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Cosmic pluralism, the plurality of worlds, or simply pluralism, describes the philosophical belief in numerous "worlds" in addition to Earth (possibly an infinite number), which may harbour extraterrestrial life.
The debate over pluralism began as early as the time of Thales (c. 600 BC) as an abstract metaphysical argument, long predating the scientific Copernican conception that the Earth is one of numerous planets. It has continued, in a variety of forms, until the modern era.
Ancient Greek debates
In Greek times, the debate was largely philosophical and did not conform to present notions of cosmology. Cosmic pluralism was a corollary to notions of infinity and the purported multitude of life-bearing worlds were more akin to parallel universes (either contemporaneously in space or infinitely recurring in time) than to different solar systems. After Thales and his student Anaximander opened the door to an infinite universe, a strong pluralist stance was adopted by the atomists, notably Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus. While these were prominent thinkers, their opponents—Plato and Aristotle—had greater effect. They argued that the Earth is unique and that there can be no other systems of worlds. This stance neatly dovetailed with later Christian ideas and pluralism was effectively suppressed for approximately a millennium.
Medieval Islamic thought
During the Middle Ages, cosmic pluralism was depicted in fictional Arabic literature. "The Adventures of Bulukiya", a tale from the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), depicted a cosmos consisting of different worlds, some larger than Earth and each with their own inhabitants. Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi (1149–1209), in dealing with his conception of physics and the physical world in his Matalib, rejects the Aristotelian and Avicennian notion of the Earth's centrality within the universe, but instead argues that there are "a thousand thousand worlds (alfa alfi 'awalim) beyond this world such that each one of those worlds be bigger and more massive than this world as well as having the like of what this world has." To support his theological argument, he cites the Qur'anic verse, "All praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds," emphasizing the term "Worlds." Another traditional Islamic exegesis of this verse from Surah al-Fatiha, typified by Ibn Taymiyyah, interprets the "worlds" as being the heavenly and the earthly, or the angelic, the human, the animal, and the world of the djinn, similar to the traditional Christian exegesis of the "three heavens" [God's abode, stellar space, atmospheric space] of the Bible.
Eventually the Ptolemaic-Aristotelian system was challenged and pluralism reasserted, first tentatively by scholastics and then more seriously by followers of Copernicus. The telescope appeared to prove that a multitude of life was reasonable and an expression of God's creative omnipotence; still powerful theological opponents, meanwhile, continued to insist that although the Earth may have been displaced from the center of the cosmos, it was still the unique focus of God's creation. Thinkers such as Johannes Kepler were willing to admit the possibility of pluralism without truly supporting it.
During the Scientific Revolution and the later Enlightenment, cosmic pluralism became a mainstream possibility. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle's Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds) of 1686 was an important work from this period, speculating on pluralism and describing the new Copernican cosmology. Pluralism was also championed by philosophers such as John Locke, astronomers such as William Herschel and even politicians, including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. As greater scientific skepticism and rigour were applied to the question it ceased to be simply a matter of philosophy and theology and was properly bounded by astronomy and biology.
The French astronomer Camille Flammarion was one of the chief proponents of cosmic pluralism during the latter half of the nineteenth century. His first book, La pluralité des mondes habités (1862) was a great popular success, going through 33 editions in its first twenty years. Flammarion was one of the first people to put forward the idea that extraterrestrial beings were genuinely alien, and not simply variations of earthly creatures.
In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries the term "cosmic pluralism" became largely archaic as knowledge diversified and the speculation on extraterrestrial life focused on particular bodies and observations. The historic debate continues to have modern parallels, however. Carl Sagan and Frank Drake, for instance, could well be considered "pluralists" while proponents of the Rare Earth hypothesis are modern skeptics.
- Extraterrestrial life
- Extraterrestrial life in fiction
- Mediocrity principle
- Planetary habitability
- Mormon cosmology
- Hindu cosmology
- Michael J. Crowe (1999). The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750–1900. Courier Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-40675-X.
- david Darling article
- Wiker, Benjamin D. (November 4, 2002). "Alien Ideas: Christianity and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life". Crisis Magazine. Archived from the original on February 10, 2003.
- Irwin, Robert (2003). The Arabian Nights: A Companion. Tauris Parke Paperbacks. p. 204 & 209. ISBN 1-86064-983-1.
- Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds— Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle
- Flammarion, (Nicolas) Camille (1842–1925)— The Internet Encyclopedia of Science
- Ernst Benz (1978). Kosmische Bruderschaft. Die Pluralität der Welten. Zur Ideengeschichte des Ufo-Glaubens. Aurum Verlag. ISBN 3-591-08061-6. (later titled "Außerirdische Welten. Von Kopernikus zu den Ufos")