Monday, January 20, 2014

Not Even Wrong: How the belief that there is life on other planets is like believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster

P.Z. Myers has blogged on this post and, as usual, botched the job. My response is here.
There many scientists who believe that there is life elsewhere in the universe, and they seem to think that this belief is a scientific belief. But if you think about the criterion many scientists employ to determine what is and isn't science, you begin to wonder.

We are told by many New Atheist scientists in particular (who like to mark their territory) that a belief can only be scientific if it is falsifiable. This is their demarcation criterion of choice and they use it to ruthlessly guard the borders of science. This is one of the reasons, they say, we must reject Intelligent Design. This idea comes generally from Karl Popper, a philosopher, who said that a theory cannot be considered scientific merely because it admits of possible verification, but only if it admits of possible falsification.

It is this general idea that is behind Richard Dawkin's "Flying Spaghetti Monster." The Flying Spaghetti Monster exists just outside the range of the most powerful telescopes and the more powerful the telescopes, the further away the monster gets so that we are never able to actually detect him. There is therefore, no way in which belief in him may be disproven.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is Dawkin's send-up of the belief in a theistic God, belief in Whom has the same status as his imaginary monster: there is no evidence that can possibly count against his existence. God can never be disproven.

Okay, now take the belief that life exists somewhere else in the universe. This is a common belief among atheist scientists. In fact, Dawkin's himself conjectured that life on earth may have come from other planets. But how can that belief possibly be falsified?

There is a possibility that, if true, it can be proven true simply by finding it somewhere in our outside our own solar system. But if it is false, how could we ever know that it was false? If it was false and the universe were infinite, as many scientists believe, then would could never know it to be false even theoretically. And if it was false but the universe was finite, there is no practical way we could ever know it to be false even though it is theoretically possible--although there is some question whether it is even theoretically possible for humans to investigate a universe as massive as we know ours to be.

Even in this latter case of a finite universe theism would be less problematic since a theist could simply say "Well, we will find out after we die." And since everyone will certainly die, at least he has that to go on.

So there you have it. Belief in extra-terrestrial life. The Flying Spaghetti Monster. Theoretically indistinguishable. And taking this into consideration, how is believing in God any more or less scientific that believing there is life on other planets?

Let's see what the Peanut Gallery has to say about this one.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for some time,

It seems pretty clear to me that the flying spaghetti monster is just a euphemism for a supernatural god. So let's just talk about it using those terms.

Belief in God and belief in extraterrestrial life are somewhat the same, in that they are both extraordinary claims that we have no empirical evidence for right now. And indeed, if the universe is infinite, the latter is not falsifiable. But these beliefs are very different in character.

Name for me one scientist who says "I know for sure there is extraterrestrial life!" One scientist who claims that other people should change how they live their lives because of this belief.

At best, the most I've ever heard from a scientist is that extraterrestrial life is very, very likely. That is not the same as claiming to know. That is not belief. That is conjecture based on empirical evidence, whereas there is NO basis at all for the flying spaghetti monster's existence (that I'm aware of, at least).

They're similar in some ways, I suppose, but I think the comparison is unfair.

Martin Cothran said...

Anonymous,

My point had to do exclusively with the relative status of beliefs in regard to whether they were scientific or not. I don't see how the strength of a belief in a proposition would affect its scientific status. But maybe you could explain why you think it does.

In addition, it seems to me a gross overstatement to say that the most scientists don't "believe" there is life on other planets because they only consider it very, very likely. There are many religious believers who, from a sheer probability standpoint would say the existence of God is very, very likely (just read Pascal), but they also believe he exists.

We "believe" all kinds of things that are only likely. That's what faith is, functionally speaking: It jumps the gap from probability to certainty. (And, by the way, I never said they claimed to "know," only to "believe." Your comments seems to confound the two).

And what empirical evidence is there for the existence of life on other planets?

KyCobb said...

