Sightings: Sunday 5 December 2021: Why it matters how we think about intelligence and technology

Watching a certain kind of article turn up on my news feeds gets a little like binge-watching The Walking Dead or one of its numerous spinoffs: how many times can one watch another zombie shamble into view to be dispatched? Surely, some readers here might justifiably feel the same when the topic of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) or the very notion of an advanced, extraterrestrial civilization is raised and cut down.

Until such time as I can win a forum for my arguments as public as that of a certain Harvard professor of astrophysics I can’t help but persist in the exercise, at least to keep my brain fibres warmed up and limber and my critical machete honed. On (in?) the other hand, it might be time to clarify what my reflections on this topic intend…

Two articles that caught my attention this week and that provide good opportunities in this regard are Joelle Renstrom’s from Wired “Looking for Alien Life? Seek Out Alien Tech” and another from FuturismScientists Say There May Be ‘Humans’ All Over the Universe“.

Nanosats

Renstrom’s article collates ideas already addressed here (that SETI might prove more fruitful were it to search for technosignatures rather than signals from extraterrestrial civilizations) along with remarks and reflections from Seth Shostak and Susan Schneider that speculate about the implications for SETI of an extraterrestrial species’ having become post-biological: “Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens—the merging of biological beings and machines. Maybe they’ve become nanosats. Maybe they’re data or are part of a digital network that functions like a collective consciousness….”

The critical fissure, however, is right there in that first sentence: “Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens”, and even more in the article’s subtitle: “Shifting the search for extraterrestrial life from biological to technological signs could break us out of anthropocentrism and help guide humanity’s future.” Ironically, the “paradigm shift” Renstrom outlines (“shifting the search for extraterrestrial life from biological to technological signs”) is itself anthropocentric, modeled as it is on the self-understanding of one, very recent and by-no-means global, culture of Homo Sapiens. The unconscious narcissism (anthropocentrism) is evident in the way Renstrom outlines his argument:

If we assume that biological life of some sort emerged on other planets, then we can also make some educated assumptions about how that life evolved—namely, that other species also invented technology, such as tools, transport vehicles, factories, and computers. Maybe those species invented artificial intelligence (AI) or virtual worlds. Advanced ET may have reached the “technological singularity,” the point at which AI exceeds human or biological intelligence. Maybe they experienced what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens…

Despite the fact we have yet to determine how life arose on earth and have yet to detect it off-world (provided we could even recognize it when we encountered it…), one would have to be perversely stubborn not to be moved if not convinced by the sheer number of even earth-like planets so far discovered not to grant the assumption that life-as-we-know-it has emerged elsewhere in the cosmos. But note the leap Renstrom makes: “namely, that other species also invented technology, such as tools, transport vehicles, factories, and computers.” Aside from the far-from-unquestionable concept of technology at work here, that equates technology with (or reduces it to) tool-use, how is it an “educated assumption” that life gives rise to technology, especially that exemplified by factories and computers not to mention the complex society and culture that underwrite them? It is, from the available evidence, not only anthropocentric to imagine life develops technology (in a more educated sense), but chauvinistic, in as much as one (perhaps short-lived) inflection of human culture (namely that of the so-called “advanced” societies) is posited as a norm or model. The critical move occurs when a vector of “development” is projected from the present into an imagined future (“what many scientists believe is in store for Homo sapiens…”). If evolution, governed by the laws of nature, is so chance-ridden as to be unrepeatable, how much moreso the story of human culture? That is, “histories” that naturalize cultural patterns, e.g., the advent of technology and its “progress”, are arguably self-serving narratives of the cultures that compose them (i.e., depicting these cultures and their order as somehow necessary or destined to be) let alone of the ruling classes of those cultures whose privilege is premissed on precisely the pretense of their cultures’ being part of the inevitable, natural order of things.

“…human-like evolution has occurred in other locations around the universe”.

