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Watching the movie "Contact" and I couldn't help but wonder:

  1. What's the philosophical status of the question of the existence of extraterrestrial? Is it taken seriously? Has any notable philosopher written about it?
  2. Can it be considered to be part of metaphysics ?
  3. Has anyone written about the implications of the answer: What does it mean for us if yes? What does it mean for us if no?
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    Can you spell out the motivations a little further here? What exactly might you be suspecting to be of philosophical interest or significance in the question of life beyond Earth? – Joseph Weissman May 2 '15 at 15:23
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    What sort of questions would you pose to a philosopher who specializes in this area? (If there are no questions, what's the point?) – Drux May 2 '15 at 20:37
  • @JosephWeissman and Drux 1) Several come to mind: The ontological status of humans and of life on earth would depend on the answer. 2) In the case of intelligent ETs, this would also fame certain questions in the mind body problem, i.e. multiple-realizability. 3) It would pose some interesting problems in ethics. 4) Questions about modes of being. – Alexander S King May 3 '15 at 13:53
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It's not of much interest.

  1. If we ever learn that they exist, it will not be philosophers who ascertain that fact. It will be astronomers, astrophysicists (who recently looked at 100,00 galaxies for signs of civilizations [link]) or people who work in electronic signalling.
  2. In so much as philosophy is a principally rational discipline, there aren't many questions related to extra-terrestrials that we ought to properly consider best answered by modern philosophy. The Drake equation is a popular formula (link) for calculating the likelihood that intelligent life exists. Biology, astrophysics and astronomy, history, and other disciplines inform us of the best values to substitute the variables of the equation.
  3. There is the question of why we seem to be alone in the universe. There are explanations other than ones that appeal to the distances between stars. Plausible answers to that question are the sort of things that philosophers contemplate. For example, is it plausible that we could be so different from other intelligent life that we wouldn't even notice the signs of each other's existence? Many of those questions (link) relate to attempts to solve Fermi's paradox. However, there are few plausible solutions to the paradox, and those solutions do not evoke any profound philosophical questions.

To answer your questions

(1) As has been mentioned, Nick Bostrom has written about it (link)

(2) Ontology is the study of what exists, ontology is a subdiscipline of metaphysics. Questions of the existence of extra-terrestrial life are questions of existence, so they're ontological questions, and so they're metaphysical questions.

(3) Undoubtedly, someone has written something on it. However, I checked The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford (the most reputable source on these kinds of questions) and found nothing other than Bostrom's paper, which I linked in the answer to #1.

  • the only explanation of the fermi-paradox imvho is that to build a means to explore much of space you need to build something which kills everything else – user34654 Aug 22 '18 at 10:31
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The search for extraterrestrial life is philosophical because there is not really consensus on what "life" means. Pinning a definition on "life" is a philosophical discussion going back thousands of years.

However, if one assumes "life needs oxygen," and begins searching for exoplanets that show oxygen content in their atmosphere, that search is now scientific (even though part of the underlying reason for the science remains philosophical).

As for whether someone has written on the implications, the answer is yes, but unfortunately its complicated to try to pin down specifically whom has written on it. Certainly science fiction authors have written on it, some of whom I would call philosophers in their own right. You could make the argument that Buddha wrote about it, given the appearance of Sanskrit words translated as "Sentient beings" in so many places.

In a sense, the answer would weigh in on one of the older philosophical and religious questions out there: "Do we have meaning?" The answers to that question seem to often take different forms if we are unique in the universe and special than if life is common in the universe.

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Given that artificial life is a source of philosophical speculation; there seems to be no reason why extra-terrestrial life can't be either; after all given our scientific understanding of life, it is a possibility; the question is of probability; unfortunately that's all that can be said about it that has any real meaning. ie it's not of sufficient philosophical interest.

Nick Bostrom is one that has covered it; here's an essay on it.

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I believe its a deeply philosophical question, one that concerning Theology and the other concerning the philosophy of science : the ability for the process of scientific inquiry to yield accurate predictions, once a suitable theory is proposed and proven.

Theological issues involve mainly relationship between extraterestrial life and God: do they have souls and related questions.

But the relationship between the philosophy of science and extraterrestrial life is even more interesting: we assume the laws of physics are the same througout the universe. What about the laws of biology? The current problem seems to be that there has been no known theory of the evolution of life, but at the same time such a theory is the holy grail of evolutionary biology. Assuming then such a theory will one day exist, one will be able to predict the evolution of life in the same way Newton and Kepler helped us predict the orbit of planets with enough precision to land space probes on Mars for example. Once the mechanism is known, then it becomes easier to predict the outcome of life on other worlds the same way we can predict the existence of volcanoes and dust storms given the chemical composition of the atmosphere of other planets and the physics of climate modelling.

There is, I believe, a great fear associated with the existence of a few bacteria outside of this Earth, and this fear is amenable to study by another science, the science of psychology.

An interesting article here adresses this question:

 This would explain the absence of observable aliens. Because if the rise of intelligent life on any one planet is sufficiently improbable, then it follows that we are most likely the only such civilization in our galaxy or even in the entire observable universe.  (The observable universe contains approximately 1022 stars.  The universe might well extend infinitely far beyond part that is observable by us, and may contain infinitely many stars.  If so, then it is virtually certain that there exists an infinite number of intelligent extraterrestrial species, no matter how improbable their evolution on any given planet.  However, cosmological theory implies that, due to the expansion of the universe, any life outside the observable universe is and will forever remain causally disconnected from us: it can never visit us, communicate with us, or be seen by us or our descendants.)

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