Victor Stenger’s talk in Boulder about intelligent life

In 2007, I read God: The Failed Hypothesis by a retired physicist named Victor Stenger. I’ve a read a number of books by scientists and public intellectuals describing various ways in which the notion of a Christian creator is absurd, increasingly as as new evidence about the world we live in comes to light; this was the first that treated the idea of God as a testable hypothesis and proceeded to use scientific principles to shoot it down.

Stenger, it turns out, now lives in Boulder and is an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. He gave a talk about the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe yesterday, and after the Q-&-A that followed his 25- or 30-minute talk, I’m not sure the “elsewhere” part is necessary. What I didn’t foresee, to my own chagrin, is that this talk wouldn’t be merely a magnet for people who think more or less like Stenger does about the cosmos, including the role of creator deities therein. 

The median age of the crowd of about 30 people had to be 70 or 75, which I didn’t understand. This made everything a little harder to follow because, through no fault of their own, elderly people can’t help but make a lot of noise, knocking coffee cups over and getting up to piss every three minutes and letting fly with inarticulate exclamatory noises at irregular but frequent intervals. 

The talk went on for about 25 minutes and was interesting, though not earth-shattering — the universe is 13.8 billion years old, Hubble has seen out to 13 billion light years and therefore to almost the so-called event horizon, there’s a big chunk of our universe we cannot see directly, and there’s reasonably firm cosmological evidence that there are a staggering number of infinite multiverses in addition to our own, this evidence taking the form of perturbations is the cosmic microwave background discovered in the 1960s and central to much of our understanding about origins (for example, to those who think the Big Bang was “silent,” evidence in the CMB strongly implies otherwise). So, we know that there are maybe a quadrillion planets that could sustain life as we know it out there somewhere, and that Hubble has recently catalogued over 100 planets just in our own corner of the universe. Not all of these are terrestrial, but astrobiologists now believe that a planet doesn’t necessarily need to be “Earth-like” to support life per se. So the chances that intelligent, or sentient, life *does not* exist somewhere seem vanishingly small based on statistics alone, but we have yet to collect any evidence that it does and perhaps never will thanks to the vast distances between planets. 

Little did I know that most in the audience didn’t give a fuck about any of this. They all came in with agendas. The crowd seemed about evenly split between everyday conspiracy nuts who think that aliens are already here or have come and gone and that they could fuck us up at any time, and those who insisted on asking unrelated questions in the area of pseudophysics and metaphysics. For example, one guy asked that since string theory posits the existence of 11 dimensions and we only inhabit four, isn’t it possible that “heaven” lies in on of the other seven? Stenger tried to tell him that even if string theory turns out to be valid, which it probably won’t, it will then follow that in fact we did inhabit all 11 dimensions and that any such “heaven” is by definition beyond the reach of scientific inquiry because it would be supernatural. This only led the guy to repeat the question with greater insistence. This circus of plaintive bullshit and false premises was a theme of the afternoon. It was maddening. One lady said she’d been to China twice and that scientists there knew that we had aliens here in the U.S., so why wasn’t the government letting us see them? Then there was the fellow who asked, all full of senility and hubris, why we were wasting time and money on projects like SETI when there were so many problems to be addressed right here on Earth. I felt like standing up and yelling, “Then why the fuck are you HERE and not back in the soup kitchen, you insufferable prick?”

My one contribution was responding to someone who asked what the closest planet (or star, actually) was that appeared to be a candidate for supporting life. Stenger didn’t remember the name of the star but recalled that it was about 20 light years away. I said that last I knew it was Fomalhaut, a first-magnitude star in Piscis Austrinis (“The Southern Fish”) that is maybe 24 light-years distant. I don’t know if this is still true but it was true a few years ago. Anyway, after this utterance I got up, took a bow, barked “You’re all fucking loopy!” and left the room amid a smattering of appreciative boos and whistles. Or left wishing I had.

Next time I attend a talk that touches even tangentially on the notion of “extraterrestrials,” I’ll be sure to remind myself going in what I should expect.

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