100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part I

15 September 2012


My second full day of participation in the 2012 100YSS symposium, and the third day of the event, left me with much to think about. (I didn’t attend any events on the first day, and I had to leave upon close of business today, so I will miss the remaining events of Day 4.)

Presentation by Jill Tarter of the SETI institute.

The great eschatological question of the 100YSS symposium was “Are we alone?” Just as Joshua Lederberg said that origins of life research is the great creation myth of science, in similar fashion the question of whether we are alone in the cosmos is becoming the great eschatological myth of science. That science has matured to the point of bookending the human condition with a creation myth and an eschatological myth demonstrates the ongoing force of science in industrial-technological civilization. As a kind of xenomorphic thorough-bass that provided the underlying counter-point of everything else that happened at 100YSS, the Fermi paradox came up repeatedly in several different formulations. This question was present in different forms in both plenary sessions of the day.

A great quote from Philip Morrison that Jill Tarter used in her presentation.

Continuing the Star Trek theme initiated by the interview with Nichelle Nichols yesterday, the day began with an interview with Le Var Burton, who was a cast member of the second Star Trek television series. Mr. Burton was very well spoken and thoughtful. In the course of his interview he also delivered himself of the view that he strongly believed not only that we are not alone in the universe, but that we are being watched, perhaps monitored, by alien intelligences who consider us too dangerous at present to join the comity of the cosmos. This is sometimes known as the “zoo hypothesis” (which also has a variant known as the “planetarium hypothesis”), and is a familiar response to the Fermi paradox, although Mr. Burton never explicitly mentioned either the zoo hypothesis or the Fermi paradox.

The second plenary session of the day was a wonderful address by Dr. Jill Tarter of the SETI institute, who has made the search for extraterrestrial intelligence her career, and is passionate about the idea and about the search. While Mr. Burton presented his version of the zoo hypothesis very explicitly as a belief, Dr. Tartar, made a point of positioning her work in classic scientific terms, explicitly saying that belief does not play a role in her work. Dr. Tarter’s implicit response to the Fermi paradox was that the cosmos is very large, and that if one considers our SETI efforts so far, these compare to the scope of the cosmos as a glass of water compares to the oceans of the earth. Dr. Tarter considered a number of other responses to the Fermi paradox — e.g., the problem of the longevity of civilizations and the possibility that we are not listening correctly — but true to her scientific training did not express a belief about these hypothesis independent of the (lack of) evidence for them.

To hammer home the theme of scientific knowledge being distinct from belief, Dr. Tarter. said, “We have outgrown asking poets, priests, and philosophers what we should believe.” (This is a quote taken from memory so I might have gotten it a little off; I don’t have a transcript of the talk as I write this.) As a philosopher and a poet I didn’t care much for this remark, but I certainly understood the scientific spirit in which it was intended. I see poetry and philosophy as parallel to science rather than mutually exclusive, but, as I wrote above, Dr. Tarter chose to couch her remarks in classic scientific terms. It is also worthwhile to point out that, given what I wrote above about science now providing both creation and eschatological myths, poets, priests, and philosophers are now rivals to this preeminent role that scientists have in our society, and while rivalry can be kept civilized, it is rarely friendly and often takes the form of disguised hostility (and sometimes undisguised hostility — cf. Fashionable Anti-Philosophy).

Another implicit theme in Dr. Tarter’s talk was a contrast between technological infancy and technological maturity. Dr. Tarter explicitly acknowledged that, due to the limitations of our current state of technological development, we may be at present simply all wrong in how we are going about SETI, but as technology advances and matures we may eventually be able to join the cosmic conversation now going on over our heads, which suggests the image of human science and technology slowly rising to meet the threshold of an alien technological metric.

The interesting contrast between the perspectives on the Fermi paradox implicitly offered by Le Var Burton and Dr. Jill Tarter during the day’s two plenary sessions demonstrated how one and the same idea can serve as as belief or as an object of intellectual inquiry and scientific knowledge. As I wrote above, Mr. Burton explicitly identified his position as a belief, and I imagine that the idea of SETI can serve as a belief for many people — and in differing capacities, as they imagine alien intelligences to be friendly or hostile, very similar to or very different from us — even while for others the idea of SETI is a matter of theoretical analysis or “part of a suite of technological explorations” as Dr. Tarter said in her talk today (this is another quote from memory).

It is perhaps this very fact of the diverse perspectives on SETI that demonstrate its true (if often tacit) centrality in contemporary life. Any one idea that can inspire both art and science has a privileged position within a civilization. SETI has this role in industrial-technological civilization. Whereas we once filled the void of existential and cosmic loneliness with religion, we are approaching a point at which a significant number of persons fill the void of cosmic loneliness with the question, “Are we alone?” The question admits of scientific inquiry, and may someday be answered with scientific precision, but the same question can also be answered with a belief. This must be identified as one of the most important intellectual developments of our time.

There was much more in the day on which I took detailed notes, but as it has been a very long day on very little sleep, I am tired and so I will continue this account in a Part II.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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