But what if those natural laws of physics, chemistry, and biology that govern evolution entailed that the morphology of life were more harmonious if not uniform, such that extraterrestrial, humanoid organisms were well within the realm of possibility? The theory of evolutionary convergence posits, roughly, that similar conditions can and will entail similar evolutionary developments. Mammals and cephalopods both possess eyes, though they do not share a common, eyed ancestor; likewise, birds, bats, insects and pterosaurs all developed flight independently. On these grounds, evolutionary biologists believe that “they can ‘say with reasonable confidence’ that human-like evolution has occurred in other locations around the universe“.

But some evolutionary biologists cannot resist the temptation to take the next step. An example is Ari Kershenbaum, the author of The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy who conjectures:

Some planets are just going to have simple life on them. Many, maybe even most. But let’s assume that we found a planet with something we would call intelligent life. No one gets intelligence just because it would be a cool thing to have; their ancestors must have benefited from that intelligence. If they reached the stage where they can build a radio telescope, then they must have been through the stages where it was advantageous to be curious, where it was advantageous to communicate.

Kershenbaum’s speculation seems offered in a blithe spirit, but it’s precisely its light-heartedness that betrays the shallowness of the thinking at its foundations. First, there is the failure to reflect on “intelligence”; for Kershenbaum, it’s merely what “we would call intelligent life”, apparently an “intelligence” like our own, or, more precisely (and narrowly), like that ability to solve technical problems, instrumental reason, that leads to the construction of radio telescopes. It’s as if, e.g., David Stenhouse hadn’t published his Evolution of Intelligence in 1974 (!) that sought to articulate intelligence as “adaptively variable behavior,” a conception that recently has been applied to research into plant cognition. More gravely is the way Kershenbaum’s conjectures dovetail from evolution (natural selection) to culture, as if the latter were unproblematically reducible to and explainable by the former….

undermining a position…

For the most part, discussions around UFOs, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), and SETI are divided between “believers” (UFOs are manifestations of the technology of extra-, ultra, or cryptoterrestrials, interdimensionals, or time travelers…) and “skeptics” (UFOs are a purely social or psychological phenomenon). Many who have encountered what I write here at Skunkworks slot it into the latter category, but, in doing so, really misread me.

At the end of the day, the questions posed by, e.g., The Galileo Project, are to be answered empirically. It may be that someday unequivocal evidence of nonhuman technology will be secured. However, at the same time, it is a legitimate question to ask just how such technology will be recognized as technology in the first place, just as it’s a legitimate question how we might recognize intelligent life (let alone life) if and when we encounter it offworld, let alone be recognized by that intelligent Other as its Other. What’s at stake in these questions is not a matter that can be resolved empirically, through observation or experiment; such questions address the concepts that are at the very basis of thinking about extraterrestrial life: What is technology, life, intelligence? As such it falls to philosophy to reflect on the assumptions and implications of the unconscious (assumed) content of these concepts as it is at work in the discourse about UAP and SETI.

The implications of how life, intelligence, technology, and related matters are thought are not merely “academic”, but reveal how the society and culture that deploy these concepts thinks about itself and other forms of life, human and otherwise. Speculations about advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations or the future of our own are more science-fictions than evidence-based predictions, and, as such, function as mirrors that show ourselves to ourselves but in an indirect, distorted or estranged, way; like dreams, they may be said to reveal the unconscious of how we think about the world, and, like the unconscious, such thinking is not, strictly, rational. Indeed, these ideas can be shown to function ideologically, making seem inevitable and natural (and thereby defending and entrenching) a way of life that in fact is contingent and that favours one species or social group. Perhaps in this light what I write above is now more understandable:

It is…not only anthropocentric to imagine life develops technology but chauvinistic, in as much as one (perhaps short-lived) inflection of human culture (namely that of the so-called “advanced” societies) is posited as a norm or model… If evolution, governed by the laws of nature, is so chance-ridden as to be unrepeatable, how much moreso the story of human culture? That is, “histories” that naturalize cultural patterns, e.g., the advent of technology and its “progress”, are arguably self-serving narratives of the cultures that compose them (i.e., depicting these cultures and their order as somehow necessary or destined to be) let alone of the ruling classes of those cultures whose privilege is premissed on precisely the pretense of their cultures’ being part of the inevitable, natural order of things.

