Michael Crichton and SETI

Michael Crichton, as you will have heard by now, is dead. Unfortunately.

The Wall Street Journal today reprinted an excerpt of a speech Crichton gave called “Aliens Cause Global Warming.” Regular readers of this blog will know Crichton’s opinion on the certainty of man-made catastrophic climate change. Just a reminder (from his speech):

No longer are [climate] models judged by how well they reproduce data from the real world — increasingly, models provide the data. As if they were themselves a reality. And indeed they are, when we are projecting forward. There can be no observational data about the year 2100. There are only model runs.

This fascination with computer models is something I understand very well. Richard Feynman called it a disease. I fear he is right. Because only if you spend a lot of time looking at a computer screen can you arrive at the complex point where the global warming debate now stands.

Nobody believes a weather prediction twelve hours ahead. Now we’re asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future? And make financial investments based on that prediction? Has everybody lost their minds?

To explain why he was flummoxed, Crichton first made a point about SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. A lot of people in that field make reference to the Drake Equation, originated by SETI big cheese Frank Drake. That equation is

  • N = R * x fp x ne x fl x fi x f X L
  • .

We want to solve for N, which is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which intelligent communication is possible. N depends on the rate of star formation R *, the fraction fp of those stars that have planets, and all those other things you can look up.

Crichton says:

This serious-looking equation gave SETI a serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses — just so we’re clear — are merely expressions of prejudice. Nor can there be “informed guesses.” If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It’s simply prejudice.

The Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science. I take the hard view that science involves the creation of testable hypotheses. The Drake equation cannot be tested and therefore SETI is not science. SETI is unquestionably a religion.

The fact that the Drake equation was not greeted with screams of outrage — similar to the screams of outrage that greet each Creationist new claim, for example — meant that now there was a crack in the door, a loosening of the definition of what constituted legitimate scientific procedure. And soon enough, pernicious garbage began to squeeze through the cracks.

I agree with him that none of these terms can be known exactly, or even sufficiently precisely to calculate a quantitative answer for N. I also agree that the pursuit of N can take on religious qualities.

But I can’t agree that SETI itself is worthless, nor can I agree that interest in it loosens the definition of “legitimate scientific procedure.” SETI is not just the Drake equation.

Now, I will not attempt to defend even one procedure that SETI workers use, nor will I comment on any statement made by any of its proponents. I cannot say, for example, that searching nearby stars for signals in the hydrogen line makes any sense. But I will say SETI is not the same as religion

I am interested in saying something about the probability of this proposition:

    S = “Intelligent/sentient life besides that on planet Earth exists”

Because we must calculate the probability of S is conditional on some evidence, I offer this blog. Yes, because this blog—because you and I—exist, it means that the universe is set up to allow at least one species of sentient life. Therefore, it is rational to believe that the probability of S given this evidence is greater than 0. I have no idea how much larger than 0 it is. If you are a fan of the reasoning behind the Fermi Paradox, you might say that the probability, while non-zero, is trivially small.

The Fermi Paradox basically says that, since the universe is about 10-13 billion years old, and the one sentient-life example we know of only took about 4-5 billion years to evolve, and since there are plenty of stars and galaxies, there should be sentient life all over the place. That is, SETI should be easy, and since it isn’t, since we haven’t made contact yet, this implies that we are the first or only sentient species. There are obvious subtleties to each stage of that argument that I glossed over, but that’s the gist.

The Fermi Paradox is also conditional on information not articulated. One obvious item is the proposition that all sufficiently advanced civilizations would want to make contact with us. Not just with other species, but with us. That’s a mighty big supposiion. Another hidden assumption is that we ourselves are sufficiently advanced enough to detect messages aimed at us, or have the ability to intercept messages meant for other beings. Pretty big guess, especially with the knowledge that the more efficient a message gets, the more it looks to an outside like noise (basic information theory; deep ties with probability and statistics there), and so civilizations more advanced than us might have communications which are impenetrable to us.

That argument cuts both ways, of course. If the messages are too complex, any search for them is fruitless. And, well, you get the idea. It’s complicated, so much so that it is not an open and shut judgment that SETI is valueless.

Though we have to be careful. Wishcasting is always a danger here, as everywhere. A lot of people—me included—want S to be true and this naturally clouds our judgment.

32 Comments

  1. As for Michael Crichton, a guy who certainly believed in or wrote about remote possibilities, – I will miss his scathing skepticism which is nicely summarized in the first paragraph cited above. May he rest in peace. (I was going to make a crack about his five wives … but I will forbear it).

  2. I admit, as a lifelong Trekkie, to earnestly wanting there to be sentient life outside of the Earth. I really really want to believe that we will one day make “first contact” with the real-life equivalent of Vulcans. Borg not so much.

    I worry, however, that by the time we find the “fingerprint,” we will be too late to even do anything. Even a message traveling at near-c or c speeds would take a long time to make the rounds. And assuming we’re willing to stretch our imaginations and allow for some kind of “subspace” utilization, then we won’t find it with SETI anyway (the are we advanced or not issue).

    Bah.

    By the way,we need to seriously consider the possibility that other species have found the Earth, watched “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” and moved on after deciding that sentience is not the only factor necessary for wanting to make contact.

  3. I agree that though the Drake equation is useless, SETI is a valid intellectual inquiry. Crichton’s point applied to global warming remains valid: that unfalsifiable exercises such as Drake and climate models constutute pseudo science.

