In his movie “Expelled,” Ben Stein challenged Richard Dawkins about the remarkable phenomenon of life on planet earth: how could life arise given the sheer magnitude of its improbability? Dawkins suggested aliens possibly deposited life on earth.
Dawkins, we recall, is an atheist, a scientist directed only by provable facts. Yet he’s willing to posit the source of earthly life to a concept lacking any evidence.
Of course, Dawkins is guilty of nothing more than a thought experiment, something great scientists do all the time. Accordingly, a galaxy without aliens would be like a valley producing no life decades after a massive volcano covered it with volcanic ash—eventually some seed will find its way into the hard crevices, and though difficult, life will find a way.
There are 100 billion—billion—planets in the Milky Way. If life can pop up into existence here on earth, it would take a sort of medieval geo-centrism to say alien life couldn’t happen somewhere else. Life finds a way.
So where are they?
The Fermi Paradox
Those were the conclusive words of physicist Enrico Fermi after quickly hashing out his own thought experiment one day at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Evidently, Area 51 was the hot topic of the day, and he and some colleagues were talking about aliens on their way to lunch. Fermi went silent for a time, until midway through lunch he proclaimed, “Where are they?”
During the intervening silence, Fermi calculated the high probability that a vast number of alien species should exist. Also, statistically speaking, a high subset of them would have evolved millions of years ahead of earth’s schedule. That means there should be a considerable number of alien species with a head start on things like cross-galaxy travel. The galaxy should be teeming with aliens. Yet there is nothing. Where are they?
Fermi’s thought experiment is dubbed “The Fermi Paradox,” a philosophically sterile phrase avoiding several very big and very pink elephants in the room. Answers to the riddle include everything from, “Maybe earthlings really are the first to evolve to an advanced state,” to “Higher-consciousness aliens haven’t made themselves known because we haven’t evolved enough yet.”
As to the first answer, it’s just confirmation bias rooted in more geo-centrism, as if there must be something special about us humans because, well, I mean, look at us! As to the second answer, puke. Then after rinsing your mouth out, you realize it’s just more evidence of today’s neo-Gnosticism, that is, modern man’s yearning attempt to establish religion after science’s materialistic assumptions rendered faith, morality, and metaphysical questions impossible.
The “Occam’s Razor” answer science excludes but that actually faces the evidence is “We have no evidence of aliens because they weren’t created.” Exclusion of even contemplating this answer betrays a huge epistemic blind spot in the premises of science, at least among its modern defenders.
The Atheist Blind Spot
Consider the issue this way: Dawkins is willing to grant the source of life on earth to an extra-terrestrial being. Others are willing to grant an alien species so evolved that they do things our unevolved minds cannot fathom. Add to the mix the strange things physics theoretically allows in our universe.
In the movie “Interstellar,” wormholes, black holes, event horizons, particle theory, and the theory of relativity conspire to make a situation where someone talks to himself from the future through his bedroom wall. Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne signed off on the scientific merits of the movie, to the applause of pop scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Thorne is an atheist and Tyson insists faith and science are irreconcilable.
Or again, the recent release of “Arrival” presents a seven-legged, tree-trunk-like alien species with a highly advanced method of communication. As if from a Jackson Pollock school of design, the odd look and transmundane behavior of the aliens are about what we’d expect given the random workings of evolution.
Putting it all together, theoretical science grants that an extraterrestrial heptapod could work through worm holes and the other vagaries of physics to transcend time and space in its quest to help humanity, a humanity it perhaps brought into existence in the first place. One imagines Dawkins, Tyson, and Thorne would say, “Sure, why not? There’s just so much we don’t know about alien life and what’s out there.” And we haven’t even discussed the mind-blowing multiverse yet!
So, given the sheer magnitude of theoretical possibilities granted by known science, to say nothing of the unknown science waiting to be discovered, what is really so random and strange about, say, an alien being flooding the earth in order to destroy a genetic perversion of humanity bent on destroying the original species this same alien had crafted?
The answer, of course, is “nothing.” Yet, we suspect Dawkins et. al. would grant any alien scenario so long as it doesn’t involve a tri-conscious being making periodic manifestations among ancient Semitic peoples about 3,000 years ago, which in a rather singular case used as its avatar a first-century personage born in the days when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Why? Because they have a handle on how such an alien species would behave? Please. There are a kazillion possibilities where evolutionary life could lead. In truth there’s no essential difference between the strange alien occurrences granted as scientific in “Interstellar” or “Arrival” and the miracles of scripture. Yet the former is accepted as possible, while the latter is rejected as faith-based yearning incompatible with science.
In fact, where the latter at least has the support of historical evidence—at least 500 people did see a man who had risen from the dead, after all, and many endured torture rather than deny what the evidence told them (more than we can say of Galileo)—the former has as its support nothing more than a failed thought experiment.
In a sense, Christian presumptions and its claim of historicity for biblical miracles is more consistent with what should be happening given the premises of evolutionary science. A complex and powerful Godhead with anthropomorphic habits, dimension-jumping beings doing God’s bidding or working against it, frequent interventions in history accompanied by bizarre occurrences in nature—isn’t this what we’d expect in a universe given all the oddities of physics in the context of evolutionary randomness?
Fantasy Is All They Got
Meanwhile, the aliens arising from the imagination of modern science fiction, because they have no affiliation whatsoever with the evidence at hand, have a little more than the whiff of blind faith associated with them. Unlike say, Christian faith, where powerful objective evidence creates an ongoing intellectual crisis calling one to abandon subjective thinking, blind faith in something lacking any objective basis leaves only the subject’s imagination as the focus of query.
In other words, whence comes the modern obsession with aliens? Or, in the words of Erik Davis in his “TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information” (1998), what explains this “visionary projectile hurling from the unconscious depths of the information age”?
This is to say, lacking any evidence of an actual alien, Hollywood’s aliens speak more about the modern psyche fueling the imaginations of their designers. The aliens in “Arrival” look like tree trunks. Get it? The trees are coming to tell us to work together. (They might acquaint themselves with the rock group Rush to get the full story.) I can’t imagine that has anything to do with the dreamy fantasies of environmentalists.
Or again, the alien in “Alien” (1979), fetal in appearance, antagonizes the crew and their ship’s computer, “Mother,” until it gets sucked out of the ship. Wow, can’t imagine that had anything to do with a culture hiding from the moral horror of abortion, as E. Michael Jones brilliantly observed in his must-read “Monsters from the Id” (2000).
This is all wonderful, fun stuff to help us probe the curiosities of the modern human psyche. But in the end, the phantasmic reality of aliens on the silver screen only serves as an escape from facing the Fermi Paradox, reminding us to what extent people will go to prop up the delusions of modernity.
Where are the aliens? They don’t exist, because if they did, they’d be all over the place. The fact they don’t exist tosses a huge Molotov conundrum into modernist epistemology.