Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Come out, come out, wherever you are

Here are science news excerpts (or rather excerpt singular, because the quotes I have added made it too long-I will post the other items later), with my comments in square brackets:

Come out, come out, wherever you are, Tim Radford, The Guardian, August 25, 2005. You never write, you never call ... on the puzzle of the absent alien … Alien life is the ultimate paradox: everybody knows what an alien looks like but no one has ever seen one. The universal neighbourhood could be crawling with citizens but none ever popped round to say hi. The extraterrestrial has spawned good books, mediocre art and bad movies; provoked serious speculation and a new science called astrobiology; and triggered a 400-year religious and philosophical debate, all without putting in a single appearance. If life exists on Earth - a nondescript planet orbiting an undistinguished star in a neither-here-nor-there galaxy in an ordinary corner of the universe - then it ought to exist on at least some other planets around a proportion of other suns in at least a selection of other galaxies. There are at least 200bn galaxies, and each may be home to 200bn stars. Even if the evolution of a sentient, intelligent, technologically aware civilisation is rare, the firmament should still be fizzing with life. But, as the physicist Enrico Fermi once asked, in a question now known as Fermi's paradox: "Where is everybody?" The alien is one of two possible answers to life's great question: is all this just for us? But if the alien exists, then alien civilisations would have begun to ask themselves the same question perhaps a billion years ago. The heavens should be ringing with long-distance calls, the galaxy buzzing with randomly directed robot probes. Forget about UFOs, Area 51 and the Men in Black: nobody so far has tried to get in touch. That hasn't stopped humans hoping for a call from Alpha Centauri or Andromeda Central. … wistful wondering about other worlds began a long time ago: before Copernicus, Galileo and others had firmly established that Earth was a planet, just like Venus or Mars. Epicurus wrote to Herodotus in 300BC proposing there could be "infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours" inhabited by "living creatures and plants and other things we see in this world". Kepler thought it highly probable that Jupiter was inhabited and Christian Wolff in the 18th century even worked out what a Jovian might look like. ... The astronomers Herschel and Bode proposed that even the sun might be inhabited, Benjamin Franklin wondered about the constitutions of the people who lived on Mercury, so close to the sun; and a Scottish clergyman called Thomas Dick in 1828 calculated there might be 2.4bn inhabited worlds within the visible universe. In 1837, he went further. … 53 billion lived on Venus and more than 8 trillion people might dwell on the rings of Saturn. … aliens continue not to visit. … if the laws of physics extend beyond Alpha Centauri, then they have not. The distances to the nearest stars are awesome, and the energy costs literally astronomical. There has been a brisk debate about why ET never phoned the Seti Institute, and why signals from Earth might never get through to Cygnus X-1 or a planet in the Pleiades. One - and some serious planetary scientists and astronomers back this theory - is that we really could be alone: that life itself is rare and intelligent life probably confined to one planet. Not so, say others: the raw materials for life as we know it are being manufactured by exploding stars and carried by icy comets all over the solar system and - since the Copernican principle says there is nothing special about the Earth - by extension, everywhere. Which brings us back to Fermi. Where is everyone? Life must be common, even if communities are light years apart. That could be all it takes to keep the neighbours from getting the message or putting a call through, say engineers such as Christopher Rose of Rutgers State University, New Jersey, in the journal Nature, and biologists such as Clive Trotman at the University of Otago in New Zealand, who did a similar set of sums in his book The Feathered Onion last year. You can't just broadcast a message saying, "Is anybody out there?" The signal dissipates as the square of the distance. By the time you get to Pluto, it's already vanishingly faint. So you send an ultra-powerful signal as a focused laser beam. How much energy would that take? How long could you afford to transmit? How many directions must you point the transmitter to cover the whole sky? (The answer to that one is 100,000 trillion). And what chance a citizen of an alien civilisation is tuned in when your one-second message whistles by at the speed of light? The arithmetic, says Trotman, predicts one-way communication with both antennae pointing at each other will happen for one second every 10 billion billion years. Assuming, that is, both civilisations are using the same wavelength. Don't wait up for ET. Use your imagination instead. … [The reference to "Epicurus" who proposed that there "could be infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours" inhabited by "living creatures and plants and other things we see in this world", is significant. As Ben Wicker points out in his book, "Moral Darwinism", Epicurus was one of the fathers of materialist philosophy, who sought to remove any reason to believe in God:
