SETI [Fwd: tech: "Are We Alone?" Review by Alex Antonites]

Robert Owen (
Tue, 28 Sep 1999 03:55:30 -0400

Larry Klaes wrote:

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> >Date: Sat, 25 Sep 1999 14:59:01 CST6CDT,4,1,0,7200,10,-1,0,10800,3600
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> >Reply-To: "Carl Sagan List" <>
> >From: Robert Owen <rowen@InfoAve.Net>
> >To: Carl Sagan List <>
> >Subject: Sagan: "Are We Alone?" Review by Alex Antonites
> >
> >Some time ago I requested a review of the following book. Alex
> >replied that he was working on it, and now his remarkable work
> >is completed. Because of its inherent scientific interest, and
> >because some members may also wish to read this book, I am
> >reproducing, with Alex's permission, the entire REVIEW. This is
> >indeed an exemplary piece of research! [RMO]
> >----------------------------------------------------------------
> >
> >
> >
> > by Alex Antonites
> >
> >
> >Davies argues that Seti is challenging a longstanding view that the universe
> >is dying--a view influenced by the degenerative effects generated by the
> >2nd law of thermodynamics.
> >
> >In the chapter: A brief history of SETI , Davies pays attention not only to
> >contemporary Seti projects like that of the Planetary Society, the SETI-
> >Institute and others, but shows that among the Greek and Roman philoso-
> >phers we already had the first rational attempts to justify the existence of
> >Eti. His discussion of the Roman philospher Lucretius and the Greek atomist
> >philosopher Epicurus in this respect, is quite well done. When he comes to
> >the 20C he concludds that it is especially the post war spurt of technology
> >and science which rekindled interest in Seti, after the firths part of the
> 20C
> >which was mostly in the form of fictional literature. He singles out the ad-
> >vances in the understanding of the chemical basis of life, the discovery of
> >the structure of DNA and the subsequent crack of the genetic code.The
> >origin of life became a serious subject of scientific inquiry, but so by
> impli-
> >cation Seti: Given the right conditions and appropriate chemicals, life could
> >emerge not only spontaneously on Earth, but other planets as well. After
> >referring to Frank Drake's Project Ozma and others, he emphasizes that
> >the discovery of even a single example of extraterrestrial life would be
> >immensely significant to the theory a of chemical and inevitable conse-
> >quence of the outworking of the laws of chemistry and physics , given the
> >right conditions (p 15,24). Such a discovery could be life in
> extraterrestrial
> >rocks : "Undoubtly the definite discovery of say, a non-contaminant living
> >bacterium inside a meteorite would be immensely exciting and important"
> >(12). Just after the publishing of this book in 1995, Goldin and McKay of
> >NASA and Stanford University announced their findings on rock ALH from
> >Mars! Debate today is on possible contamination continues.
> >
> >When one reads this book of Davies and compare it to others written on
> >extraterrestrial life, I think that which make this book so much
> interesting is
> >that it justify Seti from a new scientific paradigm and that is chaos/com-
> >plexity theory. This appears in almost all chapters of this book. Coherent
> >with this, he philosophically criticizes classical-causal determinsim which
> >led to a mechanist paradigm in science. Here the reader must not deduce
> >that Davies rejects the pinciple of causality in science--far from it. What
> >he states is that the causal principle (which --in my view--is the basic
> >mechanism of natural selection) is incomplete. It is to be completed by the
> >principles of spontaneous self-organization. This rather supports a progres-
> >sive self-organizing universe (not a dying one) celebrated in the works of
> >the Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prirogine and Ernst Janisch. This makes it
> >understandable why Davies has a much more optimistic approach to Seti
> >than eg Dawkins and Gould.
> >
> >One can discern this line of his thinking in the chapter Extraterrestrial mi-
> >crobes. He discusses three philosophical positions concerning the origin of
> >life. 1) miracles. He explains why he rejects this 2) improbable accident
> >which he also rejects. 3) inevitable outcome of the working of laws of
> >physics and chemistry which he supports in conjunction with chaos/com-
> >plexity theory This (the laws) is what most Seti scientists support and
> >this in turn depends on three philosophical pillars: a) Principle of the
> >uniformity of nature: Laws thoughout the universe are the same; b)
> >Principle of plenitude: that which is possible in nature tends to become
> >realized (this has already been invoked by Lucretius in his argument for
> >other inhabited worlds !); c) The Copernican principle of mediocrity: The
> >Earth is not special in position or status in the universe; it rather is a
> >typical planet aroused a typical sun in a typical galaxy.
> >
> >If life was to be the outcome of a complete random accident of infinites-
> >imal probabilities as 1) maintains, then it is almost certain that there is
> >no other life within our horizon. As opposed to this, Davies then joins in
> >with Carl Sagan and Stuart Kaufmann: Sagan which defends the thesis
> >of the abundance of life in the universe (24ff) ; Kaufmann which works
> >out the thesis of self-organization which Davies then argues will
