Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Associate Professor in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge and Dean of Chapel at Corpus Christi College. His work spans Christian doctrine, biology and philosophy. His research interests include biological mutualism, life in the universe, evolutionary synthesis, and artificial intelligence approaches using suggestions from the medieval “thinking by analogy”.
Andrew was among a group of 23 theologians in a NASA-sponsored program at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton (New Jersey) from 2016 to 2017, which investigated how humans may react to the discovery of life outside Earth.
In this Bullaki Science Podcast, Andrew explores the intersections between astrobiology and theology (exotheology), key points from his new book “Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine” (including mentions of alien life in ancient texts, reactions of the faithful to the discovery of alien life, interactions between science and religion, interactions between humans and intelligent aliens), and theological implications of the Simulation Hypothesis (“Are we living in a simulation?”).
The video is available here: https://vimeo.com/bullaki/davison
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Samuele Lilliu 00:00. Reverend Dr Andrew Davidson, thank you very much for joining me today in this podcast. I would like to start with the recent news that spoke about your work. I think two months ago, there were a series of articles, there was one published on The Times and then there was another one published on the New York Post that was titled, "NASA hired the 24 theologians to study human reaction to aliens". What was that about?
Andrew Davison 00:29. That was about a research project, which was undertaken in Princeton, about four or five years ago now. It was based at the Center of Theological Inquiry in the middle of Princeton, which is a research institution, a think tank, I suppose, it convenes research programs, and NASA had sponsored them to do some work over three years on what they called the societal implications of astrobiology. Astrobiology is about thinking about the place of life in the universe. Societal implications are, what will everyone think if we have evidence of life elsewhere in the universe.
NASA fund all sorts of wonderful research, including work in the arts and humanities, to help disseminate their ideas and help them be taken up by people who work in philosophy and theology and literature and so on. In this case, they were working with religious figures.
I think what’s going on there is very sensible, the idea that, if there’s evidence for life elsewhere in the universe, a very large proportion of the world’s population will turn to religious traditions to try and understand what’s going on, for an interpretation. So, as I see it, they were saying, it pays to have given people the resources to think about these things in advance. That’s a great idea. If you’re thinking on your feet, when news comes out, it’s going to be not very well resourced, it could be a bit panicked, whereas if people put the time in advance, it’s gonna be more measured and deeply resourced.
So across these three years, there were 24 of us, who all spent one year or another nine months in Princeton. It was an amazingly wide range of religious traditions. Christianity was predominant, because that’s the tradition that the center is coming out of, but there were definitely other traditions as well. Some people were looking at it from the ethical and philosophical perspective. We weren’t supposed to do anything that kind of added up across the project, it was just go out there, do 24 different things and see what comes of it.
My work was to write a book, which is going to be out later this this year, looking at the question [like] if you opened your newspaper tomorrow and there was evidence of life elsewhere in the universe, what difference would it make to Christian belief?
I particularly wanted to broaden out the range of topics that are looked at to go beyond just repeating some of the things that have been said in the past, because that’s a really interesting story we could talk about, the way in which there’s this long story, a long history of writing about this topic within Christianity. But people have generally been so unworried about it, they’ve just written a sentence here, a paragraph there and moved on.
In a way, that’s wonderful that they haven’t been so concerned about it, but it means that there was, I think, quite a lot of work to be done digging a bit deeper, that’s what I was trying to do. It was fascinating the way in which it caught the public imagination. There’s that piece just before Christmas in The Times and within a few weeks I found about 140 different news outlets had covered it. Not always entirely accurately. Some of them said that I’d been hired directly by NASA, which isn’t the case. Some of them had got the chronology wrong. It was about I was just about to start this and of course, this does remain a really important part of my research and so it’s not like I’ve let it go, but it was as if I was about to join the NASA payroll.
Samuele Lilliu 03:56. And also the title was a bit misleading, because when they mentioned aliens, people immediately think about intelligent aliens coming to our planet, and maybe invading our planet.
Andrew Davison 04:09. Exactly they like the dramatic stories, the science fiction stories. One of the things that the scientists have been saying, as long as I’ve been involved in this field is not all life will be intelligent. I mean, maybe the tiniest fraction, if there is any, will be intelligent. So there always was an encouragement for us to think about the equivalent of bacteria living in rock pools.
Samuele Lilliu 04:31. Microbial life.
Andrew Davison 04:31. Exactly. Which, you know, I think people in theology, probably in philosophy too, literature, will tend to gravitate towards things that are a bit more like ourselves, because then you can ask additional questions about good and evil and so on. I was not thinking particularly about life that’s visiting us. So I think that’s one of the things that’s changing the science. Until recently, our best bet for detecting life elsewhere in the universe was going to be to take the signals of advanced life. So it could be radio broadcast...
Samuele Lilliu 05:04. With the SETI program.
Andrew Davison 05:05. Or potentially, I suppose a visit, although I think interstellar travel could be extraordinarily difficult. But with the Hubble Space Telescope, other telescopes, and especially now with the James Webb Space Telescope, were going to be really well placed to detect the signs of alien life, especially in the traces that leaves in the atmosphere of a planet. And so that...
Samuele Lilliu 05:29. Within the resolution limits of the James Webb telescope, because they cannot go to very thin atmospheres, I think there’s a limit in the thickness that can detect...
Andrew Davison 05:38. Absolutely, there’s lots of work to be done, but it’s still a bit of a step change in terms of what we’re going to be able to do. That opens up the possibility of being able to detect just life or such bacterial life or whatever, rather than having to wait for it to get to the... like a human being in the late 19th century, first doing radio broadcasts.
Samuele Lilliu 05:58. Yeah. Do you think NASA was worried about something specific when they launched this investigation, when they contacted the Center for Theological Inquiry? Were they worried about something, societal implications, like unrest or riots, things like that? Or maybe just the Church losing followers?
Andrew Davison 06:21. Well, I think I didn’t pick up any sign of a particular agenda. I think that they support so much work, probably unsung and unknown work in arts and humanities and general public understanding that I think one needs to assume that there’s some news around the corner and they’re preparing the world for it, I think it makes sense that this is just one of the things that they did. Yeah, I’m afraid that doesn’t make necessarily for very good headlines, but I didn’t pick up any particular hidden story.
It was fascinating the way was it was covered. So this news, they’re always picked up on the fact that I’m a clergyman, a priest. So all the pictures they found on the internet, where with either me with a dog collar, or, you know, at the altar saying mass or something like that. So I think it really captured the imagination, the idea of someone who is a theologian but also priest working on these scientific topics.
Samuele Lilliu 07:22. So you got a PhD in biochemistry, and then after that you moved to theology. It’s a bit weird as a transition. What motivated your choice of undertaking a career in theology after your studies in biology? What it like something you observed in biology, in biochemistry?
Andrew Davison 07:45. Well, I had started off yeah, that’s right, a chemistry degree first, and then a […] in biochemistry. And really, it comes down to two things. I mean, our stories are difficult to analyze, and who knows, but I think I can put it down to two factors.
One was that I’d started to work in the hospice, in Oxford, as a volunteer, in the evenings, sometimes in the weekends. It was so much the most rewarding thing that I did, obviously, often quite traumatic, but it really felt like it touched a vocation in me. So I thought, then that pushed me towards a more pastoral career, trajectory and also recognized that I was lying awake, thinking about theology, philosophy, these sorts of things. I wasn’t, to be honest, lying awake thinking about biochemistry. And that seemed to me quite a good indication, maybe that’s a good principle I should talk to students about if they’re trying to discern their way through life, ask what it is that you lay awake, thinking about.
So the, the second of those, I suppose, led me towards a theology degree and the first one frame the context in which that happened, which was coming to Cambridge to train for ordination in the Church of England. So they paid for my theology degree. And I left and worked in [?] parish, in the southeast of London, Bellingham, we had a terrific time. And I guess in the end, I didn’t ever I didn’t quite make escape velocity from the university, although I imagined I’d be working in the parishes and a job came up in Oxford to teach theology, and I threw my hat into the ring. And I got it. And so I’ve been teaching in the university since then, I taught theology at Oxford, and then back here in Cambridge, but that was that was really cool Christian theology, God, creation, evil, redemption, Jesus, all these sorts of things. And my scientific interests have become private ones. I certainly read, read science still, but it wasn’t particularly part of my work.
And then eight years ago, a position at the University of Cambridge came up in theology and natural sciences in the divinity faculty, there aren’t that many permanent positions. There are some and there’s one in Cambridge, and again I threw my hat into the ring, and I got that job. So rather wonderfully, these two parts of my story, my life, came back together in one job. And I can’t tell you how much I love doing it.
Samuele Lilliu 10:16. Okay. And now you’re involved in this initiative, this new initiative for understanding the life in the universe will Leverhulme Grant. What was that about?
Andrew Davison 10:27. Well, a few years ago, maybe two or three years ago, before Didier Queloz had had been awarded the Nobel Prize, I think, we’d started to get to know one another. I mean, obviously, the scientists, many of them knew or another, but there was a new impetus in the university, to think how widely we could throw the net people, who were thinking about life elsewhere in the universe. I think within the arts and humanities school, the faculties in that school, I was the only one. So I got involved with them.
And that meant that when the Leverhulme bid, offer came out, the bids for a center, funding for a center, we were kind of primed to go. I think so much that happens in the world, I was gonna say in academia, but frankly, in everything, rests on friendships. And I think the fact that there was, there were some preexisting friendships really helped there.
So we’re ready to go. And as you do, we spent about a year I think, putting this bid together. First of all, it had to go be sponsored by the university, then it had to go to the national competition. And yeah, we are one of the three, three centers, I think that won funding this year, which is… I still can’t quite believe it, really, because it’s tremendously generous, a million pounds a year, for 10 years.
Whereas government funding tends to be, there’s tend to be quite a lot of paperwork. And you’re hardly starting on one piece of work before you having to put the proposal in for the next and you spend a really large part of your time writing applications. But with the Leverhulme Trust, there’s a yeah, there’s a bit of monitoring, and there’s there should be diligence, and so on. But if they like what you’re proposing, and they’re going to support it, they really just, I think that they let you go on with it.
They also tend to sponsor sort of “high risk, high outcome” work, which government bodies tend not to do. So I hope that after 10 years, we’ll have really transformed the international conversation about the origins of life, we have a very high aspirations anyway. And, you know, who knows whether we’ll have any data to work on? Yeah, but so it’s high risk, high outcome, I think, and I’m really grateful for that.
And I suppose the other thing to mention is that we can’t take for granted that arts and humanities perspectives would be included in a bid like this. I think it’s one of the things that set us apart, really.
