Higher Concepts and Advanced Aliens

Part IV

An interview with Planetary Scientist David Grinspoon about his newest book, "Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life"

Visit Lonely Planets, Parts A: Introduction * 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * B: Encore

Astrobiology Magazine (AM): Religion and science have been intertwined throughout history, and although these two modes of thought are seen as separate and antagonistic realms today, the ties still exist. You note how they are both based on belief systems; for instance, Occam’s razor – the theory that the simplest explanation must be correct – is a scientific belief that may or may not be true. Could you comment on the relationship between science and religion today?

David Grinspoon (DG): It’s not a very healthy relationship is it? There are some scientists who think that religion ought to be stamped out. They are a minority, fortunately. And I don’t have much tolerance for religions that refuse to listen to science at all. These are like bad music videos. Why watch that channel when you live in the 21st century and there are better options? I think the relationship between religion and science ought to be fixed.

Many religious people have a very sophisticated knowledge of and appreciation for science, but they think we need something more than science. And guess what? I agree with them.

I think that science and religion can learn important things from each other. One of the more out-there ideas in the final chapter of "Lonely Planets" (called "Astrotheology") is that an intelligent species will only survive over cosmologically significant timescales if guided by a fusion of science and religion. Both scientific and spiritual progress are needed to survive natural disasters and avoid self-inflicted ones. So when we meet ET, or get a message from her, she may regard our making a distinction between the two as some primitive mental trap from which we need to be sprung.

One reason why astrobiology and SETI draw such huge public interest is that they are quests that are at once scientific and spiritual. People sense the need for a spirituality that is in tune with the modern world, and for a scientific culture that doesn’t shy away from responsibility, admits the limitations of science, doesn’t denigrate other belief systems, and is open to spirituality. Some scientists will hate that last phrase, but others will know what I mean.

Astrobiology puts our limits and responsibilities right in our faces, and brings us up close to some huge spiritual questions. What is the role of life and consciousness in the universe? Is that a scientific, philosophical, or spiritual question? I’d check "all of the above."

Sagan with Viking Lander
Sagan with mock-up of the Viking Mars lander, from the popular television series Cosmos.

AM: You say that scientific rationalists like Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke acknowledged that immortal, God-like beings could exist, yet they scoffed at people who arrived at this belief through religion rather than science. "The immortals," as you call them, would be so wise and advanced that their technology would be indistinguishable from magic. Do you think the religious concept of "God" and the scientific concept of "the immortals" is necessarily antagonistic?

DG: A lot of rational thinkers, pondering the possible state of a species who have billions of years to evolve and develop technology, have ended up describing creatures who sound a lot like angels and gods. The same people are often Skeptics with a capital "S," and they sometimes take a dim view of what is essentially the same belief, arrived at through religion instead of logic. I find this interesting.

Have you ever noticed that the word "God" tends to turn people’s brains off, no matter what they believe? Carl found the word extremely distasteful. My parents are the same way. Many liberal-minded humanists of their generation see organized religion and God as something that enlightened people should have liberated themselves from by now.

I grew up in an atheist household, so I think it’s easier for me to think about God as a philosophical concept, slightly more divorced from the oppressive role it has sometimes played, and continues to play, in human affairs.

For reasons I discuss in "Lonely Planets," I think that "the immortals" are likely to be out there, and they might seem like gods to us if they ever decide that it’s a good idea for us to meet them.

Arecibo Telescope
The massive star Eta Carinae. This star went through a giant explosive outburst about 150 years ago, suddenly making it one of the brightest stars in the southern sky. Credit: N. Smith (U. Colorado), J. Morse (Arizona State U.), and NASA

AM: Would perhaps the Big Bang provide a dividing line for distinguishing the immortals from God?

DG: I think I see what you mean about the Big Bang. The immortals could not have existed before the Bang, but don’t try telling any God what it can or cannot do! But that depends on what the Bang really was. If it was one in an ongoing and/or proliferating series of Bangs, if our universe is just one in a polyverse, which some believe, then the immortals may have figured out a way to make it through to a new universe. But they couldn’t have existed before the first Bang, right? Unless there is no beginning because time loops back on itself through an eleven-dimensional space. Did you ever notice how cosmological theories sometimes seem like Star Trek episodes?

