Cosmic Pluralism

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

The evolution of religious beliefs, as people try and cope with scientific evidence, has taken some strange paths. By the 18th century, the concept of a heliocentric solar systems, wherein the Earth is one of several planets, was becoming impossible to deny. The scientists and theologians of the day, pondered the question: Would God really have bothered to create empty worlds?

Unrestrained by evidence, the human imagination is given free rein and the human ego has no problem determining the motivations of an omniscient being. The answer of many was an emphatic “no,” and so cosmic pluralism, the notion that all worlds are inhabited, even the Sun, was born. Actually, more like resurrected from ancient Greek philosophers.

Cosmic pluralism was not some theory held by a fringe group. Some of the great astronomers and thinkers of the day were supporters. Sir William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus, believed in it wholeheartedly, as did other legendary thinkers like John Locke and Benjamin Franklin.

Sir David Brewster, a 19th century Scottish physicist and astronomer, pointed out that telescopes would never be able to see the Moon closely enough to be certain that any Moon people (called lunatics) didn’t live there. The similarities among the planets and their motions led Brewster to make the teleological argument:

We trace throughout all the heavenly bodies the same uniformity of plan, is it possible to resist the influence an uniformity of purpose; so that if we find a number of spheres linked together by the same bond, and governed by the same laws of matter, we are entitled to conclude that the end for which one of these was constituted, must be the great general end of all,—to become a home of rational and God-glorifying creatures.

The quaint absurdity of cosmic pluralism can be found today in SETI. The search for artificial electromagnetic radiation from a distant planet is a fool’s errand. The loss of power as electromagnetic waves propagate through space, as the distance squared, would make any incident waves so weak as to be indistinguishable from the background noise. There is also the problem of technology synchronization. How long will we continue to communicate via electromagnetic means, 1000 years, 10,000 years? The transmitting and receiving civilizations would have to be physically close and have their technologies synchronized or one civilization would be using electromagnetic means while the other has moved on to something more advanced.

It is somehow comforting to imagine other beings concerned about ourselves. Maybe we never outgrow the psychological need for parents.

H/T: Alasdair Wilkins, Pharyngula.

37 thoughts on “Cosmic Pluralism”

  1. Cosmic pluralism is an interesting concept that has lasted longer than any nation or empire.

    What is perplexing, given the realities of solar systems in the cosmos, is that the same conditions apply to all such solar systems.

    The vast distances between solar systems, in terms of our space travel technology, makes it irrelevant whether or not other planets have life on them.

    “We are all in this alone” (Lily Tomlin) in the sense we can’t ask for help with our space travel technology.

    But what is most perplexing is that our civilization does not have a unified approach to the fundamental reality of the life and death of stars, thus the life and death of planets orbiting them.

    We have one planet and one chance to get it right, but we have it way wrong.

  2. Nal,

    That involves a more complete knowledge then what we have in this situation. For instance, we can say “at X time there was no signal coming from Y direction of the sky.” We can’t even say “at X time there were no signals coming from any part of the sky” or “there has never been any signals coming from Y.” The best we can say is that “there’s evidence of an absence of a civilization X million years ago broadcasting from that direction.”

    This is the equivalent of spending ten years watching random 1 square foot patches of ground and deciding that lightning never strikes because you never saw one hit any of those spots you were watching.

  3. Absence of proof is not proof of absence.

    Each side of the debate has these lists of assumptions, which are all based on our drawing conclusions based on a sample size of one. We can’t call it a waste of time, nor can we guarantee that it’s not. The best we can do is say that it scratches the itch of needing to try and discover things. Which is always worth doing.

  4. Call me a fool but since I started reading Sci Fi in 1952, so much of what was improbable then, is reality now and so I don’t dismiss the possibilities of anything. State of the art physics now posits many dimensions and universes. As LK demonstrated, given the size of the potential set, damn near anything is likely.

