The Oz melts down in the contest of ideas

It’s been a while since the last time I was the target of an epic meltdown at the #Ozfail (or at least, the last one I noticed). I thought perhaps Chris Mitchell had developed a thicker skin. But, today’s Oz has a full-length editorial responding to a mere tweet about a piece of creationist silliness by one Eric Metaxas, reprinted from Murdoch stablemate, the Wall Street Journal.

We get the usual Oz editorial line about how they aren’t really climate deniers (they just give space to “a couple of contributors who dare to scrutinise the scientific consensus”), creationists (they just think science “can’t explain the universe”), or a rightwing propaganda outfit (they publish Labor lefties like Gary Johns and Graeme Richardson). It’s just that they “love a contest of ideas”.

Moreover, the collection of rightwing delusionists on the opinion pages don’t represent the views of the #Ozfail

Professor, if you ever want to know what the paper thinks or where it stands on any issue, there is only one place you’ll find out. Right here in these editorial columns.

That’s a relief. Having been slagged off in special-purpose opinion pieces, Cut-and-Paste snarks, and various passing comments, I had the feeling the Oz didn’t like me. But the real view, apparently, is that of the anonymous editorialist, who (faintly) praises me as “oft-erudite”.

I do have one small disappointment though. Given the headline “140 characters not the full story” and the protestations of commitment to the contest of ideas, I was expecting the editorial to prove me wrong by inviting me to provide a full-length response to Metaxas’ silliness. Sadly, no.

144 thoughts on “The Oz melts down in the contest of ideas

  1. faustusnote @ #50 said:

    And your 20 million year spaceship example is complete crap, because it neglects to account for the spherical nature of the search space.

    The Milky Way is more a disc than a sphere.

    faustusnote said:

    Your thinking shows you haven’t grasped the enormity of the physical space we inhabit.

    Your thinking shows you haven’t grasped the enormity of the physical time that we have endured.

    faustusnote said:

    And isn’t it deficit hawk conservative weirdos like you who say we can’t afford to do this shit? Maybe other societies out there in space are more realistic about government funding than conservative scare-babies like you, but even if they devote an entire society’s resources to the task, how long before they jet off a ship in exactly our direction?

    You’ve got me pegged for the wrong guy, buddy. I’m no “conservative scare-baby deficit hawk”. Just an ordinary man, trying to make sense of this crazy, mixed-up world.

    faustusnote said:

    Maybe it’s this narrow vision which makes you amenable to visions of the beardy dude in his cloud?

    I’ve said I am an agnostic but this simple piece of data does not seem to compute. I don’t hold with the un-scientific dogmas of either theists like Metaxas or the various militant atheists that seem to have sprung up like poisonous mushrooms of late.

  2. The answer to the entire conundrum (of not yet seeing signs of other life in the universe) is very simple.

    1. The chances of intelligent life arising in the universe are greater than 0. We are the proof of that.

    2. The chances of separate intelligent life arising in two places in the universe without migration but close enough in time and space to theoretically allow for a detection of the other to occur (either way) is low enough that a species searching for about 60 years with the technology of humans on earth circa 1954 to 2014 is likely to demonstrate low chances of success.

    If your equations do not show the above then your equations are wrong NOT empirical reality!

    Really, it’s a simple as that. The rest is hand-waving and unempirical reasoning.

    My own hunch is that intelligent life is so rare that it would only rarely arise even once in one galaxy. According to the best estimates of astronomers there are at least one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. We could ever only theoretically detect alien civilization in the observable universe. We can’t get a signal from beyond that (speed of light limitation).

    If 1 in 10 galaxies saw intelligent life arise once on one planet in the life of the universe to date then 10,000,000,000 instances would occur. But consider how many of these we could concievably get a signal from if and only they flowered at the time before us indicated by their light year distance. The closest galaxy to us is about 70,000 light years away so the signal would need to be sent 70,000 years ago relative to us. (Time can be relative too.) This galaxy might not even be a galaxy that produces useful stars etc. for earth-like planets.

    But if only 1 in 1,000,000 galaxies saw intelligent life arise once on one planet in the life of the universe to date then only 100,000 instances would occur. (Hope I’ve got my powers right.) The most distant galaxy is about 13.3 billion light-years from Earth, the farthest galaxy yet known, and formed 420 million years after the Big Bang. Put a distribution of 100,000 at “random evenness” across distances from 70,000 light years to 13.3 billion light-years such that the nearest does not necessarily at 70,000 light years. Where is the nearest likely to fall? Consider bands of about 1.33 billion light years each. We should 10,000 instances in each band.
    To get about one instance we have to come down to 133,000 light years. That’s not too bad.

    However, the civilization would have to flower about 133,000 years ago our time and send a signal in the precise direction of where we were going to be in 133,000 earth years time in the future from their end. They cannot predict which galaxy or planet or direction out there might be the right one so they must narrow-cast (for signal power) in sweeps in absolutely all directions. The increments of direction change of the signal-cast must be no greater than the coverage width of signal at some nominated distance say 1 billion light years as they hope to reach something in that range. Plus there are the issues of signal attenuation in space as a cube of distance (am I correct?) and issues of random noise and interception by matter and dark matter in space. (Actually dark matter if real might be a real issue.)

