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IEET > Security > Vision > Futurism > Fellows > Russell Blackford

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Are there aliens out there? Don’t bet on it yet.


Russell Blackford
By Russell Blackford
Metamagician and the Hellfire Club

Posted: Apr 29, 2007

There’s been a lot of fuss over the past week or so about the discovery of an Earth-like planet “only” 20.5 light years away - detected by the European Southern Observatory’s telescope in La Silla, Chile.

Circling the red dwarf Gliese 581, the new planet has been christened “581 c”. It is at a distance from its sun that suggests a temperature range compatible with life, and it is conjectured that it may have plenty of liquid water - another precondition for life.

It would be exciting if it turned out that the new planet actually contains life, and even the discovery of such a planet in the galactic neighbourhood is pretty damn sensational: it suggests that life-ready planets may be more common than is usually thought.

Some commentators, including my pal George Dvorsky, have raised the question of what this means for the Fermi paradox (the question of why the aliens aren’t seen here if they’re out there somewhere). George is worried about whether it means that civilisations are doomed to extinction before they reach the exponential technological take-off point that has frequently been conjectured and dubbed “the Singularity”. 

I must say that I can’t get so worked up about this. I’d love it if 581 c contained life, though my betting is that any life will turn out to be at a very primitive stage, if we find it at all. From the limited evidence we have, it takes a very long time for multicellular life to evolve, even once life gets going, and it may not happen in all cases, or even in typical cases. Furthermore, life of any kind may appear on only a tiny minority of so-called “Earth-like” planets. The degree of fine-tuning necessary for life to appear is likely to be many orders of magnitude rarer, in the universe, than the relatively crude set of indicators that get a planet classified as “Earth-like”. Even if Earth-like planets should now be thought a few times more common than we previously believed, this may have little effect on the extraordinarily long odds against life existing in any particular block of space-time. In short, there’s no warrant to go from the discovery of a nearby “Earth-like” planet to a conjecture that our galaxy is teeming with life, let alone multi-celled life, or life that’s well on the way to evolving intelligence.

Even if fairly complex life forms come into existence on a particular planet, what are the odds of evolution leading to something as smart as us, and then to a technological civilisation capable of expanding into space? Bear in mind that, if things had been a bit different, our own planet might still be ruled by dumb dinosaurs: it’s widely accepted that the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction had something to do with the asteroid impact that caused the Chicxulub Crater, perhaps coinciding with other contingencies (by itself, the asteroid may not have been enough). This gave life on Earth a second chance - as it were - to take a path that eventually led to the development of big-brained mammals.

Even when human beings appeared on Earth a couple of hundred thousand years ago, it took us almost all of that time to develop science and an industrial civilisation. There’s no reason in principle why we couldn’t have stayed with stone-age technology for a few more hundreds of thousands of years. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine that the evolution of intelligence could have culminated in creatures like dolphins and orcas, which show no sign of ever inventing a technological civilisation, or of evolving into something that will.

There are so many contingencies involved that I’m led to betting - not that I know how I’m going to pick up my winnings - that we are currently the most technologically-advanced species in our galaxy. There may be worlds out there teeming with something like algae, or with something analogous to dinosaurs - and I’d love to see those worlds. Somewhere in the galaxy, there may be a world whose watery surface is dominated by the equivalent of whales and dolphins, or something even more majestic. But there’s every reason to think that few planets ever produce something that resembles us as a technological species.

Of course, the universe is a big place. There’s probably a more technologically-advanced species than us out there ... well ... somewhere; I’d be crazy to bet against that. Hey, there’s probably lots of them. But the odds are, I reckon, that they’re in galaxies far away, so far away that they and we will never come in contact.

I also question the assumption in the Fermi paradox that a species like us, with consciousness and the ability to rebel against its selfish replicators, will end up colonising the universe, or travelling in it en masse. The claim is often made that we are destined, beyond a certain point in technological development, to expand into new volumes of inter-stellar space at an exponential rate, and that intelligent species just do this once they obtain space-travel technology. That scenario sounds most unlikely to me. We are more likely to stay home, consciously matching our population size to the carrying capacity of our own planet and the resources available in the local solar system.

That observation may sound as if I’m against space travel and the colonisation of space, which is certainly not true. I don’t doubt that we’ll eventually explore the solar system and beyond, and I certainly hope there’ll be some off-Earth colonisation in the mix of human civilisations as the decades, centuries, and millennia roll by. That could produce an attractive kind of innovation and diversity.

