|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Winter 2003|
I will devote this essay to how we came to believe in intelligent life in other solar systems. I have done this even though belief in life in ours and life in others has often been closely intertwined. There is too much material. Intelligent life on our system's planets is a whole other essay. At the least.
There have been two main theories about intelligent life among the stars. One is that Man is the Center of the Universe. A corrupt center surrounded by the spiritual grandeur of God and the angels, but the center nonetheless. In fact, its very corruption made it the center. This conception of the universe is considered Aristotle's, whose theory of gravity more a theory of non-gravity inferred it. There was some controversy over whether stars and planets had souls or orbited because of spiritual beings who inhabited them. Usually angels. Aristotle originally believed the stars and planets had souls. Albertus Magnus and Saint Thomas Aquinas said it made no difference. Whether by their souls or angels, the stars and planets still orbited.
All 20th Century histories of extraterrestrials ignore this theory. I mention it because extraterrestrials have often been close to angels: without sin, more rational, sometimes with miraculous technology. The last not as often in the 18th and 19th Centuries as in the 20th Century. Miraculous technology and angelic powers were not needed because extraterrestrials, unlike angels, did not stand watch and ward over man and nature. Nonetheless, as I have shown in my last article in Challenger, the Extraterrestrials of the 18th Century were often angelic like this. The type continued into the 19th Century too. And the 20th and 21st.
One striking example is Ellen White, the founder of Seventh Day Adventism. She portrayed extraterrestrials who were angelic as well as actual angels. Ellen had a vision of the planet in the Orion nebula where God was breaking through. While on that planet, Ellen was attended by an angel. On the other hand, the extraterrestrials there were "noble, majestic and lovely" because they followed God's commandments strictly. In short, they were angels in their way. Given the hold which the past had even during the mid-19th Century, such angels had to go back to Aristotle.
The second theory is that there
are intelligent beings like us in other solar systems. The idea
is known as the Plurality of Worlds. In fact, there may be an
infinite number of suns with planets and infinite number of intelligent
beings. Originally, this theory came from the philosophers Leucippus
(fl 5th Century B.C.) and Democritis (460 B.C.-370 B.C.), who,
strangely enough, lived before Aristotle. It was made popular
by Epicurus (341 B.C.-270 B.C.). The rationale of these Classical
Greek philosophers had to do with ancient atomic theory; only
later did the Plurality of Worlds get its trademark theological
rationale. It is amazing how easily this originally materialistic
theory became religious and mystical.
We know it exists nonetheless.
The original Ancient Greek Plurality
of Worlds differs from what it became in another way. The worlds
in the original were not seen but unseen. And beyond the stars.
A view that was taken by Lucretius (ca 55 B.C.-99.B.C.). However,
I am convinced that, by the late Roman Empire, there were some
who believed in other worlds in outer space and extraterrestrials.
Crowe claims that the first sign that someone, seriously, believed
the other worlds were in outer space came from the Church historian
Eusebius of Caesarea (fl. 4th Century). He claimed Heraclitus,
the Pythagoreans and Orpheans believed every star was a world,
and presumably inhabited. Their idea of solar systems here being
different from ours. This statement by Eusebius is a slender
reed. These beliefs are being described by someone who despised
them. And who could easily have gotten them wrong. He certainly
got Heraclitus' beliefs wrong.
The next person I know of to place
the Other Worlds in outer space was Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64),
a priest. He did this in 1440. He is also known as Nikolaus Krebs,
Nicolaus Cusanus and Nicholaus of Kues. Later, despite advocating
the Plurality of Worlds, Nicholaus became a cardinal. He believed
life, including men, animals and plants, exists in the lunar,
solar and stellar regions, i.e., the Moon, Sun and the Stars.
In fact, he believed all of the stars are inhabited. Whimsically,
he suggested that they followed astrology. Bright, enlightened
and spiritual beings on the Sun; lunatics on the Moon.
After that a whole array of famous
people debated whether there was a Plurality of Worlds with intelligent
life. Early on, opponents dominated. Between the late 17th Century
and the late 19th Century, those favoring it were in the vast
majority. I will list famous people you would recognize. Those
famous in America only to experts, like Friedrich Klopstock the
18th Century German Milton, I will omit. Here goes the list:
Johann Kepler, René Descartes, Christiaan Huygens, Sir
Isaac Newton, Bishop George Berkeley, John Locke, Alexander Pope,
Sir William Herschel, John Wesley, David Hume, Cotton Mather,
Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, William Wordsworth,
Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelly, Sir Humphrey Davy, Alfred Lord
Tennyson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Huxley, Daniel Webster,
August de Morgan, Georg Hegel, Joseph Smith, and Auguste Comte.
