Philosophy and the existence of alien life

Do aliens exist? Are we alone in the universe?

These are the sorts of questions I’ve been asked by people when they learn I somewhat have a background in philosophy. They’re interested in my opinion on the existence of extraterrestrial life. It’s occurred enough that it’s become a bit predictable.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not being snobbish about it. These are good questions. I sympathize with the obvious curiosity inspiring them. Who hasn’t wondered if there are alien species, or perhaps even civilizations, not of this earth? Certainly not this guy!

However, this isn’t the sort of question in which philosophers are interested. Or, if there are any philosophical implications concerning the existence of aliens, they are very limited.

Take, for example, the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of reality and its first principles, metaphysics. To put it crudely, it’s uncontroversial to metaphysicians that stuff exists (To be a bit more refined: For some x, x exists iff a) x is conceivable in some possible world y and b) y is in fact the actualized, real world). What is controversial, however, is how stuff (x) exists, what kinds of stuff (x) exist, and, last but not least, if this stuff exists out of necessity (in all possible worlds) or is it contingent on some other stuff (z) for its existence and or being. These are the sorts of navel-gazing matters for which it’s worth growing long white beards, stroking those beards while thinking about said matters, and being so immersed in thought about them, one’s navel collects the ensuing detritus as lint. Unseemly hygiene aside, it’s a noble tradition that dates back before Socrates.


…For philosophers, aliens do indeed qualify as stuff — contingent stuff, as it’s possible for not only aliens not to exist, but also any sort of creature, including us, homo sapiens. It might be unlikely based on the universe being so vast, but the probabilities aren’t relevant here, only the broad metaphysical possibility that they don’t exist. In other words, it’s not necessary that aliens, us, or any creature to exist. The universe could have just kept on spinning without life of any kind. Yet, contingent creatures do exist, and not since Descartes has someone seriously entertained something close to the opposing notion. So, it’s not a revelation, philosophically speaking, if there are contingent creatures not native to our third rock from the sun out there among the stars.

But I anticipate someone raising what I call a Neil-deGrasse-Tyson-BatmanvSuperman objection:

I find deGrasse Tyson’s reasoning unpersuasive in the clip. He opines that the existence of Superman, an alien, “challenges our own sense of priority in the universe,” which, with the comments about Copernicus and Darwin’s theory of evolution, compose a jab at the Judeo-Christian-influenced view that humans are God’s children and thus “special” among all the rest of the flora and fauna of reality. Unfortunately for deGrasse Tyson, as a matter of logical deduction, it doesn’t land.

Consider the two central propositions of “mere Christianity,” both of which are necessary for the truth of the Christian worldview. If any of these are false, Christianity must be false too:

  • (1) God exists
  • (2) Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead

For the sake of simplicity, let’s not worry about the theological details of God’s nature. (1) just affirms a general theism. Likewise, most of the accompanying Christian doctrines implicit in (2) (e.g. Jesus being the incarnated Second Person of the Godhead, sinless, and the need for the remission of sins, etc.) are also not of concern here save one. Namely, (2) implies we are special — “For God so loved the world…” (John 3:16) — in a way deGrasse Tyson denies. Call this belief (2a).

Now, suppose the following proposition is true:

  • (3) Extraterrestrial life exists

Can propositions (1), (2), (2a), and (3) all be true at the same time? Is there some logical contradiction between them like there is with these three propositions if all true?:

  • (4) All bachelors are unmarried
  • (5) Tim is a bachelor
  • (6) Tim is married

In sum, the existence of aliens is logically consistent with Christian theism and its belief that humans are “special.” deGrasse Tyson fails to demonstrate the naturalistic conclusion to which he’s arguing, specifically that humans are just one of many types of animal life that so happen to exist on a small blue planet in the godless, meaningless, purely material cosmos.

However, I predict another objection of an inductive kind: The Bible only depicts God interacting and caring about man; its narrative seems exclusionary to any sort of extraterrestrial people, i.e. rational animals of an alien sort on another world. Their existence would be prima facie evidence of the Bible’s fallibility — a book that is supposed to be without error — and thus a strong reason to be skeptical of Christianity.

