Thursday, December 1, 2016

Sharpen That Razor

This article at The Federalist suggests that different views about the possibility of extraterrestrial life can imply several things about a person's worldview. Specifically, the willingness of some of today's more aggressive atheists to invoke them and their actions as a solution to the Fermi paradox suggests how these thinkers wind up invoking an unprovable solution with no more empirical evidence for it than for some kind of deity.

Now, the writer seems to me to have an overly-simplified understanding of the Fermi paradox (which asks, if there's life on other worlds, why haven't we heard from some of them yet) and probably does the same to the views of some of these more energetic atheistic persons. But that's beside the point. He suggests that the use of William of Occam's guide to answering a question produces an answer which makes these other folks reach for their silly solutions.

This guide, often called "Occam's Razor," says that the simplest solution which covers all the bases is usually the right one, and warns against needlessly complicated answers. So when Fermi's paradox asks where are those other life forms and someone answers, well, maybe we humans are the first species to have developed the ability to look around for our neighbors? Or someone else answers, well, maybe the other aliens are more evolved than we are and are waiting for us to catch up before talking? Those are needlessly complicated (and his dismissal of them needlessly snippy)! Occam's Razor means that the simplest answer to Fermi's question "Where are the aliens" is "There are none!"

From there we proceed to several more snippy paragraphs targeting folks like Richard Dawkins who have themselves not slouched in sniding religious believers. Although it goes against my grain to rein in someone who's knocking Dawkins' statements from pillar to post, I think this piece ignores a fundamental flaw in its eagerness to get its licks in.

I don't question the use of Occam's Razor in answering the Fermi Paradox -- but I think the writer here doesn't apply it properly. He says that ol' Will's maxim answers Fermi's question with, "There are none," because that's the simplest possible solution. That's the error. There is another solution, which you might consider equally uncomplicated or perhaps even less complicated: Where are the aliens?

We don't know.

But "we don't know" makes a poor rhetorical weapon. Though it's definitely accurate, it offers no sharp edges for cutting remarks and no weight to bash straw opponents. All it's got is humility and honesty. Which don't seem to be needed in this discussion, at least according to one of the statements being made in it.

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