Last January, I had an exchange with science columnist Dennis Overbye at the NYTimes about his light-hearted Christmastime article on prospects for ETs to be found.
He responded graciously, saying that he wanted to follow up someday by writing about the Fermi Paradox. He did so, last week, in light of Stephen Hawking’s call for accelerated searching, and Yuri Milner’s pledge of $100 million to the cause. Overbye focused on pessimism toward SETI that is argued in detail by philosopher Nick Bostrom.
So, I wrote back today, after studying Bostrom’s case.
You were exactly right, last January, that you would write on the Fermi Paradox. The Hawking/Milner event was surely opportune.
Fascinating is the apparent irrelevance of stringent argument like Bostrom’s (which is 7 years old). Paul Allen is upgrading his telescope array. SETI Institute is chugging along. Perhaps it’s part of our evolution to find out when species boredom with finding nothing comes to prevail.
Anyway, I’m one of the optimists. You wrote about Bostrom’s old argument that “there are many loopholes in this argument,” though you cite only one. Actually, a different loophole—the main one, I surmise—is mentioned in Bostrom’s discussion, but is quickly “put aside.” Bostrom writes:
...Now, it is possible to concoct scenarios in which the universe is swarming with advanced civilizations every one of which chooses to keep itself well hidden from our view.Inasmuch as this is the case, then every one of Bostrom’s Great Filter prospects that are yet unmet (versus already weathered by the fact that we’re here) is invalidated! So, his regarding of the “Silent” prospect as a “concoction” and characterizing it dismissively is self-serving.
The Silent Prospect calls for imagination, too. But it’s actually very plausible—unless “your” view of intelligence is, well, not very intelligent. That is, looking at the trends in our own evolution of intelligence does not corroborate Bostrom’s conception of intelligent action! For example, dispositions to conquer or spread everywhere are contrary to what our increasing environmentalism implies. We’re stringently “sterile” with Mars landers, because we don’t want to affect possible life. (What artist or scientist doesn’t wish for more private time, wishes to be “left alone,” which is not being Alone, rather having freedom for one’s own designs. It’s not aggressive; it’s individuated.) Another kind of example: Bostrom’s focus on physical travel rather than light-speed communication (the idea behind the Hawking/Milner interest) sets up dispositions that our failure to find anything is supposed to signal the absence of Everything—rather the absence of beings that want to be found.
Also, Bostrom shows a rather crude notion of a Silence Prospect: “...Perhaps they’re observing us as if we were animals in a zoo.” No, perhaps they’re letting us evolve, like we regard wildlife preserves, not as our estate, but as the estate of the indiginous form of life. Bostrom says, rightly, “I don’t see how we can conclusively rule out [the] possibility” of the Silence Prospect, but he would set it aside, because it undermines his entire case. In short, the more advanced the life we find (e.g., bacteria-level life, beyond algae-level life), the greater the prospect that advanced life is everywhere, if the Silence Prospect is tenable.
Bostrom touches on this when he writes inaptly “Maybe there is a secret society...” No, maybe They have seen enough life harmed by having its evolution interrupted that They let planets be. Thus, as Bostrom says, They would “have decided not to contact us until we’re mature enough to be admitted into their club.” But this elitist notion is contrary to the more likely educationist notion that a student-centered teacher doesn’t promote self-directed learning by intervening in a learner’s trial-and-error processes. This corresponds more to how we most intelligently act (child-centered parenting, employee-oriented leadership, etc.) than Bostrom’s computational view of intelligent action. An indiginous evolution is not respected by colonizing it. Think of what effect on our evolution would result from knowing that post-biological beings can move through a fifth dimension beyond space-time (string theory posits 11 dimensions, last I heard) such that they can appear and disappear. “God” was created in our image because we desperately needed that unifying mirror.
A critical principle here is that we should need to appreciate how the best of us actually act: The brightest parents, teachers, philanthropists tend toward selflessness; environmentalism is more intelligent than dominating nature. The Brights, so to speak, live by an ethic that is more humanely intelligent than wanting to dominate or colonize.
An irony of beings here from elsewhere so advanced that we don’t recognize them as being here is that such a scenario is congruent with the Silence Prospect. Though Moore’s Law surely has boundaries, those boundaries are quantum computationally far beyond what would be needed for an insect-sized automaton to be smarter than any approaching observer.
The point is not that there are plausibly such beings around, but that the Silence Prospect strongly undermines Bostrom-ian pessimism.
Our own accelerating evolution keeps corroborating the Silence Prospect: Here we are less than two decades into exoplanetary work, and we’re already able to spectrographically determine if a distant planet in the Water Hole has organic molecules. Life millions of years beyond us would have known of us millions of years ago. Such life doesn’t waste energy with broadcast leakage; It targets planets that are ready to “find” them, just like the MacArthur Foundation surprisingly contacts creators who seem ready for prime time.
If using common human examples of high sophistication seems to be an absurd way to speculate about incomprehensible beings, it’s not really: People can only use intelligence as we know it in order to speculate. The Bostroms of the world are showing what sense of high intelligence they understand. I would argue that high intelligence among humans is very different and evolving toward greater care for letting others be.
This is briefly why I’m optimistic: Evolution of human intelligence argues for “humane” Silence.
Maybe Dennis will respond. Whatever, I want this posting to be the beginning of a fun topic that will get very large.