But the whole exponential-colonisation-of-the-galaxy thing always sounds monstrously improbable to me: I don’t understand what would drive it, given that we are conscious beings who can make a decision to limit our own population growth to match the habitat that is easily available to us - which is the Earth, so far, and is not likely to extend beyond the local solar system in the foreseeable future. I can understand why it might be fun to send out probes, and even explorers, to find those planets filled with algae or dinosaurs or dolphins. Sure. But why would we want to interfere with those planets? They will be a wonderful interstellar wilderness that we’ll want to preserve.

I can’t understand why anyone would ever consider the exponential colonisation of the galaxy to be desirable in itself, or why the species as a whole would decide to go down that path. Maybe I’m wrong about that, and it has some value that I’m blind to; but even if I am, I can see us staying in our home solar system pretty much indefinitely until some unimaginable contingency shakes us out of it. Why would that not be a typical response of those technological species with rationality and consciousness? It may be very rare for such species to advance exponentially into surrounding space, even when they do come into existence.

There’s a huge, exciting universe out there, and eventually we’ll explore it - but we may never try to remake it in our own image. Furthermore, we may well be the most technologically-advanced species that this galaxy has ever known. That seems to me like a reasonable answer to the Fermi paradox, and nothing about the discovery of planet 581 c makes me change my opinion.


Russell Blackford Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, an attorney, science fiction author and critic, philosopher, and public intellectual. Dr. Blackford serves as editor-in-chief of the IEET's Journal of Evolution and Technology. He lives in Newcastle, Australia, where he is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle.
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COMMENTS


so what s happening out ther in the universe the government should not keep anything classified because the people of the world need to know why how when where .





I agree who would want to colonize an area when they have plenty of space at home? I mean Europe was happy with their own area that they just observed the beauty and lifestyles of Native Americans and the world… Uh, no. You are ignoring the real reasoning behind expansion and growth, economic benefit (and political power).  Those worlds offer many things (including beauty as you mention).  I could see tons of people wanting to visit them as vacation, making homes there, etc. Mining them for minerals.  You ignore the growth of factions in space where two competing countries/factions must grow and colonize space to fight each other.  You ignore the curiosity that explorers and people have to go into new areas.  You ignore the troubles at home that send people fleeing into space for safety. 

Just like we have always grown and consumed everything in our sites we will continue to do that.  We will set up space stations and military outposts all over the galaxy for military and economic reasons and as we spread our population will grow.





An interesting article which travels from scepticism, to hope through ethics and logic.

Firstly, everyone is looking for that old “m” class planet. Yet our special position and evolution within this realised space-time is special only to us, and should not be used as an argument to negate the likelihood of other intelligent life evolving throughout the Universe or even right next door. Notice that Silicon (atomic #14) is directly situated beneath Carbon (atomic #6) on the periodic table.

Here’s what wiki has to say..

Wiki quote : “The most commonly proposed basis for an alternative biochemical system is the silicon atom, since silicon has many chemical properties similar to carbon and is in the same periodic table group, the carbon group.

But silicon has a number of handicaps as a carbon alternative

More here > http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypothetical_types_of_biochemistry

Quote : “Of course, the universe is a big place. There’s probably a more technologically-advanced species than us out there ... well ... somewhere; I’d be crazy to bet against that. Hey, there’s probably lots of them. But the odds are, I reckon, that they’re in galaxies far away, so far away that they and we will never come in contact.”

Indeed and this is the most logical and reasonable position : we would have most likely been invaded and already overcome and faced extinction if this were not the case. Yet assuming this planet was once a barren hot rock, then any lifeform appearing subsequent to this may well have travelled through space hitched on the back of some asteroid?

And if so the statistical likelihood of these types of collisions happening to other planets in our Milky Way (100,000 light years across), must be high, with a high statistical probability of life evolving in a parallel space-time to ours. Although it may in fact not be a carbon-based lifeform at all, (this does not the exclude the possibilities that it may be as intelligent, and neither does it imply that we could even remotely communicate with it at all).

And this is only our galaxy! Our nearest neighbouring galaxy is Andromeda a mere 2.5 million light years distance. Now despite these vast distances, this is still relatively close as compared to the realised size of the whole universe, and yet to attempt to communicate or discover the possibility of any of our cousins out there, let alone communicate with them is highly improbable

Quote : ” But the whole exponential-colonisation-of-the-galaxy thing always sounds monstrously improbable to me: I don’t understand what would drive it, given that we are conscious beings who can make a decision to limit our own population growth to match the habitat that is easily available to us - which is the Earth, so far, and is not likely to extend beyond the local solar system in the foreseeable future.”

