Do you believe aliens 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.’
The 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?