By Cris D. Putnam
In order to properly assess the philosophical and theological implications of intelligent extraterrestrial biological life it is essential to review the history of the discussion. Most folks probably assume that it was the dawn of the space age, beginning with the Russian satellite Sputnik in 1957 and culminating with Neil Armstrong taking “one giant leap for mankind” in 1969, which necessitated the ET discussion. Alternately, folks more versed in Western history might think back to the eighteenth-century “age of reason” enlightenment or perhaps even a little further to the “Copernican revolution” including the infamous sixteenth-century Galileo trial as the impetus for speculation about ET. While those are certainly remarkable stepping stones, the origin of the otherworldly reaches much deeper into antiquity.
Some writers (e.g., Erich von Däniken, Zecharia Sitchin) have proposed that intelligent extraterrestrials visited Earth in prehistory and made contact with humans. They cite various artifacts and ancient texts as evidence for ET intervention. A common tenet is that the gods from most, if not all, religions were actually extraterrestrials, and their advanced technologies were wrongly interpreted by primitive peoples as supernatural abilities. Although this demythologizing is quite popular, the so-called ancient astronaut theory has been authoritatively discredited and it is not taken seriously by most academics. In fact, a program of remythologizing offers more promise.
Scholars are in wide agreement that explicit ET discussion first appears in the writings of the early Greeks. As early as the sixth century BC, Thales and Orpheus postulated that the moon was much like the Earth. Not much later, Philolaus is reported to have written that the moon was populated. These beliefs are part and parcel of the ancient supernatural worldview.
Thales (640–548 BC) believed in demoniacal apparitions, Plato in ghosts—deceased people who were compelled to return to the living because they were unable to disassociate themselves from their bodily passions. Democritus (fifth century BC), who could laugh so heartily at human folly, recommended that a man stung by a scorpion should sit upon an ass and whisper in the animal’s ear: “A scorpion has stung me.” He thought that the pain would thus be transferred to the ass. All the philosophers of old believed in the reality of magic.
While it is clear they believed in the paranormal, the Greek philosophers were in vigorous debate as to as to the ultimate nature of reality or metaphysics.
Originally proposed by Leucippus (fifth century BC), atomism was developed and refined by his protégé, Democritus. They intuitively proposed that all matter was composed of very small particles. The thought process went something like this: Imagine slicing a pebble in half, then in half again, and in half again, and again, and so on… This process could continue until, eventually, it is reduced to a grain of sand and becomes too small to see or cut. Based on this, Democritus doubted the process could truly continue infinitely, so he proposed miniscule, indivisible units called atoms. In fact, the Greek word atomos means indivisible and the atomists proposed an infinite number of these basic building blocks.
In this way, they solved the question of unity and change in that the arrangements of atoms were in constant flux while the atoms themselves remained stable. Furthermore, they saw no rhyme or reason governing this mix of atoms. They believed the universe was infinite in size and governed by chance. As a corollary to this, they reasoned that because the Earth and its inhabitants were formed by random combinations of atoms, it naturally followed that the same haphazard amalgamations occurred many times over. In this way, the existence of other worlds and alien life was an inevitable consequence of their worldview.
Known as the laughing philosopher, Democritus (460–370 BC) speculated that originally the universe was a swarm of atoms churning chaotically, forming larger and larger masses eventually including the Earth, planets, and stars. In antiquity, the term “world” (Greek kosmos) meant the observable universe, not a mere planet. Thus, when Democritus asserted a hodgepodge of alien worlds, it is helpful to think in terms of solar systems. According to Hippolytus, “Democritus, son of Damasippus, a native of Abdera, conferring with many gymnosophists among the Indians, and with priests in Egypt, and with astrologers and magi in Babylon…he maintained worlds to be infinite, and varying in bulk; and that in some there is neither sun nor moon, while in others that they are larger than with us, and with others more numerous.” Furthermore, he held that some worlds have life while others do not, each has a beginning and an end, and that a world could be destroyed by collision with another one. Today, some historians consider Democritus the “father of modern science.” Don’t tell the donkey.
In the otherworldly discussion, the successor to Democritus was the Greek philosopher Epicurus. He wrote, “A world is a circumscribed portion of the sky, containing heavenly bodies and an earth and all the heavenly phenomenon.” From this we can tell that, in the late third century BC, when Epicurus invoked the principle of plentitude to defend the existence of innumerable worlds, he meant a vast universe of solar systems. A letter to his student, Herodotus, survives as a prominent example, “There are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours. For the atoms being infinite in number…are borne far out into space.” That he believed ETs inhabited these worlds is laid bare by his assertion, “Furthermore, we must believe that in all worlds there are living creatures and plants and other things we see in this world.” Although he was technically not an atheist, he was a material reductionist because he held that even the gods and human souls were made of atoms. Epicurus, like modern deists, argued the gods were uninvolved in human affairs. He inspired a host of followers.
Atomist thought gave rise to a system of philosophy called Epicureanism which arguably still survives as modern material reductionism (the idea that everything is reducible to matter and energy as governed by the laws of chemistry and physics). Epicurean philosophy attracted many disciples, one of the most prominent being Titus Lucretius Carus (99–55 BC), known as Lucretius. He popularized atomism in his famous poem, “On the Nature of the Universe.” The following is a representative example:
Granted, then, that empty space extends without limit in every direction and that seeds innumerable in number are rushing on countless courses through an unfathomable universe under the impulse of perpetual motion, it is in the highest degree unlikely that this earth and sky is the only one to have been created and that all those particles of matter outside are accomplishing nothing. This follows from the fact that our world has been made by nature through the spontaneous and casual collision and the multifarious, accidental, random, and purposeless congregation and coalescence of atoms whose suddenly formed combinations could serve on each occasion as the starting point of substantial fabrics—earth and sea and sky and the races of living creatures.
A few decades before Christ was born, the Roman poet Lucretius popularized the materialist worldview replete with populated alien worlds. Inherent is a denial of divine creation and providence along with the belief that death is simply the disbanding of the atoms, which, consequently, should not be feared. Sounding much like today’s transhumanists, he boasted, “Thus religion trod down, by just reverse; victory makes us akin to the gods.” In fact, the discovery of Lucretius’ writings spawned an atomist renaissance in the sixteenth century AD which has ongoing repercussions.
 For more information, see: “Ancient Aliens Debunked,” last accessed January 9, 2013, http://ancientaliensdebunked.com/; “Sitchin Is Wrong,” last accessed January 9, 2013, http://www.sitchiniswrong.com/.
 We are indebted to the work of scholars Michael Crowe and Stephen J. Dick for their surveys of the ET debate.
 Kurt Seligmann, The History of Magic and the Occult (New York, NY: Gramercy, 1997), 48.
 Jerry Coffey, “Democritus Model,” Universe Today, March 19, 2010, http://www.universetoday.com/60137/democritus-model/.
 Epicurus, “Letter to Pythocles,” in Cyril Bailey, Epicurus, the Extant Remains (Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1980), 59.
 Epicurus, “Letter to Herodotus,” translated by C. Bailey in The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, ed. Whitney J. Oates (New York, NY: Random House), 5.
 Epicurus, “Letter to Herodotus,” 13.
 Titus Lucretius Carus, “On the Nature of the Universe,” translated by R.E. Latham (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1975), 91.
 Lucretius, “On the Nature of the Universe,” as cited in Seligmann, The History of Magic, 81.