    We remember Michael mostly for his creative stories about science run awry. But he was much more than that. He was summa cum laude Harvard as an undergraduaduate in anthropology, then graduated Harvard Medical School. He became an advocate for a legitimate scientific approach in dealing with environmental problems, while criticizing environmentalism’s religious aspects. He rejected the idea that his lack of practicing credentials meant his criticisms of climate science could be dismissed out of hand. Someone with less brains could very well have made a fool out of himself, but his thoughtfulness and incisiveness earned respect, from those predisposed to listen.

    We will miss him.

  4. The Fermi paradox always struck me as a little off. Yes. It took ~ 4 billion years for life to evolve on earth but before that

    – The universe had to cool to allow atoms (almost entirely hydrogen atoms) to form;
    – A star had to form;
    – That star had to cook up heavier atoms in the right amounts (or at least minimal amounts) then die in a (super?) nova;
    – A new star had to form with a solar system;
    – A planet had to form; and
    – Then the 4 billion year clock starts ticking.

    That’s assuming that the heavy atom bake cycle can happen with one star.

    Since I don’t know much about cosmology I’m comfortable believing that the time preceding the 4 billion years on earth can take up 6-8 billion years 🙂 Which makes the paradox less distressing to me.

  5. ok… well i believe that there are aliens in the universe. as they said in the movie Contact that it would be pretty selfish to think we were the only ones in this universe. Also, just because we have not heard from any aliens does not mean they don’t exist. they might be too far away to hear us or they might not have the technology or they might not understand us or they might not want contact with us. we need to build star ships like in star trek and get warp drive. 🙂

    i love star trek too and really want there to be Klingons in the universe. i really think Klingons are sweet and awsome and i would hate the universe if someone told me klingons did not exist. 😉

    i also think we should have a government similar to that in the books and movies Dune. it is awesome. although the thing we are addicted to is oil and not spice. but if we developed that government things would move alot smoother. sure, there would be more back stabbing, but it would be overall better.

    ps. i’m 14. and i love star trek and science fiction in general.

  6. Joe Triscari –

    That isn’t exactly my understanding of the Fermi Paradox. The paradox doesn’t conclude that there is no possibility that (intelligent) life will ever evolve anywhere else, just that there’s none out there to find now. At least, that’s how I read it. So I think your observation that we may be ahead by a billion years or so is compatible with it.

  7. Meimie
    Clingons could be mean to fairies! They must be kept in check.

    Without the oil, unfortunately, we are going nowhere fast. Space-age plastics come from the petro-chemical industry. We could use bamboo I suppose; it’s light and strong and fast growing. (but the poor Panda bears!)

  8. Carl Sagan used to say “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” I think he said this in the context of SETI’s failure to find any extraterrestrials. When I first became aware of this as a budding young scientist it seemed like a sage response to criticism. Today, one often hears people, including scientists, repeating this maxim in various contexts as if it were sufficient to rebut criticism of some research project or other that failed to find some expected or hypothesized effect or phenomenon.

    Somewhere along the way, maybe in my mid-to-late-20s or so, it occurred to me that Sagan’s statement is not correct. If you’ve looked and come up empty, or if you have reason to believe a phenomenon, if it really exists, should show up on its own, then absence of evidence is evidence of absence in the sense that it makes the proposition (e.g., “intelligent ETs exist”) less likely to be true.

    I’m writing to you about this, because when I read your blog on Crighton and SETI this evening, it hit me that this is a case of Bayesian “plausible reasoning”, though, not being explicitly aware of the Bayesian approach to scientific explanation until the last few years, I didn’t realize it until now.

    Looking around the galaxy for radio signals representative of intelligent ETs and not finding any does indeed make it less likely that such ETs exist. Personally, I don’t think it makes it all that much less likely, simply because in the stupendous fullness of time and space, there are probably many ways for intelligent ETs to exist without us detecting them during a few years of somewhat desultory rummaging around the galactic radio spectrum. In other words, we haven’t looked that deeply, there’s a huge amount of time and space to cover, and it only takes one other intelligent ET species to make the proposition true.

    The fact that the statement “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” seems like sage scientific reasoning to many scientists is, I speculate, evidence that most scientists are Popperians and frequentists (at least implicitly, if not explicitly) rather than Bayesians and plausible reasoners. Based on my experience around many scientists over the years, I’d say that, although most scientists don’t spend much time thinking about philosophy, the scientific zeitgeist is Popperian–theories are tested and either falsified or confirmed. Most scientists absorb this worldview during their training. Perhaps that’s changing now as Bayesianism catches on.

    I would speculate that in Sagan’s case he was defending against the implicitly Popperian claim that SETI’s failure to find ETs represented a falsification of the claim. In that sense his maxim is correct–absence of a evidence for ETs does not prove they do not exist. But I think the failure of scientists to explicitly distinguish between categorical evidence and probabilistic evidence has led to great confusion and misinterpretation of what “absence of evidence…” actually implies.

  9. A lot could happen in the next billion years or even tomorrow. Funny how that works. What we do not know, we do not know.

  10. Interesting that Crichton mentioned Richard Feynman. Being trained in Physics, I have a lot of respect for Feynman. Had he not been on the Rogers Commission (Challenger Space Shuttle), we might have never found out about the o-ring failure. Feynman actually went to the various contractors and talked to the line engineers to find out where the problems were. This was late in his career and he may have had less worries about grant money. While there were studies provided by NASA management that said the failure rate of a shuttle was very low, the engineers were guessing it was more like 3 in 100 launches. Again, politics and PhD level studies overrode common sense and people lost their lives. Not much was learned because more recently Columbia was lost to a piece of foam which according to management could not harm the shuttle until the engineers proved it with experiments.

