So, God is an alien?
April 12, 2007 11:00 AM   Subscribe

My SO & I were having a conversation yesterday that somehow landed on the topic of alien life. Essentially, I said something to the effect of "even if there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe...".

At this point, I've made it clear that although I don't think little green men are anywhere in the vicinity, I do believe that there is a possibility that somewhere out there life could exist. My use of the word intelligent was a headed towards a thought tangent I was looking to chat about & casually explore (we're both interested in sci-fi, but I wasn't quite going that route). The conversation wasn't a serious philisophical one or serious in any respect, however at this point my SO says the odds of extraterrestrial life existing are so miniscule that it's as good as being zero; I say that's not my point (I was still in a chatty mood & had this alien thought in my head). When I tried to continue the conversation, I got cut off with made-up statistics about the possibility of life evolving based on condtions, etc. (they were definitely made-up, lots of 1 in a billions - he admits they were made-up, but his reasoning was that he didn't has access to actual numbers). Anyway, I'm sure you're all getting bored reading this, but after the statistics dwindled, he said "If you believe in the possibility of intelligent life, they you have to believe in God, it's the same thing."

What?

I'm agnostic (as is he), with a leaning toward atheism. I don't not believe in God (although, yeah, I pretty much don't). But I don't see how my non-disbelief in the possibility of alien life has anything to do with the other.

I guess my question is this... does he have a point? Are the odds of alien life so low that for someone to even consider it is ridiculous? I didn't go to college or university & often when someone throws something at me like this when I have nothing to back up my musings, I just shut up. I read a lot, but I've got nothing on this. Also, I know I could Google for the stats on the possibility of alien life, but I want opinions as to whether other people see the belief of it being related to believing in something else "far-fetched".
posted by Laura in Canada to Religion & Philosophy (61 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
If anything, I'd say it has to go the other way. If intelligent life is so monumentally unlikely that among the billions of stars in each of the billions of galaxies there's only one that has it, it seems like that lends support to the idea that it's actually impossible but God made it happen for us.

If intelligent life is common, that would seem to lend support to the "it's natural" argument.

(Actually, neither one proves either claim, but of all the combinations "lots of intelligent life" -> "God exists" is the most ridiculous.)
posted by DU at 11:13 AM on April 12, 2007


Not sure I can answer your question, but you and your SO might find the Fermi paradox (the universe is big enough that logically intelligent life has evolved elsewhere, but if it has, where are they?) and the Drake equation (formula for calculating the number of intelligent lifeforms in the galaxy) interesting reading.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 11:13 AM on April 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


No one can even reasonably estimate what the odds of alien life elsewhere in the universe are. We a) don't know enough about solar systems to estimate whether earth-like worlds are very common, incredibly rare, or somewhere in between; b) whether the events (or similar ones) which led to life on earth are very common, incredibly rare, or somewhere in between; c) whether other very different forms of life (i.e., non-carbon-based, non-water-solvent, non-liquid) which might tolerate conditions very different from those on earth are feasible or not.

The Drake equation is an interesting way to think about the possibility of life on other worlds, but it just breaks down the speculation on one question to speculation on several sub-questions. If we can make a slightly-less-wild guess on one or two of the subquestions, we are still making completely wild-ass guesses on the other subquestions, and the overall result is still a wild-ass guess.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:17 AM on April 12, 2007


No, he doesn't have a point. What would be more correct for him to say is "If you believe in the possibility of intelligent life, they you have to believe in the possibility of a God, it's the same thing." This still isn't completely correct, though.

The reason for this is that believing in one or the other are not equivalent. For each, there is something different in which one has to believe. To believe in a god in the Christian sense, one must believe in the possibility of a being with omniscience and omnipotence, something that has never been observed. To believe in intelligent life on other planets, however, one must believe that complex life can develop from simple forms (e.g. evolution). While the origin of this was not observed, all available evidence supports evolution and points to the logical inference of some chemical beginning for life. Assuming that physical laws of physics and chemistry hold true on other planets across the universe (and note that they do, as far as all of the evidence indicates so far), then there is no reason that a chemical origin and evolution could not have occurred elsewhere in the galaxy, despite any improbability.

So, given this, you're right and he's wrong.
posted by The Michael The at 11:17 AM on April 12, 2007


There is certainly no conceptual entailment that quickly comes to mind, so either he has a ton of suppressed premises or he doesn't know what he's talking about. The only argument I can think of would be that the odds are so vanshingly small that you would need something supernatural to make it happen at all -- sort of like the creation of things that are impossible due to natural laws. But even that is mistaking possibility for probability.

And against that, here is an article that pretty much suggests the odds are pretty good. I haven't looked at how they cruch the statistics, but it should underscore how unnecessarily connected divinity and extraterrestrial intelligence are.
posted by ontic at 11:19 AM on April 12, 2007


While it is the subject of some debate, many Christians believe that god explicitly limited his creatin of intelligent life to humans, angels, and animals. It's a bit of an oversimplification, but they would say that your SO has it precisely backwards: believing in the existence of intelligent life on other planets is akin to believing that god does not exist.

IANAC
posted by googly at 11:19 AM on April 12, 2007


That would be "crunch" the statistics. Basically agreeing with everyone else.
posted by ontic at 11:20 AM on April 12, 2007


I've always (and I'm no statistician) thought that the opposite was true - given the immense size of the universe, I'd think that it's almost certain another intelligent life form exists out there, somewhere. And really, if the probability of intelligent life is so low, what the hell are we?

