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Would You Baptize Aliens? An Interview with Two Vatican Astronomers

Vatican

Today I sit down with two Catholic scientists, Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J. and Father Paul Mueller, S.J. Both men work for the Vatican Observatory, which is based at Castel Gandolfo, Italy. And together they wrote a new book, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? and Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-box at the Vatican Observatory (Image Books, 2014).

Brother Consolmagno is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a B.A. and M.A. in planetary science. After earning a Ph.D from the University of Arizona, he taught at Harvard and MIT before eventually lading at the Vatican Observatory. There he works as the curator of the Vatican Meteorite Collection and researches the connections among meteorites, asteroids, and small bodies in the solar system. He has written more than 40 refereed scientific papers and a number of popular books, including his memoir, Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist. Earlier this year, the American Astronomical Society awarded him the Carl Sagan Award for excellence in communicating planetary science to the general public.

Brother Consolmagno is also well known for his fun appearance on The Colbert Report:

Father Mueller is a philosopher of science who serves as superior of the Jesuit community at Castel Gandolfo. He holds a B.S. in physics from Boston University, an M.A. in philosophy from Loyola University of Chicago, M.Div and S.T.M. degrees in theology from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, and a Ph.D in the philosophy of science from the University of Chicago.
 


 
BRANDON: Brother Guy, as a PhD physicist, Jesuit brother, Vatican astronomer, and Colbert Report guest, you're a sign of contradiction. How did you end up a religious scientist? Do you find any contradiction between those two roles?

BROTHER GUY CONSOLMAGNO, SJ: I have no idea why you'd see any contradiction; I don't. I struggle mightily to figure out what bad assumptions people are making about science and religion when they think that! I know scientists of all religious faiths, and that should be no more surprising than to say that I know religious people who have all sorts of jobs!

BaptizeETOf course my scientific training shapes the habits of thought I use when I think about God, but I also know that my way of thinking about God is neither the only way to think, nor unique just to me as a scientist. And being a person of faith obviously shapes the kinds of questions I think are fun to work on, and the way that I will go about working on them. For instance, I hate the idea of hoarding data; you learn by sharing, and learning is more important to me than getting a career edge on some scientific rival.

I think the big mistake behind the question is thinking that science and religion are rival sets of "things" that must be "believed." “What do I do, if science tells me one thing but religion tells me another thing? Which do I believe?”

There’s a false assumption at the center of that question—because neither science nor religion are about “believing” in “things”. But my religious belief is not in a “thing,” but in a Person—indeed, Three Persons...the Father, Son, and Spirit as described and identified in the Creed, and in the Church that leads us to those Persons. And science is not about the "things" we call data points, but in the description we come up with to describe how those "things" work. The data points stay the same, but the description changes as science changes.

BRANDON: Fr. Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), a Belgian cosmologist and Catholic priest, is widely considered the father of the Big Bang theory, which he introduced in 1927. Today it's the most widely accepted theory for the origin of the universe. However, Fr. Lemaître and Pope Pius XII disagreed on the theory's implications for a Creator God. What's the significance of the Big Bang and does it provide support for a Creator?

BROTHER CONSOLMAGNO: Lemaitre himself was adamant that his theory was a nice description based on the mathematics of Relativity and the observations of Hubble, but it should never be taken as a last word... much less something infallible on which one could base one's faith. And in fact, following their conversation, it's pretty clear that he convinced Pope Pius XII of this, as well. I would turn the relationship between Big Bang and Creator around...and suggest that belief in a Creator God, who is "The Word"—the Logos...Logic...Reason—provides support for the idea that we ought to be able to understand Creation in terms of a rational, mathematical theory like the Big Bang.

BRANDON: Back in 2006, the International Astronomical Union downgraded Pluto from planet to "dwarf planet." In the book you note the special role the Vatican played in this decision. How was the Church involved?

BROTHER CONSOLMAGNO: We were astronomers among our fellow astronomers who debated the point. As it happened, I was on one of the (several) commissions that was involved in the discussion, and Fr. Corbally was on the committee that wrote the final resolution voted on by the IAU. But the whole topic is interesting for another reason: it reminds us that "science" is not eternal, and we shouldn't be surprised when it changes its mind in the face of new data. That's one reason why science is not a good foundation for religious belief.

BRANDON:In May 2014, Pope Francis said, "Imagine if a Martian showed up, all big ears and big nose like a child's drawing, and he asked to be baptized. How would you react?" What would your response be?