  5. The Modern Knight:

    Human interpretation of the world as knowledge and understanding has grown through the ages is simply Christians taking crazy paths to try to cope and changing their story along the way …

    Assigning characteristics of sentient beings, such as knowledge and understanding, to non-sentient objects, such as “the world,” is not a worldview that I can support.

    God is not real.

    God is a product of human imagination.

    Extraterrestrial life is not real.

    Attempting to detect intelligent extraterrestrial life using the limited capabilities of SETI, in both range and methodology, is unlikely.

    Did I get the gist?

    Except for the above mentioned points, you nailed it.

  6. BIL, I got your context. My conclusion is based on the conclusions of people with some greater understanding of the task than I have and is a short term condition. OTOH, and there’s always another hand, we could get lucky. Anything could happen between now and then. In the long march of science and understanding a hundred years isn’t long and technology advances very quickly so I take even my own conclusion with a grain of salt, keep funding SETI and hope we get lucky in the meanwhile. 🙂

    LOL, Maybe what we have identified as dark matter and dark energy is actually the energy signal of the cloaking devices the truly advanced sentient races use to keep their galaxies and local clusters from being bothered by new kids on the cosmic block.

  7. So…

    1. Human interpretation of the world as knowledge and understanding has grown through the ages is simply Christians taking crazy paths to try to cope and changing their story along the way, and

    2. God is not real. Extraterrestrial life is not real. Believing in either is simply a repressed need for concerned parents.

    Did I get the gist?

  8. Buddha,

    In my opinion, purposeful misrepresentation always invalidates. But I get your point.

  9. LK,

    I did not catch KF’s misrepresentation of your statement, but I don’t think that invalidates the notion that not getting a result or an expected result is as scientifically valuable as having a theory confirmed (just to put my earlier agreement with him in the proper context).

  10. lotta,

    Good catch … I dismissed his argument for that very reason.

  11. Karl, This is what I said: “I have no doubt such species have, do and will exist but identifying them or having some communication with them is probably impossible because we aren’t there technologically and from what I’ve read we won’t be for another century at least. Consequently shutting the door unilaterally on the eventual possibility is for me, premature.”

    You have edited and misquoted my conclusion in such a way as to alter the the context and make it say something materially different that what I actually said, then used that new statement to make your argument. I take exception to that.

  12. Was it a neuropsychiatrist, Abraham A. Low, who wrote, more than 50 years ago, to the effect that knowing that one does not know may be a secure thought?

  13. Yes Sir O’ Scribe: “Greed and lack of foresight has been the downfall of many an empire” but with all due respect that’s a redundancy insofaras lack of foresight is always a product of either greed or sloth.

    The point is that humans can easily construct their desert island so it doesn’t wind up with, say, a hundred people on an island with $100 dollars to spend and the very best system we can come up with, one that you’re willing to fight & die for, is one where 4 lucky people get $80 and 96 not so lucky people have to fight for the remaining $20 dollars. If that’s what “freedom & democracy” amounts to in both foreign and domestic policy, then it’s surely a fraud.

  14. “An infinitesimal pittance in governmental expenditure compared to 3 neverending predatory wars certain to correspond ultimately with the same fate as Rome.”

    A powerful statement KF. Well said. Greed and lack of foresight has been the downfall of many an empire.

  15. Buddah:

    Of course it’s the sacred duty of sentient beings clinging to precious life to first & foremost establish a communications network. Nobody, especially no group of sustainable intelligent life forms, stranded on a desert isle, doesn’t keep a continuous signal fire going.

    SETI is merely humanity’s signal fire.

    An infinitesimal pittance in governmental expenditure compared to 3 neverending predatory wars certain to correspond ultimately with the same fate as Rome.

  16. Wasteful is a relative term Roco, degrees to which can only be determined by class analysis, for there’s no more parasitic socialist government boondoggle on the planet greater than the PENTAGON and all the bootlickers sucking off its teat which every day milks from hundreds of millions of working people around the world their treasures & blood consumed simultaneously in 3 expensive military adventures while more than half the US homeless population is comprised of veterans — and old people are forced out of retirement to scramble for jobs as greeters at Wal-Mart.

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