  3. @Jack Strocchi

    Possibly the conclusion that the evidence points to the existence of God is a mere afterthought to you, but not so for Eric Metaxas, who describes it as ‘ineluctable’ — without warrant, as you correctly note, which makes what he’s saying silly. The evidence does not point to the existence of God, and your lack of forthrightness about whether you agree with Eric Metaxas on this, his most emphasised point, is telling.

    (The mistake is justly described as a silly one for the reason I’ve already pointed out, which you’ve disregarded.)

  4. Jack! Sorry for calling you a deficit fetishist, a terrible insult when misapplied. Fair’s fair though: I’m not a militant atheist.

    Let’s suppose that intelligent life is very non-unique, to the extent that in 1GYr of time 10 societies like us will crop up in the milky way. Let’s imagine they are able to sustain a society for 0.5 GYrs (something we have never done) and that that society can launch one wave of ships every 0.1 GYrs. In 1 GYr that means there will be 50 waves of ships, from 10 societies scattered randomly around the galaxy.

    The oldest star in the galaxy is 14GYrs, so that suggests that there would have been 140 societies just like ours by now, and 5 of them are still extant. In the time we’ve been alive and functioning as a species only 1 wave of ships has been launched (max). From 2.5 of those randomly distributed societies on the other side of the galaxy, there is no chance the ships will reach us (they have to cross the centre of the galaxy, which is rather inhospitable). THe remaining 2.5 – let’s be generous and say 3 – are then the only chance we have ever had to encounter intelligent life. If we assume their ship waves are evenly distributed across the 0.1 GYr, given our short history, the chance that more than 1 wave could reach us is tiny. ANd then that wave has to find our planet.

    You can fiddle the numbers but I hope it’s fairly obvious that unless intelligent life in the universe is ubiquitous both in time and space, and very long-lasting and powerful interstellar ships are both achievable and fairly common, there’s just no way you can slice and dice the dimensions of the universe to allow the claim that there is “evidence” that we are special. No one has ever looked. The probability that we have been overlooked given that intelligent life is very common is still essentially 0.

  5. J-D @ #5 said:

    Possibly the conclusion that the evidence points to the existence of God is a mere afterthought to you, ..The evidence does not point to the existence of God, and your lack of forthrightness about whether you agree with Eric Metaxas on this, his most emphasised point, is telling….(The mistake is justly described as a silly one for the reason I’ve already pointed out, which you’ve disregarded.)


    I’ve twice come out, but not that proud, as an “agnostic” on this thread. Once is usually enough for even the most cloth-eared atheist.

    I’ve also said, twice, that theism (and atheism) are “un-scientific dogmas”. Again, I struggle to conceive of a clearer statement of position.

    I’ve also said, twice, that Metaxas attempt to derive theism from the Anthropic Principle is an “(Almighty) jump to a conclusion”. His reasoning is fallacious and inconsistent with Occams Razor evolutionary thinking. But I don’t really think that this is categorically “silly” given that a significant number of post-Darwinian cosmologists have been Deists and theists, eg Einstein, Lemaitre, Davies.

    I also believe there is more than a shred of credence to the Simulation argument, which is basically a form of technocratic theism. This argument, like all metaphysics, is untestable and falsifiable, and so not part of science. But it is not irrational or absurd.

    Must I say everything three times before it gets through to all these close-minded atheists? My opinion of the intellectual caliber of this crew, already low, has plunged even lower. Get it together guys or be prepared for the full lash of my scorn!

  6. @Jack Strocchi

    I am an agnostic too. But I also think that the extant monotheist religions have lost all their claims for authority at least as regards ontology and creation. Many, many things they have claimed have been totally refuted especially their cosmology stories and creation stories. This is so unless they are now reinterpreted as metaphorical. However, they always insisted that they had the literal truth about everything until they were routed by empirical science. They also regularly murdered people who disagreed with them right up to and including Calvin at least. (Does this remind you of anyone in the modern world? Maybe a group whose intials can sound like the name an ancient Egyptian god?) The Christian church only became reasonable when it was forced to become reasonable by the slow but sure victory of the Scientific-Humanist Enlightenment.

    The metaphysical claims of the Churches deserve no more credenece than the literally millions of creation myths or Uncaused Cause myths or No Need for Cause myths that could theoretically be invented. Why do the Judeo-Christian myths deserve any more credence that many other myths? Why not give equal time to Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Bahai Faith, Aboriginal Dreamtime, ten thousand deities in the syncretist Hindu pantheon or even “Kra the Snake God” which I think I just made up. You cannot definitively state that Kra the Snake God does not exist. I could make up the Myth of Kra if you would like another unsubstantiated creation or nature-of-being myth to fixate on and give undue respect to.

  7. Do people have souls which leave their bodies when they die? Can Joe Bloggs ressurect after that car crash did him in? Is there a teapot on the other side of the galaxy?

