There is an ongoing PBS TV series (also several books and also a website) called “Closer To Truth”. It is hosted by neuroscientist Robert Lawrence Kuhn. He’s featured in one-on-one interviews and panel discussions with the cream of the cream of today’s cosmologists, physicists, philosophers, theologians, psychologists, etc. on all of the Big Questions surrounding a trilogy of broad topics – Cosmos; Consciousness; God. The trilogy collectively dealt with reality, space and time, mind and consciousness, aliens, theology and on and on and on. Here are a few of my comments on one of the general topics covered – alien life.
ALIENS: WOULD INTELLIGENT ALIENS UNDERMINE GOD?
This has nothing to do with whether or not God actually exists (He doesn’t IMHO), but rather the effect that the discovery of ET and especially ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence) would have on the True Believers in a supernatural deity – and for sake of brevity, let’s restrict God here to the God of the Old and the New Testaments.
This is not an either/or situation. The answer is both – both for undermining God and against undermining God.
Some True Believers would argue that God can do whatever God goddamn well wants to do, and since God is such an egotistical maniac (Thou shall have no other gods before me) that He probably created umpteen zillions of inhabited worlds in order to have a googolplex of entities bowing and scraping to Him. Whether or not J.C. has to end up boldly going and visiting all of these worlds in turn is neither here nor there.
On the other hand some True Believers (the more fundamentalist rightwing extremist types) would Bible-thump their tables and insist that the Bible mentions no extraterrestrials or the plurality of worlds and thus those who argue the existence of ET and for other inhabited worlds should probably be burned at the stake (which has actually happened). These True Believers note that according to the Bible human beings are the apex of all of God’s creations, the king of the life, universe and everything hill. Therefore nothing else can exist that could even remotely challenge that apex (and are they in for a nasty surprise when artificial intelligence eventually puts human intelligence in it’s proper [second] place).
Anyway, if you are in the former camp, your belief is reinforced; if in the latter camp you’ll probably just insist it’s all a government inspired, Obama-led leftwing liberal conspiracy, and just bury your head in the sands and continue with your Bible-thumping normalcy. The religious fundamentalists tend to be those with the ‘my mind is made up; don’t confuse the issue with facts’ brand of personal philosophy.
Ultimately a supernatural God doesn’t exist and the sooner True Believers come to terms with that the better. So ultimately therefore the entire issue of aliens vs. God is irrelevant.
ALIENS: WHY DO WE SEARCH FOR INTELLIGENT ALIENS?
Why look for the Higgs Boson? Why look for the Northwest Passage? Why climb Mount Everest? Why try to find out anything about life, the Universe and everything? I think it all boils down to that hardwiring in and of our neurons in our brain thingy that demands to know what’s over the hill and beyond the blue horizon. We’re curious, like cats, and we all boldly go into the great unknown. But it’s not curiosity just for the sake of curiosity. What is over the hill might be good, like home to a new food supply (like lots of mice); a new watering hole; better shelter or potential mates. Or, what’s beyond the blue horizon might be bad and ugly like a warring tribe or a rival cat. When survival is a stake you need to know all you can to be prepared. Ditto SETI – the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. There’s curiosity of course. Knowledge of whether or not ET exists helps us to cement our place in the greater cosmic scheme of things, but it still boils down to survival (even if unacknowledged). ET might turn out to be a friend, a trading partner and a source of cosmic knowledge and wisdom. ET might turn out to be a possible threat, and not of necessity just a physical one. They could have a philosophy or worldview that would cause untold instability to our terrestrial way or life – our cultures, etc. We need to know and thus be prepared to all possible scenarios. We don’t want to blindly hide our heads in the sand and hope extraterrestrial missionaries don’t show up door-knocking Planet Earth unannounced.
ALIENS: WHERE ARE ALL THOSE ALIENS?
It has been suggested that because advancements in technology happen at an exponential rate rather than at a linear rate, that an advanced (i.e. – technological) extraterrestrial culture that was even several hundred to a thousand years in advance of our own would stand out like a proverbial sore thumb in an otherwise routine and humdrum cosmos. Sort of like that isolated lighthouse shining like a beacon in the darkness. If, as SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) practitioners believe, there must be many thousands of technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations or societies, not just hundreds or thousands but millions of years senior to us in technological advancement, well, given that technological growth is exponential, the existence of ET should be obvious to all but Blind Freddy, yet all the un-blind Freddies of the world don’t see ET. The obvious conclusion is that either we are the Proverbial It in terms of a technological civilization or at least leading the pack. We’re more technologically advanced than any other alien civilization. I have a problem with that scenario.
There are lots of examples of exponential growth here on Earth. Biology is one example. Life forms exponentially reproduce to meet the available resources required to sustain that life form, but once the gobblers exhaust the resources, the gobblers decline or at least level off if the resources are renewable. One example of such a life form is the human species.
Knowledge growth is exponential as we keep finding out and learning more and more about less and less. Even specializations now have specializations.
Some forms of human technology are currently ‘enjoying’ exponential growth. Medical technology for one; nanotechnologies are another; and the who related fields of artificial intelligence, computing crunch power, robotics, the rise and rise of the Internet, etc. Somewhat related is technologies central to human-machine interfacing. Surveillance technologies are growing by leaps and bounds. Destructive firepower still increases at a rapid rate of knots. But not all types of knowledge or forms of technology are equal in growth.
