100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II

17 September 2012


In 100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part I I discussed the interview with Le Var Burton and the talk given my Jill Tarter, both of which events took place during the plenary sessions. Now I will consider some of the other presentations of the day when the group split up into its various tracks.

During one of the plenary sessions it was announced that a presentation that did not appear on the program would be taking place, and this sounded quite interesting to me, so I went to it, and this was “Existential Risk, Human Survival, and the Future of Life” by Heath Rezabek. Mr Rezabek identified himself as a librarian, and his concern was with archiving human civilization. To this end he explained Nick Bostrum’s categories of existential risk (which I first encountered last year at the 2011 100YSS symposium), briefly discussed the Fermi paradox (which I mentioned in my last post), and then went on to detail the possibility of setting up vast archives of human civilization based on Paolo Soleri’s arcology designs.

Based on Nick Bostrum’s conception of existential risk, Mr. Rezabek asserted that “survival is not enough,” because mere survival may play into those categories of existential risk that include permanent stagnation or flawed realization. After Mr. Rezabek’s presentation I asked if the existence of a comprehensive archive didn’t hold the inherent risk of stagnation. Mr. Rezabek responded that the archive would not aim at comprehensiveness, and another guest in the audience said that the archives would create their own artifacts and therefore not fall into stagnation. However, I was unconvinced. This sounded to me much too much like a futurologist’s Byzantium which preserved the works of classical antiquity and even added to them, but not in a way that was robust or vigorous from the perspective of civilizational growth. Another lecturer had mentioned the Corpus Iuris Civilis, better known as Justinian’s digest of Roman law, I thought about going into an explanation of how knowledge tends to get embalmed under such circumstances, but I realized that it would have taken too long to try to make my case.

After Mr. Rezabek’s presentation I stayed on for Gabriel Rothblatt’s “Spacesteading — Settling the High Frontier.” Mr. Rothblatt, who identified himself as a politician, visited a question that was discussed much in last year’s 100YSS symposium, which was the problematic nature of referring to the “colonization of space,” because of its associations with the odious history of colonization. It probably would be better to stop speaking in terms of “space colonization” and instead to speak of “spacesteading,” though I don’t think that the contemporary conception of space colonization is deeply indebted to the tradition of colonialism, and if we focus too much on words and how they offend people rather than on ideas and actions there is a danger that we will never emerge again into the light of day. I wrote down Mr. Rothblatt’s e-mail address and sent him a question by e-mail (to which he has not yet responded; if he does respond I will include it in an attachment) as I didn’t have an opportunity to ask this question after his presentation:

If you have a spare moment, I would be very interested to know what you consider to be the essential distinction (if there is an essential distinction) between the social structures of colonialism and the social structures of spacesteading.

I certainly take your point about spacesteading, and it would be unfortunate to tie the settling of space to the history of colonialism, but I wonder how you would go about defining the distinction between colonialism and settlement in a cosmological context.

After this, I went to another room to catch another presentation, and found that the schedule had been scrambled a bit, though I was fortunate as I managed to catch the presentation of Stephen Andrew Taylor about the opera that he wrote based on a work of noted science fiction writer and Portland resident Ursula LeGuin. I had spoken to Mr. Taylor the previous day and so had hoped to see his work, and his presentation included a couple of clips of a production of his opera. I had asked him if he wrote the libretto, and he said that it was taken from LeGuin’s text; like many of LeGuin’s stories, the idea behind the opera was both compelling and inventive, involved with the emergence of a new religion on a generational starship.

I found myself very intellectually engaged in the final afternoon session of the “Becoming and Interstellar Civilization” track, as I enjoyed all the presentations. Steven Brant of Trimtab Management Systems spoke on “Humanity must see itself as one human family before it can go to the star.” I had spoken with Mr. Brant at lunch prior to his presentation, and mentioned that I had tried to see his talk earlier but thought I had missed it because of the changed schedule. He told me he was next up, so I hadn’t missed it after all. Mr. Brant was particularly concerned that human beings overcome their destructive tribalism, which overcoming he termed “the necessary transition.” Mr Brant also gave a quick thumbnail sketch of James Burke’s views on how societies can become transformed by adopting a new perspective on matters. He particularly cited Burke’s 1985 PBS television series The Day the Universe Changed, which I had watched in rapt attention during its first PBS run, and had even videotaped in order to watch again later.

