The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    Deadman's picture

    If aliens don't exist, does God?

    First of all, let me just say how awesome dagblog has been of late. In the past few days, we've had fascinating posts and reader discussions about Sri Lanka, California healthcare, incipient deflation, Twitter's raison d'etre, NSA wiretapping, CIA torturing, etc. etc.

    I often wish we had more bloggers, a larger audience and even more active commenters, but the folks we do have are so good I worry that if that were so all we'd end up with would be a disappointing dilution in the strength of our output and our community.

    God knows I'm already doing all I can on the output quality dilution front, but let me try to dumb down dagblog once again with a line of questions that have been bugging me of late but probably have simple answers. My thoughts here are admittedly going to be very haphazard, confused, and likely based on multiple false premises, but I'm hoping the brilliant philosophers and thinkers we have on dagblog can enlighten me (that's sincerity, not snark, in case you're wondering).

    So here are my questions: Why haven't we found other forms life in space yet? More importantly, why haven't other forms of life found us? And could the fact that we haven't had any extraterrestrial encounters be at least somewhat supportive of the theory that humans are indeed a unique species, and that maybe there is a god or divine presence that approximates the concept as detailed by many of Earth's practiced religions?

    In the past couple of days, I've come across a couple of articles about space and space exploration that got me thinking along these lines. One article was actually a fascinating photo journal of some amazing pictures a NASA spacecraft recently took of Saturn. The other story talked about the fact that researchers have found a couple of planets outside our solar system that appear to be same size of Earth (but likely too hot to harbor life).

    Now I kind of understand why we haven't found life yet (by the way, this entire post presumes that Area 51 conspiracies and the like have no bearing in fact, that we have neither seen nor been seen by extraterrestrials, which admittedly is an awfully big presumption). Our space exploration attempts are still too immature, and we've barely begun to penetrate the infinite universe beyond our own galaxy, so our lack of success on the contact front shouldn't be a surprise.

    But given that the universe is infinite, wouldn't one have to assume that there are also an infinite number of planets that DO harbor life and that at least on a few of those planets (if not an infinite number of them), that those life forms are so advanced that they've developed much better means of exploring the universe, including the means to contact us.

    I know I've always thought that it seems almost incomprehensible to think that we're alone in this universe, but doesn't the fact that we haven't been contacted yet by ETs mean that life may in fact not exist anywhere else? Ok, this is a bit of a stretch of an analogy, and a bit silly to boot, but this line of thought is kind of like how I have to assume that our species never develops the ability to time travel because if we ever did wouldn't we somehow know about it (or perhaps the second we do develop it and test it out, we rip open the space-time continuum and destroy the universe just like Doc Brown always feared).

    And if we are alone, what does that say if anything about the god question? I don't think the answer to the question of whether life exists outside this planet would by itself prove or disprove god's existence. However, I have always felt it would be very tough for most organized religions to square their beliefs and their written source materials with the existence of ETs. But isn't the reverse also true - as long as we are unable to find life outside our little planet, doesn't that support the mostly religious theory that Earth is a singularly unique place, and humans a special species whose purpose for being here is a divine mystery to be solved?

    Or am I missing something very basic here?


    Well, just to clarify, you're talking about intelligent life correct? I would not expect alien forms of algae to hop in a space shape for a fly-over. There are a number of possible reasons why there has been no contact, which I'll list in order of my personal assessment of probability.

    1. Faster than light travel is impossible. That's what special relativity tells us. Without faster than light travel, contact between starts is impractical, no matter how intelligent the aliens. Sad but very likely.
    2. Star-traveling aliens just haven't found us. It's a big universe. We've only been broadcasting our intelligence for a century, not enough time to reach anyone.
    3. Other aliens aren't significantly more advanced than us. Even if faster-than-light travel or targeted wormholes will be discovered some day, other races may not be any closer than we are to discovering them.
    4. There are no other intelligent life forms.
    5. Aliens are here but not ready to make contact.

    But even if we are all alone, that's not evidence for God. From the point of view of the universe, if the universe had a point of view, we'd just be one unusual collection of highly-ordered matter. To see our uniqueness as the design of someone who thinks like we do is anthropomorphism.