Samuele Lilliu. It’s a bit unusual.
Andrew Davison. Yeah, it’s unusual. I mean, it’s, you know, it’s wonderfully interdisciplinary. But we might expect that that would be between earth sciences and chemistry, or between astrophysics and zoology. But for there to be faculty of divinity involved, I brought the mathematicians in. And I think there’s some really interesting work to be done there, which you could talk about history of philosophy of science is involved, but the lead faculty because I was the person on that was divinity, and, of course, we also represent philosophical traditions in the, in the difficulty, and yeah, I really have found the scientists to be interested in philosophical questions, thinking about what literature history, so on brings to the table. And that’s one of the things about Cambridge, I suppose that I love, I’m not trying to contrast it with other places. But certainly, it’s true of Cambridge, wherever it wherever whatever else you would save anywhere else. That especially the college system means that people from all these different subjects are together, eating together, running a college together, on the gardens committee together, this sort of thing. And so you do have conversations sparked across disciplines. And I think Cambridge is a great place to be doing that.
Samuele Lilliu 14:23. Yeah so one of the biggest questions is, “How did life begin?” But some people might say, well, we don’t have time machines, we cannot go back in time. And even if we could go back in time to be very hard to find where life emerged from prebiotic chemistry. Then other people might even say, well, there are so many pathways that might lead from basic ingredients to more complex molecules until the sort of abiogenesis. So maybe a better question is “How can we synthesize life in a lab?” So how can theology help shaping this sort of questions? And how does the church sees the sort of attempt by scientist, as someone says to play God? Because they say, Oh, they’re trying to play God in the lab?
Andrew Davison 15:18. Well, one thing I’d say is that there’s a strong tradition for the theologian for the religious voice, not wanting to displace the scientist. So I think, certainly from my own perspective, I’d want to say that part of what it means to be a human being is to investigate the world, and that’s a good thing, I’d see it as a part of the human vocation. I think it’s easily rolled up within the religious vision. And so I wouldn’t encourage, I wouldn’t particularly want to see the theological perspective, wanted to trump the theologian or say, “What do you know about science? We know about science”, that’s, that’s not the way I look at it. So I think there’s gonna be a lot of receptivity. Really. The theology is an amazing omnivorous discipline, it’s got interested in everything. And it wants to know about the world that it studies and I’m not going to try and teach the scientists their job.
Samuele Lilliu 16:10. So you don’t think there is any moral issue in trying to synthesize life from scratch? Because someone might say, well, on another level, maybe the Church might be against cloning humans, almost everybody is against cloning humans, or maybe someone might say, we’re against the cloning animals. But if you go back to the basics, you might say, well, maybe we’re against creating life from scratch. Because that’s not something that belongs to the scientist is something that God did. Or maybe there is no issue there?
Andrew Davison 16:45. Well, I think we are a long way off from creating life, where what we are doing is finding ways in which building blocks can be created, and maybe some of the beginnings of certain metabolic pathways and self-sustaining reactions and that sort of thing. I think that’s so far away from the life that we’re that we’re familiar with. I don’t see that as an illegitimate task. I think that theologian, but everybody else really is always going to be having an eye on ethics in terms of dangers. So we certainly should be very careful not doing anything that’s going to turn and consume ourselves or anything like that, you know. So there are all sorts of questions about due diligence,
Samuele Lilliu 17:30. Like goo and nanobots and things spreading everywhere.
Andrew Davison 17:33. Exactly. But I see it… really the work that scientists are doing as about exploring possibilities. And of course, we didn’t really know exactly what the conditions were like on Earth, where life evolved would cost there would be millions, billions of different conditions out there. So it’s about exploring, under these sorts of conditions, what sorts of reactions take place that might lead to the sorts of building blocks that we need. It’s also about, thinking about different ways of conceiving of life, so there’s… people might put the emphasis on metabolism, and on self-sustaining chemical reactions, other people might put the emphasis on information. In which case, you probably think that something a bit more like DNA, or RNA came first, and the rest gets assembled around that. So, I think exploring lots of different options is going to be very sensible, because we have every reason suppose that there are lots of different conditions out there.
You pretty have touched on the question about whether we need to think about the origin of life as being something outside of a natural process. And I, as a theologian, and for that matter, as a religious believer, wouldn’t want to say that, I perfectly happy to think that life can emerge by natural processes. And I don’t think that that makes it any less wonderful. In a sense, what you’re doing is you’re transferring the wonder to say, rather than saying “that’s not what the universe is, like, so the universe couldn’t do this naturally, so God has to sort of go beyond it”, we’re saying “actually, the wonderful thing is that the very nature of reality itself, is that it is it has this capacity to bring forth life”. I don’t think that’s any less wonderful. In fact in some ways, it’s even more remarkable than saying that natural processes have to be suspended for this to happen.
Samuele Lilliu 19:25. So religious people believe that humans have souls. Maybe… I don’t know, I’m not the expert… But if I have a dog, and I love this dog, maybe I would think that dog is a soul as well. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s the perspective there, but does this mean…
Andrew Davison 19:44. Well, I’m gonna say to you here is because it depends what you mean by soul. So, if you take Aristotle’s perspective, which has been very influential and particularly influential in the Roman Catholic Church, but I’m an Anglican I’m, I think Aristotle’s got a lot going […] And then “soul” names, what’s different between a living thing and a nonliving thing, which is that it has its own principle of movement within it. So we have this idea of animation as the same word “anima”, for we as a soul. So he [Aristotle] thinks that every material thing can be analyzed in terms of what it’s made out of, and what it adds up to. That’s the matter and the form. And the form is what distinguishes one material thing from another. And, and perhaps the biggest distinction in nature, for Aristotle, is between objects, inanimate things, which have a form, I mean, they add up to something that are coordinated whole, and those material things which have life, which have a principle of movement within them. So a ball will roll down a hill, but it not of itself, it’s drawn down by gravity, whereas even the simplest living thing has some animations and principle of movement within it. So on that basis, if you define soul that way, every living creature would be having a soul.
Samuele Lilliu 21:08. we’re talking about soul in spiritual terms, such as having some sort of something that is beyond this world, and beyond the natural world. Do you think animals have souls? What’s the perspective from…
Andrew Davison 21:21. I suppose the question here is about whether this principle of what they are has a life beyond death, I suppose, that’s a good dividing line? Yeah, I, there’s a lot of work on animals within Theology at the moment. And there would certainly be more people than before, who would want to posit some existence, you know, or participation in the resurrection or whatever. The great big transitions, it seems to me are between nothing and something, between nonliving and living, and, within theology, a particular attention also to the distinction between the intelligent and the non-intelligent, the conscious, and I think science would still point to these as being particularly significant distinctions. And I think religious traditions, well, let me speak for Christianity have tended to think about that transition or the difference between the, the non-conscious and the conscious as being some direct act of God. But like, I, like I said, with life, I kind of rather give science a run for its money, if possible. I’d I mean, I, I know there are actually plenty of scientists and philosophers today, who are saying, we’re no closer to solving the problem of consciousness than we were, you know, it’s that so called hard problem. But I, you know, perhaps, unusually given that I’m coming at this than as a theologian would say, I kind of don’t like God of the gaps, arguments, I don’t like saying, Oh, the reason you believe in God is because somehow, this natural process doesn’t work.
Samuele Lilliu 22:54. You cannot explain that thing. So you put God...
Andrew Davison 23:00 Well, I’d rather see God in the whole. And I think on the on the consciousness on what’s so special about humanity, I’m an emergentist. So I would at least want to explore the idea that once you get a sufficiently complicated system, new properties emerge. In fact, even you only need three objects, and you already have properties and behavior that you don’t have two. The only three things in the world that will be moving with gravity, that would already add a complexity that wouldn’t be present with two. The three-body problem.
Then, we see this all around, the human brain is the most complex thing in the universe that we know of, maybe there are other things with equally complex equivalence, but I would at least want to explore the idea or give some credence to the idea that just the human brain is sufficiently complicated, that whole new forms of behavior and properties emerge, which include consciousness and not have to see that as some kind of tinkering, you know.
But official Roman Catholic teaching would be that, that there is an evolutionary story all the way up to the human being in terms of our bodies, but the distinction between every other creature and the human being is something that’s directly created by God.
I’d like to get the scientists a bit more time to come up with an account of where consciousness comes from, because I don’t feel theologically threatened by the idea that there could be a natural origin for it.
Samuele Lilliu 24:34. Yeah, so the reason why I was asking you whether animals have souls or not, is because if you go back to simpler and simpler organisms, you might say, once we create life from scratch, would that life have a soul?
Andrew Davison 24:47. There is a kind of reductio ad absurdum, that you end up with every amoeba that’s ever existed, you know, has a place in the life of the world to come and I think that is actually ends up being a pretty good argument about having to say you have to draw line somewhere. But there’s a lot of work on this. CS Lewis, well-loved English writer, he generally didn’t think that there was that kind of continued existence for nonhumans. Except for he was quite soft towards animals, and he was a great animal lover. And he wondered whether animals that have been domesticated and taken into a family could become kind of part of the family. It’s all very speculative. And there’s a lovely poem by Dorothy L. Sayers, another English writer about the same time as Louis, where she asks God to give continued life to her cat, because it has been an opportunity for her to show goodness and kindness. So it’s not because the cat’s been kind to her, but, but she’s so grateful to the cat, because it’s been an opportunity for her to grow in love and kindness, and so on, that she thinks it’s become part of her story. […] Anyway, this is all very speculative stuff. But yeah, I could point to any number of people who are writing on this sort of topic at the moment.
Samuele Lilliu 26:00. Okay. So philosophers and theologians can certainly help with the definition of life, so what…
Andrew Davison 26:07. Yeah, well, on that I am going to leave the scientists to get on with their work. But I do think there are a couple of places where the theologian may well be a custodian of a wise philosophical tradition. So I’ve already talked about Aristotle and that idea of life being characterized by movement. I think he’s really onto something that and we know even more than he did, that life is characterized by movement of ions through channels, and membranes and things that really movements very important. And there’s another thing that I’ve noticed in reading, while ancient texts, sometimes theological texts about life, which is this idea of life been characterized by a kind of “will to preservation” as a kind of will towards life. Life is self-repairing, defends itself pushes back against onslaughts. And again, I think that tradition could have known more than it recognized because we see with the immune system and living things being self-repairing, that there’s something there. So I don’t, again, think that that theologians and philosophers are going to be teaching the scientists their job, but they might say, do you know, there’s actually quite a rich seem a rich vein of writing on life, and these people weren’t just gonna live a long time ago, they weren’t stupid. So one of the things I want to help broker in this new center and hope we’ll see a lot of is just opening the treasure troves and seeing what people have written about life and seeing whether it provokes the scientists to useful thoughts.
