Friday, August 4, 2017

Can there be Ethics without God?
The Theology of Science Fiction, Redux 1

INTRODUCTION

Looking at my last post, "Why do we believe...", I thought there were things I didn't say in that that I had said in previous ones, particularly in the series  "Theology of Science-Fiction".   Also, being preoccupied with some other tasks, I thought it appropriate  to repost those with some minor revisions.   Let's start out with considering what science fiction (and the Church) have to say about intelligent aliens having a soul.

WHO HAS A SOUL?

"If there are many planets inhabited by sentient creatures, as most astronomers (including Jesuits), now suspect, then `each one of such planets (solar or non-solar)' must fall into one of three categories:

(1) Inhabited by sentient creatures, but without souls; so to be treated with compassion but extra-evangelically.

(2) Inhabited by sentient creatures with fallen souls, through an original but not inevitable ancestral sin; so to be evangelized with urgent missionary charity.

(3) Inhabited by sentient soul-endowed creatures that have not fallen, who therefore
  • inhabit an unfallen, sinless paradisal world;
  • who therefore we must contact not to propagandize, but in order that we may learn from them the conditions (about which we can only speculate) of creatures living in perpetual grace, endowed with all the virtues in perfection, and both immortal and in complete happiness for always possessed of and with the knowledge of God.' "  James Blish, quoting Gerald Heard, from David Ketterer's Covering 'A Case of Conscience'
The quote above outlines what SF might say about the theological state of non-human intelligent life, but it leaves questions to be answered.    Certainly one would not try to convert Deep Blue, the computer that beat Gary Kasparov in chess, nor would one send a missionary to the local S.P.C.A.     What then is the requirement that one be fallen, saved or in a state of grace?   The quote distinguishes between intelligent life with and without souls ("sentient creatures, but without souls").     But what, when it comes down to it, are the hallmarks of having a soul?

I'm going to use some quotes from an earlier post, "Would Yoda have a Soul?" that explore this question.
"The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual...soul refers to the innermost aspect of man, that by which he is most specially in God's image:  'soul' signifies the spiritual principle in man...it is because of the spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes  a living, human body;  spirit and body in man are not two natures united but rather their union forms a single nature."  Catechism of the Catholic Church, excerpted from paragraphs 362, 363, 365.
Now that is a complete statement, but it doesn't make the properties of a soul explicit.   What do these properties entail--belief in a deity?   a moral/ethical code?   wonder about the meaning of it all?   As Brother Guy Consulagmo, a Vatican astronomer, put it when discussing alien life:
 "Going back to the Middle Ages, the definition of a soul is to have intelligence, free will, freedom to love or not to love, freedom to make decisions..." 
And here's what C.S. Lewis has to say:
 "By this (rational souls) I include not merely the faculty to abstract and calculate, but the apprehension of values, the power to mean by 'good' something more than 'good for me' or even 'good for my species'." (from Religion and Rocketry in The World's Last Night)

PARADISE NOT LOST

Let's start with C.S. Lewis's magnificent "Space Trilogy" (Out of the Silent PlanetPerelandraThat Hideous Strength).   I won't attempt to reprise the plot or characters (go to the link), but rather focus on the elements that display Lewis's theological construct for his SF universe: a pyramidal theological structure of deity and creatures that seems to be a mixture of mythology and Christianity, as depicted below:
  •  GOD (Maledil, and his son--the son of Maledil on Thulcandra [earth])
  •  Oyarsa  (archangels,  Lords of each planet)
  •  Eldila (angels, immaterial beings) 
  •  hnau (rational, mortal, material beings)
The Oyarsa, lords of each planet, are very much like the gods of the ancient Pantheon.   The Oyarsa of Mars is masculine (but not male), of Venus feminine (but not female), of Jupiter, multigendered, ...[I call to mind Gustav Holst's "The Planets].   

On earth (Thulcandra) the "bent" Oyarsa, Satan, has fought God and tempted the first humans to disobey God; thus comes The  Fall--Thulcandra becomes the "silent planet", interdicted from relations with all the others and humans become, like Satan, "bent".   