    Just a few clarifications: as someone reasonably well versed in general relativity, I should point out that, given a sufficient power source, it's possible to travel 82.7 light years in only 5 years (in the rocket's time frame, that is), while accelerating at a pleasant 1g, thanks to the effects of length contraction at very high speeds. Of course, if you want to arrive at your destination, you also need to allow for slowing down, but you could still travel 165.4 light years in 10 years while ending up being at rest relative to your initial reference frame. See for more details. If you're willing to experience higher g's for extended periods of time (and it's not unlikely that an advanced race somewhere developed on a planet where our 2g is their 1g, for example), the reduction in time is even greater.

    Still, that's no trivial undertaking. Aliens might also be able to contact us via a highly focused light ray (else the energy expended would be too fast), or possibly focused gravitational waves, but it's possible they're trying that and we just haven't built the right receiver yet (especially if they're using gravitational waves).

    It's also possible that we're all living in a simulation:

    Thanks for the correction. I thought that e = mc2 was from special relativity. My physics is admittedly very rusty.

    If we're living a simulation, then when do the simulated aliens show up?

    Your statements were all very correct with respect to the special theory of relativity. Special relativity is so-called because it assumes the special case of no acceleration. General relativity essentially reduces to special relativity if you remove acceleration from the picture. There's a reason why it took Einstein a lot longer to formulate the general theory of relativity: it's much more complicated and involves fun math things known as tensors. It also requires understanding the difference between contravariant and covariant, which even most physicists don't spend too much time thinking about.

    Thanks for the clarification. I'm glad that I didn't publically out myself as a physics moron.

    Well, first of all, most scientists don't think the universe is infinite. It is, however, Pretty Damn Big (that's a technical term), so your arguments still have merit. I'll assume you're familiar with the Drake equation, and I'll agree that, if ET exists, it is peculiar that he/she/it/shmibbit hasn't found us yet. Of course, one big impediment is the fact that the universe is Pretty Dam Sparse (another technical term), so that the distances between stars is quite vast (our nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, is over 4 light years away). So, any attempt to actually colonize other star systems would require technology quite sophisticated to ours, but its hard to imagine that in another 1,000 years we won't have found a way to do so ourselves, assuming we haven't blown ourselves up (one of the parameters in the Drake equation that pessimists would use to explain why ET hasn't found us).

    Anyways, all good musings you raise, and although it doesn't challenge my atheism too much, I'll leave you with a pondering that does occasionally tweak it: free will. If free will exists, the causality ordering principle (COP) that we physicists love so much sorta goes out the window. If free will doesn't exist, then it seems might peculiar that so many of us are predesitined to beleive that it does.

    Many people believe all sorts of falsehoods. But it's not that it free will doesn't exist per se. It's just that people confuse the semantic contexts of free will and causality. Given two options, you may choose either. Your choice is an exercise of free will. But whichever choice you make will nonetheless have been caused by your neurological state. The two contexts would only collide if you could somehow know your neurally determined decision at the same instant that you make the decision and switch to the other option. But of course, knowing your neural state would change your neural state, so that's impossible.

    I agree that it's partly a problem of semantics, as well as very likely expectations. To me, free will isn't truly free if it's being decided by external factors. I was playing a little fast-and-loose with my use of the word "predestined" previously since quantum mechanics makes that not true, either, but still, according to accepted science, as well as accepted Buddhism, I suppose, I don't really exist as an independent agent. I don't like that, even though I think it's true.

    Yeah, I was struggling (and failing) to avoid conflating causality and determinism as well.

    But my point is that insofar as you are of sound mind and not manipulated by some unseen intelligence in the Matrix, you are an independent agent. You can freely choose the blue pill or the red pill. That's the ordinary sense of the word in which our notions of ethics and responsibility are rooted. It's the "truly" modifier, as in "truly free" or "truly independent," that's getting you into trouble. The wish to be "truly free" is essentially a desire to stand outside biology. It's akin to the desire for an immortal soul or a role in some grand plan. It's a nice idea, but it's a falsehood based on human conceit, and IMO, it's unnecessary for living a fulfilling life.

