Thursday, June 30, 2005

Alien Arrogance

I generally don't do celebrity gossip, and I'm not going to start now. But Kevin Drum handed us a quote from the illustrious Tom Cruise regarding aliens which I just can't pass up. I quote: Asked in an interview with the tabloid daily Bild if he believed in aliens, Cruise said: "Yes, of course. Are you really so arrogant as to believe we are alone in this universe?

I don't care about Tom Cruise. I think I've only seen two Tom Cruise movies in my life, and I really don't remember much from either. I haven't been avoiding him, it's just that he doesn't star in the kinds of movies that I like. Specifically, I like films with good acting, and I've gotten the strong impression that Mr. Cruise doesn't do that kind of film. I'm more of a Gary Oldman, Willem Dafoe kind of guy. But I can't stand this Alien Arrogance argument, so that's what I'm going to address.

But before I get started, let me just say that I love science fiction. It's just about the only fiction I can read. I'm not talking about Flash Gordon stuff. I'm talking about hardcore science fiction, where you have to know a thing or two about science to really follow what's happening, and you might even learn something new. Arthur C. Clarke is my favorite, and I own almost everything he's written (which is a lot). But there are a few others I like, almost all of it written before 1970. In fact, some of the stuff I read was so cutting edge that it turned out to be totally wrong, and I should just be glad that the author had the guts to admit it afterwards, or I'd have the wrong idea about the Moon, Venus, and whatnot. But I wasn't planning to go to any of those places, and that knowledge probably doesn't affect my day job; so it probably wasn't important in any case. All I'm saying is that I'm not alien adverse, and I'm not scared of new or weird ideas.

Now, I don't know if there are space aliens. I have no idea. If an alien presented himself to me, I'd have a hard time not believing. I might ask to see his intergalactic passport, just to make sure he wasn't jiving me; but as long as everything appeared in order, I'd be a believer. But just as with everything else, until I have reasonable proof to believe something, I won't believe it. That's the only prudent course of action, and I'm sticking to it. I don't believe in ghosts, gods, fairies, talking rabbits, honest conservatives, or aliens. I'm not saying I believe they don't exist; I'm just saying that the default position is a big "I don't know". (Well, except for the honest conservatives, which I know can't exist in reality)

Alien Arrogance

Thus said, I hate the Alien Arrogance argument. You know the one I'm talking about, and Cruise didn't invent it. But it's pure crap. It makes no sense, and is a perfect example of reverse reasoning. Someone believes that something is true, based entirely on faith, and they invent a rational argument to explain it. Now, I don't have a problem with faith-based people, as long as they stay out of my garbage. But I can't stand it when they pretend to have reason and proof on their side.

Here's the brief summary of the argument. The universe is filled with billions upon billions upon billions of stars, and it is certain that those stars have planets. And because the number of stars, and therefore the number of planets is so large, it is entirely improbable (and thus impossible) that those planets don't have life on them. And anyone who ignores the improbability of this is just an arrogant nut who refuses to see the truth and is blinded by their egotism. So it's bad enough that they falsely invoke probabilities that they can't possibly know, but they had to go ahead and insult the skeptics; and I'm just not having it.

I've heard this argument from nutjobs and I've heard it from scientist-types, and it's wrong from any of them. The reason is simple: We have no idea how likely life is. By using the term "improbable" they are imposing a standard of probability into the picture, which makes it sound scientific. But we have no idea of how probable life is, or even a clue on how to guess at the probability. It's impossible to know, thus invalidating their entire argument.

Maybe life is always inevitable. Maybe if an asteroid had wiped out life here, it would keep recurring again and again. Maybe it's just a matter of time, and that the probability of life is so high that all you have to do is wait another million years and it'll pop up again. A million years is nothing in real terms.

But the thing is, we have no idea how likely life is. No idea. Maybe it's probable to happen every million years, or even every hundred years. Maybe we have all kinds of life on earth right now which isn't related to each other. That doesn't really make sense. In fact, I could be crazy, but it seems to me that all life on earth is related and came from the same source. Maybe we wiped out the other ones, but it seems like earth has been around long enough that, if life were probable, we'd have quite a few strains of unrelated life. But maybe life can only come in one form, and we'd never know the difference; so that's not conclusive at all.