    The nuclear power industry is also plagued by these reliability studies. If I remember correctly, there is one poster on Climate Audit that is always saying that climate models should use the same engineering standards as nuclear reactor control software codes and then we could perhaps evaluate them correctly. I don’t think so. These reactor studies appear to assume that the control system will always react correctly, but they failed to take into account the human factor. The Three Mile Island meltdown was caused by a human operator shutting down the cooling system (there is some debate that if this had not been done the reactor room would have filled up with water due to a stuck valve and would have caused other problems). The Chernobyl explosion was caused by human operators playing with the reactor, running it to near critical to see how far they could push it before it went boom.

    Concerning ETs, I believe they may exist but proving it by looking at radio signals may not be possible. Look at all the advances in radio over the last 100 years from AM to FM to frequency hopping to digital packets. The way that an ET would modulate the signal with information may be too advanced for our current level of understanding. While I don’t get too much into conspiracy theories, if an ET has visited us I believe the government would hide it for the same reasons the Catholic Church tried to hide Galileo’s ideas. But then again, could they really keep it a secret?

  11. Mr Briggs et al, if you go to his personal website, here, you are able to read all of his most important speeches, and many of them are about global warming, environmentalism (he even speaks about McIntyre), and he also deals with gene patenting,etc. Very thought provoking speeches. I think though that he appeals too much for ignorance. To say that the world is “complex” and practically unintelligent is too little, explains nothing. But I can see his point if I put Mr Briggs glasses, as in “people are too sure of themselves”.

    I also agree that his rant against SETI is a bit misguided. I think that these so called “mistakes” aren’t mistakes at all, and are the first steps on our ability to see other planets and stars in a different light. SETI continues today and with greater abilities, far beyond the finding of “intelligence”, but as finding other interesting planets and solar systems. The findings are incredible and mind blowing. If only for that, it has produced.

    But I agree with Chricton with his rant against Nuclear Winter. I would point out that NW as a scientific theory that tried to warn humanity of the dangers of nuclear war has a good purpose, but if that purpose superimposed upon science itself, and if scientists themselves were “too sure of themselves” when calling NW as a sure consequence of nuclear war, then Chricton is right by calling it a philosophical blunder that influenced the Global Warming scare nowadays.

    It’s interesting to note that one of the peers of Sagan who wrote the paper is Paul Erlich, the nut who wrote “Limits of Growth” and bludered about population bombs and resources depletion…. in the eighties.

  12. PS: he also has some speeches in google video. Look them up. (I am becoming addicted to google video and it’s endless amount of documentaries and speeches!)

  13. “Absence of evidence” self evidently implies nothing. It needs a qualifier.
    The Sagan quote is a statement of the obvious. A reworking of ‘Just because I can’t find it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there’.
    Such a statement is likely from anyone who wants ‘it’ to be there, hence the need to defend ‘its’ presence.
    Now don’t misunderstand here, and I speak to Luis, JH, Briggs, Meimie and anyone who loves Star Trek or the thought of little green men, is this not similar to saying “just because we haven’t found God, doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist”?
    I reckon you’ll be saying ‘no!’ ET is based on scientific evidence and probability given infinite size, time and unknowns. I am amused that many who (and I mean no-one in particular) desperately want to see evidence for ET’s are often the same individuals, the very same, who see the existence of a creator as unworkable or unlikely.
    I really don’t want to debate God again, but that is where I feel Michael Crichton was going with his religion comment.
    Just because we can’t find evidence of any sort…We’re not going to stop looking and with infinity and unknowns we are justified to continue. We haven’t looked everywhere yet.
    Note: I would be the last one saying they should stop looking.
    Like many profound statements, they are profound by association with the utterer.
    If a little old lady said,
    “Just because they haven’t seen fairies, doesn’t mean they don’t exist” She would be laughed at!
    Maybe if she looked up to the sky for the fairies rather than towards the bottom of her garden, she would be taken seriously. In her garden, she can’t invoke ‘infinity’. Of course the fairies could be infinitesimally small but that still wouldn’t wash.
    Here’s why:
    In science fiction, it matters how an object is transmuted into another object with reference toSwash plate trunnion nut socket and sprocket flange. In a fairy story, this is of no matter, a mere technicality, no relevance to the story itself.

    I haven’t seen one science fiction film, that hasn’t resembled a fairy story set in space with butch characters instead of chiffon and sparkles…
    . The Devil, in ’Event Horizon’, ‘Star Wars’ has a Princess in a long flowing dress, loveable droids (like the animal helpers in Sleeping Beauty); ‘Star Trek’ had teleportation (a technique used in Cinderella by the fairy Godmother(and mini skirts to suit the audience);
    But this is all okay, for it could happen, and there is such a thing as Krypton after all.
    Now, when they make a time machine or a teleporter using the local worm hole, they will probably be able to turn a pumpkin into a coach! If for no other reason than they can.

  14. Well, Joy,I don’t really have any feelings whatsoever regarding ETs – despite my infancy “trekkiysm”, because Fermi’s paradox really hit me not as something that destroyed my hopes that we could ever find them, but as something that entirely blew out the scales of the search, and if we couldn’t even see if there was life in this very solar system for sure, how could we do that in the vicinity of say, 1000 light years? I figured it would mean that at least in my lifespan I wouldn’t see any green man, and perhaps not for thorusands of years, and probably not ever.

