Paul Gilster has allowed me the opportunity to post on his widely read Centauri Dreams blog, and in this forum I have written primarily on topics of SETI and interstellar travel, existential risk and spacefaring civlizations. Given the engaged readership of Centuari Dreams, it has been a great pleasure to have the feedback of the many comments that usually result from these posts. All of my posts on Centauri Dreams are linked below.
Friday 30 August 2013
This was my first post on Centuari Dreams, and it was largely an adaptation of the joint presentation I gave at the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress with Heath Rezabek. At some point a joint paper by the two of us on the same themes should appear in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. In this post I argue that existential risk mitigation in the context of interstellar civilization must consist of three elements: knowledge, redundancy, and autonomy.
Friday 04 October 2013
In this post I traced the evolution of the idea of deep time from geology to contemporary astrobiology (deep time in biology) and big history (deep time for humanity and our civilization). While we (and our planet, and our biosphere) have always been subject to existential risk, it is the intellectual development and elaboration of deep time that has prepared us to understand existential risk, and it is this same understanding that makes it possible for us to formulation existential risk mitigation efforts in a scientific context. Existential risk is not mere doomsday prophecy, but a late realization that we are vulnerable in ways that we are capable of understanding and capable of mitigating.
Friday 08 November 2013
This post was inspired by a discussion of METI (messaging extraterrestrial intelligence) that occurred at the Icarus Interstellar Starship Congress in Dallas in August 2013. After this was posted to Centauri Dreams, both Jim Benford (James Benford: Comments on METI) and David Brin (SETI, METI… and Assessing Risk like Adults) responded in the same forum.
Friday 06 December 2013
In my previous Centauri Dreams post I discussed SETI and METI, and then I moved on to discussing why, in my view, interstellar travel is more likely than interstellar communication. Interstellar communication by way of EM spectrum technologies (at least until we have developed quantum entanglement transmitters) involves a time delay for the sender and receiver of the message that exceeds what I take to be an acceptable period of time for organic forms of life (or even their non-organic successors). Entire civilizations and the technologies that support them could rise and fall in the time it takes for an EM spectrum message to traverse the distance of a single galaxy. Interstellar travel displaces this time delay to one’s inertial frame of reference that is at rest, and allows the individual to experience directly that which METI and SETI holds out the hope of only experiencing vicariously.
Friday 17 January 2014
Building on my earlier arguments in SETI, METI, and Existential Risk and Cosmic Loneliness and Interstellar Travel, in which I sought to offer reasons that industrial-technological civilization is very rare in the universe, in this post I tried to show how the kind of civilization that will follow from interstellar voyages will, by its very structure, offer significant existential risk mitigation. Spatial distribution throughout the universe entails temporal distribution throughout the universe, because travel at relativistic velocities results in time dilation. The temporal distribution of civilization is a robust existential risk mitigation measure because it means that multiple redundant centers of civilization will be separated over a much greater length of time than the chronological age of the civilization. If some truly great disaster occurs — such as a massive gamma ray burst, or a large supernova close to the Earth, or some other catastrophe of cosmological proportions — a temporally distributed civilization has a much greater chance of surviving such a catastrophe than a civilization confined to a small slice of time taken out of the history of the universe.
Friday 21 February 2015
In this post I wrote that, “Because of our anthropocentric moral standards, we will likely have less moral compunction about modifying other species for their use on space settlements or other worlds.” There is much more to be said on anthropocentrism and the biology of extraterrestrial expansion, since many thinkers on the future tend to be highly anthropocentric in their formulations, and I think that this tendency needs a corrective. The terminology that is used, for example, to discuss transhumanism and the technological singularity, resembles traditional religious writing in its pervasive anthropocentrism, as though the future of human beings could be separated from the terrestrial biosphere of which we are but one expression.
