Pharyngula

Apparently, Martin Cothran believes that there is no life elsewhere in the universe, and that this unimaginably vast emptiness is evidence that a god created us. I don’t understand the logic, but then I don’t understand most of his weird leaps in this post on how life on other planets is like believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

First, there is the naive scientific oversimplification.

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.

Oh, go away, Karl Popper. He seems to be the only philosopher of science the creationists have heard of. Falsification is one criterion; it’s part of a general effort to solve the demarcation problem, a problem I don’t think can be solved because the boundary between science and non-science is a grey murky haze. Personally, I think observation and evidence are more central to science than falsification.

How can a creationist even talk about applying falsification to science, though? They believe in so many things that have been falsified.

They don’t even get our jokes.

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.

Dawkins didn’t invent it. Bobby Henderson did.

The flying spaghetti monster is a collection of absurdities intended to mock religious goofballs like Martin Cothran, so I guess it’s unsurprising that he doesn’t get it. It was clearly made up out of whole cloth, so it lacks any supporting evidence — just like religion. It makes ridiculous claims, like that pirates prevent global warming, with no mechanistic relationship and that are clearly false — just like religion. It makes untestable promises of an afterlife — just like religion. You can’t distinguish pastafarianism from Christianity on any criterion, not just the Popperian one, so Cothran’s single-minded focus on falsification is inappropriate.

But come on, let’s get to the claims about life in outer space.

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.

Once again, Cothran fails to grasp the argument or understand the science.

Here’s the key point: the hypothesis that life exists on other worlds is not about astronomy. It’s about life. It’s a religious premise that the purpose of the universe is all about us, and you’ll find that the most fervent opponents of the idea of life beyond earth are religious people who dislike anything that detracts from their geocentric view of the universe. That’s unscientific. To be fair, you’ll also find many science-fictiony types who populate the universe with aliens because they can’t write a drama that doesn’t involve interactions between sentient beings. That’s understandable, but also unscientific.

But no one came up with a scientific hypothesis of extraplanetary life because they looked outward and saw signs. The primary evidence for that derives from the study of biology. Life is just chemistry. There is no clear sharp boundary between what is alive and what is a chemical reaction. Chemistry is a ubiquitous property of the universe; it’s really just a subset of physics. So if you want to say no life exists elsewhere, you have to argue that there is something unique about Earth to only allow that chemistry to occur here.

The creationists are actually on the right track when they try to claim that life is a historical product of a design intervention; that would be a kind of event that could be restricted to a tiny subset of worlds. Unfortunately, their work to date has consisted of shouting assertions (COMPLEXITY ONLY ARISES FROM DESIGN!) that have been falsified (oops, hoist by your own petard, Cothran), or that rely on vague and poorly stated premises (what the heck is specified complexity?) or require distorting and lying about the actual evidence.

Biology has not found anything unique, supernatural, or exclusively dependent on exceptional properties present only on this one planet. Absent a restriction, the null hypothesis is that other worlds with similar physical properties are also likely to contain self-propagating, energy utilizing chemical processes. If creationists want to claim otherwise, that Earth is unique, they are obligated to provide the specific and unique property of life that confines its origin to one planet.

They have to make the falsifiable claim, not us.

This doesn’t count. It’s just stupid.

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?

Again, the expectation of extraterrestrial life is based on studying life on earth and knowing its properties. No one has studied any gods, including the flying spaghetti monster, in any scientific way. That makes the claims trivially distinguishable.

So theism is a more scientific idea because it’s falsifiable, and it’s criterion for falsification requires testing it by dying? By ceasing to exist?

That violates another criterion for science. How will you publish?

Comments

  1. #2 Notjarvis
    January 22, 2014

    It’s a plain false comparison

    No-one is (really) saying life on other planets is a scientifically established theory on the level of say evolution or Einstein’s laws.

    It’s one hypothesis made on estimates, as you rightly point out based on chemistry etc.

    There seems to be the blindspot in criticisms of scientific theories, that thinks if one theory is wrong – they all are damaged.

    They seem to have no idea of different levels of certainty, or that science never/rarely claims to know anything with absolute certainty.

  2. #3 James Huber
    Oakland, CA, US, Earth
    January 22, 2014

    Creations think like lawyers, not scientists.

    In their home waters, their arguments are based on disecting and interpreting the Bible, much the way a lawyer disects and interprets the law.

    When they try to enter the realm of science they switch books, but not tactics. They comb science books looking for loop holes or trying to find some hook on which to hang an objection. They have know idea why this doesn’t impress us.

  3. #4 John
    January 22, 2014

    Ok PZ. I see all the negative stuff.
    How about making some positive statements. How do you separate the science form the non-science? What are the criteria for a science?

