October 11, 2003


E.T. and God: Could earthly religions survive the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe? (Paul Davies, September 2003, The Atlantic Monthly)

The recent discovery of abundant water on Mars, albeit in the form of permafrost, has raised hopes for finding traces of life there. The Red Planet has long been a favorite location for those speculating about extraterrestrial life, especially since the 1890s, when H. G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds and the American astronomer Percival Lowell claimed that he could see artificial canals etched into the planet's parched surface. Today, of course, scientists expect to find no more than simple bacteria dwelling deep underground, if even that. Still, the discovery of just a single bacterium somewhere beyond Earth would force us to revise our understanding of who we are and where we fit into the cosmic scheme of things, throwing us into a deep spiritual identity crisis that would be every bit as dramatic as the one Copernicus brought about in the early 1500s, when he asserted that Earth was not at the center of the universe.

Whether or not we are alone is one of the great existential questions that confront us today. Probably because of the high emotional stakes, the search for life beyond Earth is deeply fascinating to the public. Opinion polls and Web-site hits indicate strong support for and interest in space missions that are linked even obliquely to this search. Perceiving the public's interest, NASA has reconfigured its research strategy and founded the NASA Astrobiology Institute, dedicated to the study of life in the cosmos. At the top of the agenda, naturally, is the race to find life elsewhere in the solar system.

Hard to see why microbes would matter, though the discovery of intelligent life would certainly present some questions. More interesting, for now, is why faith in science survives the absence of such life?

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 11, 2003 7:34 AM

Because one has nought to do with the other?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 11, 2003 7:49 AM

Where are they?

Posted by: oj at October 11, 2003 8:27 AM

As a graduate student conducting science (my field is plant pathology) I have to respond to Orrin Judd that absence of proof is not proof of absence.

As a Mormon, I would say that of course there is intelligent life on other planets; they too are children of God. Whether we will ever contact them or not is a question I would not presume to answer.

Posted by: Jason Johnson at October 11, 2003 11:25 AM

Little noted in any of these discussions are the simplistic NASA articles of faith concerning life, i.e., given a somewhat earth-like planet, add water (even if frozen, as on Mars), and viola, life is likely to arise. Hence the astronomical search to find earth-like planets and to detect water wherever we send probes.

The null SETI results and Fermi's Paradox (http://www.space.com/searchforlife/shostak_paradox_011024.html) both seem to indicate the absence of intelligent life. The SETI searches were probably doomed to begin with, since the radio spectrum provides insufficient bandwidth for a truly advanced civilization. Fermi's Paradox is a reasonably strong argument against intelligent, technologically advanced life, at least in our galaxy.

The reason microbes matter is that it reveals the true crisis of faith involved here, the biological explanation of the origin of life. The enormous improbability of life, our inability to account for its origins, and its relatively sudden appearance early in earth's history represent huge problems. The discovery of any life elsewhere would be taken as empirical proof that the process is simple and common, though we don't yet understand it.

Finally, it seems premature to talk of an astrobiological institute before life is found somewhere else. In the absence of data, this is likely to degenerate into wild, uninformed speculation.

Posted by: jd watson at October 11, 2003 1:46 PM

There's also the assumption that just because we discover life on Mars or Europa that it will be unique. There are also mechanisms by which life can originate on one planet and move to another. So before the crisis of faith can be felt, scientists are going to have to demonstrate conclusively that creation has happend more than once.

As for the Fermi paradox, one factor you never see in those equations those equations that purport to show that intellegent life must be ubiquitous is a lower bounds. People like Carl "Butt-Head Astronomer" Sagan loved to talk up upper bounds which shoed that there must be the "billions and billions" of civilizations out there. At the same time healways neglected to mention that if you change one or two of those numbers (some just slightly), you arrive at a number approaching zero. In otherwords, the same equation can be used to predict that we should not exist, or at best are improbably unique.

I prefer the notion that we are just the first, and it's our destiny to be the "Elder Race" who will guide all the youngsters who will appear during the next few ten billions of years.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 11, 2003 2:16 PM


Absence is however proof of absence.

Posted by: oj at October 11, 2003 4:09 PM

Religion has always shown its unerring ability to mutate in the face of every new paradigm of science. Theology is an improvizational art form. After their discovery, the existence of alien life forms will undoubtedly be shown to have been prophesied in the Bible.

Posted by: Robert D at October 11, 2003 10:05 PM


I admire your faith in their eventual discovery.

Posted by: oj at October 11, 2003 10:16 PM

I give it 50-50 odds that we'll find extra-terrestrial microbes somewhere in our solar system in the next 200 years or so. Highly unlikely that we will ever discover intelligent life forms. I would guess that we are a 1 in a galaxy phenomenon.