Samuele Lilliu 27:33. So there might be good suggestions from previous thinkers…
Andrew Davison 27:36. I hope so I said, Lewis, again, who said, you know, we need to be careful of chronological snobbery, that somehow we think that we are uniquely…
Samuele Lilliu 27:45. We tend to dismiss what was done in the past, because maybe they didn’t have our knowledge, of course our technology and so on. So in your book, you mentioned NASA as the definition of life, if you go and check, says it’s “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”. But then, I mean, this kind of definition seems to exclude supernatural entities, like God, the angels, and so on. But super AI and conscious AI.
Andrew Davison 28:15. So, and there are hybrids like mules, yes…
Samuele Lilliu 28:19. And the issue is that if you remove the term “chemical” from the definition, then you could say that the computer virus could be alive, which is not the case. So are you happy with this definition? What do you think is wrong with this definition provided by NASA? Because that’s something you’ll discuss in your book…
Andrew Davison 28:38. Well, one of the things that’s going on with a definition of life here is trying to know what to recognize if you saw it. And that’s tricky, because we only got one example to go on. And we’re trying to extrapolate from that to think what are the qualities? How would it affect the world around it in such a way that we didn’t recognize that it was there? And I think it’s fine. But you’ve pointed to a couple of the problems with it. One is that it seems to me, the “capable of Darwinian evolution”, is more important that it has an evolutionary past than it has an evolutionary future. So, we might believe that every living thing has got to where it is by evolution, I don’t think that then commits us to say that every living thing then has to be capable of evolution,
Samuele Lilliu 29:27. Because otherwise this wouldn’t apply for mules, as you said…
Andrew Davison 29:31. Exactly. I mean, they might say that that’s just being pedantic but, you know, mules are living things, they can’t have offspring, but also if we imagine life that’s either been created in silicon, you know, in a computer setting, if that’s possible, or that’s migrated there. I’m very, very skeptical about that, but people talk about it, then it wouldn’t be necessary for that to have evolutionary capacities for it still to be living. And then the “chemical” thing… Aristotle makes this distinction between form and matter the sort of substrate, and then the way that the substrate is formed, what it amounts to. And it seems to me life as a formal concept, not a material one, it’s kind of underdetermined as to what the matter, it will be realized in what that will be.
Samuele Lilliu. So it’s an emergent property…
Andrew Davison. It’s an emergent property. And that form is something that is associated with what emerges. And so yeah, I think we need to be… it’s the job of philosophers to be pedantic, I suppose, and, and maybe everything that we would ever find out that it would be realized in chemistry, but… it’s a huge question… but we should at least entertain the idea that it could be realized in logic gates, for instance.
Samuele Lilliu 30:46. Yeah. And if you could go back in time and speak to talk to San Tommaso D’Aquino ask him “What’s life?” What would he reply?
Andrew Davison 30:57. Thomas Aquinas was good Aristotelian on this. So he would say that those are substances characterized by self-movement, I think…
Samuele Lilliu 31:05. So how would you approach the definition of life now, what would be the sort of roadmap to approach this concept, right now?
Andrew Davison 31:16. Well, movement, both external internal, self-repair and, and having an interest in continuing, there’s some good real work, I’ve really enjoyed reading by Stuart Kaufman, who talks about how with the emergence of life, you have entities that have an interest in the world around them.
And obviously, some very simple life, but even the very simple life is, in some way, open to information about the world about beyond it, and in some way, reacts to that, too, in its own interest to modify it, think it’s what the phenomenologists might call it, as a kind of philosopher would call “intentionality” having a kind of directedness towards the world, and a kind of receptivity.
So I think that’s quite an interesting angle on what life is. And then the theologian, the philosopher might also want to say, things that the scientist isn’t going to be saying, like, the life’s precious for instance, or that it’s worth protecting. Which I don’t think the scientist is going to want to often deny as a human being, but might say, just force beyond the purview of my particular discipline to address because when you get the unfortunate situation of people thinking that their own discipline answers every possible question, then they might say, Oh, it’s not a scientific question, therefore, it doesn’t even have any kind of answer or it doesn’t make any kind of sense. You know, that kind of position turns out from time to time, but I think it’s more likely to be the intellectual pundits on social media saying that than necessarily the scientist.
Samuele Lilliu 33:02. Yeah. Because otherwise you wouldn’t philosophy. Now talking about domains, because that’s, that’s the conversation about domains. What are the domains of science and theology? And you know, things in science, and now, you know, things in theology? What’s the sort of epistemology approach in the two cases?
Andrew Davison 33:21. Well, I think the main thing I want to say about these general questions of domains and intersections and so on, is that it was really important in theology and science work in the 80s, and 90s. And a lot of what was written was about possible modes of interaction and kind of taxonomies of modes of interaction. I could talk a bit about that, but I think that actually what isn’t almost most significant most characteristic of work on theology and science, in the last couple of decades, last decade, maybe has been to move away from that, to move away from generalized questions. As if there was science in general, there was and there was religion in general. And they had these very, second order methodological questions about what even the possibility would be or the mode of a dialogue. One of the reasons that that has faded, is because it was quite, it was quite reactive, it was quite was seeking to even show that such a discipline or conversation was possible. And I think there’s some terrific work by historians in the past couple of decades that have shown that the idea of an inevitable conflict between science religion is as a bit of a myth, really, it’s a sort of construct of the late 19th century. And once they’ve shown that there’s a long history of fruitful conversations, you don’t need to be quite so bothered about trying to prove that even such a thing as possible. I think there’s also a move in philosophy of science away from thinking about science as one big undifferentiated lump. So you’ll find now people writing books On philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, and not just treating it as if it was all one thing.
So the idea that you could have these bird’s eye views about science and general theology in general, I think is just a little bit less of a characteristic of the moment, even in philosophy of science. And I think theology is probably more in touch with its roots and its traditions than perhaps it was a few decades ago. So maybe it felt a bit on the back foot, it was not so interested in its deep historical traditions. Whereas nowadays, theology is often characterized by sort of creative retrieval. So how, how can a dialogue with the great traditions and writer texts of the past be productive for thinking about questions today.
So that, that tends to make the theology more specific, because once you’re actually digging into the detail, you tend to be a Calvinist, a Augustinian, a Thomist, or whatever, when you’re looking at these historical figures, you’re not particularly interested in theology in general.
So yeah, for all those reasons, I would say that big methodological questions about what could even the modes of interaction be, have been rather eclipsed and people just get on with the detail now.
So there’s a little something I started up in, in, in Scotland, at St. Andrews, John Perry up there, came up with the idea of science engaged theology, he just wanted the theology to get engaged with the science and get on with it. And I think that probably characterizes my own work, too.
Every now and again, when I’m asked to, I’ll write questions about the very state or the very idea of a dialogue, but most of the time, I just say, right, there’s this development in evolutionary theory. There’s this question in artificial intelligence, there’s this thing and cosmology or life elsewhere, the universe, and try and dig into the detail and make it quite specific, and bring it into conversation with some quite specific theology. So I think that yeah, the general questions that they feel a little bit like, of the last generation really,
Samuele Lilliu 37:09. Okay, so there are certainly plenty of intersections between science and theology. And you’re interested in these kind of questions. But when I think about, I was thinking about potential intersections, things like probably the most obvious, are you aware of that? Feast of San Gennaro in Napoli?
Andrew Davison 37:30. Yeah, I’ve been to Naples, just afterwards…
Samuele Lilliu 37:32. basically, they have this, this vial with this solid, they said it’s the blood from San Gennaro. And then the priest holds the vial, and then say some prayer and then the vial upon shaking becomes a liquid again. And then you could have some scientist that goes there and inspects the vial and tries to figure out what’s going on. That’s an example of intersection. Another example of intersection would be okay, we look at the history of geology, what happened during the last ice age? And seems that there is some evidence that there might have been floods 11,700 years ago, that’s written in the Genesis. So that might support what’s written in the Genesis. Maybe that’s because of oral tradition. Who knows? What are the most interesting intersections? From your perspective? These are very simple ones. But what are the most interesting for you?
Andrew Davison 38:26. Well, on those questions about the Bible, I’ve again and again, observed, it tends to be devout scientists, who tried to turn to the signs to validate the story, whereas the biblical scholars tend, even if they’re quite devout themselves, to think that these, these are stories from a long time ago, ideas of history were different than, maybe we shouldn’t read these texts in quite the same genre as if they weren’t textbooks or something like that. So we get this interesting spectacle of the scientists quite often, even if for religious reasons, trying to come up with arguments from science about why these things are, where they are. And the biblical scholars saying, of course, we don’t think there was a flood that covered the whole earth or…
Samuele Lilliu 39:13. Not the whole earth, but maybe some regions.
Andrew Davison 39:17. Yeah, and I. Again, I don’t want to say that people a long time ago, were stupid, they might, they may have been, they may have had historical traditions that they were dealing with, but I’m just I’m not really involved at all, in the idea of scientific investigations of biblical texts. I mean, I’m not a biblical scholar. I’m a systematic theologian or a philosophical theologian. So I tend to work with quite the sort of big concepts that emerged from the study of the Scriptures and the traditional as a whole rather than necessarily looking at details like that.
Samuele Lilliu 39:53. Okay, another intersection would be when God, for those who believe, intervenes or interacts with the natural world. So from your perspective, I mean, in the scriptures there is probably the best example is Jesus that comes to our planet and incarnation. But before the emergence of intelligent beings like us, well, there are mentions of God interacting with the world. But then what’s the current perspective? Does the God kickstart the universe with a big bang or does it intervene with the evolution? You hinted before? That that’s not the case. But what’s your perspective…
Andrew Davison 40:40. My worry about the language of interaction, intervention, is that it seems to put God in the creatures too much on the same level. And one of the things that theologians are always interested in doing is trying to take divine transcendence seriously enough, that the Creator of all things can’t be just one more creature a things like creature, the cause of all things can’t be just one more cause.
