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Do you believe aliens exist?

January 10, 2011

aliensOr, to be more precise, do you believe aliens at least as intelligent as humans exist?

Do you believe that such aliens do not exist?

In my recent forays in the internets as an “agnostic,” I’ve come across arguments of “outrage” and “ridicule.” What do these arguments look like? Something like this:

x is an outrageous, ridiculous concept. Therefore, you should believe it doesn’t exist.

The problem with the argument from outrage, which I think is a variation of the argument from incredulity, (EDIT: no, wait, there is an appeal to ridicule) is that what is “ridiculous” or “outrageous” is a subjective matter, and when you point this out, people don’t really like it.

For example, people will say that the concepts of specific deities are ridiculous and outrageous, but this really changes by culture. For example, many atheists I know will actually argue, “Zeus is such a ridiculous concept. No one believes in him anymore. We shouldn’t be afraid to assert that Zeus does not exist. And eventually, people will realize how ridiculous modern gods are.”

The cultural situatedness of this argument glares at me. Because obviously, today, most people don’t think modern god concepts are “ridiculous.” Atheists who argue from ridiculousness try to account for this in various ways (e.g., the majority of the world’s population are deluded/deceived/tricked and atheists are the only people really in on the game.)

What intrigues me is how there are certain assertions embedded in this understanding. Some people I know seem to believe that while getting rid of god  concepts certainly doesn’t eliminate all “ridiculous” beliefs, IF people could just become more like them, then they would be free of these obviously ridiculous concepts. These people don’t think twice about their potentially holding cultural beliefs that would be recognized as ridiculous in any other culture or context.

It seems to me that the appeal to ridiculousness or outrageousness fails to miss something. Maybe the ridiculousness or outrageousness of something says more about a *person’s* (or culture’s) reaction to that thing than it says about the probability or improbability of that thing. So, supposing that Zeus/unicorns/Santa don’t exist, it takes a bit more to show this than to say, “Well, these concepts are all ridiculous!”

I think that Zeus, unicorns, Santa, and God are all nuclear wastelands of topics. Maybe people are too steeped in their feelings of “ridiculousness” to step away from those feelings for a second.

So, is there virgin soil?

Maybe, maybe not.

I think aliens are a promising topic because of their relative cultural neutrality.

Aliens don’t seem to be ridiculous. Or outrageous. And yet, with a few parameters (e.g., aliens at least as intelligent as humans), we have a concept that has ambiguous probability. We can consider arguments both *for* and *against* the existence of intelligent alien species and none of them seem overwhelmingly ‘ridiculous.’

alien bursting from chestThe consideration of alien lifeform existence also allow us to evaluate the poorness of our probabilistic methods. Just taking the Drake equation on its own, I think a lot of people can recognize that most of the variables are absolute guesswork. People have to grapple with Fermi’s Paradox. Even more fun — despite the relatively “neutrality” of aliens, there are still people who claim certain controversial evidences for aliens (e.g., abductions, conspiracies). What are we to make of these and should they impact what we make of aliens in general?

And so I wonder what we can conclude from this relatively neutral example. Do we conclude that the “reasonable” position is to believe nonexistence until otherwise shown, or neither believe in existence or believe in nonexistence? Or are believing in existence and believing in nonexistence both reasonable positions? Or is one more reasonable than the other? Or is it all in the eye of the beholder?

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29 Comments
  1. All reasonable people I know agree that there “must” be sentient alien life “out there,” “somewhere.” The people I know who believe this argue simply that the universe is too big and there are too many planets for life “out there” not to have evolved similarly to life on our planet.

    I’m sort of intrigued by the theory that earth life actually began on Mars, if only because it suggests that conditions that make life possible here could be replicated in a good many other places. If on another planet right in our solar system, why not in our galaxy? Why not on many planets in many galaxies in a universe whose size we can only guess at?

    This is not, however, a “neutral” question in relation to belief in God, however… For example, Tom Paine, in the Age of Reason used recent insights into the nature of the cosmos and the subsequent speculation about the likelihood of life on other planets to argue specifically against Christianity (and in favor of Deism). He suggested that in order to maintain Christian beliefs, one would have to believe that Christ was incarnated multiple times on many different planets, a notion which he found “ridiculous.” There have been numerous Christian arguments against belief in life on other planets for similar reasons…

    Mormons, of course, have scriptures acknowledging God’s authorship of many worlds, and stating that God in fact resides on a planet in a distant star system. Evangelicals have ridiculed this Mormon belief in The Godmakers.

