Extraterrestrial life versus the burden of proof

In the last two posts, a heated debate emerged about whether it’s right to believe in an afterlife. And the opposition to that belief kept coming back to one thing: “Prove it! Show me it’s real!” The demand for empirical evidence, if you like, which on the surface seems reasonable. But it isn’t.

Consider the ET question. Is there life on other planets? Many of us believe there is. This belief is based on the knowledge that there are between 200 billion and 400 billion stars in our own galaxy. Not only that, but we can look through a powerful telescope and discover there are an estimated 200 hundred billion entire galaxies out there beyond the boundary of our own. In all of that, surely there must be more than one Earth-like planet able to sustain life?

But if you apply the rigid principle that some people in the last debate applied to the question of the afterlife (the principle that the burden of proof is the be-all and-end-all of rational thought), it works like this: I’ve never seen an alien, therefore I choose not to believe. “But the universe is so big! What about the likelihood of …” Oh, ho, ho! Hold on a minute, there, buddy. I didn’t know we were allowed to consider likelihoods, or weigh up possibilities. Surely you mustn’t contemplate how probable or improbable alien life is. Your only standard is the burden of proof. And without proof, you are required by law to choose the negative – to deny what may or may not be reality. I certainly wasn’t allowed to contemplate the ultimate futility of the human race. Likewise, if you are consistent, you should not allow yourself to contemplate the absurdity of this universe being 100% devoid of life save humanity. It’s an open and shut case: no empirical evidence = no permission to believe and no further rational thought allowed to weigh in.

How much better it is to abandon a rigid belief system and be open to possibility! Not only better, but how much more rational. To consider possibilities and probabilities, to look deeply into the implications of things, to theorise based on imagination. Ultimately, to have permission to believe in something, not on the burden of proof, but because it makes sense. Not so long ago, I used to say things like, “I don’t believe in extraterrestrial life, because the Bible says that man is unique and made in the image of God, and that doesn’t leave room for ET.” I ignored the sheer volume of the universe, and allowed my rigid belief system to dictate what is painfully apparent by reason of staggering probability: We are not alone. I looked out at everything through a closed mind, through a view of reality that I had already set in stone, shut off from possibility. See, I’m as guilty as anyone.

But just recently a light has switched on in my head, exposing subtle ways that my mind has been conditioned all my life. My thinking has now become both sharpened and opened up to possibility. Everything is possible, and nothing is exempt from being called into question – not the athiesm of others, not my own belief in God, nor my belief in Christianity. And it’s not sacriligious to suggest such a thing. Whatever is true should have no fear of scrutiny. I refuse to look at the universe from inside a mental prison, whether that prison is the narrow path of modern science or religious doctrine. This revelation in my thinking has made me feel more excited and inspired than I’ve felt in a long time.


11 thoughts on “Extraterrestrial life versus the burden of proof

  1. The “light switch” is a good thing but you need to watch out, because sometimes you’ll wish you didn’t know what you’ll probably learn. There’s no turning that “light switch” off either.

  2. mike q says:

    The only problem with your ET point is that we base the fact that there could be life on other planets because of the vast number of galaxys out there, and if life could start here then, statistically, it could start elsewhere. the proof, or evidence, is in our own planet.

    There is nothing whatsoever to sugest that there is life after death, if were using the science-evidence logic, apart from the hope that this isn’t all for nothing.

    I’m open to the possibility of aliens because of these facts, and dubious of life after death because of the lack of facts.

    One thing I did think about regarding an after life, what would you do for eternity, that sounds like a hell to me.

  3. Darryl Sloan says:

    Hi, Mike.

    “I’m open to the possibility of aliens because of these facts, and dubious of life after death because of the lack of facts.”

    Naughty, naughty. There are no facts on ETs. You can’t say in paragraph 1, “The fact that there could be …” That’s not a fact; it’s a possibility. You’re cheating, mate. There is no empirical evidence for alien life, period. There are only probabilities, just like there are probabilities for the afterlife question.

    The facts you do state (the existence of the billions of stars and galaxies) are the same type of facts that exist for the afterlife question (the existence of death and the end of the human race), i.e.

    – That fact that there are billiions of stars means that it’s likely there is life out there.

    – The fact that the human race is ultimately meaningless means it’s likely there is something more beyond death.

    Can’t you that both debates are the same? Stop putting up smokescreens and admit that we’re talking about possibilities with both questions.

    “The evidence is here.”

    More cheating. You can’t demand in one argument to see for yourself, then in another to assume stuff beyond what you’ve been able to test and verify. So inconsistent.

    I was delighted earlier when you opened up your mind a bit regarding your dependence on the “burden of proof.” But your comment above is making me think you’re back in the box.