    The logically correct answer to those questions is I don’t know: therefore, I should be agnostic about each of them. None of these statements are within our reach to say are true or false—unless Joe Bloggs drops by, missing a few vital organs and such, adn yet is so engaging and funny, we would swear he is alive…again. Using only deductive logic, we cannot possibly expect to reach a conclusion on those questions; nevertheless, most of us would probably have extremely strong doubts of there being a teapot on the other side of the galaxy. But, since it cannot technically be demonstrated as false, or true, with the means at our disposal, should we be agnostic? Or, should we weigh the relatively likelihood of the possibilities, and decide on how high a bar we set for the evidence we do have, for the arguments we can make, in order to run with true or false. In science, this is what people have to do. Newton did it, Galileo did it, Einstein did it, Lamb, Bessel, Huygens, Jacobi brothers, countless engineers, they all did this, i.e. took a hypothesis and made a judgement on its truth or falsehood, contingent on all available evidence. Atheism in its minimalist form is just this kind of call. Even Karl Popper wrote about corroboration as a valid scientific approach, even after explaining how we can only hope to falsify theories, so Popper was well aware of the need for contingently accepting something as “proven” by the preponderance of evidence; our science would be a pale shadow of itself if we ran a line through all that was considered proven by corroboration (cue the correlation is not causation meme, wafting over like a foul stench betraying a rotting carcass). Corroboration is not valid within the framework of deductive logic. Be brave.

    Does God exist? I always wondered why people limit the question in that way, asking only if one particular (kind of) god exists, tacitly the one of Christian mythology, as if that were the only one or kind of god we could be legitimately wondering about. Should some alien species, intelligent and social as we are, be on the other side of the universe wondering about their gods, gods with five eyes and eighty-two appendages, three brain-like organs, and some other stuff best left unsaid, how do we reconcile their gods with our specific god who chatted with some nomads in a desert on Earth a few thousand years ago?^fn1 Do we just say oh well, gosh, even though these gods are superficially so not in the least bit like each other, the desert conversationalist peculiarly prone to turning the odd woman into a pillar of salt—notwithstanding, perhaps on the inside, deep down, they are facets of the one true god. Right. Wrong. Cop-out?

    I currently do not see sufficient evidence, of a god or gods, for me to sit on the fence; of course, should some compelling evidence come my way, I reserve the right to change my mind. Meanwhile, I feel atheism is the most reasonable theory. Consequences follow from theories we accept as “proven”, and it is often through the web of consequences that we ultimately accept a theory as a law of nature, or resume doubting its veracity and pick away at it, hopefully revealing where we went awry. This striving forwards, backtracking, adjusting course, and striving forwards once more—this is the sausage-making exposed, laid bare.

    As for religion, I’d describe myself as irreligious, but surreptitiously fascinated by the myths people construct. We are nothing if not infinitely inventive.

    fn1: The metadata retention laws were quite lax back then.

  8. @Jack Strocchi

    You can scorn me as much as you like; I don’t care, and why should I?

    You write that you struggle to conceive of a clearer statement of your position. What I was discussing was the statement that the evidence points to the existence of God. If you had written ‘I do not accept that the evidence points to the existence of God’ it would have been a clearer statement of your position on that statement than any you have produced so far, so I’m not sure why you were struggling.

    As a reason for not considering Eric Metaxas’s argument to be silly, you point to the names of people who believed in God (or at least so you say). But the fact that a conclusion is or was accepted by people, no matter whoever or how many they were, is not evidence that an argument in favour of that conclusion is not silly. Eric Metaxas’s argument is still a silly one regardless of who believes, or believed, that there is a God.

  9. faustusnote @ #6 said:

    You can fiddle the numbers but I hope it’s fairly obvious that unless intelligent life in the universe is ubiquitous both in time and space, and very long-lasting and powerful interstellar ships are both achievable and fairly common, there’s just no way you can slice and dice the dimensions of the universe to allow the claim that there is “evidence” that we are special. No one has ever looked. The probability that we have been overlooked given that intelligent life is very common is still essentially 0.

    We can both slice and dice the Drake equation’s various terms and the values for conditional probabilities till the cows come home. Obviously this is not going to be very convincing. (Speaking of number fumbling, the last figure in your last sentence quoted above should read “1” since you believe that the vast emptiness of galactic space makes the “failure to communicate” problem a more or less certainty.)

    As it happens the standard post-Darwinian Drake-SETI assumption is that life, and probably complex life, is prosaic: long-lasting in temporal duration and far-reaching in spatial extent.  Hence its galactic incidence should be a mediocre “Dog Bites Man” story. That is more or less the assumption that Fermi was making.

    Life will attempt to colonise any habitable environment within reach. It’s evolution throughout the Milky Way should have proceeded in much the same way as its evolution on Earth: out-posts leap-frogging across extended space as generations overlap through enduring time. Given sufficient time and habitable space the advanced forms of life should have colonised the Milky Way, just as it did on Earth. Perhaps using self-sustaining and self-replicating robot networks presaged by Voyager and Rosetta to overcome the inconvenience of long-haul flights and make the seeding process a lot less ball-busting.

    Its had at least 5 billion years and 10 billion potentially habitable exo-planets to work with – it should only have been a matter of time before the frontier closed. Yet here we all are: one crowded little house on an empty galactic prairie.

    My conclusion is that there is a flaw in the Drake Equation, which drastically understates the difficulties life faces evolving from simple to more complex life forms, particularly sapient life capable of establishing Type I and Type II Radio Civilizations.

    The evolution of complex life faces high initial hurdles, particularly in evolving powerful metabolic energy to run elaborate organic systems. The New Scientist reports why complex eukaryotic Life probably only evolved once on Earth:

    The universe may be teeming with simple cells like bacteria, but more complex life – including intelligent life – is probably very rare…complex alien life-forms could only evolve if an event that happened just once in Earth’s history was repeated somewhere else.
    The answer, say Nick Lane of University College London and Bill Martin of the University of Dusseldorf in Germany, is that whenever simple cells start to become more complex, they run into problems generating enough energy.

