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


Arthur C Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is best remembered for this science fiction stories, but many of his dicta and aphorisms have become common currency and are quoted and repeated to the point that their connection to their source is sometimes lost. (Clarke’s thought ranged widely and, interestingly, Clarke identified himself as a logical positivist.) Recently I quoted one of Clarke’s well-known sayings in Happy Birthday Nicolaus Copernicus!, as follows:

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

quoted in Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the Twenty-First Century (1999) by Michio Kaku, p. 295

In so saying, Clarke asserted a particular case of what is known as the logical law (or principle) of the excluded middle, which is also known as tertium non datur: the idea that, given a proposition and its negation, either one or the other of them must be true. This is also expressed in propositional logic as “P or not-P” (“P v ~P”). The principle of tertium non datur is not to be confused with the principle of non-contradiction, which can be formulated as “~(P & ~P).”

Even stating tertium non datur is controversial, because there are narrowly logical formulations as well as ontological formulations of potentially much greater breadth. This, of course, is what makes the principle fascinating and gives it its philosophical depth. Moreover, the principle of the excluded middle is subtly distinct from the principle of bivalence, though the two usually work in conjunction. Whereas the law of the excluded middle states that of a proposition and its negation, one of the other must be true, the principle of bivalence states that there are only two propositional truth values: true and false.

To get started, here is the principle of the excluded middle as formulated in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy edited by Robert Audi:

principle of excluded middle, the principle that the disjunction of any (significant) statement with its negation is always true; e.g., ‘Either there is a tree over 500 feet tall or it is not the case that there is such a tree’. The principle is often confused with the principle of bivalence.

THE CAMBRIDGE DICTIONARY OF PHILOSOPHY second edition, General Editor Robert Audi, 1999, p. 738

And to continue the Oxbridge axis, here is the formulation from Simon Blackburn’s The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy:

excluded middle, principle (or law) of The logical law asserting that either p or not-p. It excludes middle cases such as propositions being half correct or more or less right. The principle directly asserting that each proposition is either true or false is properly called the law of bivalence.

The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Simon Blackburn, Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 129

For more partisan formulations, we turn to other sources. Mario Bunge formulated a narrowly syntactical conception of the law of the excluded middle in his Dictionary of Philosophy, which is intended to embody a scientistic approach to philosophy:

EXCLUDED MIDDLE A logical truth or tautology in ordinary (classical) logic: For every proposition p, p v ~p.

Dictionary of Philosophy, Mario Bunge, Prometheus Books, 1999, p. 89

By way of contrast, in D. Q. McInerny’s Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking we find a strikingly ontological formulation of the law of the excluded middle:

“Between being and nonbeing there is no middle state. Something either exists or it does not exist; there is no halfway point between the two.”

D. Q. McInerny, Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, Part Two, The Basic Principles of Logic, 1. First Principles, p. 26

What these diverse formulations bring out for us is the difficulty of separating logical laws of how formal systems are to be constructed from ontological laws about how the world is constructed, and in so bringing out this difficulty, they show us the relation between the law of the excluded middle and the principle of bivalence, since the logical intuition that there are only two possible truth values of any one proposition — true or false — is so closely tied to our logical intuition that, of these two values, one or the other (but not both, which qualification is the principle of non-contradiction) must hold for any given (meaningful) proposition.

The powerful thing about Clarke’s observation is that it appeals to this admixture of logical intuitions and empirical intuitions, and in so doing seems to say something very compelling. Indeed, since I am myself a realist, and I think it can be shown that there is a fact of the matter that makes propositions true or false, I think that Clarke not only said something powerful, he also said something true: either there are extraterrestrial intelligences or there are not. It is humbling to contemplate either possibility: ourselves utterly alone in a vast universe with no other intelligent species or civilizations, or some other alien intelligence out there somewhere, unknown to us at present, but waiting to be discovered — or to discover us.

alien excluded middle 2

Although these logical intuitions are powerful, and have shaped human thought from its earliest times to the present day, the law of the excluded middle has not gone unquestioned, and indeed Clarke’s formulation gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore the consequences of the difference between constructive and non-constructive reasoning in terms of a concrete example.

To formulate the existence or non-existence of extraterrestrials in the form of a logical law like the law of the excluded middle makes the implicit realism of Clarke’s formulation obvious as soon as we think of it in these terms. In imagining the possibilities of our cosmic isolation or an unknown alien presence our terror rests on our intuitive, visceral feeling of realism, which is as immediate to us as the intuitions rooted in our own experiences as bodies.

The constructivist (at least, most species of constructivist, but not necessarily all) must deny the validity of the teritum non datur formulation of the presence of extraterrestrials, and in so doing the constructivist must pretend that our visceral feelings of realism are misleading or false, or must simply deny that these feelings exist. None of these are encouraging strategies, especially if one is committed to understanding the world by getting to the bottom of things rather than denying that they exist. Not only I am a realist, but I also believe strongly in the attempt to do justice to our intuitions, something that I have described in two related posts, Doing Justice to Our Intuitions and How to Formulate a Philosophical Argument on Gut Instinct.

In P or not-P (as well as in subsequent posts concerned with constructivism, What is the relationship between constructive and non-constructive mathematics? Intuitively Clear Slippery Concepts, and Kantian Non-constructivism) I surveyed constructivist and non-constructivist views of tertium non datur and suggested that constructivists and non-constructivists need each other, as each represents a distinct point of view on formal thought. Formal thought is enriched by these diverse perspectives.

But whereas non-constructive thought, which is largely comprised of classical realism, can accept both the constructivist and non-constructivist point of view, the many varieties of constructivism usually explicitly deny the validity of non-constructive methods and seek to systematically limit themselves to constructive methods and constructive principles. Most famously, L. E. J. Brouwer (whom I have previously discussed in Saying, Showing, Constructing and One Hundred Years of Intuitionism and Formalism) formulated the philosophy of mathematics we now know as intuitionism, which is predicated upon the explicit denial of the law of the excluded middle. Brouwer, and those following him such as Heyting, sought to formulate mathematical and logic reasoning without the use of tertium non datur.

Brouwer and the intuitionists (at least as I interpret them) were primarily concerned to combat the growing influence of Cantor and his set theory in mathematics, which seemed to them to license forms of mathematical reasoning that had gone off the rails. Cantor had gone too far, and the intuitionists wanted to reign him in. They were concerned about making judgments about infinite totalities (in this case, sets with an infinite number of members), which the law of the excluded middle, when applied to the infinite, allows one to do. This seems to give us the power to make deductions about matters we cannot either conceive or even (as it is sometimes said) survey. “Surveyability” became a buzz word in the philosophy of mathematics after Wittgenstein began using it in his posthumously published Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics. Although Wittgenstein was not himself an intuitionist sensu stricto, his work set the tone for constructivist philosophy of mathematics.