The problem with this reasoning, though, is the assumption the Bible, if the Word of God, must contain accurately our scientific discoveries, especially the “big” ones capturing the popular imagination. The Bible is not a scientific text. Though some Evangelicals try to read it as such, especially Genesis, many Christians throughout history didn’t and still don’t. Poor theology doesn’t debunk all theology. If there are alien civilizations out there, their existence has little bearing on whether Christianity is true. Moreover, Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 28 to “go and make disciples of all nations” can easily be interpreted to extend to peoples not of this Earth.

See, the confusion comes from a widely-held misconception about what is of philosophy, as well as related disciplines like theology, and what belongs to science. This question about alien life is the province of the latter, specifically xenobiology. Additionally, if there are alien societies, then sociology and anthropology have relevance too. But when it comes to philosophy and metaphysics, ET phoning home isn’t of much pomp and circumstance. With all due respect for the deGrasse Tysons of the world, whatever the fact of the matter, it doesn’t support naturalism, Christian theism, or other positions involving problems in philosophy of religion and other areas of special metaphysics, e.g. issues of personhood. Unwittingly, deGrasse Tyson and those like him are merely reading their prior-held metaphysics and values into a strictly empirical and valueless domain of study.

That’s all that’s going on here. Nothing more, nothing less.


“Clump” theory Kant buy an abortion

Perhaps you’ve heard this feminist folly about a human embryo shrilly pronounced in defense of abortion: “It’s just a clump of cells!”

Well, I mean, so are you, dear feminist. If we assume a strictly materialistic and naturalistic account of human beings, each woman, whether pregnant or not, is also “just a clump of cells,” only bigger. Hence, why does a woman, as a clump of cells, have the right to terminate an embryo or a fetus, whom too are clumps of cells? Mere difference in size between “clumps” seems to be an arbitrary reason. For the naturalist and materialist advocate of abortion, the issue is not just how one gets the immaterial goodies of rights and value solely from the material cellular composition of bodies but also why only women-as-clumps (WAC) have them and the unborn-as-clumps (UAC) don’t, much to their lethal expense.

I will now consider some possible responses to these problems implicated by this “clump” theory:

A. WACs are rational beings; UACs are not.
Immanuel Kant famously held within one of his formulations of the categorical imperative that we ought never to treat rational beings only as means but as ends in themselves. So, in a Kantian deontological framework, the hurdle of human dignity and personhood must be overcome to justify abortion. Bifurcating between WAC as rational agents and UAC as non-rational agents accomplishes this as it allows the latter to be used solely as a means — in this sense, subjects to abortion — in service of the will of the former. Under this interpretation of Kant, UAC are not persons and thusly don’t possess rights, such as the universalizable right to life.

I see some troubles with this move:

  1.  It fails to take into account the potential for rationality that inheres within a freshly formed, normal human zygote, that, as being a member of the sort of natural kind that it is, if left unabated in the womb would likely further develop, be born and actualize that potential for rationality over time. This actualization of latent rationality has been, as a matter of common experience, if not scientific observation, readily justified a posteriori. Following from this, it’s arguable (as Bill Vallicella does here) that this inherent potentiality for rationality, “confers a right to life”and thereby Kantian personhood. Thus, treading on this right, as abortion certainly does, given this case, is a moral evil and violates Kant’s categorical imperative.Moreover, Vallicella also notes another issue to which I find myself concurring: The “post-natal,” the newly born, can’t be considered as rational agents. They are utterly helpless and dependent on adults to make judgments on their behalf. Several years must pass before they become apt for rationality and develop the cognitive faculties for reasoning, moral decision-making and the like to the extent they incur the mantle of rational agent. Yet, they are ascribed as persons and possessors of the right to life before all this occurs. This fact seems problematic for the proponent of abortion, especially given any time during pregnancy, say even in midst of labor, the pre-natal baby is still a “clump of cells” with no rights — as per the official platform of the Democrats — but somehow a second after birth becomes a person, fully fledged in inviolable dignity. Both the uterine wall and vaginal canal seem to be very thin membranes constituting the special threshold between personhood and non-personhood. But how and why? Why does the act of being born result in a sudden transformation in ontological status for the fetus-clump?
  2. Secondly, it errs in that Kant is neither a naturalist nor a materialist. Hence, it’s not at all obvious as to how his ethics are compatible with “clump” theory. This all goes back to the first part of the issue — how naturalists and materialists get the immaterial out of the purely material. They would have to provide a compelling materialist basis for rationality as well as value and goodness. These are challenging metaphysical and metaethical quagmires that go far beyond the scope here, and in my opinion, typical attempts at solving them are rife with difficulties. But once again, addressing those attempted solutions is not within the purview of this post.

