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. SETI – another name for wasteful government spending to put out of work socialists to work doing nothing productive.

  2. KF,

    True that. This is science after all. What I’d like to see though – and never have – is a breakdown of how much antenna time SETI gets compared to traditional radio astronomy. If it’s a comparatively small number of hours, what’s the harm of “keeping a hand in the game”? I can see an argument for discontinuing the practice if it consumes a substantial amount of observation time, but I suspect that as a percentage of the whole, it doesn’t.

  3. SETI has been worth every penny insofar as it’s convincingly proved what Katz said about extra terrestrial life: “identifying them or having some communication with them is probably impossible.”

  4. nal,

    I’m familiar with Ernst Mayr’s argument, however, I think not to try given the comparative low cost (and the other far more utilitarian uses) of radio telescope arrays, that having the equipment and trying – no matter how remote the success – is an opportunity cost well worth paying. Space is an astronomically big place. Astronomical odds against success are to be expected, but just like the lottery, you have no chance of winning if you don’t play the game.

  5. Can SETI Succeed? Not Likely, by Ernst Mayr

    What conclusions must we draw from these considerations? No less than six of the eight conditions to be met for SETI success are highly improbable. When one multiplies these six improbabilities with each other, one reaches an improbability of astronomic dimensions.

  6. “identifying them or having some communication with them is probably impossible.”

    Like I said, it’s a moot argument.

    It’s the tree falling in the forest that nobody will ever hear.

  7. Karl Friedrich: “That’s nonsense Jay. Pure pseudo-scientific gibberish & wishful thinking.”

    Karl, I disagree. The rest of your posting seems to be built on assumptions that are dogmatic rather than scientific. you seem to argue that:

    para 1 & 2, regarding the manner and type of events needed for life (leading to intelligent life) on earth. Your argument appears to be that life worth talking to must or should mirror our own physically to exist (and/or be sentient) and needs the same type of planetary attributes to evolve.

    I disagree. That conclusion is not valid unless one thinks our life model is the most or only viable one. As a starting point for looking for likely planets I don’t have a problem with it but I don’t think there a rigid template for life that can attain sentience. There are other sentient beings on this planet but they are not, based on our observations of them, as smart as we are and they do not use technology beyond simple tools. I’m not one for Terran or human exceptionalism in life models.

    para 3: “That means advanced intelligent life was a result of a series of fairly bizzare accidental flukes that have a low statistical likelihood of being replicated even under the most favorable conditions.”

    I’m just going straight to the Wikipedia for a few quotes on size and numbers, if it’s not authoritative enough for you you can feel free to give it a margin of error as large as you like because we’re dealing with number’s so large that a 50% margin is still insignificant to the argument.

    Milky Way Galaxy:
    “It contains 200-400 billion stars and is estimated to have at least 50 billion planets, 500 million of which could be located in the habitable zone of their parent star.[12] New data suggests there may be up to twice as many free-floating planets in the Milky Way as there are stars.[13] The Milky Way is part of the Local Group of galaxies and is one of around 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe.”

    “There are probably more than 170 billion (1.7 × 1011) galaxies in the observable universe”

    “In astronomy and cosmology, dark matter is matter that is inferred to exist from gravitational effects on visible matter and gravitational lensing of background radiation, but that neither emits nor scatters light or other electromagnetic radiation (and so cannot be directly detected via optical or radio astronomy).

    “According to observations of structures larger than solar systems, as well as Big Bang cosmology interpreted under the Friedmann equations and the FLRW metric, dark matter accounts for 23% of the mass-energy density of the observable universe. In comparison, ordinary matter accounts for only 4.6% of the mass-energy density of the observable universe, with the remainder being attributable to dark energy.[2][3] From these figures, dark matter constitutes 83%, (23/(23+4.6)), of the matter in the universe, whereas ordinary matter makes up only 17%”

    That’s a lot of petri dishes in only one galaxy if you are looking for only the sort of life you think is probable based on one model. If you concede that initial conditions can exist other than those similar to our own planet that can give rise to life just go ahead and make up your own number. With all those planets (50 billion in our own galaxy) you’ve got a lot of latitude numbers wise. That’s not counting moons that might have conditions that give rise to life around planets that might themselves prove hostile to it. Moons also can have tidal forces and water, check out Jupiter’s moons. Scale up for the visible universe and the mind reels at the potential numbers.

