Neil Arner: God, Gold, and Glory: A Response to Lucas Mix

Lucas Mix invites us to consider what compels humans to search for life beyond Earth. He notes that this pursuit sheds light on not only the attractiveness of life but also the motivations of humans. Humans are solicitous to know “how we came to be,” “if we are alone,” and how we are situated in the context of  “a single narrative” about life in the universe (Mix 2009, 1 and 4). Thus humans are driven to find ever more comprehensive perspectives from which they can narratively construe their origin, context, and destiny. I heartily agree with Mix that the endeavor of astrobiology can thus provide real anthropological insight. In these remarks I will elaborate further on one of the motivations identified by him and will suggest, in the light of deep human history, several further motives not specified by him. In short, what Mix has missed are the mixed motives of most.

Carl Sagan, arguably the grandfather of astrobiology, illustrates the human desire for a total explanation of life from a transcendent point of view. He states,

Science teaches us about the deepest issues of origins, natures and fates—of our species, of life, of our planet, of the Universe… The greatest gift of science may be in teaching us, in ways no other human endeavour has been able, something about our cosmic context, about where, when and who we are (Sagan 1996, 38).

Thus astrobiology is one manifestation of humanity’s profound existential search to understand itself. That any satisfying self-understanding must be contextualized within a narrative is furthermore affirmed by Stephen J. Dick, the former Chief Historian for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He claims, “The stories of our galaxy, our solar system, our planet, and ourselves are part and parcel of the ultimate master narrative of the universe, a story we now collectively term ‘cosmic evolution’” (Dick 2010, 25).

Note how these two advocates of astrobiology promote a scientific discipline on nonscientific grounds. If science is the identification of the efficient causes of material effects, then it is certainly not in the business of telling us “who we are” or what is “the ultimate master narrative of the universe.” Science does not ascertain essences, teleologies, or grand narratives; it merely links causes and effects. Planetary scientist David Grinspoon readily acknowledges that the astrobiological quest to find life in space is motivated by nonscientific interests. He states,

The universe beckons. We want to go…to satisfy the human need to know the cosmos that spawned us. Fancy that: a scientific movement that is justified on fundamentally spiritual grounds (Grinspoon 2003, 243).

Although they deny the veracity of “non-scientific” human endeavors like music, fine arts, poetry, fiction, history, philosophy, and theology, Sagan and Dick concede that humans still want to understand the existential issues raised in those disciplines. So deeply do humans yearn to know that, rather than concede ignorance, they will convert science into what evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson calls an “alternative mythology” (Wilson 2004, 192). In other words, we will presume to occupy a “God’s-eye view” and will narrate a total history to ourselves. In a separate post at this site, I will later say more about the religious valence of the astrobiological quest to specify an all-encompassing narrative of life. Suffice it for now simply to observe the profound desire human beings hold for a transcendent perspective from which to ascertain their narrative context.

Having elaborated on Mix’s identification of the deep human desire for self-understanding, I will next speculate about some further motivations—even less innocent and pacific—that may propel the human quest to find life in the universe. I want to remind Mix that humans have, for millennia, been seeking novel forms of life across ever greater spatial scales. This search is one facet of globalization, so astrobiology can be interpreted as the latest manifestation and magnification of this process. Yet history shows that the human quest for life across the globe has been animated by mixed motives that include the pursuit of possessions, camaraderie, and dominion.

Nayan Chanda, the founder of YaleGlobal Online, organizes the 50,000-year history of humans’ terrestrial exploration by specifying the motives that drove the four types of people who primarily shaped globalization: traders, preachers, adventurers, and warriors. He suggests that the human quest to find other forms of life has not been a disinterested exercise of intellectual curiosity but a passionate pursuit of security, wealth, influence, excitement, conquest, and fame. Chanda also warns that the intermixing of these various motives as humans sought to comprehend the whole earth has caused “serious problems” that showcase the “dark underbelly” of globalization (Chanda 2007, xv). Rendered as a direct response to Mix’s question, Chanda would say that humans have historically sought out novel forms of life on ever greater scales in order to profit from them, convert them, marvel at them, and subdue them.

Surely most astrobiologists mean well with their research and do not spend their weekends strategizing how to build an intergalactic empire. Yet the checkered history reviewed by Chanda serves as a cautionary reminder of the volitional complexity of humans. Prior human interactions with novel forms of life—not least fellow humans who seemed culturally or physically “alien”—have frequently been violent and manipulative. If “first-world” humans have consistently related to “third-world” humans with a motivation to dominate and subdue, then why should we expect humans to engage lifeforms on a literal “fourth-world” or “fifth-world” with motives more noble than these? Since our motives for seeking life have been and may always be mixed, we would do well to hold one another accountable for acting according to what Abraham Lincoln called, in the concluding words of his First Inaugural Address, “the better angels of our nature” (Lincoln, 1861).

Bibliography

Chanda, N. 2007. Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalization. New Haven, CT: Yale University.

Dick, S. J. 2010. Cosmic Evolution: History, Culture, and Human Destiny. In Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context. Eds. S. J. Dick and M. L. Lupisella. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics Space Administration.

Grinspoon, D. 2003. Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life. New York: Ecco.

Lincoln, A. 1861. First Inaugural Address. Avalon Project of the Goldman Law Library at the Yale Law School. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln1.asp.

Mix, L. J. 2009. Life in Space: Astrobiology for Everyone. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Sagan, C. 1996. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine.

Wilson, E. O. 2004. On Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

About the Author: 

Neil Arner serves as an Assistant Professor in the Theology Department at the University of Notre Dame. He collectively earned six academic degrees in mathematics, biology, philosophy, and theology from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Princeton Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, and Yale University. He served in professional ministry for two years in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and he is currently an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Prof. Arner’s research focuses on the compatibility of natural-law and divine-command theories of ethics, the prospects for a Protestant recovery of natural law theory, the potential for an ecumenical ethics shared by Catholics and Protestants, the contemporary relevance of early modern reflections on morality, and biological explanations of the origins of morality. He is currently completing a book on theological metaethics from the late medieval to early modern eras, and his next major project will provide a theological response to empirical studies of morality.

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