Alien Life Forms in Alternate Universes

One argument that is made against the idea that the universe is fine-tuned for life is that the argument is a bit carbon-centric [I didn't make up that word]. It chauvinistically assumes that life can only be carbon based, and that is why we think that are universe is fine-tuned for life. But, according to some, likephysicist Victor Stenger, that is an unwarranted claim for it provides too narrow a definition for the types of possible life forms.

Let's let Professor Stenger explain what he means:

"Fatal to the design argument all by itself is the wholly unwarranted assumption that only one type of life is possible – the particular form of carbon-based life we have here on Earth…To assume that only carbon life is possible is tantamount to 'carbocentrism' that results from the fact that you and I are structured on carbon… Given the known laws of physics and chemistry, we can easily imagine life based on silicon (computers, the Internet?) or other elements chemically similar to carbon…"

So here we have our first challenge – that the notion that the universe is fine-tuned for life is misguided because it too narrowly defines the term life. True, it may look fine tuned for our form of life (i.e., one based on carbon molecules), but there is no reason to assume that that is the only form and structure life can take on. Just like I can make a chair out of wood, metal or plastic, so too (perhaps) life can be formed out of other molecules besides carbon.

So far this is a pretty reasonable point, although he has not yet stated anything that is 'fatal to the design argument', he has just noted that other forms of life are imaginable. We haven't touched on how easy it is to create those other forms of life or whether or not they also require the laws of physics to be very finely tuned. We'll touch on that again in a minute, but first, let's understand why Professor Stenger believes that other, non-carbon based forms of life are reasonable to imagine.

Knowledge Based and Theoretical Speculation

There is one key phrase that we need to pay special attention to – namely that Professor Stenger at this point bases his proposition on what we currently know and understand about the laws of physics and chemistry: "Given the known laws of physics and chemistry, we can easily imagine life based on silicon (computers, the Internet?) or other elements chemically similar to carbon…"

In other words, while the idea itself is speculative, it is based on what we currently know and understand today. As such, there is an intellectual and scientific foundation to this proposition and a reason to take it seriously. Of course, a more thorough understanding of the issue may lead us to reject it, but at least Professor Stenger has offered us a valid reason to consider it. In short, it is a knowledge based idea.

With that said, let's hear a bit more from Professor Stenger:

"We cannot rule out other forms of matter than molecules in the universe as building blocks of complex systems. While atomic nuclei, for example, do not exhibit the diversity and complexity seen in the way atoms assemble into molecular structures, perhaps they might be able to do so in a universe with different properties and laws. Sufficient complexity and long life may be the only ingredients needed for a universe to have some form of life. Those who argue that life is highly improbable need to open their minds to the possibility that life might be likely with many different configurations of laws and constants of physics."

In this paragraph we enter into a totally new realm of intellectual ideas. No longer is the hypothesis put forth for our consideration an extrapolation of our current understanding of science and nature. Rather, it is based on a notion of what may be possible, what might be true, but for which we currently have no scientific or evidentiary reason to believe is true.

Let's see why.

To start with, just note the first phrase of this paragraph: 'we cannot rule out". What a radically different beginning. No longer are we making an appeal to our knowledge and extrapolating to what could be true. Rather, we are making an appeal to our imagination and noting that we can't rule out this speculative idea. The idea itself has no grounding in any knowledge or wisdom that we have, nothing in our experience, understanding, observations or research indicates that this could be true, it is just mere imaginary speculation. But, says Professor Stenger, we should take it seriously because we can't demonstrate or logically prove that it is not true.

Let's delve a bit further here. Note that the "atomic nucliei…do not exhibit the diversity and complexity seen in the way atoms assemble into molecular structures". In other words, atomic nuclei as we know and understand them today do not demonstrate the properties needed to create or sustain living creature – unlike atoms assembled into molecules. So we have no scientific foundation to propose that there could be atomic nuclei based life.

What, then, is the reason to take this idea seriously? "Perhaps". That is it, perhaps it is true: "perhaps they [atomic nuclei] might be able to do so in a universe with different properties and laws". In other words, no evidence, no knowledge to fuel this idea, just a perhaps. Maybe it could be true.

To be fair, Professor Stenger does try and strengthen this idea by making an appeal to the possible nature of life: " Sufficient complexity and long life may be the only ingredients needed for a universe to have some form of life". Note that word 'may', though. Here Professor Stenger is making an assumption of what 'may' be needed to have some form of life.