Steven Brant’s presentation during the Becoming an Interstellar Civilization track.

A careful viewing of Burke’s television series, especially in contrast from his earlier television series called Connections, reveals the profound change of perspective in Burke’s own views as he studied the history of science and civilization. Burke’s Connections was very much in the established tradition of scientific realism, but apparently there came a day when James Burke’s universe changed, since in The Day the Universe Changed he adopted a strong perspectivalist position. Mr. Brant adopted Burke’s perspectivalism and gave an informal exposition of the theory-dependence of observations, though without going into all the implications that this has for Kuhnian incommensurability. This then set up a tension in the later part of his talk, as he went into Amory Lovins’ emphasis on the need for political decisions based upon facts and being able to root out misinformation and what is untrue while giving everyone the idea that it is OK to make mistakes. The problem here is that if observations are theory dependent as in a strong perspectivalist position, then there are not facts to get right or wrong, and no facts on which to base political decisions.

All of this may sound rather arcane, but it cashes out in important ways. The idea of humanity as one human family is a construction of Enlightenment universalism. For better or for worse, Enlightenment universalism has proved to be less durable than ethnic identity. The great mass of human beings take their identity (again, for better or worse) from their ethnic background, and if this ethnic identity is attacked or dismissed as illusory or unimportant, you immediately encounter resistance, because no one wants to be deprived of their identity. There is a fact of the matter on both sides of this question: both the reality of a single hominid species and the reality of ethnically distinct enclaves of the human family that identify more with each other than with outsiders. However, I will allow that Mr. Brant’s exposition of Burkean perspectivalism does constitute a proof of concept that profound changes in our perception of our relationship to the world can in fact come about.

The problematic nature of ethnic identity and human unity was, in fact, cashed out in the very next presentation, when Bob Hawkins spoke about the perception of human spaceflight in Turkey, which is a developing country with almost no space industry but with a popular interest in space travel. Mr. Hawkins discussed how the Turk’s own ethnic identity plays into the interest in space travel, since the Turks self-identify as nomads for whom space is simply the next frontier for a nomadic existence in the future. After his presentation I asked Mr. Hawkins if he was aware of George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, since this book has quite a bit of futuristic speculation on a Turkish space program. He didn’t know the book, but once I mentioned it another member of the audience identified himself as part of Strategic Forecasting (which is Friedman’s consulting company) and who supplied Mr. Hawkin’s with some documentation on the details of my reference so he could look it up later.

Kathleen Toerpe’s presentation to the Becoming an Interstellar Civilization track

Next was Kathleen Toerpe on “From the Moon to the Stars: tapping into share culture to create public momentum for interstellar travel.” I was very impressed with Professor Toerpe’s thoughtful and incisive presentation, which was the most coherent formulation yet of concrete proposals for public outreach, which she called a “Culture Strategy.” If I were myself putting together the 100YSS initiative, I would take the business plan vision outlined by Marsal Gifra that I had seen the previous day and use this to implement the culture strategy outlined by Professor Toerpe. With these two programs together, I really could believe that the necessary momentum to sustain human spacesteading and to avoid permanent stagnation is possible.

Next was Antoine Faddoul who gave a great presentation on how to connect people to the stars, which he sees (rightly) as a common human experience. Mr. Faddoul’s presentation was both systematic and practical in terms of relating stories of the stars to the lives of ordinary people. Lastly in the track, and followed by the question and answer period that took the session to 5:30 pm, which was a half hour beyond the official wrap up of proceedings, was Chris Radcliff of Global Spin on “Generation Zero: Fostering a Culture of Spacefarers.” Generation Zero is the generation that builds and facilitates a generational starship; generation 1 is the generation that embarks on a generational journey, and generation n is the generation that arrives. Mr. Radcliff was concerned to identify contemporary “Maker” culture with Erik Erikson’s generativity stage of human development. I would have given it a rather different exposition, since Mr. Radcliff’s “makers” seem to me to have more to do with Richard Florida’s “creative class” than with Eriksonian generativity.

