Gods, Aliens, and Atheists: Are We Alone in the Universe?

If you believe there is intelligent extraterrestrial life out there, have you ever stopped to wonder why?

Michael Shermer: So one of my recent columns in Scientific American was called Sky Gods for Skeptics, or as they used to call it, Aliens for Atheists.

Basically the idea is that aliens and extraterrestrials in our imagination—and we haven’t found any yet so they’re all in our imagination—are often portrayed as these almost god-like deities, you know, they’re super advanced technologically, scientifically, morally. They’ve somehow overcome war and poverty and these sorts of things. And so I got to thinking about this. It’s very similar to the religious impulse, which is that: we’re not alone. There is something out there more powerful than us who knows about us and cares about us; who loves us. That’s the kind of deep religious impulse: “We’re not alone.” And that’s the same impulse people get when they think about extraterrestrials. 

The crux of my article in Scientific American is that there was there was a new paper published that showed that people who have this longing—so there’s variation in this: some people have more of that longing than others—those who have that longing but are not religious are more likely to believe extraterrestrials are out there.

In other words, if you have the religious beliefs, God, Jesus, Mohammed, whatever your religion is, you don’t really need the aliens, so you’re satisfied with that. But if you don’t have that then you’re more likely to go for the extraterrestrial hypothesis as a viable one in the sense that “it makes me feel good”.

Because let’s face it, religions have no more evidence for god than scientists have for extraterrestrials. It’s all imagination and speculation based on reason and logic and arguments, but we still don’t have any empirical evidence. So short of that I find it interesting that it becomes sort of an emotional appeal or a deep desire for us to feel like there’s somebody else out there, and "I’m not alone". And let’s face it, that does feel good, and there’s nothing wrong with that—but we should always suspend judgment until we actually have evidence for this. We may be the only ones in the cosmos that are sentient beings, and if so, all the more reason we should care for our world and each other, because that would mean this is it.

Are atheists who believe in aliens falling for one of humanity's oldest brain biases? In a series of four studies titled 'We Are Not Alone: The Meaning Motive, Religiosity, and Belief in Extraterrestrial Intelligence', psychologist Clay Routledge and his colleagues discovered that participants who report low religiosity demonstrate a greater belief in intelligent extraterrestrial life existing out there, elsewhere in the universe. This tendency is particularly interesting to science writer and skeptic Michael Shermer, because let's face it, he says, "religions have no more evidence for god than scientists have for extraterrestrials." These two beliefs are as detached from proof as each other, yet both fill the all too human need to be comforted by the thought of another world—whether takes the form of moral and kind sky gods, or technologically advanced aliens. Is a belief in intelligent extraterrestrial life just another expression of our religious impulse? Michael Shermer's new book is Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia.

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Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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