"To achieve this reductionism even more completely, Epicurus found another ingenious way to help eliminate our natural awe. It may sound, at first, a strange way to do it, but he reduced the universe by expanding it. The universe, according to Epicurus, is unlimited, both in respect to size and in respect to the `number of bodies and the magnitude of the void.' That means that, given an infinitude of time with an unlimited number of atoms in an infinite expanse of the void, there will be `an unlimited number of cosmoi [the plural of `cosmos'], and some are similar to this one and some are dissimilar ... [for] there is no obstacle to the unlimitedness of worlds.' ... in Epicurus's argument, the hypothetical infinity is useful for asserting that, since there is an unlimited number of atoms and they move eternally and combine easily, then there must be an unlimited number of worlds. This `plurality of worlds' argument is essential to Epicurean materialism, and is used again in the Enlightenment as a weapon to undermine Christianity (and continues to be used to the present day for the same purpose). Why, then, would a plurality of worlds be so useful to Epicureanism? The assertion of a plurality of worlds both rests on, and reinforces, the assumption that creation of complexity is easy, so easy that the combining and recombining of atoms creates not just one world, but many. So easy, indeed, that invoking a divine cause is completely superfluous. There must be a plurality of worlds, the materialist reasons, because an infinite universe during an infinite time using an unlimited number of atoms in perpetual motion, simply must produce a multitude of complexity out of simplicity. This belief is the origin of the `monkey-at-the-typewriter' argument, where even a monkey, randomly pecking away, can produce Shakespearean sonnets, if only it has an infinite amount of time to do it. The goal of this belief is to allow enough time and material so that chance can replace intelligence: if the monkey can replace Shakespeare, then almighty chance can replace almighty God. And so, even though there was no empirical evidence of eternal atoms, no empirical evidence that such atoms combine easily to form complex structures, no empirical evidence that the universe was infinite or the number of atoms unlimited, and no empirical evidence that there actually was a plurality of worlds, the belief in a plurality of worlds actually functioned, for Epicurus, to sustain the undemonstrated arguments on which his system itself rested. That is, the belief in a plurality of worlds reinforced the belief in the simplicity, of the atom and the case with which it could combine to create complexity. Whether for Epicurus or the modern materialist, the circular reinforcement ultimately serves to release adherents of materialism from the disturbing thought that a divine Intelligence is behind it all. Are we surprised to find that the late Carl Sagan, the chief spokesperson for materialism in the last quarter of the twentieth century, calculated that in the Milky Way galaxy alone, there would have to be one million civilizations capable of interstellar communication?" (Wiker B., "Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists," InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove IL, 2002, pp.41-42. Emphasis in original)
Astrobiologist David Darling confirms that astrobiology is a science based on and motivated by anti-Christian Epicurean materialist philosophy:
"The Rare Earth controversy has its roots in ancient Greece, where philosophers asked: Are there other worlds like ours harboring other life like us? Of course, the Greeks' notion of the cosmos was entirely different from ours. The Hellenic kosmos, in its most widely accepted form, placed the Earth at the center of a series of concentric revolving spheres to which the Moon, Sun, planets and stars were fixed like little lights. There was no conception of stars as huge balls of hot gas, or of orbiting extrasolar worlds. This single world geocentric kosmos, in which mankind found itself at the focus, was the only one of which we could be directly aware. To Aristotle, Plato and their followers, it was the only one possible, because more than one kosmoi didn't mesh logically with their other beliefs. The rival Greek school of atomism, however, disagreed. In this vision of nature, all things originated through the chance coming together of little bits of matter in endless combinations in an eternal, infinite void. Worlds and beings of every description were actually predicted, as Epicurus explained in his Letter to Herodotus, `[T]here are infinite worlds, both like and unlike this world of ours ... we must believe that in all worlds there are living creatures and plants and other things we see in this world.' Yet these `infinite worlds' with their livings things-these other kosmoi-weren't accessible in any way. Atomists didn't think of them as being somewhere that one might, even in principle, travel to, like the planets of other stars. Instead they were separate and self-contained universes, each with an inhabited Earth at its heart. More than a thousand years later, Aristotle's scheme became the cosmology of choice in Europe- approved by the Church of Rome and woven into medieval Christian teachings. A single inhabited world sat well with the doctrine of incarnation and redemption, but multiple Earths and multiple sentient races did not. For the inhabitants of these worlds to receive salvation, Jesus would have to be born and sacrificed on every one of them. Just as seriously, the atomist cosmos called into question the unique relationship between God and Man that, according to some interpretations, the Bible implied. As long as the Earth was the physical hub of creation, it was easy to believe it was unique. But when Copernicus began the transformation of our cosmic perspective by putting the Sun at the center of the solar system, suddenly our planet began to seem much less privileged. Five hundred years later, the full extent of our mediocrity has become startlingly clear. The Sun is just another star, one of many billions, within one of many billions of galaxies. And the Earth, it seems more and more evident, is one among a host of planets far outnumbering all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the world." (Darling D.J., "Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology," Basic Books: New York NY, 2001, pp.92-94)