Two authors seem to claim the first part of Thomas Paine's Age of Reason concerns the Plurality of Worlds. As far as I can see, we are lucky if there are four pages concerning it. However, here is the famous Thomas Paine quote:
Also, Daniel Webster was supposed
to have lost his faith in Christianity because of the Plurality
of Worlds. Other writers, like Rev. Thomas Chalmers and Rev.
Thomas Dick, proselytized for religion by invoking the Plurality
Worlds. Since they are not famous to us, I omitted them above.
"Then, see those million worlds
which burn and roll
Alfred Tennyson wrote in "The Two Voices" (1833)
"The truth within my mind rehearse
"Think you this mould of hopes
In "Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington (1852), he wrote
"Tho' world on world in myriad
Now back to people you have never heard of: one in particular who fired a parting shot in the controversy, William Whewell. A famous philosopher in his time, though less famous right now, he decided that the Plurality of Worlds was irreconcilable with Christianity. That the only position reconcilable with it was that Earth was the only planet in the universe with intelligent life. He published a book claiming that in 1853. It brought much philosophy and many of the latest scientific findings to bear on the question.
And it inaugurated a great controversy. And some vituperation. Among the participants was Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), a famed scientific thinker, winner of medals from the Royal Society. He was one of those people, I mentioned, whose faith in God was based on the Plurality of Worlds. And apparently he was much in need of God right then. And very angry that someone was trying to take his faith away. He was scathing in his attacks on Whewell: "a man dead to feeling and shorn of reason," "utterly inept and illogical." "the grapeshot of assertion, banter, and ridicule,""some morbid condition of mental powers."
However, Sir David could not stop the trend, which was going against the Plurality of Worlds. And for a more scientific, and less religious and philosophical, approach to the stars. By giving as much evidence as he did, Whewell helped. Of course, while it may have proven there was no intelligent life on the Sun, the Moon, and the planets of our solar system, which the Pluralists claimed, none of it came close to proving we were it in the universe. One who, unlike Whewell, embraced the scientific approach completely was the most famous writer in England on other worlds in the decades afterward, Richard A. Proctor. On the other hand, Camille Flammarion in France kept up a religious/philosophical approach for six decades, into the 1920s. His views were far from conventional: his idea of the Plurality of Worlds included reincarnation. Still, he was popular in France and elsewhere.
However, the atmosphere was primarily scientific, and two scientific theories took over. The Buffon Theory named after the Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707-1788). And the Kant/Laplace theory named after Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Pierre-Simon de Laplace (1749-1827), known also as the Nebula Hypothesis. In the Buffon theory, planets, and thus intelligent life, have been an accident. It has been the scientific replacement for the Man the Center theory. If man was not the center of the universe, he was at least the center of intelligence. In the Nebula Hypothesis, planets are formed as a matter of course from dust, planetoids, etc. It has been the scientific replacement for the Plurality of Worlds. There were other stars systems, and its proponents presumed other intelligent beings as well. These theories have competed with one another down to the present time.
The Buffon Theory, where planets
around stars are rare, dominated between 1900 and 1940. Theoretically,
intelligent beings were few and far between if man was
not the only one. Unlike during the Plurality period, not everyone
fell into line. This trend did not seem to affect science fiction.
It is true that a lot of science fiction about extraterrestrials
took place where it always had, in our solar system. Certainly
the Burroughs books did; and C.S. Lewis' trilogy, Wells' First
Men in the Moon, and Stanley Weinbaum's Martians. However,
Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker took place all over the known
universe. And beyond. And David Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus
took place in the Arcturus system. The last was unpopular, as
far as I can tell, because of its pessimism rather than its setting.
Crowe, Michael J. The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 17501900 (1999).
Lewis, C.S. The Discarded Image: an Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge University, 1964.
Lovejoy, Arthur O. The Great Chain of Being (1933), esp Lecture IV and VI.
Lucian's True Story, Excerpts-
Yates, Frances A.. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. University of Chicago Press, Ltd., 1964.