The Philosophy of Extraterrestrial by Avi Loeb

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

Last week at work, I stumbled across a news article (sorry, I can’t remember which one) about Harvard Professor, Avi Loeb, and his theory that the first interstellar object detected by man back in 2017 (nicknamed Oumuamua) may have been alien technology. The case he made in the article was sufficiently plausible, that I felt that I just had to get a copy of his book to see if he could back up his bold claim. I am not an astrophysicist or even particularly fluent in physics, so I wondered if I’d be able to understand his proposition.

Aloeb, CC BY-SA 4.0

To my surprise, as I began to read, I realised that I had come across a truly rare work. One that had as much to say on philosophy as it does on its titular subject matter of if Oumuamua was proof of alien life. Mr Loeb begins his work by setting out his credentials with a frankly engaging tale of who he is and the journey that took him from a macadamia farm in rural Israel to being the Chair of Harvard's Department of Astronomy. It is an enthralling tale of what he describes as ‘opportunity and perseverance’. Or what we would call the confluence of chance and choice.

Mr Loeb makes no bones of his philosophical allegiance. He is an existentialist and has been enamoured by that school since his youth when he would borrow his father’s tractor and drive to a secluded spot to read Camus or Sartre. This philosophical undercurrent informs the rest of his work, motivating him to “move the needle of human knowledge” in his work. He talks often about his two daughters (Klil & Lotem), and it is clear that they are very important to him, and despite his fame and renown, they remain (as they should be) at the centre of his world. This resonates with the philosophy of The Code, as while he uses different words, Mr Loeb seems to be motivated by the welfare of his family and the community, which he sees (as we do) as ultimately encompassing all of humanity.

The ostensible point of work is, despite this pleasant digression, not at all neglected. Mr Loeb makes a thorough case for why the currently accepted position that Oumuamua was a comet with unique features strains credulity with his calculations (which I have not checked), suggesting a one in a quadrillion chance that the object was random and unique. As well as his observations that Oumuamua does not fit the models of comets which we know of, Mr Loeb then moves on to his key proposition that Oumuamua just might be of alien manufacture and, specifically, a light sail as Mr Loeb and others are building with the Starshot initiative. To my mind, he only states that it is a possible theory that has been ignored by mainstream science. Rather than what the media has reported, which is that Mr Loeb believes it was definitely built by aliens. I’ll leave it to you to make your own mind up if or when you read the book (and I strongly encourage you to).

"Light Sail Probe to Alpha Centauri" by Futurilla is marked with CC0 1.0

What is more interesting to us is the possibility of alien life itself. Now, of course, the existence or non-existence of extra-terrestrial life poses no challenges to the philosophy of The Code. All life has the same value and sentient beings of any kind would assume the same position as any human being currently does. Their value to you being dependent on their relational proximity to the achievement of the Individual Purpose. However, if life, especially sentient life, were to be discovered, it would still have major implications for us all. I am less optimistic than Mr Loeb on this matter. While he sees advanced alien life as being almost inevitably more peaceful and civilised than humanity, I see no logical reason to suppose that technological advancement should or would lead to that outcome.

But we'll leave this discussion to another post.

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