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.

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All in the mind? The argument for idealism in Biocentrism

I reviewed the book Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding theBiocentrism Idealism True Nature of the Universe By Robert Lanza and Bob Berman earlier, and I was rather critical about it. I also promised to look more closely at the argument of the book that “external” reality depends on the mind to exist. Here I will do that, focusing mainly the “philosophical” beginning of the argument and much less on the quantum mechanical part.

The argument is began in chapter 3, “The Sound of a Falling Tree”. Readers familiar with such things may already see where this is going.

“If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no-one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Lanza (he’s the main author and I take the voice of the book to be his) comments that most people will automatically think that of course it does make a sound, but he contends that this is not what science says about the matter. He goes through what he thinks science does say. There’s nothing particularly new here, at least to me. When the tree falls down, it creates disturbances in the air, and these cause our experience of sound if we’re around to hear it. If we’re not, there’s just the disturbances in the air. Continue reading

Review: What Does a Martian Look Like? by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart

what-does-a-martian-look-likeCreatures… that are born pregnant; with twenty different sexes; that eat their own children; that can survive without water for a quarter of a billion years. Absurd? Not at all.

These are creatures alive on planet Earth. And they show us just how different alien life could be from anything we know.

What does a Martian Look Like? The Science of Extraterrestrial Life (also known in other editions as Evolving the Alien) sets out to do something seemingly impossible: to scientifically describe something we have never seen. The question it asks is what we can know about extraterrestrial life. Of course, we have never found any of that. And yet, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart also argue against imagining it will be just like life on Earth. Continue reading

Three philosophies: Knowledge, wisdom and… money?

money-or-somethingI’ve talked before about Nicholas Maxwell’s criticism of current practice and philosophy of science. I’ve written about it in Finnish here and here; here is the website of the group dedicated to this idea.

To put it shortly, Maxwell’s idea is this: Science commonly takes the idea of objectivity too far and in the wrong direction. Its underlying philosophy is what he calls the philosophy of knowledge. This emphasizes that only empirically testable claims have a place in science, as opposed to metaphysics or values.

This may sound like a good idea, and it would be, given the right interpretation. But it’s being given the wrong interpretation. Values or ideologies must not affect the results obtained from science, but they should guide what resources are spent on. When you are not allowed to consider values even at this point, you often end up spending resources on something useless or harmful. So developing countries may have much more need for new technologies or researched solutions, but there’s more money in solving first-world problems. Similarly, metaphysics must not be more important than empirical results, but every theory has background metaphysics anyway, so acknowledging those would allow scientists to understand better what they’re doing. Continue reading

Review: Biocentrism by Robert Lanza and Bob Berman

Biocentrism

Wait, quoting Deepak Chopra? Who exactly is this being marketed to?

Biocentrism purports to outline a new scientific hypothesis strongly suggested by both the results and the blind alleys of current science. According to this theory, life and consciousness must be understood as not being merely emergent phenomena in a universe built of physics, but something fundamental that the physical universe depends on. The main arguments combine metaphysical idealism from philosophy and an interpretation of the “observer effect” in quantum mechanics to conclude that physical things do not exist (or do not exist in a definite state) other than when they’re observed. There are also other conclusions like the unreality of time and space at the fundamental level.

Apparently Robert Lanza is supposed to be some kind of a new superstar in science — someone such that if anyone was going to revolutionise things, it would be someone like him — and Berman also a notable scientist. Nevertheless, their presentation here gives little reason to be convinced.

Continue reading

Essentialism and operationalism in philosophy

I just finished a remarkable little book called How to Think Straight about Psychology. It was remarkable because it was such a good introduction to what science is; you can read my review of it here. There was one point, however, where I felt like I wanted to write a reply, to explain that what was being said did not apply to philosophy the same way. At the same time, such a reply will illuminate something in science and philosophy. This is that reply.

In chapter three, “Operationalism and Essentialism”, there’s a section entitled “Why Scientists Are not Essentialists”, and it has a subsection called “Essentialists Like to Argue About the Meaning of Words”. I liked this as soon as I saw it, because this is the feeling I get in philosophy. Essentialism is roughly the idea that there are (or that we should find) some ultimate real nature of things that really define what they are. I think it’s generally more meaningful to say what you mean (by a word, say) and then say what is to be said about that meaning and its relationship to the world. Indeed, I’ve written before about “arguing about words” in almost the same sense. Continue reading

Review: How to Think Straight about Psychology by Keith Stanovich

How to Think Straight about Psychology is an introductory textbook for psychology students — but it’s also a great introduction to what I might call practical philosophy of science.

A lot of philosophy of science, when it’s under that label, is about things like “Can science be true if it’s socially constructed?” or “How can we prove induction works when we can’t use induction to do it?” I’ve heard it’s largely uninteresting to actual scientists. But there’s something else, too, something I’ve mainly come across in The Skeptic’s Dictionary — and psychology courses at our university, where this book (tenth international edition) is currently required reading. It’s about how science really works, the things you need to understand as a scientist. It’s also about why you need science instead of something else.

How to Think Straight about Psychology is an excellent introduction to these questions, as well as dispelling misconceptions about psychology specifically. It tells, among other things, how the public misunderstands psychology because they think of Freud and science because they think of Einstein. It goes through the basic methods of science in general and how these apply in psychology, and it keeps things colourful by using examples such as the Amazing Randi, Clever Hans the Wonder Horse who was thought to be mathematically able but was actually more of a mind reader, and of course that one guy who proved that a disease was not spread by feces by eating them. Still, these are just flavour, not arguments; everything here is scientifically based, and this is one of the rare places where it’s also made very clear why this matters. Pseudoscience is also discussed and it is shown just why it is so “pseudo-“. And why it is not harmless, either.

While much of the book is a kind of apology for psychology, there is towards the end a small but candid section about when — quite often — psychology itself is unscientific.

I recommend this book for anyone, even if not interested in psychology specifically, wanting to know the “secret” behind the success of science. It illustrates well the point I wrote recently about, that science is largely based on being really suspicious about every putative belief. If only more people understood these things, there would be a lot less nonsense around.

I’m also writing another post as it were in response to something said in this book, about essentialism in science and philosophy.

Rating: 4.5/5