But the point is, we have no idea how likely life is, so we can't know the probability of life on other planets. You can't say "it is improbable that life doesn't exist elsewhere", because we have no idea of what the probability could be. We can't even guess at the probability. Maybe the odds are one in a gazillion gazillion gazillion. Or maybe life is entirely improbable, and that it shouldn't have happened here. Or maybe there is a God, and he only created us. That's what Christians are supposed to believe, and if it's true, then the probability of life on other planets is exactly zero. But who knows? Nobody can guess at this stuff.

Intelligent Life?

And here's the other part of that. Even if there is life, why should we assume that it's intelligent? Why should we assume that they even made it past the plant level? Maybe it can't be past the single-cell level, except for here on Earth where there is some extremely rare element which only exists on Earth or in our Solar System. What are the odds of that? Who knows! It's impossible to know. Yet somehow, these alien theorists jump right ahead from "probability of any life" to aliens zooming our planet looking for farmers to probe. Incredible!

What we do know is from here on Earth. The planet's been here for 4.5 billion years or so (a very long time, but still not too long by real standards), but we're the only animals who seem to have figured out how to do anything cool. Sure, dolphins and pigs and cats are intelligent; but what do they have to show for it? Nada. They get some damn fish and roll around in mud eating our leftovers. 4.5 billion years, and we're the only ones who have figured out how to make video games. And man has had relatively the same level of intelligence (as compared with other animals) for at least 10,000 years and probably more. Yet we only figured out the internet 15 years ago! Sounds improbable.

And how many species had the same chance? Billions. There are billions of different species and whatnot, many which we still don't know. And we're the only ones to build cars, and airplanes, and forks, or even have a real concept about farming and whatever. I mean, come on. We know there's life here. Fairly intelligent life. Yet we're the only ones to figure this shit out. What's the probability of that? Obviously one in billions, or whatever. Very slim odds indeed. So why should we assume that the other planets are doing any better? Why are we automatically "arrogant" for doubting this?

Or to put it a different way. We know of a planet (ours) which is 100% certain to have life, to have complex life, to have animal life, to have intelligent animal life, and to have intelligent animal life that has cool things like video games and pornography. We know that the conditions are 100% probable that it'll happen here. But after billions and billions of years, we're all that there is to show for it. Countless organisms have lived here. Thousands of years of intelligence. And we're all that we've got. Even the animals that are related to us, like chimps, haven't figured this stuff out. Sure, they can ride bicycles and juggle and upstage Clint Eastwood in his own movie, but we had to train them for that. They're almost identical to us genetically, but they could never build a bicycle or make any decent porn. Yet they live on a planet which we are 100% positive is capable of supporting such life. And we have no concept of how probable even basic life is on other planets, and these people call me arrogant!


So to sum up: We have no idea how probable life is, no idea how probable animal life is, and no idea how probable intelligent, sentient, car-building life is. No idea. No concept of probabilities. No idea on any of that. And that's not even to mention the idea of aliens visiting us from other planets, which relies on the assumption that interstellar travel is even possible. Our advanced science hasn't a clue on how to do that, and none of the other billions of species on this intelligence-capable planet can even spell the word "science" without a good dictionary and a lot of help. Maybe the aliens are more advanced, or maybe not. We can't even theorize about the possibilities. So where do these people get off pretending to use "probability", when they can't possibly know. And why the insults?

So am I saying that aliens don't exist? Of course not. All I'm saying is that it's idiotically bad logic to presume that intelligent life exists, or any life for that matter. I don't mind if they admit to being faith-based, but they have no business pretending to use "probability" and reason to justify their beliefs. It's no good when Christians do this, and it's even worse for science-based people to do it. And worst of all for these people is to refer to my beliefs as "arrogant" or any other insulting thing. I don't put up with that kind of talk, especially not when I'm right. That kind of thing bugs me everytime, and this Cruise flap is what finally got me to write about it. Or maybe I've already written this before. I often feel like I'm repeating my old posts, so forgive me if I've already written this before.

And just so it's understood, even if aliens do come down and show me their intergalactic passport and whatnot, nothing I've said in this post needs to be corrected. Even if life is very probable, we don't know what those probabilities are and everything I say is still correct. So all you Alien Arrogance theorists can just suck it!

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