BROTHER CONSOLMAGNO: I’d want to be sure they really knew what they were asking for! How could you tell? Well...are they willing to share a meal with me? To help me out if I am hurt, at the side of the road? To offer their life for me? And would I be willing to do likewise?

FATHER PAUL MUELLER, SJ: Let’s not forget that Pope Francis was mainly making a point about humans, not about Martians. He was talking about how the early Church struggled over the question of whether non-Jews could be admitted to baptism. The early Jewish-Christians saw themselves as God’s Chosen People, and saw in Jesus the Messiah who God had promised would save them. They had difficulty imagining how that salvation could be extended to non-Jews. But in the end the Church decided that all people were chosen by God, and that baptism could be extended to all. So I think that the Pope’s question was mainly about us and how we see ourselves as chosen by God, rather than about Martians.

BRANDON: You spend several pages in the book on the Galileo affair. What really happened? Could the dispute have been avoided?

BROTHER CONSOLMAGNO: History is made by individuals; individuals could always make different decisions. What happened to Galileo and all the other people in that time and place was the result of the times and the politics and the fears and the hopes of all those individuals. It's not surprising that it happened; but it wasn't necessarily inevitable.

FATHER MUELLER: What really happened with Galileo is a long and complex story—read our book! But our book can get at only some aspects of the story. Of course the dispute could have been avoided, or could have gone differently. History is contingent, after all. And while we’re at it, the subsequent history of interpretation of the Galileo story also could have gone differently—it didn’t have to be interpreted as a great symbol of conflict between faith and science.

BRANDON: Suppose you had one minute to explain to an atheist how "the heavens declare the glory of God." What would you say?

BROTHER CONSOLMAGNO: Go outside and look for yourself! If there's not a God they are praising, there ought to be!

FATHER MUELLER: You can see the lunch that your wife packs for you just as lunch, or as an expression of the love which she has for you. You can see the stars in heaven just as stars, or as an expression of the Love which God is. For those who believe in the God, who is Love and who is ultimate Creator of being and order, the glory of God is declared not just by the heavens but by everything else that exists: by pebbles, earthworms, and trout scales; by hornet nests, finches’ wings, and hockey players; and yes, by atheists too.

BaptizeET-Amazon

Brandon Vogt

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Brandon Vogt is a bestselling author, blogger, and speaker. He's also the founder of StrangeNotions.com. Brandon has been featured by several media outlets including NPR, CBS, FoxNews, SiriusXM, and EWTN. He converted to Catholicism in 2008, and since then has released several books, including The Church and New Media (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011), Saints and Social Justice (Our Sunday Visitor, 2014), and RETURN (Numinous Books, 2015). He works as the Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Brandon lives with his wife, Kathleen, and their five children in Central Florida. Follow him at BrandonVogt.com or connect through Twitter at @BrandonVogt.

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  • That's a great interview. Thanks for sharing it!

  • teo

    If I could snap my fingers and have a different life it would be the Vatican Astronomer. Sweet.

  • I think this was a dodge on the question of whether the Big Bang provides support for a Creator.

    Forgive me if I am mistaken, but I think we have seen the argument several times that a rational inference from Big Bang cosmology is that at minimum some kind of cause, and I believe often described as an immaterial, timeless, space-less cause, and by some as a necessarily benevolent intelligent cause, must exist, to account for the Big Bang.

    Here, we have two very well-credentialled Vatican astrophysicists, who could tell us whether they agree with any of the above. But such questions are not put to them. When asked whether the Big Bang provides support for a Creator, we get an answer from only one, and his answer is not "absolutely". Rather he answers another question, whether reason and logic is necessary to understand the Big Bang. I agree that it is. I do not agree, and do not see anyone stating, that God is necessary for logic and reason to exist.

    An opportunity to delve into this question with astronomers who must also conform with Catholic theology, was sadly missed.

    • Wade Seale

      I got the impression that Br. Consolmagno was making the point that it's kind of an inappropriate question to ask and/or that the inference, if made, is a really weak one: to the extent that it's best not made at all. I'll admit that I've been quite compelled by this inference in the past, but I'll be more careful in future. I think the reason it's an inappropriate question to ask or a weak inference to make is science cannot provide a strong-enough basis for the existence of God because God is an unscientific concept: much as you described God in the second paragraph, if I understand your description. For the sake of its very nature science should be infallible so that everything can be refuted. What happens to the inference if tomorrow we realise that in fact the Big Bang Theory is not that hot? What can of inferences does that open? It just makes a mess. I think he's pointing to the importance of remembering that there is more to Life than scientific inferences, and that science has its place: a specific place.

