Classic Sci-Fi Recommendation: A Case of Conscience by James Blish

A Case of Conscience, a 1958 novel by James Blish, is one of the few sci-fi novels that really tackles religion and theology head-on, especially in a setting with aliens. I’ll admit that the writing is not stellar, despite the Hugo Award. It’s decent, but the plot is rushed in many places and in my opinion does not explore several key issues in sufficient depth. However, the theological questions it raises are most intriguing.

Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez is a Jesuit priest, part of an interstellar mission to evaluate the alien planet of Lithia for colonization. However, what he finds there disturbs him deeply: the native Lithians are a civilization with advanced science and seemingly no sin–a morality that lines up perfectly with Catholic teaching from which they never deviate–and yet no concept of God. Such a thing is so morally untenable in his mind that Ruiz-Sanchez believes the Lithians were created by Satan to convince humans that morality does not come from God, but from nature and reason.

This is a big problem because ascribing creative power to Satan is the heresy attributed to the Manichean religion by the Church. On his return, Ruiz-Sanchez is called before the Pope, who offers an alternative explanation: the Lithians are possessed by the Devil, and the entire planet is in need of an exorcism.

Non-Catholics do not always reject the notion that Satan can create, but the opening verses of the Gospel of John seem to lean heavily against it. Either way, the way Ruiz-Sanchez presents his arguments is very interesting. However, my problems with his case are much more based in science and the interaction of science and religion.

Ruiz-Sanchez presents his argument in Chapter VIII. He begins by pointing out that the Lithians not only follow a perfect moral code, but, crucially, that they are too perfect. They have no criminals nor even a word for it in their language, nor nations, nor wars, nor environmental exploitation, and all this with no concept of God or supernatural forces of any kind. Therefore, their existence implicitly makes the case that morality can be arrived at axiomatically and without recourse to God. Moreover, the environment they live in also seems too perfect. It is perfectly balanced, he says, in a way that seems as if someone designed it.

This is essentially an intelligent design argument. (Keep in mind that the book was written in 1958, long before the term “intelligent design” was first popularized in 1989.) As someone who believes in theistic evolution and opposes regarding any form of creationism as science, I might disagree with this argument, but I actually think Ruiz-Sanchez makes a compelling case. The Lithians are too perfect. They could never have arisen naturally. However, where he makes the argument from a religious viewpoint, I would make it from a scientific one: evolution could not possibly produce an intelligent species where there is no moral deviance in any individuals. Indeed, I find it hard to believe that in a universe of “survival of the fittest”, an intelligent species could emerge that is immune to violence at all.

But take note: Ruiz-Sanchez has made a credible case for design, not for who is the designer. The modern intelligent design movement recognizes a third possible explanation to the two Blish proposes: that an alien species could have created life on Earth or, in this case, Lithia. To a modern eye, this appears to be by far the most likely explanation.

However, Ruiz-Sanchez’s argument doesn’t end there. He makes rather a big deal out of the fact that the Lithians go through a complex life cycle, which begins as free-living larvae, then passes through fish, amphibian, and primitive reptilian stages as unintelligent animals before emerging from the jungle as thinking, mature adults. This, he says, is a further attempt to make the case that morality can be gained through life experience without the input of God or other thinking beings.

I don’t like this argument. It seems obscure and unnecessary to the modern reader when the argument for design has already been made so beautifully. But I dislike it even more because Ruiz-Sanchez includes with it a criticism of the theory of evolution, claiming the Catholic Church regards it as “tenable”, but “extremely dubious” (though this is forgivable since the book was written in 1958), and worst of all, he backs this up with the same kind of Last Thursdayism that proponents of evolution have tried to oppose for so long. (Admittedly, I consider it the most intellectually honest form of creationism, but it is not science.) Simply put, the whole passage grates on my modern scientific sensibilities.

Father Ruiz-Sanchez sees the direction that the Lithians are pointing–in short, that goodness can exist without God–and concludes that it is the work of Satan. As he frames it, this is a heresy, but my final objection is broader than the heresy. My problem is that it plays into another creationist argument that evolution proponents have fought hard against: that someone (usually God, but occasionally Satan) placed fossil dinosaur bones in the ground as a test of faith, calling on people not to believe what is unseen, but to disbelieve what is. (And note that this is also problematic because it arguably makes God a deceiver.)

Mind you, I don’t think Ruiz-Sanchez was wrong. (At least not for that reason; the possession argument still fits better.) Blish was simply writing well before these issues were played out in the public eye, and Science Marches On. It’s a decent story that makes an intriguing theological case, and it’s worth reading for that reason. It just doesn’t hold up as well as I’d like.

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About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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