The problem here is that people can't conceive of two things - thte size of the universe, and the age of the universe. Combine low probability with lots of time and lots of opportunity, and things are going to happen, eventually.

And yeah, I'm with DU on the God claim. I certainly think it's due to man's (perceived) position as sole inhabitants of the universe that makes us, as a race, so inclined to believe in supernatural beings.
posted by god hates math at 11:21 AM on April 12, 2007


I'm an atheist astrophysicist who thinks alien life somewhere is quite likely.

The odds, as DevilsAdvocate says are not well defined, but I don't think there are many colleagues of mine who would think me crazy for saying the above.

The universe is a big place, and we're finding lots of planets practically on our doorstep.
posted by edd at 11:22 AM on April 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


Michael Crichton thinks that:
[Search for extraterrestrial life] is unquestionably a religion. Faith is defined as the firm belief in something for which there is no proof. The belief that the Koran is the word of God is a matter of faith. The belief that God created the universe in seven days is a matter of faith. The belief that there are other life forms in the universe is a matter of faith. There is not a single shred of evidence for any other life forms, and in forty years of searching, none has been discovered. There is absolutely no evidentiary reason to maintain this belief. SETI is a religion.

I disagree, but then, I believe in the christian God, so I might be biased.
posted by donajo at 11:23 AM on April 12, 2007


To ping off what TMT wrote: both a belief in a god or gods and a belief in intelligent extraterrestrial life are beliefs that are not based in evidence.

The difference, however, is that a belief in a god or gods is a belief in the supernatural for which there is no evidence.

I believe that extraterrestrial intelligence exists. I have no belief in any gods. I don't consider holding those positions simultaneously to be incompatible or hypocritical.
posted by solid-one-love at 11:25 AM on April 12, 2007


there are various "ontological" (ones that deal with the existence of God) arguments throughout philosophy, that, depending on your position, either make a lot of sense, or are totally bananas.

one that comes to mind is the cartesian (ie from rene descartes, "founder" of modern philosophy) argument, which i would boil down like this:

there's no such thing as two perfect sticks, right? i mean, they look very similar, but on a molecular level, we must assume there is some minute difference. anyway, we look around, and we realize there are no two perfectly identical things - snowflakes, people, whatever.

in fact, there is nothing really "perfect" in the real world, and yet, we have this notion of "perfection" in our minds. so where does this notion of perfection come from? well, clearly, it must have been given to us by somebody/something perfect. and the only thing perfect is God. hence, He/She/It exists. voila.

all i can say is, beware of arguments that seem unquestionably reasonable. it seems in your particular situation, your SO has a point. if you consider yourself a rational individual, you might believe in - at least - the pragmatic effect of math and science. things we might have speculated about in the past - through math and science, say the trajectory of a planet, or columbus and the earth being round - might end up being considered "true" down the line.

but that is a far cry from saying, "taking two very high improbabilities, by subscribing to one improbability, you must subscribe to the ones more probable as well". im not sure what i believe on this issue, but there are bigger ideas looming in this picture, such as our ability to recognize God, or alien life forms (and for that matter, being able to distinguish between the two).

in other words, if it were less likely that aliens existed than God existed, the mere fact that one day a space ship arrives at our planet would not necessitate the existence of God. there is, you might say, no "causal" relationship between the two events, and your SO's implying that there is one is the root of the problem.
posted by phaedon at 11:25 AM on April 12, 2007


If you believe in the possibility of intelligent life, they you have to believe in God, it's the same thing.

I'm having trouble figuring out exactly which logical fallacy this is. But it's in there. These arguments have nothing to do with each other except that one object is a construct of the other.
posted by IronLizard at 11:25 AM on April 12, 2007


That's also a statement from Michael Crichton, self-confessed spoon-bender and believer that global warming is a myth, so ymmv.
posted by mikeh at 11:27 AM on April 12, 2007


That was in response to donajo's post, of course.
posted by mikeh at 11:27 AM on April 12, 2007


My simple view. Estimates of 100 billions stars in our galaxy alone, estimates of 200 billion galaxies in the viewable Universe. Seems like the chances of intelligent life existing would be quite high. Agree with 'The Michael The' believing in evolution would be more applicable not God. If you believe in evolution shouldn't you believe that intelligent life would have some chance of evolving on a number of the no doubt billions of planets in existence.
posted by DOUBLE A SIDE at 11:29 AM on April 12, 2007


donajo, that's a little disingenuous. Searching for atoms before they were proven to exist is not something that requires faith. You could have faith in atoms before they were proven, but it would be unscientific, and thus beside the point of what we're discussing.

Saying that all people who search for evidence of extraterrestrial life are doing so on faith is the disingenuous part. Surely some people "believe" in ET on faith alone, but there are plenty of purely scientific reasons to set up a radio telescope and start listening for intelligent signals.
posted by odinsdream at 11:29 AM on April 12, 2007


Michael Crichton's an idiot. SETI is a search for a second (and further) examples of something that's already been seen.

The fact that it hasn't speaks more about the limits of our observational abilities than anything else. Exoplanet searches for instance are not currently capable of spotting Earth-like planets, so the fact that most exoplanets we know of are gas giants in close orbits says little about the number of planets that we might expect to support life.

