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Extraterrestrials and the Enlightenment

Page history last edited by Tim Weaks 15 years, 8 months ago

Summary of Today's Topic

     The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th century was a movement that involved mostly scientists of the time.  Members of the scientific communities of Europe and North America sought to escape from the "barbarism" that they had been living in during the dark ages.  The Enlightenment replaced ancient ideas about natural law and the universe.  Isaac Newton was one of the major causes of this movement because of his scientific ideas and theories.  Newton provided the template for this new rationality.  The participants of the Enlightenment "used reason to free themselves from authority."  The Enlightenment stressed the importance of the individual and believed that a person should be free from government and authority and be able to think whatever they wanted about religion and politics and other social issues.  This was because the enlightenment thinkers felt that human reason should be a guide to all human affairs.  They also felt that individuals were important and everyone should be judged through their own merits, they believed in meritism vs. aristocracy.  They felt that science is the template for raionality, esp. Newtionian thinking.

     Because of this newfound belief in freedom of thought, many people's ideas of a plurality of worlds changed.  It was okay now to publicly explore that notion, as it might be reconcilable with religion.  Some of the Enlightenment thinkers kept their old beliefs of extraterrestrials, others thought up completely new concepts or refined theirs.  Most of the Enlightenment thinkers that held strong belief in extraterrestrial life were heavily influenced by their religious and metaphysical beliefs.  But science still played a part in providing information and ideas about extraterrestrial life to the thinkers of the time.  These details suggest that many thinkers shifted from having a "supernaturalistic-mythical" to a "naturalistic-scientific" mode of thought but it was not very prevalent in their practice of seeking knowledge about extraterrestrials.

     Benjamin Franklin was a Deist. He believed that there was one ultimate God and that he created many other Gods to rule over the many solar systems. He felt it was vain for people to believe that Earth is the only planet with life on it. John Adams was conflicted between Deism and Calvinism. He was raised Calvinist, but ultimately it seemed Deism won out in his mind and he began to reject the Calvinist doctrine. David Rittenhouse was an American physicist. He claimed that if either physics or Christianity weren't true, then life as we know it would not be possible. His Christian views did not hinder his opinion of being in favor of the plurality of worlds. 

     Voltaire (1694-1778) dealt with extraterrestrials most notably in his work Micromegas.  The work was partly in distate for German philosopher Christian Wolff, who had made a calculation to determine the size of the inhabitants of Jupiter based on the fact that Jovians' eyes must be rather large since they were further from the sun than humans.  Voltaire then decides that the main character of his story, an inhabitant of Jupiter, will be 120,000 feet tall. Micromegas can sometimes be seen as an original science fiction piece that was meant to entertain, poking fun at earthlings, and sometimes as an essay meant to ridicule Wolff, a leading scientific thinker of the time, but is actually more philosophic than science fiction.

     The story of Micromegas tells of an inhabitant of Jupiter who is banished from his home and rides on comets to travel the universe.  On one of his journeys he meets a Saturnian with whom he travels to Jupiter, Mars, and then Earth.  While on Earth the two celestial travelers encounter a ship with a crew who are taking calculations to see if the poles of Earth are flattened, which was an important expedition at the time of Voltaire's writing.  The two travelers are amazed at the small size of the earthlings and leave them with a blank book which was supposed to demonstrate the essence of things philosophically.  But the book was opened and it was shown to be completely blank, a hint that even extraterrestrials who have traversed the stars did not know the true ways of life or that there is a lot more work to do in the field of philsophy and the book is meant to be filled.  Voltaire also makes a point with Micrmegas regarding the fact that senses are limited, no matter how many you have, and that no matter how long a life you live it never seems long enough.  He argues for plurality when he makes the point that thinking that everything was made for humans is an absurd thought. 

     Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-born writer who turned his writing services to the Americans during their revolution and then to the French.  Paine's Age of Reason, Part 1, was one of the most vigorous attacks ever launched against Christianity at that point in time.  His work did not reject theism, but it did reject the Christian notion of the divine incarnation and redemption.  Paine had many arguments for plurality but the main themes of his arguments were based upon the immensity of space, that the Earth was full of life everywhere on its surface so the universe must likewise be full of life, and teleological reasons such as stating that nothing was created in vain (everything has a purpose).  He said that God created the world in a way for us to learn about it.  He uses his belief of plurality as a prop to bash Christianity. Paine made it crystal clear that Christianity and plurality are incompatible because God can't send Jesus to die on each infinite world, constantly dying. It doesn't make sense and leads to an absurdity of death and resurrection.  Paine, overall, didn't have too large of an impact at the time as Christians continued to believe in plurality but simply sought to reconcile their religion with it. They began to realize that religion had to be consistent with science and what we know for sure about the world.

Primary Sources


"[A man] in a square cap, who, taking hte word from all his philosophical brethren, affirmed that he knew the whole secret. He surveyed the two celestial strangers from top to toe, and maintained to their faces that their persons, their fashions, their suns and stars, were created solely for the use of man. At this wild assertion our two travelers were seized with a fit of that uncontrollable laughter, which (according to Homer) is the portion of the immortal gods: their bellies quivered, their shoulders rose and fell, and, during these convulsions, the vessel fell from the Sirians nail into the Saturnian's pocket, where these worthy people searched for it a long time with great diligence."

(Voltaire, Micromegas)


"Though it is not a direct article of the Christian system, that this world that we inhabit is the whole of the habitable creation, yet it is so worked up therewith, from what is called the Mosaic account of the Creation, the story of Eve and the apple, and the counterpart of that story, the death of the Son of God, that to believe otherwise, that is to believe that God created a plurality of worlds, at least as numerous as what we called stars, renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous, and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air. The two beliefs cannot be held together in the same mind; and he who thinks that he believes both, has thought but little of either."

(Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason)


"If we take a survey of our own world, or rather of this of which the Creator has given us the use, as our proportion in the immense system of Creation, we find every part of it, the earth, the waters, and the air that surrounds it, filled, and asit were, croweded with life, down from the largest animals we know of to the smallest insect the naked eye can behod, and from thence to others still smaller, and totally invisible without the assistance of the microscope...Since, then, no part of our earth is left unoccupied, why is it supposed that the immensity of space is a naked void, lying in eternal waste? There is room for millions of worlds as large or larger than ours, each of them millions of miles apart from each other."

(Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason)


"Also, when I stretch my Imagination through and beyond our system of planets, beyond the visible fixed stars themselves, into the space that is every way infinite, and conceive it filled with suns like ours, each with a chorus of worlds for every moving round him, then this little ball on which we move, seems, even in my narrow imagination, to be almost nothing, and my self less than nothing, and of no sort of consequence."

(Benjamin Franklin, Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion)


"Astonomers tell us, iwth good Reason, that not only all the Planets and Satellites in our Solar System, but all the unnumbered Worlds that revolve roudn the fixt Sarrs are inhabited, as well as this Globe of Earth. If this is the case all mankind are no more in comparison of the whole rational Creation of god, than a point to the Orbit of Saturn. Perhaps all these different Ranks of Rational beings have in a greater or less Degree, committed moral Wickedness. If so, I ask a Calvinist, whether he will subscribe to this Alternitive [sic], either God almighty must assume the repective shapes of all these different Species, and suffer teh Penalties of their Crimes, in their Stead, or else all these Being[s] must be consigned to everlasting Perdition?"

(John Adams, Diary and Autobiography of John Adams)



Key Terms, Definitions, and People

Voltaire (1694-1778)- author of Micromegas.

Thomas Paine  (1737-1809)- author of Age of Reason, Part 1.  



Relevant Links

Biography of Voltaire:  www.atheisme.free.fr/Biographies/Voltaire_e.htm


Biography of Thomas Paine:  www.ushistory.org/PAINE/


Thomas Paine, plurality of worlds

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