Monday, September 10, 2007

The Fermi Non-Paradox, Or Questions, Questions, Questions

This post is a holiday from religious topics. I decided to indulge one of my other interests, or rather peeves.


So, where are they? Enrico Fermi asked of the little green men. Ever since then very some very clever people have tried to explain why the night time sky isn't like busy, busy like their favorite scifi show. Think Farscape or Star Trek.

The first fact that all speculation about extraterrestial civilizations encounters is that the speed of light in a vacuum is a fixed constant. For extraterrestial speculations, closely related is the immensity of the distances between stars and galaxies coupled with the mind-boggling enormity of the multitude of galaxies and stars in the universe.

This superabundance of stars and galaxies like Spinoza's God the universe will bring into existence whatever may possibly exist. Therefore, the line of thought goes, if it is at all possible for an interstellar civilization to exist, one must exist, or have existed somewhere in the cosmos. Given the recent discoveries of extra-solar planets, it would appear that conditions favorable for life are common thoughout the observable universe.

As more becomes known, the Fermi Paradox becomes even more, well, paradoxical. Over at Sentient Developments there is a sense that all is not well with hopes for super-advanced alien civilizations. As human technology and science becomes ever more sensitive and capable of detailed investigations of stars and planets that are light years away from us, it becomes more unlikely that we are unable to find traces or at least ambiguous evidence of advanced extraterrestial civilizations. And as we know more about the rest of the universe, it appears ever more unlikely that we are alone.

Given the ever increasing sharpness of the paradox, the question presents itself? Is the search for extraterrestial civilizations wrongly conceived? There are some questions that don't seem to be posed in these discussions: assuming for sake of argument feasibility of the energy projects described Kardashev scale, what would a civilization need with the energy of a single star, let alone of a whole galaxy? This strikes me very much as example of a particular culturally- and temporally-bound way of thinking: what can be done must be done.

What would a civilization need all that energy for? It would seem to imply a crass understanding of Darwinian fitness: the most fit species is the species that is numerically greatest. Unlimited population growth would seem to be problematic at best: reproduction for reproductions sake? This is the same imperative followed by the most primitive viruses. A transcendental purpose that we ape-brains could not hope to comprehend? Excuse me, but this sounds much too similar to a common rationalization sometimes offered by Christians for the problem of evil: His ways are not our ways. In other words, here tucked away in a purported obeisance to science, rationality, reason, and intelligence qua intelligence hides a filthy wallowing in the impotence of one's own intelligence and reason: profundity is measured by the extent of one's ignorance.

It should not be forgotten that Kardashev formulated his scale in the Soviet Union. Under Stalin the Soviet Union from the 1930's up to the time of its eventual collapse favored big industry: big dams, big factories, big collective farms, big manufacturing. Considered historically, the Kardashev Scale strongly suggests a projection of narrow historical and social conceptions.

Considered this way, is the standard of Super Big Industry implied by the Kardashev Scale the only meaningful measure of technological progress?

Another element to these discussions that I find particularly annoying is the assumption that a sufficient level of intelligence will (somehow) provide an escape from biological imperatives, especially of reproduction and sexual desire. The real subtext of discussions of super-advanced and hyper-intelligent extraterrestial civilizations betrays a hope and wish for complete control of human fertility. A better characterization of how intelligence is often conceived: a tool to escape Malthusian constraints of unfettered population growth and limited resources to support that growth.

Phrased in less grandiosely, this is consumerist dream run amok. It is the faith and justification of the French Revolution: the elimination of scarcity so as to create dignity and freedom. This is the historically unjustified faith of Star Trek: The Next Generation. But as River said in Serenity, people don't like to be meddled with.

So, can technophiles be divided into 2 groups? Those who believe that the Star Trek: Next Generation techno-wow is just around the corner & those that find themselves living in the Firefly Future. The former believe *all* social problems are fundamentally fixable because *all* social problems are fundamentally problems of scarcity: a technological solution can be found so that people can have enough, and then there would no war, crime, bad childhoods, etc. The latter types find the problem with social relations to
be people don't like to be meddled with (River's line in Serenity). In other words, social problems are fundamentally unfixable: because people are the problem. Looked at this way, "Serenity" is a polemic against the belief that social problems are amenable to a technological fix. The movie shows what Roddenberry's utopian future of the Next Generation must bring.

Ultimately, in order to have that future without war, crime, poverty, etc. human beings will have to be fixed. Hence, the Miranda experiment in Serenity. The administrators who ordered the "fixing" of Miranda's population were not themselves given the treatment, nor were they ever likely to be given it -- assuming that it would work as intended.

Incidentally, in the Firefly future, people still use old tech. Just like in the real world. We all know people who are satisfied with 486's, pentium classics,VCR's, b&w tv's, etc.

Possession of sufficiently developed technology leads to the belief that all things are possible, even the reegineering of humankind. And so far, that has never ended well. And further, that experience in no way indicates that future attempts to fix human nature will end any better.

* * *

It is an unquestioned belief in many of discussions of the Fermi Paradox that evolution at least in the case of homo sapiens has produced an intelligent species. While all lip service is given to evolution, it is assumed apparently without question that once a species reaches a sufficient level of intelligence, that species is no longer subject to biological necessities and imperatives. Sometimes this is presented as creation of artificial environments or of an economy in which the resources necessary for survival have become so plentiful that competition for resources is no longer even possible.

There is also implied in the descriptions of super-advanced hyper-intelligent civilizations the faith that a sufficient level of intelligence can foresee all possible consequences of actions that that civilization might take. Super-advanced hyper-intelligent civilizations do not make mistakes and never have to say that they are sorry.

Not being an economist, I can only ask if there are economies of scale that would prevent the realization of Kardashev civilizations? Are there diminishing returns on the development of "advanced technology"?

Consider this. As personal computers have become more capable, more and more users find themselves with machines possessing computing power sufficient to their computing needs. More and more users find themselves satisfied with older models of personal computers because of a lack of a compelling reason to upgrade. Is it possible that a level of technological progress could be reached on which it is no longer economically feasible to develop further?

I will give the participants in these discussions of the Fermi Paradox one thing: they get the intimate association of intelligence with technology right. However, misunderstandings of intelligence and technology are rife in these discussions. What is technology?

* * *

Technology broadly conceived is the means to removal of obstacles to the fulfillment of desire.

The above definition of technology suggests that living organisms tend towards homeostasis. However, if desires are too readily satisfied, boredom sets in. Worse than the mischief and folly that such boredom would produce is the belief that danger and ground for fear had been eliminated. If all external and physical impediments to the realization of desire had been eradicated, if dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and suffering remained, the only possible explanation would be a flaw in the genome of the intelligent creature itself. Reegineering, "fixing," as it were, the creature itself is implied in the dream of plenty.

Intelligence evolved not to discover truth, not to implement justice, fairness, equity, and the like. Intelligence evolved to aid in the survival and reproductive success of particular species. Consequently, any attempt by an intelligent species to reegineer itself will fail. There will be bias, there will be short-sightedness. Further, the whole enterprise of self-reegineering implies an objective and unarguable ideal of what that intelligent species should be. In other words, a loss of variability within the species. And with the loss of variability comes specialization and a greater risk of extinction.

A technological society such as Western Society is self-limiting through biological/genetic and economic factors. So-called advanced technological societies are little more than pipe dreams and unwitting projections of current social and political realities filtered through a narrow lens of wishful thinking and frustrated religiosity.

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