    PS With respect to determinism and free will, many religious folks, particularly Protestants, are determinists, so they have to deal with the same inconsistency. But I've found the true believers don't worry too much about consistency.

    But my point is that insofar as you are of sound mind and not manipulated by some unseen intelligence in the Matrix, you are an independent agent.

    At the risk of going deeper into the semantic rabbit-hole, I think I am being manipulated by some unseen intelligence. You see, I think the Earth (or bio-sphere) is intelligent, but most likely not conscious. I base this on the idea that just as genetic algorithms are part of the realm of artificial intelligence, evolution is part of the realm of intelligence. Again, this is largely a semantic argument. What is "intelligence"? (For that matter, what is "conscious"?)

    The wish to be "truly free" is essentially a desire to stand outside biology.

    Exactly. That's how I define "independent", however. Again, mainly a question of semantics.

    You are missing something very basic, Deadman. Alien life, or its absence, is in no way evidence for or against God's existence. Multiple origins of conscious intelligence poses a problem for some organized religions -- those that take the biblical creation myth literally -- but not for God. And if human life happens to be unique, how does that support any particular theory of how it came into existence?

    As for the fact aliens haven't contacted us, why would they? Habitable worlds are spread far apart in both space and time. Our solar system is not very remarkable: a star, two planets and some dust. As was pointed out above, we've been proclaiming our intelligence to the universe for only a century or so; no one has heard us yet. And we've just begun trying to eavesdrop on our neighbors (with the assumption they use radio waves to communicate).

    So nothing surprising that we haven't found stellar neighbors, and nothing cosmos-shattering to conclude from whether we do or not. I must admit, though: it would be super-cool.

    I will say this. Deadman's in good company by being surprised that we haven't found stellar neighbors:

    Usage tip: urls don't get turned into links automatically. It's on my list to look into. To make a url into a link, highlight the url or some other text, and click the chain icon. Then insert the url.

    Like this?

    You got it

    acanuck, i said in the piece that alien contact wouldn't prove or disprove god's existence, but i do think most of the world's major religions would struggle with the presence of ETs, though bluesplashy is certainly right that eventually they'd find a way to twist it so it all gibes (in the end, it'd just be a new race of people to convert!)

    but personally, i do think if we are really, truly alone in this immense, infinite (or virtually infinite) universe then that fact would at the least make me reconsider the possibility that we are a special species whose purpose is a divine mystery we are meant to solve or seek to solve.

    although now that I've read all this great material linked to by nebton, perhaps the fact that we're alone would just bolster the case that we are living in a simulation whose creators may not want us to encounter other forms of life (of course, maybe 'god' is that creator ... oh my head is exploding)

    more importantly, let's focus for a moment on what really matters, acanuck. what happened to our respective hockey teams?? how disappointing to be swept. after five years, i forgot how much i missed playoff hockey and now to have it taken away from me so quickly is just cruel. if we are living in a simulation, then i'm asking our creators to step in for a brief moment and make it so the Blues win the Stanley Cup next year. for you acanuck, i'll even ask that they get to play the canadiens in the finals.

    Last night, as I watched the Canadiens skate off the ice, I briefly considered a dagblog post On Watching Your Team Swept in Four. But I'd already transitioned from wine to Bailey's -- and what is there to say, anyway?

    I'll try to muster some enthusiasm for my Vancouver namesakes (sorry!) but I know from experience it will be pro forma and tepid. This year was supposed to mark the return of Habs hegemony -- the government even minted a special centennial loonie. Boy, did that not work out!

    well, that's what i'm talking about. thanks for all the excellent discussion and especially the links. I had no idea my random thoughts have been so thoroughly explored, tho I should have realized as much given how unoriginal my thoughts often are! just fascinating, if somewhat inscrutable stuff. it's times like this i really wish i had a much more powerful brain so i could properly digest it all. though on second thought, perhaps not ...

