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Dr Christopher Cowie, Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy recently took part in the Being Human Festival, a nationwide festival which engages a wide audience in the breadth of humanities research. He tells us how philosophers can contribute to questions about life in space.

What is the most interesting thing that we could discover? At least one obvious answer is that we are not alone; that there is life, perhaps even intelligent life, out there.  

This has been a preoccupation of philosophers for a long time. It is only recently however that we have begun to search in earnest. This is something made possible by the tools of modern science and technology, not of philosophy. But philosophers have something to contribute to the search. They can help us to think about what we should be looking for, what we might hope to find and even how we might assess the evidence when it is unclear what it means or how to interpret it. 

 A recent spur for this is our much-documented recent encounter with the peculiar astronomical object that has come to be known as ‘Oumuamua’. This object passed through our solar system in late 2017. It left a trail of mystery. We know from its trajectory that it originated in a different solar system. But we know little else about it; how it came here, what it was made of, or how its peculiar motion could be explained: it accelerated out of our solar system with no known means of propulsion. Speculation has been rife. High profile figures in the world of astronomy have openly entertained the hypothesis that it was an extra-terrestrial artefact. 

The truth is that we do not know. Not really. It is here – in the space between incomplete evidence and interpretation – that philosophy can play its part. Is it sensible to expect that we could encounter an extra-terrestrial artefact of this kind, in this way? Or is this mere science fiction? How should we assess the evidence in this kind of case? One of the most interesting issues concerns how we ought to factor our ignorance into hypotheses of this kind. We know that there is much that we do not know about the world and in particular – given the fact that we have a sample size of only one – about the nature and possible forms of life outside our own. In the search for extra-terrestrial life, should we expect something like ourselves, or should we expect the unexpected? And if the latter, how might we do that? 

'Expecting the Unexpected' is taken from an article written by Dr Peter Vickers. He explains his work in more detail in this video.

Find out more

 Being Human Festival  

 Study Philosophy at Durham University 

 Find out more about Christopher Cowie  

Find out more about Peter Vickers