Thus, speculations about extraterrestrial life, intelligence, and civilization are in fact inextricable from and revelatory of the most urgent crises facing life on earth, climate change, environmental degradation, extinction, and the role of humankind (or certain of its societies) in this crisis. How we imagine extraterrestrial life is how we think about life on earth, the other species with which we cohabit it, and the ways of living with them that Homo Sapiens has invented over the millennia.

6 thoughts on “Sightings: Sunday 5 December 2021: Why it matters how we think about intelligence and technology

  1. Good post. Agree with your argument up until the point where you claim:
    1. That “anthropocentrism” is “narcissistic”. What does that actually mean? As far as I can tell “narcissistic” is here the general term of abuse that usually makes its way into public discourse (“X politician is a narcissist”), not an actual description. Please clarify. And related to that, “anthropocentrism” seems to be itself a bit of an unchallenged, free-range sacred cow. Isn’t anything that human beings do as self-conscious human beings “anthropocentric” by default? What is the alternative, if there is one? “Altruism”? Is that not also potentially anthropocentric insofar as the non-human conceived deliberately as “not human” is still grounded in every possible way in the “human” imagination? (e.g. if I imagine “intelligent life” that is explicitly not bipedal, not mammalian, not vertebrate even etc., I am still imagining a human-centric bizarro world, still positing intelligence in human terms, even if I go out of my way to say it is not human intelligence; is it not as caricatural as explicit, positivist “anthropocentrism”?)
    2. “these ideas can be shown to function ideologically”. Ok, point taken. What are ideas that do not function ideologically? Genuine question.

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    1. Fewroar, thanks for the pointed questions.

      By “narcissistic” I intend that those conceptions of life, intelligence, and technology that unconsciously assume Homo Sapiens as typical, Platonically or otherwise (see my previous post “The Platonism of SETI”), are characterized by a perverse self-regard and self-love. Narcissus loved himself above all others, whether he recognized himself in his reflection or not (I think not). I posit that both Narcissus and those who think like Avi Loeb are “narcissistic” in this regard. A very early post here is “The Narcissism of Anthropos”. All that being said, ‘narcissistic’ _should_ glint with a polemical edge…

      By “anthropocentric” I intend a way of thinking that consciously (e.g., Renaissance Humanism) or unconsciously (your garden-variety ufophile) posits Homo Sapiens as in some way “central” or typical, e.g., “intelligence” is something Homo Sapiens possess and that is the measure for whether any other organism can be said to intelligent. Much intellectual labour has been spent to de-centre first, the human subject, then Homo Sapiens (Posthumanism) in the attempt to articulate a non-anthropocentric worldview. Such efforts, in various ways, surely, as you observe, can’t help but get caught up in a number of dialectical knots, depending on how fine-grained our concept of being anthropocentric is (e.g., your arguing that any human thinking is anthropocentric) but it is possible to think a non-anthropocentric concept of intelligence, i.e., one that does not take the intelligence of Homo Sapiens (whatever that is!) as the standard.

      By “ideology” I refer to those ideas that tend to function unconsciously (e.g., “technology”) and that reinforce a worldview that represents the social order as somehow natural or inevitable. admittedly an old-fashioned take on ideology…

      I’m the first to admit this latter idea, especially, is contentious, not least because it belongs to an open-ended discourse.

      I trust I’ve answered to some extent your welcome questions. If not, ask more!

