Book Review

  • Issue 12 / October - December 1995

    Are We Alone?

    M. A. Rahim

    Implications of the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

    Project Phoenix, launched by NASA in 1992, is an effort to pick up artificial radio signals from space; the project is also known as SETI-search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Davies does give some historical and technical information about SETI in this book. However, most of it is taken up with (a) arguments for and against the expectation that there are life-forms somewhere else than earth; and (b) discussion of how our worldviews would be affected by the discovery of alien intelligence or alien life.

    The book is preceded by a long text from De Rerum Natura by Lucretius who, along with many ancients, believed that neither earth nor life upon it are unique. All beings belong to a kind; they come into being as the result of random associations of free-moving atoms. Therefore: life on earth must be one of a kind; the universal stuff of existence must have associated itself into other living forms.

    Believers have also proposed existences in other realms. Why would God have created so many other worlds if they are uninhabited? Could the infinite majesty of God be content with the worship of only the conscious inhabitants of the earth? A Muslim thinker of this century argued that celestial bodies may be the dwellings or vehicles of angels and other spirit beings fulfilling God s commands and glorifying Him.

    Would extra-terrestrial life be like the terrestrial one we know? The panspermia theory (pp.13-14) holds that the ‘seeds of life’ were blown about in space after the ‘big bang,’ landing here and there, and successfully on earth. Subsequent bombardments by inter-stellar material could also carry these ‘seeds’ around the universe. Thus, potential for life may lie buried belo<.w ground in many celestial bodies, awaiting the conditions (such as eventually occurred on earth) which draw it to the surface. There, it should evolve into forms comparable to those on earth. In principle, evidence could turn up which proves or disproves the panspermia theory. By contrast, that celestial bodies are inhabited by angels could never be disproved.

    Davies regards science-fictional accounts of aliens as re-workings, in contemporary terms, of the supernatural beings that feature in the religious and pseudo-religious heritage of most human societies. That heritage is fiction undisciplined by reference to what is really, objectively, in the world. Scientific speculation, on the other hand, Davies regards as a quest for the reality independent of humans, waiting to be discovered by them. The laws of physics are not fictions; they are statements in the language of mathematics, as exact as we can make them, of what really is there. Do these laws require that there should be, or only that there could be, life-forms elsewhere than on earth? Alternatively, do they tell us that life on earth is an incident so utterly improbable that, even with billions of light-years and possible locations, no amount of re-shuffling of molecules could ever result in another, similar incident?

    Attempts to tackle these questions turn upon our general worldview of what life is. Davies gives some attention to three such worldviews: (i) [life] was a miracle; (ii) it was stupendously improbable accident; and (iii) it was an inevitable consequence of the outworking of the laws of physics and chemistry, given the right conditions (p.15). He favours the third position on the basis of three philosophical principles: uniformity-the laws of nature are the same everywhere; they produced life on earth, they can do so elsewhere; plenitude-what can exist according to the laws of nature will exist, given the right conditions. For example, if physicists are able to describe the existence of a certain sort of particle within a mathematical scheme, they will (and do) find it to actually exist; mediocrity (or the Copernican principle, supportive of uniformity) the earth enjoys no privileged status; it is a typical planet in a typical star system in a typical galaxy.

    The discovery of an alien microbe with chemistry different from ours would demolish, Davies thinks, the view that life is an accident. Life (already improbable) could not happen twice within the portion of the universe visible from earth (an immense region but finite owing to the constraint of the speed of light). Similarly, he argues, the view of life as a Divine miracle which privileges the earth and its human inhabitants, would be demolished. If, however, the alien microbe shared enough features of earth chemistry, both these views could survive: believers would invoke the unquestionable omnipotence of God and non-believers some version of the panspermia theory.

    Davies devotes a whole chapter (pp.41-58) to the anthropic principle. This principle is in effect a version, palatable to modern scientific culture, of the argument for design. It holds that the universe runs according to specific laws and values (the so-called constants in nature) whose outcome is human consciousness capable of decoding those specific laws. Just any laws of nature will not result in conscious life; only these actual laws of this actual universe. Rigorously argued, the anthropic principle denies the possibility of conscious life elsewhere in the universe.

    Diverging from the anthropic argument, Davies proposes that the coming-to-be of consciousness is a general law of nature-not a law expressible mathematically, nevertheless a real, reliable propensity. Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon. He explains by analogy: individual water molecules are not ‘wet’; the property of ‘wetness’ is a real, emergent phenomenon that comes-to-be from the association of water molecules. The observed tendency in nature towards increasing complexity emerges in life which, with more of the same increasing complexity, emerges in consciousness.

    Davies is at pains to stress that he does not claim that the universe exists for human beings, only that they belong to it and it to them. He is glad to restore to human beings not a position of unique privilege but one of significance. The universe is a process of cosmic self-awareness; therefore, the emergence of consciousness elsewhere than on earth is to be expected to happen, not randomly, but as something really probable given conditions in which the laws of nature can operate.

    Believers may find this conclusion comfortingly like the often-repeated saying that God is a hidden treasure that longed to be known; His coming-to-be known is the reason that existence exists. But Davies is not seeking, nor expressing, any religious sentiment-unless the plea for ‘significance’ is reckoned a religious aspiration. His argument relates to only that part of human consciousness manifested in modem-scientific curiosity about the structures of the material universe.

    But human consciousness is more and other than this. It belongs to the inwardness of individual life, shaped by its experiences and reflections, of which the quest for scientific laws is (by volume) an almost negligibly small fragment. Further, consciousness is experienced by each person from within as responsibility, as questioning and answering about what he or she wills to do. This responsibility is more familiarly known as conscience. Its quest is not for scientific knowledge only but for value generally, and moral value in particular. Just as the language of science (i.e. descriptive language) is a very small part of the full potential of human language, so too the consciousness which Davies describes as an emergent property of intelligent life is a very small part of full human consciousness.

    The Qur’an criticizes those who want the issue of their lives settled once-for-all after they have said that they believe or do not believe. They fear the trials of experience and thought, action and imagination, through which their individual will to achieve value is proven. All religions have a cosmology, a view of how the universe came to be. But the objective of this cosmology (certainly in the Qur’an) is not to equip human beings with intellectual power in the universe but to locate them (individually) with a purpose and meaningfulness within it. That purpose and meaningfulness are, in Davies’ sense, emergent qualities, and their emergence depends emphatically on the will to achieve value as well as the will to achieve knowledge-the latter being best addressed as a part of the former. Our mortality guarantees the suspensefulness of the search for value, and challenges us to believe that there is a yet higher consciousness, a further emergence, elsewhere than in this earthly life.

    God is left out of modem-scientific speculation. Recourse to the concept of Divine Will is unhelpful for knowledge about the operations of the universe if, as is the case, knowledge is defined as a predictive (then manipulative) power to intervene in those operations. That definition of knowledge is simply inadequate to what human beings come to know of themselves and of there being a world to know themselves in.

    Because scientific knowledge is too narrowly conceived, it may be that SETI scientists will no more recognize the communications of aliens than we can ordinarily recognize the presence of angels. By Divine permission, angels or spirit beings can make themselves known to humans-in visions of some kind. No doubt, with the same permission, aliens too, if they exist, can make themselves known to us. Project Phoenix could be rather an expensive way to be waiting for such a miracle.


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