B. UACs are inside of WACs, violating the latter’s bodily freedom to control their own inner physiological processes, thereby threatening their greater autonomy.
I believe there’s two ideas here: (A) There’s a right to control one’s bodily processes, and prohibiting abortion limits said right; (B) Given the nine months of physical and psychological demands of pregnancy and the years of responsibility caring for a new human person, unwanted fetuses hamper women from actualizing their aspirations, goals, desires and otherwise curtail their abilities to achieve economic and cultural parity with men. In other words, their autonomy — which literally means self-legislation — is diminished…

  1. …Or so the narrative goes. Implicit within A, there’s the assumption that the UAC don’t have the right to life, which is the matter of contention, and begs the question against the Pro-Life movement. It’s undoubtedly uncontroversial that people, regardless of sex, have the right to do with their individual bodies as they please. It’s also true that most everybody accepts there are legal and moral limits with what one can do with one’s meat suit. For instance, murder often involves using your body, whether it’s enacted with hands bare or wielding weapons, but both morally and legally, murder is an impermissible use of one’s body. Furthermore, it’s evident that abortion terminates life, i.e kills. So, once again why does the UAC’s size and location inside women’s wombs make abortion permissible and not murderous? A woman’s rights trump a fetus’ (that is if it’s even recognized as a person)? But that changes nothing, as both are clumps with only relative location and size differentiating the unborn from the woman. Isn’t it arbitrary to favor the woman, especially in lieu of  we often consider the innocent and defenseless — both of which the fetus instantiates — especially warranting special recognition and protection? Well, the fetus isn’t a person with rights. Yet, once more this begs the question against Pro-Lifers and takes us back to the post’s original dilemma about clumps.
  2. As for B, I don’t see how pregnancy impairs or — to borrow a currently infamous term — causes an “undue burden” on feminine autonomy. Women are CEOs, high-ranking government officials, academics, entertainers and all manner of active and successful contributors to society outside of the home. Taking away abortion as a last resort likely wouldn’t “relegate” the fairer sex to domestic servitude in the kitchens. With the mass accessibility of varieties of birth control, including abstinence, pregnancy can be forestalled, parenthood planned. Admittedly, everything doesn’t often occur as planned, but whose fault is that? If you play fast and loose and or gamble with the action that creates life, why should it be unjust that responsibility actually comes a’knocking to collect on that semen deposit with interest? Alas, this is the sort of moral dereliction and accompanying depravity that manifests when you sever freedom from personal responsibility.
  3. Lastly, how does A and B not violate Kant’s principle of universalizability? Is it not the case that aborting a fetus disrupts permanently its control of its bodily processes that grows more independent daily? Moreover, abortion doesn’t just ruin the UAC’s days. It rather definitively puts the kibosh on the greater future autonomy that belongs to the fetuses, many of whom are female. Thusly, A and B seem to be self-vitiating. There’s always the response UAC have no rights, but I hope it’s obvious now there’s a theme of begging the question and continual not moving past Go in such a such a retort.

See, abortion supporters who happen to be materialists and naturalists want morality and rights without invoking God, the supernatural or the transcendental. They love their Kantian dignity, autonomy and equality; that’s why I brought up der Alles-Zermalmer. Pity their precious social justice also faces pulverization but not from Kant. Their mores just are not very compliant to their preferred metaphysics. Atheism, let alone New Atheism, struggles to alchemize blood from this stone.

Clumps get in the way,

Modus Pownens