AM: Another mind-bender is the notion that we may create our own reality through our perceptions. You say that could be one explanation for alien encounters, and yet also a limitation in trying to learn about the universe. You write, "Even though I believe in an external, material reality, that doesn’t mean that our perceptions and conceptions will ever be more than glimpses. Just think about the complexity of the simple act of observing a light in the sky – the optics, the electromagnetics, the neurophysiology, the cognitive processes. Even a ‘direct observation’ is far from direct."

DG: In trying to understand the UFO phenomenon, I came to realize that different people living in the same place see different things in the same sky. This is very different from saying that the stories are just made up. Of course many of them are. But belief really can influence what people see, which is pretty weird.

The act of seeing is complex in ways that we usually ignore. If you look at the history of science, scientists usually think they have the universe all figured out; they just have to work out the details. Then an idea comes along which blows away their comfortable notions. Why should this process be over? We can’t know which of our current "common sense" beliefs will go the way of the geocentric universe before the Copernican revolution.

Maybe somewhere in science’s difficulty in defining consciousness, or defining life, or understanding the role that these play in the universe, lie the seeds of the next great awakening.

AM: One of the most thought-provoking parts of your book dealt with complexity theory: the mathematical study of spontaneous pockets of order in a universe where the main trend is toward entropy. You say that complexity theory suggests that life on Earth is not a fluke, but a local flowering of a capacity for life inherent in our universe. But life isn’t just about self-organization in the face of entropy, is it? That would mean things like snow crystals and galaxies are alive.

DG: I do think that self-organization and escape from entropy are defining characteristics of life. But they’re not the only ones. I would add some kind of system of heredity that allows for evolution. That kills off the crystals and galaxies. But heredity and extreme self-organization may be one and the same at some level.

Since life on Earth is by far the most complex thing we know of in the universe, it is reasonable to think that the only way the universe knows how to achieve that level of self-organization is through heredity. And I think it is quite possible that nonlinear, self-organizing physico-chemical processes were key in the development of hereditary systems. So without the self-organization inherent in certain complex systems, we may never have gotten to RNA and DNA.

Looking for life by searching for extreme, and seemingly anomalous, departures from equilibrium on other planets is the single best, least Earth-centric strategy we have at present. James Lovelock, who developed the Gaia Hypothesis with Lynn Margulis, deserves a lot of credit for this strategy. He was doing astrobiology decades before it was hip.

AM: That leads to another point you make in the book, about aliens perhaps embedding hidden messages for us to stumble upon in the cosmos, our world, or even our own biology. Carl Sagan hinted at this idea in his book "Contact," where the number ‘pi‘ holds a message from a lost alien civilization. Could complexity theory point to evidence for superior alien technology?

DG: That is one of my favorite ideas in "Contact" – finding a message in pi. If you were trying to send a message that would be recognized by a sentient species, and you were really able to mess with the universe, then a cool way to do it would be to alter a basic physical constant – such as pi – to embed a message that would reveal itself to certain kinds of mathematical analyses.

Technology seems to accelerate life’s departure from equilibrium, both in terms of chemistry and the production of "nonequilibrium structures," constructions with shapes that are "unnatural," that would just be implausible in a completely random universe. So strange order and disequilibrium may be hallmarks of intelligence or technology.

This is an old idea. Kepler used this kind of argument to prove there is intelligent life on the moon. He thought since the "circles" on the moon are perfectly round, they must be cities. He didn’t know what we know today about impact cratering, in which the physics of explosions act as nearly perfect circular cookie-cutters.

When pulsars were first discovered, some people thought they might be alien messages. Then we learned that a spinning neutron star can act like a lighthouse, sending a repeating beacon into the universe. So mysterious order is a good thing to look for, but it could also fool us into thinking we have found the hand of ET in patterns that result from some physical process that we don’t yet understand.

There is something spooky about the way mathematical relationships are so enmeshed with the physical nature of our universe. Complexity theory allows us to follow this intimate relationship beyond physics and into the realm of biology. Nobody knows why equations work so well in describing things. Maybe it’s the handprint of God, or an ancient, advanced, powerful alien race. I saw the answer in its entirety once at a Grateful Dead show. I wish I could remember it.

David H. Grinspoon is a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder Colorado. His book Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life was published in November 2003. All rights reserved.

Related Web Pages

The Great Debate: Is Complex Life Common in the Universe?
Space Invaders
Cause for Optimism: Part III : The Drake Equation Revisited
Mighty Aphrodite
Venusian Cloud Colonies
Lonely Planets
David H. Grinspoon
Long, Strange Trips
PBS: Is Science Fiction Science? Michael Crichton, David Brin, Octavia Butler