What Are We Looking for When Looking for Alien Life?

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

How exactly did life emerge here on Earth? Is there life anywhere else? If there is, how common is it? What kind of conditions make life possible at all? Can it only exist on a planet? An Earth-like planet?

We know much about life on Earth as it is now, and quite a few things about its past, so scientists have been able to make many educated guesses about what is possible for life to be like elsewhere. Nevertheless, we’re stuck in a difficult position where we’re missing the most important element for drawing scientific conclusions: empirical observations to test theories against.

So far, we have discovered no life out there in space. Claims of extraterrestrial life forms observed visiting us are, unfortunately, quite implausible; they can only teach us things about human psychology. (To anyone who sees reason to think otherwise, I apologize for making such a strong claim without arguing for it. I obviously have no space here to explain why this is my – and scientists’ – considered view.) All we have is the one case of life on this planet, and even here, we have a very clouded view of how exactly it began.

When looking for exoplanets that might harbor life, it makes sense to look for Earth-like conditions – to start with. We know for sure that such conditions can support life.

Yet, we mustn’t confuse this fact with the idea that life could possibly arise and thrive only in these conditions. The idea that life would have to be exactly as life is here is very interestingly criticized by biologist Jack Cohen and mathematician Ian Stewart in their book about the subject. (See also here for my review of it.)

Life on Earth evolved to thrive in the conditions that exist here. At the same time, it altered those conditions. The abundance of oxygen that allows us to breathe didn’t exist until photosynthesis emerged and that started to free it from carbon dioxide. Perhaps something like this could happen elsewhere, so it makes sense to look for planets with oxygen.

But could life emerge in entirely different kinds of conditions? Life as we know it couldn’t, but we can’t know it’s the only kind of life possible. Life is something that consumes energy to perpetuate itself; perhaps this universal pattern could emerge in something we’d never think of. All it takes for natural selection to develop proto-life into life and simple life into more complex life is the right combination of heritable characteristics, random variability, and non-random selection pressures. In principle, this could be realized by very different physical systems.

Perhaps there could be entirely foreign forms of life existing on a gas giant, or the surface of a neutron star. Of course, at this point, we simply can’t know. Science can never go out on pure extrapolation, and for all that observations show us so far, there might only be life in one place in the universe.


A Very Strange Way of Thinking About Rights

This post originally appeared on The Latest.

There seem to be two ways in which people think about rights.

First, the good way: People have various rights, they’re the same for everyone, and in any given situation, you have to balance off the rights of different people against each other.

Then there’s the other way. It works like this: YOU have rights. So do people whose side you’re on. So whenever you want to do something or stop someone else from doing something, you find the rights that could somehow be seen as supporting whatever you want.

I see this coming up again and again – mostly in American news, but that’s probably just because I read so much of them.

Here’s how it works.

Suppose someone boycotts YOU because you publicly said something they are very opposed to? Censorship! Violation of freedom of speech!

But suppose YOU wanted to stop supporting someone who said something you think was very wrong — but someone told you that you can’t. Might you start getting some thoughts about how it’s your money and you can use it as you please? Or about how you should be allowed to stand up for your principles?

Suppose someone bans YOU from an online platform they’re hosting? Censorship! Violation of freedom of speech!

Now suppose YOU are hosting the online platform, and you want to ban someone for the things they say. Might you start to have some thoughts about how you own the platform and you have the right to decide whom you let use it to gain visibility for their ideas?

There’s been discussion about whether conservative Christians should be allowed to, for example, refuse to provide services for a gay wedding ceremony because it contradicts their beliefs. What if someone used the same law to discriminate against them for being, say, conservative Christians? I doubt someone who feels oppressed by “Happy holidays” would think that’s just fine.

And, of course, whenever it’s your ideological or political opponent doing any of this, we’re heading straight towards a Fascist and/or Communist dictatorship. If it’s someone on your side, then great! About time!

There’s another thing behind this attitude besides self-centeredness. It’s the sense that the opinions you defend are right, and those of your opponents aren’t, and of course, evident truths and dangerous nonsense shouldn’t be treated equally. But outside of scientific or legal questions, we can’t appoint some authority to determine what’s right and then restrict people’s rights based on whether they hold the right opinions. Everyone must have the right to express their opinions, not just those whom you deem to have the right opinions. Everyone must have freedom of religion, not just those who belong to the “right” religion.

Rights are not just an excuse for you to demand that everything go your way. Appealing to rights in this way is a travesty, a form of selfishness and a demand for special treatment, not moral or a case of standing up for yourself.

Miggä ihmme Turru mure?

Turrun mureTurun ylioppilaslehden numerossa 5/2107 haastatellun Turun murteen asiantuntijan Tommi Kurjen mukaan “Turkulaiset nuoret eivät koe puhuvansa Turun murretta, koska he eivät käytä vanhempien tai isovanhempien käyttämiä murresanoja.”

No eivät varmaan. Turun murre on ainoa murre, jota kukaan ei koskaan puhu missään. Yksi tyyppi puhui ennen radiossa, mutta nyt se “Uutissi Turust” -ohjelma on kuulemma lopetettu.

