Today’s first reading from Ezekiel 1 is one of those esoteric passages that has provided Jewish, Christian, Gnostic and redneck mystics with way too much fun over the years. The selection that is read at Mass is a trimmed down version, from verses 2-5… and then skippppppppppp twenty verses… and resume at verse 24 until verse 28. It reads:
On the fifth day of the month, the fifth year, that is, of King Jehoiachin’s exile, the word of the LORD came to the priest Ezekiel, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar.–There the hand of the LORD came upon me. As I looked, a stormwind came from the North, a huge cloud with flashing fire (enveloped in brightness), from the midst of which (the midst of the fire) something gleamed like electrum. Within it were figures resembling four living creatures that looked like this: their form was human…
Then I heard the sound of their wings, like the roaring of mighty waters, like the voice of the Almighty. When they moved, the sound of the tumult was like the din of an army. (And when they stood still, they lowered their wings.) Above the firmament over their heads something like a throne could be seen, looking like sapphire. Upon it was seated, up above, one who had the appearance of a man. Upward from what resembled his waist I saw what gleamed like electrum; downward from what resembled his waist I saw what looked like fire; he was surrounded with splendor. Like the bow which appears in the clouds on a rainy day was the splendor that surrounded him. Such was the vision of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.
Admittedly epic, but tame next to what was left out. The omitted verses, 6-23, are a load of trippy fun:
there form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings. 7 Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. 8 Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings, 9 and the wings of one touched the wings of another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved.
10 Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.11 Such were their faces. They each had two wings spreading out upward, each wing touching that of the creature on either side; and each had two other wings covering its body. 12 Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. 13 The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. 14 The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning.
15 As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. 16 This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like topaz, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. 17 As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not change direction as the creatures went. 18 Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.
19 When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. 20 Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.21 When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.
22 Spread out above the heads of the living creatures was what looked something like a vault,sparkling like crystal, and awesome. 23 Under the vault their wings were stretched out one toward the other, and each had two wings covering its body.
It’s understandable why the Church chose to omit verses 5-23; a modern congregation would be lost in the circus of animal faces and haunted wheels. However, given how much esoteric press this verse has received, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had the gumption to accuse the Church of “covering up” the omitted verses in order to hide “mystical secrets” to protect the “uninitiated masses” from “dangerous truths” or something like that. This is Amurica, which means another conspiracy theory is always just around the corner.
Aliens and the Bible
According to some UFO enthusiasts, the Bible is riddled with alien encounters. Today’s passage in Ezekiel is the foremost of the Biblical “extraterrestrial references.” Think about it: the floating wheels of Ezekiel are round… and UFOs are round… therefore:
Q.E.D. The coincidence is just too strange.
Actually, according to prominent atheist Richard Dawkins (as featured in Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled), aliens are a more likely explanation for life on Earth than God:
Now to give Dawkins a fair trial, on a talk show he later responded to what he said in the interview:
A few initial reactions:
I don’t think Dawkins’ equivocation of Creationism (and he probably means young-Earth Creationism) with Intelligent Design Theory is at all fair. It’s like saying Fundamentalists and Catholics are the same. For those who, like Dawkins, would tell me they are the same, let me try a new analogy: it’s like saying Theism and Deism are the same. If you don’t know the difference between Deism and Theism, try this one: it’s like saying UFOlogy is the same as aeronautics.
Another thought: even if Dawkins never thought aliens were a likely explanation for life and he was only momentarily “condescending” to Ben Stein, it is telling that he considers intelligent design by Yoda to be more feasible than intelligent design by a Transcendent Being. But more on that later.
The Alien Theory According to Ockham:
The general thinking of the aforementioned alien theorists is that aliens provide a simple and natural explanation for otherwise inextricable miracles. The idea comes from Ockham’s Razor, which states that the most simple explanation for something is the best. For example, it is possible by very complicated math and a very skewed paradigm of the cosmos to still consider Earth to be the center of the solar system. However, the theory needed to keep the Earth at its center is needlessly complicated when we have the very simple, clean, logical theory of heliocentrism. It is stupid to say the planets revolve around Earth when we can easily show how they revolve around the Sun.
Ockham’s razor has worked wonders for science for the last five centuries. It (I will venture to say) is a very good thing for science.
So let’s give the UFOlogist the benefit of the doubt and say that he used Ockham’s Razor when he formed his theory of Ezekiel’s Alien Abduction. The UFOlogist is then thinking along these lines:
- The universe could be material, immaterial, or both material and immaterial.
- Everything “immaterial” can be explained by materialism, therefore it is more efficient to say that the universe is only material
- Ockham’s Razor: the most simplistic explanation is the best.
- Materialism is the most simplistic explanation of the universe, therefore it is the best.
The UFOlogist would then presumably go on to say:
- If the universe is only material, then all supernatural phenomena must have material explanations.
- The Bible has supernatural phenomena.
- Therefore, those supernatural phenomena must be explained by the simplest material explanation.
- Aliens are material.
- Aliens are a simple explanation (because they can easily explain away anything ).
- Therefore, the best explanation of the supernatural phenomena in the Bible are aliens.
Dissecting the Alien Theory
Now that we’ve all apostatized to the One True Interstellar Catholic Church of Earth and the Thousand Worlds (its a thing), let’s take a closer look at the argument, point by point:
1. The universe could be material, immaterial, or both.
I think this is more or less a correct statement. Okay, move on.
2. Everything “immaterial” can be explained by materialism, therefore it is more efficient to say that the universe is only material.