So I think there’s almost a sort of domesticated view of God, to think that God has to tinker or, or to draw near. I mean, there’s a lot of, I think, very good work done in the last couple of decades about how it’s the otherness of God from the world. That is the reason that God can also be close to things. So people like Kathryn Tanner talks about a non-competitive paradigm, the things that are similar to one another, exclude one another, or compete with one another, that it’s the actually the profound difference of how God is conceived from creatures that allows for that to be some overlaps the wrong word, but interpenetration or something between God and creatures without being…
Samuele Lilliu. On another dimension…
Andrew Davison. On another level. So one of the ways in, which I like to discuss this in lectures is the idea that God isn’t… So we think about creation and I think, you know, Stephen Hawking, fantastic, obviously, one of the great physicist doesn’t really get the theology quite right in some of his writings, he says, “Well, God is the one who knocks over the first domino, the lights, diffuse”. But see, if you can imagine a kind of whole row of core of arrows that are like causes. This is the idea that God is just one big cause at the beginning. But the theological tradition is much more likely to say that God’s like the cause underneath or causes holding them up, rather than just being one more in the sequence of causes. So one of the ways that this turns up is discussions in the High Middle Ages about whether the world could be eternal or not. And there’s difference of opinion, and lots of exchange and so on, but we mentioned Thomas Aquinas already, he said, It’s not against the idea of creation for always to have existed, because it’s not about what God did at some putative initial point, it’s about why there’s anything rather than nothing is why even at this very moment, being is sustained rather than falling away. And so he says, creation is a relationship of dependence, plus an inception, and then he kind of backs back he backs off, and he says, actually, the inception isn’t necessary, what it really what really matters is the relationship of dependence. And back that, for instance, that could be eternal. So it’s about the relationship of everything, any moment to its source, rather than flicking over the first domino or something that happened at the at the very beginning.
Samuele Lilliu 43:35. Okay, so you’re talking about a presence like, you can think in terms of, a 2D world, we live in a 2D world and then God, the supernatural, is on the third dimension. So we cannot really perceive this the third dimension, but the third dimension is within the to 2D world, something like that.
Andrew Davison 43:54. Well, I think that that is a good, that’s a good extrapolation from my idea of, if you’re going to have a if you’re going to simplify things down to a 1D, one dimensional sequence of courses, don’t think of God as being the cause, just the beginning, but expand it into two dimensions of God as the cause holding all causes up. Yep, I think that that is you’re reflecting my perspective on things there.
Samuele Lilliu 44:18. And how do discoveries in science, shape the theological views today? Like, I would imagine that scientists discover something and then theologians try to catch up so that the interpretation of the scriptures can be updated or upgraded, even though I mean, I would imagine that the moral standing of the scriptures stays there, it cannot be updated, because that’s not domain of science. But when it comes to scientific discoveries, maybe there is some discussion within theologians.
Andrew Davison 44:52. Well, there have been particular moments when I think there have been shifts. So for instance, over whether the first book of the Bible is to be taken as a historical account of things. And you could point to people in this university, geologists Sedgwick, who was a Anglican clergyman, a great geologist, who was accumulating evidence for the age of the earth and of course, Darwin later on…
Samuele Lilliu. What was he doing about the edge of the earth?
Andrew Davison. He was looking at sedimentation…
Samuele Lilliu. And there was a priest?
Andrew Davison. Yep, he was a canon of Norwich cathedral. They had an exhibition last time I was there… they had a diplodocus, they had an enormous dinosaur in their cathedral for a little…
Samuele Lilliu 45:33. So he didn’t think that God put the dinosaurs there to prove the fate of humans.
Andrew Davison 45:37. No, he wouldn’t. I mean, he was a great scientist. He’s a little bit before a lot of work on dinosaurs. But they have got his rock collecting bag and his rock scrambling shoes and things because we’re very proud of that connection with him.
So there would be some examples of where perspectives have shifted, and one might be the age of the earth, for instance. But is not like this was completely new in modernity, or Gustin of hippo is a good example of someone comments, looking at the, the text of the of the beginning of Genesis, and saying we shouldn’t take this as being a historical, just like
Samuele Lilliu 46:22. Augustine was in was… during the Roman Empire…
Andrew Davison 46:25. From the fourth-fifth century. Was probably the most influential of all, or influential of all writers for Western Christians. And he said, well, in the story, the sun and the moon aren’t made until the fourth day. So these days that were to the 6th can’t be literal days. So he thought, in a sense, everything had to be created in one go. And this was just kind of unfolding a story in time, because that’s how humans think.
Samuele Lilliu 46:51. So already back, then there was some thinking in terms of vision take what whatever is written in the Genesis in the literal meaning…
Andrew Davison 46:59. yeah, I will, he also said that he thought that it was probably a longer story that some things were created in a seed like form and had to unfold later, um, someone like Origen of Alexandria generation or two before, almost completely allegorized it so he, he was even further away. What I would say, I think, though, is I would resist the idea that what they’re offering is a non-literal interpretation, just in this sense, that I think that they’re taking the literary form of the text seriously, that it is, for instance, amongst other things, a poem. So if someone comes to me and says, “Oh, you’re, you don’t take the Bible, literally enough because you don’t treat it like it was a Victorian textbook or something”, I’m gonna say, “no, actually, I think you might be the one who’s not taking it, literally, in a certain sense, if you’re ignoring its literary form”, so I didn’t want to cede too lightly the idea that a fundamentalist reading of Genesis is somehow the literally responsible one, because like Augustine says, it kind of gives itself away, but it’s about more than just trying to tell us a scientific story.
There’s a wonderful master Trinity College here. It was also a master of … in Oxford, bishop for Chester, John Wilkins, he was one of the founders of the Royal Society, and he said, “Well, the Bible doesn’t address science, because it would be too interesting”. So he’s a wonderful kind of scientific geek of his time. And he says, the Bible is restricted to matters of faith and morals, basically, how to live with one another how to live with God. And he’s, he said, “Oh, and if it was, if it was all about science, we just get distracted, because it will be so interesting”, which I think is charming for this man helped found the Royal Society. But also, he saw that as an impetus then for his scientific work. He said, “this book isn’t going to tell us about the moon, we’ve got to get our telescopes out and, and sorted out”, I think, and again, I think that’s really lovely for someone who helped to found one of the world’s great scientific societies.
Samuele Lilliu 49:03. So basically, there are different layers, which you can read the scriptures. And the same sort of thing applies to Dante’s Divina Commedia, where you have different layers there is the literal, the moral, there political, philosophical. Can you tell me a little bit more about the different layers and how people were writing things back then? Because I think I think this is something that is peculiar of the Middle Ages, right? And we’ve kind of lost the sort of tradition of writing…
Andrew Davison 49:38. The middle ages you get way goes actually back into antiquity and especially… is a fourfold readings, you have the lit they have the literal historical meaning. Then they always found a meaning that points to Christ, one that pointed to how to live, morals, and one that pointed to future life. And they’re called the four senses of Scripture. Now I think my Biblical Studies, colleagues, some of them at least, won’t particularly like that they say we should, we should treat it like any other historical text. And they might think of that as being somewhat too allegorical or trying to go against the intention of the author to draw these other things out. I think in the 21st century, after decades of post modernism, and a sort of work in literary theory, some people might push back against that and say, it’s very difficult to work out what the intention of the author is, texts always have a life beyond themselves. And also the Bible itself can be quite creative in these sorts of ways. If you look at how Paul uses some of the Hebrew passages, he’ll allegorize them he’ll take Isaac and Jacob and tell us that they stand for these big theological ideas, people would be looking back, especially it’s, it’s about Christians reading the earliest scriptures, and seeing in there when you could say prophecies about Christ, but you could also say that they illustrate general principles that can be kind of lifted…
Samuele Lilliu 51:15. Like the story of Joseph…
Andrew Davison 51:18. I mean, by almost any story at all, could be okay to be looked at that way. And there’s certainly interest in theology faculties now, to have, yes, very careful historical studies that look at archeology, for instance, and the mythologies of surrounding cultures and all that sort of thing, but also to take in what’s called reception history. So that, to read a text is more than just saying, what do we think it meant at the time? But also, what’s the life that this text has taken on since? And what’s produced? What’s it given rise to? A theology faculty is like a little world really, it’s like the whole of arts and humanities, even social sciences school rolled into one and you’ll find many different perspectives on the same questions, which I think is quite healthy.
Samuele Lilliu 52:12. Okay. So now let’s talk about the exotheology, or the intersection between theology and astrobiology. So I’m curious to know a little bit more about your book, you wrote a book Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine, where you mentioned that theologians have been writing about the theological implications of biological life beyond the Earth since the mid-15th century. So what did they write? And how was that received by the establishment?
Andrew Davison 52:43. Human beings, I’ve been writing about this for a lot longer. […] The atomists particularly thought the world was infinite and it contained every possible combination of everything, an infinite number of times, so that’s going to give you other life.
But within Christianity the tradition that goes further back, is discussion about whether there’s life on the other end of the earth. So unlike the caricature of these people are stupid and thinking about the world is flat, and so on. Generally, people knew that the world was spherical, because it’s a good platonic shape. The question was then if for one reason or another, either by oceans, or perhaps they thought that the round or the equator was extremely hot, if life was cut off, and you basically had two separate populations, you had this other part of the world, which they called the antipodes, which where we get that word from people whose feet pointed in the opposite direction, and you get a steady stream of discussion about whether there would be life there, how it could be related to us, how did our theological stories, religious stories relate to that. And, you know, sometimes the science is good, sometimes it’s not. It’s not about life elsewhere in the universe. But it’s quite a nice analogy about thinking whether there could be unconnected life and how they might be similar or different from us.
But then it takes a certain kind of displacement of Aristotelian science to get the question about life elsewhere, going. And one of the things that I found very interesting is that if people before 1450 didn’t think there was much possibility of life elsewhere in the universe, there was as much for scientific reasons as theological ones.
So one theological reason you get against it is that life is constituted by inter relation have a really social sense of what life is, and they found the idea of fundamentally separated life in that offended against that principle. That’s one theological reasons that sometimes put forward, but more often people argue against the presence of other worlds on faulty scientific grounds. So they’ll say, for instance, that it doesn’t make sense for there to be more than one center to which matter is attracted. And they think, wouldn’t this life else wouldn’t this, this planetary system elsewhere or whatever, eventually be pulled into ours, and it would all crash, and the kind of great mechanism of the machines of the heavens would all grind up against one another. Or they they’ve kind of backed themselves into a corner by saying, the cosmos is the sum of all matter and the can’t be more than one Cosmos because the coming more than one sum. So that’s unfortunate, kind of definitional problem there.
Samuele Lilliu 55:45. So sort of fallacies that…
Andrew Davison 55:49. or just, you know, faulty signs. And so in 1277, late 13th century, there are some condemnations from the Bishop of Paris, Archbishop of Paris, that tend to stress divine power. And they rule out saying things like God couldn’t create another world. And that is, theologically, what starts to open up the possibility of thinking about other life in the cosmos, and the eclipse of this faulty science.
