Friday, February 6, 2009

In space, no one can hear you scream

Getting back to the why are we here, how did we get here, and is it beer hour yet? Continuing on the atheism vs. agnosticism theme, another reader comment:
Somehow, both the atheists and theists seem to think that they get to be null hypothesis. Especially the atheists. That they are the null hypothesis --- there is no God -- and the theists have to prove that there is one. Since there is no evidence, the null hypothesis can't be rejected.

But that's dumb hypothesis testing. We don't allow null hypotheses that are unproven. The true null hypothesis is "I'm not sure if there is a God." Given that, we need evidence one way or another. And we just don't have it. That points toward the null being agnosticism. And it's a decent working definition, too.

But I think there's a greater obscurity here. Because atheists seem to want to rest the proposition of where the universe came from on the question of whether there is a God or not. They seem to think that if there is no God, then their version of universe history is correct. But again, that's biasing a particular null hypothesis. You can't say, "I found some candy under my pillow last night. And since you can't prove there is an Easter Bunny, then the candy must have appeared there via natural evolution."

In regard to time being long, we wrap back to my favorite atheist brain teaser: the aliens. Most secular humanist atheists seem to believe that aliens must exists, because the universe is far too big, and time far too long for them not to exist. But we don't have any evidence whatsoever. So under atheistic reasoning, we can't reject the null that they don't exist. But if aliens don't exist, all of a sudden the case for God gets a lot, lot stronger. The universe is very large, remember, and time is very long.

My reply to this is essentially the purple monkey reply, as in, I don't believe that the true null hypothesis on whether there is or is not a purple monkey living on the moon is that we don't know. At some point one needs to acknowledge that the tremendous body of ever-growing knowledge from the science community about evolution and its ramifactions and its proven testable hypotheses is not in any way comparable to religious traditions that are hundreds if not thousands of years old, when solar eclipses were crap-your-pants events. To ignore the historical context for where each of the hypotheses -- there is a god, there isn't a god -- or to shrug one's shoulders and say, eh, they're equal, well, that's too much of postmodern relativism for my taste (and as the purple-monkey analogy provider noted, not really consistent with how anyone actually lives their life).

Now, the alien bit, that's interesting. It immediately reminded me of an article I read in Technology Review a little while back about The Great Filter (no link to it, but I have the PDF if you're interested in reading the whole thing). The author starts with this statement:
The next decade might see a Mars Sample Return mission, which would use robotic systems to collect samples of Martian rocks, soils, and atmosphere and return them to Earth. We could then analyze the samples to see if they contain any traces of life, whether extinct or still active. Such a discovery would be of tremendous scientific significance. What could be more fascinating than discovering life that had evolved entirely independently of life here on Earth? Many people would also find it heartening to learn that we are not entirely alone in this vast, cold cosmos. But I hope that our Mars probes discover nothing. It would be good news if we find Mars to be sterile. Dead rocks and lifeless sands would lift my spirit. Conversely, if we discovered traces of some simple, extinct life-form--some bacteria, some algae--it would be bad news. If we found fossils of something more advanced, perhaps something that looked like the remnants of a trilobite or even the skeleton of a small mammal, it would be very bad news. The more complex the life-form we found, the more depressing the news would be. I would find it interesting, certainly--but a bad omen for the future of the human race.

Essentially, the author argues that, because we haven't seen any traces of life elsewhere yet, life must be rare. And there are two ways in which life can be rare, which he calls the Great Filter:
The filter consists of one or more evolutionary transitions or steps that must be traversed at great odds in order for an Earth-like planet to produce a civilization capable of exploring distant solar systems. You start with billions and billions of potential germination points for life, and you end up with a sum total of zero extraterrestrial civilizations that we can observe. The Great Filter must therefore be sufficiently powerful--which is to say, passing the critical points must be sufficiently improbable--that even with many billions of rolls of the dice, one ends up with nothing: no aliens, no spacecraft, no signals. At least, none that we can detect in our neck of the woods.

In other words, let's say that the Great Filter is behind us -- perhaps the transition from prokaryotic to eukaryotic is literally a once-in-a-universe event. Then that's good for us, because it suggests that doom does not lie around the corner. But if the Great Filter is in front of us -- say, every civilization that advances close to the point of space travel ends up blowing themselves up with incredibly powerful weapons -- well, that's obviously bad news.

While I do find fault in some of the arguments of the author, and while this article doesn't comment on the relative merits of atheism or agnosticism, it does make an interesting point that we should really hope that we are all alone. But getting back on track, I don't think our uniqueness or lack thereof in the universe really argues either way for the existence of god. Sure, if aliens landed tomorrow and laughed themselves silly at the idea of Jesus being the son of god, yeah, I could see how that could be problematic for the faith of a lot of Christians. Conversely, if aliens landed and had with them their own copy of the King James Bible, well, I'd probably need to hit up the confessional (assuming, of course, that the aliens weren't using the religiousity of our species as a way of infiltrating, controlling, and eventually enslaving us). I guess what I don't understand is how the the existence or non-existence of other civilizations really informs the god debate one way or the other.