Saturday


Knowledge relevant to the Fermi paradox will expand if human knowledge continues to expand, and we can expect human knowledge to continue to expand for as long as civilization in its contemporary form endures. Thus the development of scientific knowledge, once the threshold of modern scientific method is attained (which, in terrestrial history, was the scientific revolution), is a function of “L” in the Drake equation, i.e., a function of the longevity of civilization. It is possible that there could be a qualitative change in the nature of civilization that would mean the continuation the civilization but without the continuing expansion of scientific knowledge. However, if we take “L” in the big picture, a civilization may undergo qualitative changes throughout its history, some of which would be favorable to the expansion of scientific knowledge, and some of which would be unfavorable to the same. Under these conditions, scientific knowledge will tend to increase over the long term up to the limit of possible scientific knowledge (if there is such a limit).

At least part of the paradox of the the Fermi paradox is due to our limited knowledge of the universe of which we are a part. With the expansion of our scientific knowledge the “solution” to the Fermi paradox may be slowly revealed to us (which could include the “no paradox” solution to the paradox, i.e., the idea that the Fermi paradox isn’t really paradoxical at all if we properly understand it, which is an understanding that may dawn on us gradually), or it may hit us all at once if we have a major breakthrough that touches upon the Fermi paradox. For example, a robust SETI signal confirmed to emanate from an extraterrestrial source might open up the floodgates of scientific knowledge through interstellar idea diffusion from a more advanced civilization. This isn’t a likely scenario, but it is a scenario in which we not only confirm that we are not alone in the universe, but also in which we learn enough to formulate a scientific explanation of our place in the universe.

The growth of scientific knowledge could push our understanding of the Fermi paradox in several different directions, which again points to our relative paucity of knowledge of our place in the universe. In what follows I want to construct one possible direction of the growth of scientific knowledge and how it might inform our ongoing understanding of the Fermi paradox and its future formulations.

At the present stage of the acquisition of scientific knowledge and the methodological development of science (which includes the development of technologies that expand the scope of scientific research), we are aware of ourselves as the only known instance of life, of consciousness, of intelligence, of technology, and of civilization in the observable universe. These emergent complexities may be represented elsewhere in the universe, but we do not have any empirical evidence of these emergent complexities beyond Earth.

Suppose, then, that scientific knowledge expands along with human civilization. Suppose we arrive at the geologically complex moons of Jupiter and Saturn, whether in the form of human explorers or in the form of automated spacecraft, and despite sampling several subsurface oceans and finding them relatively clement toward life, they are all nevertheless sterile. And suppose that we extensively research Mars and find no subsurface, deep-dwelling microorganisms on the Red Planet. Suppose we search our entire solar system high and low and there is no trace of life anywhere except on Earth. The solar system, in this scenario, is utterly sterile except for Earth and the microbes that may float into space from the upper atmosphere.

Further suppose that, even after we discover a thoroughly sterile solar system, all of the growth of scientific knowledge either confirms or is consistent with the present body of scientific knowledge. That is to say, we add to our scientific knowledge throughout the process of exploring the solar system, but we don’t discover anything that overturns our scientific knowledge in a major way. There may be “revolutionary” expansions of knowledge, but no revolutionary paradigm shifts that force us to rethink science from the ground up.

At this stage, what are we to think? The science that brought to to see the potential problem represented by the Fermi paradox is confirmed, meaning that our understanding of biology, the origins of life, and the development of planets in our solar system is refined but not changed, but we don’t find any other life even in environments in which we would expect to find life, as in clement subsurface oceans. I think this would sharpen the feeling of the paradoxicalness of the Fermi paradox still without shedding much light on an improved formulation of the problem that would seem less paradoxical, but it wouldn’t sharpen the paradox to a degree that would force a paradigm shift and a reassessment of our place in the universe, i.e., it wouldn’t force us to rethink the astrobiology of the human condition.

Let us take this a step further. Suppose our technology improves to the point that we can visit a number of nearby planetary systems, again, whether by human exploration or by automated spacecraft. Supposed we visit a dozen nearby stars in our galactic neighborhood and we find a few planets that would be perfect candidates for living worlds with a biosphere — in the habitable zone of their star, geologically complex with active plate tectonics, liquid surface water, appropriate levels of stellar insolation without deadly levels of radiation or sterilizing flares, etc. — and these worlds are utterly sterile, without even so much as a microbe to be found. No sign of life. And no sign of life in any other nooks and crannies of these other planetary systems, which will no doubt also have subsurface oceans beyond the frost line, and other planets that might give rise to other forms of life.