But as Gonzales and Richards note, the expectations of scientists like Kepler and Lowell, that the Moon and planets of our Solar System were inhabited (which sounds bizarre now), was a straight prediction of the Epicurean materialist `principle of mediocrity' (aka. the `Copernican principle):
"Sometime in the twentieth century, however, Einstein's cosmological principle came to be identified with a subtly different idea, the Copernican Principle, also known as the Principle of Mediocrity or Principle of Indifference. In its modest form, the Copernican Principle states that we should assume that there's nothing special or exceptional about the time or place of Earth in the cosmos. This assertion has a certain plausibility, since without any other information, it's reasonable to suppose that our location is a random sample of the universe as a whole. And there will obviously be more ordinary than extraordinary places to be. Besides, it need not be merely an assumption, since one can formulate it as a scientific hypothesis, make predictions, and compare those predictions with the evidence. It has a closely related but more expansive philosophical or metaphysical expression, however, which says, `We're not here for a purpose, and the cosmos isn't arranged with us in mind. Our metaphysical status is as insignificant as our astronomical location.' Metaphysically, this denial of purpose is usually accompanied by naturalism, the view that the (impersonal) material world is all there is and that it exists for no purpose. Although a minority opinion throughout most of Western history, this view has had adherents from the very beginning. In its early pre-Socratic form among Epicureans and others, it amounted to a conviction that the apparent order of the universe emerged from an infinite and eternal chaos, without purpose or design. Given enough time, space, and matter, these thinkers supposed, anything that can happen, will. ... Still, only in the modern age has such a denial of design and purpose in nature enjoyed official majority status among the cultural elite. ... What makes natural science admirable is that, at its best, it provides us with a way to publicly test what we believe against the natural world, while allowing us to overlook our individual motives and opinions. One way to do this is to consider the empirical consequences of our assumptions. What, for instance, would count against the Copernican Principle? .... It's fairly easy to imagine what observations would count against it: If human beings, Earth, or our immediate environment were highly unusual or unique in some important ways, then we would have reason to doubt it. If the cosmos seemed specially fitted for our existence, or the existence of life, then that would also count against it. Conversely, evidence that confirmed the mediocrity of our surroundings, or the cosmos itself, would count in its favor. ... Once considered, it's fairly easy to produce some general predictions of the Copernican Principle. In practice, these are usually unstated expectations rather than actual predictions. This has the effect of protecting them from critical scrutiny-all the more reason, then, to make them explicit. We all take some of its implicit predictions for granted. For instance, we think that the same laws of physics and chemistry govern both the heavens and the Earth. We're reasonable in concluding that nature's laws are uniform, so that the law of gravity doesn't differ on Earth and the Moon, or on Mondays. Moreover, there are lots of stars and galaxies, and we can expect that many of those stars will have planets circling them. In at least these ways, then, Earth is not unique. This is the firm legacy of the Copernican Revolution. If we stopped here, the Copernican Principle might appear to be well founded. But on closer examination, many of the important predictions turn out to be false or at least questionable. Here let's consider the Copernican Principle in its natural jurisdiction: astronomy. It manifests itself in cosmology, physics, and biology as well. But we'll hold those issues for the following chapters. Because astronomy considers objects as small as meteorites and individual planets, and as large as clusters of galaxies, the Copernican Principle has generated the most predictions in this field. Let's scrutinize the major ones in turn. Appropriately, we'll begin with one of the earliest: Prediction 1: Earth, while it has a number of life-permitting properties, isn't exceptionally suited for life in our Solar System. Other planets in the Solar System probably harbor life as well. This was one of the earliest expectations of modern astronomers. When only scant evidence was available, many respected scientists expected to find intelligent life on other planets in our Solar System. Kepler famously conjectured that the structures on the Moon were built by intelligent beings. More recently, Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910) described Martian `channels,' which to Percival Lowell (1855-1916) suggested the existence of a Martian civilization. Translating, or mistranslating, Schiaparelli's `channels' as `canals,' Lowell founded his own observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, and dedicated his time to gathering evidence to support his belief. Lowell is important because of his influence and because he explicitly linked the idea of Martian life to his opposition to anthropocentrism, thus embodying the spirit of the Copernican Principle: `That we are the sum and substance of the capabilities of the cosmos is something so preposterous as to be exquisitely comic.... [Man] merely typifies in an imperfect way what is going on elsewhere, and what, to a mathematical certainty, is in some corners of the cosmos indefinitely excelled.' According to Carl Sagan, Lowell's enthusiasm `turned on all the eight- year-olds who came after him, and who eventually turned into the present generation of astronomers.'' But the Mariner, Viking, and Sojourner missions to Mars revealed a barren and inhospitable environment, and dampened enthusiasm for Martian civilizations. Yet the belief that Mars once harbored life lives on, most recently in the excited announcement of the discovery of microscopic magnetite crystals in the Martian meteorite ALH84001 and the discovery of vast water-ice fields under the Martian surface. Most now recognize that the other planets in the Solar System are not good candidates for life. ... however, the expectation that extraterrestrial life exists in our Solar System has not disappeared; it has shifted to a few outlying moons orbiting Jupiter and Saturn, such as Europa, where liquid water may exist below the surface. Although we have no evidence for life of any sort in the outer reaches of the Solar System and virtually no one expects to find intelligent life there, speculations abound for the type of exotic creatures that may dwell in the deep, icy crevices of Europa. Much of this optimism ignores the myriad ways in which Earth is exceptionally well suited for the existence, and persistence, of life .... No other place in our Solar System comes close to providing the astronomical and geophysical properties that make Earth habitable. If anything, the other planets show how narrow the conditions for habitability are, even for planets in an inhabited Solar System. The basic pattern is worth repeating, because it's so often forgotten or ignored. From the seventeenth to the twentieth century, many expected to find intelligent, even superior life on the Moon, Mars, and other planets in the Solar System. This expectation required direct contrary evidence to suppress it. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, despite PR blitzes from Martian-life enthusiasts, the search has moved from the planets to a few obscure outlying moons. At the same time, the aspirations have been substantially downgraded. No one today expects to find advanced or intelligent life elsewhere in the Solar System. ET advocates now argue that finding the Europan equivalent of slime mold would be just as significant as finding intelligent Martians. Add to this pattern the evidence of ... some of the planets once said to diminish Earth's status now seem to be the guardians of her habitability. Finally, recall that these rare properties ... have been crucial in a diverse array of scientific discoveries here on Earth, from the nature of gravity to the internal structure of our planet revealed by seismic activity. Surely these facts about Earth's superiority both for living and observing should count as a sobering contradiction of the Copernican Principle." (Gonzalez G. & Richards J.W., "The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed For Discovery," Regnery: Washington DC, 2004, pp.248-253. Emphasis in original)
And moreover, a prediction that has had to retreat as science discovered: 1) how complex life is; 2) how difficult would be a naturalistic origin of life; 3) how fine-tuned is the Earth for life; and 4) how rare the Earth is. Yet despite the evidence running directly opposite to Epicurean materialist predictions, Darling reports that the materialist faith is undiminished, and "scientists the world over have reached a consensus" that "In all of this vast and ancient cosmos ... Almost beyond doubt, life exists elsewhere" (my emphasis):
"Something extraordinary has happened over the past decade. Without any fanfare, scientists the world over have reached a consensus on one of the most profound questions ever to challenge the human mind: Are we alone? In all of this vast and ancient cosmos, is life confined to Earth? No. Almost beyond doubt, life exists elsewhere. Probably, in microbial form at least, it is widespread. And more likely than not, we will find incontestable evidence of it quite soon-perhaps within the next ten to twenty years. These are the core elements of the remarkable new accord that is now routinely accepted by researchers across a spectrum of disciplines." (Darling D.J., "Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology," Basic Books: New York NY, 2001, p.xi. Emphasis in original)
Simpson once criticised astrobiology (under its former name, "exobiology") as "this `science' has yet to demonstrate that its subject matter exists!":
"Our major space agency, NASA, has a `space bioscience' program. Biologists meeting under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences have agreed that their `first and ... foremost [task in space science] is the search for extraterrestrial life' (Hess et al., 1962). The existence of this movement is as familiar to the reader of the newspapers as to those of technical publications. There is even increasing recognition of a new science of extraterrestrial life, some times called exobiology-a curious development in view of the fact that this `science' has yet to demonstrate that its subject matter exists!" (Simpson G.G., "The Nonprevalence of Humanoids," in "This View of Life: The World of an Evolutionist," Harcourt, Brace & World: New York NY, 1964, pp.253-254. Emphasis in original).
Now the calculations of Rose and Trotman mentioned in his article make it clear that SETI is a waste of time. So unless astrobiology discovers evidence of life on Mars, that is so radically different that it could not have come from Earth (or vice-versa), which according to my holiday reading of Simon Conway Morris' "Life's Solutions" (2003) seems highly unlikely, then this aspect of the Epicurean materialist project at least, will remain a `science' (to use Simpson's quotes) sustained, as it has been for over 2,000 years, by materialist philosophy!]

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol)
"Problems of Evolution"

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