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Friday, 6 January 2017

Epiphany and the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence


As part of my continuing education I have been participating in a programme called "Equipping Christian Leaders in an Age of Science". Today, the Feast of the Epiphany, by happy coincidence one of the topics in our sessions turned our gaze to the stars and galaxies as we explored issues related to SETI, the search for extra terrestial intelligence. A wonderful lecture was given by the Revd Professor David Wilkinson, of St John's College Durham, a noted astrophysicist as well as theologian, with doctorates in both fields.

Professor Wilkinson, from a scientific point of view, would surmise that at present we are likely the only intelligent life in this galaxy, although with 100 billion stars in the galaxy, with about 70% having planets, and 100 billion galaxies in the universe one cannot be sure! As a theologian, he maintains that SETI is important for Christians for a number of reasons:

  • It invites us to observe and wonder at the complexity and vastness of the universe, God's creation.
  • It is in the thought and imagination of the public, including many young people.
  • It is "a fun sand-pit for theological speculation". In the sand-pit we can explore themes such as the Incarnation, the Fall, Redemption and the uniqueness (or not) of human beings in the light of the possibility of other beings on other planets....
Professor Wilkinson

We thought of the Sydney Carter Christmas hymn "Every Star Shall Sing a Carol" with this evocative verse:

Who can tell what other cradle,
high above the milky way,
still may rock the King of heaven
on another Christmas day?

Professor Wilkinson is one of our keynote speakers for the Diocesan Readers' Conference in May. Should be interesting!

Other themes for the current sessions have been equally fascinating: Being Human in a Digital Age, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics (including issues raised by a topic rarely discussed by bishops - sex with robots!). We were alerted to the fact that there is very little theological engagement with the huge issues raised by artificial intelligence, issues which are coming at us like an express train: ethics (do machines have rights? Is it permissible to torture a robot?); the erosion of ontological differences between animals, humans and machines; work and employment as jobs, especially among the poor, will be increasingly threatened; the nature of relationships and community in a digital world, and so on.

Andrew Graystone lectures on AI and Robotics
Visit to Durham University Robotics Lab


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