Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Case for the Divine?

Today, I was grazing through my news feed when I found a post that linked out to an article in the Australian Business Review positing that the failure to detect intelligent life might be indicative of humanity being extra-special. Specifically, it posits that such specialness might be an argument for the divine.

Reading the article, the author makes one argument that particularly stands out to me:
As our knowledge of the universe increased, it became clear that there were far more factors necessary for life than Sagan supposed. His two parameters grew to 10 and then 20 and then 50, and so the number of potentially life-supporting planets decreased accordingly. The number dropped to a few thousand planets and kept on plummeting.
To me, this seems a flawed interpretation of what science has shown. To me, it's less a question of uniqueness of life than of life that is intelligent, technologically advanced and sufficiently proximal to us within a given temporal/spacial radius.

As noted in the article, science is telling us that there should be a mind-boggling number of planets within just our galaxy, let alone the universe as a whole. Also as noted in the article, even if only a small fraction of that mind-boggling number is in their host stars' habitable regions - where habitable is defined as capable of supporting lifeforms relatively similar to our own, water- and carbon-based biologies - you still have an absolutely huge number of planets that could potentially support life. Yet, in spite of this, there is apparent silence. So how do we explain this without resorting to "we're special and it may be because God made us special".

To my own mind, we have to take a different path to our conclusion. Admittedly, my path isn't one that necessarily says that we're unique in all the history of the entirety of the universe. We're probably unique, but it may just be a matter of timing.

First, let's surmise that there's a planet 50 light-years from Earth.

Then, let's further assume that this planet is capable of supporting some form of life.

Let's further assume that this other planet has had the capability to produce life that evolves to the point of sentience at least once (before calamity strikes or something else happens - see The Great Filter).

Let's further assume that this sentience has evolved civilization (before calamity strikes or something else happens).

Let's further assume that this civilization has progressed, technologically, to the point that they are broadcasting the type of detectable signals into space (before calamity strikes or something else happens) that we're expecting to be able to find.

Now, let's look at the history of signal-radiating life on our own planet. Using the most common understanding of the history of technologically-evolved life on this planet (because, who knows, maybe modern society isn't even as unique as our common understanding suggests), this planet has been leaking detectable signs of technological life for a little over 100 years. It's really only in the second half of that 100 years that the broadcasts were at both high-power and happening from significant portions of the planet's surface. It's also really only been in the second half of that 100 years that we've been listening for similar types of signs of life from other planets. In other words, we've really only been listening for 50-60 years.

What am I driving at? Even if, somehow, that planet 50 light years from ours evolved to the point of broadcasting and/or listening, there simply not a heck of a lot of temporal-overlap to when we would have had the opportunity to detect it or they ours. At minimum - and that's assuming that, as technologies advance, broadcasts within the spectrum we're listening in don't tend to disappear over time (e.g., broadcast methods are changed to other parts of the spectrum or using techniques that don't leak) - emanations from that planet 50 light-years from ours would have had to have started at or before we started listening (to account for the 50 years' communication-time/distance). If emanation of the sought-for signals started and ceased more than 50 years before we started listening - either due to technological changes or hitting the Great Filter - then that planet's signals would be past us and, likely, no longer detectable.

My point? To me, the apparent silence doesn't automatically indicate to me that we're unique - other than perhaps temporally. It doesn't even necessarily imply that there is even a Great Filter working against us discovering other life or even waiting ahead for us. By extension, such a lack of provable uniqueness doesn't indicate to me that we must be unique because of God.

In general, I'm both open to possibilities yet still a pretty skeptical person. Generally, I want evidence, one way or the other, to prove a given position before I'll buy in. To me, absence of evidence is not even remotely the same as evidence of absence.

Which, by extension means that, while I'm skeptical of the divine, I also don't rule it out.

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