(Danny:) Alright, I’m here with Dr. Joe packer from Central Michigan University and I’m Danny Province of Central Michigan University. Dr Packer is the writer of alien life and human purpose a rhetorical examination through history and that’s your first book publication? (“Yes”) that’s coming up this September. So I wanna start off by asking about the quote that’s specifically
been put forward by NASA as the area that they want discussed. The quote is by Carl
Sagan and in it he calls for if Mars is discovered to have life on it then it shouldbe left to the Martians. That life on this other planet would be a treasure trove separate from our own and should be preserved above all other purposes have you encountered a similar sentiment
to that in your research?
Joe: Well not really the folks that I am looking at primarily those who don’t believe that alien life exists and sort of the overlap or connection is that you see in the 1800’s really a willingness to
say well alien life may exist in the form of something right animals or potentially microbes some
form of tiny or insignificant essentially life and because that life is not human like it doesn’t have essentially it’s not on our level it’s not something that should concern us as far as de-centering are central place, are place of importance, in the universe and so in that sense the way that
research that I’ve done overlaps with that Sagan quote is that there is this sentiment throughout history to suggest that while microbes may exist on Mars for example they are not something to be taken particularly seriously they’re not something that we should be concerned about protecting kind of, protecting in their own right maybe there’s some kind of scientific benefit for maintaining a sort of sanctuary of an independently evolved life form but that life forms shouldn’t sort of gain any kind of rights or any kind of moral value on face just because it is an
(Danny): I read your book a little bit about something you called the unity myth that seems to be the main topic of the book, how is the Unity myth related to the idea of life on other planets?
Joe: So unity is the idea that life exists only on earth or important life, meaningful life, it’s typically defined as human or human-like life exists only on earth and that term unity is in relation to the term plurality so long you know in the 1700s there is this idea that there were a
plurality of worlds many worlds like ours that would have life that’s more or less like humans and so unity is the idea you know the opposite that our world is unique and that humans are therefore unique, sort of at the top of the food chain and what the Unity myth is, is it’s a scientific myth and the sense that a woman professor Stephen Toulmin uses the term and where scientific method is, is where you take a question of scientific fact so is true or not, are there planets with alien life on them or not and then you invest that sort of empirical question with philosophical, ethical, political, religious Association where none really exists so whether or not humans exist alone in the universe or whether universe you know humans exist in a universe full of alien life that really has no one-to-one connection with any sort of ethical belief. Right that doesn’t mean that stealing is right or wrong or what have you, that teleology is right or wrong, all
of those things kind of can be debated independent of that question but the idea of a scientific myth is conjoining these sort of independent philosophical questions with a scientific question so that if you have proven the scientific question one way or another you have also proven that
philosophical system one way or another so perhaps one of the most famous of these is the idea of social Darwinism so how we should kind of structure our society and our social system in our philosophy really is independent of how we got to be where we are right, so evolution can be true but that doesn’t mean that we should just let poor... the poor and the weak died as as a
kind of further function of evolution. While evolution may be true that doesn’t mean that has to inform our ethical position, similarly the Unity myth is the idea that because humans are alone in the universe there is no other Alien life that is similar to us we have some kind of higher special purpose and we kind of have access to absolute truth you know so purpose being teleology and absolute truth being the idea, as opposed to the idea that we have kind of constructed our values that they are relative and constructed by society
(Danny:) Could you give a couple of examples of sort of famous names that we might connect with the unity myth?
(Joe:) So that most famous it would be Plato, so the Unity myth in Western culture really kind of has its genesis, or at least kind of its, whether or not he generated it he kind of popularized you know the unity myth, and so he uses it in his dialogue the Timaeus so the idea it’s sort of one of a series of arguments he makes about the structure of the universe and what that structure means for how we should live our lives so he sort of says we’re at the center of the universe and he kind of says that all of the objects that move around us are you know they’re connected to a perfection and he also says that there are no other worlds like ours and the idea that there are no other worlds like ours says that we we have this access to perfection that are, that the universe is
sort of a model for how we should live our lives and we can kind of look to the universe to find that so that initially begins in the Timaeus and the Timaeus kind of gets picked up by a lot of early Christian thinkers because the idea of kind of a universe that imparts, you know, ethical values and a connection to the divine it speaks to certain members of the early Christian church and so you see kind of thinkers Christian thinkers like Aquinas deploying the Unity myth and later on the Anglican philosopher and theologian William Hoole who is another example Alfred Russel Wallace who is the co-discoverer of evolution; not a Christian per se but someone interested in spiritualism but also, you know, a socialist so not exactly the same ilk as some of these earlier figures uses it and more recently you see it to a lesser extent in the book Rare Earth which was put out by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee and some other folks so its something that has a lot of staying power throughout history
(Danny:) So you mentioned that one of them wasn’t as consistent with the other ones. How consistent is the Unity myth, or the myth, the scientific myth side of it that’s connected to the Unity idea?