At this stage in the expansion of our scientific knowledge, we would probably begin to think that the Fermi paradox was to be resolved by the rarity of the origins of life. In other words, the origins of life is the great filter. We know that there is a lot of organic chemistry in the universe, but what doesn’t take place very often is the integration of organic molecules into self-replicating macro-molecules. This would be a reasonable conclusion, and might prove to be an additional spur to studying the origins of life on Earth. Again, our deep dive both into other planets and into the life sciences, confirms what we know about science and finds no other life (in the present thought experiment).

While there would be a certain satisfaction in narrowing the focus of the Fermi paradox to the origins of life, if the growth of scientific knowledge continues to confirm the basic outlines of what we know about the life sciences, it would still be a bit paradoxical that the life sciences understood in a completely naturalistic manner would render the transition from organic molecules to self-replicating macro-molecules so rare. In addition to prompting a deep dive into origins of life research, there would probably also be a lot of number-crunching in order to attempt to nail down the probability of an origins of life event taking place given all the right elements are available (and in this thought experiment we are stipulating that all the right elements and all the right conditions are in place).

Suppose, now, that human civilization becomes a spacefaring supercivilization, in possession of technologies so advanced that we are more-or-less empowered to explore the universe at will. In our continued exploration of the universe and the continued growth of scientific knowledge, the same scenario as previously described continues to obtain: our scientific knowledge is refined and improved but not greatly upset, but we find that the universe is utterly and completely sterile except for ourselves and other life derived from the terrestrial biosphere. This would be “proof” of a definitive kind that terrestrial life is unique in the universe, but would this finding resolve the Fermi paradox? Wouldn’t it be a lot like cutting the Gordian knot to assert that the Fermi paradox was resolved because only a single origins of life event occurred in the universe? Wouldn’t we want to know why the origins of life was such a hurdle? We would, and I suspect that origins of life research would be pervasively informed by a desire to understand the rarity of the event.

Suppose that we ran the numbers on the kind of supercomputers that a supercivilization would have available to it, and we found that, even though our application of probability to the life sciences indicated the origins of life events should, strictly speaking, be very rare, they shouldn’t be so rare that there was only a single, unique origins of life event in the history of the universe. Say, given the age and the extent of the universe, which is very old and vast beyond human comprehension, life should have originated, say, a half dozen times. However, at this point we are a spacefaring supercivilization, we can can empirically confirm that there is no other life in the universe. We would not have missed another half dozen instances of life, and yet our science points to this. However, a half dozen compared to no other instances of life isn’t yet even an order of magnitude difference, so it doesn’t bother us much.

We can ratchet up this scenario as we have ratcheted up the previous scenarios: probability and biology might converge upon a likelihood of a dozen instances of other origins of life events, or a hundred such instances, and so on, until the orders of magnitude pile up and we have a paradox on our hands again, despite having exhaustive empirical evidence of the universe and its sterility.

At what point in the escalation of this scenario do we begin to question ourselves and our scientific understanding in a more radical way? At what point does the strangeness of the universe begin to point beyond itself, and we begin to consider non-naturalistic solutions to the Fermi paradox, when, by some ways of understanding the paradox, it has been fully resolved, and should be regarded as such by any reasonable person? At what point should a rational person consider as a possibility that a universe empty of life except for ourselves might be the result of supernatural creation? At what point would we seriously consider the naturalistic equivalent of supernatural creation, say, in a scenario such as the simulation hypothesis? It might make more sense to suppose that we are an experiment in cosmic isolation conducted by some greater intelligence, than to suppose that the universe entire is sterile except for ourselves.