I mean, it'd be like saying we shouldn't build powerful particle accelerators as there's no evidence we've been able to build them in the past. Nuts.
posted by edd at 11:32 AM on April 12, 2007


And really, if the probability of intelligent life is so low, what the hell are we?

Heh. I never thought of it that way.
posted by phaedon at 11:35 AM on April 12, 2007


Douglas Adams wrote:
It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.
posted by Martin E. at 11:37 AM on April 12, 2007 [1 favorite]


Another way to look at it. Here's the scientific method:

1. Define the question

"Is there extra-terrestrial intelligent life?

2. Gather information and resources

How would extra-terrestrial intelligent life be apparent to us on earth? We could listen to radio waves and discern signals from background noise.

3. Form hypothesis

See the Drake equation. If intelligent life exists, it would be likely that radio signals from such life would reach us eventually.

4. Perform experiment and collect data

See SETI.

5. Analyze data

See SETI, "WOW" signal.

6. Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypotheses
7. Publish results

We're at these last two steps. The signals we've collected so far are inconclusive to proving anything about the existence of extraterrestrial life.

No supernatural beings are involved.
posted by odinsdream at 11:41 AM on April 12, 2007


The argument for intelligent life on other planets being probable is that the universe is so big with so many planets that it doesn't make sense that we would be the only intelligent life. The argument against is that taking into account evolution the chances are small.

I would just point out that it used to be the argument that the chances of finding a planet in general that could support life was very small. Yet in ten short years we have suddenly discovered that planets and moons in our own solar system could support life. The conditions in which life can thrive have been proven to be broader than expected. I would not at all be surprised if we found life of some kind on another planet in our solar system now, but that was commonly considered to be impossible just a decade ago.

I think the real answer to the question is that no one knows how likely it really is.
posted by xammerboy at 11:45 AM on April 12, 2007


odinsdream, I don't agree with Crichton. I was just throwing it out another opinion into the mix.
posted by donajo at 11:46 AM on April 12, 2007


god hates math beat me to it, but I can point you to about 6,000,000,000 examples of intelligent life in the universe, so intelligent that each one of them can confirm that intelligent life in the universe exists. It's not a possibility, it's not a belief, it's as true as anything we can possibly know.
posted by one_bean at 11:49 AM on April 12, 2007


What solid one love said.

They are both beliefs based on no direct evidence. But in the case of intelligent ETs, we can make some ballpark estimate as to the likelyhood of their existence using the drake equation that devil's advocate mentioned. Of course, it's hard to define some of those variables, like the number of planets, the number of those that are hospitable to life, etc. so any estimate has to be taken with a big grain of salt. As god is supernatural, on the other hand, it's impossible (at least in my opinion, and as agnostics, likely the both of yours as well) to determine what factors and conditions would increase the likelyhood of god's existence. All we know is that god sure could exist, being all mysterious and such, but we have no evidence. So theoretically, we could put a probability to the chance of intelligent ETs existing. Much in the same way we could put a probability to the chance that two people somewhere in the world now are having sex (nearly 100% I'd wager), or that someone in Iceland is reciting the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet in Swahili (not so likely, as we know iceland is very small, there probably are not many Swahili speakers there, etc.) So the comparison your SO made is not quite accurate. A more accurate comparison would be like the one of the two I gave (sorry to pat my own back), depending on if you think ETs are highly likely or highly unlikely.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 11:51 AM on April 12, 2007


I'm having trouble figuring out exactly which logical fallacy this is. But it's in there. These arguments have nothing to do with each other except that one object is a construct of the other.

I think the fallacy is "confusing [possibly] very small chances with miracles", which is a curious inversion of post hoc ergo propter hoc.
posted by ontic at 11:52 AM on April 12, 2007


"does he have a point?"

Absolutely no one knows enough about the necessary variables involved in estimating the probability of life, much less intelligent life, to make such a calculation. Lots of people have attempted to do so, the Drake equation is the most famous example. But we know know nothing about comparative evolution (where "comparative" means comparing entirely independent planetary ecosystems) and nothing about comparative planetary system formation. Those two things involve the most crucial variables.

In contrast, we know a great deal about many of the things involved with the existence of the sorts of gods that most people believe exist. We know enough to draw some conclusions from the lack of evidence for existence. Now, this doesn't tell us anything about all conceivable gods because many of those are either as presently unknowable as alien life or even theoretically unknowable. Is your SO talking about those gods? Probably not. If he's talking about conventional ideas of god, one who has intervened in human affairs, then you can't compare the two. We have a basis for disbelieving in the existence of such a god but no basis for disbelieving in the existence of alien life.

In my opinion, the only existing strong argument that has anything at all to say about alien life is the Fermi Paradox. And all it does is raise a puzzling question that implies that some of our ideas about the possibility of intelligent life are not true. But it doesn't tell us anything about all possible varieties of intelligent alien life.

What I tell people when this topic comes up is that our ignorance on this matter is so great that I wouldn't be surprised to discover the truth is near either extreme or anywhere in between. Yes, I'd be very surprised if the truth were all the way to either extreme (Earth is the only life, or even intelligent life, in the history of the universe; there is intelligent life, or life, practically everywhere in the universe). But pretty far in either direction? No. If, say, only one in a million galaxies in the history of the universe has developed intelligent life, that wouldn't surprise me much. If one in every hundred star-systems in the history of the universe develops intelligent life, that wouldn't surprise me, either.