    All animals, plants and fungi evolved from one ancestor, the first ever complex, or “eukaryotic”, cell. This common ancestor had itself evolved from simple bacteria, but it has long been a mystery why this seems to have happened only once: bacteria, after all, have been around for billions of years.

    “It required a kind of industrial revolution in terms of energy production,” says Lane. “[Our hypothesis] overturns the traditional view that the jump to complex eukaryotic cells simply required the right kinds of mutations.”

    Its significant that it took only 1 Gyr for simple life to take over the Earth, as soon as the Hadean Eon had cooled off. But it took nearly 4 Gyrs for complex life to get its Radio Civilization shit together.

    Even then, on a few occasions, Life only just managed to dodge the mass-extinction bullet. Complex life is vulnerable to catastrophic events, like the Perma-Triassic climate change, the K/T asteroid strike and Toban caldera eruption, where the human species may have come perilously close to extinction. And dont get me started on advanced life’s proneness to cultural suicide by absorbing lethal doses of ideological radiation from either totalitarian or post-modern liberal sources.

    So human life is probably “special”, which is certainly the substance of Metaxas article. Whether that “specialness” is an ecological fluke or a theological miracle is not for me to say. Above my intellectual pay-grade.

  10. Click to access ACC0055.pdf

    I do not believe that much came of this conversation, except perhaps a statement that the distances to the next location of living beings maybe very great and that, indeed, as far as our galaxy is concerned, we are living somewhere in the sticks, far removed from the metropolitan area of the galactic center.

    York believes that Fermi was somewhat more expansive and “followed up with a series of calculations on the probability of earthlike planets, the probability of life given an earth, the probability of humans given life, the likely rise and duration of high technology, and so on. He concluded on the basis of such calculations that we ought to have been visited long ago and many times over. As I recall, he went on to conclude that the reason we hadn’t been visited might be that interstellar flight is impossible, or, if it is possible, always judged to be not worth the effort, or technological civilization doesn’t last long enough for it to happen.” York confessed to being hazy about these last remarks.

  11. @J-D
    To claim Einstein and Davies as theists for the purpose of giving credibility to Metaxas argument and goodonya the national fish wrapper for publishing him may not be silly but could be seen as a desperate act. It looks desperate to me when a self confessed agnostic uses the false dichotomy trick with people like Einstein and Davies to win an argument. Einstein said he believed in the “pantheistic” God of Baruch Spinoza. Where as Davies refers to his understanding of the role of laws in nature as panentheism rather than deism because ‘God’ chose laws that give a co-creative role to nature. To conflate the “god” of Einstein and Davies with Metaxas “miracle” god does not do justice to serious science nor religion and the use of the metaphor of god therein. Metaxas is a vaudeville artist at best or an intellectual fraudster at worst and it is telling for the national fish wrapper to grease its pages with him.

  12. @Jack Strocchi

    As I said above;

    The answer to the entire conundrum (of not yet seeing signs of other life in the universe) is very simple.

    1. The chances of intelligent life arising in the universe are greater than 0. We are the proof of that.

    2. The chances of separate intelligent life arising in two places in the universe without migration but close enough in time and space to theoretically allow for a detection of the other to occur (either way) is low enough that a species searching for about 60 years with the technology of humans on earth circa 1954 to 2014 is likely to demonstrate low chances of success.

    If your equations do not show the above then your equations are wrong NOT empirical reality!

    Really, it’s a simple as that. The rest is hand-waving and unempirical reasoning.

    BTW, the assumption that space travel is easy is grossly wrong. Remember the movie 2001? How we were supposed to have space shuttle commerical flight, orbiting commercial-government space stations and large moon bases all by 2001? We still haven’t got anything like that and most likely never will.

    The problem is energy. It takes enormous amounts of energy to get tiny payloads up there. One, the energy needed is not available to humans in useable form. Two, there could never be any economic pay-off, not a chance. The whole process is a huge resource and money sink and coming precisely when we hit Limits to Growth.

    And the distances out there (intra- and inter- galactic) are enormous. Physical travel is completely unfeasible. Jack, do you have any ideas of the distances out there? Do you have any idea how much energy it takes to accelerate mass to signicicant fractions of the speed of light? Do you know it gets harder and harder to do this as the body gains mass from increased speed? Do you have any idea what will happen to a high speed space-ship if it even hits a grain of sand coming the other way? Hint, think nuclear explosion levels.

    An interesting thought is this. Let’s assume the Milky Way has 250 billion stars, a mid-range estimate. We decide just 1 million stars are worth sending a drone to for earth-like planets. You just wont make a dint in “exploring” the galaxy if you don’t put out at least a million drones. And don’t forget we will never see the data from most drones. We will be long dead.

    Each drone involves just 1,000 kg of payload. Thus we have 1 billion tons of payload to get up there and on its way with 1 million launches. Today, it costs $10,000 to put a pound of payload in Earth orbit. Let’s say it costs $25,000 to put a kg to full escape velocity and another $75,000 to accelerate it to a half decent speed and decelerate at the other end (conservative).

