Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life

Read Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Lifeby David Grispoon (New York, HarperCollins, 2003) to learn about the new field of astrobiology--the legitimate child of the the "thirty-five-year courtship" between astronomy and biology--and how it answers the question: "Hello? Is anyone out there?"

Grinspoon, a highly courageous and credentialed soul (Department of Space Studies at the Southwest Research Institute and adjunct professor of Astrophysical and Plantary Sciences at the University of Colorado), admits up front that his book is "highly opinionated and biased in numerous ways" (p. xv). That refreshingly honest statement allows him to put forth a number of extravagant hypotheses about science's "noble new assault on the question of our cosmic aloneness."

Perhaps it may help that Grinspoon also is a musician, lives in the open mind-field of Colorado, and grew up hanging around the highly respected and often skeptical scientists, such as Carl Sagan, who helped form SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). His book explores, in three parts: (1) the history of our belief (or lack thereof) in a "plurality of worlds" containing intelligent and intelligible consciousness; (2) the scientific evidence for (or against) the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe; and (3) potentially plausible beliefs about extraterrestrial (ET) life once considered fringe or marginal, but increasingly gaining theoretical (scientific) credence.

Kudos to David Grinspoon for making the once remote, accessible; for probing the farther reaches of human speculation and contact; and for making the once ridiculed, scientifically plausible.

As always, my reviews are idiosyncratic: I choose books on intuition, for relevance they have to my own personal passions for the marriage of law, ethics, medicine, healing, and spirituality. This book offers a number of unsual insights that can spin around some previously cherished (and frozen) concepts, that I may have either held or heard. For example:

What Do ETs Look Like
• Our current scientific search for signs of ET intelligence generally is "looking for a specific kind of life that we are familiar with," namely carbon-based life forms like ourselves. Is it possible, though, Grinspoon provocatively asserts, that intelligent life exists using "a radically different kind of chemistry" than we do?" (Grinspoon gives a number of "heretical ideas" about how this might evolve.)

The Gaia Hypothesis
• The Gaia hypothesis regards "Earth in its totality as one giant superorganism incorporating many parts of our planet that traditional science sees as nonliving" (p. 266). Whoa! This sounds like the mystical adage that 'everything carries consciousness.' Grinspoon lends scientific credibility to the claim, arguing that evolution may be "an intricate partner-dance" between life and the planet "in which neither seems to be leading," rather than an accident; life itself alters the planet, but the planet engages in "homeostatic self-regulation" to make human life possible. The Gaia hypothesis suggests that Mother Earth is alive, and she's winking at us. (The wink may be both friendly and a wisp of displeasure at the way we have treated her. Some claim that of the natural disasters that increasingly assail us, many are caused by our own reckless infliction of technology upon the planet, while others indicate the planet's reaction and response of displeasure with us.)

Networked Consciousness
• There's nothing like a scientist who has humility, or who has the courage to critique science and scientists. Take this quote: "We know too much. Our squishy little brains can't handle it all. Our knowledge has increased exponentially and nobody knows everything." Grinspoon constantly points out the limitations of the elegant scientific method, the limits of our ability to know, and of our ability to communicate to one another through our narrow specialties. At the same time, he urges "a sort of 'hive mind' ... to achieve a kind of group mentation," moving past isolation to a collective awareness. This accords with much current writing about how we are moving, as a species, to networked consciousness. More about this later.

Occam's Razor
• Occcam's Razor (the simplest, least contrived theory is the most plausible) is only a hypothesis, not a dogma. It seems to work but who knows, some day we might abandon this cherished cornerstone of scientific explication. William Occam--Bill to his friends--was a man, not a deity, and his famous "razor" is too often taken as "merely received knowledge, an article of (gasp, shudder) faith" (p. 107). One thing I know for sure from experience--thirty years' worth (count back to my first shave) is that someone is always inventing a new and improved razor.

Earth Birth
• Earth "was born a burning sauna with the thermostat jammed into the red zone--a tumultuous, noisy place with mountains continually falling from space at supersonic speeds, spraying showers of molten metal and rock, which then rained back down through the suffocating sky." How come I didn't read this version in Genesis? The "primordial pounding from space" continued for about 100 million years. Jove must've been throwing His thunderbolts! And here's my favorite sentence in the book: "Several times the world was lulled into an apparent cease-fire, and began the chemical climb toward life, only to be thrust back into hell." Grinspoon clarifies that "oceans formed and were blasted into steam, which then condensed and fell again in thousand-year rains....If life did start many times, it died out every time but one." And I thought Noah was the one righteous man who escaped the flood only by God's grace! It turns out the Apocalypse visited many times before we were even conceived. One biblical portion does come to mind...God's admonition, speaking to Job from the whirlwind, that puny mortal human Job cannot possibly fathom how or why he was formed or when the mighty Leviathan first trekked the depths. In any event, this section of Lonely Planets (p. 92) is rife with implications and questions. Why did life begin so many times, only to be snuffed out? How would evolution have proceeded if some of the earlier "doomed experiments" had succeeded? How much of our features are owed to the "random timing" of massive collisions and other events? Why so much destruction amidst the creation? How does one balance (or understand) the notion of Intelligent Design alongside the chaos (and violence)?