I should be clear that I am not advocating a non-naturalistic solution to the Fermi paradox. However, I find it an interesting philosophical question that there might come a point at which the resolution of a paradox requires that we look beyond naturalistic explanations, and perhaps we may have to, in extremis, reconsider the boundary between the naturalistic and the non-naturalistic. I have been thinking about this problem a lot lately, and it seems to me that the farther we depart from the ordinary business of life, when we attempt to think about scales of space and time inaccessible to human experience (whether the very large or the very small), the line between the naturalistic and the non-naturalistic becomes blurred, and perhaps it ultimately ceases to be meaningful. In order to solve the problem of the universe and our place within the universe (if it is a problem), we may have to consider a solution set that is larger than that dictated by the naturalism of science on a human scale. This is not a call for supernaturalistic explanations for scientific problems, but rather a call to expand the scope of science beyond the bounds with which we are currently comfortable.

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Wednesday


filter layers

In my recent post Is encephalization the Great Filter? I quoted Robin Hansen’s paper that gave the original formulation of the Great Filter. Again, Hanson wrote:

“Consider our best-guess evolutionary path to an explosion which leads to visible colonization of most of the visible universe… The Great Silence implies that one or more of these steps are very improbable; there is a ‘Great Filter’ along the path between simple dead stuff and explosive life. The vast vast majority of stuff that starts along this path never makes it. In fact, so far nothing among the billion trillion stars in our whole past universe has made it all the way along this path. (There may of course be such explosions outside our past light cone [Wesson 90].)”

Robin Hanson, The Great Filter — Are We Almost Past It? 15 Sept. 1998

In filtration technology, the “steps” between the input and the output of a filter are called “elements,” “layers,” or “media.” I will here speak of “elements” of the Great Filter, and I will here take seriously the idea that, “…one or more of these [elements] are very improbable.” In other words, the Great Filter may be one or many, and we do not yet know which one of these alternatives is the case. Most formulations of the Great Filter reduce it to a single factor, but I want to here explicitly consider the Great Filter as many.

What is the Great Filter filtering? Presumably, the higher forms of complexity that are represented by the successive terms of the Drake equation, and which Big History recognizes (according to a slightly different schema) as levels of emergent complexity. The highest forms of complexity of which we are aware seem to be very rare in the universe, whereas the relatively low level of complexity — like hydrogen atoms — seems to be very common in the universe. Somewhere between plentiful hydrogen atoms and scarce civilizations the Great Filter interposes. And there may yet be forms of complexity not yet emergent, and therefore a filter through which we have not yet passed.

Hanson mentions visible colonization of the visible universe — this is a different and a much stronger standard to overcome than that of mere intelligence or civilization. Our own civilization does not constitute visible colonization of the universe, in so far as visible colonization means the consequences of intelligent colonization of the universe are obvious in the visible spectrum, but there is a sense in which we are highly visible in the EM spectrum. Thus the scope of the “visibility” of a civilization can be construed narrowly or broadly.

Construed broadly, the “visible” colonization of the universe would mean that the effects of colonization of the universe would be somewhere obvious along some portion of the EM spectrum. We can imagine several such scenarios. It might have been that, as soon as human beings put up the first radio telescope, we would have immediately detected a universe crowded with intelligent radio signals. We might have rapidly come to a science of analyzing the classifying the variety of signals and signatures of exocivilizations in the way that we now routinely classify kinds of stars and galaxies and now, increasingly, exoplanets. Or it might have been that, as soon as we thought to look for the infrared signatures of Dyson civilizations, we would have found many of these signatures. Neither of these things did, in fact, happen, but we can entertain them as counterfactuals and we easily visualize how either could have been the case.

The difference between a universe that is visibly colonized and one that is not is like the difference between coming over the ridge of hill and seeing a vast forest spread out below — i.e., a natural landscape that came about without the intervention of intelligence — and coming over the ridge of a hill and seeing an equally vast landscape of a city spread out below, with roads and building and lights and so on — i.e., an obvious built environment that did not come about naturally — out of reach from a distance, but no less obvious for being out of reach. At present, when we look out into the cosmos we see the cosmological equivalent of the forest primeval — call it the cosmos primeval, if you will (with a nod to Longfellow’s Evangeline).

