The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, December 02, 2011

The word from a silent sky

Yesterday I read Karl Schroeder's post on a new paper on the Fermi Paradox. Karl makes the interesting suggestion that if aliens exist, their technologies are indistinguishable from natural objects. Karl had come up with the idea of a technology indistinguishable from nature in the quite different context of trying to imagine the future development of our technology. He takes the apparent absence of aliens as at least consistent with this projection: if it holds true for us, and if we are not alone, and if we are a typical intelligent species, then a Galaxy swarming with alien civilizations would look (to us, now) just like a Galaxy with no aliens at all. So what we see (and, more to the point, don't see) is just what we would expect.

It strikes me that the arguments over the existence of aliens have an interesting structural similarity to certain arguments over the existence of God. There's a type of atheist argument that says, in so many words, that the non-existence of God is manifest by just looking out of the window: if God existed, we would know about it. There's a type of theist argument that says if God exists, his existence is necessarily hidden from us, and the world outside the window - a universe that looks as if it works all by itself - is just what we would expect.


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Good point! Obviously similar sort of argument.

The premises are still massively different, I would contend. God is an absurd paradoxical proposition in itself (theistic god, as defined by majority of believers). A deistic Spinoza-god, so to speak, is just a redefinition of the words nature, entropy, or causation, dark energy, etc. in that sense.

Atheists clearly always debate the mainstream view of religion and god. Pointless debating 'deistic' believers or the sophistry in theology that *theologians themselves* claim resolves all that. Those are just fancy ways of solving purely theoretical paradoxes with irrelevant word play on false premises (I'd argue).

I'd personally be charmed to think we are the first. Can be true, even if it is highly unlikely. That's the field of exobiology in definition; there isn't really a field yet! Though the Mars microbes in meteorites & the Viking tests may be reason enough to call it a practical field I guess, even though they are ambiguous cases.

fascinating subject, regardless. One in which sci-fi has a great role in shaping the debate and inspiring the science.

I'd be interested in the comments of those-wot-know-wot-they're-talking -about on the falsifiability of the idea that no evidence for a proposition itself comprises evidence.

I can accept that some sciences - geology springs to mind, or much of astronomy for that matter - where this simple Popperian principle might not be especially helpful as one can't readily do experiments to test the hypothesis. But falsifiability has a importance nonetheless and if one can't even do a thought experiment whereby one might be able to tell the different between 'no alien technology' and 'alien technology which perfectly mimics nature' then I think you're right to make the comparison with theological arguments.

There's a nice parallel, too, to Wittgenstein professing astonishment that anyone should ever have had trouble believing in the Copernican solar system. 'Well,' the person he was talking to is supposed to have said, 'It looks as if the sun goes round the earth.' 'Really?' he replied. 'And what would it look like if the earth went round the sun?'

I think life on Earth demonstrates that life has different survival strategies depending on different availability of resources.

Sure, some aliens would keep themselves to themselves, others would have technology indistinguishable from nature and so on ... but some wouldn't. Not every civilisation will build a Dyson Sphere or a Star Destroyer or rearrange stars into neat lines or whatever, but some would.

As for SETI and theism ... there are parallels. There's a right answer but no reasonable way for us to learn it. But there are differences. There may be aliens made out of magical substances that need special pleading, but it's extremely plausible that there are ones made out of stuff like us. And it ought to be much easier to spot a real alien than a real god.

Didn't Pascal determine that belief in god is a question of faith, and thereby choice, and not evidence or logic?

And that's leaving aside what actually constitutes faith, belief, choice, evidence or logic. And god. We tend to assume these are invariant, but personally, I see quite a lot of variance, perhaps because of the fact that subsequent theistic systems tend to include the prior ones as a sort of primer.

I do actually see a similar arrogance in today's "mainstream" science that mirrors that of past "mainstream" theology (taking each as the majority belief system of its time and place) in refusing to accept anything that challenges the normative accepted world view in place.

But again, if you actually scratch at the surface, you see that things are quite more complex, both in science and theology, especially on a larger historical scale. If you are somewhat external to any field, you tend to see emergent consensus, whereas active participants will see it more as a flux of warring factions and opinions.

An additional point would be that both science and theology market themselves as somewhat at a remove from the baser human instincts such as desire, greed, power etc. But that's not really the case is it? At least for any semi-rational external observer of either domain.

All in all, I think it points at a certain basic cognitive division between humans on where to place the limits for sufficient proof. In other words, the sceptical case for reserving judgement. Some of us like to sit on the fence more than those that like to jump down on the either/or sides.