Unfortunately and alas, there is no evidence that we can indeed control overpopulation, and this is something I believe needs attention with immediacy : feeding the world now is a problem, If Yellowstone blows, who knows, what will happen.

With regard to the second point here, we must indeed venture out beyond our own solar system precisely because there is no alternative to support our species.

HAL says “All these worlds are yours except Europa, attempt no landings there.”





“Earth is not special. There must be many planets that host life forms.”—That’s what we hear, anyway.

Now, what if we find 3000 exoplanets and none host life forms?

Does that suggest that Earth is special?

No, many cosmologists would say. We just haven’t looked hard enough. Find 3000 more.

It becomes obvious that their research is intended to confirm the “not special” view, and that : for both practical and philosophical reasons : it cannot be disconfirmed.

The practical reason is that they can always argue, “They’re out there somewhere.” The philosophical reason is that they are determined to believe what they want to believe.

That’s fine, but don’t call it science.

Incidentally, even if, after a search of 6000, two other planets were found that had life forms, we could say that there are three special planets, ours being one.

But don’t expect the pop science media to interpret it that way.
—From D.O.





There is absolutely no reason to believe that we are the only life form out there.. But will we ever get to come into contact with these “aliens” before our time of extinction? Doubtful in my lifetime, anyway.





I agree the UNIVERSE we are in is huge beyond our imaginings
and theres a VERY HIGH chance that theres other life forms out there.Its practically foolish to say that Earth is the only planet capable of handling life, and for those who don’t thing so, if you can live for another say 3000 years you will most likely be wrong and there are Life out there(Intelligient or simple)





I agree .......there must have life…...v must look 4 it…....





There has to be more life sources out there, though it may seem impossible to venture out into the other galaxies like a thousand years from earth its not impossible that there is life out there. If we can exist, then so can others, and who knows, there can be unbeleivably smart life forms or there can be realy different and dum life forms.That is just gonna be a question that will have to remain un-answered until we build the right technology to be able to take on unbeleivably different temperatures and gas levels. We who live today may possibly not live up to see this, but i am certain other life forms will connect with us one day.





Dolphins and whales may have intelligence and humans beat them in the race becos we are physically more proficient to have technological breakthroughs, but doesn’t that speak for evolution itself. Among the numerous species even in planet earth, there can be more intelligent species, and among the intelligent ones, the species which is physically more suited will be the most developed. Which sums up that physical proficiency has a lot to do with evolution itself. The ability to pick up objects, the ability to hide away from dangerous creatures, all these are instinctive of any species that should naturally be more evolved than others.
But nature speaks for itself, and in an earthlike planet, the laws of nature don’t differ from that of our own, making the likelihood of the same laws of nature and evolution to be prominent in that planet not differing from our reality. So basically, most likely the evolved animal will be apes too.





As for what is quoted from the author ‘Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction had something to do with the asteroid impact that caused the Chicxulub Crater’ which as the author led to evolution starting from there. Again, the laws of the universe seems to have the patterns of simple->complex, large->small. Even if the asteroid did not cause the dinosaurs to be extinct, the theory of evolution will still standforth.
And most likely intelligent evolved lifeforms will still develop due to ‘running and hiding’ from those large, clumsy dinosaur species.
It’s from being small and being pursued that our ancestors have probably needed to rely on objects and tools as a means to develop, which sums dolphins and whales away from the equation. And just like the ‘big bang theory’, that pattern seems to work out in the laws of these physical universe.
The asteroid probably have catalyst the evolution of mankind, but i believe it will still be prevalent with or without it.





Interstellar travel would actually be a difficult hurdle for any intelligent alien lifeform other than ourselves. And even for us, mankind, to develop to the stage where we can travel in the speed of light/wormhole etc (as most scifi movies depict), our evolution would have developed, not foregoing our cultural understanding.
Most alien civilisations will probably be ‘stuck in their own worlds’ like us, and it will be difficult for us to come in contact with them, vice versa. And if there is any alien lifeform that have reached us, would they think like the way we think??? Do you give semi-automatic rifles to a group of caveman?? Do you teach them how to use a mobile smartphone??
Using imagination, putting ourselves in the ‘alien’s shoes’, they will probably not want to be in contact with us for a reason that we are not in the capacity to be able to see ‘eye-2-eye’ with them due to our primitive culture, technological advancements.
And even at our present stage, we consort to preserve life and culture, what more even so it will be for an advance superior intelligent alien lifeform? Won’t an advance alien life not just want to preserve humanity so to speak, but also the natural evolution of humanity itself? So maybe, that’s why aliens are so ‘quiet’ and not revealing themselves to us.





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