Sightings: Saturday 11 June 2022: We are not alone

Today’s synchronicities prompt today’s offering.

First, The Guardian posted a review of Philip Ball’s forthcoming The Book of Minds: How to Understand Ourselves and Other Beings, from Animals to Aliens, which is concerned with expanding the concept of intelligence to include the animal and even plant, a project readers here will recognize. Especially remarkable is the review’s concluding passage:

…most of our fantasies about advanced alien intelligence suppose it to be like us but with better tech. That’s not just a sci-fi trope; the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence typically assumes that ET carves nature at the same joints as we do, recognising the same abstract laws of maths and physics. But the more we know about minds, the more we recognise that they conceptualise the world according to the possibilities they possess for sensing and intervening in it; nothing is inevitable. We need to be more imaginative about what minds can be, and less fixated on ours as the default. As the biologist JBS Haldane once said: “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Our only hope of understanding the universe, he said, “is to look at it from as many different points of view as possible.” We may need those other minds.

Like, wow. Has Ball been a visitor, here?

Secondly, the Johns Hopkins University Press kindly shared an article from one of its periodicals, Josh Shuster’s “Critique of Alien Reason: Toward a Critical Interplanetary Humanities”. Shuster’s nod to the title of Kant’s magnum opus; the invocation of critique, as such; and the urge toward an expansion of the purview of the humanities (as per Jeffrey Kripal’s efforts) all echo concerns here at the Skunkworks.

Shuster examines the recursive relation between the potential discovery of an Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI) and that discovery’s consequences for our self-understanding and understanding of life on earth in general, but no less (which is important, here), the ways “The science of the search as well as the cultural and civilizational questions embedded in any possible contact event are connected [if not determined] fundamentally to established philosophical positions towards cosmology, alterity, and co-existence.” Among these evolving positions is the growing awareness “that we require a contemporary—and more-than-human—political model for how to share the planet as a whole,” not only with humankind, but all the earth’s other lifeforms, an essential thesis here at the Skunkworks. The urgency of this question is underlined by humanity’s marked, indeed catastrophic, failure to share the earth, either with its own kind or its animal and plant Others. In this regard, Shuster draws the inference—one often drawn here—that “The ironic failure to connect SETI and the search for inhabited exoplanets to habitability crises on Earth…means that SETI research is at risk of continuing to repeat the failure to share the biodiverse [and racially, culturally diverse] Earth.”

Shuster draws our attention to one fundamental flaw in SETI, rooted in its cultural embeddedness: “The long history of treating Black and Indigenous bodies as Other and alien is encoded in historical conceptualizations of extraterrestrial otherness,” a not uncomplicated matter. Shuster draws out the implications of this embeddedness: “The meaningfulness of SETI, in other words, does not depend alone on whether or not there is actual contact with ETIs. What SETI most compellingly offers is a place for public reflection on and enaction of a commitment to planetary sharing and cosmological commons.” Such reflection brings into play the recursiveness Shuster is at pains to illuminate:

Thinking humanistically about the planet, …would include thinking of what can be called the interplanetary humanities in the context of a potential plurality of worlds. SETI research and thinking envisaged thus would play a role in understanding Earth as a planet among planets and in shaping the trajectory of planetary thinking in the environmental humanities. The result is that the scientific and cultural implications of SETI will help inform the humanistic thinking about our planet and vice versa.

Deliciously, in this regard, Shuster lays out Kant’s “rational alienology” as discovered and originally researched by Peter Szendy, not to present it in and for itself but as “an opportunity to sketch out some of the basic conceptualizations that are implicit in what [Shuster discusses] as a chiasmus of Kant’s thinking of SETI and philosophy.” One implication of Kant’s reflections Szendy teases out is the startling insight that “thinking SETI does not necessarily mean actually thinking about aliens, but recognizing methodologically and formally how human consciousness imbricates within itself an alien consciousness. This alien consciousness is ultimately in a paradoxical way deeply intimate yet radically unthinkable at the same time.” Delightfully, “Szendy finds similar implications … in the work of Carl Schmitt, Edmund Husserl, Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas, each of whom entertains at key moments how the alien point of view from exoplanetary space fundamentally changes conceptualizations of dwelling, cosmopolitanism, and human being on Earth.”