• No doubt about it, we (and our search) are species-centric. Grinspoon quotes a Soviet scientist: "'Earth civilization is not yet past the diapers age.'" (That explains a lot!) Then again, we have to figure out--from the vantage of our understanding--why no one has responded to our radio signals, messages in a space bottle, and other attempts to make CONTACT.

Where Are They
• Grinspoon offers a number of hypotheses and disposes of these logically. One is the "self-destruction hypothesis:" civilizations, whether human or alien, destroy themselves once they reach certain technological proficiency. Hence none have survived to make contact. Let's hope not everyone is afflicted with "technological adolescence" (p. 319).

• Another is the "contemplation hypothesis"--the notion that more advanced races have removed themselves to cosmic meditation caves and are living as "cosmic navel-gazers," uninterested in our petty outreach. That's not my view of the universe. To everything there is a season: a time for meditation, and a time for compassionate outreach and involvement in 'the world,' be it the galaxy or the cosmos. I presume an intergalactic Socrates would not absent himself (or herself or itself) from affairs of fellow creatures; or that if there are cosmic sages who meditate, there are also those who are social activists; at the very least, consistent with life and 'non-life' everywhere, I presume diversity.

I like the "zoo hypothesis" (p. 320): the notion that some Star Trekian 'Prime Directive' forbids ETs from interfering in human affairs. We may be protected as "wildlife preserve" until we can learn "the rules of galactic intercourse." We humans could definitely learn where to put the knife, fork and spoon (or nuclear, biological, chemical weapons) when we meet our brethren in space. On the other hand, reports of spiritual experiences of ETs, near-death experiences, and other mystical adventures--if one chooses to indulge in such--suggest that THEY are far from remote. The zoo hypothesis sounds a little like the Cartesian notion of "God the clockmaker."

Grinspoon also admits the zoo hypothesis makes us important enough to "merit a cage in their zoo;" we may rather be tiny seedlings, left alone to grow, ignored because civilizations like ours are "a dime a dozen" (p. 321).

• Most captivating to me is the notion that ETs are already here, but they do not make contact through the (barbaric) physical machinery we have laid out for them. Rather, they interact mentally and telepathically, inhabiting parallel worlds that interact with our energy fields. From my study of energy healing (which the NIH calls frontier science) and meditation practice, I find this compelling. Grinspoon now adds a philosophical and scientific spin: "Nanotechnology, wireless communications, genetic engineering, and much faster microprocessors might allow capabilities indistinguishable from telekinesis, ESP, and immortality" (p. 332).

I disagree with "might allow:" the future already is here. Go to any Starbuck's and you'll see people talking to invisible others: the headsets and mouthpieces get smaller and smaller, until one day they will be implanted in human bodies. Why could some of us not already have such implants, except on levels undetectable to present technology? In Beyond Complementary Medicine, I suggested that maybe Joan of Arc had one of these. (Colleagues warned me to stay away from this kind of heretical writing, but someone has to QUESTION AUTHORITY.)

The clincher: "We are forced to admit that those who believe in angels, spirits, and creatures from other dimensions living among us are not really advocating ideas inconsistent with science, only unverifiable by science" (p. 333). Thank you, David, for confronting the goblins of dogma and arrogant dismissal, and for granting credence to spiritual concepts through the language and lens of cogent scientific analysis. My blessing to you is: may you receive the contact for which you may be longing.

With all his openness, David Grinspoon mentions coming up empty in his own search for contact. And that may be apt, because it leaves him in the position of skeptical inquirer, a scientist within the fold, not pushing a position, only raising questions. Interestingly - as a coda - he searches for religious teachings not inconsistent with some of the scientific hypotheses he explores, and ultimately finds in Buddhism some compatibility. Noting that Buddhism urges "compassion, not just for all humans, but for 'all sentient beings,'" Grinspoon asserts that the notion of "nonhuman intelligent creatures is right there in the language they use" (p. 384). The notion of intelligent ETs "intermingling in our space" is no big deal to Buddhist thought...as there is "no difference" between 'out there' and 'in here' (or 'down here').

I could write and write about this wonderful book. The last piece is a "personal ad" Grinspoon imagines a more evolved species might write, looking for companionship...would Earthlings be able to respond? If all we offer is technological broadcasting, would they respond to such signals? What we "self-referentially (and self-aggrandizingly) call intelligence" in the search for intelligent, non-human life may be "qualitatively" (and quantumly) different than what interstellar farers may require, enjoy, assume. For all we know, "we are more like cabbages than kings" (p. 396).

Defining Intelligence
Turning to Ghandi and others, Grinspoon defines intelligence thus:

"A truly intelligent species must have the ability to behave, collectively, in ways that ensure long-term survival. It must have learned to avoid self-destruction, anticipate and avoid natural disasters, intentionally and thoughtfully alter its environment and live sustainably within it" (p. 396). To meet this criterion, we must move beyond "technical solutions" to a global society where care and concern for others is the norm: "Either we get snuffed out rather quickly, or we emerge immortal," and thereby worthy of stable contact with everyone else out there (p. 398). By "immortal," Grinspoon alludes to human-machine collaboration, and our collective progression toward "greater intelligence, conscious awareness, and self-understanding," in a way that merges technological achievement with wisdom (p. 402). In this way, our ultimate destiny merges material proficiency and spiritual attainment. That takes up the question of compassion, and that, arguably, is where the conversation about SETI ought to start.