In the illustration below the Great Filter is everything that stands between an empty universe and a universe filled with visible colonization by intelligent agents and their civilization. The Great Filter is then broken down into seven (7) diminutive filters, each a filter “element” of the Great Filter, which correspond to the terms of the Drake Equation. We could choose other elements for the Great Filter than the terms of the Drake equation, but this is a familiar and accessible formalism so I will employ it without insisting that it is exhaustive or even the best breakdown of the elements of the Great Filter. The reader is free to substitute any other appropriate formalism as an expression of the Great Filter, with any number of elements.

drake equation 1

In this illustration the lower case letters along the left margin that correspond to arrows each stopped by an element of the Great Filter are to be understood as follows:

a – failure of stars to form

b – failure of planets to form

c – failure of planets to be consistent with the emergence of a biosphere

d – failure of planets consistent with the emergence of a biosphere to produce a biosphere

e – failure of a biosphere to produce intelligent life and civilization

f – failure of a civilization to produce technically detectable signatures

g – failure of a technologically detectable civilization to survive a period of time sufficient to communicate

h – a civilization on a trajectory toward visible colonization of the universe

Given a Great Filter constructed from a series of lesser filters, relations between the elements of the Great Filter (the individual lesser filters) describe possible permutations in the overall structure of the Great Filter, as I have attempted to illustrate in the image below.

great filter elements

In this illustration the pathways marked by arrows are to be understood as curves, the X axis of which is the difficulty of passing through an element of the Great Filter, and the Y axis of which marks the gradual emergence of complexity strung out in time, as follows:

A – An inverse logarithmic Great Filter in which successive elements of the filter are easier to pass through by an order of magnitude with each element

B – An inverse linear gradient Great Filter in which successive elements of the filter are easier to pass through by degrees defined by the gradient

C – A constant Great Filter in which each element is equally easy, or equally difficult, to pass

D – A linear gradient Great Filter in which successive elements of the filter are progressively more difficult to pass through, with the change in the degree of difficulty between any two elements defined by the gradient (call it Δe, for change in difficulty of passage through an element)

E – A logarithmic Great Filter in which successive elements of the filter are each progressively more difficult to pass through by an order of magnitude for each element (my drawings are, or course, inexact, so I appeal to the leniency of the reader to get my general drift).

In the case of a Great Filter of an inverse logarithmic scale, the first filter element is by far the most difficult to pass through, and every subsequent element is an order of magnitude easier to pass. Once given the universe, then, intelligence and civilization are nearly inevitable. While such a filter seems counter-intuitive (most filters begin with coarse filtration elements and proceed in steps to finer filtration elements), something like may be unconsciously in mind in the accounts of the universe as a place teaming not only with life, but with civilizations — what I have elsewhere called an intelligence-rich galactic habitable zone (IRGHZ) — and I note that such visions of an IRGHZ often invoke the idea of inevitability in relation to life and intelligence.

However, this is not the problem that the universe presents to us. We do not find ourselves in the position of having to explain the prolixity of civilization in the universe; rather, we find ourselves in the predicament of having to explain the silentium universi.

The above analysis ought to make it clear that, not only do we not know what the Great Filter is — i.e., we do not know if there is one factor, one element among others, that is the stumbling block to the broadly-based emergence of higher complexity — but also that we do not know the overall structure of the Great Filter. Even if I am right that encephalization could be singled out at the Great Filter (as I postulated in Is encephalization the Great Filter?), and the one especially difficult element of the Great Filter to pass beyond, there are still further filters that could prevent our civilization from developing into the kind of civilization that Hanson describes as visibly colonizing the universe, that is to say, a cosmologically visible civilization.

encephalization filter

We can easily project a universe with a spacefaring civilization so pervasive that the stars in their courses are diverted from any trajectory that would be based on natural forces, that the constellations would have an obviously artificial character, and that use of energy on a cosmological scale leaves unambiguous infrared traces due to waste heat. A universe that was home to such a civilization would have passed beyond a filtration element that we have not yet passed beyond.

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Saturday


Ken Baskin talking about big history and complexity theory.

Ken Baskin talking about big history and complexity theory.

Complexity (2)

Day 3 of the 2014 IBHA conference began with panel 32 in room 201, “Complexity (2).” Three speakers were scheduled, but one canceled so that more time was available to the other two. This turned out to be quite fortunate. This panel was, without question, one of the best I have attended. It began with Ken Baskin on “Sister Disciplines: Bringing Big History and Complexity Theory Together,” and continued with Claudio Maccone with “Entropy as an Evolution Measure (Evo-SETI Theory).”

