Arguments about Extraterrestrial Life…

…largely seem to me to be evidence of the human tendency to fill silence and empty space with something, whether or not there is any evidence for it.

This is true, not only of the average post-modern who routinely assumes the existence of ET, but also of people like this, who magisterially declare that We Are Alone.

The truth is that the only thing we know is that We Don’t Know Anything. We have no evidence either way and the people who declare we are alone are talking through their hats as much as those who declare the universe to be teeming with life based on the Drake Equation. The Drake Equation is an impressive looking formula full of variables that look really cool and mean absolutely nothing since we have no idea what the value of any of them is. Similarly, the big problem for the We are Alone crowd is that they, you know, don’t know if We Are Alone. We don’t know nuthin’. We are ignorant. But we insist on making confident pronouncements rather than just saying, “Who knows? Maybe there’s someone there, maybe there isn’t. How about we focus on the data and see what we see?”

The fun thing is that we are starting to acquire data as we find more and more planets around other stars. The hope is that a spectal analysis of the light from those planets might reveal the presence of chlorophyll. Likewise, probes to Io will be looking for the possibility of life around black smoker vents at the bottom of the ocean under the ice. But till we look we won’t know. And even if we find nothing, that doesn’t mean there’s no extraterrestrial life. It will just mean we eliminated a little of our ignorance.

That’s not to say we will ever contact non-human intelligences from other planets. My money is against it, even if they are there. We’ve been listening for 50 years and the heavens are remarkably silent for a galaxy allegedly teaming with other civilizations. Still less are we ever going to get off this rock in any significant way. We might set up a colony on the Moon for some reason and we might terraform Mars. But since it would be vastly easier and cheap to build New York in Antarctica (where you don’t have to import an atmosphere) than to build even a modest colony off world, and since the nearest star is really, really, really far away, I just don’t think it’s happening. The only non-human intelligences we will ever encounter are the ones that have been here all along: angels and demons. The dream of the Conquest of Space and our imminent contact with ET is basically just Christian eschatology transposed into a secular mythos.

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  • MTD

    But… but… God is an alien right? And today’s the anniversary of when Jesus went back to the mothership, and they brought his mother later on? And the Ark of the Covenant is buried at Ground Zero and that’s why 9/11 really happened…

    That’s basically the point of Ancient Aliens on the pseudoHistory Channel. “We aren’t sure. Therefore, ancient aliens. And the Ark of the Covenant is a nuclear bomb.”

  • MarylandBill

    I agree there are too many unkowns still floating around to get a really good idea about the results of the Drake equation.

    As for listening for 50 years? I wouldn’t read too much into that if I were you Mark. The types of signals we can currently detect at interstellar distances are actually fairly atypical of the sort that are generally used for communication on Earth. If E.T.s exist and are anything like us (well enough like us for us to communicate in any meaningful way), it is likely that their planet produces similar sort of radio signals. This means that they probably would have to be deliberately sending a signal our way to give us a reasonable chance to detect it with our current technology.

    Further there have been several suspicious, but non-repeating signals that have been detected over the years. No natural explanation has ever been shown, but since they have different points of origin, we don’t know if they are alien either (If we ever got two from the same origin, that would provide a lot of support for the existence of E.T. intelligence).

    Finally of course, the galaxy is a big place. 100 billion stars are in the Milky Way. Even if there are 1000 E.T. civilizations out there, we would have to look at, on average 100 million stars to find one of them (assuming they were broadcasting the right sort of signal). Of course, this also means that the nearest if probably hundreds if not thousands of light years away. This supports you notion of meaningful contact being very unlikely. Ultimately, I just wanted to point out that not hearing anything for 50 years doesn’t really mean much; it would have been surprising to discover something so quickly really.

    One final thought, if we do set up colonies in the Solar System, we probably won’t bring all of the atmosphere with us. There is an awful lot of Oxygen locked up in the Martian crust (Mars reddish color comes from all the Iron oxide in the crust)… Likewise, the Jovian and Saturnine moons have plentiful supplies of water that could be cracked to provide oxygen. It ultimately is more an energy problem. Of course none of this seems likely in the next 100 years (at least without some geo-political forces driving it), but Science Fiction would be much more boring if we never left the Earth 🙂

  • Richard Bell

    I was reading a history of science and it mentioned an edict by the bishop of Paris to the university in Paris. As that university was influential, the bishop’s edict of 1277 carried much more weight as its instructions were, more or less, followed throughout Europe. It always amuses me when someone suggests that the Catholic Church could not handle an encounter with extraterrestrials when the bishop of Paris, in 1277, declared it heretical to teach that God could not create other inhabited world, if it pleased Him, despite the lack of evidence for Him doing so.

    However, the cosmos is a huge place, so even if there were trillions of inhabited worlds, the nearest one could still be too far away for us to ever encounter.

  • dpt

    “largely seem to me to be evidence of the human tendency to fill silence and empty space with something, whether or not there is any evidence for it”

    Yes, people need something to fill an emptiness and will grasp at ETs, Mayan calendars, drugs…

  • Ed the Roman

    “…remarkably silent for a galaxy allegedly teaming with other civilizations. ”

    We’re in trouble. If they’re teaming and we haven’t heard about it, they’re teaming against us.

  • sbark

    The Drake equation always struck me as crazy for the reasons you point out. I personally think that the odds are in favor of life and even intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy though. Current estimates indicate about 100 billion stars in the Milky Way and billions of galaxies in the universe. It seems to me that for any particular probability of intelligent life developing on a planet orbiting a random start, the likelihood of life developing on exactly one planet orbiting one star is exceptionally low. It seems to me that this would be the best argument from a scientific standpoint. However, I also don’t think we can automatically assume that God’s will would follow the laws of probability in this matter.

    One thing that I always find amusing about peoples use of the Drake equation, is that these same people jump to the conclusion that we will have some interaction with alien life. The distances involved are so vast that I just don’t see it happening. If another planet has intelligent life but is half way across the galaxy, how would we even find its star out of 100 billion stars? For most of the stars in the Milky Way, by the time any signal reached us, the civilization that produced it would probably be gone anyway.

    • MarylandBill

      Just a minor nitpick, but the Drake Equation actually mathematically describes (if we could establish values for all the variables) of us having some sort of communication with an E.T. civilization. So its not really jumping to the conclusion that we would have some sort of interaction.

      That being said, unless civilizations can last thousands of years, it is unlike that any such interaction will be two-way.

  • Ted Seeber

    I would point out that the heavens aren’t silent.

    It’s just that we can’t eliminate natural radiation from the cause.