Given the intuitionist rejection of the law of the excluded middle, it is not correct to say that there either is intelligent alien life in the universe or there is not intelligent alien life in the universe; to meaningfully make this statement, one would need to actually observe (inspect, survey) all possible locations where such alien intelligence might reside, and only after seeing it for oneself can one legitimately claim that there is or is not alien intelligence in the universe. For am example closer to home, it has been said that an intuitionist will deny the truth of the statement “either it is raining or it is not raining” without looking out the window to check and see. This can strike one as merely perverse, but we must take the position seriously, as I will try to show with the next example.

The day before the Battle of Salamis, Aristotle might have said that there would be a sea battle tomorrow or there would not be a sea battle tomorrow, and in this case the first would have been true; on other days, the second would have been true.

The day before the Battle of Salamis, Aristotle might have said that there would be a sea battle tomorrow or there would not be a sea battle tomorrow, and in this case the first would have been true; on other days, the second would have been true.

Already in classical antiquity, Aristotle brought out a striking feature of the law of the excluded middle, in a puzzle sometimes known as the “sea battle tomorrow.” The idea is simple: either there will be a sea battle tomorrow, or there will not be a sea battle tomorrow. We may not know anything about this battle, and as of today we do not even know if it will take place, but we can nevertheless confidently assert that either it will take place or it will not take place. This is the law of the excluded middle as applied to future contingents.

One way to think of this odd consequence of the law of the excluded middle is that when it is projected beyond the immediate circumstances of our ability to ascertain its truth by observation it becomes problematic. This is why the intuitionists reject it. Aristotle extrapolated the law of the excluded middle to the future, but we could just as well extrapolate it into the past. Historians do this all the time (either Alexander cut the Gordian Knot or Alexander did not cut the Gordian Knot), but because of our strong intuitive sense of historical realism this does not feel as odd as asserting that something that hasn’t happened yet either will happen or will not happen.

In terms of Clarke’s dichotomy, we could reformulate Aristotle’s puzzle about the sea battle tomorrow in terms of the discovery of alien intelligence tomorrow: either we will receive an alien radio broadcast tomorrow, or we will not receive an alien broadcast tomorrow. There is no third possibility. One way or another, the realist says, one of these propositions is true, and one of them is false. We do not know, today, which one of them is true and which one of them is false, but that does not mean that they do no possess definite truth values. The intuitionist says that the assertion today that we will or will not receive an alien radio broadcast is meaningless until tomorrow comes and we turn on our radio receivers to listen.

The intuitionists thus have an answer to this puzzling paradox that remains a problem for the realist. This is definitely a philosophical virtue for intuitionism, but, like all virtues, it comes at a price. It is not a price I am willing to pay. This path can also lead us to determinism — assuming that all future contingents have a definite truth value implies that they are set in stone — but I am also not a determinist (as I discussed in The Denial of Freedom as a Philosophical Problem), and so this intersection of my realism with my libertarian free willist orientation leaves me with a problem that I am not yet prepared to resolve. But that’s what makes life interesting.

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Tuesday


Copernicus

Today we celebrate the 540th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus. The great astronomer was born 19 February 1473 in Toruń, now part of Poland. The name of Copernicus belongs with the short list of thinkers who not only changed the direction of civilization, but also the nature and character of Western civilization. Copernicus as the distinction of having a cosmology named in his honor.

We would do well to recall how radically our understanding of the world has changed in relatively recent years. Up until the advent of modern science, several ancient traditions of Western civilization had come together in a comfortingly stable picture of the world in which all of Western society was deeply invested. The Aristotelian systematization of Christian theology carried out by Thomas Aquinas was especially influential. Questioning this framework was not welcome. But science was an idea whose time had come, and, as we all know, nothing can stop the progress of an idea whose time had come.

Copernicus began questioning this cosmology by putting the sun in the center of the universe; Galileo pointed his telescope into the heavens and showed that the sun has spots, the moon has mountains, and that Jupiter had moons of its own, the center of its own miniature planetary system. Others took up the mantle and went even farther: Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and eventually Newton and then Einstein.

Copernicus was a polymath, but essentially a theoretician. One must wonder if Copernicus ever read William of Ockham, since it was Ockham along with Copernicus who initiated the unraveling of the scholastic synthesis, out of which the modern world would rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of the medieval world. Ockham provided the theoretical justification for the sweeping simplification of cosmology that Copernicus effected; it is not outside the realm of possibility that the later theoretician read the work of the earlier.

Today, when our knowledge of cosmology is expanding at breathtaking speed, Copernicus is more relevant than ever. We find ourselves forced to consider and to reconsider the central Copernican idea from every possible angle. The Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter force us to seek new insights into Copernicanism. I quite literally think about Copernicanism every day, making Copernicus a living influence on my thought.

As our civilization grows in sophistication, the question “Are we alone?” becomes more and more pressing. Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” This insight is profound in its simplicity. Thus we search for peer civilizations and peer life in the universe. That is to say, we look for other civilizations like ours, and for life that resembles us.

SETI must be considered a process of elimination, which I take to already have eliminated “near by” exocivilizations, although we cannot rule out the possibility that we currency find ourselves within the “halo” of a vanished cosmological civilization.

A peer civilization only slightly advanced over our own (say 100-500 years more industrial development), if it is in fact a peer and not incomprehensibly alien, would also be asking themselves “Are we alone?” They, too, would be equally terrified at being alone in the cosmos or at having another peer civilization present. Because we know that we exist as an industrial-technological civilization, and we know the extent to which we can eliminate peer civilizations in the immediate neighborhood of our own star, we can assume that a more advanced peer civilization would have an even more extensive sphere of SETI elimination. They would home in on us as incredibly interesting, as an exception to the rule of the eerie silence, in the same way that we seek out others like ourselves. That is to say, they would have found us, not least because they would be actively seeking us. So this may be considered an alternative formulation of the Fermi paradox.

Despite the growing tally of planets discovered in the habitable zones of stars, including nearby examples at Tau Ceti which lies within our SETI exclusion zone (which excludes only civilizations producing EM spectrum signals), there is no evidence that there are other peer civilizations, and advanced peer civilizations would already have found us — and they would be as excited by discovering us as we would be excited in discovering a peer civilization. There are none close, which we know from the SETI zone of exclusion; we must look further afield. Other peer civilizations would also likely have to look further afield. In looking further afield they would find us.