    That’s just the visible universe which makes up the minority of what’s in the universe. We don’t know what dark matter is or how it’s configured.

    Time and opportunity plus whatever numbers you choose to work from as stated above makes life absolutely guaranteed. How far it gets along an evolutionary ladder and it’s chemical basis is entirely up for grabs. You simply can’t work with something as big as the universe and not have life sprout like weeds IMO. How much of it is concurrently sentient and advanced technologically is an unknown. Can we contact them? No, I don’t think we are far enough along for that now. I’m with Jay though on whether we could recognise all of their communication or energy signature’s, no, we’re not far enough along for that yet.

    You state in conclusion “Conjuring up the notion of some superior intelligence to our own that could actually be demonstrated requires as big a leap of faith as religion.” and I again tend toward some disagreement. 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.

  8. First, I’m going to have to disagree that SETI is a waste of time. The search is limited to EM transmissions because that is the limit of our technology. Also, given that all civilizations would have to have evolutionary technology although we may not be using their current methods of communication, we may be able to pick up evidence of their past activity. When we look to the stars all we are seeing are their “old photographs”. Any evidence SETI might come across short of a near by direct communication is going to be evidence of past, not current, activity.

    Second, I don’t think the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence is a search for parents. Rather I think it is a search for a mirror. A reflection of how we compare to another species in understanding the universe given our conscious nature and questions about the nature of reality. Our hubris rests not in seeking this reflection but in rather assuming that alien consciousness will be of an approximately translatable and understandable nature. What if the first species we contact are hive minds or machine intelligence or simply so different in perception and cognition that we cannot find a common ground for communication? To comprehend the nature of this issue, one needs think of nothing more than the following terrestrial example: Try to explain HDTV to a chimp, a dolphin and an ant colony. Knowing other species exist would really only answer one question: Are we alone as sentient life in the universe? Being able to actually share information with them is another issue altogether. This is also shown in the pragmatic methods SETI uses in determining what to look for and what to broadcast. Much of the effort is focused on mathematical concepts that are universal. That is to say numbers that are going to be the same in any math regardless of the perceptual framework of said maths originating species because they are defined by the shape of the universe – like Pi.

    Third, any species capable of interstellar travel probably doesn’t use EM transmissions to communicate. The sophistication of the technology required for pragmatic interstellar travel indicates to me that they would probably be sufficiently advanced in their understanding of quantum mechanics to build “anisbles” – quantum entangled, but ergo closed, systems of communicating at extreme distances using quantum effects that would leave no trace detectable by us. Any species we do find evidence for will likely be as system-locked as we are as a matter of practical travel.

    Forth, the concern of aliens for us is secondary to our concern about their very existence. Whether or not they “have answers” for us or can help (or harm) us is really a post contact concern. To put that question before the basic question of existence of sentient alien life is kind of missing the point about the initial question of are we alone. This is not to say that it these are not important questions should we contact an alien civilization, but rather, they are a bit premature.

    And as for what Carl Sagan really had to say about the subject of extraterrestrial life, I leave you with this quote of Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle: “A sad spectacle. If they be inhabited, what a scope for misery and folly. If they be not inhabited, what a waste of space.” A quote Sagan paraphrased at a symposium at Boston University in 1972 as, “If we are alone in the Universe, it sure seems like an awful waste of space.”

  9. While PZ hints that he believes SETI is quaintly absurd, I’ll observe about PZ what he observes about so many others, he is not a trained astronomer or astrophysicist and is talking out his ass.

    In the meantime, we have Stephen Hawking warning against speaking to aliens.

  10. Nal wrote:

    “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.”

    I agree unequivocally with that statement. Those who would believe the nonsense of cosmic pluralism in today’s world need to send campaign contributions to Ms. Bachmann and/or Mr. Perry and become loyal followers of Mr. Bush, Mr. Beck, Ms. Palin, Mr. Robertson, et al.

    In fact, I think such absurd thinking is why the U.S. is experiencing a dramatic decline in rational thought that allows for the emergence of the previously mentioned religiously insane.

  11. That’s nonsense Jay. Pure pseudo-scientific gibberish & wishful thinking.

    Simple convergence theory demonstrates that for things to sustain movement through air, for example, they develop wings, like insects, birds & airplanes. Other life forms would necessarily have similar structures and need to come from relatively rare planets that have running water and be a certain distance from their sun, etc.