Friday 21 March 2015
Nikolai S. Kardashev is one of the great visionary thinkers of our time, and one of the few names that I think will still be familiar in a thousand years. His conception of civilization belongs to the biggest of the big pictures, and it is intellectually exhilarating to follow Kardashev’s reasoning about civilizations of cosmic proportions. I wanted to carefully examine Kardashev’s formulations in the light of all that has been said about Kardashev since his 1964 paper that introduced the idea of types of civilization based on the use of energy levels, “Transmission of information by extraterrestrial civilizations.” In another forum I noted that interpretations of Kardashev are like a contemporary Rorschach test, in that every commentator sees something different in Kardashev’s deceptively simple and straight-forward quantitative rankings of civilization by energy use. Since writing this, I have come understand that my own interpretation of Kardashev is misleading in some respects, and I plan to return to this.
Friday 25 April 2014
In this post I considered the potentially divergent scenarios of a spacefaring civilization with primarily space-based infrastructure and a spacefaring civilization with primarily planetary-based infrastructure. At the end of the discussion I give the idea a Marxian twist by suggesting that divergent economic infrastructure are likely to issue in divergent ideological superstructures. This is an idea worth greater elaboration, so I hope to return to it at some time.
Friday 23 May 2014
This post followed up on my previous post, The Infrastructure Problem, in investigating the kinds of spacefaring civilizations that would follow from the practicability of different forms of interstellar travel. Spacefaring civilization is not indifferent to the means by which spaceflight is attained, and interstellar civilization is not indifferent to the means of interstellar travel. We can get a broad overview of spacefaring civilizations by distinguishing classes of space travel based on some metric of distance, speed, or elapsed time; the important point here is not one of particular technologies, but only the idea that broad distinctions can be made within possible technologies for interstellar flight, and a range of different technologies might be employed to realize the kind of transit of any one class of spacefaring civilization.
Friday 25 July 2014
In this post I suggested that the history of life on Earth can be extrapolated spatially to understand the likelihood of the kind of life we will find most prevalent in the universe. Earth has hosted life for almost 90 percent of its existence, so that if (according to the principle of mediocrity) life on Earth is representative of life elsewhere, all the Earth-like planets that we are now finding have about a 90 percent chance of having developed the simple forms of life that have dominated the history of life on Earth. While I didn’t point this out in my essay, I now realize that this point of view has some similarities to the work of Stephen J. Gould, who often emphasized in his books that simple life dominated the history of life on Earth, and that more complex forms of life shouldn’t be thought of as being the culmination and goal of life on Earth, but the nearly inevitable result of variation that begins from a rudimentary minimum. Rudimentary life can only vary in one direction, toward greater complexity, and this will happen over time. This is the source of the well-known illustration of the drunkard’s walk: if a drunkard walks between a wall and a ditch, sooner or later he will end up in the ditch.
Friday 05 December 2014
In his essay I considered what I call “civilizational imperatives,” by which I mean central motifs from which a given civilization derives its meaning, purpose, and value, and which individuals of these civilizations adopt in order to give shape and structure to their lives. This might be considered an application of the Marxian twist introduced in The Infrastructure Problem, as civilizational imperatives could be identified with divergent ideological superstructures. For a sense of what I have in mind, consider Egyptian civilization: the ancient Egyptian pyramids still stand today, and it must have been a massive undertaking to build them, not to mention the extensive temple complexes of ancient Egypt. While there are economic, sociological, demographic and other explanations for “why” a society would undertake such enormous construction projects, there is also the manifest meaning that the Egyptians themselves gave for these projects. The manifest meaning of the pyramids and temple complexes of ancient Egypt is integral with the religion of Egypt, in which the Pharaoh played a role as a living god ruling over a utopian society. The tomb of a Pharaoh is in turn integral with the Pharaoh’s role as a living god. Thus pyramids, for all their looming enormity, are epiphenomenal to the essential religious conception of the world that motivates their construction. The ancient Egyptian conception of the cosmos and their role within the cosmos constituted a civilizational imperative that express itself in their institutions of their society no less than in the building of the pyramids. Similar considerations are true for the role of cathedrals in Medieval European societies (the illustration I use in the above-linked article) as well as other societies and their monumental architecture.
