Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Atheistic SETI-Religion

When Ward & Brownlee's Rare Earth came out I began presenting the rare earth argument in my logic classes. I thought it was interesting enough to keep logic students from falling asleep. For the most part I was right. What I discovered was a significant resistance to the idea that we might be alone in the universe. Some students seemed to be genuinely upset that I would even suggest this. Their insistence that we could not be alone, even though they had no logical reasoning behind their belief, had a fundamentalist religious quality.

I thought of this as I read Dennis Overbye's "Gazing Afar for Other Earths, and Other Beings." "In a building at NASA’s Ames Research Center here, computers are sifting and resifting the light from 156,000 stars, seeking to find in the flickering of distant suns the first hints that humanity is not alone in the universe." "Kepler" is the name of the 600-million dollar satellite observatory that is monitoring "a kind of Gallup poll of worlds in the cosmos." Why do this? It was this next quote that reminded me of my logic students' response to rare earth theory.

"This is more than just an intellectual exercise, scientists say. Traditional religious images of ourselves as God’s creatures, or even of God, could be in for a rough time if we ever discover pond scum living by completely alien chemical rules on some moon or planet, let alone the Borg — the alien race ruled by a collective mind on “Star Trek” — inhabiting some distant realm." I want to reflect on this idea.
  • I have no doubt that "pond scum" exists elsewhere in the universe. Ward and Brownlee agree with that. What I don't understand is how this will give my theology a rough time. How does this follow? 1) Pond scum exists elsewhere in the universe. 2) Therefore humans are not God's creatures. I see no claim of inference from 1 to 2.
  • Or: 1) Extraterrestrial pond scum exists. 2) Therefore God as I understand God does not exist. Again, I see no claim of inference between 1 and 2. My "religion" will not be in for a "rough time."
  • But why, in the first place, would Overbye think my Jesus-faith would be especially challenged by extraterrestrial pond scum, or even the Borg? (If the Borg actually exist my "religion" will be especially helpful.) Because, I think, this is Atheistic SETI-religion (ASR). If we are alone in the universe then we are truly a "privileged planet," which would threaten ASR adherents. In some sense they must find extraterrestrial life lest they be forced to admit to earth's privileged status. Such a privileged status would mean: humans are very, very special.

Overbye does not tell us why I'd be in for a rough time should an estraterrestrial flatworm be discovered. I'm guessing the reason would be: Human life is no longer special, and earth is not a privileged planet. I think that kind of reasoning is just false. If life exists elsewhere, as I believe it does, my Jesus faith is not rocked. Instead, my Einsteinian wonder increases. If we are all there is, at least in terms of intelligent life, then I stand amazed and feel very, very privileged. Either way I cannot lose.

I'm thinking some of my logic students feel they will be in for a rough religious time if intelligent life only exists on earth.

There's a downside to the Kepler project.
  • “We will be faced with hundreds of planet candidates that may never be fully vetted as planets. We just have to live with statistics.” This is "a bitter pill to swallow."

  • "At 500 to 3,000 light-years away, Kepler’s planets are too far for intense direct scrutiny."  
Overbye concludes: "If we are alone, on the other hand, “maybe we’re going to go conquer the whole galaxy,” he said. “Nobody’s out there to stop us.”"