Posted by: Robert D at October 11, 2003 11:00 PM


In that case, I admire you for implicitly acknowledging that we are the point of the Universe.

Posted by: oj at October 11, 2003 11:07 PM


Science is a method, not a result.

And the Fermi paradox isn't one really, but just points out several possible conclusions:

1. Interstellar travel is far harder, or slower, than assumed
2. Usefully inhabitable planets are rare
3. Humans are the most advanced life form in the galaxy
4. Our planet is not usefully inhabitable to the colonizing life form
5. ETs have been/are here, but we don't know it
6. Earth is the only planet with life

At the moment, those options are beyond rational inquiry, so anyone's guess is as good as anyone elses.

BTW, OJ, Robert suggesting we are the intelligent life for in the galaxy is a far cry from saying there aren't any others in the universe, a realm far beyond the Fermi paradox, no matter your guess.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 12, 2003 7:30 AM


Does that mean that if no one in the village can see whether there are pink elephants on the other side of the mountain, it is anyone's guess as to whether there are?

Posted by: Peter B at October 12, 2003 7:56 AM


Where are they?

Posted by: OJ at October 12, 2003 10:53 AM

1. I don't see what difference some more lucky unChosen sob's would make.

2. I've long wanted to write an SF story in which First Contact was between a human ship and et's on a pilgrimage to Nazareth (or Mecca, for that matter).

Posted by: David Cohen at October 12, 2003 7:18 PM


Everywhere. Nowhere. Somewhere a long way from here. Anyone who claims to know the answer is wrong.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 12, 2003 9:59 PM

But then doesn't it follow, Jeff, that anyone who claims to know that they're wrong, is wrong?

Posted by: David Cohen at October 12, 2003 10:38 PM

"And God saw that it was good"

Midrash says that this implies the creation and destruction of other worlds.

Life on other planets gives me no theological indigestion. We cannot constrain his g4race:

Exd 33:19 And He said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 12, 2003 10:58 PM


Surely you are being disingenuous. We all know it is logically impossible to prove a negative. You seem to be suggesting that, if science has no evidence of the existence of something, it's a toss of the coin as to whether it is there. C'mon, I know the world is so full of a number of things, etc., but surely not that many.

Of course life on other planets can't be disproven conclusively, any more than ship-eating monsters could be disproven by 15th century mariners. But if there is no evidence, isn't a "working doubt" the sensible--dare I say rational- position?

Posted by: Peter B at October 13, 2003 5:57 AM


Each of the alternatives I listed, plus a few more I didn't think of, are equally plausible. And not one of them possesses any more evidence than another.

Therefore, there is no rational decision to be make that is any more valid than drawing straws.

What you are really saying is that it is virtually impossible to prove an absolute.

Based on the options on offer, which would you choose, based on what evidence?


The existence of a wrong choice, and the knowledge of which one it is, means there is some knowledge to point to the right one.

What the heck is the matter with "dunno?"

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 13, 2003 8:05 AM


I would choose to believe number six and consider the others poetic fantasy until the evidence appeared otherwise.

Posted by: Peter B at October 13, 2003 8:27 AM


It's actuially quite the opposite for Rationalism; that which they can conceive of rationally they insist must be possible. It's what made Communism, Nazism, etc. such disasters. Rationally you could conceive of them working, so they were going to be tried and failure did not disprove them, only make it so you had to try more forcefully.

Posted by: oj at October 13, 2003 8:37 AM

Until 1929, nobody even knew there were other galaxies. Certainly all Orrin's wise men never imagined them.

Now, evidently, and despite his pretended irrationalism, he accepts that the galaxies are there. I have to assume he is succumbing to scientific argument, though he'll never admit it.

Well, it's a start.

What's in 'em? Can't say. Haven't looked yet.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 13, 2003 6:25 PM

To the contrary, I accept all science. I just think scientific knowledge to be a rather limited thing which fails to answer any of the important questions we ask. It's a usefull tool, like the horse.

Posted by: OJ at October 13, 2003 7:22 PM

And religion does?

I suppose. Guess it depends on which one you choose. Which is mostly dependent upon which one your parents chose, ad infinitum.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 13, 2003 9:50 PM

Yes. Judeo-Christianity tells us why we're here and how to behave while we're here. What else really matters?

Posted by: OJ at October 13, 2003 11:39 PM

So do all the others. Unfortunately, there is rather widespread disagreement on the fundamentals.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 14, 2003 11:50 AM

They're wrong

Posted by: OJ at October 14, 2003 11:57 AM


Where do you pick-up the Nobel again?

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 14, 2003 8:20 PM