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  2. Ok, that goes a bit further than the OP and your explanations are very welcome. But – and this is basically by way of attempting to “radicalize” your argument a bit, not simply to ask loads of pedantic follow-up questions – I think it’s worth digging deeper; maybe just a couple more shovelfuls.
    1.You’ve defined narcissism, but I’m not sure exactly what it says about anthropocentrism. A “perverse self-regard” is essentially a sustained (pathologically so, maybe; but who decides?) regard of self; the meaning of “regard” as “worshipful gazing” is a judgement, it seems to me; a way of saying “I don’t agree with this, it upsets something that I/we hold dear”. The boy who loved his reflection too much cannot be a timeless stand-in for the species; all he can tell us is “I am a product of the imagination of a people who feared and worshipped the power of images, the power of the eroticized body.” I’m not saying that “narcissism” is necessarily a meaningless term, but unless used in its narrow clinical sense, what does it add to the argument about anthropocentrism? Better to actually say what specifically about this arguably naive hubris at the speicies level is “perverse”. Is it that people who think that humanity is the point of everything enable problematic behaviour? In that case, can we be sure that it is in fact their belief in the species as a chosen vehicle that leads to whatever we consider problematic or even disastrous for the planet? Can it be that even a non-“narcissistic” group of humans can create an unlivable hell by continuously trying to conform to a shifting set of moral goalposts/cultural ideals?
    Last point on “narcissism”: it seems to me that “self-regard” is kind of essential to any type of philosophical inquiry, anthropocentric or otherwise, and “self-love” is surely at the root of any attempt to deploy a critical discourse in the “struggle” (real or imagined) against “the social order as somehow natural”. So where is the point at which all of this becomes “perverse”, do you think? Why is a critic of say techno-supremacy, who likes to think they are motivated by love of all that is living and is driven by a “merciless critique of everything” (which starts in excessive regard of self) different from a “blinkered” positivist who dreams of a Star Wars-esque future? Where is the point where we can go “A-ha! This self-regard and self-love have become perverse!”
    2.”it is possible to think a non-anthropocentric concept of intelligence, i.e., one that does not take the intelligence of Homo Sapiens (whatever that is!) as the standard.” No doubt it is possible, but a definition of anthropocentric as “reducing everything to the intelligence of Homo Sapiens” seems like a very safe definition. It allows us to remain cocooned in our mental universe – why must intelligence count for anything? why must it be inserted into this supposedly anthropos-free discourse? – while assuming a radical all-challenging pose. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but are we not simply changing the garb of our epistemic “measuring stick” by saying things like “intelligence shouldn’t just be for homo sapiens. Intelligence is also for the fruit fly and the (real or imagined) pond life on Europa”? In the end all we’re doing is talking about intelligence, it seems to me, “our” beloved intelligence. Just as we did 200 years ago, when the conversation was centered merely on which flimsily defined sub-group of Homo Sapiens had the most of it (intelligence).
    3. “those ideas that tend to function unconsciously”—- An open-ended discourse, you’re absolutely right. But what ideas do not also function unconsciously? Is the “excessive regard” (of self and “society”) with the aim of challenging a status quo worldview not also based in affinitive unconscious choices (“This way of doing things is bad because I’ve seen the damage it does”) and emotive fixations? I only ask these additional questions because I doubt (why do I? I’m not even entirely sure, but it’s not just cold reasoning) that there is a “safe zone” of untinted/unanthropocentric/non-“narcissistic” solid ground from which a genuine attack on acquired naivete can being in earnest. And if there isn’t, can anything transcend mere belief? Not that there’s anything “wrong” with that, of course.

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    1. Thanks for being dogged and digging down into the grounds of much of the ideology-critical work that goes on here at the Skunkworks. Funnily enough, on finishing this last post my thoughts were stirring toward attempting _some_ autocritique, as this here blog doesn’t get much comment, let alone engagement (though, the engagement it has garnered tends to be pithy).

      1. RE “narcissism”. At one level, the term is deployed rhetorically, to invoke its everyday, pejorative connotations. That everyday sense, surely, runs the gamut between some more-or-less vague acquaintance with the myth (as evidenced by a recent meme of Narcissus gazing not into a pool but a smartphone) and the more restricted, psychoanalytic/psychological senses. Part of the challenge in writing blogs for/at Skunkworks is that the audience is pretty much undefined, so the discourse becomes a kind of thinking-out-loud, trusting that some readers are sufficiently like-minded to gather some sense from what they read, a sense that can then be refined, as needs be.