  2. I’ve heard the arguments that people say there “must” be sentient alien life “out there” “somewhere,” but I don’t see as many people taking it further to say that there “must” be sentient alien life at least as developed as humans are. As you go on to allude, even for people who say there “must” be sentient life “out there” “somewhere”, it’s not certain, for example, that they have religion — much less a religion to differ from human religions. On the one hand, this one technicality shouldn’t be too much of an unlikely addition to the standard scenario…but to some people, it seems sufficiently less likely.

    And then, of course, you have those who want to argue that the vastness of the universe doesn’t necessarily mean that it is all that hospitable (and then you have people who counter that this is an unreasonable stance to take and blah blah blah)

    I think you miss my point on the “neutrality.” I’m not saying that aliens have nothing to say (or imply) about Earth religions. I’m saying that people do not have such gut reactions about the “obviousness” or “ridiculousness” of the concept of aliens as people on all sides of the religion discussions do. If people have reservations against the concept or a particular affinity in favor of the concept, it’s often not because of intuited (read: gut reaction) sense, but something else.

  3. Seth R. permalink

    The problem is that a lot of atheists don’t content themselves to arguing against bad behavior possibly associated with religion (like honor killings, or female circumcision for instance), but rather try to argue against any religion at all.

    This doesn’t really work because the only ways to do this are:

    1. Argue that religion is “just silly” which runs into the problems you noted. It basically turns into an interminable “yes it is – no it isn’t” kind of exchange, which benefits no one.

    2. Argue that religion overall tends to be harmful rather than beneficial. This runs into the problem of correlation vs. causation. You can find both good and bad among religious societies and individuals, as well as good and bad among irreligious societies and individuals.

    Often these kind of arguments tend to thrive on a certain ignorance of history on both sides. They also usually suffer from a problem of defining what “religion” or “atheism” is. For example, Stalin apparently according to some atheists, wasn’t really an “atheist” but instead a species of “religious” guy.

    But if you’re going to call Stalin religious, it seems to water the definition of “religious” down so much as to call just about any bad behavior I don’t like “religious.”

    Likewise, you’ll get religious people saying that the Crusades weren’t really “religious.” Which also seems to restrict the definition of the word unduly.

    This is the main problem with the New Atheist argument.

    It’s a pointless quagmire that was never subject to being resolved in the first place.

    They’d be better served just focusing on stuff we agree is bad behavior and aiming for consensus among both the religious and irreligious.

  4. The human tendency to take shortcuts and make biases is a culprit. These are not strictly bad things, since they are necessary in order to function as a human being. If someone tells me they can teach me how to get rich quick for only $9.95 a month, I can make the quick leap of judgement that this claim is ridiculous and scammy, and even though that does not follow logically from the claim, it is based on past experience and still serves me well. Having a subjective notion of “ridiculousness” can be a shortcut formed by prior experience and knowledge.

    Just accusing something of being ridiculous is not a strong argument, but sometimes positing something ridiculous is an attempt to establish a tiny bit of common ground in a religious argument. It is not about saying “your God is as ridiculous as this ridiculous thing”. It is about saying “if we can both agree that this thing over here is ridiculous, I’d like to make the point that I have just as much reason to believe this thing as you have to believe in your God, and if you disagree (which is likely), then I challenge you to argue your case.” Now for all I know the believer may make a good case against that, and perhaps then they’ll get into where the meat of the disagreement lies.

  5. Seth R. permalink

    Yes Carson, this is the “flying spaghetti monster” cliche that has more than worn out its welcome.

    The problem is that the analogy doesn’t work. the FSM didn’t inspire much of anything in particular other than sycophantic Internet giggling. The same cannot be said of monotheism, for instance. So the comparison simply doesn’t work out that well.

    The problem, in summary, is that the other object of common ridicule can only be attached to the notion of God by assertion.

    Assertions that not everyone agrees with.

  6. In my view, the analogy did work precisely because it teases out of you some of the reasons why you think the analogy doesn’t work. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the difference to you seems to be that FSM inspires only sycophantic Internet giggling whereas monotheism inspires cathedrals, poignant art, rich culture, etc. At the very least, this opens an enlightening view into your reasons for belief, or your epistemology. You consider what an idea inspires into the equation of deciding whether it is true. This is interesting.