    Now, the main difference between ET’s and fairy tales is something worth discussing. Fairy Tales were a myth created by people that said that they saw such beautiful creatures. I don’t know the history of it, but that’s probably the main story. ET’s have also that same side. There are a lot of people that were “hooked” by ETs. That’s equally junk. Not true. And the catch phrase “If you didn’t saw them, doesn’t mean they aren’t here”, doesn’t quite cut it, now does it? It is very unlikely that ETs came to this planet and forgot to leave undeniable footprints. It’s very much more likely that people are susceptible to false positives, myths and be gullible at the fantastic, be it fairy tales or ETs.

    But that doesn’t mean ETs don’t exist somewhere in the universe. The reason for their existence is not a myth, like fairy tales, but rather the logical assumption that if life evolved in Earth, it too could have evolved in other planets, all else being equal. Of course, if you happen to believe that the Earth is 6000 years old and is somewhat special because it’s the center of God’s creation, then ETs will sound very unprobable. It depends upon the greater assumptions that you make.

    Because I think that’s completely false, and the universe is billions of years old, containing hundreds of billion billion galaxies, with 100 billion stars each one, it could be quite possible that at least one of such star contained intelligent life. Why not, if the laws of physics don’t stop it? I can’t really say the same about fairies, now can I?

    I haven’t seen one science fiction film, that hasn’t resembled a fairy story set in space with butch characters instead of chiffon and sparkles…
    . The Devil, in ’Event Horizon’, ‘Star Wars’ has a Princess in a long flowing dress, loveable droids (like the animal helpers in Sleeping Beauty); ‘Star Trek’ had teleportation (a technique used in Cinderella by the fairy Godmother(and mini skirts to suit the audience);

    Clearly, the writer of Event Horizon is influenced somewhat in the judeo-christian tale. It’s not exactly science fiction, but rather a combination between 2001 and the exorcist. Star Wars is influenced by Dune, which changed the science tune in the sci-fi towards a much more “Space Opera” thematic, with princes and princesses, giving an akward mix between historic movies and a highly futuristic approach.

    Despite all that, I don’t see the problem of Droids, or even teleportation. Those are fair science fiction thematics: to wonder about the future technological possibilities. Teleportation is possible. It has been demonstrated in a lab, but scientists were only able to teleport photons a few hundreds of meters. Will it ever be possible to teleport people? I don’t know, but no one does. Science Fiction deals with possibilities, not accepted truths.

    This has nothing to do with God. Or all. Either way, it’s all hypothesis. I don’t really pray to the “future teleport of Rendhi V” or something as idiotic as that, I don’t pray to the hidden ET from sector 51, or whatever. I just look upon the shores of the cosmos, and like my predecessors who once set sail to discover the unknown lands of the Earth, I also dream of voyaging through the stars. Well, at least when I was a child. I’ve kind of lowered my expectations a bit ;).

  15. Luis:
    This way be dragons!
    Just as you, Luis, have had to lower your expectations, so I too have lowered mine, perhaps just not as low. I’ve given up on Prince Andrew, for example. Much of your argument, although beautifully written seems to be saying ET’s are better than fairies. I had these sort of discussions with my younger brother. .
    Now I don’t know what the Fermi paradox is but if I am reading the above comments correctly, it is yet another statement of the obvious dressed up as a revelation.

    “the catch phrase “If you didn’t saw them, doesn’t mean they aren’t here”, doesn’t quite cut it,”
    Taken as a statement like this, I think it does cut it. The statement is absolutely true. I can’t see a problem with it.

    “It is very unlikely that ETs came to this planet and forgot to leave undeniable footprints. It’s very much more likely that people are susceptible to false positives, myths and be gullible at the fantastic, be it fairy tales or ETs.”
    There’s nothing wrong with that statement either. However the argument is not about what is likely but what is possible. Since we don’t know the future, we cannot say for sure what is possible.

    “But that doesn’t mean ETs don’t exist somewhere in the universe.”
    I do not argue that there are no ET’s. Whilst I hate Star Trek, I love the thought of little green men. Before you know it you have to start thinking about the assumption that the Universe is infinite. As mentioned before, there has to be no end by our own logic, but our own logic could also be wrong. I.e. the whole underlying infinity and expansion theory could be wrong. In which case we are no longer free to invoke all sorts of possibilities of infinite chances etc. Apparently we must now speak of the ‘Big Bounce’, so who kicked the ball?

    “the logical assumption that if life evolved in Earth, it too could have evolved in other planets, all else being equal. Of course, if you happen to believe that the Earth is 6000 years old and is somewhat special because it’s the center of God’s creation, then ETs will sound very unprobable. It depends upon the greater assumptions that you make.”

    Luis, this logic requires a fixed idea about what a believer in a creator might believe. There are an infinite number of beliefs. This we know must be true. We know this more than the truth of the infinite size of space.

    “Because I think that’s completely false…”
    Because you know one belief is false, should you throw the whole creator idea out? Just a thought.

    “and the universe is billions of years old, containing hundreds of billion billion galaxies, with 100 billion stars each one, it could be quite possible that at least one of such star contained intelligent life. Why not, if the laws of physics don’t stop it? I can’t really say the same about fairies, now can I?”
    Technically speaking I think you can say that fairies are unlikely to exist but you can’t say that they are impossible…somewhere in the universe, maybe on the neighbouring planet to the little green men.

    “Despite all that, I don’t see the problem of Droids, or even teleportation. Those are fair science fiction thematics:”
    I see nothing wrong with them either. I personally want my own R2D2. Don’t forget though that the robots are sentient in that example, this is also an unlikely (in my opinion will never happen) prospect. As I said before, when they can do that, together with the teleportation, they can make a fairy, they won’t have to look for them! But They’ll have to use prettier materials.