    That’s $100,000 times 1 billion or $100 trillion. Who is going to spend $100 trillion for no return? I think if you had any idea of costs and logistics you would not say its easy to put out drones across the galaxy for any civilization. Think of the fuel involved for no economic return too. Think of a million launches. Even at 50 launches a year (a punishing rate) it would take 20,000 years to complete the program. LOL!

  13. @wonderer
    Humans are self civilizing; we have educated ourselves about the material world but we didn’t start off nearly as intelligent as we are now; we have brought ourselves into species being.

    Our complex sociality, characterized mostly by our capacity for co-operation, is the product of human evolution which is both individual and collective. A capacity for morality and ethics is one signal of desirable characteristics. My own wonder and awe of the non-human world is matched only by a similar wonder at us.

    None of this requires explanation from metaphysics.

  14. I have empirically verified that Jack Strocchi exists. In the absence of such empirical verification I’m not sure that I could be convinced by a purely philosophical argument for the existence of such a being.

  15. @Ikonoclast
    Thanks for a sustained and entertaining read. I’ll respond to your piece in toto. Your descriptions of mind states are very compelling and quite lucid. I especially enjoyed this:

    The epiphany or “up” dissociated episode occured as follows. The commonplace substance water suddenly appeared to be imbued with a new and extensive significance. It became, at once profoundly PRESENT and TRANSPARENT (i.e. almost invisible) thus transmuting symbolically-mysteriously to display an apparent new profound significance, turning it into a “Sign” or a Gnostic-like apprehension of a deeper reality. This included a deep feeling that reality is much more extensive than previously imagined; that much of reality is unseen, unperceived by one’s normal, everyday self.

    With effort, application and the right teachers you can train your mind through meditation to reach mindstates like this quite readily. One of the things about monasticism is that it allowed people to make inquiries into the nature of reality within their own minds; they then taught some astonishingly powerful techniques to reach quite specific mindstates.

    From a scientific viewpoint, it appears that the brains plasticity allows new neurological circuits to be built that are capable of transforming old practices and habits of the mind and self.

    I’ll cite you again:

    This “ghost” of feeling is just another rational construct operating at the level of learned and residual rational knowledge of feeling that remains reified in one’s language constructs and memory and is thus still accessible by internal monologue and rationalising.

    Yep. One of the most alarming Buddhist notions for Westerners to approach is the idea of “no self” based on the realization of the absence of any observor. This sounds spookier than it is – in fact the experience of non-being within boundless space is exciting because this is one of the jumping off points for the cognitive mind to be free of responsibility for monitoring being; it gets very playful.

    I’ve experienced all sorts of disembodied states because of PTSD and think that, in so far as I’ve come to terms with all sorts of abnormality of affect and cognition, meditation has been at least as significant as Western therapies. For example, and perhaps most of all, I am well acquainted now with how feelings manifest in both mind and body. I can intercept all but the most recalcitrant; it’s an ongoing project.

    There is a radicalized Western form of Buddhism abroad, ‘secular Buddhism’, following Stephen Batchelor, which accepts only that which can be known to be true. It rejects divine beings of any sort along with rebirth or anything else that appears to be an accretion from local culture (Brahminism/Hindusm in India with cultural baggage from everywhere else it has been). It rejects monasticism on the basis that living the life of a bird in a gilded cage was not what the Buddha was on about and nor was sexism and repressive attitudes to women. Westerners, being trained rationalists, are bringing their own value to Buddhist practices. Some don’t even see themselves as any sort of Buddhist.

    This latter group appear to have abandoned the five precepts (a moral ethical code) which is a problem because when the precepts are ignored then very powerful techniques can go spectacularly awry – it was the Zennies who supplied the kamikazi pilots and even payed for a few planes. Right now in Sri Lanka, official Buddhism is the core of Singhalese ethnic fascism and the Buddhists didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory while collaborating with the Burmese junta, either.

    Additionally, the turn away from monasticism has loosened the bonds on what is considered as ‘enlightened’. Traditionally, in order to assert why they should be kept by a local community, the monks made enlightenment the object of a lifetime’s effort, if you are lucky. Examination of early teachings, however, sees the Buddha frequently declaring particular people to be enlightened even without the benefit o his teachings; they were frequently declared enlightened because of their moral/ethical behaviour.

  16. nick @ #12 said:

    He concluded on the basis of such calculations that we ought to have been visited long ago and many times over. As I recall, he went on to conclude that the reason we hadn’t been visited might be that…the distances to the next location of living beings maybe very great and that, indeed, as far as our galaxy is concerned, we are living somewhere in the sticks, far removed from the metropolitan area of the galactic center…interstellar flight is impossible, or, if it is possible, always judged to be not worth the effort, or technological civilization doesn’t last long enough for it to happen.”

    The extracted quote acknowledges that the default assumption of the Drake-Sagan hypothesis, based on relatively solid prognostications about the prolific and imperial tendencies of life, is that “we ought to have been visited long ago and many times over”. This is the assumption that I (and Metaxas) have been rebutting, based on the inconvenient fact that communication with ETs has not yet gone through the formality of actually happening. That is despite the provably huge number (~ 10 billion) of potentially habitable exo-planets that are currently being mapped out.

    So speculation for the ET no-show must proceed on less solid ground. Frustratingly, we both have the authority of “the Pope” to support our favoured resolution of his paradox.