Well, reality is not based on what 'may' be true or what 'perhaps' can happen. What I want is what is true and what I have a reason to believe. Why should I believe that all that is needed for some form of life is "sufficient complexity and long life". Why should I take that idea seriously? So far, none. It is merely a theoretical possibility, a possibility that may be true. And the only argument given for me to taking it seriously is being 'open minded': "Those who argue that life is highly improbable need to open their minds to the possibility that life might be likely with many different configurations of laws and constants of physics."

Being open minded is fine for researching new avenues of thought and/or experimentation. It allows us to consider solutions and possibilities that we might otherwise be closed to. But just because I am open to an the possible truth of an idea does not mean that I have any reason to believe that that idea is in fact true. This is an important distinction.

What's more, it's not even possible to have a meaningful conversation about such ideas. After all, we don't even know if Professor Stegner's alternative life forms are physically possible, let alone the nature and/or forms that such an alternate life could actually take.

This is a crucial point. You cannot have a meaningful conversation or discussion about a speculative unknown ; although you can imagine or make up a speculative unknown to match the philosophical or theological point that you wish to make. There is no reason, though, to take the machinations of someone else's imagination seriously until they give me some sort of evidence and/or reason to take it seriously.

You can't just suggest that reality may be this way and use it to counter how reality seems to be today. Open-mindedness and theoretical possibilities have their place, but they are not proof of anything and do not carry any reason to actually suppose that those possibilities reflect the real world. As such, they cannot be used as arguments against what we do know and understand about the world as well as the philosophical and/or theological inferences and extrapolations that we make off of that knowledge.

In short, discover it, analyze it, understand it and then we can talk about it.

With that said, though, let's temporarily grant the Professor this supposition and see out his line of thinking. We will grant him that some form of life may be possible even if our universe has a different sets of laws and properties. Has this 'solved' the problem of the Fine-Tuned Universe for atheistic scientists like Professor Stegner?

Well, it seems that we still have one tiny-little problem. We still need to know if these other, non-molecular forms of life can exist with any old set of laws and constants. Perhaps these other forms of life require their own fine-tuned universe for their existence. True, it would be differently tuned than our universe, but it will still have to be precisely set.

But what has the Professor accomplished if he merely points to another form of life which needs a differently fine-tuned universe? It still needs tuning! It's like stating that my wood house was not designed and built because the house could have been made from stone – it's an irrelevant fact.

At the very least, Professor Stenger has not provided us with any evidence or reason to believe that such theoretical forms of life would not require their own fine-tuning. Personally speaking, I imagine that they would – the second you require "sufficient complexity" it seems to follow that you will need some fine-tuning mechanism or agent to bring that sufficient complexity to life (pun intended), but that's another topic to discuss at another time.

So at this point, the foundation of his argument requires two speculative, foundationless ideas (one built upon the other). The first, that other, radically alternate forms of life are possible. The second, that a statistically significant number of configurations of the laws of the universe would bring at least one of those radically different forms of life into existence.

Not Any Old Form of Life Will Do

But let's grant him all of this – too. We still haven't dealt with the real issue at hand – because we aren't just interested in life, but in complex life in general and intelligent, conscious life in particular. What does it takes to create a universe that can produce complex, sophisticated creatures? And how easy is it to create thinking, emotional, spiritual creatures like us human beings.

To argue that it is possible to create some sort of life ignores the genius of the human being. It's like looking at a Rembrandt and commenting that that isn't remarkable because any coloring agent applied to any surface can produce some sort of art. But I'm not interested in some sort of art, I'm interested in genius forms of art.

Similarly, I'm not interested in some form of life. Blobs of living atomic nuclei don't impress me that much. I'm much more interested and impressed by complex, sophisticated life. And, in particular, I want to know what does it take to create the wondrous form of life known as human beings with their 1000 trillion synaptic connectors in their brains? How many configurations of the universe can bring us or creatures like us into existence?

Well, it appears that to bring us into existence you need carbon, which Professor Stenger agrees "seems to be the chemical element best suited to act as the building block for the type of complex molecular systems that develop lifelike qualities." In other words, of all the known elements, none do as good a job of forming complex life forms as carbon does. That means that if you want to build sophisticated creatures, then carbon seems the best way to go.

But carbon comes with some cosmic baggage. If you need carbon then you need stars and if you need stars then you need atoms and gravity. And if you need atoms then you need the strong nuclear force. And so on. And, let's not forget, you need all of these elements well-balanced and functioning in a unified whole..

In short, you need our finely tuned universe. Unless you can show that we or creatures as sophisticated as us can existence in any old universe then atomic slime is of no significance. It is just a red-hearing, an intellectual bait-and-switch operation. What's more, it's one whose intellectual foundation is virtually non-existent, based solely on a double layer of speculation.

Join The Conversation!

Share your thoughts, comments, & ideas below.