There is a major problem with this premise. It is theoretically possible to explain away all immaterial things with material explanations, but it is also just as possible (in fact easier) to explain away all material things with immaterial explanations. Take Buddhism:
Or The Matrix:
The argument could just as easily go the other way:
- The universe could be material, immaterial, or both.
- Everything “material” can be explained by immaterialism, therefore it is more efficient to say that the universe is only immaterial.
- Ockham’s Razor: the most simplistic explanation is the best
- Immaterialism is the most simplistic explanation of the universe, therefore it is the best.
- If the universe is only immaterial, then all natural phenomena must have immaterial explanations.
- The world is made up of natural phenomena.
- Therefore, those natural phenomena must be explained by the simplest immaterial explanation.
- God is immaterial.
- God is a simple explanation (because he can explain away everything).
- Therefore, the best explanation of the natural phenomena in the world is that it is all part of God (Pantheism).
So now we’ve gone from materialist UFOlogist to immaterialist pantheist, using the same argument. It is not clear which one is actually more simple. If anything, the immaterial argument is simpler because it can explain all the diverse entities of the universe as part of one large illusion, or part of one large Divine Blob, or part of one individual’s consciousness. Neat and simple. Materialism has to posit many individual entities, whether its planets on the macro-level or particles on the micro-level. Immaterialism simplifies all matter to a mind, whereas materialism has to divide the mind into many complex material processes.
So maybe the materialism vs. immaterialism question can never be solved. Or….
3. Ockham’s Razor: the most simplistic explanation is the best.
Or, maybe the question shouldn’t be solved by Ockham’s Razor. Ockham’s Razor works great for physics, but it doesn’t work so great for metaphysics (credit to Peter Kreeft for this observation). In other words:
Thank you, Shakespeare.
It is simpler to say that all liquid is made of water than to say that some liquids are water and some are petroleum. That doesn’t mean it’s true. You could just as easily say that the all liquid is petroleum. This is even truer on the metaphysical level. When we get to questions of what truly is and what is true, Ockham’s Razor proves itself too dull. When we deal with questions of materialism and immaterialism, we are dealing with questions of existence. We are dealing with questions about what we experience day to day.
When we look for a philosophy, we should be looking for a worldview that makes sense with our experience of reality. Neither materialism nor immaterialism actually connects with our day-to-day experience. Do people live life as if they were robots of interacting chemicals that happen to produce the illusion of conciousness (materialism)? Do people live life as if they had no body, or as if all their experiences and interactions were illusions (immaterialism)? No! People live their daily lives believing in material concepts like food and sex, and immaterial concepts like consciousness and justice. If you have ever said the phrase “I want food,” you have rejected both materialism and immaterialism.
4. Materialism is the most simplistic explanation of the universe, therefore it is the best.
5. If the universe is only material, then all supernatural phenomena must have material explanations.
6. The Bible has supernatural phenomena.
7. Therefore, those supernatural phenomena must be explained by the simplest material explanation.
See my response to number 2.
8. Aliens are material.
Of course, the reason to bring aliens into the picture in the first place is because they supposedly have higher intelligence and better technology than us. So, it is probably safe to say that aliens are rational like humans, or maybe even super-rational. If this is so, I would venture to say that aliens are not material but are in fact both material and immaterial like us. Of course, this assumes the Christian point of view regarding man, which is that he is both body and soul, material and immaterial. I don’t want to argue that position right now, but my point is simply that aliens don’t simplify the explanation. Presumably the aliens are intelligent. If they are, how does a materialist account for their consciousness? It gets complicated and produces more questions than answers.
9. Aliens are a simple explanation (because they can explain away anything).
Actually, it seems like God is a much simpler explanation than aliens. Let us review the two explanations (God vs. Aliens) in the form of two proposals:
Proposal Ʌ (the God proposal): Supernatural phenomena are caused by God, who also caused the rest of the universe (which means both natural and supernatural phenomena have the same simplified cause). God is simple, unified, transcendent, and indivisible.
Proposal X (the alien proposal, named after The X-files of course): Supernatural phenomena are caused by aliens, who were the product of a long Darwinian process which brought together diverse particles to work in accord with each other to produce not only once (humanity) but twice the illusion of rational individualistic creatures. These creatures decide, for whatever reason, to leave their planet or dimension, find Earth, and then pop up every once and a while just to mess with the humans. These creatures are complex (not simple) individuals (not unified, not indivisible), and did not cause the rest of the universe.
Which proposal is in fact simpler? I’ll let you decide.
10. Therefore, the best explanation of the supernatural phenomena in the Bible are aliens.
Yeaaaaaaah right. Nice try, Trekkies.
Back to Dawkins. I think his problem is he has too small a view of God. When Dawkins says “God,” he really means “Zeus.” He has no concept of what any of the Church Fathers mean when they say “God.” He imagines a guy that looks vaguely like Santa Clause hitting a smite button whenever someone gets added to the naughty list. And if given a choice between a sadistic dude in a toga and a bunch of superintelligent and superinteresting beings from outer space, I think most would choose the latter.
I think Shakespeare was hitting on a profound truth. There are more things in the universe than our philosphy and not less. We are so enthusiastic about creating a pretty little theory that fits into a pretty little box of logic that we forget life. We forget how we normally experience the world and start rationalizing ourselves into a tiny little cosmos of one or two things. As G. K. Chesterton would point out, this exactly what a mentally insane person does. The clinically paranoid person’s universe is made small by their vanity, by the fact that they assume everyone only ever acts or thinks in conspiracy against them. The person who thinks they are a chicken has reduced the whole universe to his chickenhood. Similarly, the reductionist materialist has reduced all of reality to a spot under his microscope, forgetting that his wife won’t fit on a slide.