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Extraterrestrial Life as the Great Analogy, Two Centuries Ago and in Modern Astrobiology

Part of the Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics book series (ASTROBIO)

Abstract

Mainstream ideas on the existence of extraterrestrial life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries are examined, with a focus on William Herschel, one of the greatest astronomers of all time. Herschel viewed all of the planets and moons of our solar system as inhabited, and gave logical arguments that even the Sun, and by extension all of the stars, was a giant planet fit for habitation by intelligent beings. The importance for astrobiology both two centuries ago and now of the type of inductive reasoning called “analogy” is emphasized. Analogy is an imperfect tool, but given that we have only one known case of life and of a life-bearing planet, it is very difficult to make progress in astrobiology without resorting to analogy, in particular between known life and possible other life. We cannot overcome the “N = 1 Problem” without resorting to this “Great Analogy” to guide our research.

Keywords

  • Solar System
  • Analogical Reasoning
  • Giant Planet
  • Natural Theology
  • Saturnian Ring

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Until the 20th century, discussions of extraterrestrial life always centered on intelligent beings, with very limited interest in the possible existence of simple organisms.

  2. 2.

    The N = 1 Problem leads to heroic mathematical and logical efforts to overcome it. For example, see the recent insightful Bayesian analysis by Spiegel and Turner (2012), who try to reach conclusions about planets in general based on the fact that life emerged relatively quickly for the one known case of early Earth.

  3. 3.

    A modern English translation with excellent commentary was published in 1990 by the University of California Press.

  4. 4.

    Even today, there are those who very much work in this tradition by promoting the necessity, based on scientific findings, for so-called Intelligent Design. For a remarkable astrobiological example, see The Privileged Planet by Gonzalez and Richards (2004).

  5. 5.

    The usefulness of the Cassini Division to the Saturnians was a point that Herschel undoubtedly took from Ferguson's book, although he does not acknowledge this.

  6. 6.

    See Crowe (2011) for a full historical account of the notion of an inhabited Sun, an idea that started long before Herschel and, abetted by his authority and arguments, lasted well past his time.

  7. 7.

    Herschel (1795, 66) also lists the properties of the Moon that greatly differ from those of Earth: no seas, no atmosphere, no dense clouds and thus no rain, very different types of seasons, days, and climates. He then argues, however, that this diversity is no problem and only means that the lunarians will have adapted to these conditions and thus be notably different from us.

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Correspondence to Woodruff T. Sullivan III .

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Sullivan, W.T. (2013). Extraterrestrial Life as the Great Analogy, Two Centuries Ago and in Modern Astrobiology. In: Vakoch, D. (eds) Astrobiology, History, and Society. Advances in Astrobiology and Biogeophysics. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-35983-5_3

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