Contact: Mary Ann Meyers, Ph.D., Senior Fellow Purpose

Purposehe premise with which we begin is that the discovery of “exoplanets” (more than 1,800 to date) beyond our solar system has given a new boost to scientists engaged in the search for extraterrestrial life even as SETI, which has been looking in our cosmic neighborhood for radio signals originating from other civilizations for half a century, finds itself more and more dependent on private support for the deployment of the next generation of radio telescopes. But is the null hypothesis that life outside of Earth is most likely to be found on “habitable worlds” correct? Are planets and moons with surface liquid water and atmospheres of light gases the places to look for alien intelligence? Is biology universal? With technologies available soon that may enable scientists to identify the conditions conducive to life on other planets, the question of where to look becomes a critical one.

The purpose of this symposium is to probe the assumption that, if it exists, life elsewhere in the universe has a biochemistry similar to our own. Some scientists have speculated that any sufficiently advanced alien civilization might well be capable of augmenting itself by using technology to overcome its biological limitations. The symposium will also, therefore, explore the possibility of what has been termed “post-biological” intelligent life, and engage in conversation those who have come to believe that if we were to contact a 10‑million‑year‑old civilization, we would very likely not be dealing with flesh and blood biological organisms, but some super-redesigned information management system. What, then, is the societal importance of such a prospect? If much of what has been written about “the singularity” when humans transcend biology is superficial, it is also the case that the philosophical, ethical, and theological implications of the discovery of extraterrestrial life have too often been shrugged aside.

Among the specific big questions to be explored are these:

Are we alone in the universe? With vast numbers of places in the universe to look for life, what should guide our search? Should we be looking for a galactic technological zone even as we continue to search for galactic habitable zones suitable for biological life? How might the discovery of civilizations more advanced than our own affect life on Earth? What might such an encounter tell us about our future? What would it mean for a species to be usurped by its own artificial progeny? In what way would the discovery of a post-biological culture impact our fundamental ideas in science, philosophy, and religion?

The probe for answers brings researchers from astronomy, chemistry, cosmology, evolutionary paleobiology, and physics together for conversation with philosophers and theologians in a beautiful Midlands manor house surrounded by a one-hundred-acre park west of the River Great Ouse. It is owned by the Royal Society.