“It is hard to see how any other outcome is possible”: The Platonism of S.E.T.I.

Regular visitors to these Skunkworks can imagine how our interest was piqued by the headline “Philosopher UFOlogist says humans are not ready to make contact”. The Skunkworks Research Library secured the (self-published) book in question, Adrian Rudnyk’s The Assessment:  The Arrival of Extraterrestrials, and a brief notice of it might be forthcoming, but, here, I want to essay the more profound way that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and speculations about intelligent, technologically-advanced extraterrestrial life is more “philosophical” than Rudnyk seems to perceive or SETI and its collaborators would themselves probably be prepared to admit.

A driving thesis of the critical and creative work here is that the very idea of a technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilization is ideological, i.e, the form of one society and culture of one species on earth is held up as paradigmatic and natural. So-called “advanced” society (that of the so-called “First World”) imagines itself to be, in Francis Fukuyama‘s expression, “the end [the final goal] of history”. This assumption underwrites untroubled speculations about extraterrestrial life, intelligence, and culture: if some life evolves “intelligence” (like that displayed by technologically-advanced terrestrial societies), then that intelligence will likewise develop technologies along lines analogous to the development of earthly technologies, such that it makes sense to speak of these extraterrestrial technologies as being less or more advanced than those possessed by homo sapiens at a given time. The homogeneity of such development is even thought sufficient to be able to speak intelligibly about technologies hundreds, thousands, and even millions upon millions of years “more advanced”…

A most recent example of this kind of “thinking” is that of Avi Loeb. Loeb is best known among SETI and UFO enthusiasts for proposing and arguing that the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system, 1I/2017 U1 ‘Oumuamua was in fact an alien artifact, a “technological relic.” Such astroarchaeological artifacts would be valuable to find, study, and reverse engineer, Loeb argues, because “it might be a way of short-cutting into our future because it would take us many years to develop the same technology, so there are lots of benefits that I can imagine for humanity from just finding technological relics in space.” I’ve addressed Loeb’s views here before, both specifically and more generally. Aside from these criticisms, in light of Arik Kershenbaum’s The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals of Earth Reveal About Aliens—and Ourselves, I’m prompted add another, addressed to Loeb’s self-confessed love of philosophy.

Kershenbaum’s book by and large is more level-headed than Loeb’s recent Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, extrapolating, as it does, what we know about the evolution of life on earth to potential life forms on other planets. Such an exercise does not fall prey to ideological blindness the way that Loeb et al. do, as it assumes only that the laws of physics, chemistry, and biochemistry (and, by extension, evolution) hold throughout the galaxy if not known universe. However, when pushed, Kershenbaum can’t help but fall into the same trap as all those who take the idea of technological, extraterrestrial civilizations “seriously”. In a recent interview with the author, Kermit Pattison relates

Kershenbaum predicts that some aliens will exhibit social cooperation, technology and language… He even posits that aliens will share the quality we hold most dear: intelligence. “We all want to believe in intelligent aliens,” he writes. “It seems inevitable that they will, in fact, exist.”

That such a scenario “seems inevitable” reveals that Kershenbaum and those who think like him are no longer engaged in scientific but metaphysical speculation. Indeed, the idea of this inevitability is arguably grounded in Plato’s theory of Forms, which precedes even the term ‘metaphysics’.

Plato’s theory of Forms or Ideas is arguably as much an invention of Plato’s interpreters as of the author of the dialogues himself. That being said, one can all-to-quickly summarize the theory in its received form as follows:

The world that appears to our senses is in some way defective and filled with error, but there is a more real and perfect realm, populated by entities (called “forms” or “ideas”) that are eternal, changeless, and in some sense paradigmatic for the structure and character of the world presented to our senses.

If we think of these Forms as designs or plans, the temporal connotations of these words suggests just how Kershenbaum’s prediction about extraterrestrial intelligence flowering in technology are in a sense Platonic. It’s as life were possessed of a potential to develop what we know as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) that it might actualize to a greater or lesser degree. Some organisms (e.g., homo sapiens) fulfill this potential, others (slime mold?) do not, while others “inevitably” actualize it even more than we have. It’s the inevitability of the idea, that we are sure to encounter technologically-advanced extraterrestrial civilizations that essentializes it. It’s part of the essence (Form, Idea…) of life that it has the potential to develop “intelligence” and subsequently “technology”. Homo sapiens are merely an instantiation of the actualization of this essential potential.

The fetishistic character of this idea that Western civilization is somehow a cosmic norm is revealed all the more starkly when we reflect that the “intelligence” operative in STEM (instrumental, calculative reason) and the technology it produces (and, no less, is, in a sense, produced by) is hardly even the norm among human beings, let alone life on earth. The narrowing down of rationality to technical problem solving is a perversity peculiar to a particular society, very restricted in space and time, ironically, one whose own science undercuts and overturns this blinkered, proud self-regard; at the same time, this very science is itself hardly a universal potential aspect of culture, being but one, and a very new one, among many no less functional “systems of knowledge” that have enabled groups of homo sapiens to survive and flourish.

However much Kerschenbaum, Loeb, and others might protest, that our science is governed by often all-too unconscious metaphysical assumptions is well-known to philosophers, among them, surely, Diane W Pasulka. In her American Cosmic, she invokes Martin Heidegger‘s notion of technology in the course of her argument that technology and that represented by the UFO has taken on a religious aura in recent history. Heidegger is well-known for (among other things) articulating what he called “the History of Being”, i.e., a particular trajectory of the basic question of ontology, “What is ‘being’?” from Plato and Aristotle, who first explicitly posed the question, down to himself, who poses it and recasts it again as “fundamental ontology” in Being and Time. What the history of Being uncovers is that the question received a definitive answer among the ancient Greeks, one that held sway until Heidegger’s resuscitation of the question and “destruction” of the history of ontology to free the inquiry from its sedimented, guiding assumptions. Plato and Aristotle posited that “being is presence”, an answer to the question that was passed down to Christian and Medieval civilization, and inherited as an unspoken presupposition of what became the natural sciences.

Aside from whether one accepts Heidegger’s history of Being, it is surely ironic that, on the one hand, Kershenbaum invokes the precariously chance-ridden process of evolution to imagine life on other worlds, while remaining somehow blind to the even more aleatoric process that leads to any given culture’s having ended up where it is, while, on the other, Loeb would argue that humankind should be humble, because it is not unique! What greater hubris is there than to project one’s own peculiar society as somehow characteristic of life in the cosmos? In this regard, Kershenbaum and Loeb not only unknowingly take up inherited Platonic notions but arguably also in a parody of the Ptolemaic universe place this latest, if not last, moment of Western civilization at the centre of, if not the universe, then its workings, an instance of a norm no less universal than the speed of light.

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