Shuster concludes his study with a reading of Ted Chiang’s “The Great Silence,” which “piercingly reflects on how the desire to look up at the skies and contemplate alien contact frequently corresponds to a refusal to look down and around at the forms of contact among interspecies others on Earth,” a frequent theme addressed here at the Skunkworks. Indeed, Shuster articulates a not uncommon thesis we ourselves has posited here:

The Fermi paradox, embedded in the Anthropocene, may be explained by the irony that the science and technology that allow a civilization to become spacefaring also relies on extractivism, exploitation, and climate-changing processes that undermines that planet’s life. Instead of asking aliens how to escape the bottleneck of the Anthropocene, it would be easier to ask counsel of our animal neighbors. The only way out of this paradox, as Chiang’s parrot recognizes, is that SETI must be folded into multispecies relations and multispecies relations into SETI. [my emphasis]

Here’s to more such chance encounters, not because their authors are likeminded, but because of what they bring and contribute to a shared, urgent body of concern.

Sightings: Saturday 6 November 2021: Science / Magic, “adaptively variable behavior” and related matters

This past week what caught the eye and/or sparked a thought was Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, Magic, and Science, and an Indigenous confirmation of the views I recently brought to bear against The Galileo Project and the attendant paradoxical implications of Star People….

I don’t often nod to other websites (Skunkworks should have a blog roll…), but a recent post at Curt Collins’ The Saucers That Time Forgot gives me the opportunity to draw attention to some of those I follow.

Collins’ post addresses Arthur C. Clarke’s famous Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” pointing out how “Almost from inception, the phrase has been used and abused to the point of cliché.” In doing so, Collins not only helps to clear away some of the fuzzy thinking that obscures the UFO phenomenon, but raises another topic of broader if not graver import.

Anyone familiar with the writings of Renaissance scholar Frances Yates will know how entwined magic and science are, mixed together as they are in the foment of Hermeticism and related movements just before the foundations of the Royal Society (the original Invisible College) were being set down. Both seek to control nature and their respective natures are much more closely related than the pedestrian history or philosophy of science would comfortably admit with their story of the triumphant emergence of enlightened, rational natural science from the obscure mysticism of alchemy and its ilk.

Today, Newton’s interests in alchemy, astrology, and labours to interpret Biblical prophecy are better, if not well, known. What is less known (but not to readers of Yates) are Descartes’ and Francis Bacon’s interest if somewhat unclear involvement in Rosicrucianism. This mutual implication of Magic and Science (and, by extension, technology) is happily the topic of serious research, a good primer of which can be found at independent scholar Andreas Sommers’ Forbidden Histories (which can be followed, too, on Facebook). Sommers’ Essential Readings is a small library sufficient to deconstruct in the rigorous sense the Science/Magic (or as Sommers terms it, the Natural Magic / Scientific Naturalism) binary.

Interested parties are also urged to check out the The Renaissance Mathematicus, which regularly and with much gusto takes the piss out of received ideas about the emergence of science from the Humanist dogmas of the Renaissance….

Pursuant to my critique of Loeb and his kind who identify intelligence with human, instrumental reason, the recently-published volume, The Mind of Plants: Narratives of Vegetal Intelligence, was brought to my attention (synchronicitously or otherwise…). Edited by Dennis McKenna, the book collects short essays, narratives and poetry by authors from the humanities, social, and natural sciences on plants and their interaction with humans. YES! Magazine published an excerpt from Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s contribution, “Hearing the Language of Trees”, wherein she writes:

The story of intelligences other than our own is one of continual expansion. I am not aware of a single research study that demonstrates that other beings are dumber than we think. Octopi solve puzzles, chickadees create language, crows make tools, rats feel anxiety, elephants mourn, parrots do calculus, apes read symbols, nematodes navigate, and honeybees dance the results of cost-benefit analysis of sucrose rewards like an economic ballet. Even the slime mold can learn a maze, enduring toxic obstacles to obtain the richest reward. The blinders are coming off, and the definition of intelligence expands every time we ask the question.