      As a matter of principle therefore, I don't get that he has a problem making the inference. I wonder if he isn't suggesting that we would do far better to sort out our categories and ask, perhaps, questions like whether God is necessary for logic and reason to exist instead. And then once we answer this, we can move on to whether this answer provides a basis for science. And this should be the relationship between the two categories. And I am compelled by this.

      I then wonder if there is not a confusion of types in the question as to whether God is necessary for logic and reason to exist. Some people complain, for instance, that the First Cause Argument places God where users want to find God. But there is a confusion in that objection to the Argument because the argument doesn't prove so much that God exists as much as it does that a first cause exists, and users would then typically say "that first cause we call God". I think this confusion is attributable to the idea of God being a man with a long white beard, walking around creating the universe with a magic wand. So the refutation says "you guys want to prove the existence of that guy with the long beard; you've proven a first cause, but you can't say that first cause is the guy with the white beard". But that's not how the argument works. The argument starts with no conception of God and with no position on whether God exists or not. And then the argument makes a discovery. Similarly, God is not necessary for logic and reason to exist in the sense that God created logic and reason, God is the Logos: God is Logic and Reason. I would therefore for instance agree that the guy with the white beard is not necessary for the Logic and Reason to exist. So in a sense, we ask if Logic and Reason exist, and then we say Logic and Reason is God. And in this way we say God/the Logos/Reason/Logic/the Order which makes prediction in science possible forms the basis for the possibility of the Big Bang Theory and all science. Science's specific place is therefore beneath questions of the existence of God understood as the Logos. And science cannot therefore prove or disprove the existence of God understood as the Logos because it presupposes the Logos in order to get off the ground.

      I think Br. Consolmagno's point is that if we sort out our categories we can ask better questions.

    • Ye Olde Statistician

      But the beginning of this space-time continuum is not necessarily a moment of creation. Besides, creation is ongoing, not a one-time-at-the-beginning kind of thing. It would apply equally well if the universe had been eternal.

  • jakael02

    I wouldn't be surprised of mankind is visited by martians soon. Stories of UFO's happen frequently and I can't see all of these cases being "military and weather balloons, etc.". Of course I have nothing to validate my claim, just a gut feeling. :)

    • Caravelle

      You mean literal martians from Mars ?

      • jakael02

        I meant aliens instead of martians.

    • Jakael,

      I do not expect this and nor do I expect we will ever be visited by alien life forms.

      Firstly, we know a great deal about the planets in our solar system and we can't conceive of much life existing on any of them. There are some promising possibilities, particularly on some planets' moons, but mars is incredibly unlikely. There is no indication of any civilization on Mars, we have pretty great pictures of its surface. These aliens would have to be living underground and have no satellites and so on.

      It is extremely unlikely that travellers from other stars could travel here given what we know of physics. The closest star is 4 years away at light speed and we can't conceive of how to even achieve a fraction of that speed.

      Our best bet is to communicate with these life forms by way of radio or other light speed communications. Even if this works our discussion would take 4 years between responses and likely much longer

      • jakael02

        Good points. Space is pretty vast. When i said martians, I meant aliens. Do you think all these UFO's are hoax's or earthy stuff that's gone unidentified?

        • MR

          UFO means simply "Unidentified Flying Object." "Unidentified" being the key. (Although not all objects identified as such were necessarily flying.)

          There are many, many normal things that an unidentified object can be. Just because we see something we think strange does not mean we should assume it is an alien space craft.

          Another problem we have as a culture, is that many people when they here the term 'UFO', automatically assume that it is an alien spacecraft, and so we get this idea that they actually do exist because we heard about, read about, or saw something about UFOs in the news.

          Without an actual alien space craft or alien body, I think it would be folly to speculate too much on the matter.

          • jakael02

            Dude there so real! Check out this vid at 2:30! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jk7z8zs4dG4

            Okay so I just lost all my credibility here... but i laughed.

          • MR

            Ha! The alien is more believable than the shadow of the guard! =)

          • Gray Striker

            I just lost all my credibility here

            Ahhh....that you did....strange that you admit that fact. You must be a fan of "coast to coast: radio.