  4. #5 jim ainoris
    January 22, 2014

    Science also does not look through filters to block out any possibility . Please read Alvin Radgowskys paper on what the probability is against the dna of a single cell aoemeba forming at ramdom is……ten to the seven thousanth power to one I believe….also if I recall quantum mechanics shows the probability of a self replicating unit of life is zero….you guys blindly mock all people who believe in G-d…like Einstein Hans Bethe and many others…it seems very silly and closed minded . Observable evidence may not be available yet but with CERN and other new devices who knows what will be found…..Shalom james ainoris

  5. #6 ProgJohn
    UK
    January 23, 2014

    @jim – you are repeating a standard creationist straw manwhich misses the point completely. Nobody claims a single cell amoeba formed at random. The amoeba is just a point on a continuum from simple reactions to more complex ones via steps such as self replicating RNA. Read “What is Life?: How chemistry becomes biology” by Addy Pross for a good lay mans guide to our current understanding of this process.

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    January 23, 2014

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  7. #8 Howard Brazee
    January 23, 2014

    The Bible doesn’t mention life on other planets, but it also doesn’t mention life in the Americas. How can someone believe in a Creator who created all of the heavens and then limit him to only create life on Earth without any evidence? Unless it’s not about God, it’s about Martin Cothran. (So many people on the religious right seem to use their religion to validate their life styles while ignoring the example of Jesus Christ’s). Other religions and philosophies do the same thing.

  8. #9 G
    January 23, 2014

    This is one of those areas where logic and empiricism are for the moment at odds.

    Logically we know that the complex chemistry at the root of life should occur on any planet with a liquid transport medium and a suitable energy source. Once the requisite dissipative structures form, they will tend to increase in complexity and diversity up to the limit of one or another resource. The universe should be infested with life and teeming with intelligence.

    Empirically we come up with exactly nothing beyond Earth. But clearly this is a function of the fact that we are merely in the infancy of our exploration of space: we have barely begun to look, and we have barely begun to build the needed tools.

    The tension between logic and observation is intrinsic to the entire history of science. Anyone with even a minimal education in the history of science will recognize it again and again.

    What I don’t get is why any hypothetical deity would create an entire vast universe of potentially inhabitable worlds, and leave all of it totally barren, save for one planet. My rational side finds that absurd, and my mystical side finds it a waste of an infinity.

  9. #10 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    January 23, 2014

    What are the criteria for a science?

    As long as you can answer the question “if I were wrong, how would I know, and how would anyone else know?” all the way down, you’re doing science. As soon as you have a gap in there, you’re not doing science.

    Keywords you can look up: falsification; parsimony; publication.

  10. #11 Distinguished Pastafarian
    Beer Volcano
    January 24, 2014

    PZ, I do admire your work; however, the High Priest Bobby Henderson was the first mortal soul to recognize the existence of the Supreme Being, Her Holiness, The Flying Spaghetti Monster. The evidence for Her being is just as strong as evidence put forth by the many other religions. But I know, based upon my faith, that my God, the FSM, is the one True God.

  11. #12 Jim Thomerson
    January 24, 2014

    Back in the mid 1950s there was a fairly well developed lawerly attack on evolution. We evolutionary biologists did some soul searchint (so to speak). We asked ourselves, ” are we doing science or just telling just so stories?” We discovered Popper, and many of us read and took seriosly what he said. Colleagues declared, “I am a Popperian!” Later some declared, “I am a post Popperian!” I don’t know what that means. I call myself an “Incomplete Popperian”, because I do not follow some of his mathmatical treatments. I like the idea that science is a search for, and correction of, errors in our thinking. I also like the concept of verisimilitude, truth likeness. That what we do is to increase the verisimilitude of our understanding of the universe.

  12. #13 Jim Thomerson
    January 24, 2014

    Sorry, that was mid 1960s. My spell checker is not working, so good luck.

  13. #14 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    January 24, 2014

    Distinguished Heretic, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a He. First, Holy Scripture says so; second, um, uh, [meat]balls and Noodly Appendage.

  14. #15 Distinguished Pastafarian
    Empty Beer Volcano
    January 24, 2014

    Mr Marjanovic, I thank you for your information and correction. However, my faith, which is not open for debate, tells me otherwise. I reference the one true Holy Book, The Loose Canon, that allows all of us to reference our Sacred Deity in any respectful manner we deem fit. Second, Noodly Appendages, well, that’s the real point anyways – right?

  15. #16 Tony61
    January 26, 2014

    Life on other planets is certainly falsifiable, ala Popper. While not practical, the scenario exists whereby every planet could be inspected and life ruled in or out. That is the point of Popperian falsifiability.

    Religion does not meet that criterion.

  16. #17 Jim
    January 28, 2014

    What would Cothran say if we were to discover another planet with intelligent life and they negate all concepts of a supreme being? Are they wrong and delusional?

  17. #18 Billy Henderson
    Lexington, KY
    January 31, 2014

    Mr. Meyers,
    If your approach to science is reflected in your blogging, my wife would probably flunk you in her 7th grade biology class.

    You say, “Apparently, Martin Cothran believes that there is no life elsewhere in the universe.” Apparently? How is that apparent?

    My reading of Cothran’s first paragraph is that the New Atheists are the ones who would discredit the possibility of life on another planet from being scientific due to the fact that it is not falsifiable. Even if you disagree with this point, it does not intimate in any way what Cothran believes about life on other planets.

    Do you arrive at your “apparent scientific facts” using the same process.

    Apparently.