The Incredible Seriousness of Extra-Terrestrial Fictions

Oumuamua is an unusual interstellar object that has been floating through our solar system. What is more unusual is that a pair of astronomers suggested in a recent study that it might be a "light sail of extra-terrestrial origin," that is, a small spacecraft, powered by light.1 One of them, Abraham Loeb, is the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, alongside other prestigious appointments.

Yet no uproar ensued. It was not, after all, as though Loeb had suggested the unthinkable, that the universe shows evidence of being fine-tuned by a cosmic intelligence. The facts that the signature of fine-tuning seems quite clear and that there is no sign whatever of extraterrestrials has no bearing on the question of what beliefs are acceptable in current science.

In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi asked, "Where are they?", meaning that, by now, an advanced alien civilization should have contacted us. Last summer, an Oxford team, having carefully studied the data, announced that they had dissolved Fermi's Paradox, as it came to be called: The aliens can't contact us because they don't exist. Or, as the researchers put it, "When the model is recast to represent realistic distributions of uncertainty, we find a substantial probability of there being no other intelligent life in our observable universe, and thus that there should be little surprise when we fail to detect any signs of it."2

Seth Shostak of Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) naturally took issue with the finding. He protested that the discovery of microbes on one of the moons of Jupiter or Saturn "would strongly boost the chance of finding life elsewhere, and essentially guarantee that biology is as universal as door dings in a parking garage. At that point, the analysis by the Oxford team could itself dissolve."3

Few question his unjustified extrapolation from finding bacteria on one of Jupiter's moons to hearing from intelligent extraterrestrials. But using his criteria, one could just as well say that if we find bacteria deep in the Earth's crust, there must also be creatures of human-like intelligence down there. Why must there be? What do we know of how we ourselves came to be intelligent that justifies such assumptions?

Abraham Loeb, meanwhile, went on the offense in defense of ET, accusing us all of being too dumb to understand alien signals or possibly even beneath the aliens' interest ("they might have been ignoring us because we appear so incompetent").4 There is a small intellectual industry dedicated to coming up with similar explanations for ET's no-show, some of which feature similar moralizing on our pride and presumption.5

Messed-Up Cosmology

With Oumuamua now long past Earth and outbound, we might want to reflect on Loeb's (and many others') apparent quarrel with the weight of the evidence. Could it be, in part, a distraction?

Leaving the aliens to their cosmic uncertainty for a moment, we observe that conventional cosmology is a mess. Consider just two items: the Large Hadron Collider and dark matter. The collider found the Higgs boson in 2012 but has found nothing of consequence since. The question is thrashed about: Should many billions be spent to build a much bigger collider? The fear is that a new collider would wander in a "particle desert" indefinitely, like a prophet with no message. The idea of putting the money into fighting climate change instead was recently put forward as a serious option. We can thus infer that particle physics is in serious trouble.6 ­Particle physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, author of Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, characteristically pulls no punches: "Today, the task of scientists is no longer to understand nature. Instead, their task is to uphold an illusion of progress by wrapping incremental advances in false promise."7

Dark matter is another good example of the current science stall. The largest particle detector (XENON1T) has not found a single dark particle. We are told in popular science media that even the best dark matter theories "are crumbling" in a "quagmire of confirmation bias."8 These analysts are testifying against interest. They would all very much like cosmology to be in better shape. Meanwhile, a public interest in space aliens is at least a welcome change of subject.

A Religious Quest

Beyond that, it makes more sense to interpret the search for ET as a religious quest than as a scientific one. This is especially clear when we consider the role that belief, pure and simple, plays in the search, as opposed to evidence. And it is a belief that meshes easily with other quasi-religious beliefs in popular culture. Philosopher of science Mike Keas's new book, Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion (ISI, 2019), draws attention to the fact that ET is only one staple of popular science; another is super-intelligent AI, the Machine That Thinks.

The thinking machine is, like ET, always just out of sight in The Future (which is functionally the same place as ET's Out There). In the Singularity, which is nearly upon us, AI will emerge—and merge—and drag us insignificant humans who imagined it into an unimaginable future which, we are told, is indistinguishable from magic. There, we will, of course, meet and merge with ET, which "long ago transitioned beyond the organic stage" (Sir Martin Rees).9 And so we shall not be alone.

One difference between the ET cult and the AI cult is that in the AI cult, we will invent the godbots ourselves. As I have noted elsewhere, that's not an entirely new idea. Millennia ago, the prophet Isaiah ridiculed people who burnt one half of the wood they cut down as firewood and then made an idol out of the other half for worship (44:13–20).10 Thus, to the extent that the ET cult tends to meld at the edges with the AI cult, lonely believers can console themselves with the thought that we will soon be able to just make machines that think. No more waiting.

So, as to the question, Are They Out There? Yes, of course They Are. And They always will be. The almost limitless human imagination ensures that we will always have another theory that we can tell ourselves about Them. Science, as traditionally practiced, has nothing to offer that compares with Them.

Notes
1. Matt Williams, "Could Oumuamua be an extraterrestrial solar sail?", Universe Today, (Nov. 1, 2018): https://bit.ly/2AMifCC; Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb, "Could Solar Radiation Pressure Explain Oumuamua's Peculiar Acceleration?" (Oct. 26, 2018): arxiv.org/abs/1810.11490. See also, Phil Davis, "5 things we know—and 5 we don't—about Oumuamua," EarthSky (July 15, 2018): https://bit.ly/2W4mcKY.
2. Anders Sandberg et al., "Dissolving the Fermi Paradox" (June 6, 2018): https://arxiv.org/abs/1806.02404.
3. Seth Shostak, "Are we truly alone in the cosmos? New study casts doubt on rise of alien life in our galaxy," NBC (July 15, 2018): https://nbcnews.to/2umOG7k.
4. Abraham Loeb, "Are We Really the Smartest Kid on the Cosmic Block?", Scientific American (March 4, 2019): https://bit.ly/2T7hYAg.
5. Denyse O'Leary, "How Do We Grapple with the Idea That ET Might Not Be Out There?", Evolution News and Science Today (Nov. 25, 2013): https://bit.ly/2O5RTR4. The list offered has surely been augmented in the five years since I compiled it.
6. Jonathan O'Callaghan, "Would New Physics Colliders Make Big Discoveries or Wander a Particle Desert?", Scientific American (March 13, 2019): https://bit.ly/2Fhe4B4.
7. Sabine Hossenfelder, "Merchants of Hype," BackRe(Action) (March 5, 2019): https://bit.ly/2XYJO5k.
8. Emily Conover, "Dark matter particles elude scientists in the biggest search of its kind," ScienceNews (May 28, 2018): https://bit.ly/2THPlil; Korey Haynes, "What Is Dark Matter? Even the Best Theories Are Crumbling," Discover (Sept. 21, 2018): https://bit.ly/2CS07JQ; Bruce Dorminey, "Is Time Running Out on Dark Matter?", Forbes (July 18, 2018): https://bit.ly/2HpJd7S.
9. Denyse O'Leary, "AI as an Emergent Religion," Mind Matters (Jan. 31, 2019): https://bit.ly/2CyowCH.
10. Denyse O'Leary, "Tales of an Invented God," Mind Matters (Feb. 1, 2019): https://bit.ly/2ucAJZ3.

is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger. She blogs at Blazing Cat Fur, Evolution News & Views, MercatorNet, Salvo, and Uncommon Descent.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #49, Summer 2019 Copyright © 2019 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo49/really-out-there