> >support the widespread occurrence of life in the universe.
> >
> >Life is much more probable than the simple solutions of random molecular
> >shifts would indicate. Matter evolves naturally along certain pathways of
> >evolution leading to states of ever greater complexity: "When complexity
> >crosses a certain threshold a system may said to be living.There are many
> >ways that chemical (and maybe non-chemical) processes can self-organize
> >to the point at which life emerges, so we should not expect extraterrestrial
> >life to resemble our own in its basic chemistry. If this so it is likely
> that life
> >can evolve in a wide range of environments. There is no need, for example,
> >to demand liquid water or carbon" (25). Thus Davies is not what Carl Sagan
> >called himself a carbon chauvinist !!
> >
> >In Alien Message he explores the consequences of the detection of an alien
> >signal. Like Carl Sagan, Davies is also interested in the relationship
> science
> >--religion/theology. There are no conclusive theological reasons against
> Seti,
> >and a signal would support the view that humans are not the pinnacle of
> >evolutionary advance in the universe . Such a detection would discredit
> >the hypothesis that life is the result of a highly improbable random
> accident.
> >
> >In Against aliens Davies examines the argumets of certain philosophers and
> >other scientists against Seti. They are the three: 1) the anthropic
> principle;
> >2) the Fermi's 'where are they?'; 3) the Neo-Darwinian argument of contin-
> >gency. He argues in order to demolish all three.
> >
> >Brandon Carter and Frank Tipler's arguments depends on the formation of
> >life as an exceedinly improbable event. In this respect Davies refers to the
> >lively correspondence between Carl Sagan and Tipler. The Neo-Darwinist
> >contingency argument assumes with many biologists that the course of
> >evolution does not follow any law like trend , but is purely random --indeed
> >a blind watchmaker, a thesis defended by Richard Dawkins and Jay Gould.
> >Intelligence is a purely chance phenomenon , exceedingly unlikely to arise
> >elsewhere independently (48). The contingency thesis strongly depends upon
> >certain philosophical presuppositions. I think what Davies is trying to say
> >here is that both Dawkins and Gould are over reacting against the Argument
> >by Design. Of course design cannot be a scientific principle, but saying
> that,
> >it does not follow that there is nothing progressive in evolution, that
> every-
> >thing is pure chance--even if interpreting it as accumulation as Dawkins
> does.
> >Over against Dawkins, Gould and in a sense also Tipler and Carter, Davies
> >enlarges causality with self-organization and spontaneous origins of life and
> >order. The key property of self-organization lies at the edge of chaos, where
> >systems can suddenly and spontaneously create organized complexity with
> >surprising eficiency. Davies thus rejects both explanation by miracles and
> >stupendously improbable molecular accidents. Self-organization can do the
> >trick (53) !
> >
> >"None of this is to say that Darwin is wrong: merely incomplete. Nor does
> >it claim that evolution is directed towards some pre-ordained goal " (54).
> >Contingency for Davies does indeed play a large part in the details of
> >evolution. But the same general trend that can lead to the emergence of
> >life and mind on Earth, also can take place elsewhere in the universe.
> >Evolution is surely not haphazard, accidental, but biological convergence
> >(eg the eye) and physical -chemical laws plays a large ordering role.
> >
> >In the nature of consciousness Davies points out that we humans are made
> >of star stuff. He then defends what can be called a Platonic grounding of
> >mathematics. Like Marvin Minsky (of MIT), although not with exactly the
> >same arguments, Davies by implication (Minsky is more explicit and direct
> >on this ) explains why extraterrestrial would do basically the same mathe-
> >matics as us. It has to do with an underlying order in the universe--a
> >cosmic connection as he calls it. The ability to do mathematics is not a
> >mere accidental trivial detail.
> >
> >In Alien contact and religious experience Davies pays attention to the UFO
> >phenomenon. He states that observers of UFO's are mostly genuine honest
> >people of integrity. However he sees this as a deep seated religious need
> >behind the experiences which he think is subjectivistic and not objective.
> >It is a modern variant of a complex of experiences that infuse the folk
> >memories of all cultures through many ages.
> >
> >I think this book is highly recommendable especially for members of the
> >Sagan Mailing List. It will most surely stimulate further discussion and
> >thinking and rethinking. Some chapters are better than others, ( I think
> >he could have made much more on the implications in event of the
> >detection of an extraterrestrial signal--this would give his kicking off with
> >the Greek philosophers a good round off) but in the main a well-argued
> >book--from a philosophical perspective.
> >
> >Alex Antonites.
> >
> >
> >=======================
> >Robert M. Owen
> >Director
> >The Orion Institute
> >57 W. Morgan Street
> >Brevard, NC 28712-3659 USA
> >=======================

Robert M. Owen
The Orion Institute
57 W. Morgan Street
Brevard, NC 28712-3659 USA

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