For me, the middle course is just to think that there's likely (non-intelligent) life to be found during our time relatively nearby and a reasonable (though small) possibility that there's intelligent life somewhere else in our galaxy. But who knows? No one.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:53 AM on April 12, 2007


Read "Contact" by Carl Sagan. Both of you would probably find your point of view represented therein.

And be grateful that this is the sort of thing you two argue about.
posted by hermitosis at 11:56 AM on April 12, 2007


I think everyone has basically covered what I'm about to say, but as succinctly as possible, it boils down to me this way:
The odds of intelligent alien life could be very high or very low; we don't really know. What we do know is that the odds of our finding evidence conclusively proving the existence of alien life are extremely, impossibly low. There are so many places and things to look at that we could die off and re-evolve to this point many times over before we found any.

So, while I don't believe that there is information that would really help you to accept or dismiss your SO's argument conclusively, I think that his certainty in it is contrary to fact.

On a side-note:
Martin E., I do understand the humor in your quote and that it was in no way meant to be properly and meticulously reasoned, but lest the idea begin to seem like a favorable one, consider that while not every number is prime, there are an infinite number of primes. :)
posted by invitapriore at 11:58 AM on April 12, 2007


Thanks for all the responses so far; I didn't want a way to win the argument, I just wanted more information & other people's views, now I've got lots of both... thanks again!
posted by Laura in Canada at 12:05 PM on April 12, 2007


The quote your friend may be remembering could be from "The ninth configuration" AKA "Killer Kane" by Exorcist author William Peter Blatty

In order for life to have appeared spontaneously on earth, there first had to be hundreds of millions of protein molecules of the ninth configuration.
But given the size of the planet Earth, do you know how long it would have taken for just one of these protein molecules to appear entirely by chance?
Roughly ten to the two hundred and forty-third power billions of years.
And I find that far, far more fantastic than simply believing in God.


— Col. Vincent Kane

Haven't a clue where Blatty got the numbers from though.
posted by oh pollo! at 12:24 PM on April 12, 2007


It's also worth noting that they way we define "intelligent life" is by a comparison with ourselves. To say that something isnt alive just because we can't tell it is, is highly egotistical.

I mean, Jupiter could be alive, we just wouldn't know how to know it. All we can say is "Does it look like us?"

The rocks were nodding far before anyone decided to talk to them.
posted by koudelka at 12:43 PM on April 12, 2007


koudelka: sort of off-topic to my actual question, but what you're mentioning is pretty much where my "even if there is intelligent life somewhere in the universe..." was originally headed.
posted by Laura in Canada at 12:47 PM on April 12, 2007


For me there are two questions:

1. What are the chances that there exists other lifeforms in the universe right now?

and

2. What are the chances that other life has ever existed in the universe?

For me, question one is almost zero. While question two is almost a certainty.

I draw this "conclusion" [based on no facts whatsoever] because statistically there's a much, much greater chance that life has existed at some point in the 13.7 billion years [thank's Wikipedia!] of the universe, than life existing at the precise point in time that we happen to be here - a mere 200,000 years.
posted by rocco at 12:49 PM on April 12, 2007


I draw this "conclusion" [based on no facts whatsoever] because statistically there's a much, much greater chance that life has existed at some point in the 13.7 billion years [thank's Wikipedia!] of the universe, than life existing at the precise point in time that we happen to be here - a mere 200,000 years.

So the fact that there are 10^21 stars in our Universe isnt a big enough number but multiplying it by an extra 10^4 (13.7B/200k) is then good enough for you?

How did you do in statistics? :)
posted by vacapinta at 1:11 PM on April 12, 2007 [2 favorites]


Oh, and regarding the original question. We're not looking for inteligent life in the Universe, we're looking for a second instance of intelligent life.

So I walk into this large field and spot a mushroom I've never seen before. Its bright blue and shaped like a bicycle.

"Hey",I say to my friend,"let's keep looking around! Maybe we'll find more blue mushrooms shaped like bicycles!"

"Nonsense." says my friend. "your belief that there are more blue mushrooms shaped like bicycles is equivalent to believing there are pink elephants in this field."
posted by vacapinta at 1:23 PM on April 12, 2007 [3 favorites]


I find the notion that somehow, we (meaning humanity, as a race) constitute intelligent life amusing. If you believe the global warming crowd, humanity, as a race, hasn't sense enough to not pollute it's own biosphere so badly as to materially impede its own future. And as recently as 700 years ago, we did not know that rat fleas were a prime vector in a plague that had, for the human population of the European continent a mortality rate of between 30 and 50%. We have, in only 700 years, however, learned some better strategies for coping with bubonic plague, and in the last 50 years, managed to fling a few tin can's worth of telemetry bearing junk into interesting trajectories through the planetary system we inhabit. And we've put 12 pairs of boots, and a few tons of mainly metallic junk on our world's only natural satellite.

In the same 50 year recent period, we've spent several times the total amount of time and money we've invested in space exploration endeavors on killing one another, and many other species, off in various expedient ways, and we are getting better at that faster than we are getting better at boosting mass out of this 1g gravity well. We're dopes, hoping, nearly by accident, to discover and appreciate that somewhere there are other beings that aren't, before we pass into the fossil record of a small, blue, wet world orbiting a minor star, on what we believe to be an outer spiral arm of an undistinguished galaxy.