Martin,

I believe you are mixing up different ideas, whether intentionally or not, causing confusion. Not everything a scientist believes constitutes a scientific theory which could be falsified. A scientist could'e hypothesized that since there are an enormous number of stars like our sun in the universe, there could be a huge number of planets orbiting those suns, and some of those planets could be earth-like and therefore hospitable to life. Research has since confirmed that there are earth-like planets orbiting other stars, therefore it seems reasonable to hypothesize that life could exist on some of them. That isn't a falsifiable theory, but hypotheses can lead to falsifiable theories. For example, in 1996 scientists theorized that a meteorite from Mars contained fossilized bacteria, and other scientists falsified that theory by showing that the "fossils" could've had nonbiological origins. We can test a theory that Mars does or did have life on it, and we could also eventually do it on other bodies in our solar system, such as Europa. Scientists in SETI serach for potential alien messages from space, and if a signal is detected which appears could be a message, that signal can be tested and the theory that it was sent by an alien intelligence falsified. Now what is the difference between a hypothesis which could lead to a scientific theory which can be falsified, and a religious belief? A hypothesis is based on observable facts about the natural world. For example, we observed lights in the sky we call "stars." We eventually learned that these stars were suns much like our own, in vast numbers. Since our sun has planets, we hypothesized that these other stars may have planets as well, and through observation we learned they did, and that some of these planets are earth-like. We have also learned that water and amino acids exist in great abundance in the universe. Based on these observable facts about the natural universe, one can hypothesize that life may exist on one or more of these planets, even though a theory that life presently exists on any one of them cannot currently be tested, though in principle one could imagine future generations eveloping technology to send out deep space probes. A religious belief, in contrast, is not based on observations of the natural world, but rather its based on divine revelation, and cannot be falsified, even in principle.

Art said...

1. This entire post is as muddled and contrived as the link between Dawkins and the FSM. (Hint to Martin - Dawkins did not create the FSM, nor does he refer to the FSM as you seem to be claiming.)

2. As usual, Martin shows a blessed ignorance when it comes to the ways that scientists might approach the question of extraterrestrial life. Not to mention the general nature of scientific inquiry.

3. A question for you, Martin. Would you consider entities that possess the following properties to be living?

electrotactism (the ability to sense an electrical field)

aggregation (the ability to collect into colonies)

mobility (the ability to move more or less at will)

osmosis (the ability to absorb material from the environment)

permselectivity (the ability to selectively pass materials across a semi-permiable barrier)

fission (the ability to break about into smaller functional units)

reproduction (the ability to create functional copies)

conjugation (the ability to join directly to another)

communication (the ability to pass information directly to another)

excitability (the ability to generate and utilize energy, especially electrical fields)

Lee said...

> Based on these observable facts about the natural universe, one can hypothesize that life may exist on one or more of these planets, even though a theory that life presently exists on any one of them cannot currently be tested, though in principle one could imagine future generations eveloping technology to send out deep space probes.

How does that differ from hypothesizing, based on the appearance of design in nature, that there may have been a Designer?

Billy Henderson said...

KyCobb,
I am not sure why you explain "Not everything a scientist believes constitutes a scientific theory which could be falsified." What you say may be true, but that is not the discussion here. Please correct me if I've missed your point.

You may may be pointing out that the existence of God cannot be proven empirically while natural observations (life) can. Even if that is your point, it doesn’t change the observation that the necessity of falsification categorizes the possibility of life on another planet as something other than scientific.

The argument here is very simple: Some scientists believe that there is life elsewhere in the universe. Some scientists hold that a belief can only be scientific if it is falsifiable. While it could be proven that life exists elsewhere, it cannot be proven that it does not.

So, given the popular opinion of the New Atheist scientists, those other scientists who believe that there is life elsewhere are not basing that belief on science. The point here is not to agree or disagree with falsification as a criterion, but to point out the contradictions between scientific schools. All scientists who hold that theories must be falsifiable to be scientific cannot hold that the belief in life elsewhere is scientific.

