Avi Loeb, the Harvard Professor of Astronomy is at it again. Professor Loeb is most famous of late for his conjectures that the interstellar object Oumuamua might be an alien spaceship. Most recently remarks he made at The Humans to Mars Summit (14-16 May 2019) concerning the value of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) have stirred some interest.
I haven’t had the time to fast forward through the three days’ live streaming to find Professor Loeb’s talk, but the idea of his that caught the attention of at least two journalists (here and here) is that discovering extraterrestrial civilizations that have self-destructed, as ours threatens to do, might help us learn to avoid their fatal mistakes: “The idea is we may learn something in the process. We may learn to better behave with each other, not to initiate a nuclear war, or to monitor our planet and make sure that it’s habitable for as long as we can make it habitable.”
Where to begin?…
In the best of all possible worlds, Loeb and I would have an intellectual cage match on this subject. I have consistently (and with increasing impatience, admittedly) taken to task the assumptions that underwrite Loeb’s views and SETI in general, on the grounds that they are anthropocentric in identifying “intelligence” with human intelligence (an identification with fatal consequences for all those other intelligent life forms with which we share the earth) and, worse, that they reify one civilization’s vector of technical development, namely that of “the West”, as being natural to all imaginable anthropomorphically intelligent life. The Enlightenment is sometimes taken to task for unconsciously restricting the human to white, ruling-class males; SETI’s assumptions seem equally, if not more, perverse.
But Loeb’s statement quoted above reveals the vacuity of his thesis. We don’t need to discover another civilization that ended itself through war, nuclear or otherwise, or by fouling its own nest. We already understand that we need avoid even a “limited” nuclear war and we already monitor the habitability of our planet, with increasing scrutiny and anxiety. The only virtue of this aspect of xenoarchaeology would be to discover a civilization that succumbed to an internal threat of which we are unaware. But even letting SETI’s frankly ideological assumptions off the hook, even such a discovery would be empty, since civilizations are each determined at each moment by a set of conditions that are in each instance radically local (historical).
My argument here cuts too against those who believe we can learn from history. Such thinking makes of human societies a kind of natural phenomenon subject to transtemporal laws. But human societies are not “natural” in the way the behaviour of the electron is natural, but historical, and, as such, admit to being not known but only understood within the context of a constellation of temporally local and ephemeral determinants. In a word, and to say too much too quickly, human societies operate within the realm of freedom not (natural) necessity. This is not to say humans beings in the aggregate escape or otherwise stand above nature, but only that it is illegitimate to seek to know them the same way we seek knowledge of nonhuman nature.
Nor am I arguing ultimately against the curiosity that drives SETI. What I am relentlessly and mercilessly critical of are the zombie ideas that make of the human being, and our present iteration of civilization, exemplars of all imaginable intelligence throughout the universe.
11 thoughts on “There are no repeats in space”
Good points. Other civilizations may not be flawed toward self-destruction. Maybe they’re not even civilizations, but, e.g., just chunks of data.
even that is to generalize our example in a not unproblematic way…
There are just too many unknowns.
What we do know is that 1. Even within a fairly narrow definition of “intelligence” there are a number of nonhuman intelligent species on earth, e.g., great apes; 2. The threats to our world civilization are too well known, and their solution is in the end political; and 3. The history that sees all of human culture as working toward its apotheosis in, say, New York, is self-serving.
I WANT MY CAGE MATCH! ( ;
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So Purusha’s little toe nail has gained a modicum of rudimentary consciousness because of an irreproducible succession of myriad codependent chemical processes, and now it fancies itself a toe nail “civilisation” and wants to know if there are other “civilisations” out there, nail-centric or otherwise that it can learn things from.
Presently, just how consciousness might have evolved or how life might have arisen from “an irreproducible succession of myriad codependent chemical processes” is simply unknown (see my post “Life should not even exist on the surface of the earth”). But, that being said, you sum up in a wry way Loeb’s contention. The assumptions underwriting that contention and their ideological (sociopolitical) implications are what I find most concernful, as grave as they all-too-often remain unconscious and unexamined.
I find it concerning you’re inclined to dismiss decades old efforts to experimentally study human behavior and the body of developing and accumulating evidence.
RRJA, thanks for commenting.
I’m a little unsure of what decades of effort you refer to, though I imagine you might be referring to at least experimental psychology or even sociobiology, apart from what findings you find pertinent and compelling.
I don’t doubt homo sapiens can be grasped and studied from various scientific perspectives, but, surely, it’s a leap from the very focussed, limited, tentative and always developing findings to generalizing about transhistorical laws governing societies. There are, as well, as you might imagine, philosophical grounds for calling such attempts (_does_ anyone attempt it?) into question…