Friday 23 January 2015
This effort is less continuous with my immediately previous Centauri Dreams posts, in so far as I skip ahead to the very far future, approaching the limits of cosmological eschatology, in which the structures of civilization — even the large scale structures of spacefaring civilizations — are no longer relevant because no longer extant. What happens after the end of conditions conducive for anything that we could call civilization? Does the history and legacy of civilization come to complete and utter ruin, or does it persist in a kind of afterlife to civilization, no longer civilization itself, but a successor (what I have elsewhere called a post-civilizational institution) consistent with the memory of civilizations of the Stelliferous Era? We all know that it is incautious to try to say anything definitive about the far future, and especially the science of the far future. Our scientific knowledge is growing so rapidly at present that it is difficult to say what will be possible in ten years or hundred years, much less in the Degenerate Era when all the stars of the Stelliferous Era have run out of hydrogen and the universe has gone dark. Nevertheless, there are emerging theoretical frameworks for thinking about the extremely distant future. As a chronometric scale for cosmology I employ the five ages of the universe formulated by Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin, and in this context I consider the possibility of Freeman Dyson’s “eternal intelligence” (the phrase is not due to Dyson, but the idea is). I followed this Centauri Dreams post with several related posts on Tumblr including Addendum of Degenerate Era Civilization and The Finite Record of Classical Antiquity.
Friday 29 May 2015
My longest contribution to Centuari Dreams to date (and I am grateful to Paul Gilster for indulging my lengthening contributions to that forum) is an attempt to bring an historiographical synchrony to futurism by taking up both transhumanism and interstellar travel, in order to examine how each will influence the other. As long as this post is, it could have been much longer. I haven’t done justice to the idea of “The Great Voluntaristic Divergence,” but at least the ideas are out there, and I can work at improving my exposition and adding detail to the picture. I find that I am still, several years later, both fleshing out and refining many of the formulations of my “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight” from 2011, and I imagine I could easily spend the next several years drawing out the implications of this and the previous Centauri Dreams posts, both of which were already quite long, but suggestive of many ideas and attempting to extend the reach of futurism into the very far future, which is where these Centauri Dreams posts began, with an examination of far future existential risk.
Friday 26 June 2015
Unlike my previous Centuari Dreams posts, this present post is a sustained thought experiment—actually, two thought experiments, and their comparison—derived from the zoo hypothesis. The zoo hypothesis is the response to the Fermi paradox that holds ETI is purposefully not communicating with human beings, which latter are being kept in a “zoo” or wildlife sanctuary or wilderness area (for a related idea cf. The Wilderness Hypothesis). In this thought experiment I have posed myself this question: suppose we are being kept in a zoo, i.e., that we are being watched by intelligent aliens who hail from a far more advanced civilization than ours. The idea of being watched by advanced ETI poses the question as to what their experiences would be as scientific observers of humanity and our civilization. What would these aliens observe? How would they describe us? What would they think of us?
Friday 21 August 2015
After I sent this to Centauri Dreams I wrote a couple of posts about experimental archaeology in the future, Experimental Archaeology of the Future and Portraying the Future: “Historical Pre-Enactment” (the latter a comment upon James Hester‘s post Portraying the Future: ‘Historical Pre-Enactment’), and I have thus realized that the experimental archaeology that places the archaeologist in an authentic context (whether an authentic context of the past or future) is another perfect example of the sciences that use technology to place a human observer (as a whole person) in a position where it is possible to make novel observations — something that this essay discusses in some detail. Also, a few weeks ago in “Adventure Science Enters the Space Age,” along with Jacob Shively I argued for the importance of “adventure science” in contradistinction to “big science.” Adventure science, too, is another example of science undertaken by human beings on a human scale. The overview effect, experimental archaeology, and adventure science all represent science undertaken by the whole person, in which the embodied mind encounters the world through the mediation of the human body, and this mediation can be a significant constituent of the experience. As long as civilization allows the possibility of new experiences, and our technologies can place human beings in new contexts in which human experience can reveal hitherto unrecognized aspects of the world, there will be a specifically human role in the development of scientific civilization. While I did not write this as a response to Bill Joy’s famous dystopian essay, “Why the future doesn’t need us,” it nevertheless could be taken as an argument that the future does, in fact need us, and that human beings are indispensable to history on the largest cosmological scales.
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