August 20, 2003

· Philosophy

Just read “E.T. and God,” an article by Paul Davies in the current Atlantic Monthly about what would happen to religion if extraterrestrial life of any sort were discovered. The author tends to slide about between that question and the narrower issue of what would happen to the theologies of the major world religions, especially Christianity. As Davies himself notes, the discovery of E.T. would do all kinds of things for groups like the Raelians. (Funny how their clone story dropped off the map, by the way. Whatever happened to the allegedy respectable science journalist who was going to verify their claims, I wonder?)

Davies shows a marked weakness for the argument from design, and in particular its “anthropic principle” subgenus:

If life is found to be widespread in the universe, the new argument goes, then it must emerge rather easily from nonliving chemical mixtures, and thus the laws of nature must be cunningly contrived to unleash this remarkable and very special state of matter, which in turn is a conduit to an even more remarkable and special state: mind.

He also paraphrases a biologist:

Simon Conway Morris, of Cambridge University, makes his own case for a “ladder of progress,” invoking the phenomenon of convergent evolution—the tendency of similar-looking [sic] organisms to evolve independently in similar ecological niches … Conway Morris maintains that the “humanlike niche” is likely to be filled on other planets that have advanced life. He even goes so far as to argue that extraterrestrials would have a humanoid form. It is not a great leap from this conclusion to the belief that extraterrestrials would sin, have consciences, struggle with ethical questions, and fear death.

Hey, why stop there? I bet they also have homologues to non-fat vanilla lattes, frat parties and New Labour. I remember seeing a standup comic do a routine where he said he was an alien from a distant galaxy, where life was wholly different from Earth. “We have no concept of love, and no death,” he said, “and a different-shaped gearstick on the Honda Civic.”

As for the anthropic principle—the idea that the fundamental physical constants of the universe are so tightly calibrated that life could not have happened if any of them were a tiny bit different, and hence that the Universe was waiting for, e.g., Orange County to emerge—well, it’s always seemed like a lot of badly-reasoned old cobblers to me. It’s a bit like wondering how eggs know what shape eggcups are, or feeling pleased that God has organized things in such a way that the sun rises in the morning, just when people are ready to go to work.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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