Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth by Avi Loeb
As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.
Avi Loeb, an Israeli-American theoretical physicist from Harvard University recently published a book titled, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. In the book he goes on to hypothesize that Oumuamua (an unidentified interstellar object that passed through our solar system in 2017), was really a piece of alien technology (perhaps a solar sail).
Naturally, Loeb's hypothesis drew much attention from the media, and also much criticism from the scientific community. Whatever Oumuamua was or was not, is not really the topic of our article here. Rather, in this article we'll briefly look at Loeb's comments on the meaning of life, and also how a discovery of life outside of our little biosphere we call Earth, could change our perspective on life.
As noted in the opening, Loeb always wanted to grow up to be a philosopher, and would spend much of his youth reading the works of Albert Camus and other existentialists (or rather absurdists). But it wouldn't be until around Chapter 11, that Loeb would dive headfirst into the big question, What is the meaning of life? On this, he would go on to say,
I believe that they (aliens) no less than us will have spent a civilization's lifetime confronting life's most stubborn mysteries. The ones that are impossible to move from the miraculous to the mundane. There is no mystery more fundamental than the meaning of life. Some of us are cast in the role of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But all of us experience the sensation of striding across the stage without a script. It is the rare human and I suspect sentient being who never seeks an answer to the question 'What's it all about?'
Here it is interesting to note that Loeb would go on reference Camus' book - The Myth of Sisyphus, which outlines the story and punishment of Sisyphus—condemned to a life of rolling a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down in a never-ending cycle (kind of like most of our own 9-5 jobs and Netflix binges). Camus reasons that this is much of man's struggle—to live, die, and reason without ever knowing why, which, of course, is nothing less than absurd. To be a sentient being able to ponder such questions, to yearn for answers, to grasp and fight every second of our lives—for life, but coming up short and only finding death in the end ... again, is absurd. Loeb goes on to reason that if we, Camus included, came to the inevitable conclusion that life is absurd, that intelligent life elsewhere in the universe would end up at the same conclusion.
The Fermi Paradox is, after all, the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations and our high probabilistic estimates that the universe should be teeming with life according to the Drake Equation. So what happened? Did intelligent civilizations implode shortly after developing the technology enabling mutually assured destruction? Is intelligent life simply a fluke of nature? Are aliens just hiding from us? Or something completely different? Perhaps we just aren't looking hard enough or in the right places (as suggest by Loeb); or perhaps technology didn't doom extraterrestrial civilizations, existentialism did.
As Loeb points out, shortly before WWII, Winston Churchill wrote an unpublished essay titled Are We Alone in the Universe?. His answer to the question? How could anyone be so egotistic to think that we could be? Churchill puts it much more Britishly and eloquently by utilizing logical arguments well ahead of their time, e.g., us once believing the universe revolved around us—only to eventually discover we were just evolved primates floating around on a spec of galactic dirt.
So, had we encountered intelligent life earlier, would WWII of even of happened? Loeb says the following, I assign a meaning to my life by using the spectator perspective of an astronomer to motivate new challenges for our civilization on the cosmic stage. A little later adding, The main benefit from an encounter with superior beings would be the opportunity to ask them the fundamental question that has been bothering us for ages, 'What's the meaning of life?'. He goes on to reason that even the mere discovery of non-intelligent life on another planet could change our cosmic perspective. Or rather, how petty would it be for us to continue fighting among ourselves when there is a rich, vibrant, and wonderful universe out there just waiting to be discovered? One that may perhaps be teeming with life—one that undoubtful so, would be even more diverse and spectacular than that which we find on earth. And that my friends is is the crux of Loeb's point on meaning.
Overall, a very interesting read. It is highly recommended if you are interested in speculative but scientific works on the possibilities of life in the universe.