I don’t believe that any of this contradicts the Copernican principle in spirit. I think it is just a matter of random chance that our civilization happens to be the first industrial-technological civilization to emerge in the Milky Way, and possibly also the first in the local cluster of galaxies. We are, after all, an accidental world. However, it will take considerable refinement of this idea to show exactly how the uniqueness of human civilization (if it is in fact locally unique) is consistent with Copernicanism — and this keeps Copernicus in my thoughts.

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A Note on the Great Filter

29 October 2012

Monday


Are we ourselves, as the sole hominid species, the Great Filter?

Parochialism, ironically, knows no bounds. Our habit of blinkering ourselves — what visionary poet William Blake called “mind-forged manacles” — is nearly universal. Sometimes even the most sophisticated minds miss the simple things that are staring them in the face. Usually, I think this is a function of the absence of a theoretical context that would make it possible to understand the simple truth staring us in the face.

I have elsewhere written that one of the things that makes Marx a truly visionary thinker is that he saw the industrial revolution for what it was — a revolution — even while many who lived through this profound series of events where unaware that they were living through a revolution. So even if one’s theoretical context is almost completely wrong, or seriously flawed, the mere fact of having the more comprehensive perspective bequeathed by a theoretical understanding of contemporary events can be enough to make it possible for one to see the forest for the trees.

Darwin wrote somewhere (I can’t recall where as I write this, but will add the reference later when I run across it) that from his conversations with biologists prior to publishing The Origin of Species he knew how few were willing to thing in terms of the mutability of species, but once he had made his theory public it was rapidly adopted as a research program by biologists, and Darwin suggested that countless facts familiar to biologists but hitherto not systematically incorporated into theory suddenly found a framework in which they could be expressed. Obviously, these are my words rather than Darwin’s, and when I can find the actual quote I will include it here, but I think I have remembered the gist of the passage to which I refer.

It would be comical, if it were not so pathetic, that one of the first responses to Darwin’s systematic exposition of evolution was for people to look around for “transitional” evolutionary forms, and, strange to say, they didn’t find any. This failure to find transitional forms was interpreted as a problem for evolution, and expeditions were mounted in order to search for the so-called “missing link.”

The idea that the present consists entirely of life forms having attained a completed and perfected form, and that all previous natural history culminates in these finished forms of the present, therefore placing all transitional forms in the past, is a relic of teleological and equilibrium thinking. Once we dispense the unnecessary and mistaken idea that the present is the aim of the past and exemplifies a kind of equilibrium in the history of life that can henceforth be iterated to infinity, it becomes immediately obvious that every life form is a transitional form, including ourselves.

A few radical thinkers understood this. Nietzsche, for example, understood this all-too-clearly, and wrote that, “Man is a rope stretched between the beasts and the Superman — a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal..” But assertions as bold as that of Nietzsche were rare. Darwin himself didn’t even mention human evolution in The Origin of Species (though he later came back to human origins in The Descent of Man): Darwin first offered a modest formulation of a radical theory.

So what has all this in regard to Marx and Darwin to do with the great filter, mentioned in the title of this post? I have written many posts about the Fermi paradox recently without ever mentioning the great filter, which is an important part of the way that the Fermi paradox is formulated today. If we ask, if the universe is supposedly teaming with alien life, and possibly also with alien civilizations, why we haven’t met any of them, we have to draw that conclusion that, among all the contingencies that must hold in order for an industrial-technological civilization to arise within our cosmos, at least one of these contingencies has tripped up all previous advanced civilizations, or else they would be here already (and we would probably be their slaves).

The contingency that has prevented any other advanced civilization in the cosmos from beating us to the punch is called the great filter. Many who write on the Fermi paradox, then, ask whether the great filter is in our past or in our future. If it is in our past, we have good reason to hope that our civilization can be an ongoing concern. If it is in our future, we have a very real reason to be concerned, since if no other advanced civilization has made it through the great filter in their development, it would seem unlikely that we would prove the exception to that rule. So a neat way to divide the optimists and the pessimists in regard to the future of human civilization is whether someone places the great filter in the past (optimists) or in the future (pessimists).

I would like to suggest that the great filter is neither in our past or in our future. The great filter is now; we ourselves are the great filter.

Human beings are the only species (on the only biosphere known to us) known to have created industrial-technological civilization. This is our special claim to intelligence. But before us there were numerous precursor species, and many hominid species that have since gone extinct. Many of these hominids (who cannot all be called human “ancestors” since many of them were dead ends on the evolutionary tree) were tool users, and it is for this reason that I noted in Civilization and the Technium that the technium is older than civilization (and more widely distributed than civilization). But now we are only only remaining hominid species on the planet. So in the past, we can already see a filter that has narrowed down the human experience to a single sentient and intelligent species.

Writers on the technological singularity and on the post-human and even post-biological future have speculated on a wide variety of possible scenarios in which post-human beings, industrial-technological civilization, and the technium will expand throughout the cosmos. If these events come to past, the narrowing of the human experience to a single biological species will eventually be followed by a great blossoming of sentient and intelligent agents who may not be precisely human in the narrow sense, but in a wider sense will all be our descendants and our progeny. In this eventuality, the narrow bottleneck of humanity will expand exponentially from its present condition.

Looking at the present human condition from the perspective of multiple predecessor species and multiple future species, we see that the history of sentient and intelligent life on earth has narrowed in the present to a single hominid species. The natural history of intelligence on the Earth has all its eggs in one basket. Our existence as the sole sentient and intelligent species means that we are the great filter.

If we survive ourselves, we will have a right to be optimistic about the future of intelligent life in the universe — but not until then. Not until we have been superseded, not until the human era has ended, ought we to be optimistic.

Man is a narrow strand stretched between pre-human diversity and post-human diversity.

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The Preemption Hypothesis

20 October 2012

Saturday


Three Little Words: “Where are they?”

In The Visibility Presumption I examined some issues in relation to the response to the Fermi paradox by those who claim that a technological singularity would likely overtake any technologically advanced civilization. I don’t see how the technological singularity visited upon an alien species makes them any less visible (in the sense of “visible” relevant to SETI) nor any less likely to be interested in exploration, adventure, or the quest for scientific knowledge — and finding us would constitute a major scientific discovery for some xenobiological species that had matured into a peer industrial-technological civilization.