(Joe:) So what it means to be alone in the universe what it means to exists in a universe where humanity exists independently more or less changes throughout history so initially the idea, kind of going back to Plato, was that our world is alone and the idea there wasn’t really this conception at that time in Plato’s cosmology that the planets were planets, so they wouldn’t be harvesting lifes, they wouldn’t be hosting any life and so the idea was that they were, there weren’t any other universes kind of is what Plato was saying and so under the Platonic interpretation really it was saying that there is no other life anywhere that are planet was the only abode for life and then later on after the discovery of the telescope and it became more and more clear that some of these objects that are circling around us, circling around the sun (laughs) but you know, circling around up in space were like Earth and at that point you know people start to
speculate ok well maybe these things have life~~ and then the Unity myth evolved a
little bit to kind of open up to the idea is to say well possibly maybe there is life on other planets but it wouldn’t be life like us it, wouldn’t be life like humanity, thus it wouldn’t be life that sort of invested with ethical importance, it wouldn’t challenge our place as not the physical center but the sort of the ethical and spiritual center of the universe
(Danny:) Speaking of challenging our place I do remember reading a line in your book about there would be a challenge and confusion to our ideology when alien life is discovered is that correct?
Joe: Yes, I do suggest that that is a distinct possibility so you know there’s always a chance that it will do nothing but I find that very unlikely because this unity myth has been kind of so
longstanding the idea that we’re alone in the universe and thus we kind of have some importance the kind of rupture of that could be very traumatic so other people very smart people have kind of made the analogy to discovering aliens may be similar to the discovery of the quote unquote
New World by European explorers so obviously that was a very traumatic experience for the inhabitants of the new world but it was also very disturbing for Europe because Europe’s sort of Europeans kind of assumed that the entire world was their world and they were more or less at the center of it so finding you know two continents full of people who had no interaction had no
knowledge of them who had just been happily living their lives absent any connection to Europe was kind of shocking to their sense of place in the world, and a similar sort of shock could come about with the discovery of alien life but it also opens up the possibility to new scientific method so if kind of unity has been sort of a prevailing undercurrent within society you know the Unity myth isn’t true in the sense that because unity exists we have to be a certain way but the discovery of alien life especially alien life that is undeniably intelligent in similar ways to how humans are intelligent could open up the possibility for new plurality myths so people say making arguments that because we live in this universe with other life that is intelligent that means “this,” that means “this new way of approaching things,” and most likely those
plurality myths would be the reverse of the unity myths so instead of values being absolute
and humans being at the center maybe we’re open to different ways of being in the world and different ethical systems and different everything just difference we would be potentially more so that’s going to happen and it’s not a requirement of that but it’s definitely a possibility and probably likely that those kind of things would be more likely in that world.
(Danny:) there’s also mention of the possibility of violence and where does that come from in the idea of these myths being disrupted or ruptured?
(Joe:) So well because the Unity myth exists it creates a real incentive not to find intelligent life because intelligent life is in many ways
directed against our sense of self-importance and value it really kind of creates an incentive not to find it and we see that playing out on her Earth, right? So there are lots of animal species that seem undeniably intelligent they, you know, it’s very difficult to define intelligence in a way that would exclude a variety of species who show emotions, who use tools, who can learn, and yet we’ve done it. We have kind of defined them out of intelligence, about~out of having any
kind of, you know, ethical rights you know, any kind of legal rights and defining us
out of having any kind of ethical rights towards them and treat them, generally, we treat animals pretty terrible here and so traveling to other planets if we were to find life it can be very difficult to determine what is life? And then determine you know does~is that life intelligent, how should we treat that life? And the unity myth really kind of creates an incentive to not invest any
life that we may find with any legal or ethical value. And that opens up the possibility of violence towards that life and we really risk the chance that you know we become sort of the, the creepy aliens of our nightmares you know swooping down to other planets and picking up life taking it off in our space ships to go you know conduct experiments on so we kind of become our own nightmare figure.
