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Varieties of Scientific Experience (2)

From: ralphellectual
Sent on: Monday, October 20, 2008 1:32 PM
Chapter 3 is a portrait of the organic universe. There is a prevalence of organic molecules suitable to the genesis of life, but the precise conditions under which organic molecules become life and what kind of life they will become remains an open area of investigation.

Chapter 4 is about extraterrestrial intelligence. Sagan contrasts the wrong way to go about demonstrating the existence of such, and a more reliable way. The first example was actually the product of serious scientists, i.e. the purported observation of "canals" on Mars and the further extrapolation of an intelligent civilization from them. The question then becomes, what constitutes good evidence. Sagan asserts that the approach to this question is not so different from ascertaining the existence of an angel, demigod, or God. (108) The first question is, how plausible is the hypothesis.

I don't agree with Sagan's passing remark of Sagan, for the detection of a supernatural entity is actually something qualitatively different from the search for a naturalistic being by naturalistic methods, however susceptible to wish-fulfillment.

From here, Sagan proceeds to the Drake equation, the formula for estimating the probability of intelligent life capable of sustaining interplanetary communication (minimally via radio astronomy). Sagan explains the various factors, and muses on the types on the form and content of possible messages to be transmitted to interstellar newcomers such as ourselves. Here we have an open-minded, experimental approach, to be contrasted with unrestrained, unaccountable speculation. The first question is, why would aliens have to look anything like us? (121-2)  Sci fi aliens are still very much like anthropoids.

Sagan also muses on the theological implications of extraterrestrial intelligence. If other intelligent beings look nothing like us, are we made in God's image? Sagan is not so impressed with Arthur C. Clarke's contention that Christianity would be completely undermined by extraterrestrial intelligence on the basis of morphological similarity. Advanced intelligent beings would still have something in common with us: an objective grasp of properties of the natural universe. (122-3)

Chapter 5 is where the real philosophical interest of the book starts: "Extraterrestrial folklore: implications for the evolution of religion". Sagan doesn't discount the possibility of visitation of Earth by extraterrestrials, in spite of the greater efficiency and likelihood of indirect contact via radio astronomy, but assertions of visitation demand the highest evidentiary standards. (126) Thus Sagan broaches the folklore of ancient astronaut visitations and contemporary UFO contacts. He debunks the contentions of Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods and puts the motivation behind it down to wish fulfillment. Sagan was personally involved in investigating contemporary UFO reports, which he classifies as (1) mistaken sightings of natural objects, (2) hoaxes, (3) photos (some hoaxes), and (4) allegations of direct contact (such as George Adamski, whose description of Venus, to which the aliens reportedly transported him, was all wrong). Sagan concludes that in a million reported cases of UFOs since 1947, not a single bit of credible physical evidence has surfaced. The causes of UFO reports are misapprehension of natural phenomena, fraud, or psychopathology. (134) Sagan cites a telling example of a grain silo on the ground mistaken by reputable people for a flying saucer.  Misperceptions of this sort are not all that different from claims about miracles, famously debunked by philosopher David Hume and also Thomas Paine. (136) Sagan recounts his own sighting of a mysterious object that he discovered to be a weather airplane, to the disappointment of other witnesses. (137)


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