The more I think about the Fermi paradox — and I have been thinking a lot about it lately — and the more I contextualize the Fermi paradox in my own emerging theory of civilization — which is a theory I am attempting to formulate in the purest tradition of Russellian generality so that it is equally applicable to human civilization and to any non-human civilization — the more I have come to think that our civilization is relatively isolated in the cosmos, being perhaps one of the few civilizations, or the only civilization, in the Milky Way, and one among only a handful of civilizations in the local cluster of galaxies or our supercluster.

Having an opinion on the Fermi paradox, and even making an attempt to argue for a particular position, does not however relieve one of the intellectual responsibility of exploring all aspects of the paradox. I have also come to think, while reflecting on the Fermi paradox, that the paradox itself has been fruitful in pushing those who care to think about it toward better formulations of the nature and consequences of industrial-technological civilization and of interstellar civilization — whether that of a supposed xenocivilization, or that of ourselves now and in the future.

The human experience of economic and technological growth in the wake of the industrial revolution has made us aware that if there are other peer species in the universe, and if these peer species undergo a process of the development of civilization anything like our own, then these peer species may also have experienced or will experience the escalating exponential growth of economic organization and technological complexity that we have experienced. Looking at our own civilization, again, it seems that the natural telos of continued economic and technological development — for we see no natural or obvious impediment to such continued development — is for human civilization to extend itself beyond the confines of the Earth and the establish itself throughout the solar system and eventually throughout the galaxy and beyond. This natural teleology has been called “The Expansion Hypothesis” by John M. Smart. Smart credits the expansion hypothesis to Kardashev, and while it is implicit in Kardashev, Kardashev himself does not formulate the idea explicitly and does not use the term “expansion hypothesis.”

Aristotle as depicted by Raphael in the Vatican stanze.

Aristotle as depicted by Raphael in the Vatican stanze.

The natural teleology of civilization

I have taken the term “natural teleology” from contemporary philosophical expositions of Aristotle’s distinction between final causes and efficient causes. We can get something of a flavor of Aristotle’s idea of natural teleology (without going too deep into the controversy over final causes) from this paragraph from the second book of Aristotle’s Physics:

We also speak of a thing’s nature as being exhibited in the process of growth by which its nature is attained. The ‘nature’ in this sense is not like ‘doctoring’, which leads not to the art of doctoring but to health. Doctoring must start from the art, not lead to it. But it is not in this way that nature (in the one sense) is related to nature (in the other). What grows qua growing grows from something into something. Into what then does it grow? Not into that from which it arose but into that to which it tends. The shape then is nature.

Aristotle is a systematic philosopher, in which any one doctrine is related to many other doctrines, so that an excerpt really doesn’t do him justice; if the reader cares to, he or she can can look into this more deeply by reading Aristotle and his commentators. But I must say this much in elaboration: the idea of natural teleology is problematic because it suggests a teleological conception of the whole of nature and all of its parts, and ever since Darwin we have understood that many claims to natural teleology are simply the expression of anthropic bias.

Still, kittens grow into cats and puppies grow into dogs (if they live to maturity), and it is pointless to deny this. What is important here is to tightly circumscribe the idea of natural teleology so that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. The difficulty comes in distinguishing the baby from the bathwater in which the baby is immersed. Unless we want to end up with the idea of a natural teleology for human beings and the lives they live — this was the “human nature” that Sartre emphatically denied — we must deny final causes to agents, or find some other principle of distinction.

Are civilizations a natural kind for which we can posit a natural teleology, i.e., a form or a nature toward which they naturally tend as they grow and develop? My answer to this is ambiguous, but it is a principled ambiguity: yes and no. Yes, because some aspects of civilization are clearly developmental, when an institution is growing toward its fulfillment, while other aspects of civilization are clearly non-developmental and discontinuous. But civilization is so complex a whole that there is no simple way to separate the developmental and the non-developmental aspects of any one given civilization.

When we examine high points of civilization like Athens under Pericles or Florence during the Renaissance, we can recognize after the fact the slow build up to these cultural heights, which cannot clearly be distinguished from economic, civil, urban, and military development. The natural teleology of a civilization is the attainment of excellence in its particular mode of being, just as Aristotle said that the great-souled man aims at excellence in his life, but the path to that excellence is as varied as the different lives of individuals and the difference histories of civilizations (Sam Harris might call them distinct peaks on the moral landscape).

Now, I don’t regard this brief exposition of the natural teleology of civilization as anything like a definitive formulation, but a definitive formulation of something so complex and subtle would require years of work. I will save this for another time, rather, counting on the reader’s charity (if not indulgence) to grant me the idea that at least in some respects civilizations tend toward fulfilling an apparent telos implicit in its developmental history.

Early industrialization often had an incongruous if not surreal character, as in this painting of traditional houses silhouetted again the Madeley Wood Furnaces at Coalbrookdale; the incongruity and surrealism is a function of historical preemption.

The Preemption Hypothesis

What I am going to suggest here as another response to the Fermi paradox will sound to some like just another version of the technological singularity response, but I want to try to show that what I am suggesting is a more general conception than that — a potential structural failure of civilization, as it were — and as a more comprehensive concept the technological singularity response to the Fermi paradox can be subsumed under it as a particular instance of civilizational preemption.

The more general conception of a response to the silentium universi I call the preemption hypothesis. According to the preemption hypothesis, the ordinary course of development of industrial-technological civilization — which, if extrapolated, would seem to point to a nearly inevitable expansion of that civilization beyond its home planet and eventually across interstellar space as its natural teleology — is preempted by the emergence of a completely different kind of civilization, a radically different kind of civilization, or by post-civilization, so that the expected natural teleology of the preempted civilization is interrupted and never comes to fruition.

Thus “the lights go out” for a given alien civilization not because that civilization destroys itself (the Doomsday argument, Solution no. 27 in Webb’s book) and not because it collapses into permanent stagnation or even catastrophic civilizational failure (existential risks outlined by Nick Bostrum), and not because it completes a natural cycle of growth, maturity, decay, and death, but rather because it moves on to the next stage of social institution that lies beyond civilization. In simplest terms, the preemption hypothesis is that industrial-technological civilization, for which the expansion hypothesis holds, is preempted by post-civilization, for which the expansion hypothesis no longer holds. Post-civilization is a social institution derived from civilization but no longer recognizably civilization.

