A couple of weeks ago, some people concluded that I thought there couldn’t be life or intelligent life on planets outside our solar system. Obviously, I have no idea if there is or isn’t, but as noted earlier, I did (and do) insist on asking some questions, principally,
1) if fertile Earth is just an average planet, why isn’t barren Mars?
2) Why is it science to speculate that ET might be hiding in our junk DNA but not that Bigfoot might be hiding in the mountains?
And, come to think of it,
3) Why does faith, elsewhere derided, seem to play so great a role in the speculations around life on other planets? Why is doubt, for once, the identified problem, not faith?
Who makes these rules and on what basis? Hoping for more answers than anger, let’s look at what happens when scientists begin to doubt:
One way of insulating such doubts from intemperate attack is to find a quirky but barely permissible reading of Darwin. In 2011 Geoff Marcy, successful planet-hunter, told Space.com,
If I had to bet—and this is now beyond science—I would say that intelligent, technological critters are rare in the Milky Way galaxy. The evidence mounts. We Homo sapiens didn’t arise until some quirk of environment on the East African savannah—so quirky that the hominid paleontologists still can’t tell us why the australopithecines somehow evolved big brains and had dexterity that could play piano concertos, and things that make no real honest sense in terms of Darwinian evolution.
As long as Marcy is willing to assert that he is “beyond science” when he doubts, and shores it up by invoking Darwin, he is allowed his doubts. But Darwinism is typically far more use to the pro-alien side because it parallels the Copernican Principle: As Earth is just a mediocre planet, so humans are just an evolved species. Surely there are countless others.
The Perimeter Institute’s Adrian Kent explicitly invokes Darwinian theory to account for the aliens’ absence: Natural selection, he argues, favors quiet aliens, due to competition on a cosmic scale for natural resources.
Similarly, Smith dubs his pessimistic view the “misanthropic principle,” a play on the “Anthropic Principle,” meaning that because we are probably alone, we must solve our own problems. As long as he puts it that way, he is mostly safe from charges of being “anti-science.”
At New Scientist (2011), Lee Billings utters the question: “Two decades of searching have failed to turn up another planetary system like ours. Should we be worried?” The magazine editorialized an answer pronto: More.
Worry? O, he of little faith, tsk tsk.
See also: What has materialism done for science?
Big Bang exterminator wanted, will train
Copernicus, you are not going to believe who is using your name. Or how.
“Behold, countless Earths sail the galaxies … that is, if you would only believe …”
Don’t let Mars fool you. Those exoplanets teem with life!
But surely we can’t conjure an entire advanced civilization?
How do we grapple with the idea that ET might not be out there?