Methodological Naturalism and the Eerie Silence

21 August 2011


The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, Paul Davies

Recently in Silent Worlds, Empty Worlds I mentioned that I was listening to Paul Davies’ book The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, and this is the “eerie silence” to which I refer in the title of this post. Since that earlier post, I’ve listened through Davies’ a couple of times and also consulted the print version.

While listening to Davies’ book it occurred to me that a skeptical SETI argument could be formulated on the basis of the methodological naturalism that is the working presupposition of science — and presumably the presupposition of SETI also, if indeed SETI is a science.

The argument would run like this: the remarkable success of science in describing and explaining the world from the scientific revolution of the early modern period to today is predicated upon methodological naturalism. If this methodological naturalism was an invalid presupposition, then science so predicated would never have been the wildly successful enterprise that it has been. But science has been successful, and methodological naturalism has therefore proved itself.

Given the power of the intelligence to completely transform the environment in which it lives, as human beings have transformed the surface of the earth, an advanced extraterrestrial civilization that had managed to survive in the long term and to propagate itself at least within the confines of its solar system (as we have done to a limited extent) or perhaps also across interstellar distances, it would be the case that such an alien civilization would have transformed the environment throughout the region of space in which its influence held sway.

If any alien intelligence were to make a careful scientific study of our solar system, from the point of view of methodological naturalism certain anomalies would arise that could not be explained by purely naturalistic processes. The more detailed the study, the more anomalies would emerge. If the vast and cool and unsympathetic alien scientist got around to studying the surface of the earth, this scientist would eventually have to conclude that intelligence was at work, because natural processes could not plausibly account for cities, radio communications, and the other manifestations of technological civilization.

Similarly, when our scientists study other regions of the galaxy, methodological naturalism has proved to be a sure guide in understanding what we see. If large regions of space had been transformed under the influence of alien technology, anomalies would emerge in naturalistic explanations, and the more we looked, the more anomalies we would find. In fact, we do not find anomalies that can only be explained by recourse to explanations based upon intelligent intervention.

Michio Kaku wrote in his Physics of the Future how Kurzweil told him that he hoped to see the evidence of the technological singularity in the night sky:

“Kurzweil once told me that when he gazes at the distant stars at night, perhaps one should be able to see some cosmic evidence of the singularity happening in some distant galaxy. With the ability to devour or rearrange whole star systems, there should be come footprint left behind by this rapidly expanding singularity.”

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, Michio Kaku, 2011, Chapter 2, Future of AI: Rise of the Machines, p. 102

I have been rather critical of Kurzweil in other posts, but in this, he is correct: if anything like the technological singularity took place in the form that its expositors have given to it, we should be able to see portions of the cosmos transformed under the aspect of intelligence — sub specie intellectus.

Since this is precisely what we do not see, this constitutes a further example of what I recently called SETI as a Process of Elimination: as the scope and sophistication of our search for extraterrestrial intelligence increases over time, and we continue to fail to find evidence of the same, in true inductive fashion this does not mean that we have proved that extraterrestrial intelligence and civilization does not exist, but we can exclude it from certain areas that have been searched, and the more we search the more regions of the cosmos can be declared free of peer civilizations. However, a single counter-example would be sufficient to falsify an inductive generalization possessing only a degree of confirmation and not deductive certitude.

In the case of the technological singularity, with its ability to reproduce itself and improve itself with each generation, thus issuing in escalating and even exponential growth, the “footprint” of obvious intelligent order wherever a technological singularity has emerged in the universe ought to be prominent and rapidly growing. We can say of intelligent machines as Fermi said of aliens: Where are they?

In the formulations of the some of the expositors of the technological singularity the effects of the singularity sound frighteningly similar to Stalinist gigantism, and if this is the case then the footprint of a technological singularity ought to be as visible as an enormous and vulgar Palace of the Soviets — a beacon to the cosmos of the paradise of the machines. Of course, machines may have better taste than earth-bound tyrannies.

An important note: in the bigger picture, the emergence of intelligence as the result of natural processes (as has happened on the earth) is itself a natural process, and the order the intelligence imposes upon its environment is as “natural” as that intelligence itself. However, we know that naturally occurring forms of order differ strikingly from forms of order imposed by intelligence. We know this intuitively, but it is extraordinarily difficult to give an explicit account of it.

If you travel to an unfamiliar place and look out over the landscape, you will likely know immediately whether or not other human beings make their home there: the presence of human habitation alters the landscape. Also, most of us are familiar with what wilderness looks like, and it does look anything like civilization.

Exactly what the difference is between what we might call organic forms of order on the one hand, and on the other hand mechanistic forms of order, however obvious it may be on an intuitive level, is something that we might reasonably expect from a philosophy of technology.

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One Response to “Methodological Naturalism and the Eerie Silence”

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