Conference Vision & Rationale


"[O]n a grand scale, our cosmology discloses a process of overpowering change, from nebulae to stars, from starts to planets, from inorganic matter to life, from life to reason and moral responsibility. We can no longer conceive of existence under the metaphor of a permanent depth of ocean with its surface faintly troubled by transient waves. There is an urge in things which carries the world far beyond its ancient conditions."–Alfred North Whitehead

The possibility of a truly biological universe has not ceased to haunt the human imagination. Over the past three decades, the discovery of thousands of exo-planets has spurred novel research programs integrating science, philosophy and theology in exciting new ways. Indeed, a variety of stimulating proposals have drawn together convergent insights in physics, cosmology and astrobiology; metaphysics and the philosophy of mind; the philosophy of religion and philosophical theology. Ever-more-relevant questions as to the status and implications of wide-ranging life in the universe continue to be raised. These questions in turn spark deeper questions about the necessary philosophical assumptions or presuppositions of a bio-centric universe; and wider constructive considerations as to how theology, religion, and society must change in light of the impact of discovery. 

 

Little attention, however, has been explicitly directed toward the valuable resources inherent in the philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead, Teilhard de Chardin, Henri Bergson and other process philosophers when approaching these questions. What constructive dimensions do pervasive themes of process, organism, temporality, novelty, experience, value, and mind, harbor for the interrelated concerns of astrobiology, philosophy, and theology? This conference proposes three core layers of investigation:

 

Astrobiology and Process Philosophies: Initial Connections

  • How should we frame the relationship between astrobiology and process philosophy?

  • What points of convergence and divergence does this relationship sustain and how might this differ from that of other sciences and philosophies?

  • In what ways does a “philosophy of organism” undergird affirmations of a “biological universe”? 

  • Do the developments of astrobiology also inform the development, reaches and/or limitations of process philosophies as differently put forth by Whitehead, Teilhard and Bergson?

  • What challenges emerge in and among these figures with respect to the goals of astrobiology?

 

A Philosophy of Exo-Life: Origins, Experience, Mind

  • What must be assumed or presupposed metaphysically of a biological universe in the context of Whitehead, Teilhard and Bergson’s work?

  • Do these exo-philosophical assumptions inform or transform our understanding of cosmic origins and evolution; mechanism and organism; possibility and actuality; experience and freedom; life and mind; temporality and eternity?

  • How do theories of life’s origins and possible pervasiveness (e.g. panspermia) relate to process theories of mind and its possible pervasiveness (e.g. panpsychism)? Is mentality necessarily “living?” Does life necessarily imply “mind?”

  • What insights or challenges arise when considering the relationship between experience, life, and mind beyond particular planets, galaxies and perhaps even universes?   

  • How might considerations of a “bio-centric” cosmological principle challenge and/or expand narrower “anthropic” commitments when situated within the cosmological visions of Whitehead, Teilhard, and Bergson?

 

Cosmic Religion: Toward a Constructive Process Cosmotheology

Steven J. Dick’s “cosmotheology” calls for radically new conceptions of a natural God and a “religious naturalism” that uniquely support a bio-centric evolutionary cosmos. While he has stated that “No Thomas Aquinas for cosmotheology has yet appeared…,” he does hold that “In its emphasis on evolutionary becoming, Cosmotheology resonates well with Whitehead’s process theology…It also resonates with the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary cosmology…” These statements open unique spaces for considering more deeply the resources of these and other process philosophers for reframing theological and religious approaches to astrobiology:

 

  • What kind of radical changes are required of our religious and theological visions in light of the discovery of intelligent alien life? Do process philosophies offer unique resources to this end?

  • What relevance or irrelevance do categories and distinctions of naturalism and supernaturalism; personalism and impersonalism; immanence and transcendence; monism and pluralism; creator and creativity actually have in a biological universe? Where do Whitehead, Teilhard and Bergson inform and/or transform these distinctions? 

  • In what ways do these and other distinctions aid the development of theological models suitable for a bio-centric cosmos: whether atheism, theism, pantheism, panentheism, transpantheism, or others?

  • Where do the strengths and weaknesses lie in current theological and religious proposals including: “cosmotheology” (S.J. Dick), “astrotheology” (T. Peters); “panoramic theology” (T. Walker & C. Wickramasinghe ); “biocosmic theology” (G. Genta) and others? How might they be critiqued, supplemented and improved in light of the philosophies of Whitehead, Teilhard, Bergson?

  • In what ways might exclusive, terrestrial religion be expanded to pluralistic visions of cosmic religion in a bio-centric universe? What resources and challenges do world religions harbor? What might extraterrestrial religions harbor?

  • Where are points of convergence and divergence when considering the roles and/or commonalities between human and extraterrestrial religion? What is the place of value, ethics, and morality; aesthetics and art; mathematics and science; doctrine and dogma in cosmic religion?

 

It remains a truly exciting time for science, philosophy and religion. Through exploration of the unique dimensions and themes of Whitehead’s, Teilhard’s, Bergson’s work, this conference aims to deepen human understanding and imagination by further uncovering the scientific, philosophical and religious implications of life beyond Earth.