The Plurality of Worlds, Part 2: From Darwin to the Present Day

John Harney
From Magonia 6, 1981

In part one of this series I noted that when Descartes, in expounding his mechanistic philosophy, asserted that animals were soulless automatons, he was warned that this idea would ultimately be extended to human beings. Descartes wanted physical and spiritual matters to be considered separately; this would avoid useless and sterile conflict between science and theology.

Descartes’ critics wore vindicated when, in 1747, Julien Uffray de la Mettrie published anonymously a book entitled L’Homme Machine. In this book he asserted that Descartes really believed that men, as well as animals, were merely machines, but that he had pretended to believe otherwise, for fairly obvious reasons.

In La Mettrie’s view there was no such thing as the soul; everything about a man including the workings of his brain could, at least in principle, be explained mechanically. La Mettrie’s kind of thinking was rather similar to that developed by the positivist philosophers of the nineteenth century. The development of positivism is credited largely to Auguste Comte. He did not invent the basic ideas of positivism, but his explicit development of the doctrine proved to be very influential. One of the main ideas of positivism is that all genuine knowledge is to be found by the application of scientific methods. We should not try to go beyond what is observable and indulge in theological and metaphysical speculation. Philosophy is useful, but only as a means of clarifying the scope and methods of science. The great triumphs of science in the nineteenth century naturally increased the popularity of Comte’s positivism and variations on that theme. Obviously, this way of thinking was valuable to scientists as it tended to prevent them being side-tracked into fruitless pseudo-scientific speculations.
The positivist philosopher Herbert Spencer developed an idea of evolution which applied to the whole of nature and. to human society. He developed this idea before Darwin published his Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, having being inspired by reading Lyell’s Principles of Geology. So Spencer presented evolution as a philosophical theory, and Darwin presented a scientific theory of evolution. It would not be greatly relevant to our present purpose to go into detail about the theory of evolution and its religious, social, and other effects, but there are a few important points to be made. One of these is the belief that constant change and adaptation necessarily involved progress. It seemed obvious that humanity must constantly gain knowledge of, and mastery over nature in order to survive. 
Darwinism greatly boosted the confidence of scientists. The inexorable process of evolution had selected humanity to be the dominant form of life on earth and this dominance was consolidated by the progress of science.
 This seems less obvious to many people today when certain scientific discoveries, such as nuclear energy and some recent developments in biology, have made it seem that some kinds of knowledge can endanger the prospects of survival, rather than enhance them. Darwinism greatly boosted the confidence of scientists. The inexorable process of evolution had selected humanity to be the dominant form of life on earth and this dominance was consolidated by the progress of science.
The nineteenth century is certainly not noted for its preoccupation with other worlds – except perhaps the ‘spirit world’, which I briefly discuss later – and, indeed, speculation about other worlds has never been a central issue of philosophy or theology. However towards the and of the nineteenth century some people had evidently begun to ponder the implications of the possibility that the evolution of life might be in progress on other planets besides Earth. Also, the continued advance of technology made the possibility of space travel seem more and more plausible. Humanity might be the dominant species on Earth, but evolution elsewhere in our galaxy may have produced even more formidable beings and if they developed space travel and invaded the Earth, the Darwinian rule of the ‘survival of the fittest’ would no doubt work to our disadvantage.
In the late nineteenth century most people did not have to look very far, in astronomical terms, for a possible focus of such anxieties. Bigger and better telescopes revealed more and more detail on the planet Mars and it became widely believed that Mars was a world very like Earth. The claims of some astronomers that the planet was covered by a network of straight lines – the famous ‘canals’ – gave rise to much speculation about Martians, which was enhanced, no doubt, by the writings of H G Wells and other early science-fiction writers. In the 1897 airship flap, some people attributed the mysterious sightings to the activities of beings from Mars, although the majority apparently favoured less exotic explanations. However, the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) did not become popular until 1947.
The materialism of positivist philosophers and scientists (some of them denied being materialists, but this point cannot be pursued here) can partially illumine some of our attitudes to the UFO phenomenon but there is obviously something missing. This is the preoccupation with the occult and the mysterious which pervades much of the literature on UFOs. Some people seem to see in UFOs a possible link between the material world explored by science and the spiritual world of religion and idealist philosophies. This sort of approach has quite respectable antecedents in nineteenth century science. Many scientists expressed their opposition to materialism and one of their lines of argument was that positivism was a useful philosophical approach to the investigation of the visible universe, but beyond the physical and temporal universe was the unknown, unknowable – save by intuition or revelation – and eternal spiritual world.