    “One thing I did think about regarding an afterlife, what would you do for eternity, that sounds like a hell to me.”

    There’s only so much life you can stand? I’m gobsmacked by that. Your statement seems to reveal some kind of vague emotional ache about life in general. Like you’ll be glad when it’s over. I can’t imagine ever feeling like I’ve had enough of life. Possibly I’m getting a lot more out of it, spiritually, than you. And this would appear to cast a shadow on what was said earlier by you and others about the positivity and joy of the athiest experience. You spoke of joy, but clearly athiesm is not all it’s cracked up to be.

  4. mike q says:

    You can read anything in a statement, I didn’t say “I was fed up with life,” or that “I’ll be glad when it’s over,” or that “I’ve had enough of life.” What I was trying to get across was the idea of forever, just what would you do – forever.

    I never said there was facts regarding ET, just the facts of our planet and the life it supports would indicate the possibility of life elsewhere. You say there are probabilities for an after life, based on what though, apart from hope and wishfull thinking.

    And here’s a point, you say you can’t imagine this life being it, that all of mans achievments would have been for nothing. Go back a few thousand years and ask that question, what would our achievments have been then, before music and arts and technological advances, we lived in mud huts and hunted with sharpenned sticks,

  5. mike q says:

    Didn’t notice this bit before,

    “The fact that the human race is ultimately meaningless means that there is life after death.”

    What is it that makes you think we’re so special, and not just evolved apes with that awareness of our own mortality. You don’t say that a dog’s life is ultimately meaningless so there has to be a doggy afterlife.

  6. Darryl Sloan says:

    Hi, Mike.

    You’re right. I apologise for jumping the gun on that one. But you have to admit, to refer to forever as “hell” is pretty strong. I suspect your view is perhaps coloured by an assumption that the afterlife may be dull. On the contrary, I would expect it to be mind-blowing. What would I do forever? Continue to experience, to grow, to love, I expect. These are what are required of me in this life, and I don’t expect to tire of it.

    “You say you can’t imagine this life being it, that all of mans achievments would have been for nothing. Go back a few thousand years and ask that question, what would our achievments have been then, before music and arts and technological advances, we lived in mud huts and hunted with sharpenned sticks.”

    Don’t worry. People will still be reading Chion in 20,000 A.D. 😉 I say that in jest because it is, of course, crazy to expect the permanence of things. The debate here is really about the permanence of the human consciousness, psyche, soul – or however you view it. The lives of those cavemen are surely as significant as mine and yours. Why wouldn’t they be? They’re humans, living experiential lives, fully conscious – a mirror of you and I in that respect. Why would they be less important? It’s the value of the human consciousness we’re talking about.

    “What is it that makes you think we’re so special, and not just evolved apes with that awareness of our own mortality. You don’t say that a dog’s life is ultimately meaningless so there has to be a doggy afterlife.”

    Great question. And it gets right to the heart of the debate. The reason I think we’re so special is because I’ve seen past the conditioning that you and I have been subjected to all our lives. Science stands unable to explain where the original material that made the universe came from, yet it still insists that there can be nothing else beyond the five-sense reality. When I saw that science had no right to limit my thinking to its narrow view of reality, then I started to think properly for the first time.

    Most of what the agnostics/athiests in this debate have said has come out of a narrow belief system that they have been conditioned to believe is true. Just like many religious people, who are out to defend dogma, the same narrow-minded attitude is true of the athiests. Few are interested in opening their minds in a truly objective sense. If that were true, I would be hearing, “Holy cow. Could it really be true that our lives don’t end when we die? I want to know more.” Instead, what I hear is athiests wanting to knock down the idea of an afterlife at all costs, and some of them will grab any ammo at their disposal to do so – including belittling the opponent (hello, Phil), quoting the sinister side of religion (which is true, but has nothing at all to do with the concept of an afterlife), using lazy thinking, and hiding behind smokescreens.

    If you’re not prepared to see this conditioning as real, ask yourself this: Why are we so opposed? It is because at the deepest most fundamental level, we don’t see the world in the same way. It’s not a case of us figuring out whether God made the universe, then everything else stems from that. Our brains are already riddled with crap before we even come to the God question. And until we sort through all that crap, our deductions won’t be based on proper clear-headed thinking.

    It is, of course, convenient for me that this particular debate is a pro-Christian one. So just to prove that I’m not coming at this from my own rigid belief system, I’m going to address your point about the “doggy afterlife” in the right way:

    Consciousness is an absolute marvel. And dogs are conscious. Less intelligent, sure, but conscious, definitely. I don’t know what happens to a dog’s consciousness after death, but I’m totally open to the idea that it’s as permanent as I think ours is. This is not a Christian idea, and might even get a giggle from a narrow-minded Christian. But I am certainly not joking. All I’m doing is being consistent with my thinking, and above all being open to possibility.