Varmasti turkulaisilla on oma tunnistettava puhetapansa, mutta sitä ei missään tapauksessa pidä sekoittaa Turun murteeseen. Turun murre on jotakin, jota esiintyy “Uutissi Turust” -ohjelman lisäksi esimerkiksi Aku Ankan murteella kirjoitetuissa erikoisnumeroissa ja ylipäätään joka paikassa, missä on kirjoitettua murretta. Meille kerrotaan aina, että tämä on Turun murretta. Joten, okei. Se on sitten Turun murretta. Ja Turun murretta ei sitten puhu kukaan, koska turkulaiset eivät ainakaan puhu sillä tavoin. Olen kerran kuullut jonkun sanovan tunteneensa yhden ihmisen, joka puhui siten, mutta luonnossa en ole sitä kuullut. Continue reading

Basic actions?

actionWe do many things by doing something else. You might move across the room by walking and walk by moving your legs. But do you move your legs by doing something else? You might think, yes: by sending nerve impulses from your brain. And maybe you do that by sending around other such things in your brain? But are “you” really doing those things that happen in parts of you?

The priest and philosopher Nicolas Malebranche argued that no-one can really do anything themselves because in order to do something, you need to know how to do it — and we don’t know how to cause all that neural stuff that needs to happen for our bodies to do anything. (He thought God is really the one who does everything.) This isn’t a good argument. To know how to do something must mean knowing how to do that something by doing other things (eg. how to move your hands and fingers while playing the piano). So if you must always know how to do everything, then you must know how to do the things by which you do that other thing: how to make your fingers move, and then probably how to send those neural signals, and then how to do whatever you do to do that; it’s an infinite regression. To make the regression stop, there must be some things we just can do, so that we can do more complex things by doing those things. Continue reading

The pastor and the steam engine

In many of my recent posts, I could have referred to a story in an old philosophical article. I’ll quote it here, along with some other parts from the article.

From R. E. Hobart: “Free Will as Involving Determination and Inconceivable Without It”:

We have been accustomed to think of a thing or a person as a whole, not as a combination of parts. We have been accustomed to think of its activities as the way in which, as a whole, it naturally and obviously behaves. It is a new, an unfamiliar and an awkward act on the mind’s part to consider it, not as one thing acting in its natural manner, but as a system of parts that work together in a complicated process. Analysis often seems at first to have taken away the individuality of the thing, its unity, the impression of the familiar identity.

For a simple mind this is strikingly true of the analysis of a complicated machine. The reader may recall Paulsen’s ever significant story about the introduction of the railway into Germany. [I have not found the original story.] When it reached the village of a certain enlightened pastor, he took his people to where a locomotive engine was standing, and in the clearest words explained of what parts it consisted and how it worked. He was much pleased by their eager nods of intelligence as he proceeded. But on his finishing they said : “Yes. yes, Herr Pastor, but there’s a horse inside, isn’t there?” They could not realise the analysis. They were wanting in the analytical imagination. Why not? They had never been trained to it. It is in the first instance a great effort to think of all the parts working together to produce the simple result that the engine glides down the track. It is easy to think of a horse inside doing all the work. A horse is a familiar totality that does familiar things. They could no better have grasped the physiological analysis of a horse’s movements had it been set forth to them.

Hobart’s point here relates to free will, of course. This is the point I made in “Can you be the ultimate origin of your own choices?” Hobart makes an explicit comparison later:

After all, it is plain what the indeterminists have done. It has not occurred to them that our free will may be resolved into its component elements. (Thus far a portion only of this resolution has been considered.) When it is thus resolved they do not recognise it. The analytical imagination is considerably taxed to perceive the identity of the free power that we feel with the component parts that analysis shows us. We are gratified by their nods of intelligence and their bright, eager faces as the analysis proceeds, but at the close are a little disheartened to find them falling back on the innocent supposition of a horse inside that does all the essential work. They forget that they may be called upon to analyse the horse. They solve the problem by forgetting analysis. The solution they offer is merely: “There is a self inside which does the deciding”.

This also describes what I called anti-explanations.

I can also recommend reading the whole article for a good exposition of a view of free will that I can get behind. I’ve never spelled out my view and arguments fully on this weblog, but Hobart does most of that here for me. There’s something more I want to say — and I have said some of it — but Hobart’s argument should already prove quite clearly how free will is nothing like contradicted by determinism.

Can free will solve the problem of evil?

I recently read a good post on the problem of evil by another blogger. There was one thing I disagreed about, however, and I thought it deserved a reply long enough to be its own article.

As for what the problem of evil (or theodicy) is, I’ll just quote the mentioned article:

One of the many variations of the problem goes as follows: “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?” This is often contributed to the philosopher Epicurus, summarized by the theologian Lactantius. However the actual authorship remains debated.

The point remains, if God is an omnipotent being, then how does evil exist without God himself being at least in some form evil?

Well, I would put it as “god must not be perfectly good” rather than “god must be evil” if evil exists, but never mind that now. What I’m actually taking issue with is the discussion of one alternative solution to the problem:

The second issue is that many people claim free will, or more simply any human action at all, creates this evil. This is a sort of pessimistic view, but still a valid one. It claims that as humans have the ability to choose their actions, the result of those actions create the very evil itself, not god. I always found this argument to be curious just based on the fact that it uses free will to justify both evil and God. The discussion of God and free will has had an odd history, and for many people the Doctrine of Predestination pops up in their heads, but nevertheless it is a valid argument. To me it seems in many ways the existence of free will negates the omnipotence of God, and therefore changes the entire essence of God for so many defending it.

The question that sorely needs answering now is: What is free will? What are the options for what it could logically be — and do those allow god to avoid the responsibility for human evil? Continue reading

Tiede ja yliluonnolliset selitykset: metodologisen naturalismin tarpeellisuus

Sulkeeko tämän tärkeän ja moninaisen inhimillisen toiminnan silkka luonne pois viittaukset yliluonnollisiin ilmiöihin? Millä tavoin kukaan voisi perustella sellaista väitettä?

-Alvin Plantinga (käännös omani)

No, kun kerran kysyitte…

Continue reading