The idea of a technological singularity is one kind of potential preemption of industrial-technological civilization, but certainly not the only possible kind of preemption. There are many possible forms of civilizational preemption, and any attempted list of possible preemptions is limited only by our imagination and our parochial conception of civilization, the latter being informed exclusively by human civilization. It is entirely possible, as another example of preemption, that once a civilization attains a certain degree of technological development, everyone recognizes the pointlessness of the the whole endeavor, all the machines are shut down, and the entire population turns to philosophical contemplation as the only worthy undertaking in life.

Acceleration and Preemption

I have previously argued that civilizations come to maturity in an Axial Age. The Axial Age is a conception due to Karl Jaspers, but I have suggested a generalization that holds for any society that achieves a sufficient degree of development and maturity. What Jaspers postulated for agricultural civilizations, and understood to be a turning point for the world entire, I believe holds for most civilizations, and that each stage in the overall development of civilization may have such a turning point.

Also, the history of human civilization reveals an acceleration. Nomadic hunter-gatherer society required hundreds of thousands of years before it matured into a condition capable of producing the great cave paintings of the upper Paleolithic (which I call the Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm). The agricultural civilizations that superseded Paleolithic societies with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution required thousands of years to mature to the point of producing what Jaspers called an Axial Age (The Axial Age for Jaspers).

Industrial civilization has not yet produced an industrialized axialization (though we may look back someday and understand one to have been achieved in retrospect), but the early modern civilization that seemed to be producing a decisively different way of life than the medieval period that preceded it experienced a catastrophic preemption: it did not come to fulfillment on its own terms. In Modernism without Industrialism I argued that modern civilization was effectively overtaken by the sudden and catastrophic emergence of industrialization, which set civilization on an entirely new course.

At each stage of the development of human society the maturation of that society, measured by the ability of that society to give a coherent account of itself in a comprehensive cosmological context (also known as mythology), has come sooner than the last, with the abortive civilization of modernism, Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution derailed and suddenly superseded by a novel and unprecedented development from within civilization. Modernism was preempted by accelerating events, and, specifically, by accelerating technology. It is possible that there are other forms of accelerating development that could derail or preempt that course of development that at present appears to be the natural teleology of industrial-technological civilization.

The Dystopian Hypothesis

Because the most obvious forms of the preemption hypothesis, in terms of the prospects for civilization most widely discussed today, would include the technological singularity, transhumanism, and The Transcension Hypothesis, and also because of the human ability (probably reinforced by the survival value of optimism) to look on the bright side of things, we may lose sight of equally obvious sub-optimal forms of preemption. Suboptimal forms of civilizational preemption, in which civilization does not pass on to developments of greater complexity more technically difficult achievement, could be separately identified as the dystopian hypothesis.

In Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations I suggested that the distinction Freud made between neurotic misery and ordinary human unhappiness can be extended to encompass a distinction between a civilization in the grip of neurotic misery as distinct from a civilization experiencing ordinary civilizational unhappiness. I cited the example of the religious wars of early modern Europe as an example of civilization experiencing neurotic misery (and later went on to suggest that contemporary Islam is a civilization in the grip of neurotic misery). It is possible that neurotic misery at the civilizational level could be perpetuated across time and space so that neurotic misery became the enduring condition of civilization. (This might be considered an instance of what Nick Bostrum called “flawed realization” in his analysis of existential risk.)

It would likely be the case that neurotically miserable civilization — which we might also call dystopian civilization, or a suboptimal civilization — would be incapable of anything beyond perpetuating its miserable existence from one day to the next. The dystopian hypothesis could be assimilated to solution no. 23 in Webb’s book, “They have no desire to communicate,” but there many be many reasons that a civilization lacks a desire to communicate over interstellar distances with other civilizations, so I think that the dystopian lack of motivation deserves its own category as a response to the Fermi paradox.

Whether or not chronic and severe dystopianism could be considered a post-civilization institution and therefore a preemption of industrial-technological civilization is open to question. I will think about this.

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Tuesday


There’s a lot of room in our solar system. The intrastellar or intersolar neighborhood is vastly beyond the scope of the ambition of most mortals. (The Thomas Digges chart of a Copernican solar system from 1576.)

The Advent of Intersolar Civilization

Before human civilization has achieved a robust interstellar presence, and has conquered, or begun to conquer, those nearly insuperable problems associated with the vast distances between the stars — which are as much temporal distances as spatial distances, because of the limiting velocity of the speed of light — it is likely the there will be a robust human presence within our native solar system. That is to say, it is likely that we will have an extraterrestrial civilization within out solar system before we have an interstellar civilization.

As I said, there’s a lot of room in our solar system. More importantly, there are more resources and more energy available than even a greatly expanded human civilization could consume in the foreseeable future.

Elsewhere I have identified this stage of industrial technological civilization as a Stage II civilization, but since no one is familiar with my terminology, it would be more straightforward to refer to interplanetary civilization. However, “interplanetary civilization” implies human spacesteading on naturally occurring celestial bodies, which is an arbitrary limitation. It is to be expected that spacesteading will involve as much or more settlement in artificial environments orbiting celestial bodies or in low- or micro-gravity environments of the asteroid belt. I will use the more comprehensive term “intersolar” to refer to all possible forms of human habitation and travel in the vicinity of our native sun and within our native solar system, but exclusive of other stars and their solar systems. (This could just as well be called “intrasteller” as “intersolar” but I suspect that the former term might be confusing, so I will prefer the latter.)

There’s really no need to hoist up one’s resources from the bottom of a gravity well like the surface of the Earth. The moons of our solar system have plenty of resources and much lower gravity.

One of the distinctive features of human extraterrestrial civilization within our native solar system (i.e., intersolar civilization, as defined above) is that it will not be a one way trip. There will be an expectation that those who go into space will be able to return to the Earth if they so desire, and to do so on a timetable of days, weeks, or months, and only at the outside would travel times be reckoned in years.

Even better than the low gravity environments of the solar system’s moons are the micro-gravity environments of the asteroid belt.

This contrasts dramatically to interstellar voyages that we might contemplate in the next hundred years or so, which, given our contemporary understanding of science and our expectations for technology based upon that science, would be one-way journeys, or, if return was contemplated, the round trip would require years or decades, and optimally would involve some sort of induced hibernation or other biological stasis technology.

Even if early spacesteaders choose not to return to the Earth, they would want to maintain their connections and communications with the Earth and its inhabitants, unless they had purposefully chosen to isolate themselves for ideological or ethical reasons. While we cannot rule out the possibility of self-imposed isolation from Earth, this is likely to be the exception rather than the rule.

Given these assumptions, how would the members of an intersolar civilization communicate with each other? How would the Earth communicate with spacesteads, and how would spacesteads communicate with each other and with the earth?