    Even if I suddenly discovered that Christianity was a farce, I would still believe in an afterlife and in a creator. These are huge, weighty concepts that make sense of the universe and our place in it, irrespective of religion (or its lack). But you’ll only see that if you step outside the conditioning and open your mind.

  7. mike q says:

    You may have forgotten one of my initial posts. I was in exactly the same position I think you are in now. I didn’t believe in organised religion, thinking they were man made. But I did believe in an after life, and possibly a creator, because I couldn’t get my head around the fact that this would all end, that my life would be for nothing. So i wasn’t thinking in the box then, or hiding behind smokescreens.

    I can still feel the tug of those past feelings, and for me it feels like a security blanket, not only to make death seem less final, but also to give life meaning. But then I look at my son and realise that “meaning” is sat at my feet trying to tie my shoe laces together. If this life is it, i would be happy because of the life I had brought into it and nurtured.

    one example would be if a group of young children were stranded on an island say, don’t know how they got there or why there’s no adults, they would have no awareness of death. they would live their lives however they saw fit without ever worrying about their impending deaths, and so would have no need, or thought, of an after life.

    I suppose it was a bit harsh refering to a forever after life as hell, but what I was getting at was how looonnnggggg forever is.

  8. Darryl Sloan says:

    I certainly agree that belief in an afterlife can be used as a security blanket, but I honestly believe there’s more to it than that.

    I also have been where you currently are, defining my meaning through the importance of others, and my love for them. The difference is, this belief didn’t do for me what it appears to be doing for you. It only provided partial relief from the pressing weight of futility.

    Like you, I recognised that I couldn’t walk away from my agnostic belief on the grounds of needing a security blanket. It’s wasn’t until I discovered more rational grounds for belief in an afterlife that I took hold of it.

    As to why our individual experiences of agnosticism differs, I can’t say. But mine was so potent that it led me to phrase my original essay in quite agressive terms.

    “But I did believe in an after life, and possibly a creator, because I couldn’t get my head around the fact that this would all end, that my life would be for nothing. So i wasn’t thinking in the box then, or hiding behind smokescreens.”

    Actually you probably were thinking in the box, even back then. The same can be said about me. In my life I’ve gone back and forth from thiesm to agnosticism I don’t know how many times, tossed and turned, because I couldn’t see the conditioning. I knew I couldn’t prove God but felt I should have been able to. I would hazard a guess that the same kind of thinking led you to ultimately abandon your belief in an afterlife. It sounds like you held onto something for a period, then eventually gave in to the “burden of proof” demand that was probably gnawing at you the whole time you held your belief. I know that’s pretty much how it was with me.

    We’re thinking from inside the box until we can see the box.

  9. mike q says:

    It is strange how we can differ to both ends of the spectrum on a subject that isn’t something simple as what’s your favourite ice cream. When it comes to the question of questions this has got to be the “BIG ONE”

    I know the burdon of proof definitly led be to me giving up on religion. Like I’d said I had given up pretty much anyway, but there was still that belief of something extra. I couldn’t explain, let alone to myself, why I believed in something after, it was just a feeling, the more I asked myself about it the more I came to the conclusion I have now.

    I think the most important part is that we live the same way, if there is an after life, wahoo. Oh yeah forever, err wahoo? If not, at least you wont be there saying I told you so Quayle.

  10. Darryl Sloan says:

    What you mean is, I get to say, “Told you so, Quayle,” if there is an afterlife, and you don’t get to say “Told you so, Sloan,” if there isn’t. That’s win-win for me. 😉

    You’ve been the principle debater, and I sense we’re coming to the end of everything you and I can say to each other on the subject, and it’s good that’s we’re ending on a note of respect for each other. In case it hasn’t been clear, I actually do respect a great deal your right to make up your own mind. I just get a little heated when I’m trying to get something across that I feel passionate about and I can’t manage to make the other person see my point of view fully. You’ll make your own path, as will I.

    If people take anything away from all this whole debate, I hope it’s a new awareness of our susceptability to conditioning, not only in the arena of science, but religion, media, education and culture.

  11. mike q says:

    “Told you so, Sloan” just in case, he he. The debate has been good because you yourself have been open to question everything, from your faith and beliefs, and I have been able to scrutinize why I believe certain things. The bottom line is as long as we live our lives to the fullest, respecting, loving and trusting others I think we’ll get there in the end.
    And if there is an after life, you are banned from saying “told you so, Quayle, it just wouldn’t be cricket old boy.

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