Ideas of this nature were explored at length by two eminent scientists, Balfour Stewart and P G Tait [right] in a book entitled The Unseen Universe or Physical Speculations on a Future State, which was first published, anonymously, in 1875. The authors were Christians and their philosophical standpoint could be described as one of dualistic idealism. They argued that there was a link between the physical and spiritual worlds and that this link was the ‘luminiferous ether’ which pervaded the entire universe. The concept of an all-pervading imponderable ether was at that time a respectable scientific concept although not of course subscribed to by all scientists. It was obviously useful as the medium by which light and other forms of energy were transmitted through apparently empty space. Stewart and Tait, however, speculated that the ether was also able to store energy and information in such a way that it provided a link between the physical body and the spiritual body, so that after the death of a person’s physical body his spiritual body would come into action, using the ether as its vehicle for thought and activity.
It might he argued that Stewart, Tait and others who opposed materialism may not have been entirely sincere. It is well known that many Victorian thinkers were of the opinion that a belief in God and personal immortality was necessary for the preservation of morality and public order. Indeed, the views of Stewart and Tait on questions of ‘law and order’ would certainly not be regarded by most people today as being progressive. However I am not concerned here with motives or with the validity or otherwise of the beliefs under discussion; I am concerned with the influence of the development of such ideas on the beliefs and presuppositions of the peoples of today, and the inevitable affects of such ideas on their attitudes to the questions of UFOs and intelligent life in the universe.
The rise of spiritualism in the nineteenth century attracted the attention of many of those scientists who were unhappy with rigorously materialistic concepts of the nature of reality. Some of them were determined that allegedly psychical phenomena should be subjected to scientific investigation. The Society for Psychical Research was founded in London in 1882, and similar organisations were later founded in other places. Since then parapsychology has striven to become accepted by the scientific community as a genuine scientific discipline. Unlike most other branches of novel scientific endeavour, it has failed to gain general acceptance. One objection is that the phenomenon investigated can be explained in terms of known scientific principles, without recourse to spirits or the idea of the transmission of information from one person to another without the expenditure of physical energy. Another objection is that there is no coherent framework of scientific theory which could be employed to predict the precise conditions under which psychical phenomena are likely to occur and to devise and perform repeatable experiments under carefully controlled conditions.
Perhaps the main reason why parapsychology was and remains a controversial subject is that its subject matter is seen by many people as either threatening or reinforcing their most cherished beliefs concerning the nature of reality and the meaning and purpose of life. In Victorian Britain, persons with strong beliefs tended to oppose parapsychology and the popular spiritualism which formed part of its subject matter. Many such persons believed that science and Christianity were incompatible and had chosen one or the other. Both sides tended to regard alleged psychical phenomena as being illusory, a product of ignorance and superstition. Others found that they could no longer believe in the doctrines of Christianity because when these were examined in the light of the new scientific knowledge they seemed irrational. However, they felt that science offered no substitute for faith, and they still felt the need for that ultimate eternal reality which alone could satisfy man’s spiritual needs. They thus hoped that psychical research would provide them with new facts and insights which would enable them to build a new synthesis of knowledge and belief.

As the end of the nineteenth century drew near it seemed that practically all of the major laws of physics had been discovered and that there were merely some loose ends to tie up

Meanwhile, mainstream Victorian science was becoming more and more self-confident. As the end of the century drew near it seemed that practically all of the major laws of physics had been discovered and that there were merely some loose ends to tie up. It was the investigation of these ‘loose ends’ which led to the undoing of classical physics. The development of quantum theory during the first 30 years of this century did away with the notion of solid indivisible atoms behaving in a manner determined by the initial state of the universe and substituted probability for certainty. This did not make too much difference for most practical purposes, because the laws of probability demonstrate that unpredictable microscopic events combine to produce predictable macroscopic events.
However, one important aspect of quantum theory is relevant here. It had long been known that light energy is propagated in the form of waves, this having been deduced by observing diffraction and interference patterns produced by light similar to patterns produced by mechanical waves, such as those produced by throwing stones in a pond. It had also been observed that electromagnetic waves behaved like particles. If these waves were simply produced by disturbances of the ether, they would merely set up corresponding disturbances in objects they encountered on moving outwards from the source. But they did more than this; they also exerted pressure which repelled the objects.
Thus they also behaved like solid particles. Eventually an important relationship was discovered. A particle with momentum p would have a wavelength l given by: l = h/p, where h is Planck’s constant, which has the value 6.62 x 10-34 joule seconds. This value is so very small that the wave effect for macroscopic particles is negligible, but of very great importance in describing the behaviour of electromagnetic radiation involving sub-atomic particles, or ‘wavicles’ as they are sometimes called in this context.
The importance of all this, for our present purposes, is that it makes the ether redundant, so that those who still cling to the idea today do so for reasons other than the scientific. The great thing about the ether was its flexibility. It could accommodate anything, from heat, light and radio waves to the souls of the departed, and anything else which may occur to you. It is used today by many ufologists to accommodate ‘etheric’ spaceships with ‘etheric’ crews which are conveniently invisible to those of us who are not tuned to their ‘vibrations’. Of course, most people who think in this way are unaware that the ether has no place in modern physics and this partly explains their hostility to ‘conventional’ science.
One of the most frustrating constraints imposed on interstellar communication is that provided by Einstein’s theory of special relativity. According to the theory, the speed of light is constant and independent of the movement of the observer. It follows from this that space and time must be variables, and it also follows that nothing can go faster than light. Some UFO enthusiasts think the only problem in travelling between the stars is that of acceleration. The space travellers would have enormous power at their disposal, but too high a rate of acceleration would crush them. These ufologists therefore devised the idea of a kind of ‘anti gravity’ drive which would exert the accelerating force evenly on each particle of the spaceship and its crew, thus making it unnoticeable. The spaceship could thus travel at any speed free of any theoretical limitations. Practical limitations can be dismissed with an airy wave.
According to relativity theory, this just will not work because, as the spaceship accelerates its mass increases, and as its velocity approached the velocity of light its mass tends to infinity. It thus takes an infinite amount of energy to attain the velocity of light.
Although real scientific problems concerning relativity and quantum theory involve the use of very complex mathematical techniques, this is not the real difficulty presented by the theories. The problem is that the ideas contained in the theories are so far removed from everyday experience and commonsensical thinking that people become confused and disturbed when they attempt to think about them.
So today we live in a world where science appears to many people to have replaced religion, but where science has become more mysterious than religion ever was. Science, philosophy and theology are not independent of each other, and it is the course of their development over the centuries which provides the present-day intellectual background to controversy concerning UFOs and life on other worlds. In Part Three, I intend to apply the ideas I have been discussing to some current cases and arguments in this field.