Then by the middle of the 15th century, and I just can’t find any earlier examples than that, you start finding people who say, yep, that could be life elsewhere. So there’s William of Varian, who’s a Franciscan, quite respected theologian, he writes about a paragraph, one of his works. And Nicholas of Cusa is interesting because he rises to be probably the second most powerful, influential person in the church of his day and the West in the Catholic Church and western church. Very politically involved he writes, The Catholic concordance, which is about polity and whether it should be like a divine which should be people monarchy, or whether we should have a more democratic conciliar system. And he’s, he’s the last flowering of platonically infused Christianity, before the Reformation, are these the last great… Well, I suppose it carries on flowering. But this this, I think he’s a really remarkable figure. And he wrote a book called On Learned Ignorance. And at one point, he’s talking about life elsewhere in the solar system, he’s not particularly about other planetary systems, although he’s notable for thinking that it might not make any sense to talk about there being a center in the universe, that it might all be relative. So that already is starting to open things up.
But it just kind of flippantly almost in passing, he says, yeah, those are the, they’ll be life elsewhere and some of it will be more advanced than us and some of it will be less advanced than us. And, and he just moves on.
Then you don’t need to wait very long before there is more of a defensive position. So Phillip Melancthon, who’s Luther’s right hand man slightly younger. He wrote a science textbook in which he says, like, “it can’t possibly be the case that there’s life elsewhere in universe because it would cause us too many theological problems”. I don’t like I don’t like closing down what the scientific options are on theological grounds. But unfortunately, he does that.
And then there’s Bruno, the young, your fellow Italian, who’s burnt at the stake in…
Samuele Lilliu 58:40. Why what happened with him?
Andrew Davison 58:42. For a long time it was said that it was his belief in life elsewhere in the universe. But there’s other things going on as well.
Samuele Lilliu 58:50. Was it for political reasons that there was burnt…
Andrew Davison 58:55. Not very far before you’ve got Savonarola, haven’t you? And so there’s definitely a lot of political, you can’t say religious things without having political social impact. And pretty can’t say that today, but you certainly couldn’t say it in in Florence at that time, especially
Samuele Lilliu 59:09. When there was an inquisition…
Andrew Davison 59:13. Exactly. of all the things that he said he was definitely seen as a troubled cause and as destabilizing the structure, but I think of all of the philosophical, theological things that he said, it seems that they didn’t like the idea that he thought the universe was infinite and they didn’t like the idea that he was suggesting the world was somehow made out of God. There was something quite pantheistic about it as if God was the matter out of which the world was made. That would be enough to get you, unfortunately, that would be the days when they burn people at stake. That’ll be enough to get you into trouble. And the fact that Nicholas accuser, not that far before, can be talking about this and not get himself into trouble suggest to me that what’s happened is that the whole religious scene has gotten more fearful. The church isn’t at peace anymore, it’s split, there are wars, this is going to be a period when people are just not going to be as adventurous and they’re going to be more easily threatened.
So then, once communities are starting to get more settled and confident again, you start pretty soon afterwards finding we mentioned John Ray […]. So he’s sometimes called the father of English natural history and he writes a book where in passing, he just says, “Well, of course, those are the stars out there. Also sons and they’ve got planets around them, and they’re teeming with life”.
John Wilkins, I’d have mentioned, who wrote a book about life on the moon, which is the breadth of these people’s learning. He’s quoting things in Greek and Latin. And even though he’s got a Puritan sympathizer, he’s talking about contemporary Roman Catholic theologians, he quotes Nicholas of Cusa, are these pagan, pagan philosophers, that means they just have such astonishing education.
Yeah, so I once you get into the what do I mean 17th century, it’s just a steady witness, really, to people writing about this from a theological perspective. And of course it’s quite difficult to separate theology and science at this period, people are writing scientific books, they’ll bring theology, and if they’re writing theological books, they’ll bring science in. And they’re generally quite happy about it.
And, and that goes on through to one of my favorite examples of this is Anthony Trollope is probably the archetypal English Victorian novelist. And his most famous novel Barchester Towers. In one scene, he wants to show what educated women in a drawing room would be talking about over their tea, or whatever it is. And they talk about life elsewhere in the universe, and its theological implications, and the whole page of Barchester Towers. And he’s not saying, Oh, aren’t they unusual for doing that? He’s just this is what people were talking about.
So there’s a, I think there was a edition of Harper’s Bazaar was at Harper’s Magazine, from the 1920s, that has, has a piece on life elsewhere in the universe in theology.
Samuele Lilliu 1:02:20. Yeah, because during that time, it started entering the science fiction realm as well, right? Life elsewhere…
Andrew Davison 1:02:27. We do tend to think it’s very easy to fall into the mistake of thinking that one’s own period is uniquely intelligent and open and so on. But I think it’s a pretty much unbroken tradition of writing about this, that goes back centuries, but as I say, because people were generally not worried about it, they didn’t write very much about it. So there’s certainly more work to be done. Hope I’m involved with that, to ask a wider range of questions and so on. But it’s not, it’s not something that suddenly burst on the scene in the 21st century.
Samuele Lilliu 1:03:01. So what were the major implications? So let’s say that life exists outside our planet? What would be the major implications in terms of theology?
Andrew Davison 1:03:09. Well, I don’t want to put people off from buying my book, I have to say, I don’t think that there are that many shattering implications. I mean, there are lots of ways in which we can be interested and we can think about new and broader ways of thinking about it. But I think for most topics in Christian theology, can be taken in stride.
So maybe the two examples I point to where the bit more provocative, would be thinking about Christ. I mean, he’s obviously at the center of Christianity, including the name. And until the 20th century, there isn’t really much appetite for wondering whether what Christians think has happened in Christ could be replicated elsewhere. So whether there could be more than one incarnation. So God coming up among us and taking up our flesh.
There’s a poem from this presumably written about the 1910s. It’s published in the 1920s, by Roman Catholic author called Alice Mae Nell, called Christ in the Universe. And that’s the earliest I think I know of, of someone really inhabiting quite traditional Christianity. And thinking that what happened on Earth would happen elsewhere, is a really beautiful poem. I quite often use it in like public lectures and that kind of thing. So I’d say the main topic of conversation amongst theologians interested in life elsewhere in the universe, in the last few decades has been whether it makes sense to talk about more than one incarnation or not.
And the other question, which I think hasn’t been talked about at all, and I think maybe his hope and original contribution of my book has been to say, if you go if you go down that line, if you don’t think that what happened on Earth is unique amongst what could happen elsewhere and that God has dealt as intimately with life elsewhere as, as on Earth, then I think it becomes much more difficult to suppose that human life is at the center of everything.
Christianity, along with many other religions, has tended to think of the end of all things as not being just a scientific process, but God kind of calling time on the universe. So in the pubs in the olden days, they used to say “time, gentlemen, please”. And that’s very gendered way of talking about it, but it’s what they used to say, time everyone pleased, you could say nowadays, properly.
And so people have thought about the end of the universe as being time everyone, please. Yeah, it’s the it’s the it’s the image of the last trumpet rather than just heat death, or a big crunch, or whatever the science will say. And, of course, people have thought about that as being something in human history. And I think if you end up decentering things so that you don’t think that the human, what’s happened in human history is the center of everything now that it’s not amazing. It’s not, it’s not devalued. I think by saying that other things have happened elsewhere, then I think it becomes more difficult to imagine that the end of everything is a moment in human history, which costs for the non-theologically minded person is going to seem like the most obvious thing. I don’t think Christianity has really entertained that idea of a kind of post human history for the, for the universe. And I do I react to that in various ways.
Samuele Lilliu 1:06:30. Like, well, there’s What do you mean by post human?
Andrew Davison 1:06:33. Oh, the idea that, you know, that the universe will [go] on perfectly happily without us. I don’t think that that many religious imaginations have really entertained that it’s the thought that there’s this, the shutter comes down. And this has very practical consequences. So there are certainly religious groups that think that because the end of the world is about to happen it doesn’t really matter how you treat the Earth, but you may as well despoil it might bring the end on more quickly. Whereas if most likely that history will play its course, it’ll go on well beyond us, then, you know, if we trashed the earth, the earth is the earth is trashed. I could tell him what I could talk more about that. But I know that the particular work of the News Center is very much about the origins of life. And I think the theological center of gravity is going to be to pull the conversation towards questions that for which you need, you know, rational creatures with moral responsibility, and good and evil and sin and salvation, and sort of and all that sort of thing. And I’m perfectly happy to think about those things that I have done. But I think what’s so exciting about this new center, is it’s going to keep pulling us back, rather, the other end of the of the historical spectrum and say, What about the transition from non-life to life?
Samuele Lilliu 1:07:55. Now, if you remember, in 1996, Bill Clinton announced, maybe we found evidence of microbial life on a Martian asteroid, ALH-84001. But it didn’t seem that society responded hysterically. They weren’t riots, there wasn’t any major disruption. So how do you think society would react by the announcement of either microbial life outside our planet, or the presence of the detection of some alien civilization may be more intelligent than us, more advanced than us?
Andrew Davison 1:08:41. think, really, the specifics matter a great deal there.
Samuele Lilliu 1:08:46. There is a big difference between the two cases.
Andrew Davison 1:08:49. But I think even if we find evidence of only a very simple life, it will count as one of the greatest scientific leaps, the achievements of the history of humanity. And then it’ll pose questions about the value of human life, does it just the fact that we’re not sort a uniquely inhabited planet matter.
I find that these questions are very, the responses people make these questions are very, kind of deep innate that almost psychologically structured. It’s the same way really a question of talking about whether there’s other life on Earth that might have forms of intelligence that we haven’t recognized up till now. It’s the same question also about whether there could be well, but whether there could be natural origins for things like gratitude, but I’ll leave that aside.
But for now, I find that one group of people find it amongst students have a strong sense of the connection between uniqueness and standing of stature. And they are and if we’re not the only thing and if especially if we’re not top of the tree, somehow that that degrades us.
And I find this another attitude that is happy to say the more the merrier. And this is definitely my perspective. I don’t think I’m any less, or you’re any less or anyone’s any less remarkable, because there are other things alongside them.
So I would want to have a suppose quite an objective sense of human dignity and worth, in my fact that I have memory, intellect and will, and agency and love and the capacity for forgiveness and all these sorts of things. If it turns out the dolphins can do all of that, or chimpanzees, I didn’t feel like I am pulled down because other things are lifted up. And it’s the same with life elsewhere in the universe. But, and I don’t, I’m not sure that you could argue me to that position or away from it. It’s just, it’s the kind of person that I am.
Samuele Lilliu. Yeah, that’s a personal view.