    Your position is that the vastness of Milky Way space, the extravagant cost of launching inter-stellar space craft and the dilatory pace of such vehicles exceed transportation/communication powers of any conceivable advanced civilization(s). I acknowledge this galactic scale problem is a possible explanation of the paradox, but I am un-convinced that this is the most probable explanation for why They aren’t here.

    My position is that the vastness of galactic space can be conquered partly by the antiquity of galactic time and partly by the economy of robotic communication/dissemination probes – which is what human space agencies are already doing (Voyager, Rosetta). I also suppose, pace Kardashev, that the progress of economy and technology will eventually make more rapid forms of inter-stellar transit more feasible. Unfortunately most of the promising technological developments in this area occurred after Fermis tragically premature death (1954), so our guides in this area will be more fallible.

    Because these factors have evidently not been enough for several ET Radio Civilizations (RC) to close the Milky Way frontier I tentatively conclude that there is some more fundamental error in the Drake equation. My best guess is that the equation radically underestimates the problem of making sustainable evolutionary jumps from simple to more complex forms of life. But this only underlies my (and Metaxas) point: that advanced forms of life are somewhat “special”.

    On this point we can make some informed speculation. The further “up” the evolutionary food chain you go, the longer it takes to make the evolutionary leap, and the smaller the progressive fraction of the total population. Life didn’t take long to get prokaryotic ~ 1.0 Gyrs. But it stayed at that stage for more than half the habitable history of this planet until eukaryotes appeared on the scene ~ 2.5 Gyrs. And there was another lengthy gap before plants evolved into interesting animals, with the Cambrian explosion ~ 4.0 Gyrs. Finally hominids took their own sweet time before they evolved into civilized sapiens, which only started to happen about 10k ago.

    My pet theory (cue ominous music) is that complex RCs tend to self-destruct above a certain level of industrial development. There is sound evidence to support this later conclusion, going by the self-inflicted evolutionary wounds (both personal, professional and political) that high-IQ civilizations that have already suffered in the past 100 years. Fermi evidently gave this hypothesis some credence, not surprising given his prominent role in developing nuclear weapons.

    If human civilization can manage to control its self-destructive urges and maintain a civilizing mission then there is at least one hope for life in this galaxy. But we need to arrest the degenerate aspects of the current post-modern liberal era. (This is the sub-text to Metaxas theism.) In short, the fault, dear Nick, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

  17. Yes, I think Buddhist mediation might be a genuine good. I plan to pursue it seriously soon and “secular Buddhism” sounds the right thing from my point of view.

    However, I am not a gnostic or gnostically minded so I would view the “realities” so revealed by such mediation as solely having an inward subjective somatic-neurological reality not an outward objective reality. However, I do have to qualify that. Essentially our social personalities are entirely constructed. What each of calls “I” is partly this socially constructed personality. We cooperate with our nurturers, carers, teachers and mentors to build this social personality. Language is huge part of it and indeed maybe all of it. At the same time there is the somatic-neurolgical “I”. The animal without human social personality if you will.

    Much of internal conflict and strain is between the somatic-neurological animal and the constructed social personality. In the “gaze of the other” in a Sartrean sense we are judged and indeed tortured. When people “revert” or “descend” to simpler animal behaviours this only causes internal conflict if the “gaze of the other” is still present in external reality or in our internalised constructs where we have learned to “judge ourselves as others judge us.” People close to us as in partners, close family etc. do not judge us amd distance us as rigorously as general society unless the relationship is becoming dysfunctional as a close personal relationship.

    In extreme survival cases, people revert to basic animal behaviour. They are no longer concerned with social niceties but merely survival. There are documented cases where people in extremis, later saved, describe becoming “non-human”, forgetting what “human” means and even forgetting or losing quite literally who and what they are and their normal sense of “I”. Yet they keep functioning. They drink water and eat food when possible. They urinate and defecate. They do these things in ways totally socially unacceptable of course. The importance of the gaze and judgment of the other and the judging self become inperative, non-existent. They travel to a chosen objective that might spell rescue and safety but they no longer know exactly why they are travelling.

    Without being put through a survival experience, meditation I think can extinguish this socially constructed, thinking “I” and allow more primal experience of the somatic-neurological animal we are underneath. And it allows this to occur in safe, rested conditions. Then people can start shutting down the “chatter” (as external rationalistion-judgment and internalised rationalistion-judgment) and just “be” for a while. As a contrasted state it puts our standard busy and socially “neuroticised” into some perspective: the standard state doesn’t dominate us, control us and torture us so much then. To some very considerable extent I believe socialisation and civilization are neuroticisation. It’s unavoidable and the benefits are many including cooperation, companionship and better food and shelter. The minus side is that neuroticisation (and traumatisiation) overheads can become a cost too painful to pay unless such issues are dealt with in some way. This is all my guess anyway.

  18. @Jack Strocchi
    Jack:

    In short, the fault… is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

    So where do you stand on Rousseau’s project of ‘the perfectibility of man’ through natural means without the encumbrance of God?

  19. @Jack Strocchi

    Yes, complex civilisations would tend to self-destruct based on where we homo sapeins are headed. Also they would tend to be worried about onging on-world survival and practical issues not “who’s out there?” Actually, with sending out mass vehicles being such a huge logistical project with no payback ever… well why would any civilisation even do it? I contend that logistically they could not do it anyway. You are massively underestimating logistical problems, energy problems, time and space problems and so on. These problems are clearly many magnitudes greater than your ability to appreciate magntitude.

