The Xenophobia of Avi Loeb’s Interstellar Xenia

Anyone struck by the recent announcement of Christopher Mellon’s and Luis Elizondo’s being appointed research affiliates to Avi Loeb’s Galileo Project may have been curious enough to visit the project’s website, where they may have been tempted to read an article linked there, “Be Kind to Extraterrestrial Guests“, by project head Loeb.

Loeb proposes that “we” (who are we? Homo Sapiens? Americans? Harvard faculty?…) adopt the classical Greek custom of Xenia, the hospitality extended to strangers as typified in the Homeric epics, except in an expanded, “interstellar”, sense: “Interstellar Xenia implies that we should welcome autonomous visitors, even if they embody hardware with artificial and not natural intelligence, which arrive to our vicinity from far away.” Why? “Our technological civilization could benefit greatly from the knowledge it might garner from such encounters.”

A problem with Loeb’s proposal is evident, first, in the example of mundane hospitality he offers and the exosocial implication he draws from it:

On a recent breezy evening, I noticed an unfamiliar visitor standing in front of my home and asked for his identity. He explained that he used to live in my home half a century ago. I welcomed him to our backyard where he noted that his father buried their cat and placed a tombstone engraved with its name. We went there and found the tombstone….

If we find visitors, they might provide us with a new perspective about the history of our back yard. In so doing, they would bring a deeper meaning to our life within the keen historic friendship that we owe them in our shared space.

Loeb’s anecdote is likely chosen as much for its concreteness and emotional appeal as for whatever features it might be said to share with a hypothetical encounter with ET. That being said, the scenario presents the encounter between Homo Sapiens and an extraterrestrial Other as one of immediate (i.e., unproblematic) mutual recognition (like that between Loeb and the “unfamiliar visitor”), which is both telling and fateful.

By what warrant does Loeb assume the unproblematic recognition of or by this Other? Aside from the obvious obstacle, that, while Loeb and his visitor, or the stranger and his host in Bronze Age Greece, share the same culture, which an interstellar visitor would not, consider the scenario depicted in the science-fiction film Europa Report. A team of astronauts is sent to explore the moon of Jupiter named in the film’s title, where it discovers under the ice a bioluminescent creature resembling an earthly squid or octopus. Does the creature use its bioluminescence to hunt or attract prey in the dark oceans under Europa’s ice, or, being “intelligent“, is it its means of communication? And, if the creature were “intelligent”, how would the human astronauts know and how would the creature perceive in the astronauts their “intelligence”? Why would the astronauts, rather than, say, their capsule, even be the focus of the creature’s curiosity? Even so shopworn a science-fiction franchise as Star Trek (in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) envisioned a technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial species blindly indifferent to all human civilization on earth in the search for its own Cetacean kind.

Even if we set aside the specific case of our encountering extraterrestrial intelligent life, the same problem persists. The Galileo Project’s first focus is the search for near-earth “extraterrestrial equipment“, whether a functioning artificially intelligent probe or piece of detritus. In any case, we must be able to recognize the artifact as an artifact, precisely the point of contention around ‘Oumuamua: was it a natural object or an artificial one, as Loeb et al. argue? Again, science fiction has touched on just this challenge, as the ability to perceive a piece of alien technology as such is pivotal to the plot of Star Trek: the Motion Picture. (Loeb seems more a fan of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact or its film version). The problem becomes even more intractable if we take seriously speculations that the very structures of the cosmos or its laws may be artifacts.

So, whether our interstellar interloper be a piece of technology, “intelligent” or otherwise, or biological, we are a far ways from the easy hospitality Loeb was able to offer his visitor, as we may not even know we are in the presence of a visitor and that stranger may not recognize they are in the presence of a potential host. How is it, then, that Loeb overlooks these grave obstacles to mutual recognition in his advocating Interstellar Xenia? I propose that Loeb, like all those obsessed with, fascinated by, or or otherwise inclined to indulge the idea of extraterrestrial, intelligent life, is on the lookout for an anthropomorphic “intelligence”, failing to recognize, at the same time, that encountering an exo-tic, extraterrestrial life form is an instance of interspecies communication.

One needn’t travel to an imagined Europa to discover the grave flaws in Loeb’s perspective. First, restricting “intelligence” to human intelligence in general or that teleological, problem-solving, technical intelligence, instrumental reason, is demonstrably perverse, de facto and de jure. One need only glance at the growing body of research into animal and plant intelligence to see that Homo Sapiens already inhabits a planet teeming with intelligent, nonhuman life. Philosophical reflection on the concept of intelligence, too, dissolves the identification of intelligence with human, instrumental reason. Justin E. Smith makes this case in both a lively and readable manner that I encourage interested parties to read for themselves; here, I attempt to condense his case…. Smith explains

…the only idea we are in fact able to conjure of what intelligent beings elsewhere may be like is one that we extrapolate directly from our idea of our own intelligence. And what’s worse, in this case the scientists are generally no more sophisticated than the folk….