Andrew Davison. Yeah. And if someone else says, if there are other things that are like us, if we’re not special, then somehow I’m less worthwhile. It’s quite difficult to argue people away from that. So I think it’s a good example of where is necessarily working at a philosophical level, or at least it’s grounded in something really quite.
Samuele Lilliu 1:11:22. Yeah, that’s a personal perception thing. Yeah,
Andrew Davison 1:11:25. One of the things that I sometimes noted, is, we’re gonna if we get this data, especially if it’s sign of non-intelligent life, one day we’ll be euphoric, because we’ll have this fantastic discovery, the next day, we’ll have loads and loads of questions, and almost no capacity that I can think of immediately to make progress. Because you’d have to build a whole new generation of telescopes, and even then, what extra data are they going to give? Well, I don’t put any limits on the ingenuity of the sciences, scientists, but I think it’s going to be there’s going to be quite a strong hangover the next day. So…
Samuele Lilliu 1:12:04. You’re talking about detection of some bio signatures, which are chemical signatures that we can measure that might indicate that there is some biological entity in a planet out there, but if we want to know more than we need to build more and more powerful telescopes, and maybe eventually go there.
Andrew Davison 1:12:24 Yes. Right. But that could take... Yeah, I think there’s a good prospect of as having this great breakthrough and then maybe imagining that it’ll take more than the lifetime of people who are around to be able to make very much progress. I think that’s will come down to earth with a bit of a [?].
You asked about the implications that this would have for people and society and then speaking from the perspective that I know a bit about from the religious perspective, there was this very interesting study, spearheaded by Ted Peters, in the United States. And he did what I don’t do, which is empirical research, I think, in cooperation with experts in that field, and he did the obvious thing, but I don’t know whether anyone had ever done it before, which was to ask people, so he asked a wide range of people from a wide range of religious perspectives. Basically, would they be threatened? Would they their faith be threatened with their worldview be challenged if there was evidence of life elsewhere in the universe? And the headline figure is, most people said no.
There’s a bit of a difference between one tradition or another, which you might expect, but generally, they said they expected they would take it in their stride. He did a clever thing as well, which was to ask people who didn’t espouse any particular religious faith, what they thought the religious believers answer would be, and it was pretty much kind of upside down. So if you ask the religious correspondent figures which members the public, they’re generally at 90% of them saying, that’s fine. If you ask the non-religious people what they thought their religious friends would say, it was pretty much the upside down is that 70% of them were saying, Oh, they’re gonna find this really challenging. So
Samuele Lilliu 1:14:22. Because maybe they’re interested in challenging religion.
Andrew Davison 1:14:26. Yeah, or just maybe shows that there’s a need for more religious, theological literacy and we don’t really understand what other people think. And there’s this narrative from the media from that historical picture, which was dominant throughout the 20th century, which is increasingly being debunked that the basic position between theology, religion and science is one of enmity and combat and so on, I think that’s really seeped into our work.
Personally, I know I have the college that is least half scientists. And you know, some of them are quite devout, others of them or not, but I haven’t come across people who are antagonistic.
Samuele Lilliu 1:15:17. Yeah. But that’s what makes views. That’s what people want to see people want to see conflict, because that keeps them watching…
Andrew Davison 1:15:24 It makes headlines and posts and things. But the idea that you wouldn’t write a Twitter post that said that this is rather nuanced thing and is not easy to summarize. And it involves people just being human beings, that doesn’t make for a good social media posters.
Samuele Lilliu 1:15:41.So when the guy, what’s his name? Ted Peters runs the survey, I don’t think he can really capture what’s going to be the reaction of people for a very simple reason, that the reaction of people will depend on the mood at that specific time. So if I asked you, how would you react, if someone was picking up a fight in a pub, you could tell me something now, but until you are in that specific situation, you’re not going to know if you’re gonna run away or, you know, punch him in the face. So it depends is that there is the emotional reaction, and a series of things that you cannot really predict sometimes. So I think the reaction of people will be directly proportional to the amount of importance that mainstream media and social media will give to the discovery. So if they say this is mildly important, maybe it would be forgotten after a week. But if they stress on the importance of this thing, maybe they will, people will really care about this stuff.
Andrew Davison 1:16:50. Depends what else is happening in the world at the time, it depends in the way in which it’s presented…
Samuele Lilliu 1:16:56. I want to talk about the technological developments. And thank you for suggesting this book from David Chalmers, I’ve read half of it. So intersection between technology and theology. Now, computer processing power has been increasing steadily. And you’re probably familiar with the Moore’s law, which is basically a law where you plot the logarithm of the amount of chips, amount of transistors within a chip versus time. And there’s been, it’s a straight line. So it has been steadily going up and up since 1975, or something like…
Andrew Davison 1:17:39. we might be getting quite close to the quantum mechanical limits.
Samuele Lilliu 1:17:43. So there have been a series of waves of innovation. Now we’re in the so called the third wave, I actually discussed this stuff with the Microsystems Technology Office director from DARPA, who is leading this sort of wave of innovation. And now there are apparently new architectures that go beyond Von Neumann’s architecture, so no new types of computing, quantum computers, and so on.
With these improvements, we are able to do more and more powerful simulation. So we could think that in some distant future, we’ll be able to run simulations of our life immersed, for example, we could simulate chemical reactions at large scale. Or it could even come up with some sort of conscious, super AI.
So maybe in after some time, we will be able to simulate people, like people, maybe for scientific purposes. So let’s see how these people interact. Maybe I’m running a political campaign, and I want to see what would be the outcome of my strategy. Or maybe I’m a historian, I want to see how people would have behaved back in during the some war, the French Revolution, whatever.
So there are some people that, David Chalmers and Nick Bostrom, that say that it’s highly possible that we might live in a simulation. Bostrom in 2003, wrote a paper, “Are you living in a computer simulation” he said that three of these statements must be true, says the first one is that human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a post human stage. The other one is that any post human civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history. This is called the simulation block. And the other one is that we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.
So this opens up a can of warms for theology and also gives a different perspective. So if we were living in a computer simulation, what would be the theological implications?
Andrew Davison 1:19:59. Well, One thing I’d say is that the fundamental questions about creation, the derivation of all things. They, they just get kicked up a level on another level, it could be a simulation within a simulation and eventually, you get to stuff. And you ask questions about why is anything rather than nothing? And all the usual questions apply? I have to say, I have two reasons why I’m a bit averse to this. One is scientific. And it’s the idea of just the complexity, what we would need, seem to remember reading that, to replicate the complexity of a human brain, you’d need a current day computer, about the size of the aisle of Manhattan. And then if you’re going to have something that isn’t just a brain of a person, well, that’s got the relationship between those two things is contested. But you’re going to simulate a whole world in which that is to be found, I just don’t know whether it’s, it seems that…
Samuele Lilliu 1:21:03. but for the human brain, and I guess you explore this topic, quite a lot, isn’t it? Isn’t it probably a matter of how the neurons are interconnected than the function that these neurons have? Because I mean, I could come up with the something that is the size of human brain with maybe with some circuitry, neural networks. And maybe I managed to find the right types of connections and other activation functions, and maybe nothing works. So I don’t need that huge computer…
Andrew Davison 1:21:37. even if you have that you also need the biggest simulation, which is have all of reality possibly ever come across. And that feels profligate. They put it that way. I mean, I’m no general. In wider questions of ethics and theology, I’m no great enthusiast for William of Ockham. But there does seem to be a certain kind of experience the second act, so scientifically, I think it’s a very big ask.
And then philosophically, I just, I will tend to take the non-solipsistic angle, there’s not all about me that things are not more complicated than they look that… There seems to be something a bit elitist, or kind of gnostic about the idea of the enlightened person who turns to the other 6 billion people and says, “Now, of course, you think that material stuff is material stuff, and you know, all the rest, but actually, I’m the enlightened person who can tell you that it’s all a simulation”.
So I just have that kind of, again, it’s probably quite knee jerk and psychological. Yeah, and I have to admit that there is a fundamental Christian, championing of matter and materiality and the goodness of matter, we had that punch up in the church with the Gnostics, and the pit of the [?] was, you know, wanted to say that reality is, is spiritual and mental, and one has to escape from matter and so on. And there was it’s pretty definitive of the Christian tradition that it pushed back and said, No matter is as a good thing, and part of creation, and we need to understand ourselves in terms of flesh and blood and, and that kind of thing. So that again, maybe that’s something I need to get over. But I think I have an inbuilt religious point of orientation towards the materiality of matter, and its goodness.
Another thing I’d say is, I guess that all these things can get round them. But the role of a body in cognition and the fact that we think in fundamentally bodily ways, I suppose that could be simulated, but we shouldn’t to easily think of cognition as this ethereal intangible thing. People have talked about our thought being embodied enacted extended with the use of objects and embedded we think in terms of the context that we’re in. I suppose all that could be simulated, I just think there’s well Chalmers so you mentioned is quite important writer on this has been to stand against a kind of Cartesianism that would want to try and have the mind floating free of the body and its environment. But I need to think about all this and one of the things that Chalmers says just from reading the review in the TLS about it is a simulated entity needs to be taken seriously as an entity.
Samuele Lilliu 1:24:46. Yeah, is simulated the world is as real as a, an actual world…
Andrew Davison 1:24:51. Makes sense to say we would have moral responsibilities towards if things are really not very sympathetic to this as a possibility but if things were created that had memory, intellect, well love, no forgiveness good and evil, because freedom is an interesting question. But I’m open to the idea that a sufficiently complicated system can produce non-deterministic situations, that’s the elephant in the room. But if those things existed, then I think we would have to accord them the dignity and protections that the idea of creating them and then snuffing them out or of manipulating them in a way that we would think was immoral, with another human being…
Samuele Lilliu 1:25:41. you’re saying that if we could run a simulation of let’s say, a little world of 18th century, we should have concerns in terms of how do we treat these simulated beings? Because they’re conscious.
Andrew Davison 1:25:57. I think if they had the qualities that we’ve so admire and protect, among ourselves, we would be duty bound to treat them with in the same way.
Samuele Lilliu 1:26:10. Now, in terms of in theological terms, if, let’s say that we have the technology to run such a simulation, so I can I, like, go buy some software, and there’s a company that says this simulation software, and I got this super powerful computer that can do all these wonderful things. Maybe it doesn’t simulate everything, maybe just simulate things locally, until people go, let’s say, I take a microscope, and then the simulation takes place there so that you don’t need to spend huge amounts of computing power. But let’s say that this is possible. So when I press the button, simulate, start the universe, maybe accelerate things and change parameters, make things certain things happen. Would I be the God for those people within the simulation? That that’s the sort of theological question? So am I the God of for them in their perspective?
