The Right Coast

January 11, 2004
Life on Mars, God is Dead
By Tom Smith

There is a hackneyed way of looking at the history of astronomy that sees is as an ever escalating insult to humankind's sense of its own specialness. Not surprisingly, the New York Times takes this spin on the possibility that evidence of life may be found on Mars. (Though I personally prefer the hope that we may find that that is where Grey Davis has been hiding out.)

Readers of this blog may wish, however, to go beyond the pat, middle-brow view. More sophisticated thought about life in the universe suggests that microbial life might indeed be common, but anything like intelligent life, or even large animals of any sort, might be extremely rare. The argument is complex and as in any live scientific debate, controversial. But suffice it to say that the Carl Sagan view that there must be billions of advanced civilizations out there, mostly holding views remarkably like those prevailing on the upper west side of Manhattan, is way over. A good book on the probable scarcity of large animal life in the universe is this. Carl Sagan wrote a science fiction novel, Contact, which has some interesting ideas, but becomes extremely silly when we learn that the Universe is a sort of WPA project of a very, very advanced civilization. So advanced they are still in the New Deal. I can't think of any book that more clearly substitutes faith in Government for faith in God.

On a much higher level of abstraction is the argument over the anthropic principle, the idea that the universe must conform to a set of laws that makes it possible that there will be intelligent life to observe it. Some see in this idea a revival of the argument from design, that there must be a God since it is very unlikely the universe would support creatures such as ourselves otherwise. Frank Tipler is the main spokesman of this view. (He extends his argument to bizarre lengths here.)