Sunday, October 16, 2011

Inappropriately Touched by E.T.

Someone shared this image on Facebook today, with the header "Seriously !! Still believe we are alone ?"

It looks like you can see it, and the comments, without being logged into Facebook, which is handy. (It was posted by Milky Way Scientists, apparently affiliated with NASA, who also posted this smokin' beefcake photo of Albert Einstein. Maybe they should put out a calendar along those lines?)

I'm not exactly surprised, since I know that NASA has always had a high concentration of religious nuts; see David F. Noble's The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention (Knopf, 1997). It's a useful reminder that certain New Atheists' assurance that the advance of science will inevitably consign religion to the dustbin of history isn't just bogus, it's a statement of faith.

These are pretty pictures, and I've loved looking at photographs of deep space objects since I was a kid. But they have no bearing at all on the question of extraterrestrial life. Even though I recognize that a leap of faith is involved, I can't see how to get from point A to point B here. Judging from arguments I've encountered in the past, I think that the idea is that in a universe so full of galaxies and stars, there must be some other people out there somewhere! I understand the intuitive appeal of that argument, but there's this little thing called the Fermi Paradox ...

What first caught my attention was the cartoon image below the photos of the Mocker and Scoffer, who believeth not what Science hath shown him so abundantly. I was reminded immediately of a co-worker of mine, who after driving through the desert in the American Southwest was convinced by the beauty of the natural formations that there must be a "higher power." (I asked if her if she felt the same way about soil erosion in her garden, which is also God's work. I don't remember what she answered; probably she did feel the same way about it.)

Some of the comments on the image are revealing.
it would be so stupid if we were alone .....

C'mon i thought this fact makes sense to all of us! Why do u still ignore it?

Hope so. Can't wait for something to come and have a VERY stern word with you, Mankind. And I hope they are A LOT bigger that you are. Although they probably won't be as NASTY as you are.

We are not alone anymore

Well, if anyone is out there watching what is going on down here, they'll just shake their heads, leave us alone and continue searching for intelligent life.
That last one has three "like" flags so far.

These are declarations of faith, not of rationality. And while it could be argued that the comments are just stupid laymen, the tone was set by the scientists who posted the image to begin with. "Still believe we are alone?" Personally I don't have an opinion one way or the other, because no one has shown me any evidence, any reason to believe that there is life on other planets or in other star systems; but at the same time there's no clear evidence that there isn't life on other planets. It's reminiscent of the popular claim that you can't prove or disprove the existence of God, but on the subject of extraterrestrial life, many atheists are ready to make assertions they can't prove. I consider it a great occasion for agnosticism, the admission that we don't know something rather than jumping to unwarranted conclusions. Recently I saw a quotation from Richard Dawkins to the effect that the trouble with religion is that it encourages children to be comfortable with ambiguous conclusions, rather than giving them certain knowledge. (Sorry, I can't find the source; I thought I had it bookmarked.) I'd have thought it was the other way around myself, but I'm not an Oxford man.

The use of the emotionally-laden word "alone" is revealing too. I don't know about you, but I'm not alone: there are billions of other people on this planet. The Christian apologist Blaise Pascal famously wrote, "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me." It's been argued that he wasn't speaking in his own voice there, but ventriloquizing an imagined atheist; I can't tell, and I don't think it matters because clearly many people, atheists as well as religious believers, are frightened by the vastness of the universe, and want to shrink it to a cozier size by populating it with guardian angels or kindly ETs. (Notice the automatic -- that is, irrational -- assumption that people on other worlds will be smarter and more "civilized" than we are, though contemptuous of terrestrial humans' stupidity and violence. When you assume ... ) It's tempting for me to guess that Milky Way Scientists are cynically selling comfort to (what they perceive as) the ignorant masses by promising to find them playmates or idealized benign teachers elsewhere in the universe; but from what I've seen, I think they believe it will work on the proles because it works on them.