But I have to wonder, who that might be out there, getting any message from us, would voluntarily bother to reply.
posted by paulsc at 1:28 PM on April 12, 2007 [2 favorites]


donajo, re: this link... (apologies if this has been covered early in the thread)

I think Crichton is missing a major point in his quote. There is no evidence anywhere that any form of god actually exists. So in that regard, belief in a religion or god is based entirely on faith. There is, however, clear evidence that intelligent life exists right here on Earth - though I'm sure some would debate that point ;)

People who try and calculate the odds for intelligent life in the universe are extrapolating from the evidence in front of them not having blind faith that life exists elsewhere.

Of course, at best calculations for life on other planets is a SWAG but I think most reasonable people are able to admit that.
posted by Sandor Clegane at 1:42 PM on April 12, 2007


You're right, and the way you can tell is because he wouldn't have to be such an arrogant guy about his argument if he were correct.
posted by anildash at 1:44 PM on April 12, 2007


There is not a single shred of evidence for any other life forms, and in forty years of searching, none has been discovered.

"I didn't find any Chinese people by glancing out my back porch, so there's no evidence they exist."

What we've found in 40 years compared with the technology we've got compared to the magnitude of the search and range of imaginable (not to mention unimaginable) technologies might not even be equatable to a glance out the back porch.

Maybe that's Crichton's actual argument -- that we have no evidence that we *can* find something. That sets better with me, since it's true of any search, and especially since the search really is a huge task.

And maybe that's the connection the SO of the OP made between the two arguments: that the difficulty of both searches in an unimaginably vast sea of space and possibility is comparable.

(And incidentally, I don't see why God couldn't be an alien. It could fit with deism or Arthur C. Clarke fiction and probably other theologies.)

I find the notion that somehow, we (meaning humanity, as a race) constitute intelligent life amusing. ...

Which brings up a point. If we were to find out somehow that the probability of intelligent life arising is not only good enough that there's a good handful of instances and we're actually only at or well below the mean in terms of it, there's an argument to be made that something at least Godlike enough to create and populate worlds will almost inevitably arise eventually.
posted by weston at 1:51 PM on April 12, 2007


odinsdream, I don't agree with Crichton. I was just throwing it out another opinion into the mix.

Of course. Sorry to make it seem like I was arguing against your views personally. I understand they're Crichton's.
posted by odinsdream at 1:59 PM on April 12, 2007


Of course, it's hard to define some of those variables, like the number of planets, the number of those that are hospitable to life, etc.
Try impossible. The Drake Equation is useless as a predictive tool because it relies upon multiple unprovable, undefinable variables. Most of these variables are undefined because we can, at best, guess at how those variables might be quantified.

For example, we have no way of measuring the number of planets in any meaningful way, for example, nor have we any way of defining "hospitable to life" as we still aren't completely certain what conditions support life.

Our understanding of the universe is that of a blind man groping in a room strewn with objects, the outlines and purpose of which he can only barely comprehend.

Based on what we've seen on our own planet in terms of species exploiting available niches, there is no basis whatsoever for the argument that life in the universe is rare, and an overwhelming amount of evidence that other forms of intelligent life in the universe are a certainty.
posted by scrump at 2:00 PM on April 12, 2007


"god" is such an ambigious term that the casual removal of it from its specific religious context is being disingenuous. Thats why the question to this answer will be on how you define god. I doubt anyone outside a UFO cult would agree with the statement as posed and phrased.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:04 PM on April 12, 2007


"Based on what we've seen on our own planet in terms of species exploiting available niches, there is no basis whatsoever for the argument that life in the universe is rare, and an overwhelming amount of evidence that other forms of intelligent life in the universe are a certainty."

I agree with the rest of your comment, but this part of it is false. Our new awareness of things like life at the bottom of rifts or in the crust tells us that the likliehood of life elsewhere is much more probable than we thought before. The problem is that our prior estimate of probability has no meaning. More specifically, that life, once it exists, moves into a wide array of environments we'd previously thought were too hostile, doesn't answer the question of how likely it is that life evolves in the first place.

The good thing on this topic is that we're basically right on the threshold of having some real information on this for the first time. We're about to really be looking at environments elsewhere in our solar system where life might exist. Even if it doesn't exist in those places, that by itself tells us far more than we knew having only the Earth as an example. Similarly, we're about to learn a great deal more about extra-solar planetary systems. We're lucky enough to have lived during the age when the very first extra-solar planet was discovered. Really looking at extra-solar systems is a ways away, of course, but even the little bits of knowledge trickling in is enormous compared to what we knew before. Because what we knew before was zero.

I expect that in our lifetimes we'll be able to narrow the parameters on this question a great deal.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:10 PM on April 12, 2007


(they were definitely made-up, lots of 1 in a billions - he admits they were made-up, but his reasoning was that he didn't has access to actual numbers)

OW. Okay, I want to know what the probability of there being someone in the United States with red hair and green eyes is. I don't know the numbers, so I'll just do an ass-pull... red hair is about a one in a thousand probability, and green eyes is about a one in ten probability. Also there are about a hundred people in the United States--you know, give or take. So, the probability of someone having red hair and green eyes is about one in ten thousand, so for a group of a hundred people you've got about a one-one-hundredth probability that someone in the United States has red hair and green eyes.

See, I used NUMBERS, so it's totally valid!

I also get the feeling that he might not really understand probability.... Just because something is incredibly improbable in one instance doesn't mean it will never happen. With enough instances, the probability that it will happen eventually rises. It's like the lottery. If you buy a ticket, the odds are incredibly small that you will win. If a million people buy tickets, the odds are much higher--although still smaller than 100%--that someone will win (it just won't be you, probably). A planet is like one person buying a lottery ticket. The universe is like billions of people buying tickets.