The ability to efficiently sense, identify, locate, and capture resources needed in a complex and variable environment requires sophisticated information processing and decision making. Intelligence is today thought of as “adaptively variable behavior,” which changes in response to signals coming from the environment.

Kimmerer’s position here harmonizes sweetly with that taken by my last post and Justin E. Smith’s argument concerning intelligence I condense there.

Kimmerer’s Indigenous perspective is one where “human people are only one manifestation of intelligence in the living world[;] [o]ther beings, from Otters to Ash trees, are understood as persons”, all of whom share “a past in which all beings spoke the same language and life lessons flowed among species”, a worldview at curious odds with that one chronicled by, among others, Ardy Sixkiller Clarke, whose stories relate encounters with humanoid sky gods, giants, little people, and aliens among indigenous people. One is tempted to wonder why a world already inhabited by manifold intelligent creatures, intelligence freed from an anthropomorphic fetish, contains, too, nonhuman but nevertheless all-too anthropomorphic intelligences….

Disclosure and Unacknowledged Nonhuman Intelligence

In his recent conversation with Bryce Zabel, M. J. Banias makes a telling analogy, between the moon landing whose anniversary is presently being marked and another hypothetical world media event, the announcement (@ 56″) that “humanity is not alone and there is some other intelligence and it’s active with us and it’s trying to engage with us in some way.”

At this point in the interview, Banias and Zabel are caught up in their conversation, and their enthusiasm gets the better of their reflective faculties. For, if there is a heartbreakingly unacknowledged fact about life on earth it is precisely that “humanity is not alone,” that there are other intelligences living here, active with us, which cannot help but interact if not engage with us.

As I have argued ad nauseum here and will continue to do so the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence both suffer from an anthropocentric hyperopia that overlooks the wildly varied forms of intelligent life with which homo sapiens shares the planet in a squinting search for ourselves offworld.

As is well-acknowledged by naturalists, many species are self-conscious, from elephants, to great apes, all the way to corvids and even ants. Moreover, these and other species exhibit both intelligence (even fruit flies and jumping spiders weigh and decide between alternative courses of action) and culture (whales and elephants, for example, can be shown to possess natural languages). The capacity for numeracy is evident in bees, and, most compellingly, increasingly so even in plants. How much more mindblowing is the possibility plants on earth exhibit a radically nonhuman consciousness than that some humanoid, technological race (species?) inhabits an impossibly distant exoplanet? And how much more urgent is the need to reflect on the implications, moral and material, of how we engage with the alien (nonhuman) forms of life around us (to wit), let alone what the character of that interaction entails for how we might treat extraterrestrial life if and when we discover it, or how it might treat us if it discovers us first?

On the Narcissism of Anthropos

Neuropsychologists Gabriel de la Torre and Manuel García, from the University of Cádiz, in an article recently published in the journal Acta Astronautica, set out to “explain how our own neurophysiology, psychology and consciousness… play a major role in [the] search [for] non-terrestrial civilizations … and how they have been neglected up to this date.” (How the researchers managed to neglect the not irrelevant work of Jacques Vallee (from 1990!) or that of Susan Palmer and myself (from nearly twenty years ago) is itself an interesting case of the phenomenon they are investigating….).

