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Final Essay Prompt

Page history last edited by Peter Ramberg 15 years, 7 months ago



Your final paper is a collaborative effort to draw overall conclusions about the existence of extraterrestrial life, drawn from your previous papers and the material from the modern debate (SETI, the Fermi paradox, etc.) to argue a “final” position. Here are some issues to consider:


  • How are the characteristics of the modern debate (positions for and against extraterrestrials) reflective of the long history of the debate over extraterrestrials since ancient Greece? Have we made any progress in the debate? Is the existence of extraterrestrials more likely or more unlikely in 2004 than in 1800 (or whatever year you choose)?
  • Most of the participants in the debate over extraterrestrials (and almost all we have read) are scientists, many of them quite prominent. This might suggest (and indeed is implied strongly in our readings) that the question of extraterrestrials is fundamentally scientific, and can be answered definitively by the methods of science. Why is this suggestion probably not true?
  • Is the search for extraterrestrials falsifiable in Popper’s sense? If not, does that argue against it being science, or that Popper’s criteria are inadequate for describing how science should work?
  • How probable is the origin of life and intelligence?
  • Is it reasonable to expect the SETI program to be successful? What is the significance of the Drake equation?
  • How can you explain the Fermi paradox?


Suppose we are alone in the galaxy or universe. Is the anthropic principle a suitable explanation for our existence, or is it “intellectual bankruptcy,” as some critics have argued?


Obviously you cannot cover all the material from the semester, but only those parts you as a group found most compelling. What you need to show is that you have understood and seriously considered the issues involved in thinking about extraterrestrials. As most of you realize by now, the principle of plenitude would seem to be a weak argument by itself, and, if you want to use it, you must strengthen it by considering other issues. You may choose to become more agnostic, but at least mention which side you would choose (and why) if forced. In other words, a nuanced answer is far better than a simple “yes” or “no,” so your thesis should be well-developed.


You do not need to do any additional reading beyond that required for class. If you do need to clarify certain factual matters or interpretations, please contact me, or see the more detailed look in Steven Dick, The Biological Universe, on reserve.


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