Um. Anyway. Believing in intelligent alien life and believing in God aren't related except in the instances already mentioned (God is the cause of intelligent life; God is an alien). It's like saying that if you believe you will win the lottery eventually if you keep buying tickets, then you believe in God.
posted by Many bubbles at 2:13 PM on April 12, 2007


To emphasise what Ethereal Bligh said...

We've not only lived in the time the first exoplanet was discovered but we're discovering more at a rate that is pretty astonishing. We find a new one on average every few weeks.

We've found a little over 200 so far. The vast majority are within a few hundred light years of us, the most distant is a shade under 500 light years away. We've found loads of the things right on our doorstep.
posted by edd at 3:05 PM on April 12, 2007


Right now we're working off of extremely small data sets, but there's no reason to believe that the portion of the universe that we can see is unusual.

Our observations of other faraway solar systems indicates that this is true. Lots of stars have planets, and those planets tend to be somewhat like our own.

Now if you want to put numbers on all of it, you can go bayesian and either prove that life must or must not exist, simply by using different numbers pulled out of your ass. but either way would be relatively useless, as our sample data is so limited.

"If you believe in the possibility of intelligent life, they you have to believe in God, it's the same thing."

This is wholly illogical. If you believe that life evolved on Earth, without "Divine" intervention, then there's no reason that couldn't happen elsewhere.

And beyond that, it sounds like your SO doesn't understand how evolution actually works. The whole point of natural selection is that instead of small numbers of hugely improbable events occurring, the whole system works with large numbers of slightly improbably events.

So to get life, all you really need are the conditions for life, and then for some chemical reaction that can repeat itself.

From there, you just need that reaction to modify slightly, and repeat again. And after a few hundred million years of this, it's not hard to imagine that the mix of elements might have formed some useful stuff.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 3:08 PM on April 12, 2007


Hooray!
I'm rehearsing a show where I will be portraying Dr. David Helfand and I can FINALLY use that link to the video of his discussion called:

"Is there intelligent life in the universe?"


He's a pretty cool, sometimes funny, very smart and interesting guy. The video might interest you.

Btw, he comes down pretty hard on the side of yes.

Enjoy!
posted by mer2113 at 4:02 PM on April 12, 2007


Disregarding the fact that Crichton is a loon, the quote makes no sense.


[Search for extraterrestrial life] is unquestionably a religion. Faith is defined as the firm belief in something for which there is no proof. The belief that the Koran is the word of God is a matter of faith. The belief that God created the universe in seven days is a matter of faith. The belief that there are other life forms in the universe is a matter of faith. There is not a single shred of evidence for any other life forms, and in forty years of searching, none has been discovered. There is absolutely no evidentiary reason to maintain this belief. SETI is a religion.


Let me deconstruct this one:

First there is some setup of his hypothesis, and a definition of religious faith, then he writes:

the belief that there are other life forms in the universe is a matter of faith.

This redefines SETI. SETIs stated purpose is:
The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.
Now you note that the mission is not to confirm a belief that extraterrestrial life exists, as he implies. SETI is simply an attempt to see if it does happen to exist, and to explain it (and our own lives) if possible, via scientific means.
There is not a single shred of evidence for any other life forms, and in forty years of searching, none has been discovered. There is absolutely no evidentiary reason to maintain this belief.
As many others have noted, there is no reason to believe our bit of the universe is special in any way. And in it, we've found hundreds of planets, and continue to find more on a routine basis. We currently lack the ability to tell what the conditions on all those planets is, but even that is improving rapidly.

As such, there is plenty of evidentiary evidence that life could be present. But even if it weren't, SETI would not be a failure.

SETI is a religion.

And here the crazed Crichton repeats his utterly unsusbtantiated and misleading comment.

I really wish people would stop quoting Crichton, for any purpose. It's not useful to repeat the ill-formed, uninformed rantings of a lnon-scientist. It doesn't add content or value. it's just misleading noise to laypeople, and an annoying thing to have to continuously rebuke to others.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 5:02 PM on April 12, 2007


Laura in Canada,
It sounds to me like you're smarter than your boyfriend. You don't need to be defensive about your education, and you don't need to defer to him.
posted by kika at 5:11 PM on April 12, 2007


Oh, and regarding the original question. We're not looking for inteligent life in the Universe, we're looking for a second instance of intelligent life.

I understand what the original question was asking. But approaching it that way makes no sense. Finding a second blue mushroom shaped like a bicycle is undefinably more likely because you've already seen one. You know they exist. Similarly, we know that intelligent life in the universe is possible merely by thinking about it. The evidence for God is much less clear. The likelihood of finding the first a second time is immensely more probable than finding the first instance of proof of God.

You used an example of two extremely unlikely things. How about the other way around: I found a penny on the street. I'm probably going to find another penny on the street in my lifetime.

"Nonsense!" your friend says, "The likelihood of finding a second penny on the street is paramount to believing in God!!"

Wha?
posted by one_bean at 7:04 PM on April 12, 2007


Number of non-Earth planets surveyed completely for evidence of past or present life: zero.

Odds? Odds?

Show me the results of ten complete planetary surveys. Then I'll give you odds.