On Mars (Malacandra) there are three intelligent species (hnau)*:   the Sorns (Seroni), who are the philosopher/scientists;  the Hrossa, who are the poet/musician/story-tellers;  the Pfifitiggri, the artisan/engineers.     All three species live together in peace, supplying talents and services that are missing in their own species.  They have a common language and a common theology, believing in Eldila (who are present to them), the Oyarsa of Mars, and the supreme being, Maledil.     They believe in an ordered existence, the rule of God (Maledil) and have no fear of death;  they know when they will die and that they will be transported to a Heaven in outer space.   The quotes below give a better account than mine:   
"And how could we endure to live and let time pass if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back--if we did not know that every day in a life fills the whole life with expectation and memory and that these are that day?”  said by a Hrossa,  talking about death.
 “They cannot help it,' said the old sorn. 'There must be rule, yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau and hnau by eldila and eldila by Maledldil. These creatures have no eldila. They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair-or one trying to see over a whole country when he is on a level with it--like a female trying to beget young on herself.”   said by a Sorn, talking about the state of Hmans (humans).  
The hnau of Malacandra were tempted by Satan, but the temptation was overcome by the Oyarsa of Malacandra:
 "Many thousands of thousand years before this, when nothing yet lived on your world, the cold death was coming on my harandra. Then I was in deep trouble, not chiefly for the death of my hnau - Maleldil does not make them long-livers -but for the things which the lord of your world, who was not yet bound, put into their minds. He would have made them as your people are now - wise enough to see the death of their kind approaching but not wise enough to endure it. [emphasis added] Bent counsels would soon have risen among them. They were well able to have made sky-ships. By me Maleldil stopped them." said by the Oyarsa to the scientist, Weston (the villain)
 "Yes," said Oyarsa, "but one thing we left behind us on the harandra: fear. And with fear, murder and rebellion. The weakest of my people does not fear death. It is the Bent One, the lord of your world, who wastes your lives and befouls them with flying from what you know will overtake you in the end.  If you were subjects of Maleldil you would have peace. "  said by the Oyarsa in reply to Weston's comment that they (the Malacandrian hnau) will all die soon. 
Perelandra (Venus) is the Garden of Eden before the fall.   There is a wealth of plant and animal species inhabiting the sea and floating islands, and over them a humanoid queen and king (albeit green).   As in the Garden of Eden, God (Maledil) gives them a paradise but also a prohibition: they may not stay overnight on the one fixed bit of Perelandrian land.   Satan sends Weston, possessed by a demon, to tempt the queen to violate the prohibition.  Weston is overcome by the agent, Ransom, sent by Maledil to prevent the Fall.  After this, there is a glorious dance by the Queen, King and all the fauna and flora of Perelandra to celebrate the coming of a true paradise,    

Here's the crucial theological issue: doing what God wills is not only good for us, but also shows our love for Him.  Thus, disobedience in what might seem a small matter--staying overnight on the fixed land, despite His prohibition--is not a small matter, because we thus attempt to assert our better knowledge of how we should act.  Ransom (the hero), trying to dissuade the queen from Weston's temptation, argues why God should be obeyed:
 "I think He made one law of that kind in order that there might be obedience. In all these other matters what you call obeying Him is but doing what seems good in your eyes also. Is love content with that? You do them, indeed, because they are His will, but not only because they are His will. Where can you taste the joy of obeying unless He bids you do something for which His bidding is the only reason?” Perelandra, p. 59
In summary, the first two books of Lewis's Space Trilogy stress:
  • the rule of God gives us what is good;
  • before the fall we would know when we would die, but that we would also know that heaven awaits us, so that "Death has lost its sting";
  • we show our love for God by obedience to his commands.

OTHER VISIONS

C.S. lewis's vision  is that of 3) in the beginning quote, "inhabited by sentient soul-endowed creatures that have not fallen".    What about 1) "sentient creatures, but without souls" and 2) "sentient creatures with fallen souls"?    I'll discuss the SF examples of these only briefly, because I don't think they make the strong  theological points that Lewis's Space Trilogy does.

In category 1) is "A Case of Conscience"**,  by James Blish.  For plot and further commentary by Br. Guy Consolmagno,  the Vatican Astronomer, please use the link.  It deals with Lithians, a reptilian species who behave according to an inborn, "hardwired" ethical system,  but who have no religious beliefs.   They are visited by a team of scientists, including a Jesuit missionary (whence the judgment of Lithian ethics),  The missionary concludes that the Lithians are the work of Satan, created as a convincing argument that belief in God is not necessary in order to behave ethically, as humanists and atheists propose.

Can one imagine intelligent, self-aware beings not wondering about the purpose of their lives, how everything came to be,  putting forth the "why" questions?   Thus the basic premise of the novel does not seem very plausible to me.   And perhaps the injunction given in the beginning quote, "to be treated with compassion, but extra-evangelically", might have been the better course (although destructive of the novel's plot).

In category 2) are "The Sparrow" and "Children of God", by Mary Doria Russell.   It deals with the interactions of a Jesuit priest (again the Jesuits!) with two alien species who are sentient, but with a faulty moral code.   Critics have argued that the works deal with "faith under fire".  That may be so, but there are no good theological arguments put forth.    Indeed, the Jesuit missionary loses his faith after being tortured and sexually abused by the dominant species; there is no vision of redemption or suffering for Christ.  

There are other instances of alien intelligences adapting or transforming the Christian religion and interacting with the Church, given in references here.  Most have a strongly anti-religious bias.  An extreme example is that given by George R.R. Martin in "The Way of Cross and Dragon".   A huge cephalopod is an Archbishop of the transformed Church, "The One True Interstellar Catholic Church of Earth and the Thousand Worlds", who sends an Inquisitor out to determine whether a cult promoting the "Gospel According to Judas Iscariot" is heretical.    The tone of the short story is anti-religious--the Inquisitor is successful in prosecuting the heresy but loses his faith, becoming convinced that he is the Prince of Liars.

MORE TO COME

Finally, what about souls, ethics and belief in God for non-biological entities--computers, robots, biological intelligence implanted into brains?  

I'll deal with what science fiction has to say about this in a forthcoming post.

NOTES 

*Images of the creatures in the Space Trilogy can be seen in the following links:
HrossaPfifitriggi, Sorns (Seroni)

**A detailed literary and theological analysis of "A Case of Conscience" is given in Ketterer's  Covering "A Case of Conscience"

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About Me

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/   and http://home.ptd.net/~rkurland)

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.