Sunday, April 27, 2008

Where Are They? Why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing.

Philosopher Nick Bostrom considers the discovery of life on Mars bad news. As in really bad news -- so bad, in fact, that finding even relatively primitive organisms eking out an existence among the ice would entail nothing less than our ultimate doom.

Bostrom sets the theoretical stage this way:

The more complex the life-form we found, the more depressing the news would be. I would find it interesting, certainly--but a bad omen for the future of the human race.

How do I arrive at this conclusion? I begin by reflecting on a well-known fact. UFO spotters, Raëlian cultists, and self-­certified alien abductees notwithstanding, humans have, to date, seen no sign of any extraterrestrial civilization.

By dismissing a significant body of evidence suggestive of some form of nonhuman contact, Bostrom manipulates the playing field in such a way that he can argue essentially anything he likes. Evidently Bostrom expects the lay reader will buy into his daft notion that the UFO phenomenon has something to do with Raëlians. And his smearing of "self-­certified alien abductees" is the stuff of rabid pseudo-debunkery.

Bostrom goes on to illustrate the concept of a "Great Filter" -- a kind of evolutionary black hole through which a potential extraterrestrial intelligence must pass in order to fulfill its destiny. (Bostrom's hypothetical ETs are a conspicuously anthropomorphic lot, but I'll cut him some slack; given the vastness of the observable universe, is it that bizarre to expect that a relatively tiny number will possess traits in keeping with our own?)

Pondering the sort of threat necessary to silence a candidate ET civilization, Bostrom writes:

The Great Filter, then, would have to be something more dramatic than run-of-the mill societal collapse: it would have to be a terminal global cataclysm, an existential catastrophe. An existential risk is one that threatens to annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential for future development. In our own case, we can identify a number of potential existential risks: a nuclear war fought with arms stockpiles much larger than today's (perhaps resulting from future arms races); a genetically engineered superbug; environmental disaster; an asteroid impact; wars or terrorist acts committed with powerful future weapons; super­intelligent general artificial intelligence with destructive goals; or high-energy physics experiments. These are just some of the existential risks that have been discussed in the literature, and considering that many of these have been proposed only in recent decades, it is plausible to assume that there are further existential risks we have not yet thought of.

A bit later, Bostrom cuts to the chase:

If the Great Filter is ahead of us, we have still to confront it. If it is true that almost all intelligent species go extinct before they master the technology for space colonization, then we must expect that our own species will, too, since we have no reason to think that we will be any luckier than other species. If the Great Filter is ahead of us, we must relinquish all hope of ever colonizing the galaxy, and we must fear that our adventure will end soon--or, at any rate, prematurely. Therefore, we had better hope that the Great Filter is behind us.

I must admit that I'm taken aback by Bostrom's assumption that "colonizing the galaxy" is necessarily the raison d'etre of a technologically robust ETI. Although he cites the possibility of less aggressively materialistic aliens early in his piece, it's almost as if he wishes we'd forget about them.

What has all this got to do with finding life on Mars? Consider the implications of discovering that life had evolved independently on Mars (or some other planet in our solar system). That discovery would suggest that the emergence of life is not very improbable. If it happened independently twice here in our own backyard, it must surely have happened millions of times across the galaxy. This would mean that the Great Filter is less likely to be confronted during the early life of planets and therefore, for us, more likely still to come.

By now you get the idea: if life is commonplace, we can expect to encounter an insurmountable existential hurdle at some point in the future -- specifically, before we're able to announce our presence to the galaxy (assuming we'd want to, and there are a host of arguments suggesting that it might not be the bright idea we're tacitly assured it is). Bostrom's argument is tantalizing and, on first glance, impressive. But it hinges on so many anthropocentric conceits that it reduces itself from a legitimate "either/or" to a merely interesting philosophical conjecture.

It's equally clear that Bostrom is most likely in for a dose of ennui; our solar system abounds with the ingredients for life, from Mars to Europa and beyond. Indeed, we may have already found it.

But none of this bothers me nearly so much as the fatalism at the core of Bostrom's thesis, which purports to reveal the role of intelligence in the universe but delivers little more than litany of uncertainties dressed in racy new clothes.

Bostrom is, of course, perfectly free to quake with dread when we finally confirm the existence of extraterrestrial life. Meanwhile, I'll be breaking open the champagne.