I'd like them in a slim blue vinyl folder with the Starfleet Command logo embossed on it in gold please
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:44 PM on April 12, 2007


How likely or unlikely would it be to have any form of life out there? Not just intelligent beings that will plot against us and take over earth but maybe little fish of some kind. I was actually picturing a gecko but you get the picture. Why is it so unlikely that these can exist elsewhere?
posted by rubberkey at 10:18 PM on April 12, 2007


First, not to be an apologist for Crichton (although this interview shows his views on global warming are more nuanced than being a 'denier'), but he is a scientist (a medical doctor) and I read his comment being more about the utility of spending money on the search for ETI given the long odds. SETI is obviously not based on faith - as has been explained above - but believing that in the short term it will bear fruit does approach faith - depending on the strength of that belief, and the ability to accept other opinions on the issue. (which is not to say that I don't support SETI, simply that I think the odds are VERY long).

Part of my reasoning is akin to that of rocco's above. Life has existed on this planet for roughly 200 million years (plus or minus) (please excuse the lack of hard data - I'm trying to make a logical point, not a mathematical one) yet we have been plying the skies with radio waves for only about 200 years. Assuming for the sake of argument that we continue such 'galactic broadcasting' for another 1800 years, that is still a factor of roughly 1:100000 for "signs of intelligent life exist": "life exists".

Others above have written about the difficulties of calculating percentages for how likely other intelligent life exists, but there are also the, one could reasonably argue larger, chances that other life exists. The question is how to recognize other potential forms of life, let alone other forms of intelligent life. I am reminded of Orson Scott Card's "Speaker for the Dead" where the concepts of three categories of alien intelligence are discussed - those like ours, those incomprehensible to us, and those unrecognizable to us. Obviously, by definition - the last type would generally avoid detection. There are all sorts of patterns (the hexagon above Saturn's pole, for example) that don't necessarily reflect intelligence. The search for intelligence based on radio is based on "our" progress to technology - but there was intelligent life on Earth for tens of thousands of years (yes- depending on how you define "intelligent" - but I think tens of thousands is acceptable as an estimate) not sending out radio - and there is certainly no evolutionary imperative leading inexorably to the use of electromagnetic forces.

There's also the issue of paranoia. In other words, once a species gets to the intelligence level and technology level to emit radio, there's also the possibility that they will view the unguarded transmission of radio as a beacon to potential threats. It's certainly not an unthinkable scenario, and the "better safe than sorry" concept is not likely uniquely human.

All of which is a long winded way of coming around to the point that there being "other" intelligent life in the universe (which is not how you worded your SO's point, but which has to be read in to make any sense (unless his point was that our existence as intelligent life is proof of god's existence - which is congruent with the cartesian chain of thought above)) and our being able to detect other intelligent life are two entirely different questions. The point of whether other "life" exists elsewhere in the universe is another question altogether, and the point your SO seemed to be making that ET life is probably non-existent is even more likely to be wrong than his point about intelligent life.

Amino acids, potentially present in meteorites (I say 'potentially' to allow that contamination may have occurred, I don't discount that completely, though I think it unlikely) are strong evidence to suggest that the chemical precursor processes that likely led to life on Earth are present elsewhere in our solar system, and thus it is reasonable to argue that they are likely present in other solar systems. Given the recent discovery of a nearby planet with water, it is again reasonable to suggest that the conditions for allowing those chemical precursors to interact in the very type of environment where life arose already do exist elsewhere in the universe. Which all suggests that life is not unlikely elsewhere (though it may be in a different colour).

This all means that (to finally answer your question) "NO, he doesn't have a point." As others have said, and I have attempted to demonstrate the logic of, the belief that there is other life out there is reasonable, being based on observed phenomenon, known scientific principles, and the 'magic' of statistics (I use magic in the "anything sufficiently advanced so as to be indistinguishable from" - in the sense that the numbers involved are so huge as to essentially be equivalent to the operation of magic). The belief in god - or at least the likely god your SO was referencing (I assume from common usage) - is another thing entirely - in that it generally involves belief in something contrary to all observations, known scientific principles, and logic.
posted by birdsquared at 12:36 AM on April 13, 2007


Late night brain fart - life has been around for approx. 3.5 billion years, not 200 million (which number I probably got from thinking how long mammals have been around). Ratio is thus more like 1:2 million.
posted by birdsquared at 1:29 AM on April 13, 2007


What I'm afraid of is, even if there is intelligent life besides us out there, what if the closest instance is so far away that the limits of time, space, and travel mean we'll never get to meet them or talk directly to them? :(

And I resent the person who said we're not intelligent life and cited a bunch of "mistakes" we've made. I happen to think we're pretty darn special and a bit apart from our animal cousins, and if we find any life out there above bacteria that can communicate with us and build things, well I would pretty damn excited to meet them and get to know their knowledge and what they're all about no matter how many "mistakes" they'd made in their history.

Give ourselves a break here, Rome wasn't built in a day! ;)
posted by thejrae at 2:08 AM on April 13, 2007


Evolution seems necessary, given a chemical stew and input. Once started, so long as conditions allow, they will continue. Intelligence is a logical result of that process, given enough time.

The idea that Earth is unique is rediculous.

Some day we may meet another race, and we'll laugh with eachother over the equivalent of our mutual 'Y2K' problem.
posted by Goofyy at 5:28 AM on April 13, 2007


"yet we have been plying the skies with radio waves for only about 200 years. Assuming for the sake of argument that we continue such 'galactic broadcasting'"

I don't follow this reasoning. How long we've been producing radio waves has a lot to do with how likely it is that someone else will notice us, not how likely it is that there's someone else out there waiting to be noticed.

