TIME magazine, aliens, and why SETI is a waste

How I discovered Alien Reading Material via SETI: The Search for Edible Things that are Inexpensive

There are untold numbers of planets and celestial bodies in general scattered across a universe vaster than we can contemplate. How could anyone doubt that intelligent life (or at least complex life) developed elsewhere?

Easily. The first piece of evidence is the utter lack of any evidence, but this is no doubt countered by the rejoinder that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. I haven’t seen any pink unicorns lately, nor a teapot in orbit around some planet, so should I consider these serious scientific questions?

I’ve been accused of being a creationist (I’m agnostic) for even considering works like Ward & Brownlee’s Rare Earth to be actual contributions to scientific literature. I’ve been accused of knowing nothing about probability because, given the vastness of the universe and the number of planets, moons, etc., (not to mention different forms of life), I’ve counted this evidence as negligible. Finally, referring to scientific literature like

Spiegel, D. S., & Turner, E. L. (2012). Bayesian analysis of the astrobiological implications of life’s early emergence on Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(2), 395-400.

hasn’t gotten me anywhere (despite the fact that I’ve used this paper because it is published in one of the most prestigious scientific journals on the planet and more importantly it’s FREE: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3258618/

Yesterday, I was in the checkout line at the grocery store, ranting to the voices in my head (who have, of late, but wherefore I know not, decided to rudely ignore me), rather than speak out loud about how wonderful it would be if such publications as Nature or Science were offered alongside whatever magazine is supposed to keep me aware of which celebrity is dating whom and what’s happening in our favorite soap opera: blah.

This time, though, I saw a TIME issue entirely dedicated to extraterrestrial life (and more generally to SETI). I bought it. I assumed, of course, that it would be filled with “startling new evidence” that anybody who’s read the literature has known about for years, changes to the field which are of little concern, and mostly just sensationalist hype. I didn’t expect it to be as one-sided as it was. It was like time-travelling back several decades before astrobiology, before it turned out the Drake equation could just as well demonstrate the probability of complex life arising anywhere else in the universe was nil, before there were cosmologists/theoretical physicists who opted for widely speculative cosmologies coherent with their atheistic belief systems (or just those disinclined to look favorably upon notions like a “creator” or a “god” but are willing to put their faith in untestable solutions to problems in theoretical physics which they prefer precisely because they believe this is preferable to having to explain “fine-tuning” via a creator), etc.

An entire issue devoted to SETI and extraterrestrial life, and if one changed some words around it would have been much more at home in a similar publication in the 70s. But why?

Probability Argument, God, and Orbiting Teapots

The probability argument falls prey to the very argument so many theists, polytheists, deists, etc., rely on for evidence: ignorance. That is, we know that life arose here, and we know a great deal about how (particularly how it proceeded once it emerged; that is, we know a lot more about evolutionary theory than we do the harder question of what started evolutionary processes; of course, we DO know much about the harder question, just comparatively little). It is generally believed that living systems, including single-celled organisms, are incredibly complex and, moreover, increasingly accepted by physics (including those disinclined to appeal to anything that might suggest the possibility of a cosmic designer) that the universe is “fine-tuned” insofar as a rather large set of parameters couldn’t vary much for a universe even so hostile to the emergence of life as is our own to make life impossible (in some cases, any variance we could even really measure would ensure no life anywhere).

However, because life emerged here, it is easy to suppose that, given the STAGGERINGLY high number of other planets and so forth that exist, naturally even the (rather literally) astronomically high odds would still mean large numbers of places where complex, even intelligent life has emerged, is emerging, or will emerge. Even if the odds against intelligent life emerging elsewhere are a trillion trillions to one against, given time and the size of the universe (as well as the potentially habitable zones in the proper spacetime region), surely this ensures any argument against intelligent life is just foolish, no?

Here, alas, we run into the same logical flaw we do with the most popular form of the “fine-tuned” argument for a creator. We know life in this universe is possible, as we inhabit a planet that is teeming with life and was teeming with life before our species existed (and will be long after we’re gone). Now we ask, “what were the odds against life emerging here?” or “what were the odds for it?” We find that we can make the odds as small as we want. Why? Because our knowledge of what it takes for life to emerge and develop into complex life (let alone INTELLIGENT life) is quite small, and all the evidence points to a complexity that is qualitatively different than any physical system that isn’t living. In short, we’ve won the lottery, but we weren’t told the odds (or how it was decided whom the winner was). No matter how large one makes the number X in the argument “of course there’s complex/intelligent life elsewhere because there’s X habitable zones with habitable planets/moons/etc. out there”, the rejoinder can always be “well, the chances of any one of those X habitable zones actually ever being (or having been) inhabited is by complex (or intelligent) life is X to the X^2 power times googolplex to the googol.” More simply, throw as many planets, moons, comets, asteroids, red dwarfs, etc., at me as you will, and I can still claim the probability of life is so rare that you would require many, many, many, many, many trillions upon trillions of these for the probability to be of complex life elsewhere in the universe to be just “unlikely”.

What Is Life? (Hint: Read Schrödinger)

After the flawed probability argument comes the “well we don’t even know what forms life could take, so all this habitable zone stuff is just artificially and vastly narrowing down the possibilities. “ There is some truth to this.

However, we DO know something rather important here: complex systems. One of the many hard lessons that scientists had to come to grips with over the 20th century was just how incredibly complicated systems we thought so simple actually were. Life, even if we consider the viri or our skin cells to be life, is amazingly complicated. We don’t know what sufficient conditions are required for it other than an emergence of some vastly complicated set of interacting parts intricately connected that give rise to internally-driven/self-determining phase spaces/trajectories. We DO know that this isn’t just a matter of being unlikely, but a matter of time. It takes time in even the best situations for proto-“life” to emerge, and even more for such systems to become the simplest organisms; meanwhile, there have been five mass extinctions on this planet, one which wiped out almost all life on our planet. The events that allow such devastation are far more frequent that the time needed to go from proto-“life” to organisms. Yes, it’s probably (even extremely likely) that extremophiles exist elsewhere. But nobody really cares (it’s like finding out that Mars has a few gold deposits).

In short, we don’t need to rely on ideas about carbon-based life, or the trajectories of evolution on our planet, or anything other than the absolute basics: physics and chemistry. Physics doesn’t shift in order to allow spontaneous emergence of self-organized systems capable of replication in a manner likely to involve at least some forward trajectories in terms of complexity (it’s wrong to think that, even here, evolution means “more advanced” or “more complex”, but for complex life to emerge we’d need the precursors).

In short, when something seems REALLY unlikely and you have no evidence to believe it to be true other than that it happened once (such that if it hadn’t, you wouldn’t be there to assert it hadn’t), we can be far more sure that in another few decades TIMES will come out with another issue asserting “[s]cience is finding new clues” and they will be just as empty.

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