Like many of my colleagues at Canadian Atheist, I’m no stranger to science fiction in its various incarnations. As such I find the idea of extraterrestrial aliens both metaphorically and speculatively entertaining. That said, being a skeptic, in the classical sense (as opposed to someone who just likes to obsessively debunk things), I have found many, otherwise rational, nerds to be entirely irrational on this subject.
Not that it is really surprising given how mainstream science fiction has become. The important thing to remember, however, is that even though Star Trek, Star Wars, and BSG have been with us for a generation, in the real universe, scientists only confirmed that planets exist around other stars as recently as 2002.
The idea that any other planets might harbor life is still very much in the realm of fantasy and speculation.
Now, some will say that with the universe as big as it is, it is highly unlikely that we are alone, but is it really? Based on what?All the numbers are big. How many zeroes makes it unreasonable?
I know the idea that we are alone, for a lot of atheists, sounds like creationism, and for the scientists amongst us, it offends there inductive instincts, or whatever, but so what?
The earth orbits a mediocre star at the ass end of an unremarkable galaxy. We are in every way ordinary; but we do have something that we have yet to discover elsewhere, and according to Fermi, if it is out there, we should have noticed it by now, or it, us. Maybe, maybe not.
Fact is, we can’t really say it is likely or unlikely. We don’t know much about the requirements for life, and what we do know comes from one planet, and statistically, one sample of anything is not significant enough to form any kind of pattern.
Add to this, our psychology of pattern seeking, and its easy to see how we could go wrong…
In 1877, Asaph Hall reported two moons of Mars and Giovanni Schiaparelli found the surface of Mars to be adorned with continents, seas, and channels, and a very suitable habitat for life. From the beginning of the 1880s, fictions – some more, some less scientific – involving travels to and from Mars began to be produced in great quantities, even though the observations of Percival Lowell required reassessment of Mars as a more marginal desert planet. Mars remained a favored destination for fictional travelers down to the early 1960s. Since probes revealed the absence of any indications of intelligent life on Mars, the science fictional Mars has changed to a possible future home for the human race, e.g. through terraforming.
Venus was never quite so popular as Mars, probably because it obdurately refused to display any surface features (it is covered with sulfuric acid clouds only dimly translucent to visible light), making any statement about its nature disturbingly speculative. In 1918, chemist Svante Arrhenius, deciding that Venus’ cloud cover was necessarily water, decreed in The Destinies of the Stars that “A very great part of the surface of Venus is no doubt covered with swamps” and compared Venus’ humidity to the tropical rain forests of the Congo. Venus thus became, until the early 1960s, a place for science fiction writers to place all manner of unusual life forms, from quasi-dinosaurs to intelligent carnivorous plants, and where hostile interactions with Venusian natives were reminiscent of European colonial projects in Africa and Asia. In fact Venus’s surface is hot enough to melt lead, and it is extremely hostile to life.
Venus and Mars it turns out, when you actually have the evidence, are not much at all like earth, or each other. So, just because planet earth is what it is, doesn’t mean it is common… or unique for that matter, we just don’t know.
Its like with dice, if you roll one die, most people would agree you have a 1/6 chance of the result being a 3. Even if you never played with dice, you could understand the logic of 6 sides, and the bit of physics needed to complete the story. But in the case of life, the universe and everything, logic isn’t enough, the dice after all, could be loaded (and in an entirely logical and un-designed, but unforeseen way).
So we can’t just proceed from x to y, we can’t believe everything we see, and sometimes all our instincts are wrong.
That’s why we need all three.
Emotion drives us, logic guides us, and observation and experience kicks our ass when we get it wrong.
Wanting to believe is not enough, and being a skeptic is not just about criticizing others. Real skepticism begins at home.
So that’s me, an introduction about induction.