The case for myopia in the search for extraterrestrial life.

Atlas Obscura recently reposted a video by The Atlantic entitled We’re probably imagining aliens wrong. I’ve included a link to it at the end of this post for reference. It’s a fairly terrible arrangement of bytes which is an unusual thing for Atlas Obscura to promote.

The video makes the valid point that when we search for alien life we’re looking for life like ours. Life like we understand it. Life that needs atmosphere. Life that needs water. It then goes on to point out the painfully juvenile point that if we only look for life like us, we’ll miss the life that’s not like us.

The video suggests that life could take many unusual forms. Perhaps that of organisms that have relinquished their bodies and are now dwelling in the nooks and crannies of extra dimensions or organisms that can disintegrate into a disembodied swarm intelligence and because we’re so busy looking for things that need water, we’ve missed these other types of life. The video culminates with the accusation that researchers consider advanced life as incompressible and boring.

When handed such a large steaming pile of crap, it’s hard to know where to begin washing it off, but I’ll try.

First, I agree with the point that when we search for life we’re necessarily going to start with life that we understand. There are a few really good reasons for that.

Our technology greatly limits our ability to search for life on other

At this point in our advancement we’re extremely limited as to what we can do. After three-plus billion years of evolution we’ve only managed to send people to our moon. An amazingly complex and significant endeavour but barely a toe wiggle in the scope of the galaxy and utterly imperceptible in the vast expanse of the universe.

The video criticizes science fiction for pursuing the notion that aliens must be humanoid. In the same breath it’s overlayed with science fiction images from television showing that we can travel anywhere and see anything in the vast expanse of the universe. Clearly, both of these cannot be true.

We’re stuck with slow space probes and murky radio waves in our search for life. It’s expensive, it’s slow, and it’s error prone.

How do you look for a Hooloovoo?

It seems almost unfair to point out the flaws in this next argument. Almost.

During the painful parts of the video where we are admonished for failing to search for extra dimensional beings, the Hooloovoo came to my mind. Hooloovoos are a race from The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy that are described as hyper-intelligent shades of the colour of blue.

Researchers are painfully aware that life could take any form. Any form at all. They are an amazingly inventive and creative people. They WANT to find a Hooloovoo. In fact, some life could really turn out to be a hyper-intelligent shade of blue, but that doesn’t make it any easier to find.

If we were aware that Hooloovoos exist it would be easier to search for them. Blue light, after all, has a distinct spectrum. But if you don’t know there are hyper-intelligent shades of blue in the universe, or extra dimensional beings, or intelligent swarms, how do you search for them?

What the hell is an ‘extra dimensional being’, anyhow?

The video gives no clue how to go about searching for these abstract notions of life. It just admonishes researchers for not figuring out how to search for, and gain funding for, randomly made up ideas . This type of silliness is usually employed by religious apologetics and was identified by Bertrand Russel almost a century ago: (paraphrase) the philosophical burden of proof lies with the claimant and the burden of disproof can’t be shifted to others.

The Atlantic simply states that there may be exotic forms of life without providing any evidence and then shifts the burden of disproof to researchers.

What should we search for?

You can’t search for things that have no meaning. Using a scavenger hunt as an example, how successful would you be in a search for these two things?

  • something blue (can be hyper intelligent, but not required)
  • something nobody has ever seen before

Your odds are pretty good on coming home with something blue, but how would you even begin to find something nobody has ever seen before? Even if you thought you had found such a thing, how could you verify it?

Those questions are unanswerable, but they’d sure as hell cost a shit ton of money if you needed large radio arrays, spaceships, and time on the space station to figure it out. The only sane way to approach the search for extraterrestrial life is by looking for things we’ll recognize. That may lead us to things we don’t recognize.