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-Batman–v–Superman 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.