    “This has nothing to do with God. Or all. Either way, it’s all hypothesis. I don’t pray to..”
    No, but can you accept the notion that in some ways you tend to need to know how something is done, step by step, in order to believe that it can happen? The problem is, we don’t know why many things happen, no one can explain and yet we have no choice to accept that they do. No one can tell you what radio waves, magnetism, for example, are. They can quote their effect, even write equations that describe them but that’s it. The equations describe them only slightly better than X described Kermit.

  16. Joy, I don’t know if the universe is infinite. We do know that the observable one is quite enormous, and the number of galaxies I’ve mentioned are the visible ones. We also know there is space beyond the horizon of light.

    The Fermi paradox is quite simple. Fermi postulated that if intelligence ever came to be in a galaxy, then one could easily say (with some maths involved) that within one million years since the beginning of that civilization in a given planet, it could easily colonize the entire galaxy. Given that the galaxy is way over 5 billion years, it’s way more probable that either we are the first civilization to appear, or that the galaxy is already colonized and thus planet Earth should have been already colonized by another civilization. It’s very unprobable that we are at roughly the same developing stage of another civilization.

    There’s nothing wrong with that statement either. However the argument is not about what is likely but what is possible. Since we don’t know the future, we cannot say for sure what is possible.

    That, dear Joy, is clearly what a frequentist would say, given what I’ve learned so far about that particular subject. I wouldn’t expect you, a bayesian apologist, to hit me with that technicality :). But, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Here, you say:

    Luis, this logic requires a fixed idea about what a believer in a creator might believe. There are an infinite number of beliefs. This we know must be true.

    Well, technically, there cannot be an infinite number of beliefs, because there wasn’t an infinite amount of people and time for those beliefs to exist in such a big number. Joking aside, I must say that I was only making the point that it all depends upon your assumptions.

    Because you know one belief is false, should you throw the whole creator idea out?

    Well, you know what I think about that, but that’s beyond what I was talking about. I was merely mentioning the 6000 year figure. If one believes that the universe is only of this age, Fermi paradox is rendered as ridiculous, for example.

    Technically speaking I think you can say that fairies are unlikely to exist but you can’t say that they are impossible…somewhere in the universe, maybe on the neighbouring planet to the little green men.

    I don’t know. I think that a strong case could be made that the fairies as we think of them are impossible to exist anywhere in the universe, at least within the observable one. It’s not technically exactly correct (one can even quote the Quantum Mechanics to say that everything as everything is possible, but that’s anedoctical), but it’s correct with a 99.9999etc% chance.

    The problem is, we don’t know why many things happen

    We know enough to debunk many fairy tales, and to induce that most probably all the other myths are false. We don’t know the why, that’s accurate. Quantum Mechanics is mind-blowing. If we would be machines that tried to death to take out meaning out of it, we would short-circuit ourselves, it’s an insane theory. But that doesn’t bode well to easy, confortable and simple philosophies, but rather are a big hint that the universe is way more queer and has a lot more subtleties than anyone imagines. Yet, at least.

    Does it leave space for God? Well, sure. Does it leave space for a God as imagined by the mainstream religions? No. A deist god? Perhaps. But as the greek once said:

    “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?”

  17. Luis, Joy,

    National Treasure (here in the States) Martin Gardner has wrote a summary of this topic in November’s New Criterion here. You have to be a subscriber to read the full review, but it’s well worth it. The journal, I mean, as is Gardner’s review.

    Luis, in particular he outlines the answers to the questions asked in your poem.

  18. It seems the Fermi thing is roughly what I thought and thank you for explaining it to me.
    “…is not about what is likely but what is possible. Since we don’t know the future, we cannot say for sure what is possible….
    That, dear Joy, is clearly what a frequentist would say, given what I’ve learned so far about that particular subject. I wouldn’t expect you, a bayesian apologist, to hit me with that technicality :).”
    Well I still can’t see what’s wrong with that statement. If that makes me no bayesian, then so be it, it is a Joyesian statement.
    The future is unknowable. So fairies cannot be ruled out.

    “Well, technically, there cannot be an infinite number of beliefs, because there wasn’t an infinite amount of people and time for those beliefs to exist in such a big number.” I think you are right there! How about if I tweaked my statement and said,
    “There must be an infinite number of possible beliefs, just as there are an infinite number of numbers”?

    “I think that a strong case could be made that the fairies as we think of them are impossible to exist anywhere in the universe, at least within the observable one. It’s not technically exactly correct (one can even quote the Quantum Mechanics to say that everything as everything is possible, but that’s anedoctical), but it’s correct with a 99.9999etc% chance.”
    I don’t think you can say that Luis, 99.99recurring or whatever % chance. I have a sneaky feeling you made that up. Anyway, my teacher told me that that is way too certain! I’ll let you say that a strong case could be made though, absolutely.

    “”We know enough to debunk many fairy tales, and to induce that most probably all the other myths are false.” Well debunking fairy tales is a cruel business. It is painful for me to have to say it but Sleeping Beauty probably never did fall asleep for one hundred years and Cinderella probably didn’t ride in a coach made from a pumpkin. However, I stick by my statement that if, one day, man invents transmutation then the fairy story will have to be undebunked!
    Sound unlikely? Well no more unlikely than what happens on the space ship enterprise most days. Since you are happy with the idea of sentient droids and teleportation then you can’t throw out my vision of what consequences there would be from such advances in science. Geeks beware! You could find yourself in the middle of a fairy story, complete with glitter and chiffon, without a notion of how to escape because the fairies cast a spell! You think the enigma guys had it bad, you haven’t seen anything, and I’m not just talking prime numbers.

