Friday, June 25, 2010

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence - Inspired by Religious Faith?

While science and religion are seen to be two opposing poles of a stick, never fated to meet, it seems the most ardent of tasks was inspired by religious faith after all, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The question that remains is, will you find the average Joe of an alien a church regular? Do you expect alien civilizations to be obsessed and compulsively driven by religion as humans?

Some scientists acknowledge the religious impulse that inspired their study of alien life. Carl Sagan was not among them. Although he was reluctant to accept religious interpretations of SETI research, Sagan used religious explanations to challenge the validity of UFOs. In an essay he contributed to the Encyclopedia Americana, Sagan argued that unidentified flying objects had less to do with scientific curiosity than with unfulfilled religious needs. For some people, he wrote, flying saucers “replace the gods that science has deposed.” When novelist Cynthia Ozick interviewed Sagan for a popular magazine, she noted the religious overtones of Sagan’s extraterrestrials. She said, “What you postulate is Angels. Faith, the same old faith.” Sagan retorted, “Not faith. Calculation. Extrapolation.” 2 Nevertheless, Sagan’s eldest son, Dorion, supported Ozick’s conclusions. Dorion, a science writer, scoffed at the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. He said it was nothing more than a replacement for religion in a secular age. Meanwhile, Sagan’s colleague Frank Drake readily admitted that a fundamentalist religious upbringing was the initial inspiration for him and others to join the search for advanced alien life. Granted, Drake repudiated his religious training in his youth. Nevertheless, in his mature years, he claimed that the extraterrestrials are virtually immortal and perhaps willing to pass on the secret of immortality to humans. When depicting the life and culture of intelligent aliens, anthropomorphic thinking enters to fill in the missing details. Extraterrestrials, we learn, are remarkably like us. They study mathematics and science, practice technology, and grapple with issues raised by warfare, environmental pollution, diminishing natural resources, disease, overpopulation, and energy crises. This blatantly anthropomorphic portrayal of alien culture is accompanied by the disclaimer that aliens are biologically different from humans.

Anthropomorphic thinking, however, lies close to the surface of speculation about extraterrestrial intelligence. SETI pioneer Frank Drake was once asked what form an intelligent alien might assume. He answered:

"They won’t be too much different from us. What I usually say, when people ask me that question, is that a large fraction will have such an anatomy that if you saw them from a distance of a hundred yards in the twilight you might think they were human."

Drake continued his description by noting that it was advantageous to walk upright on two legs with your head on top, eyes near the brain, and mouth near the eyes. He clearly believed that human anatomy serves as a pattern for intelligent aliens. Well, old Gorn on the left won't complain! When Drake was asked if aliens were real, he candidly responded: “You talk about something enough times, you begin to believe it. And we sure talk about this a lot.” Since the seventeenth century, philosophers and scientists have understood that anthropomorphic thinking exists in science. That is why scientists differentiate fact from value, resist granting humans a unique status in the universe, and avoid searching for purpose in the cosmos. Scientists claim they can produce objective knowledge even though their work rests upon human perception and understanding of the physical world. Sagan had his own solution to the problems introduced by anthropomorphism. He asked scientists to reject the chauvinisms that marred their thinking. A chauvinism is simpler to overcome than entrenched anthropomorphic thought because the former is easier to recognize and vulnerable to rational argument.

The main chauvinism that threatens the study of extraterrestrial organisms is the widespread belief that life must have the same physical basis everywhere in the universe. Sagan identified oxygen, carbon, ultraviolet light, and temperature chauvinisms. Each of these rests upon the false assumption that terrestrial and alien life have identical chemical and physical requirements.

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