Andrew Davison 1:27:05. Well, there are ways of using words that are not absolutely the same and not absolutely different, you know that. So we wouldn’t want to use the word God there, you know
Samuele Lilliu. No god with the small g.
Andrew Davison. So I’m not using it in exactly like I would use say that a bungalow and a mansion are both a house. But neither am I, maybe using it exactly like we would say that the bark of the tree and the bark of a dog, you know, there’s really no connection. I think, as you might expect, for the theologians to gravitate towards pointing out the ways in which we wouldn’t be like, God. One is we wouldn’t be making anything out of nothing… and we wouldn’t be the will be the absolute origin of all being, we wouldn’t
Samuele Lilliu 1:27:59. We wouldn’t be the creator and the designer at the same time, because if I’m buying the software, or someone else is designing,
Andrew Davison 1:28:03. And it’s running on silicon. So that’s one thing. So the human the human brain has, in this hypothetical situation has been clever enough to make the software but the system that it’s running completely outstrips the creator, you wouldn’t be able to look at the software and be able to understand everything in one, one vision, you wouldn’t be imminent to it. So I think it wouldn’t take. So in a sense, it wouldn’t take divine transcendence seriously enough that God is beyond and infinite.
Samuele Lilliu 1:28:40. Even though you could have some analytics tool that those statistics Okay, we got this number of people, they are happy there.
Andrew Davison 1:28:47. That’s not the same thing as saying, Augustine says, God is closer to me than I am to myself. This is absolutely intimately present, every everything every aspect. Again, we wouldn’t
Samuele Lilliu 1:29:00. You wouldn’t be you wouldn’t be able to do that, because you don’t have the mental capabilities to do such a thing. Yeah.
Andrew Davison 1:29:08. But this is this completely new territory for me to be thinking about virtual reality and simulations and so on. But it seems like chamas has really got the head running.
Samuele Lilliu 1:29:18. Yeah. And another question that the that he asks, is that what would be the motivation for a simulated being to worship the simulator? Which also translates to what’s the motivation for someone that comes to the conclusion that there is God to worship God? And in fact, I mean, I’m saying this because taking the perspective of the simulated worlds gives us a unique perspective into theology, I guess.
Andrew Davison 1:29:49. It’s not a completely unfamiliar image. So I’ve mentioned […] says already, she wrote a book called the Mind of the Maker in the middle of the 20th century. She was a novelist of most famous Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey and the Series of Wonderful Detective Novels. And she also translated Dante into English rhyming couplets, which is not an easy thing to do
Samuele Lilliu 1:30:11. Do you read Dante in Italian or in English?
Andrew Davison 1:30:15. well, I read it when I read it in English with an Italian with the Italian next to it. I can’t just read it without the… but I revere Dante as one of the world’s greatest writers.
Yeah, so she’s a translator, Dante, she wrote, she was she wrote some wonderful radio plays. How do I get to Dorothea says, what we took, oh, she wrote a book called Mind The Maker. So she, she explores the author story relationship, as an analogy between the creator and the creation, just, it’s not exactly the same as this simulation. But this shows that these things have been looked at from somewhat equivalent angles.
Samuele Lilliu 1:30:54. Because one thing is acknowledging that the simulator of the creator did a great thing, and you’re thankful for the creation, but another thing is worshiping the creator. There is a difference between…
Andrew Davison 1:31:08. So this is sort of I see that there might be a parallel there in terms of gratitude, and recognition of a source. I know that the theological idea of God goes beyond that, because it’s the source of the source of the matter, the laws, the fact that it’s anything rather than nothing. But I can see that there’s an analogy there. I suppose one of the things that shifts gratitude into worship, is also the sense of excellence. So I think maybe something within a simulation would recognize the intellectual prowess of the man who’d made it. But that wouldn’t necessarily shade into for instance, moral goodness, or beauty. So striking how much religious traditions circle around the idea of God as beautiful and God as good. And it may not necessarily follow in this simulator, simulation model that people would think that the coder was all good or beautiful.
Samuele Lilliu 1:32:16. Maybe five years old child playing in the bedroom…
Andrew Davison 1:32:20. kind of Minecraft. 2.0.
Samuele Lilliu 1:32:22. …creating any sort of distraction, and cataclysms and making them suffer and all this thing.
Now, do you think simulated beings, and that thing applies also to aliens maybe. So let’s say that we run this simulation, we start a new universe, let it evolve, and then we run hundreds of simulations until we some intelligent species pops up. Do you think they will develop religion?
Andrew Davison 1:33:00. So we can take that question out of the simulation? Oh, about the stuff out there the aliens?
Samuele Lilliu 1:33:04. Do you think they would develop a sense of spirituality, belief in God and religion?
Andrew Davison 1:33:12. So there’s a lot of work done in the last few decades about whether religion is an overarching category or not? Whether you can gather up a disparate range of human behaviors and traditions and call them the same thing.
There are common things and but one of the arguments against it has been the ones that do it almost always subsume everything else to their model, you end up saying, “Oh well, religion is basically like Christianity, and we’re going to make all these things like it” or, or whatever, that’s there’s just a human, inbuilt tendency to extrapolate from what you understand as being as if that was the overarching categories, that one of the one of the reasons against the idea of, at least to hastily lumping religion together has been it’s tended to subsume it under a kind of, often economically and culturally dominant paradigm.
Nonetheless, and I’m not an anthropologist, it does seem that certain dispositions and forms of behavior are as old as humanity and recur pretty much everywhere and they would be about reverence, certain kind of taboos and undoable and thinkable things, marking pass a rites of passage, beginning and end of life, puberty and marriage, alliances between houses, so these seem to be pretty, pretty widespread.
So I think that the anthropologist might say if Earth has anything to go by then creatures that can refer self-reflexive, and can reflect upon their stages of life and these big questions like, Is there an standard of goodness and evil? Why is there anything rather than nothing? How do we know what’s true?
These seem like, to me like questions that would emerge elsewhere, although I have to be agnostic about whether there are different forms of intelligence for which these sorts of questions don’t emerge. But I’m a I’m a metaphysical realist, so I tend to think that the that the mind conforms itself to a reality outs that is objective and beyond itself, rather than just kind of making it up.
So if Earth is anything to go by you, you might expect that people would… other creatures elsewhere, would be trying to navigate uncertainty and complexity and moral and complex complexity with something that’s, that’s vaguely analogous. Now, there are people who talk about other creatures as having evolved beyond it. I think Jill Tarter, who was involved with SETI is a good example of this, just she I think, is a bit of sort of affirming the consequent sort of making a prior decision about religion being a backward thing. And then on the basis of that saying, are because they’re advanced, therefore, they’ve given up on it.
Samuele Lilliu 1:36:38. Which is a bit offensive for religious people.
Andrew Davison 1:36:40. Well it just seems like it just doesn’t seem, it seems to me that it assumes the thing that you want to prove that it’s that the question remains, is religion, necessarily a backward thing? And is it something that one would, that one would move beyond? And maybe it’s quite a Western perspective, European perspective, perhaps, to think that the world’s becoming less religious, if we were in other parts of the world that might not look like the way in which history is going?
So I think we probably if we could communicate, we would find things to talk about. It seems to me over good and evil, beauty truth being, I suppose I’m metaphor, you know, philosophically minded kind of person. For me, theology and philosophy are very, you know, they, they, they overlap, they share important boundaries. And so that’s partly because I don’t think the philosophical questions will go away that I can imagine the being parallels as well. And also because I, perhaps someone who doesn’t think of there being such a tight boundary between philosophy and theology, that seems like quite a modern and modern thing than most of human history, that things that look like philosophy, and the things that look like religion or theology have been pretty intermingled.
Samuele Lilliu 1:38:00. Probably this is a question that we have in philosophy, this is a big questions we have in philosophy, what’s the meaning of life? Where are we going? Why are we here? Is it possible that these things are baked in evolution, that’s baked in the biology of humans? As a result of the way, okay, so trying to survive, trying to…
Andrew Davison 1:38:27. There are evolutionary accounts of religion and that doesn’t necessarily mean that even on that view, the evolution of religion wouldn’t be present elsewhere. I mean, if you think that evolution of the religion comes about, because it’s evolutionary beneficial, it tends to stabilize societies, it tends to create heroism, it tends to… all sorts of other things that people have said… or I think less plausible, but there are ways in which brains develop, and psychology and it’s a kind of artifact. So one theory is, we’ve evolved to detect agency, it’s better to have a brain that detects it too much than too little, because it’s best to be scared of rustling leaves into beaten by tiger. And that then that leads us to detect agency in the universe that in the form of a Maker that isn’t there. That’s the sort of hyperactive agency detected detection model and module theory, I think, has lots of problems. But even if you did accept an evolutionary basis for the emergence of religion, that would seem to me an argument in favor of it turning up elsewhere. Because I am more inclined to say that evolution has given us pretty omni competent brains that can think about all sorts of things that don’t have directly evolutionary benefits, like abstract mathematics and that kind of thing. And it’s a bit of a genetic fallacy to say that just because an evolutionary process has given us brains, that the only thing that the brain can do is to serve an evolutionary process.
Samuele Lilliu 1:40:06. Yeah, but why do we do maths? We do maths, maybe because we’re curious. And curiosity. Curiosity. Why are you curious? Originally, maybe because you want to find new food.
Andrew Davison 1:40:21. But that doesn’t mean that the thing so curious about have got to then only serve evolutionary.
Samuele Lilliu 1:40:27. Yeah, yeah. So I guess there’s remnants of previous traits that we had, like, why do we compete in sports? That comes from previous abilities that we had, because of the way we evolved and we keep doing those things, even if there is no, we’re not being chased by some wild animals. But we still like to run…
Andrew Davison 1:40:50. That looks like you might say, material condition, but not it’s a necessary but not sufficient condition, or it’s a material condition. It’s not a formal one. It’s true, that we couldn’t run or compete in gymnastics, or, you know, dance at the ballet, unless we’d have this evolutionary story. But the idea that that explains or explains away what’s happening, the ballet or…
Samuele Lilliu, No of course not.
Andrew Davison. With a doesn’t also talk about it as being about the quest for excellence, beauty, honor, compact, you know, competition, traditions. I just, I think this is a really good example of how the picture would without the sight, that’s evolutionary explanation would be incomplete. But it can’t…
Samuele Lilliu 1:41:39. It can’t explain everything. Yeah, yeah. Okay, so the other thing I want to ask you is about, I think that’s something you mentioned before about multiple incarnations in different planets.
What’s the motivation or justification for transferring concepts that that basically belong to Christianity, dogmas of Christianity is to other civilizations outside our World? Why do you think this thing would happen in other words, for example, incarnation? Is there any justification for transferring these concepts?