An Internet for Intersolar Civilization

The internet is becoming the de facto planetary brain of human civilization, the central clearing house for all information, and therefore also, in a sense, the blueprint for the construction and maintenance of industrial-technological civilization. It is also a universal communications network that can not only carry familiar forms of communications traffic such as email, but is increasingly used for voice and visual communications. It is to be expected that these developments will continue and that internet-enabled communications devices will be the norm and the standard for future communication.

Moreover, the internet is not a closed and finished system, but is growing and changing every day. This means that the blueprint for industrial-technological civilization is growing and changing every day, and if any community wishes to be a part of this tradition, it must have access to the internet in real time.

Real time” is the rub. The limiting velocity of the speed of light is not only a physical limit but also a social limit, because the speed of light marks the limits of the possibility of communication. Within the sphere of intersolar civilization, this limit would be felt, but it would not be felt so keenly as to abandon communication as pointless.

While interstellar distances would involve delays of years or centuries in communication between humanity’s home planet and any representatives of our species having found their way to other stars and their solar systems, interplanetary distances involve delays of seconds, minutes, hours or days. This is a problem, but it is possibly a problem that we can deal with in creative ways, and perhaps with some unavoidable compromises, and not an insuperable problem.

We will here assume that the limitation of the speed of light is observed. There has been significant discussion of the possibility of communication based on quantum entanglement, and while this possibility cannot be ruled out, it also cannot be counted upon. If this possibility materializes, our communications difficulties will be addressed on the basis of instantaneous universal communication, and some (but not all) of the problems discussed here will become irrelevant.

One of the features of the internet throughout its development has been that of striving after ever higher speeds, requiring ever higher bandwidth, and enabling technologies that rely upon very high speeds and very large bandwidth, such as watching streaming video, whether of a live conference or of a film. Instantaneous access to ever more data-rich environments and instantaneous communication has become the norm and the expectation.

How can we make this planetary brain of the internet into an interplanetary brain, or an intersolar brain, so that the blueprint of industrial-technological civilization is universally and nearly instantaneously available?

When the Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the sun it takes much longer to exchange a radio signal than when the planets are at their closest approach to each other.

If an individual is using their internet-enabled device on Mars, between 3 and 22 light minutes from Earth (depending upon the relative positions of the Earth and Mars), and is accessing the most recent scholarship on farming techniques in iron-rich soils, they will not want to wait for 6-44 minutes for the turn-around time between each query and response.

An obvious first step would be to build internet “repeater” stations in Earth orbit, or perhaps on the moon or at the Lagrange points. An internet repeater station could continuously access internet content from the Earth, updating everything much as search engines are continuously seeking new content to index. Such a repeater would be a “mirror” of the entire internet, or as much of the internet as a given facility could store and update.

Individuals at a distance from the Earth would have to restrict their chatting and their webcam sessions to others nearby, where the delay was short enough so that it was not too obvious, but the content of the internet other than streaming live content could be made available to everyone at speeds approximating those of the present, depending upon one’s position in the solar system and the nearest internet mirror station.

Popular social media such as Facebook and Twitter would be delayed by minutes between the farther reaches of intersolar civilization, but this would not seriously impact any but the most dedicated followers of their friend’s status updates. Those for whom such matters loom large may choose to remain on the Earth, although by doing this they would still experience delays in status updates from extraterrestrial friends. Still, lives and careers have been decided on slimmer grounds, and such considerations could have a cumulative selective effect over time.

Ramifications for SETI of an Intersolar Internet

The future of intersolar civilization may involve a network of internet mirrors throughout the solar system, much as we now have a network of satellites surrounding the Earth that give as immediate information on our position on the surface of the Earth (and which in doing so must take account of relativistic effects like frame-dragging).

In so far as this network must be based on some kind of radio technology (as we are excluding advanced communication possibilities such as quantum entanglement communications, as noted above) — since we cannot string wires or fiber optic cables in space; our intersolar network of internet mirrors must be a wifi network — such an interplanetary network would be highly “visible” to any electromagnetic spectrum observation of our solar system. This apparently innocuous fact has interesting ramifications.

One response to the “Eerie silence” of SETI research has been the suggestion that, after a certain stage of technological development, an industrial-technological civilization “goes quiet” by resorting to fiber optic communications or related terrestrial technologies that no longer involve our radiating significant radio signals into space.

We can now see that this way of accounting for the Fermi paradox — if the universe is rich in alien technological civilizations, where are they? — involves an additional assumption: that an alien industrial-technological civilization will remain planet-bound. While we cannot exclude this possibility, we ought rightly to explicitly recognize it, and as soon as we do explicitly recognize it we can immediately see that this is highly unlikely.

Any industrial-technological civilization, located anywhere in the universe, that was capable of and interested in establishing radio communications with other peer civilizations, is extremely likely to be at least an intersolar civilization, if not an interstellar civilization, and they are equally likely to have created a communications and data storage network like the internet, and for their intersolar civilization to be fully viable this network would need to be available over the distances of a solar system, which means that another peer civilization would be radiating radio signals as aggressively as a human intersolar civilization would be radiating radio signals.

An Encyclopedia Solaria for a Growing Civilization

Carl Sagan (in his Cosmos), Timothy Ferris (in his Coming of Age in the Milky Way), and others have speculated on the possibility of an Encyclopedia Galactica that would be the repository of one or several industrial-technological civilizations, and which might survive that brief life of particular civilizations to transmit its content to later civilizations or successor civilizations within the universe. This was touched upon several times at the 100YSS 2011 symposium.

What I have described here constitutes something like an abridged version of an Encyclopedia Galactica, Which might be called an Encyclopedia Solaria, for our coming intersolar civilization. A growing intersolar civilization would entail a growing Encyclopedia Solaria that would encompass and connect our native solar system in one vast interconnected network.

This Encyclopedia Solaria would be an intermediate step between our contemporary terrestrial internet and an Encyclopedia Galactica of interstellar scope and reach. It is to be expected that solving — or, at least, dealing with — the problems of an Encyclopedia Solaria would teach us valuable lessons for a future Encyclopedia Galactica. One could think of the Encyclopedia Solaria as a trial run of an Encyclopedia Galactica, allowing us time to experiment and to work out some of the inevitable bugs that would likely plague earlier iterations.

While an Encyclopedia Solaria would ideally be an open and growing entity, receiving continuous updates to its content from all corners of the solar system, if our coming intersolar civilization should stumble, that same Encyclopedia Solaria could serve another function. An Encyclopedia Solaria would be a first step in mitigating human existential risk, at least in so far as this risk touches upon the preservation and expansion of the cultural legacy of human civilization.

