Well, maybe not the worst, but pretty bad. At least his dumbfoundingly vapid clickbait articles for The Debrief serve to maintain if not swell the site’s advertising revenues.
That being said, as any more-or-less regular reader here will know, Loeb has become something of this site’s bête noire. Since he came into the public eye with his hypothesis concerning ‘Oumuamua, his speculations about extraterrestrial life, civilization, and technology have consistently embodied the ideological tendencies targeted here. Since his starting up The Galileo Project and becoming a regular contributor at The Debrief, his pronouncements have become all the more exasperating. However much I resolved to “whack-a-Loeb“, his latest contribution, which deigns to wax philosophical about ethics, has reached such a nadir of intellectual dereliction I’m persuaded (and hope!) this post will be my last on him.
Loeb titles his article “How Can We Guide Our Life?” (which right away sets the linguistically-attuned mind furiously scribbling questions…). Whatever exactly he might intend by this title, I take it his article begins by posing the question, roughly, of what one should live for. He rejects being concerned with one’s posthumous reputation. Asked for his “opinion about the true mark of human greatness”, his response is, in a word, humility. He, then, shifts his attention from the person to, presumably, the species: “How does humanity wish to be remembered on the cosmic scene?” Loeb’s answer is arguably the same, as humble, but on a species-wide scale: humanity is best remembered as possessing an “unpresuming culture that sought knowledge-based [sic] on new evidence from interstellar space,” which, having discovered “that there is a smarter culture on the cosmic block” sought “to do better in the future relative to our cosmic neighbors than we did in the past.”
It doesn’t take too much close scrutiny to find the lapses in Loeb’s logic. In terms of how each of us should lead our lives, Loeb would, on the one hand, have us ignore our personal legacy. For himself, he seems to place little stock in posthumous reputation (he could “care less about what other people say”): those who follow are unlikely to have much insight into the whole truth of his life nor are they necessarily going to be the most charitable commentators; memorials, such as paintings or statues, communicate “little about…guiding principles or the value of…accomplishments” (assuming that is their raison d’etre…). Shifting to a cosmic perspective, even Einstein is put in his place, as “[m]ost likely, there were smarter scientists on habitable planets around other stars billions of years ago”. From this perspective, that of “the vast scale and splendor implicit in the cosmos” wherein “all humans die within ten billionths of cosmic history,” all individual accomplishments shrink to nothing. However, on the other hand, Loeb confesses he guides his life “so as to have an opportunity to press a button on extraterrestrial technological equipment,” to be the one to discover an unquestionable artifact of alien technology. As the one to make this discovery, Loeb would, by his own account, be the one to “force a sense of modesty and awe in all of us” as we discern our place on, at least, “the cosmic block.” Being the one to put us in our interstellar place, Loeb would imaginably take his place with the likes of Copernicus and Galileo, at least as far as human history is concerned, which would be quite the legacy, one to be proud of….
When it comes to how humanity might be “remembered on the cosmic scene,” deeper problems yawn. One might well ask: remembered by whom? Loeb leaves this question unasked and unanswered. Either homo sapiens will be known by itself or by other forms of extraterrestrial intelligence, which, for Loeb, includes forms of Artificial Intelligence (AI). In the event of our extinction, then, imagines Loeb, “perhaps our technological kids, AI astronauts, will survive,” artifacts best designed to “carry the flame of consciousness” out into distant space and time, and, thereby, into the awareness and memories of other intelligent lifeforms. At the same time, however, Loeb advocates a humility, not only because, as he surmises, other, alien intelligences have, do, and will exceed our own, but, from the point of view of “the vast scale and splendor implicit in the cosmos…all humans die within ten billionths of cosmic history,” extinguishing both their legacy and their narrow-minded, perverse self-importance. From this perspective, whether humankind is proud or humble, whether its traces are one day discovered or not, seems pointless. On the one hand, Loeb posits that humility should guide our life; while, on the other, he, personally, aspires to a historical greatness (guided by the aspiration to be the one who discovers an indisputable extraterrestrial technological artifact); he suggests humankind should culture some kind of memorialized humility or at least leave a more durable legacy in the form of its own technology dispersed throughout the stars, but the vast spatiotemporal scale of the cosmos swallows all such aspirations, reducing them to nothing. Either Loeb’s cosmic ethic must restrict itself to the human scale, which, for Loeb is merely an arrogant, self-centred point-of-view, or it must view things from a cosmic perspective, which dissolves all possible value in its implacable vastness.
Loeb’s thinking is riddled by such ironies or contradictions. He constantly advocates against being narrow-minded and self-centred, but his entire worldview is oriented to just such a perverse self-regard. His “humanity” is hardly all human cultures that have lived or do, but that of the so-called “advanced societies” of what used to be termed “the First World”. This idolatry is evident in the old-fashioned sentiment that “human history advances” and in the technofetishistic fantasy of “our technological kids, AI astronauts” that can act as vessels for “the fire of consciousness.” This squinting focus on the technological is evident in the disdainful yawn he shares with “kids” (presumably students) who pass by the “statues and paintings of distinguished public figures” in University Hall at Harvard University. Paintings and statues, however, aren’t made to communicate accomplishments of those honoured but to memorialize them because of their accomplishments. Loeb, here, betrays, as usual, an instrumental thinking, one that conceives of everything in terms of ends and means and efficiency (“A video message would [be] far more informative in conveying the authentic perspective of these people from our past”), i.e., Loeb’s stance in this regard, despite his philosophical airs, reveals him to be a rank philistine when it comes to matters of general culture. This narrowness is most egregious at its most unconscious. Loeb relates he inscribes a “personal copy of [his] book Extraterrestrial to [his] new postdoc… just arrived at Harvard from the University of Cambridge in the UK” as follows: “although you arrived to the Americas well after they were discovered, you are here just in time for discovering extraterrestrial intelligence and its own new world.” The blithe indifference to the fact that Turtle Island was hardly “discovered” least of all by his post-doc’s European forebears and his oblique referring to it as “the new world” betray an unconscious colonialism.
Taken together these stances reveal the direst irony of Loeb’s incessant invectives against narrow-mindedness and self-centredness. As I have never tired of pointing out, whenever Loeb posits older, more intelligent (or, at least, knowledgeable) extraterrestrials, he doesn’t decentre humankind but centres it all the more securely, taking Western instrumental reason to be characteristic of intelligence-as-such and Western, technoscientific society as the instantiation if not the very universal model of civilization. All these presuppositions, prejudices, and unreflected blindspots taken together coalesce into a black hole around which all Loeb’s conjectures about extraterrestrial intelligence, civilization, and technology orbit, a black hole into which I hereby consign all the man’s thoughts that touch on what concerns us here at the Skunkworks.