SETI, Miracles, and Comfort
Would knowledge that the universe is filled with aliens bring you comfort? Or are you more comfortable thinking humans are alone in the universe? Seth Shostak, director of the SETI Institute, was interviewed briefly by Bill Hemmer on Fox News this morning, where only one answer to this idea was assumed.
Shostak came on the program to talk about the recently-publicized views by astronomer Paul Davies that alien life may be among us in forms we cannot recognize (see PhysOrg and Breitbart News for examples). Shostak agreed with Davies that scientists may be missing it, because we are attuned to look for DNA as evidence of life. But aliens might be made of other stuff – QNA, ZNA or something we don’t know, he quipped.
Shostak went on to opine that since life appeared quickly on Earth after its formation, that suggests that life is easy to evolve. He leapt from that suggestion to opine that life might be easy to evolve on other planets, too – i.e., that life is not a miracle, but will appear as a natural consequence anywhere the conditions are right.
In the respectful dialogue, Hemmer interjected the option that even if alien life is found, it doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t created. After all, many people believe that life on Earth is a miracle. Shostak responded (paraphrasing), “Well, that would be comforting, wouldn’t it?” He said a termite in a mound might feel special until it looked out and found termite mounds all over the place. The short interview left off on that note.
Let’s see if we have this straight. According to Shostak, (1) a scientist is allowed to defend a conclusion on a single data point; (2) it’s OK to believe in unobservables, as long as they are materialistic; (3) assumptions count as data, (4) theology brings na�ve comfort, but materialism brings realistic unexceptionalism, and (5) don’t believe in miracles – rely on them (Finagle’s Rule #6).
CEH has often challenged Shostak’s ideas (e.g., 04/01/2008, or search on Shostak in the search bar for more), but this is nothing personal; he appears to be a likeable chap and is only human. His ideas, though, can be considered representative of many in the secular science community, particularly in the astrobiology and origin-of-life tribal cultures. Since he often writes about them in colorful language for the media, he places himself in the dunking booth (e.g., 07/16/2009). Our arguments, therefore, aim at the dunking lever, not the man (08/08/2008). If he gets dunked in the process, well, we will be glad to offer him a towel with the word LOGIC printed on it.
Shostak portrays himself a scientist, but what has he just done? He has defended philosophical materialism with its own assumptions. He said, in short, life evolved materialistically because it evolves materialistically, and we know this because we evolved materialistically, because we are here. This is worse than defending astrology with horoscopes, because there is zero evidence to back it up. He assumed life emerged materialistically on an unobserved primitive earth, and since that assumption pulled itself up by its own bootstraps, he walked around in the boots and said it means life emerges materialistically everywhere – and that it means life is not miraculous. Yet the improbability of chemicals coming together into systems with coded operating systems, able to reproduce themselves accurately, is so extreme, it makes belief in theological miracles tame by comparison.
Then he made the bizarre assertion that the belief life is a miraculous creation brings some people “comfort.” Do you see the disgusting elitism in that remark? It characterizes many in academia, and in progressivist politics, too. It’s the underlying attitude that “We’re smart, and lay people (especially those who believe in a Creator) are stupid. Their beliefs in miracles (and other fairy tales) may give them comfort, like drunkards guzzling their Southern Comfort, but we sober-minded, rational, objective scientists are the Patrons of Truth and Knowledge and Wisdom.”
This is not only patronizing nonsense, it is logical nonsense. Those who disagree with his materialism could just as logically make the argument that SETI believers would find comfort in a universe filled with aliens. In fact, a theist could turn the tables and argue that Shostak and his ilk have a strong emotional need to find comfort in alien life, otherwise there is the disturbing implication that life might be somehow special, and therefore might have been created. No theist need be disturbed by the discovery of life on other worlds. A materialist, though, would find its absence disturbingly hard to explain. Who needs comfort but a disturbed mind?
Finally, if Shostak employs inference without evidence to explain unobservables, he should allow others to make inferences about unobservables from evidence. Without evidence for QNA, ZNA and other unknown bases for alien life, nor any evidence it exists, he allowed Paul Davies and himself to speculate unfettered about the possibility of life-as-we-don’t-know-it living among us – and throughout the universe – as long as it matches one’s world view. Have a little fun with that kind of liberty. Speculate that when the aliens are detected, their first message will be that it has been revealed to them that humans are depraved sinners, so they are on the way as missionaries to bring us the gospel.
But even the material stuff physicists talk about is often inferred only by its effects. We can’t see quarks or neutrinos, but their presence is inferred by secondary effects in expensive colliders and by the comfort it gives physicists in the elegance of their theories. It is just as common for scientists in other scientific fields to infer intelligent causes from their effects – in forensics, cryptography, archaeology, and yes, Dr. Shostak, even in SETI itself (12/03/2005). If you permit yourself the liberty to infer intelligent causation from communications from sentient beings without evidence for it, then allow that right to others who infer intelligent causation in the DNA of sentient beings in front of their observing eyes, right here on this planet. If you allow yourself the liberty to believe in miracles, then don’t deny that liberty to those who define miracles not as wildly improbable chance occurrences, but as the visible effects of intelligent agents, whom we know from uniform experience are able to direct and constrain the laws of nature with goals and willful intent. Fairness, after all, can be a very comforting thing. So is logical consistency. Your towel, sir.