Christian Wolf’s Other Edens

Way back in the 1970s there was an anthology of Science Fiction stories entitled Other Edens, probably referring to the strange worlds and bizarre futures envisaged by the stories’ authors. In the 18th century, however, many European intellectuals took the idea of extraterrestrial life very seriously. One of the Christian apologists of the 18th century was the German, Christian Wolf. Wolf was a follower of Natural Theology. He believed that the Book of Nature did indeed testify to the presence of an almighty and beneficient God. Some of his views now seem quaint or ridiculous. He followed many 18th century philosophers and theologians in believing that the Earth’s creatures had been formed for the benefit of humanity. The moon and stars, for example, had been made so that humans could perform at night some of the activities they also did during the day, such as going fishing. This idea was widely mocked even in Wolf’s time. Wolf did not believe that these celestial bodies had been formed only for humanity’s benefit. He reasoned that as there were so many different worlds in the universe that astronomy was increasingly revealing, so they must have been made by God for the benefit of these planets’ different inhabitants. These beings naturally would be adapted to the very different conditions on their worlds.

This view, that the universe was full of inhabited planets, formed the intellectual background for the early, proto-SF tales of the 17th and 18th centuries, such as Cyrano de Bergerac’s The States and Empires of the Sun and Voltaire’s Micromegalas. This last was a satire, in which two vast aliens, thousands of miles huge and with a multitude of different sense beyond the five of humans, travel to Earth from the star Sirius. They are greeted by a delegation of terrestrial scientists, eager for the aliens’ superior knowledge of the cosmos. The aliens duly grant the scientists’ request for a book containing their knowledge of the universe. They give them a book the size of the present day Baltic states. Looking through the book, the scientists find every page empty, and duly complain. The aliens have broken their bargain with the international scientific research team. No, the creatures from Sirius reply, they have kept their word. That is precisely what they know about the universe. It shows Voltaire’s satiric wit about the nature of science, and the idea that the universe may be far more vast and unkowable than we can ever truly know. The 20th century British biologist, J.B.S. Haldane, said that ‘Not only is the universe queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can possibly imagine’.

The idea that God had formed the various worlds of the universe to support different intelligent species was known as the doctrine of plenitude. It was seriously shaken in the late 19th and 20th centuries when increased astronomical investigation revealed the worlds of the solar system to be mostly barren rocks, either too scorching, boiling hot or icily cold to support life. Far from the notion of alien life attacking the belief in God or Christianity, it was the opposite – the notion of a vast, sterile universe devoid of intelligent beings except humanity, that led many to atheism. Despite this the recent discoveries of a vast and increasing number of extra-solar planets has led people to consider the possibility once again that humanity may not be alone in the universe. A few years ago there was a scientific conference called by the White House to debate the consequences and possible approaches to alien contact. One of the subjects discussed was the effect such contacts would have on terrestrial religion. Would it undermine religious faith? All of the representatives of the world’s religions consulted, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and so on concluded that alien contact would not affect their particular faith, but they weren’t sure of the others. There is still much speculation that alien contact would somehow undermine human religions. Historically, however, the opposite has been true: the existence of alien life has been seen as proof of the Almighty’s existence, rather than His absence.

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One Response to “Christian Wolf’s Other Edens”

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