Food for Thought: God, Aquinas, and the Search for Alien Life

A Magi Project + Collegium Institute event



7, 14, 28 November 2018


Dinner Provided

Before 1995 we only knew of nine planets, one of which has recently been demoted to ‘planetoid’. Since then the Kepler space mission has discovered and confirmed 2,327 extra planets beyond our Solar System. On March 21st 2017, Congress passed an act which requested a strategy for “the search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the Universe.” from the National Agencies. How would the discovery of extraterrestrial life affect the beliefs and practices of the human race? Would the discovery of alien life affect our ideas about God? In this Food for Thought module, we look at the modern State of the Universe, its many planets and the implications for religious belief if we find life on one of them.


Event Summary:

Our Food for Thoughtseries on God, Aquinas, and the Search for Alien Lifewas a collaboration with the Collegium Institute for Catholic Thought and Culturein which students were invited to meet over dinner to discuss a different text each week and their opinions on the intersection of religion and the scientific search for extra-terrestrial life. All three meetings were held at the Harrison House on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The readings were ordered in so that we first established a basis and appreciation for the current scientific assumptions on extraterrestrial life, then looked at the issue from a modern academic/theological perspective, and finally concluded by examining the thoughts of St. Thomas Aquinas on the possibilities of philosophical and theological implications of alien life. 


Our first meeting, on November 7, was focused on current scientific efforts to search for extraterrestrial life. We read an extract on Exoplanet Science Strategy from The National Academies, an academic text organized in the format of a short summary of scientific goals and the reasons for these goals followed by the latest findings, ongoing projects in the field, and recommendations for future research. At our meeting, Dr. Marisa March gave a presentation to give students a better idea of how far we have come in recent years in discovering more about the universe. She explained that when she was growing up and learning about science, we did not even have an accurate estimate for the number of planets outside of our solar system. However, advances in the past few years have shown us that there exist a vast number of planets, many of which are similar to Earth in key ways. She then walked students through the process NASA and other organizations use to categorize planets and narrow down the search, for example, by scrutinizing the ‘habitable zone’ of a star. After this, she touched on the Kepler and K2 missions in particular before going into discussion questions on the text. 



Our second meeting, on November 14, led us into a more personal, small-group discussion on the philosophical and theological implications of a possible announcement that intelligent alien life had been discovered. We began by having every student introduce themselves, and, if they wanted, to share their opinion on whether religion would have to change if alien life is found. This brought about more open discussion with students thoughtfully responding to each other’s thoughts and perspectives. Students came in with diverse backgrounds and affiliations, including agnostics and people of non-Christian faiths. An interesting distinction that we discussed was that some of us believed in the concept of “absolute truth,” while others looked at the universe in a relative sense. Towards the close of our meeting, we did go over the text, The Implications of the Discovery of Extra-Terrestrial Life for Religionfrom Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society


After a Thanksgiving holiday, we met for a final time as a group on November 28. The focus of this discussion was St. Thomas Aquinas and his perspective on the matter. Given how dense Aquinas’ writing can be and the topic at hand, we read a commentary by prominent Thomist scholar Marie I. George, Aquinas on Intelligent Extra-Terrestrial Life. However, a key part to understanding Aquinas is understanding his influences, most prominently Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine. Following this, Dr. March began our meeting by explaining how Aristotle united Plato’s visible and intelligible world and explained change. She went over the differences between Matter and Form and their uniting to create Substance. Then, we discussed rational and irrational creatures and used the uniqueness of snowflakes to describe angels as different and one-of-a-kind. Throughout, participants asked Dr. March thoughtful questions, many of which led us to dive deeper into philosophy and the basis of theology. One question in particular was, “What is the standard for an idea to become truth in accepted Catholic theology?” We finished by contemplating the characteristics that we and Aquinas believe make us human and rational and the possibility of there being more than one ‘Human Form.’