Metaphysics of Exo-Life | Andrew M. Davis

Metaphysics of Exo-Life

The following is an excerpt from Metaphysics of Exo-Life by Andrew M. Davis. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

Extraterrestrials in Claremont and Salem (A Backstory)

This book is a constructive philosophical response to the core tenets of historian Steven J. Dick’s “naturalistic cosmotheology” from within the process metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead. It aims to be a novel contribution to the growing philosophical and theological literature on extraterrestrial life which has, until recently, largely neglected the resources of Whitehead’s philosophy (and process theology more generally). This literature has also neglected to engage Dick’s cosmotheology at any philosophical or theological depth. Responses have been minimal and often dismissive in nature, and they have lacked the kind of sustained metaphysical treatment that is required to constructively advance the conversation. The meeting of both Dick and Whitehead in the following pages thus serves to address this two-fold neglect in current literature.

This book has a backstory without which it would not have come into being. In the spring of 2017, the process philosopher and theologian Roland Faber offered a seminar at Claremont School of Theology titled “Religion and Exo-Life.” The first of its kind, this course aimed to “explore the history of the integration or exclusion, embrace or limitation” of extraterrestrial life by different religious traditions, including “the constraints it puts on religious worldviews and doctrines, and the insights the horizon of exo-life can offer when…applied to religious self-understanding.”

The course drew in a variety of graduate students working at the intersections of philosophy, science, and religion. I was a doctoral research assistant for Faber at the time and aided the organization and execution of the seminar. Throughout the course, students were given ample opportunity to acquaint themselves with the wide array of scientific, philosophical, and theological literature relevant to the topic. Discussions ranged widely from the historical debate concerning many worlds and intelligent extraterrestrial life, to the metaphysics of exo-life and the nature of both biological and cosmological evolution, to the impact of discovery on religious and theological worldviews.

The course literature included several readings from the corpus of Steven J. Dick (b. 1949), former NASA chief historian and Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology at the Library of Congress. For decades, Dick has been one of the leading experts on the longstanding debate regarding the plurality of worlds and extraterrestrial life. In reading Dick, it was clear that he was not only concerned with the past, but also with the future and the kind of impact the discovery of extraterrestrial life might have on society and culture at large, especially religion and theology. How might religions respond to the discovery of extraterrestrial life, and with what resources? In what ways might theology need to change in order to incorporate the potential reality of billions of inhabited planets? Dialogue and debate on this question has persisted throughout history and continues today.

It was Faber’s seminar that first exposed me to Dick’s own proposal of “naturalistic cosmotheology” and its six associated principles. In its strong rejection of supernaturalism and anthropocentrism, Dick’s cosmotheology seeks to be fully consistent with all that the sciences (cosmology in particular) have come to know about our deeply evolutionary universe. This, for Dick, must include the likely fact that ours is a “biological universe” where life, far from being restricted to our planet alone, is rather cosmically common in nature. What then of religion and theology? In his first chapter on cosmotheology Dick said the following:

I suggest the time is ripe for us to take cosmotheology seriously, to consider how religions and their accompanying theologies should change in light of what we now know about the universe and what we are likely to know in the future: we are not the only intelligent creatures in the universe, most likely not the most superior…The question is how to proceed…No Thomas Aquinas for cosmotheology has yet appeared to reconcile current doctrine with new world views.

I discerned a sense of opportunity in these early statements by Dick. I saw that Whitehead himself offered a cosmotheological metaphysics that appeared at least prima facie consistent with Dick’s rejection of supernaturalism and anthropocentrism, as well as with his desire to incorporate our ever-expanding scientific knowledge and the potential of pervasive extraterrestrial life. Could Whitehead be the “Thomas Aquinas of cosmotheology” for the twenty-first century? Perhaps, yet Whitehead was no professional theologian. Aquinas, it must be remembered, drew heavily from the metaphysical well of Aristotle. Thus, I thought it might be better to say that Whitehead is the “Aristotle of cosmotheology” because he offers a metaphysics that has proved helpful for theological use in our cosmic evolutionary context, not least by process theologians. Indeed, process theologians have often drawn analogies between their use of Whitehead’s metaphysics and the ways in which Augustine and Aquinas utilized the metaphysics of Aristotle and Plato.