Cheers, Nick.


Anonymous said...

The whole argument (for me at least) falls apart from word one. I'm one of those "quacks" who tends to listen to ex-military and related contract workers who have come forward in recent years to describe their knowledge of the black budget, covert world and related programs.

It becomes more and more clear to me and many others that in fact the US government has had a clandestine space program in place from as early as the late 60's. The paper trail is there to some degree but it's really the corroboration of information between unrelated parties that sinches the story for me.

Let your mind briefly play with the possibility that there is a joint Russian/US base on the dark side of the moon. Now ask yourself why it's there and why it's secret?

I consider academic elitists like Nick Bostrom to be the worst kind of pundits. Too scared, too brainwashed to honestly look at what can be gleaned from viable sources. Stuck in an inflexible reality formed mainly by the relentless status quo lies.

He actually thinks he's playing the part of an intellectual...snicker. I'm just saying, he really needs to fill in some of the more challenging blanks by doing a tiny bit of honest research instead of casting it all aside as fringe.


Mac said...


Not that I agree with Bostrom, but how would a secret space program negate his argument? He's talking long-term species viability. A base on the moon is a far cry from Bostrom's galactic colonization.

(BTW, there is no "dark" side.)

intense said...

I tend to think that Bostrom's musings are far too anthropocentric without his being clearly aware of it.

It's a "cinch" that when you only have one sample of one intelligent species on one planet (our own), it's pure speculation to suggest other nonhuman intelligent species elsewhere are like or might have gone through a similar pattern of evolution as life on this planet has. He may be correct or he may not; we just don't know.

As for the evidence of the Great Filter--that may be most applicable to our own species, given the known existential risks we have incurred.

Keying tangentially on the Fermi Paradox in relation to Bostrom's commentary, I'd have to polish off that old chestnut that posits that "the absence of evidence does not prove evidence of absence," especially considering the obscure patterns of data, or signal within the noise, of the very best "ufo" cases over the past century or more.

Like Vallee, I tend to think that data suggests a kind of reality that may be more weird and convoluted than we can possibly even conceive the actual origins or nature of, at present. His NIDS paper, co-authored with Eric Davis, regarding the "incommensurability" problem, and their suggestions as to how it might be dealt with, comes to mind.


intense said...

See also:

Oh, and I also have severe doubts about any human base on the far side of the moon. IMHO. FWIW. YMMV.

Anonymous said...

Absurdity after absurdity, stating there is no and has been no evidence of ET. If we were in any danger from ET, our goose would have been cooked a long time ago. We are however, in constant danger from a lack of intelligence right here on our own little rock!


Chris Wren said...

I've never seen someone make not only such anthropocentric but ethnocentric arguments in my life and be so entirely f**king clueless about it.

Once and for all: the Fermi Paradox is worthless because one of the many assumptions it operates on is that galactic colonization is an inevitable end result of sufficiently advanced space-faring technology.

This is a Western conceit, based on the assumption that our own colonial history MUST be the norm for all intelligence in the universe. But there is absolutely no good reason to believe that advanced intelligences would have the slightest interest in colonizing the galaxy, in person or via Von Nuemann-esque devices - or engaging in activities that would be visible to anyone half a galaxy or more away.

Frankly, I honestly doubt that we would possess the wits to recognize a super-advanced ETI civilization if one was sitting right on top of us. The whole Fermi Paradox/Great Filter argument is meaningless without more information. As the old saying goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

dad2059 said...

What Chris said.

Ditto squared.

dedroidify said...

Alien talk based in this dimension alone usually stimulates me mentally as much as SETI has chance of finding ET life.

Mac said...

Despite the glaring holes in Bostrom's thesis, no one seems to be too concerned. That bugs me.

Anonymous said...

"UFO spotters, Raëlian cultists, and self-­certified alien abductees notwithstanding, humans have, to date, seen no sign of any extraterrestrial civilization." I wonder how long it took to write that sentence. "Humans" means "the serious scientific community", perhaps. Anyways I don't think it's willfully obtuse. His Great Filter is a fun toy for him, and UFO phenomonae spoil the fun.

Mac said...

The "Great Filter" is indeed an intellectual toy. The problem is that he wields it as cosmological fact when it's nothing of the sort. This would hold true regardless of whether we're being visited by ETs.