Chris Radcliff’s presentation to the becoming an Interstellar civilization track

While I found myself more or less nodding in agreement that a generation zero would need to foster a culture of spacefaring, and I really liked his idea of selecting among small pre-existing colonies in the asteroid belt (presumably present by the time a starship is built) to see whom might be best positioned to enter into a generational starship with the least amount of conflict and the greatest degree of comity, but I was made a little uneasy by the many references in Mr. Radcliff’s talk about “choosing generation 1.” Why would anyone want to be “chosen” by some quasi-patriarchal entity? Who is doing the choosing? If these makers had the temperament implied by Mr. Radcliff, they would snort at being “chosen” by anyone who would presume to offer then any way of life different from that which they had chosen for themselves.

Now, I many be seriously misinterpreting Mr. Radcliff’s point, and I’m sure he would have put it in different terms if I had had a chance to ask my question of him directly, but this wasn’t a problem exclusive to Mr. Radcliff’s presentation. Like the subtle undercurrent of the Fermi paradox to which I alluded yesterday, the secondary sub-theme of the 100YSS 2012 symposium was that of a benign but patriarchal entity that would build the starship, select its crew, and send them on their great adventure as though wishing their children happiness and success in life. It is not difficult to imagine what a Freudian or a Foucauldian critique would make of this. And this is important, because if the social context of a journey for the stars is wrong, nothing will come of it. It is the lack of political and social will to sustain the space program that marginalized popular space exploration consciousness after the Apollo program. If this isn’t addressed in an effective and realistic way, it will be a very long time until we get to the stars, if we do not in fact fall prey to the existential risks of permanent stagnation or flawed realization.

With that, the 100YSS for 2012 was at an end for me, and I grabbed my bags and hopped on a taxi to the airport without so much as a backward glance at Houston.

. . . . .

Note Added 21 September 2012: I noted above that I had sent a question to Mr. Gabriel Rothblatt about his presentation at the 100YSS 2012 symposium but hadn’t yet received a response as of my writing the above. Mr. Rothblatt has since responded to me, and I have copied his response in Addendum on Spacesteading.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

10 Responses to “100YSS Symposium 2012: Day 3, Part II”

  1. J.N., a friend pointed me to your excellent summary of your 100YSS experience, including our short Q&A at my session on Vessel Archives. I was pleased to get the question, and would love to continue poking holes in the hull to see what does and doesn’t leak. So, I wanted to clarify:

    In saying that no single Vessel Archive would be comprehensive, it’s more of a concession that no single installation *could* be. This would be why one’d seek to sample widely and deeply, and as extensively as possible, all the whole assuming that you couldn’t possibly have sampled the sum of human knowledge. At some point you have to rest in some confidence that the handful can stand for the sack-full. (In the analogy of a bag of marbles.)

    When you asked whether stagnation from within the habitat archive was a risk, what I meant to convey is that no single instance of such a habitat could solve for that issue alone; rather, this would depend on robust and diverse attempts at many different Vessel Archive habitats by many other concerns, each with its own priorities and solutions. We cannot know what will lend selective advantage in a crisis, so we have to be open to many approaches.

    Within any single Vessel Archive habitat, of course stagnation would be a risk; but in comparison to the far larger risk of global stagnation in the case of a catastrophe, I think that small-scale stagnation is a risk we could plan for. Remember, we’re talking about a worst-case scenario, where stagnation of colony archives would be the least of humanity’s problems.