I was pleased to see that Dick came to recognize the potential importance of Whitehead for his cosmotheology. “In its emphasis on evolutionary becoming,” he states, “cosmotheology resonates well with Whitehead’s process theology…” I found this promising, but further questions remained: Just how deep was this resonance between Whitehead’s philosophical theology and Dick’s cosmotheology? What are the implications of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism for Dick’s six core cosmotheological principles? Did Whitehead even say anything about extraterrestrial life? I was abducted by these questions just as Faber’s exo-life seminar was drawing to a close. It was clear that a deeper integrative study of Whitehead’s metaphysics in relation to Dick’s cosmotheology was required. But it would have to wait. I continued conversing with Faber, my doctoral advisor, on matters of religion and exo-life, but I would not be able to return to Dick’s cosmotheology for several years.

Praise for Metaphysics of Exo-Life

“Andrew M. Davis’s original, provocative, and scintillating book is a tour de force, deepening previous discussions of cosmotheology that carry theology into the realm of the extraterrestrial. He does so in a Whiteheadian process philosophical framework, providing the metaphysical underpinnings for a forward-looking theology that embodies the latest scientific knowledge of the universe around us, especially cosmology, cosmic evolution, and the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence. The book opens new theological horizons, and deserves the serious attention of scientists, theologians, philosophers, and a broader audience interested in the future of humanity’s relationship to the universe, whether in terms of ethics, value, naturalistic superintelligences, or new conceptions of God. We should all welcome this discussion as part of the expanding fields of astrotheology, astroethics, and cosmophilosophy, which encompass a rethinking of the most basic tenets of theology and ethics in light of the realities of our new cosmic worldview.”
Steven J. Dick, Ph.D., Former NASA Chief Historian

“Andrew M. Davis’s book exemplifies the kind of depth and breadth needed for an emerging area of ‘cosmophilosophy,’ and more specifically, ‘cosmotheology.’  Davis drills down on Steven J. Dick’s contemporary articulation of a naturalistic cosmotheology, and with grace and eloquence, invokes the broad richness of Alfred North Whitehead’s process metaphysics, supplemented with surgical use of other thinkers, to reenvision Dick’s cosmotheology in more explicit metaphysical and theological lights. This book speaks to theologians and metaphysicians alike.”
Mark Lupisella, Ph.D., Goddard Space Flight Center

“Andrew M. Davis formulates guiding principles for an expanded cosmology replete with extraterrestrial neighbors. His method is to re-nest Steven Dick’s cosmotheology within Alfred North Whitehead’s speculative metaphysics. The result is a gloriously comprehensive view of a creative universe guided never-endingly by the divine lure.”
Ted Peters, Ph.D., Co-Editor of the journal, Theology and Science

“In Metaphysics of Exo-Life, Andrew M. Davis convincingly shows the importance of philosophy and theology to possible extraterrestrial life and, in particular, the neglected relevance of Alfred North Whitehead’s organic metaphysics through a sustained and rigorous response to the ‘naturalistic cosmotheology’ of NASA’s former chief historian, Steven J. Dick. The book is a readable, well-argued, and a novel development in current discussions of God and extraterrestrial life.”
Keith Ward, Ph.D., Fellow of the British Academy

“Is life and mind intrinsic to the universe or a contingency that might have been otherwise? Is there directionality and purpose in the cosmos? In his sweeping new book, Metaphysics of Exo-Life, Andrew M. Davis confronts ultimate meaning and destiny in the universe by articulating Steven Dick’s cosmotheology… through Alfred North Whitehead’s proce­­ss metaphysics,… Whatever one’s prior beliefs about cosmic foundations, including God, this book will challenge and expand them. For those of us obsessed with raw existence and human sentience, while we may not agree with all, we will relish all.”
Robert Lawrence Kuhn, Ph.D., Creator and Host, Closer to Truth

About the Author

Andrew M. DavisAndrew M. Davis, Ph.D. is an American process philosopher, theologian, and scholar of cosmological wonder. He is program director for the Center for Process Studies where he researches, writes, and organizes conferences on various aspects of process-relational thought.

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