Upcoming Events

Thu 26

Telescope Workshop

October 26 @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm
Tue 31

Viewing with the Great Equatorial Telescope

October 31 @ 7:15 pm - 9:00 pm

Subscribe to Flamsteed via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this website and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,533 other subscribers

Home Forums General Discussion Flamsteed Debate

This topic contains 36 replies, has 4 voices, and was last updated by  Brian Blake 2 years, 5 months ago.

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 37 total)
  • Author
    Posts
  • #11084

    Mike Meynell
    Moderator
    Topics: 119
    Replies: 749

    I thought we had some top quality entertainment on Monday evening, with the Flamsteed debate on the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. Professor Chris Lintott argued against, Dr Marek Kukula in favour, with Dr Louisa Preston chairing the debate.

    I was surprised to see that the Flamsteed audience were split down the middle in the “vote” at the end of the debate. Both sides made very strong arguments, though I think that Chris had the more difficult job in persuading us of his case.

    The debate was actually best summed up by Eddie’s excellent question at the end. He said that you can’t know something without evidence for it. Marek’s presentation, though excellent, was summed up by the word he used at the end… “believe”. Eddie said that he felt that belief in intelligent extraterrestrial life was more of a religion than a science.

    To me, that was entirely correct. We would love to believe that intelligent extraterrestrial life exists, but we don’t have any evidence for it at the moment. That question probably helped to sway more votes in the audience than anything else in the debate.

    Anyway, I’d be interested in hearing other people’s opinions!

    I took a few photos on the night, which you can find at this link https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikem67/sets/72157650409915873

    I won’t post Sumitra’s excellent images, as I’m sure she will post them here later!

    #11089

    Andy Sawers
    Moderator
    Topics: 115
    Replies: 589

    Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. I agree there’s no evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence and that therefore it is at this stage a matter of belief. But one can make arguments based on statistical assumptions and come up with some sort of probability calculation, albeit with galaxy-wide error margins.

    One can then use those assumptions in order to direct scientific efforts in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, such as searching for particular types of planets, in particular parts of the galaxy, in the right area in their stellar system, with the right sort of atmosphere, etc, etc, etc. This isn’t exactly the basis on which most religions work, which is the point I would quibble with. I’m sure there are a million things that are now scientific fact today that started off as a scientist’s belief. (Equally, of course, there are a million things that are scientific nonsense today that started off as a scientist’s belief.)

    Not that this is relevant, but it seems like a good opportunity to remind folks that the first pulsar was nicknamed LGM-1 😉

    #11091

    Andy Sawers
    Moderator
    Topics: 115
    Replies: 589

    I took a few photos on the night

    Marek’s going to hate you 😉

    #11092

    Mike Meynell
    Moderator
    Topics: 119
    Replies: 749

    Well, up to a point, Lord Copper

    Lord Copper? Surely not 😉

    I think you can “prove” most things using statistics!

    Francisco made some very valid points in his question:

    – our solar system is only 4.5 billion years old, but the Universe is billions of years older. If there are other civilisations, they would be billions of years more advanced than us… so advanced that we must surely have seen evidence? The Fermi paradox rules here, I think.
    – there is no evidence in the geological record on Earth
    – absence of evidence is evidence of absence

    I’m not saying that there isn’t intelligent extraterrestrial life… just that we have no evidence of its existence. Surely that pushes us into the realm of a belief system, rather than science?

    #11093

    Andy Sawers
    Moderator
    Topics: 115
    Replies: 589

    we have no evidence of its existence. Surely that pushes us into the realm of a belief system, rather than science?

    The fact that the police have no evidence that a man killed his wife does not mean he didn’t do it – just that the police have no evidence – yet.
    Statistical probability isn’t proof, or arguably even evidence, but it does feed and direct the scientific process until the belief/theory collapses under the weight of contrary evidence, just as the suspicions of Mr Whicher directed police detective investigations.
    Belief systems – ie, religions – on the other hand do not delve into statistics, probability, evidence or proof. They remain firmly and contentedly rooted in belief.

    #11094

    Mike Meynell
    Moderator
    Topics: 119
    Replies: 749

    Belief systems – ie, religions – on the other hand do not delve into statistics, probability, evidence or proof. They remain firmly and contentedly rooted in belief.

    Big statement. And I’m not sure it’s true. There have been plenty of critical arguments about the existence of a “god”, which do refer to apparent “evidence”. From Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas (who made five “proofs” of the existence of God in his Summa Theologicae). The arguments may be flawed (and I think they are), but that’s not the point… there are plenty of scientific arguments that have been just as flawed (phlogiston theory as one example).

    Sure, science does use statistics… but I’m not sure that your comparison to police evidence holds water. Some people are found guilty based on the balance of probabilities; others if the evidence is beyond “reasonable doubt”. I’m not sure what “reasonable doubt” is, but I doubt that it’s 99.99994% certain (5-sigma probability), the “benchmark” for confirming a discovery according to CERN.

    My problem with the belief that there must be intelligent extraterrestrial life is that there is no way of falsifying the theory… at least not until we’ve explored every corner of the known universe! Thus it’s not possible to “win” such an argument. I feel the same way when dealing with religious belief… hence the correlation.

    #11095

    Andy Sawers
    Moderator
    Topics: 115
    Replies: 589

    Criminal cases are determined on “beyond reasonable doubt”. Civil cases (“My neighbour damaged my fence”) are on the balance of probability. (Now I think about it, only one of those has a statistical basis.)