But, many technologies have reached a plateau or aren’t increasing very rapidly any more, even if they once did. Transportation technologies have leveled off – the car of today is little different in principle than the Model-T. Jet aircraft don’t get you across the pond any faster today than they did 30 years ago. There’s little different in principle between the Saturn V and the Space Shuttle. Pretty much the same applies to bicycles, boats, and trains.
Construction technologies might be getting better, but hardly exponentially. Brick technology hasn’t changed much over the years. The staples of today were pretty much the staples of fifty years ago.
Has there been exponential growth in lawn mowing technology? I think not. Ditto regarding glassware technologies, pots and pans and air-conditioning. And what about ditch digging; vacuum cleaning; appendix removal operations; ways to boil water; electricity generation; harvesting or recycling technologies. All are pretty stagnant.
Radio and television technologies have changed, but only superficially.
The energy technologies that exist to fuel your car today are pretty much the same as for that Model-T.
From the human perspective, there haven’t been exponential improvements in lifespan or in human performance levels, albeit both have improved over the generations.
Now what sort of exponential growth in what sorts of technologies might stand out like a lighthouse beacon to us from the depths of interstellar space? If it’s computer crunch power, that’s not too likely to be noticeable across the vast distances of the cosmos.
And keep in mind that speed of light barrier. Speed of light restrictions will apply to even the most advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, which may also explain why we haven’t seen the relevant astro-engineering beacons yet – their light hasn’t yet reached us.
ALIENS: WHY AREN’T ALIENS ALREADY HERE?
I find it absolutely amazing that scientists keep asking, and being asked, “where is everybody” where the ‘everybody’ equates to “where is ET”, yet ducks and weaves and hems and haws and hides for the sanctuary of their Ivory Tower when UFOs and/or ‘ancient astronauts’ are suggested as bona-fide answers. Either that or they just shrug and mumble something about ‘show me the evidence’ when in fact there’s loads of evidence if only they’d take the time to research the topic and get their hands dirty with on-site investigation. Or they just might go nudge-nudge, wink-wink, how it is the silly season or the off season (for real news) or it’s people just going troppo and how educational standards ain’t what they used to be and how they now have to content with all the uneducated great unwashed and how it’s all so hopeless so please let me get back to my lab where I can deal with real things with the educated elite and not have to listen to junk science and deal with pseudo things and associated nutters.
Of course as it turns out UFOs and/or ‘ancient astronauts’ are perfectly logical answers to the “where is everybody” question – more formally known as the Fermi Paradox which notes that aliens in fact should be here if extraterrestrial civilizations with space-faring capacity and a quest, like we have, to boldly go. That’s because the time it would take ET and/or ET’s artificially intelligent robotic surrogates to explore, even colonize (if it so wished) the galaxy (millions to tens of millions of years) is but a tiny fraction of the overall age of our galaxy (to the tune of some ten billion years). That’s true even if one extraterrestrial civilization boldly goes but there are probably many dozens, hundreds even thousands of such extraterrestrial civilizations. For ET not to have noted and logged the Third Rock from the Sun a long time ago – a very interesting piece of real estate since it has a biosphere which is a rarity in the cosmos – is akin to humans having somehow missed finding New Zealand by early in the 21st Century.
So, where is everybody? Keep watching the skies! Oh, and Ivory Tower scientists, try actually studying the UFO and/or ‘ancient astronaut’ field first before going off the deep end and pontificating and passing judgement on things you clearly have little understanding of. Do your fieldwork and research first; then pontificate.
ALIENS: WHY INTELLIGENT ALIEN LIFE?
This is the philosophical and theological part of the extraterrestrial life debate. There are reasons why the concept and reality of extraterrestrial intelligence is important. It’s just one of those Big Questions that help cement what it means to be human and what our place is in the broader cosmic instead of terrestrial scheme of things. The theological issues have already been looked at, so let’s bypass those and look more philosophically at the issue.
Once upon a time humans didn’t exist even though aliens might have. Their existence (or non-existence) wouldn’t have been any sweat off of our non-existence backs. Any other non-human but terrestrial life forms probably hadn’t ever thought of ET in their philosophy and so probably wouldn’t have given a damn about the issue.
But now that we’re here and aliens are a part of our philosophy, well, why? Above and beyond all else we humans are a social species with an innate curiosity about our own kind and our peers, which has Darwinian survival value since we need to find out if someone else is a potential or actual friend or foe. Kids like to and quickly get to know who’s who with respect to their new classmates. You probably like to meet and greet your new neighbour(s). When you start a job you probably quickly make new friends (and enemies). When you go on holiday you’re likely to meet and make new friends, even lovers. The same applies to ET, or more properly ETI (extraterrestrial intelligence). Are they friend or foe?
A less practical question, but philosophically important, is the need to answer whether we (humans in particular; terrestrial life in general) are a unique fluke or just one of the dime-a-dozen crowd. To date we appear to be a unique cosmic one-off. If ET and ETI exist, we become a statistic and that applies even if ET is just a Martian microbe. But if we, we being humanity as well as the rest of terrestrial life, are a cosmic fluke, then the Universe is our playground and ours for the taking. If we (we being humanity) are a statistic then we’re more likely as not to be the new kid on the interstellar block and as such we’ll have to tread very carefully as we boldly go. But either way, fluke or statistic, the “are we alone” question will help to further establish and cement our place, pecking order and overall relationship with the cosmos and it’s other inhabitants (if any).