Skeptical Science

I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy. Richard Feynman

When I sit on a tropical beach I like to read a fat book. Therefore, while recently on vacation, I started a big book on the history of Western science. It’s a good popular account of science from the renaissance to the present. But its introduction offers a view of the universe and of life which though typical of many scientists is profoundly unscientific.

Its introduction declares that “The Earth is and ordinary planet, the Sun is an ordinary star…and the Milky Way itself is just an ordinary galaxy.” It continues, “[A]ll you need to make human beings out of amoebas is the process of evolution by natural selection, and plenty of time.” This view of things exemplifies the trouble otherwise good scientists often get themselves into when they allow their biases to get in the way of scientific thought.

While the Earth is not at the center of the universe it seems to be at the center of life. Our inability to find life anywhere else is enough to make the Earth, Solar System, and Milky Way each extraordinary. In fact the best hypothesis about life is that it exists nowhere else in the universe. Thus we should declare that our planet, star, and galaxy are each unique rather than that they are even less than ordinary. Nevertheless, many, perhaps most, scientists hypothesize that life exists all over the universe.

The reason the first hypothesis (life is no where but on Earth) is superior to the view that life is spread throughout the universe is that is can be easily disproved while its opposite can never be dismissed. As soon as life is found somewhere else the hypothesis is finished. If you posit that life exists elsewhere in the universe not finding it today, next year, or next millennium doesn’t preclude it showing up the day after.

Enrico Fermi’s withering response to the suggestion that intelligent life existed elsewhere in the universe – to the effect of “Well where are they?” – illustrates the view that life, at least intelligent life, is unique to Earth. He was saying, in effect, that if the universe is 13 billion or so years old and if life has existed on earth for only a few billion years it should have arisen earlier than on Earth all over the universe if the development of life were a frequent event. There should be civilizations far more developed than ours all over the universe and their presence should be easily discernible because of their far advanced technologies. Since there’s no sign of them the likelihood is that they don’t exist. Thus “Where are they?”

According to my fat book on science and its ilk life is just a “complicated form of chemistry”. The best scientific thought states that life spontaneously arose about 2-3 billion years ago. As far as we know this “complicated form of chemistry” happened just once. Yet with a sample size of one many scientists feel comfortable generalizing that it should happen any time similar or favorable conditions occur anywhere in the universe. While this is possible the odds against life spontaneously arising may be so great that if the experiment were repeated a 100 trillion or more times it would fail. Life may be a gigantic sport – an outlier so far from the norm that it is essentially a one time event. Rather than be blasé about a “complicated form of chemistry” a scientist should wonder how it ever happened. It’s a phenomenon that we understand only a little better than did Aristotle and which we have little hope of duplicating in a lab in the foreseeable future.

The three essential questions in science are how did the universe start? How did life begin? And how did human consciousness arise? To state that the transition from amoebas to humans requires nothing more than time renders the last of the three seminal problems fatuous. That it happened once does not make the jump inevitable

Again this is another experiment (the development of intelligent life) with an n of one. Anyone who has ever worked in a lab knows how easy it is to get almost any result one time. The odds against a one celled organism evolving into an animal that uses symbolic logic, builds intricate tools, and asks about its place in the cosmos may be even greater than those against the development of life itself. And to get intelligent life you first have to get life. Thus the two long shots become a sequence that may be rarer than anything else in the universe.

Scientists, who rightly declare the spontaneous generation of life to be impossible, except for the one time we know it happened, often have no trouble hypothesizing that it must be happening willy-nilly all over the universe.

The eagerness with which many scientists downgrade the Earth and Solar System to the status of a cosmic backwater seems to stem from an animus towards religion, obviously the result of the overt hostility of the altar to the lab that typifies much of the past relationship between the two. It’s as though many scientists still haven’t recovered from the shock of Galileo’s trial. The aggressive hostility expressed by many scientists to religion is distinctly anti-scientific. How can science say anything about the existence of a God who exists outside of time? Yet the vast majority of scientists are vigorous, almost religious, atheists. But religion has no bearing on the statistical likelihood of life’s frequency or its uniqueness, nor is it necessary to get the universe up and running. Though science has just as much trouble getting the universe started as it does with life and consciousness. It is likely that a single satisfactory theory for the origin of the universe will never emerge. Ironically, science is as faith based as religion. At some time a scientist has to accept a starting point from which all his work derives. He takes it as a given that his starting conditions are as he assumes.

A few conclusions about life seem scientifically justifiable. The odds against life arising from inanimate matter are great – so great that it might have happened just once. Evolution follows no plan. Once a species arises its possibilities are infinite and impossible to predict. Life, once begun, does not necessarily have to evolve to intelligent life. Thus the trip from amoeba to human requires more than natural selection and time. An extraordinary amount of luck is needed. Humans are quite likely the only source of abstract thought anywhere in the cosmos. The Earth certainly occupies a special celestial place not because of its location, but because it teems with life in an otherwise outwardly dead universe. Therefore while magic is not needed to explain the universe its existence is certainly a magical metaphor.

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