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Arthur C. Clarke: Do aliens dream of anthropomorphic gods?


Another evolutionary stage.

"I suspect that religion is a necessary evil in the childhood of our particular species. And that's one of the interesting things about contact with other intelligences: we could see what role, if any, religion plays in their development. I think that religion may be some random by-product of mammalian reproduction. If that's true, would non-mammalian aliens have a religion?" -- Arthur C. Clarke, in a 1999 interview with Free Inquiry magazine

"I have never imputed to Nature a purpose or a goal, or anything that could be interpreted as anthropomorphic. What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism." -- Albert Einstein

Edward Rothstein addresses the currently fashionable science vs. religion debate in a New York Times "appraisal" of the late Arthur C. Clarke's work ("For Clarke, Issues of Faith, but Tackled Scientifically"):

“Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral” were the instructions left by Arthur C. Clarke, who died on Wednesday at the age of 90. This may not have surprised anyone who knew that this science-fiction writer, fabulist, fantasist and deep-sea diver had long seen religion as a symptom of humanity’s “infancy,” something to be outgrown and overcome.

But his fervor is still jarring [...]

Stanley Kubrick’s film of Mr. Clarke’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” for example — a project developed with the author — is haunting not for its sci-fi imaginings of artificial intelligence and space-station engineering but for its evocation of humanity’s origins and its vision of a transcendent future embodied in a human fetus poised in space [...], a moment of transcendence in which some destiny is fulfilled, some possibility opened up.... a new evolutionary stage, inspiring as much horror as awe.

You can sense where Rothstein is heading when he detects "fervor" in Clarke's funeral instructions. "Fervor"? Really? Seems to me that Clarke is simply leaving specific instructions about he wants. And why shouldn't he want his funeral to accurately reflect his beliefs? Rothstein tries a little too hard to create a dialectic between science and faith, claiming that "religion suffuses Mr. Clarke’s realm." But I think he confuses mystery with mysticism in "2001."

(And at the risk of sounding fervent, I should point out that, although I read some of Clarke's books as a teenager, I'm not familiar enough with his body of work to talk about more than his film collaboration with Kubrick, which was probably the closest thing to a religious revelation in my young life until I saw "Nashville" seven years later.)

Let me back up (a few millennia): The "Dawn of Man" section is a condensed metaphor for evolution, focusing on the primates' discovery of tools -- bones as weapons, crude extensions of their own bodies (and crude resurrections of the skeletons of the dead). Cut to the distant future and we see the same thing, only now the bones have developed into higher technologies (including orbital nuclear weapons) -- not only embellishments of the body (the arms and hands of the space pods) but of the brain (HAL 9000).

It would be stretching it to characterize the black monolith, the symbolic catalyst for mankind's "character arc" in "2001," as a god or an agent of god. In the movie's terms it's a signaling device placed on earth by an advanced alien civilization (Clarke's original short story was called "The Sentinel") -- and a pointed reminder that humans do not occupy a privileged place in the universe, certainly not at the center or the top of any religious diagram of Creation. The monolith may function as a nudge in the evolutionary process, but it's not the manifestation of Divine Will or predestination.

(But can we tell the difference? Only recently have neuroscientists found that stimulation of a certain part of the brain brings on the kind of revelatory visions that people describe variously as religious epiphanies, out-of-body or near-death experiences... or accounts of being kidnapped by aliens. Likely they're all expressions of the same biological processes.)

Rothstein writes:

For all his acclaimed forecasting ability, though, it is unclear whether Mr. Clarke knew precisely what he saw in that future. There is something cold in his vision, particularly when he imagines the evolutionary transformation of humanity. He leaves behind all the things that we recognize and know, and he doesn’t provide much guidance for how to live within the world we recognize and know. In that sense his work has little to do with religion.

But overall religion is unavoidable. Mr. Clarke famously — and accurately — said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Perhaps any sufficiently sophisticated science fiction, at least in his case, is nearly indistinguishable from religion.

Is Rothstein is trying to conflate "magic" with "religion" here? Does he think Clarke was? Is science-fiction that does not "provide much guidance for how to live within the world we recognize" necessarily "cold"?