    Even those ingredients wouldn’t have been enough for life on Earth to evolve since our evolution was also entirely dependent on the existence of the gravitational pull of the moon which made the seasons and tides required for life to start in tidepools, etc. Evolution of life as we know it would be unthinkable on Earth without the moon or equivalent satellite to tilt the Earth on its unique, wobbling axis.

    That means advanced intelligent life was a result of a series of fairly bizzare accidental flukes that have a low statistical likelihood of being replicated even under the most favorable conditions.

    Sagan also demonstrated that due to the unique molecular structure of carbon with 4 nodes that life’s next likely candidate, silicon, with 8 nodes, would be almost mathematically impossible.

    In the highly unlikely event there were some intelligence out there superior to ours they’d certainly be aware of the concept of prime numbers (numbers not divisible by themselves) and therefore could & would easily be able to respond to our little morse code of prime numbers we’ve been beaming out into the universe for decades.

    Even if there were such an intelligence it’d be moot since no intelligence can come up with a way to transport their life form at the speed of light over hundreds of millions of light years to our planet which is precisely what would be required.

    Conjuring up the notion of some superior intelligence to our own that could actually be demonstrated requires as big a leap of faith as religion.

    Faith, as Ambrose Beirce defined it is: “Belief without evidence, by people without knowledge, in things without parrallel.

  12. My opinion re SETI is that we are wasting our time just hunting for radio signals. I suspect we are awash in alien communications, and just can’t recognize them for what they are.

    The problem is that we just can’t come to grips with the implications of intelligences and cultures way beyond ours.

    As an analogy, suppose we are to space aliens as ducks are to us. If a duck wanted to have evidence of “intelligence,” it would listen for some quacking. A duck could never discover or comprehend the internet… And we can’t comprehend anything beyond simplistic radio (or even optical) transmissions. And we certainly can’t admit that we might not understand all the physical processes in the universe, that could represent other ways of achieving information transmission.

    I am reminded of the late Carl Sagan’s argument as to why there are no space aliens: If there were such space aliens, they would obviously want to land at Cornell and discuss physics with him. Since they hadn’t, they must not exist….

  13. What was the point of this post, to spend a moment making a wildly strained comparison without putting any real thought, argument or substantiation behind it?

  14. One thing that SETI proves, and makes all the expense worth it, is that there’s no such thing’s as UFOs and Alien Abductions, etc, for the distances needed to travel even for a space ship that could run the speed of light are just too great to be plausible.

  15. I do believe that sentient life exists elsewhere. Efforts to discover we are not alone in the Universe, though modest are a worthwhile expense for humanity. The contact if ever made will have
    an enormous effect on humanity and its beliefs. Imagine alone the discovery of the religious beliefs of non-earthly beings and their effect on the certainty and/or disbelief’s of humans.

  16. Ouch Nal….Things are as they seem to be until they are not the way they seem to be…

  17. You can’t do just one thing. The search isn’t just grabbing a radio dish or two and pointing it at the sky, it’s also research into how to efficiently scan millions of channels simultaneously, it’s research into how to search massive data sets, it’s ‘eyes on the sky’ in case something else interesting happens.

    In addition your scientific argument is making some unwarranted assumption. A spherical wavefront will quickly fade off but a focused beam can be seen to much greater distances. E.g., the early warning radars from the cold war era can be seen for many light years and they weren’t even targeted. It won’t give much information about us but it will be proof we exist.

    Now imagine we’re just a few years more advanced and have a list of nearby systems with oxygen-bearing planets. There’s definitely life there. From earth history there’s less than a 1-in-a-million chance that it has creatures capable of receiving radio signals.

    Are you willing to bet that NO species wouldn’t feel a compelling need (or even religious obligation) to periodically send a tightly focused signal to these planets? It might be their equivalent to the Bible but if they’re able to detect oxygen-bearing planets around other stars then they’re going to realize that they need to send a lot more information so the recipient can understand the message.

    That said my personal belief is that life is common but life that’s able to build powerful radios is extremely rare. The odds of SETI paying off directly are low but the secondary benefits easily make it a worthwhile investment.

  18. since he didn’t create any inhabited ones why would he bother creating uninhabited planets?

  19. NASA with its space expeditions seems to be trying to prove some of that theory one way or another.

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