    Of course, FSM is also used as a way for nonbelievers to thumb their noses at believers. Both sides throw poo and accuse the other side of throwing poo, and there are those that throw poo at both sides claiming to be above the fray. I am of course superior to all of them.

  7. Well, I suppose the analogy would be to your discussion in another post on agnosticism vs. atheism.

    If you look at aliens as something that may or may not exist, it’s sort of on a par with looking at God as a being who does or does not exist.

    But you’re right, it’s quite a different thing to, on the one hand, evaluate the likelihood of aliens’ existence, and on the other hand to have a relationship with aliens (such as those who believe they’ve been abducted by aliens). Then it does become a much more emotional issue…

  8. The question of the existence of extra-terrestrial sentient life (regardless of whether we have been “visited”) is different than the question of the monotheistic god in that we have tangible, inter-personal evidence that sentient, technologically sophisticated life came into existence at least once here on Earth. This makes it easily defensible to believe that it has probably happened elsewhere as well.

    The monotheistic god lacks such tangible, inter-personal evidence. The evidences given are usually metaphysical or personal. Such evidences are relatively weak in comparison.

  9. Seth R. permalink

    Carson, I’ve always been big on the inherent power of ideas.

    “I am of course superior to all of them.”

    Well, yes… that goes without saying.

  10. Boy, Seth, you’re no closer to understanding the FSM argument than you were a year ago.

    Shorter Seth R.: The Flying Spaghetti Monster argument is specious because nobody ever made music or art about the FSM. Elohim is totes real though.

    Would you argue that the Greek and Roman gods exist? Many great works were ‘inspired’ by them.

    The fact is, you have as much evidence in favour of Elohim as anyone else has for the FSM or any other deity.

  11. Jonathan,

    I just want to say that is a really good point that I didn’t consider (but has since appeared elsewhere in another conversation on the subject, making me realize there’s something to it).

    Daniel,

    I’m actually curious as to how Seth will respond, although I imagine it will include something like, “FSMs are incomparable to Roman and Greek deities for the same reason” It isn’t like refuting the FSM comparison is an argument for the Judeo-Christian God’s existence, or even that the inspirational quality of the idea is an argument for the existence — so similarly, it doesn’t necessarily argue for Greek and Roman deity existence.

    It’s saying that the whole thing is a smokescreen anyway. You don’t show the unlikeliness, the ‘ridiculousness,’ the ‘outrageousness,’ or the incredulity of concepts that inspired (insert quite substantial list here) by comparing them with concepts that inspired (appropriations of actually famous art with noodly appendages.)

  12. Seth R. permalink

    Daniel,

    That’s because the Greek gods were far closer to the truth than stuff like the tooth fairy or FSM ever will be.

    So yes, the stories of Zeus and company do have more truth and value to them than the popular models for comparison used by the new atheists.

    So comparing Jesus Christ to Zeus, you’re at least getting closer.

    The FSM argument is just plain stupid.

  13. or even that the inspirational quality of the idea is an argument for the existence

    In this case I believe it is being used an argument for existence. I would never claim that FSM has inspired better art or culture.

  14. Seth R. permalink

    It’s not really an argument for existence, but an argument from utility.

    But the FSM analogy IS being used by some atheists as an argument AGAINST the existence of God.

    And it doesn’t work for the same reason the argument from utility doesn’t work FOR the existence of God.

    Really all the argument boils down to is appeal-to-ridicule based on an inside joke that only people who already agree with you are going to buy into anyway.

  15. I claim that I have just as much reason to believe in the existence of FSM as I do to believe in the existence of the christian God. If you don’t think that is true, then give a reason. Saying that the comparison is stupid because of a difference in utility of belief is not a response to that claim.

    If we want to talk about the utility of believing in either one, then that is a completely different conversation, one in which I might be inclined to agree with you, though with several caveats.

  16. Seth R. permalink

    Well if you are asking for a mere reason to believe in God, the utility argument fills that role.

    We would, of course, agree it is not a logically sufficient reason. But it is a reason.

