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.