Their research concerns inattention blindness, like that demonstrated by the Invisible Gorilla Experiment of Chabris and Simons. Following their example, de la Torre and García had 137 subjects distinguish artificial structures from natural features in aerial photographs, one of which contained a tiny gorilla. The complement to attention blindness, the mind’s tendency to perceive pattern in chaos (pareidolia), was addressed as well. The implication of their research is that the SETI focus on electromagnetic signals, in either the visible or invisible spectrums, primes it to miss those evidential “gorillas” that would indicate non-terrestrial civilizations. The pair goes on to propose a tripartite classification of such civilizations, all of which, in general, are characterized by their varying degrees of mastery over forms of matter and energy, whether quantum, gravitational, or dark.

What is ironic is that de la Torre and García have fallen prey to the same prejudices that keep SETI researchers and proponents of the Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs from perceiving the intelligent life that swarms around us. As I’ve written elsewhere these prejudices are that intelligent life is intelligent in the way we ourselves conceive ourselves to be, cultural, tool-using creatures capable of mathematical thought and cognizing natural laws that are then exploited technologically, and that such civilizations follow universal paths of linear development toward increasing sophistication, knowledge, and mastery over nature. These prejudices are, arguably, the reification and projection of the history of one culture on earth, namely the one that calls itself the developed world, a culture resulting hardly from a natural, cultural evolution (the pairing of which adjectives should be illuminating enough) but from a highly contingent history that could have as easily followed countless other paths.

In terms of “civilization”, the founder of ethnopoetics, Jerome Rothenberg, makes a pertinent observation in the Pre-face to the first edition of his epochal assemblage Technicians of the Sacred (1967):  “Measure everything by the Titan rocket & the transistor radio, & the world is full of primitive peoples. But once change the unit of value to the poem or the dance-event or the dream (all clearly artifactual situations) & it becomes apparent what all these people have been doing all those years with all that time of their hands.” When one considers that the oldest, continuous society on earth is not China but that of the Australian Aborigines, whose oral poetry sings of a ground sloth extinct 60, 000 years, the variability if not relativity of technical ingenuity becomes apparent.

Intelligence, as well, is neither a simple, nor exclusively technical, nor even human attribute. Some human beings are breath-taking coders, but their smarts are outwitted by the ability of a chickadee to remember where it’s stashed its seeds. Indeed, the attempt to imagine nonhuman intelligence, like the one Denise L. Herzing undertakes in her 2013 paperProfiling nonhuman intelligence: An exercise in developing unbiased tools for describing other ‘types’ of intelligence on earth” expands intelligent life to include dolphins, octopus, insects, and even some bacteria. Even fruit flies can be shown to make decisions.

If we extend our curiosity to sentience, self-awareness, then the standard mirror test shows that Asian elephants, all the great apes, bottlenose dolphins, orca whales, Eurasian magpies, and even ants possess self-consciousness. And as thought-provoking as it is controversial is the contention of plant neurobiologist Stefan Mancuso that plants possess intelligence and sentience, albeit in a radically nonhuman way. Little wonder then that on 7 July 2012, “a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals” drafted and signed The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, that, based on four “unequivocal observations”

“The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

I leave it to interested parties to google “panpsychism”….

An aspect of the tale of Narcissus often forgotten or missed is that Narcissus failed to recognize himself in his own reflection. Like Narcissus, SETI researchers and their critics de la Torre and García and the proponents of the ETH fail to recognize that their speculations concerning intelligence and civilization are merely projections of humankind. Despite Darwin and the libraries of research conducted on nonhuman and even plant sentience and intelligence, the reigning prejudice still seems to be what philosophers would call that “ontotheological” one, that Man is made in God’s own image. Once we disabuse ourselves of this mere speciesism, then we see that SETI is merely (“mirrorly”) a search for ourselves and that this prejudice blinds us to the mind-boggling richness of nonhuman life, sentience, and intelligence already sharing this planet with us, at the same time it perhaps mercifully spares us realizing the heart-breaking suffering we impose on innumerable other forms of life. Perhaps it is precisely because of the latter realization we refuse to recognize a sentience like our own in other living beings and turn our gaze from the earth to the stars at our own and increasingly the biosphere’s peril.