Additionally, this points out how those critical of ID will herald an argument against creation without seeing how it contradicts some other argument they may employ at a different time. In other words, more shallow opponents of creation cackle when the standard of falsification is applied to anything having to do with theism. However, they never submit their own ideas to this standard and admit that some of their beliefs would be deemed unscientific under the same rules.



Art,
Fact check:
The founder of FSM is a guy named Henderson (no relation). However, when a better known person uses an idea it becomes associated with him. You said that Dawkins does not refer to FSM. Search "The God Delusion" by Dawkins, and you will see that he “happily” uses FSM, among other examples, to make the very point Martin has described about theories being "falsifiable."

KyCobb said...

Lee,

"How does that differ from hypothesizing, based on the appearance of design in nature, that there may have been a Designer?"

IDists are hypothesizing that life right here on earth is designed. So they ought to be able to present a falsifiable question for research, just as scientists are testing whether life existed on Mars.

KyCobb said...

Billy, I pointed out how the possibility of life existing on other planets is based on observable natural phenomenon and leads to testable research questions. Belief in God is based on divine revelation and doesn't lead to testable research questions. That is the difference. Not every thought a scientist has has to be falsifiable. But if its founded in observable phenomenon, it can lead to questions that can be tested. Religion doesn't do that.

Anonymous said...

http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2014/01/22/it-takes-a-creationist-to-pack-so-much-wrong-in-so-little-space/#comments

Lee said...

> IDists are hypothesizing that life right here on earth is designed. So they ought to be able to present a falsifiable question for research, just as scientists are testing whether life existed on Mars.

I don't think it's possible for them to prove it was designed; I think most of them settle for trying to look at the odds and ask, what are the odds that is wasn't.

Pretty much the same thing extraterrestrialists do.

Both seem to be unfalsifiable until the day comes when they reveal themselves.

KyCobb said...

Lee,

"Pretty much the same thing extraterrestrialists do."

No, Lee, what Idists do is not pretty much the same thing as scientists do. Scientists send probes to Mars to perform tests to see if there was a point in its past when it was wet and warm and possibly hospitable to life. Scientists examined a martian meteorite and suggested then debunked the theory that it contained evidence of ancient microbial life. Scientists in SETI search for possible signals and test them to falsify the hypothesis that they have an intelligent origin. IDists don't do anything like that. IDists take long debunked creationist critiques of evolutionary theory, change the terms to make them sound sciency, then regurgitate them.

Lee said...

> No, Lee, what Idists do is not pretty much the same thing as scientists do. Scientists send probes to Mars to perform tests to see if there was a point in its past when it was wet and warm and possibly hospitable to life.

Well! Here I was, thinking that the U.S. government sent probes to Mars.

> Scientists examined a martian meteorite and suggested then debunked the theory that it contained evidence of ancient microbial life.

Okay, so Mars is out. That only leaves, what? 999 trillion other planets to check?

> Scientists in SETI search for possible signals and test them to falsify the hypothesis that they have an intelligent origin.

Hold it a second. Do you mean, scientists are looking for some pattern in electromagnetic impulses that suggest the presence of some sort of design?

So I ask again: how is that different than what ID researchers do?

Motheral said...

So I ask again: how is that different than what ID researchers do?

The difference is that scientists look for actual EVIDENCE of something that is designed (in this case, EM sginals with simple repeated patterns that would indicate a deliberate signal rather than just random noise); while ID "researchers" don't really do ANY research, but instead merely assert that something "looks" designed, according to criteria they never bother to flesh out, therefore God.

Motheral said...

My point had to do exclusively with the relative status of beliefs in regard to whether they were scientific or not.

And your point fails -- belief in extraterrestrial life is, at this time, purely tentative and based on what we currently know of life on Earth; while ID is nothing but a religious belief dressed up as pseudoscience, and isn't based on any decent research at all. There's no comparing toe two at all.

PS: The formatting of your blog is utter crap, even after all these years. If you're as good a writer as you seem to think you are, you should either see to the formatting of your words, or at least know where to find yourself a decent editor.