Five Billion Years of Solitude?

In a recent New York Times review of Lee Billings’ book, Five Billion Years of Solitude, the review, Dennis Overbye, points out how long the odds are of finding other worlds that could host life:

Complex life arose here only half a billion years ago, notes James Kasting, a geosciences professor at Penn State, who concludes glumly that intelligence might exist for only one-tenth of Earth’s history, cutting the odds of its being detected elsewhere.

But the discovery of Earth 2.0 will mark only the beginning of the real work. Figuring out whether its atmosphere is conducive to life — or perhaps even indicative of life — could take years and billions of dollars, and the immediate prospects are discouraging.

Of course, all this is based on the presupposition that life has to match what we define it as, that is, us. If life does not need to be air breathing, carbon based or even physical in the sense that all living things on earth are, then the whole investigation comes to a rather abrupt halt. What would we look for then? Signs of intelligence? Transformations of the environment?

This is one of the main themes of Sea of Dreams, what is life? I was thinking about this particularly in light of artificial intelligence and discussions of the singularity. Also, in many religious traditions, there are forces that are not physical, yet very active and often possessing an intelligence far superior to humans. Are we really alone, or do our convictions about what it is to ‘be alive’ simply prevent us from seeing what may be right in front of us?

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