26th April 2021

Book in Focus

Extraterrestrials in the Catholic Imagination

Explorations in Science, Science Fiction and Religion

Edited by Jennifer Rosato and Alan Vincelette

The collection Extraterrestrials in the Catholic Imagination: Explorations in Science, Science Fiction and Religion (2021) is comprised of three disparate, yet highly interwoven, sections.

The first section, “Science and the Extraterrestrial Intelligences Question,” brings together two Christian physicists and a Catholic biologist to discuss what we know about the possibility of life outside of our solar system and what it might look like. The UCLA research cosmologist Jeff Zweerink expands upon the discussion of this issue in his book Is There Life Out There? (2017). In his essay here, Zweerink explains how astronomers search for exoplanets, clarifies what is meant when they talk about the habitability of various planets, and ultimately argues that Earth’s capacity to host life is likely unique.

The astronomer and philosopher of science Carol Day addresses the topic next. Day begins by discussing the scientific imagination, or the way in which the “stories” we develop on the basis of scientific data shape our understanding of it, supplementing what is most abstract or obscure in our reasoning with images that, in turn, direct our future research.

After summarizing current consensus as regards the origin and nature of galaxies, stars, and the solar system, Day argues that, given what we know about the conditions under which life arose on Earth, complex life on exoplanets is likely to be rare. Nevertheless, while there is no current evidence of extraterrestrial life, the building blocks of habitable planets, water, and complex organic compounds are present on other planets. This leads the biologist and philosopher Alan Vincelette to argue that alien life forms may vary surprisingly little from what we observe on Earth, rather than appearing as they are portrayed in science fiction movies. In this, he is aligned with Simon Conway Morris, Samuel Levin, and Arik Kershenbaum, author of the recently published The Zoologist's Guide to the Galaxy (2021), in holding that evolution is fairly constrained in the kind of organisms it will produce as there are only a few ways to make one’s way around a rocky and watery world, to consume energy, and to reproduce. As such, should evolution occur on other planets, it will tend to converge into a few basic forms (what he calls nicotypes) on exoplanets, such as swimming, flying, legless, and legged creatures, and wind up producing predatorial and prey species resembling in the main those found on Earth. Indeed, as a mammologist and paleontologist, he presents a classification system and schema of the eighty or so basic mammalian-like forms likely to occur on exoplanets should complex multicellular and vertebrate life have arisen.

The second section, “Science Fiction, Catholicism, and Extraterrestrials,” brings together some of the most well-known Catholic science fiction authors of today to discuss how “aliens” have been imagined in Patristic and medieval literature, as well as in their own science fiction tales. Robert R. Chase, Michael F. Flynn, Tim Powers, and John C. Wright are all featured in the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and collectively have been nominated for or won such prestigious sci-fi prizes as the Compton Crook, Dragon, Hugo, John W. Campbell, Mythopoeic, Nebula, Phillip K. Dick, Seiun, Theodore Sturgeon, and World Fantasy awards. They follow in the tradition of such Catholic luminaries as J.R.R. Tolkien, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Walker Percy, Anthony Boucher, Jo Clayton, R.A. Lafferty, Murray Leinster, Jerry Pournelle, Fred Saberhagen, Andrew M. Greeley, Gene Wolfe, Michael O’Brien, and Sandra Miesel in science fiction and fantasy. Not to be left out is the underrated Cyril Jones-Kellett whose novella Ad Limina (2013) is a fascinating tale about the first Catholic bishop born on Mars. In this volume, these authors defend the compatibility of Christian faith and extraterrestrial life, and introduce us to a surprising variety of texts by believers from Augustine to Pope Francis, in which we encounter faithful Catholics quite at ease with the possibility of extraterrestrials. The final chapter of this section comprises a dialogue between Flynn, Powers, and Wright, and is derived from the actual discussion these authors shared during a Q&A session. Here, the authors reflect on why science fiction today is typically inhospitable to religion, on how their own science fiction work incorporates real-world facts, and on the way that science fiction and fantasy stories function convincingly both as stories and as ways of reflecting on philosophical and theological truths.

Finally, the third section, “Philosophy and Theology of the Cosmos and Extraterrestrial Intelligences,” brings together the Catholic philosophy and theology professors Janice Daurio, Marie I. George, and Alan Vincelette to reflect on such questions as whether or not the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligences would diminish human significance (the short answer is “no,” as medieval Christians always considered humans midway in importance between animals and angels), and whether or not extraterrestrial intelligences can be befriended and saved. In her piece, George focuses especially on passages of Scripture which, she argues, teach that Christ’s incarnation on Earth is the central event of cosmic history and suggest Christ took on human flesh precisely because he wanted to share the lineage of those who would be saved by His sacrifice. George concludes that theological considerations do seem to render the existence of either fallen or unfallen extraterrestrial existence implausible, but they do not definitively rule it out. Daurio approaches the question from a different angle, arguing that if we do encounter extraterrestrials who are persons, then we can conclude they are just as capable of receiving salvation through Christ’s death on Calvary as human persons are. The question of whether extraterrestrials are in fact persons, however, cannot be decided until we actually encounter such beings.

The book concludes with a helpful bibliography of Christian works discussing extraterrestrials and science fiction writing.

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Jennifer Rosato is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California. Her research focus is contemporary French phenomenology, and she has published articles on figures such as Lévinas and Marion in the journals Philosophy Today and Hypatia, and in the volume Breached Horizons (2018). She previously served as assistant editor for the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly and as editorial assistant for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

Alan Vincelette holds the Von der Ahe Chair of Philosophy at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California, and is a former Research Assistant in Paleontology at the San Bernardino County Museum. His academic interests include paleontology and the history of Catholic thought. He has written over 20 articles for the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers and most recently the books Recent Catholic Philosophy: The Twentieth Century (2020) and A Reader in Recent Catholic Philosophy (2020).

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