        • Gray Striker

          Jeez....do you really think there is any credible evidence for alien visitation? Can't believe or understand that Christians think there is. Don't they have enough on their plate to give credence to?

        • Some are hoaxes, some unknown.

      • Michael Murray

        What about visitation by alien artefacts like self-replicating spacecraft ?

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-replicating_spacecraft

        • jakael02

          Sounds crazy but interesting!

  • David Nickol

    What if the alien life form that requests baptism doesn't have a head? What if it is a life form that would be severely injured or killed if any part of it came in contact with liquid water?

    I remember in 7th or 8th grade, one of the parish priests dropped into our classroom and volunteered to answer questions. One girl asked him if he could bless an ant. He thought a bit and said, "I suppose I could use the blessing for animals." After the priest left, our teacher, Sister Marion, made it clear she was furious with the girl who asked the question.

    • Michael Murray

      What if the alien life form that requests baptism doesn't have a head?

      What if it wants to become Jewish or Islamic ?

  • Michael Murray

    For anyone else who can't see the Colbert report video because they don't live in the US I recommend the Hola extension for Chrome. Everyone can at least pretend to live in the US !

  • Michael Murray

    For those who believe in the God, who is Love and who is ultimate Creator of being and order, the glory of God is declared not just by the heavens but by everything else that exists: by pebbles, earthworms, and trout scales; by hornet nests, finches’ wings, and hockey players; and yes, by atheists too.

    And cancer, Ebola virus, Loa-loa worm ... Remind me again about the "Love" bit ?

  • Mike O’Leary

    What is interesting is that if an alien came here (let's say from planet Urblegurp) and asked to be baptised, then Urblegurp has no equivalent of baptism. It would mean there was no incarnation of the second person of the Trinity on Urblegurp. A civilization rose to the level of interstellar travel yet never knew of God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit.

    One of the knocks I have against Christianity is that for what is supposed to be an ultimate truth it all came about in very a localized way. Most ancient civilizations went hundreds or thousands of years not knowing about Christianity because they hadn't communicated with that part of what we now call the Middle East.

    So imagine the various civilizations in Urblegurp going through their stone age, and iron age, and so forth. From the day the first Urblegurpian made fire to when his descendent began the first interstellar flight could be 20,000 years. He comes to us and he is told that the God many believe created the universe never bothered to give even the faintest sign to Urblegurp that he existed, or that there were things expected of the creatures there by God. This alien who travelled so very far doesn't rise to the level of afterthought, and we think he might ask to be baptised to fall in line with what our beliefs of the universe are? I'm not convinced.

  • Michael Murray

    What if they were gay aliens ? Or what if they were androgynous like these aliens

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Left_Hand_of_Darkness

    Seems to me that these two haven't read enough sci-fi. Things can get pretty disordered in the outer reaches of the galaxy.

  • Peter

    Let's compare the question of whether we are alone with the question of whether the universe is alone:

    The evidence we currently have is of only one universe with the same laws of physics throughout the observable part and the unobservable part. Indeed, it is precisely because of these same laws, such as the speed of light and the expansion of space, that the unobservable part cannot be seen. Any suggestion that our universe is not alone is therefore contrary to the evidence.

    On the other hand, there is evidence that we as an intelligent species are not alone in the universe. Our own galaxy is seeded throughout with life-building compounds and is teeming with planets, so we can conclude that the same exists throughout the universe where identical laws apply. Furthermore, evidence shows that once life takes hold, it will evolve to complexity. Any suggestion that we are alone is contrary to the evidence.

    The evidence we currently have points to a solitary universe with a single set of laws, seeded for life which is destined to achieve intelligence. This most clearly denotes purpose. We may never meet other sentient species because they could be immeasurably distant from us in space and time but, if we ever do, I'm sure they would agree that the universe has a purpose.

  • Brief quibble, Brandon. Lemaître did not in fact introduce what became known as the Big Bang in 1927. That year he published a groundbreaking paper arguing the universe had to be dynamic. He took Einstein's model, de Sitter's, and used them as bookends for a more dynamic model of his own. And he used Hubble's preliminary findings to derive what is called Hubble's Law--two years before Hubble. But it was not until his letter to Nature in 1931 that Lemaître actually developed what he called his Primeval Atom hypothesis. :)

  • Big Bowszer

    Enjoyed this and the interview on EWTN. But one important question - Why would an alien need to be baptized? They are not descendants of our fallen parents, Adam and Eve. Jus sayin'... er, askin'.......

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