Andrew Davison 1:42:18. Well, I think this distinction between saying, this is the way in which one views the world and saying, it’s inconceivable that anyone could think differently. So and that would apply to philosophical traditions as well. And if you’re Raëlian, then you really think the world works, according to the Raëlian principles. And they are the tools of thought that you have and you’re going to think about the world elsewhere, including whatever else there isn’t the cosmos, and well, you’d have a certain humility about saying, of course, it’s possible that this isn’t the right way of looking at things and I’ll try and give an account of why think about it. And I’ll listen to why you don’t think that way. And I think that’s somewhat like the way in which a Christian is going to say, Well, my bearings, these are my bearings, how I make sense of the world. And I’m going to try and make sense of other things that way, and they are not open, I am open to the prospect that I might have got it wrong, and all that my thinking needs to develop. So that’s part of what’s going on what’s going on.
And it could be very arrogant, or it could be almost quite humble, saying, well, we’ve all got all thought is mediated through some kind of, of structure and concepts and axioms and these are mine. And that’s how I understand the world. And I’m very happy to talk to you about yours. And let’s have a good conversation.
So in the book, I wanted to make a distinction between some things that the book just wouldn’t be an exercise in Christian theology if it thought otherwise. And other topics that seemed to me were much more up for grabs. So I wasn’t going to say, let’s imagine the world wasn’t created, it doesn’t have this relationship of dependence. I wasn’t going to say, let’s imagine that Christianity is just completely wrong and thinking about God as being three in one but those would be great books but they just wouldn’t be the the book from the tradition that I’m writing out of, but I wanted to keep my tethers you know, things I was the things I was jumping off from relatively few in number and fundamental.
So I particularly wanted to leave open questions like, Does every culture of intelligent beings always kind of go down morally disastrous trajectories or not? And I also wanted to say God is free to respond to other creatures in a way that’s appropriate to what they are and their own story and also to recognize that Christians have wanted to say that God is free.
So I wanted to leave that plenty that was contingent, when in fact, the book ends up being an exploration of don’t just think it has to be A why not, let’s think also about B, it’s sort of a bit of a tree diagram of just how broad the territory is that we might explore. But the tree has to start from somewhere. And I was starting from, from God as Trinity and creator.
And you’re going to gravitate to the things that you think are most fundamental. And that Christian tradition is probably going to say, there’s the sense that God has spoken. And most of all, there’s the sense that God has come among us by taking up our nature. And I am open to the idea that that hasn’t happened elsewhere and I’m open to the idea that it has. And my argument is what I think of as a kind of Star Wars analogy. So beginning of Star Wars, as I remember, from my childhood, it says long ago in a galaxy far, far away, and it tells the story. And my discussion of multiple incarnations sort of hinges on this. And it’s a kind of counterfactual, what if there was only one incarnation in the universe, and what if it wasn’t here, whatever it was, if it was elsewhere, in that case, we’d open Luke’s gospel and in the first chapter, rather than saying, in the ninth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to a virgin, whose name was Mary spoused to Joseph and the story of the Annunciation, and the Nativity and all the rest, instead of saying that it would say, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, this thing, this creature that you can’t even imagine, had this thing happened to it that you can’t even imagine and then these things happened, which you can’t imagine, especially if the body is very different. And we think in a very bodily way, we just have no traction. Now, from a theological perspective, I would be perfectly happy to say that what happened long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, could redeem the world.
But it’s pretty integral to Christianity, that God has drawn near to us, become one of us, Aquinas says, because the only way that God could be friends with us, and we could be friends with God would be, oh, it’s appropriate, that there should be the sense of, of being among us as one of us. Or you could think about Revelation and communication. A a big idea goes back centuries and centuries millennia, that that is in the Scriptures and in the story of the Incarnation, God has accommodated himself to us, which is to say, God has spoken to us in the way that we could receive. And often the images of like in a nursery, you talk to a child in a different way, you talk to an adult, you kind of descend to their level, and you and you talk to them in a way that they can understand.
Now, generally, Christians haven’t thought that the incarnation is only about communication isn’t only about intimacy and friendship, but that’s part of what’s happening. And if it’s an important part of what’s happening, then to open Luke’s gospel and find just a story of something that I can’t comprehend. It just doesn’t feel like what Christians have said the incarnation is about. So on that basis, because I think God has drawn near to us and it really matters that we’ve seen God face to face, a Christian would say, I err towards thinking that other creatures would see God face to face in a face that they could understand. But you know, I’ll, I will. I will not try to be prescriptive I, mainly in the book trying to open up a broad range of options and show it’s broader, perhaps than people sometimes thought. And I will tip my hat in the direction of what we’re really probably where my instincts lie, but it’s no more than that.
Samuele Lilliu 1:48:53. Okay. Last thing I wanted to ask you is, how would we interact with a hypothetical alien civilization that we might encounter one day? We are in the realm of science fiction. How would you interact with them and I would interact with them and judge them if they were really different from us if they didn’t have concepts like love or compassion, if they were like reptilians?
Andrew Davison 1:49:25. Well, my own work tends always to veer away from contact kinds of narratives, partly because I think sometimes you’re mistaken for, if you think about this sort of topic, that’s what you have to be interested in. In fact, you probably have to believe we’ve already been visited. And I tried to keep a bit of blue water between myself and…
Samuele Lilliu 1:49:49. If believe in the UFO stories and all those…
Andrew Davison 1:49:53. So yeah, get in the newspaper about this and I tell you, you received quite a lot of strange emails and with pictures and maps and things, so it really isn’t my area of specialism. I think there’s a fascinating set of questions about language. And I think there’s a group setting up an initiative in Cambridge on exolanguage, which I can get some details for you. So there are lots of interest questions about that and there’s some, some work done on it… on the ethical questions…
Samuele Lilliu 1:50:25. I think about that, that Didier Queloz said that we can’t even talk to animals. How can we think that we can talk to extraterrestrials? Maybe we should first try to talk to dogs. And
Andrew Davison 1:50:40. well, Peter Smith has a wonderful book about octopuses, saying we should not underestimate the both the intelligence of these creatures and the utter strangeness. And if they’ve got a brain in each limb, as well as the head. So possibly we have alien intelligences among us. And their intelligence is so different from ours, that we didn’t recognize it for which reason I’ve stopped eating octopus. So I think that there are all sorts of questions about that. And it’s, you know, it’s personhood a thing Augustine talks about, as I’ve mentioned, before, human beings been characterized by memory, intellect, and will, is there something about intelligence that’s going to converge on those or, or not? These are, these are great questions, and I’m not sure I’ve got answers for them.
On the moral questions, I tend to personally espouse approaches to ethics, that I think are both quite objective and quite flexible. So the tradition of writing about the virtues, says, there are excellences, which are prudence, courage, temperance, justice, and then several other ones. And then Christianity throws in faith, hope and love, but we’ll talk about the Aristotelian ones, and they are excellent. And that seemed to be an objective thing. But what that looks like in any particular context, depends upon the context. So if I am, if I’m sick, for instance, then I’m kind of let off being temperate, I should just basically, whatever it is, that’s going to make me better. Or in religion, you know, again, rules about sort of about fasting, for instance, if you’re, if you’re responsible for caring for somebody, then then it’s not sensible to fast, but if you’re in good health, and that is part of the tradition, so and similarly. And then there’s the virtue tradition, which has a, I think, a useful balance between a sense that there are these things that are excellent, but they get played out according to the context. And then there’s also the natural law tradition, which in Thomas Aquinas, I think, is actually pretty well integrated with the virtue tradition. And that, again, has a sense that there are some things that are just quite objectively good, but also a sense that that needs to be worked out contextually. So he has the sense that you also need human positive laws, which respond to the particular situation. So the justice is justice. But what that looks like in a fishing community is going to be different laws from one in a farming community, in a forestry community or something like that.
So I think there are traditions to thinking about ethics, which in these cases are have been expanded in a religious way. But there’s direct overlaps with other religions as well and non-religious approaches. That would at least give us the beginnings of being able to say, we don’t have to be complete relativists. But neither do we have to imagine that things just look absolutely like a carbon copy of what right and wrong looks like on you.
You spoke about the reptilian you know, the idea that of the creatures that are just without mercy, without kindness,
Samuele Lilliu 1:54:01. That’s a stereotype…
Andrew Davison 1:54:03. That’s a really interesting question, though, about whether such as civilization could survive. Jesus has this thing about house that’s divided against itself cannot…
Samuele Lilliu 1:54:13. Well, we already have reptilians on this planet, right? If you follow David Icke, I’m joking.
Andrew Davison 1:54:18. If you’re talking about the just like the reptilian, kind of, you know, the, it’s all about preservation and fighting back and so on. But I am generally an optimist. And I, you know, maybe I’m in danger of taking a rosy view of things, but I think that there’s a good case to be made, that civilizations that don’t embrace mercy, kindness, cooperation, are not going to be the ones that survive. You really need to look at the history of, of Europe in the middle of the 20th century, to see that some of the decisions during the Second World War were not good strategic decisions because they were the work of people who weren’t open to perspectives of others, who were whose perspectives were closed down, you know, by unkindness and became delusional because of a lack of human sympathy.
Samuele Lilliu 1:55:26. Yeah, but it didn’t stop there…
Andrew Davison 1:55:28. Yeah, but they, you know, and no, we’re recording this whilst there’s a war on in in Europe and it seems that where you have a sense of community of a service to something that transcends even your own life, that tends to lead to heroism and forms of cooperation that are very useful. So I think that there’s… I’m talking off the top of my head, but the idea that a civilization could evolve, that lacked these positive virtues, and that somehow that that would be an advantage. I think that’s really open to contestation.
Samuele Lilliu 1:56:15. Maybe depends on the biology of that species. That’s hard to say, well, there are animals that I think there are some spiders that even eat the partner after the mate, which is creepy.
Okay, so I think we reached the two hours and we’re running out of recording space, So I wanted to ask you, when is your book going to be out? So Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine? Well, when can people go and buy it?
Andrew Davison 1:56:46. Well, an author always ought to be circumspect about giving exact dates, but I think October 2022.
Samuele Lilliu 1:56:53. okay. And it’s published by…
Andrew Davison 1:56:56. The publisher will be absolutely determined on Friday. Oh, yeah. I’m pretty confident that I’m not going to insult my insult the board that has to meet on Friday to make a decision. Okay. You can maybe you can overlay a note at the bottom of the screen saying who it will be.
Samuele Lilliu 1:57:14. Okay. So it has been a pleasure Andrew.
Andrew Davison. Pleasure me as well.