This observation suggests the next step, which would be a conscious and systematic effort to safeguard the cultural legacy of human civilization from existential risk.

Existential Risk Mitigation for a Declining Civilization

I have been influenced in this present suggestion by the presentation of Heath Rezabek at the 100YSS 2012 conference about the possibility of archives to mitigate existential risk to human civilization.

A server farm or internet mirror set up on the moon, for instance, and designed according to principles that guide projects like the clock of the long now, i.e., designed for the long term, powered by solar power and perhaps with a nuclear backup power supply, and with plenty of shielding against the harsh environment of space, might well outlast terrestrial human civilization if that civilization succumbs to the existential risks of extinction, permanent stagnation, or flawed realization.

From the perspective of an active backup and repeater for the internet for a human presence in intersolar space, an orbiting artificial environment would probably be preferable to a moon-based installation, but if we are thinking in terms of existential risk, the moon’s bulk itself could provide a certain security, as well as providing plenty of material for shielding and plenty of space for the facility — space on firm ground, as it were. A facility in space, as opposed to an installation on a naturally-occurring celestial body, would need to be heavily shielded and even with shielding would be vulnerable to collisions. Even if such a facility experienced no major catastrophic collisions, it would be steadily bombarded by small particles and dust, which would take their toll over time.

Since the moon is phase-locked with the Earth, always presenting one side to our planet and a back side — the “dark” side of the moon — to extraterrestrial space beyond the Earth, a moon-based installation would have a certain security from immediate threats issuing form the Earth’s surface.

Other possibilities would present themselves in connection with an installation on the far side of the moon. Radio and optical telescopes based on the far side of the moon could peer much deeper and much farther into the universe that Earth-based telescopes (due to the lack of an atmosphere and the bulk of the moon shielding both light and EM radiation from the Earth), and, being built on the moon, such astronomical assets could be much larger than our current orbital telescopes. A significant scientific installation along with the internet mirror and universal information backup would continuously add new knowledge to our Encyclopedia Solaria, and much of this would be knowledge inaccessible to terrestrial observers, which would add an element of novelty to the science and might therefore mitigate some of the risk of stagnation.

The risk that such an installation would entail would be its visibility to nefarious and hostile alien powers. However, this would not be nearly as visible, and therefore not nearly as risky, as an internet and an Encyclopedia Solaria for a growing intersolar civilization as described above, which would be radiating more powerfully than a mere lunar installation.

Stephen Hawking as recently warned of the existential risk entailed by contacting, or being visible to, hostile aliens. Others have suggested that the risks are minimal or non-existent because the economics of interstellar invasion are insuperable. I do not agree with this latter analysis, but I will not attempt to argue the point here; I will only note that the point has been made.

What I have said here of the moon applies, mutatis mutandis, to Mars. At an even greater distance from the Earth than the moon, Mars would be that much more secure from Earth-based threats (such threats presumably being a consequence of succumbing to the existential risk of flawed realization). Mars, like the moon, is geologically inert, or nearly so. Any installation here could count on geological stability. Since Mars has an atmosphere, it has another layer of protection for its surface. For any residents, Mars would feel more like home, and less artificial, than an installation on the moon. However, the fact of an atmosphere means that the view of the cosmos from Mars would be compromised for any ground-based telescopes, unlike the moon’s clear view into space.

Ideally, existential risk mitigation for the cultural legacy of human civilization would be redundant, involving facilities on the moon, on Mars, and on orbiting platforms.

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Note added later the same day: Heath Rezabek, whom I have cited above, and who has commented below, has drawn my attention to two items that are closely related to what I wrote above, Why We Need a Supercomputer on the Moon by Robert McMillan writing in Wired and NASA Mulls Deep-Space Station on Moon’s Far Side by Leonard David, space.com Space Insider Columnist.

I also happened to find that there is an entry on an “Interplanetary Internet” in Space Sciences: Macmillan Science Library. This volume is aimed at a young adult audience, but there is still much of interest here.

Obviously, many people are thinking about the issues I have outlined above. If enough people converge on a similar solution, something might get done. One can at least hope.

None of the other treatments I have found mention the potential science payoff of a big telescope on the far side of the moon linked into a supercomputer and internet node. If we think of how dramatically the Hubble Space Telescope has transformed our understanding of cosmology, this is no small matter. While the technocrats will always focus on particular problems, we who take the larger view know that industrial-technological civilization continues its relentless technological transformation of life only because it is systematically driven by science. New basic science of the kind that would be enabled by a major telescope (preferably both visible spectrum and radio telescopes) — imaging exoplanets and their atmospheres would be just the start — would offer an order-of-magnitude increase in observational cosmology.

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Saturday


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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Wednesday


The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Industrialization

In the Past, Present, and Future


In several posts I have discussed the Fermi Paradox, which, stated in its simplest form, is this: if the universe if full of life and full of technological civilizations, then where are the aliens? My posts on the Fermi Paradox include:

Silent Worlds, Empty Worlds

Methodological Naturalism and the Eerie Silence

Why the Fermi paradox must be taken seriously

Addendum on the Fermi Paradox

I have also, in a number of posts, reflected on how the progress of scientific knowledge in cosmology has continued to affirm and to follow a Copernican trajectory, consistently demonstrating to us that the cosmological context of the earth is not unique and not even especially rare. These posts have included:

Other Worlds

Twenty Years of the Hubble Space Telescope

More Evidence for the Copernican Principle

Given the success in extrapolating the Copernican principle, and knowing that small, rocky planets with an atmosphere circling sun-like stars in their habitable zones are not rare, the same Copernican principle ought to allow us to posit the non-rarity of life, of sentience, of civilization, and of technology. If this is the case, why are we not hearing the EM (electro-magnetic spectrum) broadcasts of other industrial-technological civilizations in our neck of the woods, galactically speaking?

It was my point in SETI as a Process of Elimination that the attempts to detect the EM signatures of alien civilizations, while very limited in extent to date, would have told us by now if there had been an advanced industrial-technological civilization on a planet orbiting, say, Tau Ceti or Epsilon Eridani. If there were such a civilization “close by,” say, within 25 light years of us, you would probably be able to listen to their radio broadcasts or watch their television shows with an especially sensitive receiver. Thus we can eliminate the possibility of an advanced technological civilization that is “close” to us in galactic terms.