    Yet even today, methods exist to help assure that any such hardy folk would had access to the world’s wealth of information (given time to rediscover it), even if networks were down and none of the Vessel Archives were functioning as relays or beacons. Recent work by Church, Gao, and Kosuri brings us a method for storing binary data in DNA which could yield the storage of the worlds’ store of digital information (2011), clocking in at about 1.8 zettabytes, in about 4 grams of DNA. http://wyss.harvard.edu/viewpressrelease/93/

    Of course, the small community of a few thousand humans would face its own stagnation issues, as you suggest. But at least they’d have access to ideas, information, methods, tools, and so on, all in one place. These are also issues we’ll need to work out for any eventual interstellar habitat as well; so may as well apply our space dividend on Earth.

    This last bit also speaks to my own take on your larger critique: For me, if our efforts do not first and constantly speak to improving the lot of life on Earth, then we will have already failed, whatever becomes of the space-farers. My proposal, and some others encouragingly seen at the conference, points out something that could be done in the short and medium term which could improve the prospects for life on Earth enough that a long term might even be possible. I’m at deep peace in leaving that long term for future others, and throwing my very best at these closer problems, while we can.

    One last note: In reading your post, it seems like you might enjoy some of Nick Bostrom’s other material. http://www.nickbostrom.com/ He uses some intriguing logical arguments and thought experiments to edge closer to some deep challenges than I’ve most often seen attempted.

    Anyhow, thanks for the question and thoughts! I’d love to talk more in the future, and am getting my open specification site for Vessel Archives up as we speak.

    Be well,

    – Heath Rezabek, Austin TX

  2. A. Karhumaa said

    As what comes to archives, this might interest you: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arctic_World_Archive
    They use microfilms, which should be more immune to “dead media effect” than the current computer storage mediums. E.g., the future readers should just get a looking glass, and avoid burning the films with it!

    But of course, the accessibility of the information still crucially depends the continuity of the languages and the writing systems used on the films, e.g. by the succession of Rosetta stone / Behistun inscription like translations, the responsibility which is up to the future generations to do. So I wonder, would it be possible to document a written language just by using pictures? If the Etruscans had done that, could we now read their texts better? Note that Yuri Knorozov could decipher Maya hieroglyphs because they contained also pictorial information (e.g. pictures of dogs and turkeys) and ALSO because he had access to a dictionary of one of the surviving modern Maya languages, plus of course also to the incomplete/ambiguous documentation of “Maya letters” by Bishop de Landa.
    Consider also to the decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris, which wouldn’t have been possible if all knowledge about Greek language would have been completely lost.

    • A. Karhumaa said

      Of course some correspondence between the currently existing languages will be amply documented in various techno-fossils we leave behind, e.g., in any plastic packaging (say, a bottle of shampoo or a noodle cup), which around this part of Europe might list its contents in Finnish, Swedish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Russian and English at least. Still, a longer stretch of intermediate dark age could mean that ALL the current languages would be forgotten, even English and Chinese.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for the link.

      I do think that a written language could be documented just by using pictures, but I do not think that this is the best method for language and knowledge transmission to the far future. Pictograph languages like Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan hieroglyphs were extremely difficult to translate. If we contemplate having our archives read by intelligent beings in the distant future, we ought to create an artificial language of a highly logical structure that could be reliably interpreted by an intelligence that knew very little about us. In this sense, deep time archives are closely similar to the problems faced by SETI and METI of attempting to translate over a communications gulf sufficiently large that it will deny the kind of mutual understanding that lies at the basis of most languages. Now that I think of this, it is an interesting idea and I may write about it further.