      I believe I can answer most of what you ask about “narcissism” as follows: What’s “narcissistic” about the “anthropocentricism” I rail against is that _it sees only itself_; every imagination of a putative Other in, e.g., the discourse of SETI, is human, all-too-human, possessed of an “intelligence” which is only a version of instrumental reason, itself a perversion of human intelligence (“perverse” in the sense of reduction, restriction, taking a part for the whole). The irony of SETI is that it does not search for an Other but for ourselves (the earth already teeming with nonhuman, intelligent Others). Just as Narcissus’ fascination for the reflection in the pool, which he takes for a beautiful Other, failing to recognize himself (at least in my reading of the myth) leads to the rejection and wasting away of the real Other, the nymph Echo (a most ironic name!), so a certain unconscious projection of the Other (an advanced, extraterrestrial civilization) leads to our being blind to the far more radically and real Others who share earth with us. (The implications of our cohabiting the earth with Others, animal and arguably even vegetable are at least thought provoking…).

      The “narcissism” at work here, at least in the popular discourse around SETI and UFOs, can be pinned on the propensity of a certain civilization, or a segment of it, to think _only of itself_ and in the short term (e.g., three months at a time). There have existed and still do persist cultures that at least aspire to living with(in) their living environment (animals, plants, and even hills, lakes, and rivers are “persons”) and with a longer view, both backwards to the ancestors and forward, at least seven generations. One of these is that of the Australian Aborigines, arguably the longest-lived, continuous culture on earth. Now, admittedly, _that_ is to open a huge pit of grubs, but I think the drift of my deployment of the terms “perverse”, “narcissistic”, and “anthropocentric” _in the context of the rhetoric of the discourse of this blog post and of Skunkworks in general_ is a little clearer, keeping in mind that I’ll be the first to admit that in a more general and more demanding context, e.g., a scholarly, ideology-critique of the discourse around SETI, such terms might require a more explicit refineme(a)nt…. (I have also yet to come to terms with the undoubted “truth” and power of technoscience and the claims to truth of the more “mythological” discourses of traditional societies, a pressing contradiction both intellectually and materially–especially here in Canada…).

      Finally, I do appreciate the way you dialectically turn my deployment of ‘narcissistic’ and ‘perverse’ back on the my own discourse. I think, in my own defense, I would reply that my own thinking is not as unconscious as that I critique (though all thinking wanders a ground it cannot ever finally reveal to itself, surely) and that my “perversity” is more “commitment” or “engagement”, conscious and conscientious, more partisan, however perverse such partisanship might be construed conceptually….

      2 RE “intelligence”: what’s at stake in my critique of SETI/ufology is the identification of “intelligence” (the intelligence of intelligent life) with instrumental reason; ETI is assumed to be life that thinks in such a way that it produces what we would recognize as technology, e.g. radio telescopes, _as if “intelligence” thought in this way would be sufficient to produce such artifacts abstracted from a complex society and its attendant social relations_. The discourse of SETI in this sense is “abstract”, thinking “technology” apart from the social formations that are as essential to its appearing at all as “intelligence”. However much the question of “intelligence” is a broader one, the concept operative in the discourse I critique is perverse. Rhetorically the intent is to expose in a purely negative manner the unconscious perversity of the concept, which does not demand I have ready to hand a full blown account of intelligence grounded in the Absolute.

      Justin E Smith writes a lively essay on the topic here https://justinehsmith.substack.com/p/against-intelligence

      3. RE “unconscious” ideas: As I remark above, following the Jena Romantics, Schelling, Heidegger, Adorno, and others, I’m the first to admit that all of what passes for thinking at the Skunkworks is “situated” (which is why I invoke its rhetoric a number of times, above), finite, and itself, surely, treading on a dark ground (Grund). By “unconscious” I refer merely to the apparent lack of reflection, critical or otherwise, that seems to be at work in the concept of e.g., “intelligent life” in the discourses I critique. That concepts that function ideologically are also “unconscious” (“like the air we breathe”) is a commonplace, from the Frankfurt School, through to Althusser and Zizek, from whom I take my cue in this, well, regard. But the very concept of “ideology” at work here is one that is under constant, vigilant revision…

      Thanks, again, for the lively engagement (and investment of thought and _time_)!

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