“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

God did it, or aliens?

“NRG” posting over on Pharyngula asks me:

Why impute an admittedly Unknowable Omni God to explain currently inexplainable phenomena, if it’s much more reasonable, based on what we actually know, to assume that other citizens of the universe, evolved like us but to a much greater degree, are responsible for such phenomena? To make it shorter: Why say that God did it, when it’s better to say that Aliens did?

I wouldn’t marshall the concept “God” as an explanation for a natural phenomenon (explanation of the universe itself is another matter, as strictly speaking, the universe as a whole is not a “phenomenon” available for scientific observation–I’ll say more below). I suspect that if the miracles of the Old Testament turned out to be the handiwork of a technologically advanced extra-terrestrial species, Christians would no longer be satisfied that this presumed being, “Yahweh,” mistakenly worshipped by the Israelites, was in fact God. God is not a being among beings, a species among species. God, for a Christian (at least for a philosophical Christian like Augustine, Aquinas, or Hegel), is the Being of beings. God is Creator, and not creature (this doesn’t necessarily mean God is entirely separate from creatures, just that, while creation participates in God, God still transcends creation’s immanence).

Francis Crick had the same intuitive reaction to the complexity of life on the molecular level that Intelligent Design advocates try to rationally justify their belief in God with, but Crick correctly recognized that aliens are more likely to have engineered this marvel than Jehovah. But then again, this just passes the buck back another layer of explanation: we’re still left wondering who/what created the first living organism capable of such intelligent design. So maybe it is better to say aliens did it, but it is still only relatively better.

The universe contains many marvels assuring its continued existence as cosmos instead of chaos, but I don’t think resorting to “design,” whether theistic or naturalistic, is the best way to explain it. William Paley and Charles Darwin share more in common philosophically than is often admitted (ditto for Hegel and Marx). Design is itself a paradigm, and it does theoretical work whether one’s analogy compares God to human designers (who select for traits in domesticated animals) or one compares Nature to humans (as Darwin did). The universe cannot be explained by way of design (natural or divine) unless we are prepared to accept a dualistic framework, where one substance (God or Nature/Laws of Physics) shapes and lords over another (human beings/life).

I read Plato with great joy, especially the Timaeus, where he suggests it is a “likely story” that the universe is a living creature, rather than a clockwork. The universe is unique among science’s objects of study, because unlike natural phenomena in general, it does not and cannot show itself all at once. The scientist, like Plato, lives in a natural universe in the process of becoming. Neither can say anything for certain about its shifty and transitory nature, but each can offer a probable, or likely story. Fiction or non-fiction? Well, the difference is not so clear, but we can be discerning… Plato’s story remains a bit mythical, but his student Aristotle grounds his teacher’s celestial ideas in the more concrete matters of life on earth. Ideas (“ideas” in the Mind of God, or “causes” of Natural Selection) do not “design” or shape organisms from the outside, in Aristotle’s biology; rather, organisms give actual expression to God’s creative and intelligent potential.

There is no need to speak of “God” interfering with the course of events in Aristotle’s cosmos. The notion of an interventionist deity has more to do with Modernity than it does with traditional theism.

As for aliens, I wonder how much this possibility can be distinguished, in practice if not in theory, from the medieval notion of angels, or the pagan belief in faeries? Might not alien abilities and attributes be just as fantastic as humanity’s earlier iterations of the strange and unknown intelligence potentially lurking beneath the more mundane appearances of our universe?

[I’ve since posted several more comments on similar themes.]




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2 responses to “God did it, or aliens?”

  1. John Anngeister Avatar

    Matthew, you show tremendous energy and endurance going to the lists against all the acolytes and cheerleaders for metascience over at PZ Meyers’ blog.

    I had wondered if NRG was neil godfrey (don’t know his middle initial) but when he brought up the ‘could be aliens’ argument I thought no, too sophomoric. But then I suppose a perfectly consistent materialism will posit an infinite cross-polinating life form without having to solve the problem of getting from inorganic to organic chemistry, and from energy to consciousness.

    Anyone should plainly see the logical validity of what you explain – that ‘aliens’ is no answer at all but simply moves the question back another level. I think failure to see this points to an important difference between real and false philosophy. Kant understood that all of this questioning of origins involved human reason in antinomy.

    From antinomy I think instead of ‘dead end’ we are justified in taking refuge in the priority of practical reason (second critique) or even a higher aesthetic which is somehow (can’t say how) not absolutely subjective.

    Anyway, love your blog and your project. I linked and quoted you yesterday on my own site without permission – may I do so at any time?

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar


      Yeah, I am probably done over at Pharyngula for now. I have paid them several visits over the last year and a half, and while I think I learned a great deal about what sorts of rhetoric don’t work in terms of persuasion, but not much about what would work. I’m a bit frustrated, because when it comes to the ecological crisis, it is with the scientific materialists that I have so much common ground. But they don’t see the connection between the disenchantment of techno-industrialism and the rape of the earth.

      You can quote me or refer to my blog whenever you’d like, no need to ask my permission.


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