      Best wishes,


      • A. Karhumaa said

        I guess that neither the users of Egyptian nor Maya hieroglyphics were really concerned that they should be easily decipherable after many millennia by people speaking completely different languages, although of course, Maya seem to have been otherwise quite fixated on “la longue durée” in their calendar system.
        In contrast, we could start seriously thinking how to send information to a technological civilization of future raccoons, ravens or visiting aliens. It’s indeed quite uncharted territory.
        As what comes to projects like Lincos, I don’t think aliens would be much impressed or interested about any elementary tautologies expressed in something like lambda calculus or about the fact that we happen to know the prime numbers (although they might be more interested about some other sequences in the OEIS).
        Personally, I think they would be more interested in our art (including music, even if they couldn’t actually “hear” it) and other culture as most of the natural sciences and mathematics is essentially same for everybody everywhere. Also the current terrestrial biology and its evolution would interest them, because it is so contingent.

        • geopolicraticus said

          The important thing about establishing a numeration system in common is that once you establish a number system you can reference physical constants that would be known by any being that had engaged in scientific research. Even if we assume that a more advanced intelligence might know physical constants that we do not yet know, the correspondence doesn’t need to be exhaustive, it only needs to connect on enough points that we can find a common language for talking about the real world. The Golden Section is probably a peculiarly human thing, but Maxwell’s equations would presumably be understood by any intelligence with a scientific grasp of electromagnetism.

          I agree that the “ordinary” alien-in-the-street, or the ordinary intelligent raccoon of the far future, would probably be more interested in human art and music and culture than in exchanging scientific information. I am assuming that there will be some aliens or some raccoons who are scientists, maybe archaeologists, maybe specialists in emerging civilizations, who will want to study us for our own sake, and for that they will go to the kind of trouble that we go to in our archaeological investigations of past humanity. We can only appreciate culture on a superficial level without making the effort to understand that culture, and understanding will involve deciphering the semiotics of that culture, however the semiotics is encoded into signifiers.

  3. A. Karhumaa said

    No, the Golden section is not just a “historical-mythical aesthetic urban legend”, it is one of the fundamental mathematical constants (almost like Pi or e), as it is for example, a convergent limit of the infinite continued fraction [1; 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, …] or between successive Fibonacci numbers, and thus popping up everywhere in combinatorics. Again, the iconoclast Doron Zeilberger says that this is only because human mathematicians have mostly considered themselves on just trivial problems. But I assume that all civilizations start with “easy” before going to “hard”.

    But why I’m not personally so enthralled about sending _only_ mathematical information or basic natural laws (like physical equations) to the aliens, is that it is very likely that we could not tell them anything that they would not _already_ know in those fields. So only new information they would obtain from those messages would be that, “Aha, there once was a civilization that knew mathematics and physics up to that elementary level, but why didn’t they tell anything about themselves?”

    So, the mathematics and logic certainly gives a foundation on which to build the communication. But the topics discussed shouldn’t be left at that.

    Now, there is a lots of certain kind of “dogmatic skepticism” in this field, that claims that it is somehow _in principle_ impossible to communicate with radically different entities. Like e.g., if we send them a picture or photograph, can we be sure they will not look at it upside down? Or even worse, if they are some kind of bats (with echolocation), then they might not understand two-dimensional pictorial representations at all (*). Sometimes this kind of armchair skepticism is extended even to the impossibility of recognizing (for sure, that is) the life and intelligence from “natural background processes”. See e.g. some musings of Stephen Wolfram in his “A New Kind of Science”.

    (* Actually, I believe that if we eavesdropped on “3D tele-echolocation broadcasts” of the alien bats, we would quite soon realize how to interpret and represent them in appropriate form for our (visual) senses. And same of course applies vice versa, especially if they are more advanced than us).

    • geopolicraticus said

      I agree that any message to the far reaches or space or the far reaches of time ought not to consist exclusively of mathematics and science. It should include the entire range of human activity and as well as documentation of our homeworld, in so far as this is possible (in fact, I once formulated a thought experiment on this theme: A Thought Experiment on the Relative Value of Nature and Culture and Thought Experiment Second Thoughts).

      However, I think that it will be the things we have in common — what you said, “…is essentially same for everybody everywhere” — which precisely in view of being something in common could serve as the foundation of communication. Mathematics and the physical sciences, then, would not be communication for its own sake, but communication for establishing a common syntax and semantics (like that scene in Close Encounters when they are establishing a musical language in common). This isn’t about what we have to “teach” the distant reaches of space and time — I agree with you that our interlocutors may well learn nothing new from us — but rather about getting to the point at which either party to the communication could teach anything at all to the other party.