    One planet does not even provide enough resources to explore and colonise another satellite or planet in the same solar system. Our woeful perfomance to date is proof of that. The universe is so sparse in useable resources for these purposes compared to its size the whole notion of interstellar exploration is a complete nonsense and a complete impossibility IMO. I don’t actually understand your obsession with issue. You have strong “priors” but it’s had to tell what they are. They certainly have no logical basis.

  20. jungney @ #20 said:

    So where do you stand on Rousseau’s project of ‘the perfectibility of man’ through natural means without the encumbrance of God?

    Personally I think some form of religion – that is a system of sacred rituals that sanctify a moral code – is essential to civilization. The concept of God is useful to provide some supernatural turbo-charge to religious institutions, for those whose spirit is willing but flesh is weak. I have no problem with that, so long as the belief in God is internalized in the soul of the believer and separated from the State.

    I owe this philsophy to Durkheim who, ironically, provided the perfect scientific antidote to the atheistic ideologies of his more fanatic compatriots.

    Rousseau’s attitude to religion was more sympathetic, and sensible, than your comment suggests. He believed that a more liberal religion could benefit a civil society and was annoyed that he was copping all the ecclesiastic flak whilst the militant atheists got off scot free.

    But he suffered from his well deserved reputation for composing intellectually sophisticated and superficially plausible justifications for utterly mad ideas: the General Will, the Noble Savage, the decadence of traditional institutions, the innate goodness of children, educational theory and so on.

    Rousseau was a one of those very intelligent lunatics that the French regularly foist on the “Republic of Letters”. He suffered serious mental health problems which caused him to fall out with pretty much everyone – the Court, the Church, the man in the street – before finally alienating his best intellectual friend, the long-suffering and affable Hume:

    After his house in Môtiers was stoned on the night of 6 September 1765, Rousseau took refuge in Great Britain with Hume, who found lodgings for him at a friend’s country estate in Wootton in Staffordshire. Neither Thérèse nor Rousseau was able to learn English or make friends. Isolated, Rousseau, never very emotionally stable, suffered a serious decline in his mental health and began to experience paranoid fantasies about plots against him involving Hume and others. “He is plainly mad, after having long been maddish”, Hume wrote to a friend.

  21. Jack, so you and Metaxas are suggesting that because science has failed to detect aliens with godlike powers, this proves:

    1) Humans are “special”?

    2) God exists!?

    My best guess, applying the mediocrity principle, would be that the equation radically overestimates the number of aliens with godlike powers in the universe.

  22. @Jack Strocchi
    Oh, if we discounted Western philosophy on the basis of the fate of the philosopher, we’d be discarding a lot of the foundations of philosophy. I don’t accept the perfectibility of man idea under either atheist rational rule or any type of theism because history shows us that most attempts at perfectibility – Soviet man through to Gordon Gecko type radical individualism – end in tyranny of some sort or another. We need to create the conditions for citizens of the demos to flourish. This implies that those citizens embody specific virtues – equalitarian, open, confident, moral, truthful, above all democratically minded. It is a list of virtues worth pondering.

  23. Another question for Jack – what’s a militant atheist?
    I’m no historian but I have never heard of an atheistic equivalent of the Crusades or ISIS (to name just two). I am not aware of atheists mobilising the way militant Xtians do when they bomb abortion clinics in the US, or when they fomented interfaith violence in Ireland during the troubles. Is there an atheistic equivalent of the Jonestown massacre?
    When have atheists ever militarised in the cause of atheism?
    (Please don’t insult me by naming Stalin or Mao.)

  24. @zoot

    A militant atheist is just one who keeps insisting that there is no god. This is as opposed to a nice atheist, who puts up with all manner of inconsistent Gods, giving respect to those who worship each one.

  25. nick @ #23 said:

    Jack, so you and Metaxas are suggesting that because science has failed to detect aliens with godlike powers, this proves:
    1) Humans are “special”?
    2) God exists!?

    1. Science has failed to detect any kind of ETs, not even a single bloody microbe, never mind those with “god-like powers”. SETI’s futile attempt to break the ice with with any channel surfing ETs who might be lounging in nearby constellations has also drawn a blank. This is despite standard bio-chemical theory strongly indicating that the emergence of Life should be banal, its spatial incidence prolific and its endurance ancient – both on Earth and throughout the Milky Way.

    2. I am agnostic so I have no positive belief in the existence or non-existence of God. This information, despite being repeated numerous times on this thread, cannot penetrate certain people’s skulls. No wonder ET has trouble getting through to SETI with such dunderheads on the other end of the line! Metaxas can speak for himself.