Richard Dawkins addresses the same Clarke quote about "magic" (his Third Law of prediction) in "The God Delusion":

The miracles wrought by our technology would have seemed to the ancients no less remarkable than the tales of Moses parting the waters, or Jesus walking upon them. The aliens of our SETI signal would be to us like gods, just as missionaries were treated as gods (and exploited the undeserved honour to the hilt) when they turned up in Stone Age cultures bearing guns, telescopes, matches, and almanacs predicting eclipses to the second.

In what sense, then, would the most advanced SETI aliens not be gods? In what sense would they be superhuman but not supernatural? In a very important sense, which goes to the heart of this book. The crucial difference between gods and god-like extraterrestrials lies not in their properties but their provenance. Entities that are complex enough be intelligent are products of an evolutionary process. No matter how god-like they may seem when we encounter them, they didn't start that way.

Kubrick has described "the God concept" in "2001" in terms similar to Clarke and Dawkins. From an Playboy interview:

I will say that the God concept is at the heart of "2001" but not any traditional, anthropomorphic image of God. I don't believe in any of Earth's monotheistic religions, but I do believe that one can construct an intriguing scientific definition of God, once you accept the fact that there are approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, that each star is a life-giving sun and that there are approximately 100 billion galaxies in just the visible universe. Given a planet in a stable orbit, not too hot and not too cold, and given a few billion years of chance chemical reactions created by the interaction of a sun's energy on the planet's chemicals, it's fairly certain that life in one form or another will eventually emerge. It's reasonable to assume that there must be, in fact, countless billions of such planets where biological life has arisen, and the odds of some proportion of such life developing intelligence are high.

Now, the sun is by no means an old star, and its planets are mere children in cosmic age, so it seems likely that there are billions of planets in the universe not only where intelligent life is on a lower scale than man but other billions where it is approximately equal and others still where it is hundreds of thousands of millions of years in advance of us. When you think of the giant technological strides that man has made in a few millennia—less than a microsecond in the chronology of the universe—can you imagine the evolutionary development that much older life forms have taken? They may have progressed from biological species, which are fragile shells for the mind at best, into immortal machine entities—and then, over innumerable eons, they could emerge from the chrysalis of matter transformed into beings of pure energy and spirit. Their potentialities would be limitless and their intelligence ungraspable by humans.

Let's give Clarke the last word here. From the Free Inquiry interview:

FI: If religion does indeed represent an immature stage of humanity, do you see any prospects for humanity growing up?

Clarke: Yes, there is the possibility that humankind can outgrown its infantile tendencies, as I suggested in "Childhood's End." But it is amazing how childishly gullible humans are. There are, for example, so many different religions -- each of them claiming to have the truth, each saying that their truths are clearly superior to the truths of others -- how can someone possibly take any of them seriously? I mean, that's insane....

FI: Do you see any value at all in the various religions?

Clarke: Though I sometimes call myself a crypto-Buddhist, Buddhism is not a religion. Of those around at the moment, Islam is the only one that has any appeal to me. But, of course, Islam has been tainted by other influences. The Muslims are behaving like Christians, I'm afraid.

FI: What appeals to you in Islam?

Clarke: Historically, Islam had a great deal of tolerance for other views and offered the world its priceless wisdom in the form of astronomy and algebra. And, as you know, Islam helped rescue Western civilization from the Dark Ages by preserving classical texts and transmitting them to the West. We, on the other hand, burned the library at Alexandria. If Islam hadn't fallen into internecine warfare and had gone on to conquer the rest of Europe, we'd have avoided a thousand years of Christian barbarism.

And from the last page of Clarke's novel, "2001" (released in conjunction with the film):

There before him, a glittering toy no Star-Child could resist, floated the planet Earth with all its peoples.

He had returned in time. Down there on that crowded globe, the alarms would be flashing across the radar screens, the great tracking telescopes would be searching the skies -- and history as men knew it would be drawing to a close.

... He put forth his will, and the circling megatons flowered in a silent detonation that brought a brief, false dawn to half the sleeping globe.

Then he waited, marshaling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.

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