Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dawkins and God-like Aliens

I've finally gotten around to reading Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, a book I've had on my shelf for awhile. It's actually an enjoyable read as Dawkins has a nice style and some good humor. All your favorite village atheist arguments are here ("I just go one god further" among other favorites).

In his third chapter, Dawkins discusses the possibility of alien civilizations and the level of their technological development with respect to us. Apparently as a way of undermining the possibility of proof by miracle, Dawkins asserts that such a civilization might have technology so advanced that to us it appears magical:
Whether we ever get to know about them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine. Their technical achievements would seem as supernatural to us as ours would seem to a Dark Age peasant transported to the twenty-first century. Imagine his response to a laptop computer, a mobile telephone, a hydrogen bomb or a jumbo jet. As Arthur C. Clarke put it, in his Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The miracles wrought by our technology would have seemed to the ancients no less remarkable than the tales of Moses parting the waters, or Jesus walking upon them. The aliens of our SETI signal would be to us like gods, just as missionaries were treated as gods (and exploited the undeserved honor to the hilt) when they turned up in Stone Age cultures bearing guns, telescopes, matches, and almanacs predicting eclipses to the second.
The first thing to be said about this is that theologians - even medieval ones - can surely imagine things beyond the power of superhuman aliens, specifically creation ex nihilo, which is in principle beyond the technology of any alien no matter how advanced, as it is beyond the power of technology per se. (I am not quite as demanding; I would be impressed simply with the Lazarus-like raising of someone from the dead. I do not believe this is possible whatever the technology.) More interesting is Dawkins's notion that the technical achievements of aliens would seem "supernatural to us." Surely they would not seem so to Dawkins, would they? Isn't the anticipation of the possibility of advanced alien technology enough to innoculate Dawkins from drawing any unwarranted supernatural conclusions? And us as well, since he's just done us the favor?

It is not insignificant that when selecting someone from the "Dark Ages" to transport into the modern age, Dawkins selects a peasant and not, say, one of his despised theologians or philosophers. Yes, Jacques the Crass might be overawed by modern technology, but would Thomas Aquinas, Avicenna or to go way back, Socrates?*  The reason Stone Age folks took explorers for gods is because primitive peoples know no distinction between nature and supernature. Reality is an unreflected continuum and to be a god really is to just be a superpowerful creature, not different in kind from any other creature. In that respect, it might not be too much to say that the Stone Age people were not actually wrong in thinking missionaries were gods. If the "gods" are just the most powerful creatures immanent in the universe, then the explorers with their guns and telescopes qualify. But Thomas Aquinas did not believe in such "gods" and was in possession of a thoroughly articulated philosophy of nature including the distinction between nature and supernature. If men showed up doing extraordinary things, he would certainly not conclude they were "gods", nor would he necessarily conclude that they were from God. Which brings us to Dawkins's comments about Moses and Jesus.

Dawkins doesn't seem to notice that the remarkable thing about both Moses and Jesus was that they weren't strangers come doing strange things, like missionaries visiting a primitive tribe, but apparently ordinary, familiar men doing extraordinary things. "Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?" (Matt. 13:55).  There is a "provenance" associated with both men that puts their extraordinary actions in context.  For the distinguishing mark of God is the union of power and wisdom; God is not just powerful, He is good. Jesus Christ did not begin his earthly ministry until the fullness of time, that is until he had fulfilled things in all righteousness. He was born and raised a faithful Jew so that when it came time for Him to fulfill His mission, He did it as a Jew known among Jews, not as a wonder-working stranger. What is the source of His power, then? It is nothing of this world, because we know the carpenter's son and his history; he is just like us.

And unlike an exploitative missionary or explorer, Christ did not serve himself with His miracles but others. This is an area where Thomas Aquinas might prove superior even to Richard Dawkins. While Dawkins is impressed purely with power (what tricks can you perform?), Aquinas is more interested in the question of what good you can do. Thus it's all the same to Dawkins whether a god proves himself with hydrogen bombs or telephones; Dawkins even seems uninterested in what a godlike person might actually do with bombs or telephones. Is someone just as godlike if he destroys the world with h-bombs or saves the world with an h-bomb by blowing up an asteroid about to collide with the Earth? Is he just as godlike if he tells lies over the telephone or if he tells truths? Not to Thomas Aquinas. The question of what one does with power is at least as important for Thomas as the question of whether one has power in the determination of the relationship of the extraordinary to divinity. The stranger who arrives among us performing astonishing tricks that serve no other purpose than to impress us should be treated with robust suspicion; the man among us whom we have known as a friend, neighbor and good man, who then performs extraordinary feats in the service of God and his neighbors, even to his own demise... well, he may be worth paying some attention.

*And even then, Dawkins may be selling the medieval peasant short. There is a wonderful movie made a few years ago named The Visitors, about a medieval French knight and his servant (Jacques the Crass) who are time-transported into the contemporary world (see the French version; the English remake is bad). The medieval Frenchmen are certainly bewildered by modern technology (on first seeing an automobile, the servant calls it a "Devil's chariot"), but they are not for a moment tempted to see anything supernatural about modern people. The medieval peasant may have interpreted certain modern technologies as involving a recourse to magic, but that doesn't mean modern people are magical - only that they are depraved enough to make use of the occult.

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