a fully biological sense, of our physiological interactions with our environment. What Bergson names “the double form of consciousness,” or the intuitive and intelligent aspects of conscious life reflects the material and vital aspects of reality. Accordingly, the long history of the study of nature (phusis) has tended to divide itself into the studies of physics and biology (material nature on the one hand, and the natural world on the other), but the history of physics is, it could be said, plagued by the resistance of living beings to its principles. The final part of this paper considers features of life that have evolved in the deepest parts of our oceans, and that have only recently become accessible with the development of technologies able to navigate ecosystems at these otherwise inhospitable depths. There, we discover forms of life capable of evolving and flourishing in the absence of sunlight, sustained by chemosynthesis, mirroring obliquely the development on land of ecosystems founded upon photosynthesizing plants. In summary, this paper explores varied perspectives on the challenges of traversing vast distances in space, in evolutionary time, and between land and the deep sea, and how all of these endeavors might enhance our understanding and appreciation of our own imperiled “habitat.”
“Multiplicity without Tyranny:
The Nonviolent Telos of Process and Jainism”
Ethical-aesthetic terms within process philosophy, such as “beauty” and “intensity,” often aim to preserve the role of contrast, conflict, and inevitable loss as essential aspects of an ecological planetary multiplicity toward an open-ended future. In these views, exclusionary valuations, and even destruction, are accepted as a necessity, even if a tragic one, of a worldview that ascribes some level of self-determined creativity to all actual entities. If, as Whitehead states of the natural world in general, “Life is robbery” (PR 105), then suggesting nonviolence as a valuable aim could smuggle in a loophole of exceptionalism wherein homo sapiens’ morality is somehow different from that of “nature.” Moreover, any kind of telos could suggest a predestined future. Finally, nonviolence, if interpreted as passivity or sacrificial paralysis, could result in a stultified, rather than dynamic, universe.
While these concerns, and the (often) ecological sensibilities that motivate them, offer an important metaphysical and realist intervention in anthropocentric accounts of the universe, proponents often overlook a normative aspect of Whitehead’s religious and metaphysical vision of a possible future characterized by less, or perhaps no, loss. Utilizing the metaphysical framework of Jainism, an ancient Indian tradition centered on ethical experiments in nonviolence, as a comparative case study, I will provide an account of Whitehead’s ethical aim as a telos of nonviolence. Technical concepts in Whitehead’s works, such as “unison of immediacy,” the “many” and the “one,” the potentiality of “eternal objects” or the “subjective aim,” the “lure,” his description of the “khora,” and even his use of the term “peace,” present a vision of social and ecological nonviolence for an unfolding future. In this view, harm reduction and social ecology need not be at metaphysical odds. Rather, nonviolence is, I argue, part of the structure of becoming in a process metaphysics, not only for certain exceptional beings, but ultimately for all existent entities.
“The Connection-Action Principle:
A Basis for Process Philosophy and Cosmic ‘Creativity’”?
A centerpiece of contemporary Western process philosophy is Alfred North Whitehead’s “principle of process,” which features creativity as an important element. The modern science of cosmic evolution can be interpreted to suggest a highly “creative” universe—perhaps increasingly creative over time. In asking how the universe’s creativity arises, or increases, we can appeal to a wide range of approaches from scientific empiricism to more theoretical, conceptual, metaphysical, and philosophically speculative approaches—many of which arguably relate to the principle of process. In a book published in 2020, Cosmological Theories of Value: Science, Philosophy, and Meaning in Cosmic Evolution, I explore a kind of relational-action metaphysics in the form of a “connection-action principle” (CAP) suggesting, in its simplest form, that the universe’s (or multiverse’s) property of connectedness is instantiated as relations and actions. Drawing heavily from that book, this paper will explore how the connection-action principle may provide a basis for process philosophy and how it may relate to the universe’s apparent creative tendencies, with a particular focus on the emergence of life, intelligence, and meaning in the universe.
"Whitehead, Kalogenesis and Cosmocentrism"
Brian G. Henning
Environmental philosophers have for half a century debated whether ethics is anthropocentric, biocentric, or ecocentric. Yet even the most capacious of these theories typically have difficulty thinking beyond our own planet and its distinct evolutionary history. As humans consider “colonizing” other planets, mining asteroids, and interacting with extraterrestrial life, it is urgent that we develop an adequate extra-terrestrial ethic, a cosmocentric ethic. Just as Europeans’ latent metaphysics and ethics defined what was morally defensible in their colonization of this planet, our species’ latent metaphysics and ethics define whether certain actions require moral justification. We take our ethics—and our metaphysics—with us as we move into and beyond the solar system. In this paper I defend the view that, grounded in Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, it is possible to conceive of a cosmocentric ethic whose ultimate duty is beauty. Reality is fundamentally kalogenic; each drop of actuality is a unique achievement of beauty and value. “The teleology of the Universe,” Alfred North Whitehead tells us in Adventures of Ideas, “is directed to the production of Beauty.”