Ken Baskin, author of the forthcoming The Axial Ages of World History: Lessons for the 21st Century, said that big history and complexity theory are “post-Newtonian disciplines that complement each other.” His subsequent exposition made a real impression to this end. He used the now-familiar concepts of complexity — complex adaptive systems (CAS), non-linearity, and attractors, strange and otherwise — to give an exposition of big history periodization. He presented historical changes as being “thick” — that is to say, not as brief transitional periods, but as extended transitional periods that led to even longer-term states of relative stability. According to his periodization, the hunter-gatherer era was stable, and was followed by the disruption of the agricultural revolution; this eventually issued in a stable “pre-axial” age, which was in turn disrupted by the Axial Age. The Axial Age transition lasted for several hundred years but gave way to somewhat stable post-Axial societies, and this in turn has been disrupted by a second axial age. According to Baskin, we have been in this second axial transition since about 1500 and have not yet settled down into a new, stable social regime.

Claudio Maccone on big history and SETI.

Claudio Maccone on big history and SETI.

Claudio Maccone is an Italian SETI astronomer who has written a range of technical books, including Mathematical SETI: Statistics, Signal Processing, Space Missions and Deep Space Flight and Communications: Exploiting the Sun as a Gravitational Lens. His presentation was nothing less than phenomenal. My response is partly due to the fact that he addressed many of my interests. Before the IBHA conference a friend asked me what I would have talked about if I had given a presentation. I said that I would have talked about big history in relation to astrobiology, and specifically that I would like to point out the similarities between the emergent complexity schema of big history to the implicit levels of complexity in the Drake equation. This is exactly what Maccone did, and he did so brilliantly, with equations and data to back up his argument. Also, Maccone spoke like a professor giving a lecture, with an effortless mastery of his subject.

Maccone said that, for him, big history was simply an extension of the Drake equation — the Drake equation goes back some ten million years or so, and by adding some additional terms to the beginning of the Drake equation we can expand it to comprise the whole 13.7 billion years of cosmic history. I think that this was one of the best concise statements of big history that I heard at the entire conference, notwithstanding its deviation from most of the other definitions offered. The Drake equation is a theoretical framework that is limited only by the imagination of the researcher in revising its terms and expression. And Maccone has taken it much further yet.

Maccone has worked out a revision of the Drake equation that plugs probability distributions into the variables of the Drake equation (which he published as “The Statistical Drake Equation” in Acta Astronautica, 2010 doi:10.1016/
j.actaastro.2010.05.003). His work is the closest thing that I have seen to being a mathematical model of civilization. All I can say is: get all his books and papers and study them carefully. It will be worth the effort.

J. Daniel May looking at past futurism through science fiction films.

J. Daniel May looking at past futurism through science fiction films.

Big History and the Future

The next panel was the most difficult decision to make of the conference, because in one room were David Christian, Cynthia Brown, and others discussing “Meaning in Big History: A Naturalistic Perspective,” but I chose instead to go to panel 39 in room 301, “Big History and the Future,” which was concerned with futurism, or, as is now said, “future studies.”

The session started out with J. Daniel May reviewing past visions of the future by a discussion of twentieth century science fiction films, including Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, Lost in Space, Star Trek, and 2001. I have seen all these films and television programs, and, as was evident by the discussion following the talk, many others had as well, citing arcane details from the films in their comments.

Joseph Voros discussing disciplined societies.

Joseph Voros discussing disciplined societies.

Joseph Voros then presented “On the transition to ‘Threshold 9’: examining the implications of ‘sustainability’ for human civilization, using the lens of big history.” The present big history schematization of the past that is most common (but not universal, as evidenced by this conference) recognizes eight thresholds of emergent complexity. This immediately suggests the question of what the next threshold of emergent complexity will be, which would be the ninth threshold, thus making the “ninth threshold” a kind of cipher among big historians and a framework for discussing the future in the context of big history. Given that the current threshold of emergent complexity is fossil-fueled civilization (what I call industrial-technological civilization), and given that fossil fuels are finite, an obvious projection for the future concerns the nature of a post-fossil-fuel civilization.