    “that doesn’t bode well to easy, confortable and simple philosophies, but rather are a big hint that the universe is way more queer and has a lot more subtleties than anyone imagines. Yet, at least.”
    Yes, we know it will surprise us but we don’t know how, when, where, why or with what witch.

    Does it leave space for God? Well, sure. Does it leave space for a God as imagined by the mainstream religions? No. A deist god?
    I’ll wager God, isn’t an ‘ist’ of any kind, he would not lower himself.
    I haven’t looked at the link yet, but I will.

  19. The universe is a big place, maybe the biggest. There are billions of billions of stars. A good few of the local ones have been shown to have planets, and the larger the sample of course the more it resembles the population. So, there are a truckload of planets out there, too. The fact we’re here proves it’s possible for life to not just form, but advance to our state. Therefore I’d have to go with a nonzero probability that it’s happened elsewhere, or will someday. Who knows? Someone in our very own galaxy may just have discovered electricity, or frozen food, or nuked themselves into oblivion.

    Now, you could consider how many of these planets have conditions we could adapt to our needs (terraforming) or how many we could adapt ourselves to, but that’s not the question. What’s pertinent here is what range of conditions could actually have spawned us or something like us, or conversely how much different could anything have been here and we still came about. Not just a snapshot in time, either; the Earth has gone through some pretty wild changes through its existance, and life (since it started) has responded all the way along, culminating in us.

    Of course, there may well be, and probably are, many other sets of conditions which would allow for the evolution of a species with which we could have mutual recognition of intelligence. Of course it wouldn’t be like in Star Trek where we could breathe each others’ atmospheres. The problem with contacting them still comes down to distance. They’re using the same physics rulebook we are, and however they modulate their signals they still take a whole year to crawl a measly lightyear. There could be a society on the far side of the galaxy that’s 50000 years ahead of us and we wouldn’t know it yet. Heck, the signal would be so weak from that distance we never would, even if it was particularly powerful and aimed straight at us, and why would they do that?

    But, it’s an amusing entertainment.

  20. The universe is a big place, maybe the biggest.

    When I write my hard-boiled sci-fi novel (The Big Black Hole), I’m going to steal this line.

  21. Matt & Thomas: It sounds like Lee Childs.

    On the other hand, if men and women have such a hard time communicating when they share the same bed, how are we going to communicate with entities from a distant galaxy? You don’t have to be physically lightyears apart, to be lightyears apart.

  22. Sound unlikely? Well no more unlikely than what happens on the space ship enterprise most days. Since you are happy with the idea of sentient droids and teleportation then you can’t throw out my vision of what consequences there would be from such advances in science.

    Well, what about that? I didn’t exactly expect that reply, and by jove, you’re right! Ultimately, it’s all about semantics. What is a fairy, then? Is a virtual fairy real? If one builds a fairy in the internet that helps you in any way, and if you picture the future web as a complete virtual reality landscape (as it is already in many ways), can that be considered a fairy? We are entering strange philosophical spaces here, but I’ll let you guide me on that.

    I’ll wager God, isn’t an ‘ist’ of any kind, he would not lower himself.

    If he’s above any definitions, then wence cometh religions? 😉

    Thomas,

    There could be a society on the far side of the galaxy that’s 50000 years ahead of us and we wouldn’t know it yet. Heck, the signal would be so weak from that distance we never would, even if it was particularly powerful and aimed straight at us, and why would they do that?

    Yes, there could, but how then would you respond to Fermi’s paradox? The only way that you can answer to Fermi’s paradox with an alien existence solution is if space travel is much more difficult than we can even imagine, thus ever separating any life form that exists in this galaxy within their own solar system….

    There are other possibilities, of course. We are but starting to cope with these issues, after all…

    And I agree, it’s a good line.

  23. PS: mr briggs, I won’t subscribe to an unknown (to me) newspaper only to read that review, so I’m sorry that I will be unable to follow the conversation from that point. I’m sure that there are people that think they’ve solved this equation, but as Hume once pointed out, no one answered this question convincingly enough. The usual answers are always a subgroup of the convenient “God moves in mysterious ways” answer, which isn’t an explanation of any kind, but rather a rethorical trap.

  24. Luis,

    If I can find an e-version, I’ll post it.

    I don’t say Gardner solved it, but that he put the main arguments eloquently. Worth reading (anything he writes is worth reading).

  25. Luis:
    On your vision of a fairy, sorry, no we were talking Teleportation, transmutation and sentient droids remember.? This is not virtual reality, it is future technology as proposed.

    Imagine a sentient droid, made from flesh, and mutated somewhat from our own to render some glowing qualities in it’s skin for added fairyness.
    Looking like a fairy:
    Of course we all know what they look like, diaphanous, beautiful, generous in movement. They will be sentient because the same technology will be used as for their old fashioned, stiff-jointed and neon faced digital robot predecessors. Their make-up will use organic technology devised from medicine and drawon tecniques used in so-called terra forming; Their movement with a combination of teleportation and aeronautic wizardry.
    Powers: Using similar technology, (the details of which are available on request.)
    The temperament:
    Pre-programmed by a female brain with added mischief but only for purposes of good,hampering scientists with bad attitudes or self defence. Of course being sentient they will form their own personalities.
    The rest, (the part about the hapless geek is very easy when one has the help of a dozen such sprites. (They are, after all easily confused) or distracted or both.

