Discussing
Science, wonder and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

Jason E. Summers

Derrick
February 21, 2012

I believe funding for programs like SETI is critical. As you mention in your article, this is type of research that captures talent. The side benefit is that we may actually discover something.

I do not agree that this type of low-probability science is akin to worship (religion). The research is based on facts with a provable hypothesis. Yes, there is a lot of estimation, but this is true of all areas of science, while religion relies on absolutely no evidence and is not testable (which is why we have faith).

Finally, my understanding of Christian theology does allow for extraterrestrial life. However, I don't have any great logical argument to support this belief, I just take in on faith.

Dwyenberg
February 21, 2012

I just want to say that the search for extraterristrial life is worthwhile. Because it does exist. I cannot help but think about angels etc. Are they ETs or do we count them?

Jason Summers
February 22, 2012

D,

The expressed interest of most SETI work is the search for other corporeal intelligent life - meaning life that is matter-based like people. Typically factors in the Drake equation are calculated on that assumption, and sometimes further on the assumption that life will be carbon-based, and so forth. Of course, looking for radio signals indicating intelligence doesn't necessarily assume a specific physical form the intelligent life will take, just that it is able to generate signals in the radio spectrum.

js

Jason Summers
February 22, 2012

Derrick,

I'll clarify that it's not because there are probabilistic elements that I equate science with worship. I'm more referencing the idea expressed in some old Teilhard de Chardin quotes: “I want to dedicate myself body and soul to the sacred duty of research,” and “Less and less do I see any difference between research and adoration” (from The Divine Milieu and The Phenomenon of Man). It's the notion that theoretical contemplation of nature is inherently religious in character. I think that's a good thing.

At the same time, while I think that religious belief is properly basic in the sense that belief arises out of perceiving the self-evident truth of particular claims (cf. http://www.jstor.org/pss/2215239), I'll disagree with you that religion as a whole relies on absolutely no evidence and is not testable. I'm not willing to draw so thick a line between these two epistemologies. I don't find basic religious claims to require evidence to be rationally acceptable (i.e., I think they are properly basic), but, at the same time, religion makes many testable claims and I don't exempt these from scientific analysis. There is a middle ground here between Aquinas and Kierkegaard made possible by reframing the question of "evidence."

js

JKana
February 23, 2012

I will have to recuse myself from commenting on whether SETI is a worthwhile cause. I have mixed opinions on that.

But I will say this: my theology certainly does allow for the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and one thing that SETI has ironically done for my faith (so far) is to confirm my assurance that the Genesis accounting for the uniqueness of humankind in the created order is, well, absolutely true. And one way I account for that is my faith in biblical statements concerning humankind uniquely among all creatures--including, presumably, any extraterrestrial creatures--bearing the Imago Dei.

Even if SETI someday yields fruit, I am highly skeptical that it will dethrone biblical antrhopology. I expect it would only affirm it.

Thanks for this excellent discussion.

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