    Wow.  Genghis, Nebton and acanuck pretty much covered everything I was going to say.  So, I'll just leave this cool link to the Arecibo message.

    Also, everyone knows that we will make First Contact with the Vulcans in 2063.  Duh.

    Hey Deadman, good post leading to great comments - just what I expect from DagBlog!  I am 3/4 the way through Mark Twain's' The Mysterious Stranger and am about disgusted with the whole of human race and their religions. 

    It would be interesting to see how the various religions would twist a visit by aliens.  Would they share their god with the whole universe?  While acanuck is right in that it wouldn't matter to god if the aliens exist it would matter to the creators of god. 

    Splashy! You're back. Yay!

    What she said!

    Yes, I'm back and more Yay! about it than you!  It took a while but my brother in law was a big help and got me hooked up with wireless broadband and an antenna.  

    Re Nebton's link to that Wikipedia article: This Fermi guy seems like a bright fellow, but the article quite fairly notes that many of the assumptions he relies on are open to debate.

    The No. 1 assumption we all tend to make is to see intelligent life elsewhere in the universe as human-like, and more specifically as technologically advanced. We conflate the past few centuries with millions of years of evolution. It seems reasonable, but we're generalizing from too small a sample over too short a time frame.

    Isn't it more likely for intelligent lifeforms to have reached a sustainable balance with their home planet's resources and other living things, than to follow our current trajectory of trashing our planet, then looking for other worlds to ravage? I don't see successful species needing to spread through the galaxies. Maybe we haven't heard from them because they are contentedly cultivating their gardens.

    This Fermi guy seems like a bright fellow

    I thought it was the Brits who had the gift for understatement.

    who's to say they'd be looking for other worlds to ravage??? i don't think that's at all the reason we started looking outward. obviously, i'm looking at this through the only lens I know - the human one - but i can't imagine any species not being insanely curious about what exactly is 'up' there in space.

    I can imagine several intelligent species not being insanely curious about what exactly is up there, but I cannot imagine that all of them would not be.

    Part of the Fermi paradox is that if there was only 1 species in our galaxy that was more advanced than us, interested in expansion, and didn't destroy itself too early, it would likely grow exponentionally. Anyone who's had experience with exponential functions can tell you what that means. If their galactic population doubled every 1,000 years after achieving interstellar travel (a fairly slow doubling rate), then after 10,000 years they would occupy about 1,000 worlds, after 20,000 years they would occupy over a million worlds, after 30,000 years they would occupy over a billion worlds, and and after 40,000 years they would occupy every nook and cranny of the Milky way. Consider that our Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. 40,000 years is nothing compared to that, so it's not at all unlikely that there would be another civilization 50,000 years ahead of us - let's assume it takes us another 10,000 years before we're capable of colonizing interstellar space. Of course, I'm also assuming a lot of other things not mentioned, and since I don't think there are any ETs among us, at least one of those assumptions is wrong. (Despite what I wrote earlier, I'm also assuming we're not living in a simulation.)

    And we should all be knee-deep in Von Neumann machines. Or, as you say, at least one assumption is wrong. Since we're not knee-deep, I'm going with the latter.

    Look, we're marooned on a desert island, with one tree that produces edible fruit. Do you cut it down to make a raft in a desperate attempt to escape? Or do you nurture seedlings to ensure a long-term food supply?

    Of course, then you could cut down one of the spare trees to make a raft. But did I mention you have a stunningly beautiful woman stranded with you? No? I was sure I did.

    My take on extraterrestrials, the Fermi paradox, and whether we should get on board their space ships when they come a callin'.



    Cool post. My favorite variant is Space Nazis disguised as Fluffy Bunnies. Have you read Larry Niven's A Mote in God's Eye? It imagines the Fermi scenario you present. I will avoid saying more to avoid giving anything away, but I really enjoyed it. (Don't bother with the sequel, though.)

    But you left out a small but important category in which humans are the colonizers, and the aliens are Ignorant Savages. The best of I've read is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, in which Jesuit colonists from Earth seek to convert an alien race. (Again, you can skip the sequel.)

    Latest Comments