    3. The existence of ET radio communication networks distributed throughout the Milky Way would not be proof that ETs have “god-like powers”, unless of course nick happens to be a member of a Pacific Island cargo cult, which would not surprise me at this stage of the game. Its probably time to drag out Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Laws of Prediction for another belting (who, not coincidentally, was the guy who first came up with the idea of using space craft for long-range communication) :

    Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    The tyranny of distance is not an invincible despot when time is on your side. Around 90 percent of the Milky Way stars were fully formed between 11 billion and 7 billion years ago. It harbours ten million potentially life-habitable exo-planets. Abiding by the principle of mediocrity it follows that there were ~ five billion potentially life-habitable exo-planets busily evolving away for at least five billion years before our solar system had even formed. Thats more than enough time and habitable space to produce a sizeable fraction of Type II Radio Civilization that should have had the power to establish a deep space radio relay network, if they had the will.

    nick’s crimped, Horganesque view of advanced civilizations low potential to make real technological progress in inter-stellar travel is looking a little naive and threadbare given the astonishing performance of Voyager and Rosetta. We are not yet even one human life-time into the space age and we have already sent out robotic inter-stellar radio probes and I don’t see the space agencies making a claim for deification.

    So if We could get around to it, why can’t They? The most obvious reason is that They aren’t there. Or if they are, they can’t be bothered. Which is, if anything, a more dispiriting conclusion. The prima facie evidence, and a reasonable weighing of alternative explanations, suggests that progressive life in general, and civilized humanity in particular, is “special”. I know that brute fact torments any number of the cruder kind of atheists but they will just have to be brave about that.

  26. @Jack Strocchi

    So essentially you can’t do without the security blanket of having others believe in God (or the supernatural in some way) even if you can manage agnosticism yourself.

    Paradoxically you are claiming all of;

    (A) I am strong enough, ethical enough, smart enough to live existentially without belief in God or the supernatural.

    (B) Others are not so strong (an instrinsically elitist and paternalistic position)

    (C) I actually feel more secure if some believe (thus refuting or diminishing the claim of A).

    There is another possibility. A certain class of Machiavellian likes masquerade as a Conservative in order to secretly be belief free and ethics free and yet be able to exploit others who are encouraged to remain credulous, superstitious and obedient.

  27. ” .. others who are encouraged to remain credulous, superstitious and obedient”

    I guess these would be the ‘edible mushrooms’ in Jacks nomenclature, opposite to his undesired “poisonous mushrooms” which have sprung up of late.

  28. Hi! This post could not be written any better!
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    room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this page to him.
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  29. @Ootz

    I’m not disputing that; what I am saying is that even if it were true that every word of the argument given by Eric Metaxas had been personally endorsed by Aristotle, Avicenna, Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Su Song, and Rabindranath Tagore that would have no effect on how silly it is.

  30. J-D, I was referring to Jack Strocchi’s argument to give Metaxas’ credibility as appearing to be desperate rather than silly.

    I am not disputing that Metaxas offerings are silly. Hence I call him out as a vaudeville act, which the oz then recycles into it’s own growing medium for ‘edible mushrooms’, to stay with Jack’s mycological theme.

  31. In short what must have happened is, the high priests from the national daily fish wrap went on a well deserved sabbatical leaving an apprentice in charge who dutifully shovelled the usual mushroom compost (would you like chips with that, it is the festive season after all?). When Prof Q called it for what it is, the said apprentice got most indignant and took a potshot at the heretic and blessed the mushrooms with a set of free steak knifes.

    Now that the SMH and the Guardian have picked up the Pope’s recent contribution wrt climate change and for that matter social justice, when o when will the high priests of the national fish wrap be dignified to do engage in that contest? Probably it will require for the expatriate Moses to bear it on his tablets first.

  32. @Ootz
    Keep going with the fish and chip scenario. It is working a treat. And yes, I’m also looking forward to some media question of Abbott in the light of the encyclical.

  33. @zoot
    A militant atheist is someone, who when faced point blank with someone demanding they believe and supplicate to God, truthfully states that they don’t see adequate evidence to accept even the remotest likelihood of a god, let alone “the God” that they are being assailed to submit to.

    Yep, that’s me, just walking along minding my own business, and then—blam!—two very animated individuals with some indecipherable jibberish on placards decided I was fair game, not wanting me to get past them before a dose of their religious salts was foist upon me. Nope, they weren’t militant Christians, but I am a militant atheist. Go figure.

  34. I’ve always wondered why some people feel that society is better if there is a religious system in place. I especially wonder at the people who defend religion by saying that even if there is no God, etc, having the religious system in place is still better for society. Why the necessity to believe, or claim to believe, in one or several deities, in the first place? Couldn’t society function well enough if it has a good system of law, and an education system which inculcates the respect for individuals and each other? Being well behaved has little to do with religion.

  35. @Donald Oats
    I’ve always read the idea that the world would be worse without religion as a type of threat made by religious sociopaths who know, deep down and dirty, exactly how they would act out their nasty Jungian imaginations in the absence of Gawd to run their conscience. sort of Serbia redux. Pretty creepy imo.

  36. @jungney
    Quite possible. Of course, when people make this statement about religion making a better world, they are thinking of their own religion; perhaps they are actually thinking of their moral/cultural anchor: without it, they think they would be cast adrift upon a sea of moral relativism.

    People often make the mistake of thinking that a lack of moral absolutes implies that anything goes. It just means that we have to seek a common agreement as to what we consider a transgression worth punishing, and what punishment to mete out for such transgressions. This, in turn, defines what we mean when we say we are civilised: our laws and our punishments define us. This is one of the reasons I am of the view that we should never resort to execution as a punishment, whatever the crime. If the state sanctions deliberate killing, then where do we go from there?

  37. … we need to arrest the degenerate aspects of the current post-modern liberal era …

    Dear oh dear, Jack. You’re getting all Spengler on us.

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