One obstacle to opening up our idea of what might count as intelligence to beings or systems that do not or cannot “pass our tests” is that, with this criterion abandoned, intelligence very quickly comes to look troublingly similar to adaptation, which in turn always seems to threaten tautology. That is, an intelligent arrangement of things would seem simply to be the one that best facilitates the continued existence of the thing in question; so, whatever exists is intelligent….

it may in fact be useful to construe intelligence in just this way: every existing life-form is equally intelligent, because equally well-adapted to the challenges the world throws its way. This sounds audacious, but the only other possible construal of intelligence I can see is the one that makes it out to be “similarity to us”…

Ubiquitous living systems on Earth, that is —plants, fungi, bacteria, and of course animals—, manifest essentially the same capacities of adaptation, of interweaving themselves into the natural environment in order to facilitate their continued existence, that in ourselves we are prepared to recognize as intelligence….

There is in sum no good reason to think that evolutionary “progress” must involve the production of artifices, whether in external tools or in representational art. In fact such productions might just as easily be seen as compensations for a given life form’s inadequacies in facing challenges its environment throws at it. An evolutionally “advanced” life form might well be the one that, being so well adapted, or so well blended into its environment, simply has no need of technology at all.

But such a life form will also be one that has no inclination to display its ability to ace our block-stacking tests or whatever other proxies of intelligence we strain to devise. Such life forms are, I contend, all around us, all the time. Once we convince ourselves this is the situation here on Earth, moreover, the presumption that our first encounter with non-terrestrial life forms will be an encounter with spaceship-steering technologists comes to appear as a risible caricature.

Both fact and reason, then, call into serious question the very intelligibility of Loeb’s imagined, hospitable meeting, for there are no grounds to decide just what organism, extraterrestrial or otherwise, would count as an Other for us to greet (and vice versa: on what grounds would Homo Sapiens be picked out of all the other species on earth to be that Other’s Other?). It’s almost as if Loeb has taken his clue from mythology, not only that found in the epic accounts of xenia, but the Biblical Creation story, wherein Man is made in the image of God and given sovereignty over all other creatures, or the myth of Prometheus who gifts humankind fire or inventive ingenuity. Such a metaphysical idea grants Homo Sapiens a special characteristic (“intelligence”), which is then imagined to be possessed by other, similarly “ensouled” and gifted extraterrestrials we hope not merely to encounter but to meet.

This hope, however, is futile, as the only creature that meets the criteria we have set is ourselves. Were the problem grasped in its more thorough-going form, as one of interspecies communication, then we might turn our attention to all those other organisms with whom we share the earth and perhaps reflect on the nature and extent of the hospitality we extend to them and may perhaps be said to owe them. With this thought, the perversity of why we should extend hospitality to “autonomous visitors, even if they embody hardware with artificial and not natural intelligence” is revealed: “Our technological civilization could benefit greatly from the knowledge it might garner from such encounters.” First, Loeb narrows down civilization to its technology (as if technology were somehow meaningfully abstractable from the society and culture that produce it), then he restricts the interaction to what we, the hosts, might gain (“knowledge”), twisting his central idea of xenia out of all resemblance to the Hellenic custom he invokes, which is characterized in the first instance by the generosity of the host.

Loeb’s vision here is, first, narcissistic (i.e., it sees intelligence only as human intelligence, which he in turn seems to restrict to technical ingenuity, at that) and, second, self-centredly grasping (in conceiving of xenia only in terms of what we, the hosts, have to gain from our guests, “knowledge”). The supreme irony of Loeb’s position is revealed by this insistence that the discovery of a technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial civilization would precipitate a “Copernican revolution” that would disabuse humankind of its delusion that it is the only “intelligent” (and, hence, the most intelligent) species in its galactic neighbourhood, inspiring it to adopt instead a “cosmic modesty“, when in fact Loeb has conceived human instrumental reason as “intelligence” itself, the archetypal standard by which any other organism is determined to be intelligent or not, i.e., his stance is fundamentally anthropocentric. The narcissism of this conception entails that we will only ever be able greet and extend hospitality to ourselves. Loeb’s stranger is not strange enough….

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