    Since you like poetry, here’s one to remember:

    “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
    Where oxslips and the nodding violet grows,
    Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
    With sweet musk roses and with eglantine:
    There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
    Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
    And there the snake throws her enamel’d skin,
    Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in”
    “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

    The God/religion question, ‘ists are about politics and argument. I am looking at this from a perspective that does not require sorting skills.
    Religion is not God, it is a human depiction or interpretation of ethos based on belief in a greater power that is believed, by definition, to be incomprehensible. Not, and you only have my word on this, because it is intellectually convenient for such a thing to be incomprehensible, but because it is as much a feeling as it is a thought. Could you describe anger? Or love? Keats’ words , whilst powerful, don’t come close:

    “I have been astonished that men could die martyrs for their religion-
    I have shuddr’d at it.
    I Shudder no more.
    I could be martyr’d for my religion
    Love is my religion
    And I could die for that.
    I could die for you.
    Keats.

    Briggs,
    The weirdest thing happened yesterday when I was on a train in London:
    I dialled 123 on my Samsung phone, and honest, brownie’s honour Tinkabell read out the time to me! I thought I’d finally lost it and dialled again but it was true. What a coincidence. I don’t use blue tooth It was freaky. It must have come from Samsung or O2, but I did look around me to check. She’s still there last time I tried.

    As for the article, I subscribed (they are cheeky, charging the same in dollars as pounds, twas ever thus. Luis, you can pay just for the article as opposed to the whole year’s subscription. Anyway I can’t get my speech software to agree to read it to me as yet, it probably knows something I do not.

  26. Luis:
    On your vision of a fairy, we were talking Teleportation, transmutation and sentient droids remember.? This is not virtual reality, it is future technology as proposed.
    Imagine a sentient droid, made from flesh, and mutated somewhat from our own to render some glowing qualities in it’s skin for added fairyness.
    Looking like a fairy:
    Of course we all know what they look like, diaphanous, beautiful, generous in movement. They will be sentient because the same technology will be used as for their old fashioned, stiff-jointed and neon faced digital robot predecessors. Their make-up will use organic technology devised from medicine and drawon tecniques used in so-called terra forming; Their movement with a combination of teleportation and aeronautic wizardry.
    Powers: Using similar technology, (the details of which are available on request.)
    The temperament:
    Pre-programmed by a female brain with added mischief but only for purposes of good,hampering scientists with bad attitudes or self defence. Of course being sentient they will form their own personalities.
    The rest, (the part about the hapless geek is very easy when one has the help of a dozen such sprites. (They are, after all easily confused) or distracted or both.

    Since you like poetry, here’s one to remember:

    “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
    Where oxslips and the nodding violet grows,
    Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
    With sweet musk roses and with eglantine:
    There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
    Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
    And there the snake throws her enamel’d skin,
    Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in”
    “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

    The God/religion question, ‘ists are about politics and argument. I am looking at this from a perspective that does not require sorting skills.
    Religion is not God. It is a human depiction or interpretation of ethos based on belief in a greater power that is believed, by definition, to be incomprehensible; not, and you only have my word on this, because it is intellectually convenient for such a thing to be incomprehensible, but because it is as much a feeling as it is a thought. Could you describe anger? Or love? Keats’ words , whilst powerful, don’t come close:

    “I have been astonished that men could die martyrs for their religion-
    I have shuddr’d at it.
    I Shudder no more.
    I could be martyr’d for my religion
    Love is my religion
    And I could die for that.
    I could die for you.
    Keats.

    Briggs,
    The weirdest thing happened yesterday when I was on a train in London:
    I dialled 123 on my Samsung phone, and honest, brownie’s honour Tinkabell read out the time to me! I thought I’d finally lost it and dialled again but it was true. What a coincidence. I don’t use blue tooth It was freaky. It must have come from Samsung or O2, but I did look around me to check. She’s still there last time I tried.

    As for the article, I subscribed (they are cheeky, charging the same in dollars as pounds, twas ever thus. Luis, you can pay just for the article as opposed to the whole year’s subscription. Anyway I can’t get my speech software to agree to read it to me as yet, it probably knows something I do not.

  27. The Fermi Paradox is merely a conjecture, and is predicated on a) that space travel over such distances indeed is possible, nevermind practical, and b) there’s some motivation to do it in the first place. It’s simply one of a number of possibilities.

    “To boldly go where no man has gone before” is alright for TV drama, but it won’t play with the taxpayers. That barely got a few of us to the moon, and there’s nothing to go back there for. We’d have to develop interstellar travel that’s cheap enough it wouldn’t be an issue, and we’d still have to have some indication there was going to be something to find before we pointed a ship at it. Columbus didn’t find what he expected, but had a pretty good idea he was going to find something. Though survival of the species might be a powerful motivator, I still don’t see us flinging ourselves off in various directions, hoping against hope to find a toehold in someplace marginally habitable, from which we might eventually continue colonizing outward.

    My point was that the unlikelyhood of a civilization evolving on a given planet at all, times the necessity that two civilizations be proximate enough to make contact possible, times the necessity they share a relative level of development to make contact meaningful, all pile on more and more zeroes to the infinitessimal chance that it will happen, whether we’re involved, or any two other civilizations in the universe.