  17. This is fascinating to me (and not in a snarky sense at all). I feel like I’m wired differently than believers. I just can’t not care about the objective truth of things, like whether God actually exists. My brain will not let me give in to a belief if I am not convinced of its objective truth, regardless of how comforting or inspiring that belief is. If I had the power to choose to believe in it, I would have never disaffected in the first place. I only stopped believing because it became clear to me that as beautiful and comforting as I thought the gospel was at the time, it was almost certainly not true. There were so many failed expectations that the church had given me that its beauty and comfort to me were quickly diminishing.

    If I don’t get evidence that the Spirit actually exists and speaks to me, then I can’t make myself believe in it. If my gut feeling tells me there is no afterlife, I can’t just choose to believe there is.

    I’m beginning to think that many people have this strange ability to change their beliefs without evidence. Is it an inborn trait, or do people refine it over time? I can see how this ability would be advantageous and also disastrous, depending on how it is applied. I’ve heard that athletes who convince themselves that they are much better than they really are will end up performing a little better because of it.

    Most atheists I imagine care deeply about whether something is actually true or not, and they frequently point out the disastrous effects of willfully believing something that is not true or has no evidence. Believers don’t care so much about whether something is actually true and they will point out all of the good effects of believing in whatever it is they have convinced themselves of.

  18. Seth R. permalink

    The problem is – religion is largely a participatory and experiental thing. It’s not something subject to proofs outside that realm of personal experience – as most religion freely admits when you boil it down.

    So if you haven’t actually tasted it for yourself, then I don’t see much of a role for me in convincing you otherwise. Because until you do experience it, there won’t be any proof I can present that you will be compelled to accept.

    To me, saying that theism ought to be provable in online debates is kind of similar to rejecting a Shakespearean sonnet because “it lacks a testable hypothesis.” It kind of misses the point entirely.

  19. I think religion should at the very least be provable in the following cases:

    Determining whether a gay person should undergo a program to become straight or live their entire life in celibacy.

    Determining whether we should care about the environment if God is just going to blow it all away and renew it anyway.

    Determining whether condoms are okay to use.

    Determining whether people who leave the church are evil.

    Determining whether you should subject yourself to a particular spiritual leader.

    Determining whether a historical account is accurate.

    Determining whether young women should be taught to conform with gender roles set out by the religion.

    Determining whether women should accept polygamy.

    Determining whether modern medicine is okay to use.

    Determining whether black people are less valiant than white people or if they are cursed.

    Determining whether higher education is a tool of the devil.

    I could list more, but we’ll go with those for now. In each of those cases, a religion can and does make religious claims that are potentially very damaging to people’s lives if they are not actually true yet are accepted. I care about that.

  20. Seth, I may be missing the point of your comparison, but a Shakespearean sonnet doesn’t make truth claims. If a religion makes truth claims (e.g. the existence of God) then it puts itself in the realm of proof. Even things that are “participatory and experiential” require proof when they make claims about reality (like virtually all religions do). Perhaps for you religion is mostly about experience and community, but you are not a mainstream religionist.

  21. Seth R. permalink

    Jonathan, religion makes two different kinds of truth claims (and yes, I’m oversimplifying):

    1. Metaphysical claims about some overarching reality – existence of God, etc.

    2. Claims about stuff here and now that is or is not supposed to be or happen.

    You can apply what you said to #2, but not really to #1.

    But that doesn’t stop an awful lot of new atheists from trying.

  22. The problem is that religion starts getting into normative declarations right off the bat, which all fall into category 2, and justifications for these declarations inevitably come from category 1.

  23. Seth R. permalink

    So why not just focus on category 2 and leave the other stuff alone?

  24. Because when we approach religionists about category 2 complaints they send us to the category 1 office.

    Non-believer: “Look, gays are okay. Leave them alone, please.”

    Believer: “Hey don’t look at me. God said it.”

  25. Seth R. permalink

    Actually, the correct option would be “no, even assuming he does exist, he didn’t say it – here’s why…”

    • Seth R. permalink

      Not that this works when you’re dealing with a real die-hard, of course.

      But fortunately, those guys are a very, very small minority of the population.

  26. PS, I definitely believe in Zeus.

  27. But what do you really mean by “believe” and “Zeus”? ;)

  28. But what do you really mean by “believe” and “Zeus”?

    Ay, there’s the rub. I’m not even consistent about it from one day to the next, either.

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