Alien Intelligence

by John J. Miller on April 13, 2010 · 3 comments

in Blog Posts

  • Sumo

“Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case the idea is quite staggering,” wrote the late SF-author Arthur C. Clarke.

That’s the epigraph to The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, the new book by Paul Davies, who is the subject of this week’s NRO podcast. It’s also the basis of the first question I pose to him. He dodges it, but the details of his dodge are fascinating.

When I prepare for a podcast about an author’s new book, I don’t normally read the book cover-to-cover. I go through it carefully, get a handle on its major points, and write down a list of questions that will make for an interesting ten-minute conversation. In the case of The Eerie Silence, I couldn’t stop reading. It’s an engrossing book and Davies writes in crystal-clear prose. He also flashes humor, such as his inclusion of this quote from Bill Watterson, the cartoonist: “Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.”

Next week’s podcast: Lee Edwards on his new biography of William F. Buckley, Jr.


  • Chad Brooks

    1. Wouldn’t any intelligence contacted be hundreds, if not thousands and thousands of light years away? While it would be interesting to learn of the existence of others any dialogue would be very constrained. Those sending out a message would long be dead and the culture getting a response far different for the sender.

    2. C.S. Lewis thought about extraterrestrial intelligence both in essay form and in novels. He did not imagine it a threat to Christianity. It seems to me that Islam would be far more threaten by extraterrestrial life than Christianity. I don’t wonder at the lack of recent discussion because the core issues are asked and answered and the topic is so aligned with popular myth as to put off serious philosophers and theologians.

  • Richard L.A. Schaefer

    President Clinton did pay attention to the question of life on other planets. Recall that he held a big press conference about some kind of physical matter that was thought to suggest life on other planets. In the course of the presentation and reporting thereon, it was suggested that philosophers and theologians might have to rethink their ideas. Recall also that Carl Sagan was said to be obsessed with life on other planets. Some have interpreted this as a kind of substitute religion–as if finding life on other planets would make us no longer alone and as if the life on other planets would psychologically function as finding God (and meaning). A parallel idea was the suggestion in some commemorative issue of Life Magazine around 1960 where Arthur C. Clarke asserted that if we could establish a colony on another planet, we would have attained immortality. He probably meant that the human race would thus avoid extinction, but that is not the kind of immortality for which humans long and which is the basis of religious longings. Theologian Sebastian Moore noted that if we found intelligent life on other planets, that would just mean that we and they would then be alone together or lost in the universe in the sense that our and their religious longings would still not be met. Later in life, Sagan admitted that he had accepted as true overly optimistic estimates of the chances for life or intelligent life on other planets–an estimate made by one particular mistaken scientist. Recall also that Walker Percy inserted in one of his books (“Message in a Bottle”?) the query: If Carl Sagan is so wise about the universe, why is it that he hasn’t been able to master his personal relationships? What Percy was suggesting is that no one has all the answers, including Sagan; and that his comprehensive explanations should be taken with more than a grain of salt, not to mention deflation of cosmological expectations.

  • Tom Bethell

    John: One point neither you nor Davies made: The search for ETI has been driven above all by HOPE that such life will soon be found. Such a discovery would tend to validate the materialistic or naturalistic underpinnings of today’s science. Given enough places to look, the materialists assert — and in the universe there are billions and billions of such places — life is practically certain not just to arise but to evolve. That no such life has yet been found or detected from afar can therefore be taken as an ongoing rebuke to materialism. It has not yet been validated, despite a 50 year search.

    When scientists thought they had found a rock from Mars on the South Pole in 1997, the disappointment when it proved to be local, not extraterrestrial, was palpable. They weren’t just looking, they were hoping. A life-encrusted extraterrestrial rock would have been one more black eye for Christianity. (I agree with Davies’ comments on that score.)

    It’s quite sensible of the Vatican to ignore something that has not yet happened, and in my view is unlikely to happen.

    If life happened just once, on our Pale Blue Dot, Davies seems to think that would validate the disappointing conclusion that life is a “quirky accident.” How about the possibility that the solitary appearance of life would validate the idea that it has to be intelligently designed before it can arise at all? I don’t know if Davies says anything about that in his book, but he didn’t on the podcast.

    –Tom Bethell

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