    Signals get attenuated quickly by distance. Of all the electromagnetic noise we’ve been spewing forth for the last century, I doubt any of it would have been detectable outside the solar system, even if someone was looking. We’re simply not going to have someone show up from Altair or wherever wanting to meet Howdy Doody. Their signals aren’t going to be any louder here, probably even if they’ve beamed them at us on purpose. I’m not aware of any powerful signals that we’ve beamed at any stars intentionally.

  28. Thomas:
    Back to the moon:
    How about Helium 3 as a good reason?
    There was talk of a rush back to the moon for this.

    We’ve sent messages out into space though. Radio messages. If the signal is persistent and consistent there is no safe assumption that these will not make very long distances.

  29. Well yes, the signal carries on perpetually, but its field intensity decreases with the square of the distance, and quickly gets lost in the grass (the noise at the baseline of a spectrum analyzer resembles a lawn). Directional antennae can focus the power, but this is usually for the purpose of covering the same range with a less powerful transmitter, and this “inverse square law” still applies. Now, imagine the signal strength represented by an entire star, many orders of magnitude more powerful than any transmitter, yet even the brightest ones are mere pinpoints of light here.

    I’ll have to look into this He3 thing.

  30. Some thoughts on ET life and the probability of finding it.

    When I started as an undergraduate in physics, I remember reading an article (I think it was in Physics Today) calculating the probability to find and exoplanet, similar to the Drake equation. They concluded that there was an infinitesimal chance to ever find one, let alone nearby planet Earth. Well, guess what, now we’re finding new ones every month! They even just took a photo of some of them… So these guys were wrong, but of course they’ll never admit it. That was the “consensus” of the time… (on the other hand, every one was sure that nuclear fusion was just around the corner… that was 30 years ago!).

    O.K. now about intelligent life. Well, let’s start with just life, as this is easier. What is the probability of life evolving on a planet? I’d say if you have the right conditions (liquid water, mostly, which in itself means there’s an energy source somewhere, solar or geothermal), then it’s almost certain that life will evolve, at some point. It really didn’t take much time for life to appear on Earth. In fact, I think that as soon as the conditions were there, life appeared. That’s because it’s a self-replicating and self-organizing system, so you only need to have a first one, and the self-replication does the rest. So if you integrate the probabilty of that happening at any given moment, over a few billion years, my guess is it’s pretty darn close to 1. Conclusion: any planet with liquid water and a few organic molecules will support life at some point. That would probaby include Mars and some satellites of Jupiter or Saturn. And I’m just talking about DNA-type life. Other types may appear in totally different environments (say Venus).

    All right, then what about intelligent life? That’s where it gets complicated. What is intelligence? How intelligent do you need to be? Are apes, or even ants, intelligent? And does life inevitably “evolve” towards intelligent beings? This idea of “biological progress” is deeply rooted, even within evolutionists, yet to some degree it’s mistaken. Life did very well with only unicellular organisms for billions of years. No one really knows how multicellular organisms appeared, but they’re fairly recent. Sex is another oddity that we don’t quite understand. But it does seem to me that once you go down the path of multicellular, sexually reproduced beings, you also go down the path to intelligence. Intelligence is a survival strategy. Plenty of species ARE intelligent. We just happen to be more so. The thing is that to get there, you need complex organisms, and only a longer DNA can get you there. What has allowed that is the appearance of “correction” mechanisms when DNA is copied. If you can correct copying errors, then you can faithfully copy much longer DNA’s. So here the evidence tells us that it did take quite a long time for those mechanisms to appear. That means a pretty low probability in itself, or just that we weren’t lucky…

    And now we come to the most important point. And that is SYNCHRONIZATION. We’re talking about some intelligent civilization somewhere trying to communicate with us. But we’re talking about it as if we had always been there, or as if we would always be there, and the same for them. But we’ve only been there, in a technological sense, for less than 100 years!!! And we have no idea how long we will still be here. It would only take the push of a red button, or an erratic asteroid, and we’d be gone, and we have had that capability as soon as we got here, on a geological scale (it took about 100,000 years for homo sapiens to get there, a blip on that timescale). So will we still be here in 100, or even 100,000 years? And what technology will we possess by then?

    So the big problem is one of SYNCHRONIZATION. We assume that some intelligent civilization very similar to ours does exist somewhere, but also OVER A GIVEN PERIOD OF TIME, and that that period of time corresponds to the period of time where we are also there and willing and able to listen to them. That adds another term to the Drake equation that may make the result indeed very close to zero on a time scale of a couple dozen years. If our existence as a species only lasts for say, another 100,000 years, you’re trying to synchronize that with another 100,000 years within 100,000 light years from here. That does make the odds pretty small. Of course I’m discounting supraliminous travel etc…

    So I do believe that intelligent (technological) life has been, is or will be present somewhere sometime (indeed on a multitude of planets). However, I’m really not sure that we are within reach of those on a four-dimensional scale, and if we are, then that would be really really lucky. So there’s probably a huge gap between the probability of intelligent technological life appearing somewhere over some period of time (which would be almost certain), and the probability of being able to communicate with them at this very moment in time (which could be very close to zero).

    The one intriguing factor here, however, is technology. We think we’re so smart! But then we have no idea of what technology we will have in 100 years, let alone 1000! Will technology keep “progressing” at the same pace, will the pace accelerate, or will it decelerate? We have made a quantum jump in technology over the past 200 years, and that was similar to, say, the invention of agriculture 5000 or so years ago. But that was followed with some kind of stasis. Sure there was steady technological progress, but slow and not socially transforming. Are we seeing the same thing? The answer to that would remove some unknowns in the Drake equation…

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