      I hadn’t previously heard of Doron Zeilberger, but I see that he is an ultrafinitist and has written against the law of the excluded middle, going so far as to reject undecidability results, so he represents a point of view radically different from my own. Nevertheless, I would agree (if this could be called agreement) that human mathematicians have focused on only a small problem set within a much larger mathematical domain (since you mention Wolfram, he often touches on this in his lectures), and this suggests the possibility of two disjoint systems of mathematics that each emerge from and focus on a distinct domain without overlapping. If this is the case, mathematical incommensurability is possible, but its possibility also means that it may or may not obtain. For this reason, I, too, reject dogmatic skepticism on the possibility of communicating with radically different forms of intelligence.

      You wrote, “I assume that all civilizations start with ‘easy’ before going to ‘hard’.” This is a wonderful intuitive principle, and I would like to see it worked out in detail. It bears some resemblance to what I have called Darwin’s thesis on the origins of civilization.

      • A. Karhumaa said

        It might make sense to start charting what kind of commonalities to expect between us and other planetary civilizations. Assuming that our own solar system (including its planetary bodies) is not an exotic outlier, we should expect that:
        – there is a central sun (or suns),
        – some planets have moons (and even rings),
        – on most rocky bodies there are craters,
        – on rocky bodies with atmosphere, there are winds, (probably) also clouds, and provided there is sand created by aeolian erosion, then also tornadoes (dust devils) and dunes (Earth, Mars, Titan).
        – on some rocky bodies there is (has been) volcanism (Earth, Venus, Mars, Io, Titan?) and even plate tectonics (Earth),
        – on bodies with a hydrological cycle (Earth, Titan, Ancient Mars), the are rains, rivers and river deltas where they meet lakes and/or seas, also waves, and erosion caused by the moving liquids.

        Also, although the exact chemical composition may vary, we would expect that their solar system contains abundantly silicates, carbon compounds and water in its various forms.

        As what comes to the biological evolution, although I cannot exclude the possibility that we might some day communicate with alien stromatolites, I still think it is more likely the multicellular organisms will attain the technological civilization first.

        As what comes to the physical shapes of these organisms, although some of them (like the human body for example), seem to be quite contingent on our evolutionary history, there should be also convergence set by basic physical parameters. For example, on any ocean planet (Earth included) we should expect to encounter organisms who look approximately like “fish” (or torpedoes), that are shaped by hydrodynamic constraints and predatory pressure (either as a predator or as a prey or as both). E.g. our own sharks and mackerels, tadpoles, ichtyosauri, dolphins and penguins. But on the second thought, these are all in various classes of subphylum Vertebrata, so maybe we should look a bit farther, and include also the fast swimming squids as representatives of our “generic fish”.

        If the physical parameters of the planet allows flying (but not _too_ easily), then we would expect different kinds of winged organisms and artefacts (i.e., “birds” by the old folk taxonomy), but with such diverse “wings” as those of the bees, mayflies, sparrows, bats, flying squirrels, flying fish (cf. also the fins of the rays and skates, even though they “fly” in water), wings of the jet fighter, and even the blades of helicopter rotors.

        On the other hand, any land-based, non-flying, mobile organism should know what it is to “fall” in a gravity-bound world, and its possibly fatal consequences.

        If there is also land apart from the sea, and the central sun supplies most of the energy to the land-based foodweb, we should expect organisms shaped like “trees” that try to compete for the place in the sun with their fractal growth.

        In general, we should expect physical (and other) networks with a fractal structure to emerge, like on Earth the blood veins, neurons, mycelium and roots, and also the roads, pipelines and cables of our technological civilization.

        In the ecology, we would expect various forms of parasitism and symbiosis to occur, and that in general, organisms try to avoid of being preyed upon, except perhaps by their own descendants or spouses.

