My problem with the question: “Is there life elsewhere?” – Hidden Power of Words Series, #22

More and more often science news relates to possible “life” outside of Earth. For example, in the past few weeks scientists have reported unusual activity around KIC 8462852 and some speculate the unusual behavior could be explained by “alien” megastructures. This morning, “The Five Craziest Exoplanets Ever Discovered” came up. And this comes up when Googling “is there life elsewhere.” Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 1.40.02 PM

Nevertheless, since I was a little kid, I have always thought the question about whether or not life exists elsewhere as a ridiculous question — of course it does.

It is entirely too convenient per se and typical of humans to think our rock is the only rock with life!

We must examine what it–“life”–actually means. Here is what Google suggests: 

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 1.40.32 PM

Very simply: this definition privileges understandings of life on Earth, as we know them, and this definition privileges that which we think we know the best. 

It places humans, other animals, and plants within the hierarchy of life, while excluding everything else that is clearly essential to life (oxygen, water, bacteria —- more and more studies show that we’re more bacteria than ourselves!). It assumes that what scientists know now is/will become stable knowledge. Scientists again and again discover that seemingly “everything” they knew is now wrong because of such-and-such discovery.

From another perspective, this definition is very normative-human-centric (and sometimes male-centric). We live in a culture that has very recently–when looking at History on a broad scale–declared women, Blacks, and Native Americans as something other than human, for example. If we actually discovered “aliens,” there would be lots and lots and lots of dialogue about whether or not they were “humans,” “life,” or “savages to destroy.” Given the trajectory of history so far, we would start wars with them and try to wipe them out and would not try to understand them or accept them as life. 

Continuing with this line of thought, what does it mean to live? Who has a right to life? From one perspective, we could say that talking about “life” is kind of insulting to those men and women who were never given an opportunity to actually and fully live because of being enslaved, for example. 

Going back to the definition above “the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continue change preceding death” excludes a lot of people who have some kind of medical difference, people who are certainly very  alive with their own hopes and fears and talents.   

On the other hand, the Earth itself fits this definition pretty well but most would not say the Earth itself is alive. Earth continues to change and will die at some point and creates things. 

My basic point, said in what I hope will be clear words, is that of course there is life elsewhere: Life exists on Mars, Neptune, Venus, and all the other rocks and stars every where because, very simply, it is there and is occupied with “stuff.” In this same way, your computer screen is also “alive.” Humans, according to evolutionary theories, emerged from start dust – but, according to typical definitions of life, our very distant ancestors would be excluded. Life takes all kinds of extremely different manifestations. The ways in which life fully and inevitably exist elsewhere are, very simply, beyond our human capacity to imagine and beyond what it is possible to know and understand, at least for a long while to come. If we limit life to those things that can think, breathe, and/or reproduce, we are limiting our vision to our determinant. 


Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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29 replies

  1. I like your understanding of life. Pawpaw

    Sent from my iPhone


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  2. This is probably my favorite of your hidden power of words series. You really changed my perspective on life existing elsewhere than Earth. It’s so Earth-like of us to claim a monopoly on life!

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  3. Take me to your leader!

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  4. This is the first time I read one of your blogs and I am very impressed, I thought the same way but never had the right words to say it, words are powerful.

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  5. I think there is life potential elsewhere, but whether there is life that we concern is still a mystery. It is like Schrödinger’s Cat, only when you open the box, the f possibilities will collapse into one determined thing.


  6. I agree with your view on life, its ignorant to think life out there doesn’t exist, and hopefully one day everyone can truly what it mean’s to be alive

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  7. I’ve never thought about life this way. All I believed in was life now and life-after-death but I love the message the post is sending to its readers because it makes me think more about what “life” and “to live” indeed is.

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  8. Being a Muslim, the whole idea of “aliens” as we know them was shut down real quick in my life, because we there is a Quranic verse that states that God created life on the Earth and on the Earth only. So byebye to that definition of extra-terrestrial life for me. But looking at life from a different perspective like you’ve done here is pretty cool because first, I love dissecting words and their meanings like this, and second, it’s fascinating to use history (enslavement) to defy the accepted definition of life. I like your view that my computer is life!

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  9. I completely agree, its always baffled me how closed-minded some people can be. The term “life” is as ever expanding and evolving as life itself.

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  10. I have always believed that there was life on unexplored parts of the universe, it is impossible for us to be the only ones in the entire universe. With that being said, I agree with your perspective.

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  11. Like all children, when I was young I always wanted to know more information on “aliens”. This is the term we use to describe living things outside of Earth. However, it surely sounds negative to me. This goes back to your blog and how we define life depending on our specific criteria. If there were “life” elsewhere it would probably be defined differently depending on other criteria. the definition of life is also very general, as u stated it does not take into consideration humans who do not have all of the capabilities.

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  12. It’s crazy to explore these kinds of topics. I enjoy your point of view and coming from a Christian origin it’s so nice to explore other ideas. It’s nice to think outside of what is taught within the church and family. I’ve never really looked at life in this perspective and would love to continue to read more of your blogs.

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  13. I think that there is life elsewhere. I guess my religious background might play a part in my belief of life elsewhere. But I think that after one dies, they have an afterlife in Heaven or Hell. I couldn’t even imagine dying and then not existing in this universe at all for the rest of time.

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  14. I agree with this article. I have always believed in life beyond what we can ever imagine.

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  15. Reading this article made me really think about this theory on life outside of the earth. I like the perspective about what you think life is and I agree on the points. Great Read!

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  16. Being a Christian it has lead me to have a bias on whether we are the only life form in the universe. The religion I associate with would lead me to believe that we are the only ones and God created us in his own image. However, as I am growing and learning I am no longer so closed minded. Although I do not think there are green aliens on other planets, or actual human beings either for that matter, I’m not surprised astronauts have found water on other planets, or bacteria, etc. The ideas of there being other humans is very weird to me and makes me uncomfortable to think about, the same discomfort I feel when I think about what happens when we die, however I try not to be as close minded as I once was.

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  17. I’m one to believe in the coexistence of religion and science. I believe in there being a unique God, but I also believe in the new ground broken by science in many cases especially when concerning life on other planets and beyond our current reach, in other solar systems. It honestly fascinates me that there’s a possibility of other life forms being outside of Earth.

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  18. Initially, I was confused by the statement you made in class which led me to this post, but I understand now. Just as someone said previously, I’d love to think with my Christian brain that we are the only life in the universe, but of course that would just be selfish. I think this universe is great, I hope we are sharing it with other lifeforms. When it comes to defining concepts such as what it means to be alive, to be considered a person, to be considered anything, that gets really muddy, but you explained it in a way that even I could understand (imagine that, me, understanding something.) I still wonder what it means to be alive, but maybe it’s one of those questions where everyone has a completely different answer. (although if everyone answered everything the same way, the world wouldn’t be nearly as interesting and exciting.) I’ll admit I don’t think much about space, but after this post I’ll allow myself to wonder more, to be more curious. I really enjoyed this post. Thank you for sending it to us!

    Liked by 1 person


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