Monday, May 29, 2006

Are You Lonesome Tonight?

George Noory posed an interesting question to me last week on Coast to Coast - "do you" he asked, "believe that there is intelligent life in the universe besides our own?"

"Yes," I replied, without hesitation. I then pointed out that most scientists agree with that conclusion.

At which point George pointed out that this was just a belief, because there is no proof that such life exists. I agreed with him, although I noted that the universe is a big place, and the odds favour the existence of life "out there" (some of it possibly coming here), certainly on a "balance of probabilities" standard, if not beyond a reasonable doubt.

As I recall, George paused for a second or two, and then asked something along the lines of, "Don't you think it would be lonely if we were the only life in the universe?"

I think I just said that I wasn't too worried about it, as I don't think we're alone in the universe, and then we moved on to another subject.

But what if we are alone?

Does that prospect bother me?

Nope. No more than the prospect that we're not alone bothers me. I'm "good" with either possibility. I think it would be wonderful if ET is out there, for a whole host of reasons. On the other hand, if they're not, I'm perfectly happy to go it "alone".

Skeptics are never bothered at the prospect of ET - as I've said before, Phil Klass would have been the first person to shake ET's hand, should he have met him in his back yard (er... assuming ET was friendly).

No, the people who are bothered are not the skeptics, but rather those who can't come to grips with the possibility that we may indeed "alone". Who are they? Some of the peple who believe that ET is out there, and that he / she has come here.

Not folks like Stan Friedman, who, if you could prove to him that there was no life in the universe besides ours would probably just shrug and say something like, "Hmph... well, I guess we better get our act together down here then." Stan champions the ETH not because he wants or needs to believe in aliens, but because he's looked at the evidence and come to the conclusion that aliens exist. I think that his conclusion is premature, but I respect the way he came to to it.

No, the people who would have trouble if we really are "alone" are the ones who have pinned their hopes and dreams for a better world on the intervention of extraterrestrials. In this respect, they are no different than religious types who count the days until the return of God (in whatever form), so that He can save us from ourselves.

They look to the sky (literally for the die-hard ET believers, figuratively for the religious types) for salvation from a world that they see as gone mad (usually for different reasons).

They eagerly await the "other" to solve their problems here on Earth, and lead us to a better future.

They may be in for a rude awakening (which was, I think, the general thrust of the notorious "Klass curse") - or not. Who knows?

What I do know is that if ET does exist, and we find it, either here or "there", the skeptics will have little trouble adjusting their worldview accordingly. We're ready for it - most even hope it's true.

So, when the true believers toss out the red herring that skeptics are afraid of the "other", don't believe them for a second.

The fear is really coming from them, caused by the nagging concern - perhaps conscious, perhaps not - that we may really be "alone", and that we may actually have to solve our problems the old fashioned way, i.e. by ourselves.

In short, the problem isn't that skeptics don't want to believe in ET , but that the believers don't want to believe in humanity.

Which means that unless ET lands on the White House lawn, they really are "lonesome tonight", whether they realize it or not.

Paul Kimball


Mac said...

Not to sound like a total suck-up, but I think you nailed it here.

Having said that, the odds of the universe -- or multiverse -- not containing at least a healthy handful of ET intelligences is so low, to my mind, that it borders on the ridiculous. But it's at least good for some thought experimentation.

"Either we're alone or we're not. Either possibility is fascinating."

--Arthur C. Clarke (quoted from memory)

Paul Kimball said...


I think Clarke had it exactly right - either option is fascinating.

For my part, I say let's get "out there" asap and find out, one way or another!


The Odd Emperor said...

I’ve always thought the very question, “are we alone in the universe” is an absurd one. We know life exists (because it does on the Earth.) We know that certain complex life forms develop control systems that are complex enough for intelligence and tool using. (Perhaps not intelligent tool using in our case.) We know it’s possible because it happened Q.E.D.

Looking at the Cosmos and asking “is there any other life out there?” is like looking at a pond and asking if there is any microbial life in there. There almost certainly will be and you don’t have to sample the water to make a positive declaration. Certainly this is a belief but it’s like a belief in gravity.

I strongly agree with you regarding the other bit. Any religious or pseudo-religious belief that aliens are going to swoop down to save the poor humans not only demonstrates the believer’s lack of faith in humanity, but also their relinquishing of responsibility for their part in it. I think that is very sad.

The Odd Emperor

Paul Kimball said...


I think it very likely that there is some life out there. As I said on C2C, the odds are in favour of it.

But the prospect does exist that we're it, at least as far as intelligent life goes. Maybe we are really at the top of the food chain.

The more relevant question, I suppose, given the vastness of the universe (does it really matter if there's life in a galaxy so far away that we will never get to it, not even in a Star Trek type universe), is whether there is intelligent life in the Milky Way, and, more specifically, our own cosmic neighborhood (to borrow a phrase from Stan). The odds here are not as good, but still pretty good.

But, barring some tremendous technological advance that allows us to explore that cosmic neighborhood soon, none of us are going to be around long enough to know the answer - short of a communique (SETI) or a visit (UFOs) from aliens.

Nevertheless, we should be moving forward with space exploration asap, not so that we can answer the question of "are we alone in the universe" (although we might be able to answer it), but because it is in OUR OWN best interests to do so.


Mac said...

But the prospect does exist that we're it, at least as far as intelligent life goes. Maybe we are really at the top of the food chain.

Another argument -- which I don't buy -- is that somebody has to be first. Which could, theoretically, be us.

Alfred Lehmberg said...
AVG Blog --

Paul Kimball said...

Mr. Lehmberg:

Thanks. Your column merely proves my point about the fear emanating from your side of the aisle, and the close-mindedness.

Also, the lack of a sense of humour. I mean, really - a comment about the Edmonton Oilers going to the Stanley Cup offended you? You definitely need to broaden your horizons, and lighten up. Sir.

Paul Kimball

Alfred Lehmberg said...
AVG Blog --

Jo said...

Oooh -- so many viewpoints, and so little time!

I'm a bit confused at the emperor's 'we're here, so others must be somewhere out there' conclusion.

It's a nice sentiment, but I'm more inclined to believe that we are an anomaly...existing, but against all odds.

Then too, I'm confused by Paul's comment: "...the people who would have trouble if we really are "alone" are the ones who have pinned their hopes and dreams for a better world on the intervention of extraterrestrials. In this respect, they are no different than religious types who count the days until the return of God."

Are we then to assume that God and ET are, somehow, equivalents?
Certainly, that would be so...if neither exists!

Perhaps then, the biggest misconceptions lie not among the "believers" in either camp -- God vs. ET...(if indeed, those two camps must be separate, in the first place) but rather, among those skeptical of both.

Should we ever locate other intelligent life, I hope we'll have the courage to pose the question, "Is there a God?"

Then, I'd not be at all surprised, should we receive the reply,
"That's exactly what we were about to ask you!"