        Any intelligent social organism, but which is not yet a part of a chemically controlled super-organism (like bees in the beehive), will encounter choices between what is good for the individual and what is good for the group as whole (cf. Edward Wilson’s “The social conquest of Earth”), considerations that in turn could lead to the ethics, morality and laws. (But maybe all that is transient in our history as well, as provided we eventually reach a unitary hive-mind, then such things will be of no concern anymore, because then it will be impossible for an individual to do or even wish wrong?)

        I also guess that most of the intelligent organisms have an ability to “dream”, whether in actual sleep state (like dogs whose legs twitch when they are chasing rabbits in their dreams), or by “daydreaming”, running various speculative scenarios in their minds. So they should also know the difference between the facts and the fiction, scenarios that didn’t / cannot / most likely will not happen.
        Moreover, any organism that has to compete in social settings, should know about cheating and manipulation of others for their own advantage (cf. ravens, priests).

        I also would assume that their evolutionary history can be represented as a phylogenetic tree, unless the role of the lateral transmission of hereditary information is much larger than here. (We should also consider that the life in their planet / planetary system is not necessarily monophyletic.)
        Phylogenetic trees also naturally emerge for culturally transmitted phenomena, e.g. languages and myths, so it is to be expected that they will understand relations like “ancestor-descendant”, “immediate neighbours” and “transitive closure” (the latter for graph settings, like the physical networks mentioned above).


        Now, the above is a very haphazard collection of ideas that came to my mind when I started writing this. I left out, on purpose, things like sexual reproduction (although I assume that something like it will be common among the higher organisms), or an assumption that the higher organisms are by necessity “animals”, not “plants” that can use sunlight directly.

        This could be actually made a research program, with whole encyclopedia of points to make (including also skeptical “what ifs”). The encyclopedia could be organized like a tree of likely implications, e.g., “if they have developed X, then also Y might / should appear at some point”. (Note that such implications are often apt in the language typology: “If the language has category Y, then it almost certainly also has category X”).

        Best regards,


        • geopolicraticus said

          As you imply, the list of commonalities is a long one, and could be made longer with a bit of reflection. But this is exactly what we would expect in so far as our interest, when looking out into the universe, is to find peers — peer planets, peer biospheres, peer species, peer minds, and peer civilizations. It is natural for us when asking, “Are we alone?” to actually be asking, “Is there anything out there like us?” “Are we the only kind of beings like ourselves?” Of course, all the burden of a peer in this context is carried by “like.” I think it was J. L. Austin who said that “like” was the great adjuster word. The idea of an adjuster word was from Oxford ordinary language philosophy: “words… by the use of which other words are adjusted to meet the innumerable and unforeseeable demands of the world upon language.” (Sense and Sensibilia, p. 73)

          What is the scope of the peer concept as applied to humanity’s apparent cosmic isolation? This is a question that I have been thinking about a lot lately, and it is a rich question that calls forth a lot of related ideas that turn out to be unexpectedly relevant to the problem. We can build peer concepts around any or all of the commonalities you have recounted, or around other commonalities — perhaps even around unexpected commonalities that we do not ordinarily think of as being the basis of the peer concept. I have tried to investigate some of these commonalities in several thought experiments that I have posted to another blog: Terrestrial Bias, Astrobiology Thought Experiment, and others.

          As you note, the commonalities you recounted could be understood as a scientific research program, with the emphasis falling upon life, and the cosmological prerequisites for life. For a scientific research program focusing instead on civilization, see my newsletter of 23 November 2018. What I wrote there about surveying the civilizations of the Mesoamerican cluster could just as well be applied to some other (extraterrestrial) civilization, or the remains of some extinct civilization, that we discover. I often think about the problem of surveying an alien civilization and getting an overview of an entire civilization heretofore unknown. I regard our attempt to understand civilization on Earth as a dry run for the real work of understanding alien civilizations.

          Best wishes,


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