As for aliens, as a somewhat misanthropic optimist, I would certainly prefer to believe that there are other possible iterations of sentience. But I'm quite happy to sit on my inflatable cushion in the meantime.

Francis Spufford:

As I recall, Wittgenstein's interlocutor there was Anscombe.

The whole discussion reeks of theology. One could as easily argue that the complete absence of evidence for intelligent extraterrestrial life is the fault of the asteroid-sized, inherently FTL-capable space monsters which teem in the vast dark reaches between the stars. Since, of course, such creatures prefer exclusively to feed upon the autonomous artifacts of highly technological civilization, it's quite obvious why we haven't seen any von Neumann probes zipping through our solar system: the space monsters ate them all.

I contend that what I shall derisively call "Schroeder's Green Singularity" is no less inherently ridiculous than my argument from probe-eating space monsters; it is merely, thanks to a couple hundred years of increasingly hegemonic Whig history, much less obviously so.

Perhaps all the alien technology is pay-per-view and we need to set up an account to pay for it.

An anonymous commenter on Schroeder's post posits what could be summed up as "predator (un)civilisations use camouflage, prey civilisations use camouflage".

We can't even spot the majority of planets wandering between systems, why do we think we could spot technological anomalies?

Ah, the aliens are very small and they all live in Bertrand Russell's teapot.

I thought the AI asteroids in Ken's Engines of Light books were, among other things, a reference to Russell's teapot. Floating there in space, unknown to anyone on Earth, but existent for all that.

It brings to mind the entire oeuvre of Phil Dick (esp. Ubik and the short story 'Colony') along with Robert Anton Wilson's description of his psychedelic experiences (and possible extra-terrestrial contact) in the book Cosmic Trigger where he said something along the lines of: "I now understood what Gandhi meant when he said 'God is in the rock, too.' Hell, I was in the rock with God." And his comment concerning ETs - "How many highly advanced intelligences are in the room with you right now? As many as want to be."

'I do actually see a similar arrogance in today's "mainstream" science that mirrors that of past "mainstream" theology'

I know, let's debate who explores the heavens better, scientists or theologians. It's scientists. Cool, now that's settled, let's by all means discuss scientists' *attitude*.

It has struck me that the plain vanilla version of the Fermi Paradox is overstating it. That claims that the first interstellar intelligence would be everywhere soon after it appeared, so if we appear to be alone we must be the first, which seems unlikely.

But that is leaving out the equivalent of a bush fire burning itself out. What if every "first" group spreads, chokes itself off (as the cube-square logistics of expansion suggests), and then leaves in its trail an unusable zone of burned out resources apart from any accidentally spared bits? It seems more likely that we would be in one of those than that we would be the very first. If that were the case, we would most likely find that the "easy" Von Neumann expansion would fail from lack of nearby resources.

That could still be the case even if a burned out zone didn't block expansion after all, if it turned out that there had been enough of a fallow period for resources to regenerate since the last burn out. Who knows, maybe some massive but comparatively local disaster not only killed the dinosaurs but made the Earth unavailable for the last expansion. Or maybe that last burn out was what killed the dinosaurs, say by casually chucking asteroids around while quarrying them, and our belated arrival now is a match to the time scale needed for regeneration...

Del - I don't think I'd heard of Russell's teapot when I wrote the Engines of Light books. Their direct inspiration was a speculation by the Scottish SF writer and fan Chris Boyce about asteroids as a possible location for undetected alien colonies. The only religious/irreligious allusion on my mind at the time was the Epicurean concept of the gods.

Maybe it all just means that God is an alien......

Maybe God is an Interstellar Service Provider?

Anyroad up, the significance of absence is a respectable topic, scientifically. Terence Deacon's new book is worth reading in that respect:

jim buck

I think the most likely resolution of the Fermi Paradox is that we don't understand what we're looking for, we don't understand what we're looking at, and we simply haven't been looking in the right way in the right places.

Or, in other words, we're going to look really dumb when it turns out stars are sentient.

There's *kind of* a parallel between searching for the existence of God and the existence of aliens. But only kind of. The main parallel is that the exact claim is actually a variety of different claims. 'Might there be some form of lifeform on some other planet somewhere?' isn't the same question as 'what can the Nordics who came down in a flying saucer teach us about nuclear weapons testing and tantric sex?'.

The main difference is that we mean 'life as we know it' with aliens, that they're made of stuff like us (even if we only mean 'atoms') and there's some form of natural selection. With a God the whole claim is that they're made of different things and are excused from science class.

The problem is having a requirement that a god-who-looks-just-like-it-doesn't-exist ought to be woshipped to the point of giving special privileges to child rapists.

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