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.

Anywho…

…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.

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A note on Avengers: Infinity War (LOTS OF SPOILERS)


It’s a little more sophisticated than one might think. Sure, it’s not quite as philosophically ambitious as the original The Matrix, but it has more depth and layers to it than a massive blockbuster with a reported production budget between $316 to $400 million should. Putting aside the villain’s Malthusian-inspired ideology and his god-complex, what’s of more philosophical interest, I think, is how Infinity War portrays in stark terms the centuries-old debate in normative ethics between means and ends, i.e. consequentialism versus deontology.

Consequentialism refers to those views that hold that what determines an act’s moral goodness or badness is its results. Deontological theories are those that contend that whether an act is moral or not depends on how well it comports with prescribed duty and rules. So, for consequentialism, the ends justify the means. For example, knowingly diverting a trolley to save five people at the expense of one is morally permissible according to what’s considered typical of consequentialism. In contrast, deontology’s rules-based approach tends to be too rigid to allow such ethical flexibility. “Thou shall not kill” is theoretically difficult to reconcile with the proverbial dilemma about taking a relatively few lives to save many, e.g. President Truman’s use of nuclear weapons against Japan in World War II.

Infinity War is built around the conflict between these competing schools of thought. Thanos wants to collect the six “Infinity Stones” for his “Infinity Gauntlet,” thus enabling the “Mad Titan” to literally to snap his fingers and remove half the universe’s population from existence so sentient life won’t face extinction and the suffering he links to over-population. So he’s the consequentialist’s consequentialist and also most likely a utilitarian. For him, this act of cosmic culling is good, i.e. “mercy.” The end — “watching the sun rise on a grateful universe” — pays for wiping out trillions. On the contrary, the Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, et al.), our heroes, are explicit, if not implicit, deontologists. For example, when one of the Avengers, Vision, who’s powered by the Mind Stone, proposes destroying it and thereby himself to deny Thanos, Scarlet Witch rebuffs the idea, insisting, “That’s too high a price.” Likewise, the always honorable Captain America responds, “We don’t trade lives, Vision.” Speaking as good deontologists, both are treating the android as a Kantian end in himself, not as a mere means. Lest we think the Vision is an exception to such a view, near the film’s climax, he parrots the same line back to Cap after saving the First Avenger at great risk to his own life and the Mind Stone. Most of the good guys here oppose Thanos because they believe it profoundly immoral to sacrifice one for any, let alone many.

The film’s screenplay, steered by Joe and Anthony Russo’s direction, does an excellent job playing up these divergent philosophies with multiple scenes and scenarios that contrast what Thanos is and the Avengers aren’t willing to do to accomplish their contradictory goals. In addition to the their reluctance to kill Vision to thwart Thanos, we witness Iron Man’s attempt to prevent Spider-Man, a teenager for whom he feels responsible to as a sort of surrogate father, from accompanying and aiding him on a mission he believes is a one-way trip, Star Lord’s vacillation in shooting Gamora per her request to stymie Thanos, Gamora’s own inability to safeguard critical information when faced with Thanos torturing her adoptive sister, Doctor Strange’s dealing the Time Stone to Thanos to spare Iron Man when he previously informed the billionaire that he “would not hesitate” to let Iron Man or Spider-Man die to protect it*, Star Lord’s costly outburst when he learns Thanos traded Gamora’s life for the Soul Stone (Thanos: “I haaaad to” / Star Lord: “No, you didn’t; no you didn’t!”), and Black Panther’s endangerment of his country and its citizens to keep Vision and his Infinity Stone away from Thanos’ forces. On the other hand, Thanos’ Gauntlet-wearing one, our villain repeatedly demonstrates his consequentialist resolve for the sake of his task, the ultimate means to what he believes is the ultimate end — “salvation” as one of his henchman at one point calls it. He physically tortures one of his “children,” putting the other, Gamora, in anguish, extorting her to reveal the Soul Stone’s location. Once there, he kills her, the “daughter” whom he genuinely loves, to attain it. Thanos is willing to lose “Everything” to achieve what he believes is his destiny.

And achieve it he does. At great personal cost, mind you, but he still succeeds. Our heroes fail repeatedly when matched against Thanos’ iron will. In so doing, the Russos have crafted perhaps the only blockbuster, especially such a prominent one tied to the pop culture of a particular generation, that at first glance is an argument for consequentialism over deontology. This is all the more remarkable when considering we live in a liberal age in which the lion’s share of political and moral concerns are expressed in the language extolling the inviolability of human dignity and individual rights. “We are all Kantians now.

However, this theme that runs against the zeitgeist won’t last. This is the Marvel Cinematic Universe after all. The multi-billion dollar franchise must go on. Thanos’ triumph, although gut-punching and way more effective cinema than it had any reason to be, is not final. Infinity War‘s sequel is slated for early next summer in which the purple-skinned baddie’s villainy will be undoubtedly undone.

However, as a standalone feature — and it strictly can’t be as an MCU flick — it’s a surprisingly good introduction to one of ethics’ foremost disagreements.


*As a caveat, it’s conceivable Doctor Strange handed over the Time Stone because when he foresaw 14 million possible outcomes to their upcoming fight with Thanos using said stone, the single case in which he mentions they win in the movie could revolve around Iron Man even after Thanos’ apparent victory.