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 Futurism “Scientists Say There May Be ‘Humans’ All Over the Universe“.
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.
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“.
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….
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.