Voros claimed that all scenarios for the future fall into four categories: 1) continuation, 2) collapse (which is also called “descent”), 3) disciplined society (presumably what Bostrom would call “flawed realization”), and 4) transformational society, in which the transformation might be technological or spiritual. Since Voros was focused on post-fossil-fuel civilization, his talk was throughout related to “peak oil” concerns, though at a much more sophisticated level. He noted the the debate over “peak oil” is almost irrelevant from a big history perspective, because whether oil runs out now or later doesn’t alter the fact that it will run out being a finite resource renewable only over a period of time much greater than the time horizon of civilization. With this energy focus, he proposed that one of the forms of a “disciplined society” that could come about would be that of an “energy disciplined society.” Of the transformational possibilities he outlined four scenarios: 1) energy bonanza, 2) spiritual awakening, 3) brain/mind upload, and 4) childhood’s end.

After Voros, Cadell Last of the Global Brain Institute presented “The Future of Big History: High Intelligence to Developmental Singularity.” He began by announcing his “heretical” view that cultural evolution can be predicted. His subsequent talk revealed additional heresies without further trigger warnings. Last spoke of a coming era of cultural evolution in which the unit of selection is the idea (I was happy that he used “idea” instead of “meme”), and that this future would largely be determined by “idea flows” — presumably analogous to the “energy flows” of Eric Chaisson that have played such a large role in this conference, as well as the gene flows of biological evolution. (“Idea flows” may be understood as a contemporary reformulation of “idea diffusion.”) This era of cultural evolution will differ from biological evolution in that the idea flows, unlike gene flow in biological evolution, is not individual (it is cultural) and is not blind (conscious agents can plan ahead).

Last gave a wonderfully intuitive presentation of his ideas, and though it was the sort of thing that futurists recognize as familiar, I suspect much of what he said would strike the average listener as something akin to moral horror. Last said that, in the present world, biological and linguistic codes are in competition with each other, and gave the example familiar to everyone of having to make the choice whether to invest time and effort into biological descendants or cultural descendants. Scarcity of our personal resources means that we are likely to focus on one or the other. Finally, biological evolution will cease and all energies will be poured into cultural evolution. At this time, we will be free from the “tyranny of biology,” which requires that we engage in non-voluntary activities.

Camelo Castillo discussed major transitions in big history.

Camelo Castillo discussed major transitions in big history.

Reconceptualizations of Big History

For the final sessions divided into separate rooms I attended panel 44, “Reconceptualizations of Big History.” I came to this session primarily to hear to Camelo Castillo speak on “Mind as a Major Transition in big History.” Castillo, the author of Origins of Mind: A History of Systems, critiqued previous periodizations of big history, noting that they conflate changes in structure and changes in function. He then went on to define major transitions as, “transitions from individuals to groups that utilize novel processes to maintain novel structures.” With this definition, he went back to the literature and produced a periodization of six major transitions in big history. Not yet finished, he hypothesized that by looking for mind in the brain we are looking in the wrong place. Since all early major transitions involved both structures and processes, and from individuals to groups, that we should be looking for mind in social groups of human beings. The brain, he allowed, was implicated in the development of human social life, but social life is not reducible to the brain, and mind should be sought in theories of social intelligence.

Castillo’s work is quite rigorous and he defends it well, but I asked myself why we should not have different kinds of transitions at different stages of history and development, especially given that the kind of entities involved in the transition may be fundamentally distinct. Just as new or distinctive orders of existence require new or distinctive metrics for their measurement, so too new or distinctive orders of existence may come into being or pass out of being according to a transition specific to that kind of existent.

Guzman Hall, where most of the 2014 IBHA events took place.

Guzman Hall, where most of the 2014 IBHA events took place.

Final Plenary Sessions

After the individual session were finished, there was a series of plenary sessions. There was a presentation of Chronozoom, Fred Spier presented “The Future of Big History,” and finally there was a panel discussion entirely devoted to questions and answers, with Walter Alvarez, Craig Benjamin, Cynthia Brown, David Christian, Fred Spier, and Joseph Voros fielding the questions.

After the intellectual intensity of the sessions, it was not a surprise that these plenary sessions came to be mostly about funding, outreach, teaching, and the practical infrastructure of scholarship.

And with that the conference was declared to be closed.

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