(Danny:) That’s a really interesting thought... So you mentioned towards the end of your book that basically the plurality myth has taken more precedent lately, it’s gotten more purchase in society than it has had up to this point. Is~is plurality connected to any sort of mythology as
consistently as unity is?
(Joe:) So plurality I think is currently the leading scientific hypothesis both among scientists and among the general population so the idea that somewhere out there there is alien life, most likely intelligence, the idea of a plurality myth holding much sway is a little bit different and part of it as you your question suggests is because plurality isn’t as consistently connected to a set of ideas as unity is so the idea that we’re alone occasionally is used in maybe like an existentialist or even a pessimistic way so I think it was in the Lars Von Trier movie, the most recent movie basically one of the characters says you know humanity is alone in the universe, we grew up on Earth and we’re a tragic mistake and will die (laughs) and then that’ll be it for consciousness in the universe in but that’s kind of a minority position and there are a few other minority positions but generally speaking specially in the Western culture the idea that humanity is alone in the universe has been tied to these ideas of value in the fact that that there are these values that are
absolute and they exist independently of humanity and we have a special central location not physically, but metaphorically, in the universe. So, plurality on the other hand has had scientific myths connected to it but they are not as consistent through time so Thomas Paine kind of made the argument that plurality makes Christianity ridiculous that the idea that there would be all of these other planets really sort of makes Christianity look parochial and just not true more or less but that has not been you know the Christian position throughout time Christian obviously means a lot of different things and some have said there are no alien so that’s kind of a position that’s taken by creationists a lot of the time, but the Vatican Church is open to the idea that aliens exist on other planets and there have been many important Christian theologians throughout time who have said that no aliens exist and that actually the existence of so many planets full of life really reflects the divine greatness so that’s totally consistent and you can see a lot of religions that are connected with the idea of alien life so Mormonism, and Scientology, and Raëlianism so these are all kind of regions associated with it, its associated with Theosophy. Theosophy which is ~sort of a set of spiritualism ~ it’s complicated, but it~is tied sometimes to the idea that races or different... are not, we’re not the same, we didn’t evolve the same thing we weren’t created the same and in fact, different racial groups are different, and so it kind of has connections to nazi philosophy right and so all of these things are very different and there are just lots so aliens in
many ways are kind of a cosmic Rorschach test where you can see in them what you want where as the idea that aliens don’t exist has had a more consistent meaning throughout history
(Danny:) Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today
(Joe:) Thank you for interviewing me.
(Danny:) Just as one last thing I want to give everyone I talk to the chance to register an opinion about the NASA topic, the NASA topic is specifically the idea that there should be international laws granting rights or recognition to alien life on other planets and preserving their planets for them. How do you feel, or if you would like to register an opinion, how would you feel about that topic?
(Joe:) well I... it’s a little bit away from my area of study so this isn’t necessarily opinion that is grounded directly in my study but I do think that maybe, kind of an overarching ban on interfering in any way with microbes on mars would perhaps be a little short sighted. You know for one, for one it may very well be that these are organisms that ~evolved at the same way as humans given that you know biological material can be moved around in space has been demonstrated, so that’s “pan-spermia” theory, suggests that maybe we have a common origin and so there may not be this great scientific benefit in studying microorganisms given the idea
that they would have evolved independently of humans. But also just I think that you know mars could very, be very valuable, potentially, for human survival kind of locating a place where we can go that’s not earth but you know is similar enough to Earth that we can make a life there and I think that that, kind of the survival of humanity, is in many ways more important than microbes right, and so I think that if we’re kind of extending rights to animals, you know nonhuman species, we would probably be better served extending those rights on earth to species that are intelligent and we know kind of feel pain maybe we should begin there and not necessarily be so quick to grant those rights to alien species simply because they’re alien, and so I think that it requires a lot of thought and so it’s definitely something that we should be thinking and debating about but perhaps we can find some better criteria for sort of determining whether or not, and to what extent if we do, should we interfere with alien life rather than just kind of a, you know, yes/no ban on it.
(Danny:) Thank you very much again for speaking with us.
(Joe:) Alright, Thank you.