Miscellaneous Ramblings

Why Do Aliens Ignore Us? Because They May Not Exist

Charles Moore - 2010.04.27 - Tip Jar

Publisher's note: Yes, this is off topic, even if there are a lot of Mac users running SETI@home on their computers. However, the 50th anniversary of SETI makes this a timely topic, and we suspect that many Mac users are also science fiction fans. dk

Some 70% of respondents to a recent online (unscientific) CTV News Web poll last weekend affirmed belief in extraterrestrial life.

Looking for ET

The poll question's topical hook was the as yet spectacularly unsuccessful Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project's 50th anniversary, marked by release of a new book by Arizona State University theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and astrobiologist Dr. Paul Davies, entitled The Eerie Silence: Why Do Aliens Ignore Us?

I find Star Trek and similar science fiction as entertaining as the next person, but my abiding perception is that there's vastly more fiction than science in the SF genre. I mean, warp engines? Universal translators? "Beam me up"?

All great fun and convenient devices to prop up the conceptual premise, but hardly plausible, although I hasten to acknowledge that convincing anyone, say 150 years ago, that transmitting sound and pictures through the air or creating tools like computers would've been a very tough sell, so who knows?

But for now....

My short answer to Dr. Davies' book's titular query is that it's probably because there aren't any aliens out there to pay us attention. The thought that more than two-thirds of poll respondents imagine there are is disconcerting, as is the notion that if, for argument's sake, there were other intelligent life forms out there, they would be capable of communicating with us (using a universal translator perhaps?), and possessing compatible technology to do it with, not to mention the vast distances involved making any communication from deep space highly unlikely.

Optimism about the development of life that even approximates our form and essence somewhere out in the cosmos simply flies in the face of reason and logic, amounting to anthropomorphic narcissism. When you consider the intricately complex, narrowly constrained, fragile, and highly interdependent set of conditions and circumstances that are required for life on this planet and are critical to its sustenance, it would take nearly identical conditions existing elsewhere for a similar process of development to have occurred.

It's a vast universe. One can't categorically dismiss the possibility that such might indeed exist in other solar systems, but they certainly don't in ours. Forms of organic life? Perhaps, although there's no evidence, not for lack of looking. Intelligent life? I'm highly skeptical.

In his CTV interview, Dr. Davies acknowledges that SETI was perceived as a quixotic enterprise at best when conceived back in the 1960s. He now worries that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, not just among the general public, but also perceiving "rather too much credulity in the scientific community for the possible existence of intelligent life. I think we have no evidence one way or the other. We should remain open-minded but skeptical," further observing: "There's not many people who would design an experiment, get null results for 50 years and still keep cheerful about it. It's astonishing."

To say the least.

Not that Dr. Davies is an extraterrestrial life pessimist. He's an avowed firm disbeliever in UFOs and alien abductions, but he advocates shifting SETI's focus from scanning the depths of space for radio signals to looking for any signatures of intelligence, ways in which alien technology might have left subtle footprints in the universe. Well, good luck with that. I won't be around, but I'm pretty confident predicting that if the SETI project does survive another half-century in whatever form and focus, it will still have turned up zip by 2060.

If intelligent extraterrestrial life exists, will it be our friend or our foe?

Beware Extraterrestrials

Even if I'm mistaken about that, attracting aliens' attention might not be the wisest plan, according to no less than renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. According to a report in last weekend's London Sunday Times, Hawking, in a new Discovery Channel documentary, contends that the incomprehensible vastness of the universe makes it unlikely that Earth is the only locus for life to have formed and evolved, but rather than seeking them out, humanity should be doing everything it can to avoid any contact with intelligent extraterrestrials.

Hawking thinks that alien life forms would most likely be the equivalent of microbes or simple animals rather than highly intelligent forms, but that contact with the latter, should they indeed exist, could pose a devastating threat to humanity, commenting: "If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans." Lots of food for thought there.

Hard to Swallow

Dr. Davies told CTV that while it's arguable that life is a freak accident confined to Earth, he finds that hard to swallow. Me too, at least the freak accident part, but I suspect for very different reasons than Dr. Davies.

As a convinced Christian, I affirm the mind of a divine Creator being behind the design and development of the mind-bogglingly complex, elaborate, and intertwined tapestry of life and its enabling ecosystems on this planet, to say nothing of the spiritual elements of consciousness and experience that Christians believe make humanity unique within that creation.

But even if one takes a completely naturalistic point of view without any metaphysical dimension acknowledged, it still beggars plausibility that just the right set of conditions could have enabled the formation and evolution of life forms similar enough to us to make communication possible - or commonly desired. Seems terribly unlikely, IMHO.

These ruminations bring to mind G.K. Chesterton's observation that hard-shelled atheistic materialists remain balanced on the very edge of belief - not belief in God, but an almost touching and childlike openness to belief in almost any other explanation. Or as Dr. Davies concedes: "As a human being I would just love to think that there are lots of aliens out there . . . but in terms of what are the chances it's very hard to put a number on it." A responsible and reasonable observation.

Extraterrestrials and Faith

That said, last November the Catholic Church hosted a "study week" conference at the Casina Pio IV on the Vatican grounds to mark the International Year of Astronomy, inviting more than 30 astronomers, biologists, geologists, and religious leaders, including Dr. Davies and Jill C. Tarter, Director of the Center for SETI Research, to discuss the question of the existence of extraterrestrials. A PDF abstract of the proceedings and excerpts from the participants' presentations is available.

The Church's chief astronomer Father Gabriel Funes had previously commented in an interview with the Vatican paper, Osservatore Romano, in 2008:

"Just like there is an abundance of creatures on earth, there could also be other beings, even intelligent ones, that were created by God. That doesn't contradict our faith, because we cannot put boundaries to God's creative freedom. As saint Francis would say, when we consider the earthly creatures to be our 'brothers and sisters', why couldn't we also talk about a 'extraterrestrial brother'? He would still be part of creation."

One of the conference's organizers, Vatican Observatory astronomer and Jesuit Father Jose Funes, is quoted declaring: "As a multiplicity of creatures exists on Earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God . . . This does not conflict with our faith, because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God."

I agree with that latter point, but I remain highly skeptical from a theological as well as a rational perspective. Dr. Paul Davies observed to The Washington Post that discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would put Christians in a "horrible bind", since "They believe that God became incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ in order to save humankind, not dolphins or chimpanzees or little green men on other planets."

If you're a professing Christian, there is much to mull over in that more clearheaded and incisive theological exegesis by a (presumed) secular rationalist than one hears on the topic from many Christian clerics.

Scientific Progress, but No Contact

SETI's Ms. Tarter commented at the Vatican event that from a single narrowband channel receiver exploring two stars, the search capacity has increased by more than 14 orders of magnitude in 50 years and contended that SETI is well positioned to continue taking advantage of exponential improvements in multiple technologies.

Still the silence is deafening.

Believers that ET is out there, rock on, but I suggest that after 50 years of fruitless SETI searching, it's time to take Dr. Davies' advice and at least shift focus.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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