If your argument is that our time spent producing radio waves is a small fraction of our history and that it is then representative of how an estimate of how long another civ will produce signals waiting to be noticed, there's numerous problems with that argument. Another civ could have been broadcasting for a billion years.

That we've only been looking for a short amount of time doesn't tell us anything of the likliehood of finding something because we don't know the likliehood of something being out there available to be found. We could have found something the first day we looked because there were easily detected signals everywhere, or we may not find something in a million years. There's no way to know.

The argument justifying the money spent on SETI is twofold. First, all investments have to be evaluated against their expected gain. We can't really evaluate that because we don't know the probability, but we do know that the value of finding something if we do find something is almost infinite. It would easily be one of the most important discoveries in the history of our species. Second, we are learning things even from failure, just like whenever scientists go looking for something to test a theory. And SETI costs basically nothing. None of the radio astronomers I've known have resented SETI programs. For example, most of the telescope time at Aracibo used for SETI, as I understand it, is time that wouldn't have been utilized anyway. As we build more radio telescopes, and we're building a lot of them, the more opportunities there'll be for cheap SETI research.

SETI isn't as controversial these days as it once was because of the various advances and discoveries that have been made regarding life on Earth in the most amazingly hostile environments, and of course the history of water on Mars and things like NASA's Mars meteorite. This has multiplied the probability of extraterrestrial life enormously and SETI doesn't seem so far-fetched. Really, though, that's mostly irrational because, as I said earlier, an enormously multiplied unknown is still an unknown. What's really happened is part of a larger cultural change where humans are much less (though still mostly) anthropocentric. The recent science on extraterrestrial life is just something to point to that makes embracing the possibility respectable.

Some people have touched on a problem that is of great interest to me: what the heck does "intelligent life" mean, anyway?

I don't think there's a good answer to that. It's a question that, once you've spent a lot of time thinking about it, you begin to realize had best be rescinded and a new, better, question (or questions) asked in its place. Mostly, what the question is aiming for is whether life exists that seems a lot like us in the ways in which we think of ourselves as being distinguished from the other animals on Earth. That's probably mainly two things: tool use and language.

Unfortunately, there's problems with those two things as tests. Other animals on Earth use tools, sometimes with surprising, learned, sophistication. Search on "Betty the crow" for an example. With regard to language, well, I'm not convinced that the linguists are correct to assert that no oner animal on Earth possesses language but, even if that is the case, their theory has a lot less to say, almost nothing, about alien language use. So with regard to tool use, we still don't have a qualitative test, we have a quantitative test: tool use of a level near our own. And possession of language...well, will we recognize it?

And those are the two most obvious tests for intelligence like our own. We can imagine, sort of, at least by analogy, intelligence that isn't very much, or at all, like our own. We very well may not even recognize such an intelligence, much less evaluate its "level".

In the end, what we're looking for when we look for "intelligent life" is really two related things. First, a technology-utilizing lifeform like our own. Second, a lifeform that could theoretically affect us.

Finally, given the previous, it's important to consider that SETI programs, looking for EM signals, are therefore necessarily only looking for a subset of a subset of all the kinds of things we're thinking about when we talk about "intelligent life". We looking only for intelligent life pretty similar to our own that also happens to be using EM to try to get other peoples' attention. A failure to find any such signal doesn't answer the larger question. On the other hand, looking for such a signal makes sense because these would be pretty much the most interesting (and comprehensible) people we'd likely meet.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:25 AM on April 13, 2007


he is a scientist (a medical doctor)

No no no no no no no.

NO.

NO NO NO!!!!

There are a lot of doctors who want people to believe this but it isn't true. Anybody who can get through medical school is very good at memorization, and working long hours, but that's it. That's all it proves.

Standard doctors do not do research, they are not scientists. They are simply people who are capable of memorizing a large number of facts, and working 80 hour weeks.

Any respect given them beyond that is done so incorrectly.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 9:01 AM on April 13, 2007


I read his comment being more about the utility of spending money on the search for ETI given the long odds.

It costs essentially nothing. Most of the research is done by taking data acquired for other reasons, and re-analyzing it. The rest is done with equipment that would have been otherwise dormant.

And even when it isn't finding life, it is generating data that can be analyzed for other purposes.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 9:04 AM on April 13, 2007


Also, its fair to point out when talking about SETI that if aliens on the same technological level of humans today sent out a broadcast we'd never hear it. Nor would they be able to detect us. Essentially, the program rests with the assumption that we are the most primitive life in our neighborhood and that a far more advanced civilization will detect us and broadcast to us. SETI, as is, is an ear for these advanced beings.

When people get more serious about it (nonstop broadcasts to planets/systems that may have life) and when more complex tech is here I wouldnt be surprised if life on other planets to the people of the future will be as 'scary' and 'deeply philosophical' as microorganisms and cloning are today. Especialy cloning. The concept of cloning was the de-facto mindblowing 50-60s sci-fi horrible vision of the future that made everyone re-think everything from identity to life in general. Today, its just a boring technology that can help with animal husbandry. When aliens get detected, it will quickly become as dull and the futue version of your boyfriend will have something else to call 'god.'
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:08 PM on April 13, 2007


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