We cannot, at least not yet, rule out peer industrial-technological civilizations farther afield in the Milky Way, much less in other peer galaxies throughout the universe. We can, however, say a few things about the possibility that remains of contacting other industrial-technological civilizations.

I have come to realize that the Fermi paradox can be expressed according to a law of trichotomy of exocivilizations. Taking our terrestrial industrial-technological civilization as the base line (not because we should count it a privileged civilization, but only because it is the one civilization of which we know something, and whose time and place of origin we can definitely assert), any other industrial-technological civilization would have to have appeared either…

1.prior to the appearance of terrestrial industrial-technological civilization…

2. …at roughly the same time as the appearance of terrestrial industrial-technological civilization… or…

3.after the appearance of terrestrial industrial-technological civilization…

Here we must carefully define the time-frames we will be discussing, because without being careful about the time-frame of the trichotomy we will quickly descend into incoherence.

In terms of the individual human life, civilization is very old; in cosmological terms, civilization is very young, and its few thousand years of development on the earth is nothing but the blink of an eye in the cosmic scale of things. Taking this cosmic perspective, the few thousand years it takes a species to go from essentially nothing to industrial-technological civilization is negligible. This is one of the sources of the Fermi paradox, because it is sometimes asserted that earlier civilizations could have or even should have emerged and colonized the galaxy before us.

Recent cosmological thought, however, with a greater appreciation for the natural history of the universe, has come to realize that an industrial-technological civilization cannot emerge until the heavier elements that fuel such a civilization are available, and these heavier elements can only come about through several generations of stellar nucleosynthesis, meaning that several generations of stars must be formed and then scatter their substance through going supernova before the heavier elements are available in sufficient amount to create both life as we know it and industrial-technological civilization as we know it.

This point has been made in relation to the anthropic cosmological principle. I haven’t yet taken the time to write in any detail about the anthropic cosmological principle (except for the short note Formulating an Anthropic Principle Worthy of the Name), but I have mentioned on several occasions that, while I consider strong formulations of the anthropic principle to be seriously wrong, weak formulations of the anthropic principle seem to me to be tautologically true: only a universe consistent with the existence of observers can be observed. Here is how Barrow and Tipler formulate a weak version of the anthropic principle as it relates to the age and size of the universe:

“…for there to be enough time to construct the constituents of living beings the Universe must be at least ten billion years old and therefore, as a consequence of its expansion, at least ten billion light years in extent. We should not be surprised to observe the the Universe is so large. No astronomer could exist in one that was significantly smaller. The Universe needs to be as big as it is in order to evolve just a single carbon-based life-form.”

John S. Barrow, and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986, p. 3

What this means is that we cannot simply extrapolate backward in time and assert that an industrial-technological civilization might have emerged at any time in the history of the universe. The universe has to be approximately as old as old as it is now — old enough to produce our sun and our planets with their relatively plentiful mineral resources — for a civilization to emerge with a technological infrastructure capable to creating radio transmitters and receivers.

This argument — it could be called an anthropic argument, but I would call it the argument from natural history — can be extended to the appearance of terrestrial civilization, which, since the industrial revolution that made contemporary technology possible, has been powered by fossil fuels. A civilization that exploits fossil fuels to bootstrap itself to rapidly achieve high technology cannot come about until these fossil fuels have been laid down and fossilized. So no more than the age of the universe being arbitrary is the age of the earth arbitrary when it comes to the production of industrial-technological civilization.

It would certainly be possible to have a technological civilization without fossil fuels, but there is still a temporal constraint on the emergence of a sufficiently sophisticated biological infrastructure to support a brain of sufficient complexity for sentience, consciousness, and instrumental intelligence to emerge.

Thus in terms of the first division of the trichotomy of exocivilizations, industrial-technological civilizations would be limited to the recent past, with “recent” understood on a biological time scale. It would be unlikely that another industrial-technological civilization would have emerged in the Milky Way, or in another galaxy of approximately the same age as the Milky Way, beyond, say, 10-20 million years ago. This still means that there could be a civilization in the Milky Way millions of years old, which would seriously out-class our terrestrial civilization. The point here is that we don’t have a past of 13.7 billion years (the current estimate for the age of the universe) possibly filled with civilizations.

In terms of the second division of the trichotomy of exocivilizations, industrial-technological civilizations roughly contemporaneous with our own — and here I place the emphasis on roughly — would presumably be of a roughly similar character to our own, having emerged in a similar cosmological context and at a similar age of the universe. Seeing civilization in its cosmological context, like seeing biology in its cosmological context as I wrote about yesterday in Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-, means that we understand exocivilization to have been constrained by the same physical laws and material resources as our own civilization, i.e., esocivilization (which I now realize might also be called endocivilization).

Once an industrial-technological civilization emerges, it progresses rapidly (as I discussed in The Industrial-Technological Thesis), so that an industrial-technological civilization a mere few thousand years more mature than our own — a very real possibility in cosmological and biological terms — would possess a significant technological advantage over terrestrial civilization. However, as contemporary civilizations on a cosmological time scale, we must think of exocivilizations a few thousand years older or younger than terrestrial civilization as near-peer civilizations.

Because of the size the universe, and the great gulf between galaxies, between galactic clusters, and between super-clusters, and because of the constraints placed on communication and transportation by relativistic physics, it may be that near-peer civilizations are prevented from talking to each other for all practical purposes by virtue of the light cone in which each civilization finds itself embedded. The light cone not only describes the propagation of light but of all EM spectrum radiation, including radio signals.

The third division of the trichotomy of exocivilizations, regarding exocivilizations that emerge after our terrestrial esocivilziation, would involve different consequences for the possibilities open to the development of contemporary industrial-technological civilization, which would include:

After the end of terrestrial esocivilization, precluding the possibility of communication

After the end of terrestrial industrial-technological civilization, which is to say, a stagnant successor to contemporary terrestrial civilization, capable of being “discovered” in its dotage (imagine all of human civilization as a terrestrial India, with ancient and venerable traditions but a marginal role)

During the existence of an intact terrestrial industrial-technological civilization, which implies a spatially expanding terrestrial esocivilization, and therefore exocivilizations subordinate to, and perhaps even subject to, human civilization

Once one begins thinking about the possibilities there are two many to list, and providing some kind of typology of the interrelationship of civilizations would require a significant investment of time. For example, an expansionary exocivilization might exapt terrestrial civilization, expanding through and around and on top of that which came before, as later cities have exapted earlier cities and grown through them. The effort to formulate the interrelationships of esocivilization and exocivilizations would be the project of astrocivilization, i.e., the totality of civilization in the universe.

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Sunday


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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