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The first contact with an advanced extraterrestrial civilization can be seen as a sort of cosmic rite of passage, the definitive sign that, scientifically at least, the human race has come of age. It is the backstory of one of the most popular myths in American culture: the Star Trek universe. In Star Trek: First Contact (1998), once human beings have developed faster-than-light journeys (thanks to Zefram Cochrane, a genius working in isolation), the neighboring Vulcan civilization decides to visit us and eventually integrates Earth into the Federation. united planets. Likewise, mathematician and cultural commentator Eric Weinstein speculated that aliens might have decided to visit us after we discovered nuclear fission and fusion: “I think we sent a signal to the cosmos in 1945. , then November 1, 1952. “

Three hundred years ago, the great European thinkers were already considering the possibility of extraterrestrial life. “I would indeed bet everything I own – if this case could be established by some experience – that there are inhabitants on the planets we see,” Immanuel Kant wrote in the Critique of pure reason, in a section dealing with the concept of faith. This point of view, he continues, is not a simple opinion, but a solid faith.

Three decades before Kant Criticism, Voltaire linked extraterrestrial visitors to the modern idea of ​​progress in a short story called “Micromegas”. This satirical work has been called the first true example of science fiction. The eponymous hero of Voltaire’s story lives on a planet 21,600,000 times larger than Earth; it orbits the neighboring star Sirius. Micromegas itself is 120,000 feet tall and dominates human beings not only physically, but also intellectually and morally. The story also features a “Saturnian” who is only six thousand feet tall and has only seventy-two different senses – that of Micromegas has a thousand. Micromegas befriends the Saturnian magnanimously, admitting that “a thinking being is not necessarily ridiculous just because he is only six thousand feet”. Together they travel to a curious little planet called Earth. Whether the Earthlings they encounter – tiny creatures with barely five senses – should also be categorized as “thinking beings” remains an open question at the end of the story.

Enlightenment writers often wrote fictional or semi-fictional accounts of journeys to strange realms. The purpose of such writing, according to historian Paul Hazard, “is to be transported in one way or another to an imaginary land, and to conduct an investigation there into religious, political and social conditions. of the old world “. Other fictional stories have taken a different approach, focusing on foreign visitors arriving in Europe. Both genders are designed to mock the Christian culture of Europe and the vanity of the human race. Either the exotic setting (as in a travelogue like that of Swift Gulliver’s travels) or a foreign narrator (as in Montesquieu Persian letters) offers a contrasting perspective from which to see our follies more clearly. Ultimately, these tales attempted to expose the hypocrisy and myopia of conventional morality, as well as the poverty and limitations of human knowledge.

One of these limitations, explains the human narrator of “Micromegas”, is technological. Describing Micromegas’ interstellar spacecraft, the narrator says, “Those who travel only by stagecoach or sedan will probably be surprised to learn how to transport this spacecraft.” The earthlings encountered by Micromegas lack the scientific knowledge necessary to design such machines. On Earth, he and his Saturnian companion meet a group of philosophers, each expert in a different school of thought. Each advances a thesis; the aliens, unimpressed, laugh at them in turn. But the biggest laughs come when they meet a disciple of medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas:

He said he knew the secret: that everything would be found in the Summa of Saint Thomas. He looked up and down at the two heavenly inhabitants. He argued that their people, their worlds, their suns, their stars, were all created only for mankind. At this speech, our two travelers almost fell from this inextinguishable laughter.

It is true that, as Voltaire suggests, Thomas Aquinas believed that the universe was “for” the human being, but it is above all in the sense that the universe opens up to the human being, for let him be known, named and loved. Human beings, says Thomas Aquinas, “are sort of everything,” because they can potentially know everything and reflect the essence of everything in their minds. Note that this does not exclude the possibility that there may be other equally intelligent beings, who may also reflect the essence of everything in their mind. In fact, Thomas Aquinas also speculated on the existence of intelligent beings who were not human. He did not imagine that such beings could live on other planets only because he did not believe that other celestial bodies were of the same physical nature as the Earth. But given what we know today, it can be assumed that a man who believed in the existence of angels would have no problem considering the possibility of intelligent beings from other planets.


Cory E. Barnes

The author Cory E. Barnes

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