    Admittedly I’m not as up on my Thomas Aquinas as I used to be (exits stage left, whistling nonchalantly and trying to look as though he hasn’t just fibbed), but the fundamental tenet of religions is not to prove that they are right in a scientific sense but to encourage people to believe. I discount arguments such as “Love is proof of the existence of God” or “Humans are fundamentally good QED God exists” or “It’s in the Bible therefore evolution isn’t true and God is”.

    Fifty years ago there was not the slightest evidence that there were even such things as extraterrestrial planets. But we went looking for them and found them.

    Having said that, while I believe that the probability of extraterrestrial intelligence is low, I believe it is greater than zero. Similarily for the probability of us finding evidence or even proof of extraterrestrial intelligence. And I don’t believe we’ll find anything worthy of a scientific journal in our lifetime. That may even mean that it simply isn’t worth looking for it today, based on our current technology.

    Democritus, around 400BC, believed that all matter consisted of tiny particles called atoms – though I’m not sure he had a shred of scientific evidence and it would be a couple of millennia before proper evidence could be presented. He had to settle for belief rather than proof – but the point is, it was a belief to which the scientific process could be applied.

    #11097

    Sumitra
    Participant
    Topics: 21
    Replies: 233

    Hi Mike,

    Your photos are fantastic! I have a few more but I have only had time to process those two (below). I’ll send some more along later 🙂

    I thought it was a fantastic debate, very playful. And I agree with Mike that it was well summed up by Eddie’s question!

    IMG_2046.jpg by Sumitra Sri Bhashyam[/url], on Flickr

    IMG_2051.jpg by Sumitra Sri Bhashyam[/url], on Flickr

    #11098

    Brian Blake
    Participant
    Topics: 187
    Replies: 409

    Yes Mike an excellent evening of entertainment with a scientific  content.  Like you I agree with Eddie. I am speaking as a Sci fi fan who grew up hoping for E.T. to land.  I think the argument that intelligent life exist somewhere is based more on assumption than direct evidence. I am more than happy to change my position when evidence is found, if it is!

    Whether life exists generally elsewhere will depend on if the conditions exist, more likely to be single cell life forms.  That is the key question how does life get started then how difficult is it to evolve to complex, intelligent life forms such as humans.

    What would have happened if the dinosaurs had not been wiped out?

    #11099

    Andy Sawers
    Moderator
    Topics: 115
    Replies: 589

    What would have happened if the dinosaurs had not been wiped out?

    Yabba dabba doo

    #11100

    Sumitra
    Participant
    Topics: 21
    Replies: 233

    Ha! 🙂

    #11101

    Brian Blake
    Participant
    Topics: 187
    Replies: 409

    Andy Sawyer stated “The fact that the police have no evidence that a man killed his wife does not mean he didn’t do it – just that the police have no evidence – yet.” Andy it does not mean that he did either. How often have people been accused without evidence to only to be found to be innocent later?  The investigation of a murder is based on a process, detectives work on the basis of looking at those closest first then ruling them out before looking at a wider net. If the evidence is there then a conviction occurs.

    You say that scientific theory has often started out as a belief which is later proved via evidence. I would argue that these are not beliefs, which are usually based on blind faith, but hypotheses based on observation, research and previous evidence.  The ideas still have to be put to the test of the scientific method and proven.

    I would argue that we keep looking, continue to gather evidence either way, approach the issue from a scientific method.  there is no evidence for intelligent life in the universe as of yet, if evidence emerges then I will accept it.

    #11102

    Andy Sawers
    Moderator
    Topics: 115
    Replies: 589

    I entirely agree with all that, Brian. My point simply is this: Whether the man killed his wife or not, it is – at the outset – a belief but one that can be subjected to the rigours of scientific process. Believing that he did it is NOT a religious-like matter: it can be tested. Evidence may not materialise one way or the other – Lord Lucan, anyone? But it doesn’t just sit in policemen’s heads as a belief and then wind up as a conviction in a court of law.

    BTW, anyone who has been prosecuted and found guilty ‘without evidence’ has not been put through an evidence-based criminal justice system. Where evidence has been presented, yes, I agree that people have been wrongfully convicted when subsequent evidence materialises.

    Mistakes are made, whether in criminal prosecutions or in science. Mistakes are not made in religion because truth is a question of belief, not testing.

    Consider the search for gravity waves. Some people believe they exist. Some people use scientific processes to find them. Some people claimed they found them. And those same people now admit that their evidence was dusty and wrong.

    Whether or not their belief in the existence of gravity waves is well-founded or not remains to be seen – but belief in the existence of gravity waves is not a religious-like belief – it can be (and demands to be) put through a scientific process.

    All I am saying is – if it’s something that can be put through a scientific process – whether or not we have the technology this year or this millennium – then it’s not like a religion, which is truly a belief-based system, not evidence-based!

    #11103

    Andy Sawers
    Moderator
    Topics: 115
    Replies: 589

    Just to add, I had no hesitation in putting my hand up at the beginning and end of the debate on the question of whether there is extraterrestrial intelligence. I did hesitate on the question of whether we should carry on looking for it, because I believe that the probability of us finding it is extremely low and arguably not worth the cost. But I decided that it was for others to decide whether particular search projects are worth the time and money, not me, so I again raised my hand on the basis that I thought it was wrong for me to say we shouldn’t try.

    #11104

    Andy Sawers
    Moderator
    Topics: 115
    Replies: 589

    Science: “I believe in extraterrestrial intelligence. However, I may be wrong and it may not exist.”
    Religion: “I believe in extraterrestrial intelligence. It exists.”

Viewing 15 posts - 1 through 15 (of 37 total)

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.