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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Saturday, December 20, 2014

“Galaxy Is Our Playground” Thinkers Would Probably Not Rethink Views If Mars Life Found

There is a certain type of thinker who indulges in the idea that our galaxy of more than 100 billion stars is just waiting to be taken over by humans. I may call such thinkers the “galaxy is our playground” thinkers. According to this view, we are the only planet in our galaxy with intelligent life. Some day, according to such thinkers, we will spread throughout the galaxy, colonizing it entirely. According to such thinkers, the galaxy is like some huge gift waiting for the human species, a gigantic inheritance which we can explore and exploit at our leisure without competition. 

Galaxy greed: the fantasy of a galaxy ripe for conquest

People who have such a view try to support it by bringing up Fermi's Paradox, the issue of why we do not yet have clear evidence of extraterrestrial life. On this blog I have several times rebutted this argument. Some of the main reasons why “we are alone in the galaxy” arguments based on Fermi's Paradox are not convincing is the severe difficulty of interstellar travel, the significant chance that interstellar colonization may be relatively rare, and the possibility that our planet may be part of a kind of nature preserve set aside by extraterrestrials (who could be expected to create such nature preservation areas just as our species does on our planet).

Just recently there were some exciting NASA findings that may be relevant to this issue. NASA finally found organic compounds on Mars, a prerequisite of life NASA has long sought on Mars. NASA also found strong spikes of methane on Mars, and one of the most plausible causes of such spikes could be biological activity, possibly from bacteria.

We could be on the verge of discovering life on Mars. How would such a discovery affect the “galaxy is our playground” thinkers? Will we see some revision of thought such as the hypothetical one below?

I used to think that we are the only planet in our galaxy with intelligent life. My opinion was based on the incredible difficulties of life getting started billions of years from mere chemicals. But now that we have discovered microbes on Mars, I have revised this opinion. Since life has evolved on two out of two planets where it had the chance, it is only logical to assume that life exists throughout our galaxy, and that on some good fraction of these planets, intelligent life has arisen.

No, I don't think the “galaxy is our playground” thinkers would go in such a direction. There is a strange tendency in the human mind that often works like this: when someone has committed himself to a particular position, he may tend to regard evidence against such a position as all the more reason to believe in the position. We see this when a fundamentalist zealot says something like, “Your discovery of 100 new 'transitional fossils' is simply all the more proof that Satan is deceiving us by planting such things,” or when a skeptic says something like, “This book of 50 new 'paranormal photos' is just all the more proof that such photos can easily be faked.” It's a weird kind of tendency whereby the human mind attempts to make a silk purse when it has been given a sow's ear, a kind of “make lemonade when you get lemons” thing. We don't like to revise our opinions, and we would rather transform (however implausibly) a new finding or set of observations into another reason for believing in our existing opinions rather than going through the painful process of revising our opinions.

So I imagine that if Mars life was discovered, the “galaxy is our playground” thinkers might react to the finding along these lines:

Why this finding of Mars life simply makes our original vision of the human conquest of the galaxy even more enthralling! Before we thought that the origin of life was rare, perhaps occurring only on our planet. But if the origin of life is common, that means the whole galaxy is probably filled with life-bearing planets for humans to explore and conquer. Rather than having ahead of us the not-so-thrilling task of taking over an all but barren galaxy with almost no life, we will instead have before us the even more thrilling job of taking over and conquering a galaxy filled with all kinds of exotic plants and animals (of course, none of them as intelligent as us).

Meanwhile, as such thinkers indulge in such pleasant fantasies, minds that are to our minds like our minds are to the insects may well be pondering whether to soon squash us like bugs at their feet or keep watching us for a few more centuries.