January 4, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

SETI: A Systematic Theology

Thick books on systematic theology usually include sections about creation, anthropology, and eschatology.  Those sections are also present in condensed form in an article by Adrian Brown of the SETI Institute at Space.com.  As for origins, Darwinian materialism was implicit passim and needed no elaboration.  As for anthropology, he said man is like a god, creating beings in his own image by his own free will: “A compelling theme in science fiction is the potential of humanity to create life and the hazards arising from such an endeavor.”  As for eschatology, he suggested that our robotic creations will someday evolve to make us superfluous; “once robots destroy mankind, they will be able to live on without us.”  If we can play god, so much for our eternality and omnipotence.
    Though Brown admitted it is “fraught with danger to tell stories about the future to help make our decisions now,” he allowed himself some “imaginings” about “a timeline where humankind creates life and is destroyed by its creation.”  Our consolation will be to have been a part of the grand scheme of evolution:

Is this inherently bad?  It certainly is not a reassuring future for the generation that will deal with such conflict, presumably a generation that will live not far from today.  But once the conflict is over, as long as we have invested in our creation the means of Darwinian evolution, it is likely that Earth, viewed as a complete ecosystem, will continue marching towards further technological achievement and eco-systemic enlightenment.  Humankind will have played a heroic part in this adventure.  Even robots (perhaps especially robots) will have to acknowledge that.  Our lives will have meaning through our progeny, a common enough goal for everyday man.

He did not consider the possibility that the robots, as in 1984, will have written the memory of humans out of their history books.  Oh well, we will have been extinct too long a time by then to care.  Better this scenario than vanishing like smoke on a burning cinder of Earth after the sun goes out, he surmises.
    Can a Darwinian be the Intelligent Designer?  Do we have a choice, assuming that evolution is propelling us in that direction?  Let Brown comment on those teasers, and their corollaries:

Often the essential conflict for humans considering whether to produce intelligent life is: are we perfect enough to consider playing God?  It certainly is an achingly poignant question to a modern progressive thinker—but perhaps the question is moot.  Maybe machine life is inevitable in order that Darwinian evolution should continue on Earth.  Whether it is through humanity’s loins or through humanities laboratories that Darwin’s game is progressed may not matter.  Indeed, if humans gradually augment themselves with technology of their own creation in the coming centuries, will we fully realise when machines have ‘taken over’?  What will it be about a robot with a few original Homo sapien brain cells that makes it human?

It seems odd that a SETI researcher would be talking about such theological matters.  The relevance to SETI, he ends, is that our alien friends may already be at that stage, and this affects what we should be looking for.  We need to realize the possibility that “when we make contact with alien beings, they may be the robotic progeny of beings similar to ourselves.”  What an astonishing thought; they might be watching, but thinking we are not yet evolved enough to be worth their fellowship.  “Is it possible they are waiting for us to be smart enough to construct a robot that can talk to them?”

Sure; anything is possible in Fantasyland.  There could be monsters under the bed.  We could be software artifacts in the Matrix.  Or you can wish upon a star, and all your dreams come true.  Your robot progeny live happily ever after.  When people give free rein to the imaginations of their own hearts, miracles can happen.  Evolution can be progressive, and we can be as gods! (at least till the heat death of the universe).
    Boy, what a weird dream.  OK, time to get up and go back to work.  Wise people don’t make decisions in the daytime about their nightmares at night.  Adrian, while staring at your console today, good luck finding a persistent narrowband whistle.  If you luck out, we’d love to hear your rational explanation of how it is not the work of intelligent design (12/03/2005, 02/16/2006) and why SETI doesn’t stand for “Seminary for Extra-Terrestrial Imaginings” (06/03/2006, 03/09/2006).  Be sure you’re wide awake when you answer, because we can tell when you’re doing science and when you’re daydreaming.

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Categories: Bible and Theology, SETI

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