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30 March 2010 @ 12:36 pm
Writer's Block: Search for intelligent life  
Do you believe there is other intelligent life in distant galaxies? If no, why not? If yes, do you believe this is something to be feared and avoided or actively sought out?

Do you believe there is other intelligent life in distant galaxies? If no, why not? If yes, do you believe this is something to be feared and avoided or actively sought out?*

This was yesterday's QOTD, and it's taken me until now to answer it.

I am entirely agnostic on this issue. I do not have sufficient data to make a reasonable case for either position—I can think of many reasonable-sounding arguments, but they all come down to unfounded assumptions at one point or another.

Since I'm militantly agnostic on several questions that other people find all-important, this isn't surprising. I'm simply being consistent.

I once read something that asserted that "belief" derived from old Germanic roots that mean "prefer" or ""desire". The etymology is dubious, but the principle is sound: when people say that they "believe" something, I've found that, by and large, they're really asserting that they would prefer that it were true, that the world worked in such-and-such a fashion.**

To my great surprise, I found that, upon examination, I don't have any real preference for either position. I really am agnostic.

If extraterrestrial intelligence exists, then, wow! That's wonderful! Look at all of these new people to meet! All of these new perspectives to learn! All of these new cultures to discover!

If ETI doesn't exist, if we're the only conscious, tool-using species at this particular epoch—or if we're the first and only such species to ever emerge—then we and our progeny can, if technology and physics will ever allow, expand to the stars without barriers or hesitation or White Liberal Guilt Prime Directives. It's ours. All ours.

And that has its bright spots, as well.

*I am going to arrogantly assume that "distant galaxies" is, as is so often the case, Astronomically Illiterate Shorthand for "other star systems".
**I will now irritate a vocal portion of my audience by opining that the contrapositive often holds, as well.

Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on March 30th, 2010 07:43 pm (UTC)
I actually do have a preference. I hope it doesn't because that makes the universe a much simpler place in political and moral ways. The history of two isolated cultures ramming into each other is, from our perspective, an unmitigated disaster. :p

On the other hand, there's a pretty good chance we wouldn't recognize non-terrestrial life even if we were looking it straight in the face. ;)
Your Obedient Serpent: green hills of earthathelind on March 30th, 2010 07:53 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that's pretty much the bright spot in my "doesn't exist" position. You phrased it far better than I did, but that's what I was trying to get across.

As for "looking it right in the face"—while Lovelock often gets dismissed as a Crazy Mystic for his Gaea hypothesis Theory, the core premise is a pretty good guide for finding Life-Jim-But-Not-As-We-Know-It: Life produces chemical and physical conditions that would be unstable without the presence of a homeostatic feedback system regulating them.

Edited at 2010-03-30 07:54 pm (UTC)
Hydrahydra_velsen on March 30th, 2010 07:58 pm (UTC)
I would expect any old and advanced civilization to be mechanical, energy-based, etc. Carbon fleshbag bodies are nice enough for existing on a nice hospitable planet with just the right conditions, but if you want to expand elsewhere they are a bit outdated.
Your Obedient Serpent: Eye: RCA Magic Eyeathelind on March 30th, 2010 09:52 pm (UTC)
I suspect that mechanical and "energy-based" alternatives to biology would still produce "chemical and physical conditions that would be unstable without the presence of a homeostatic feedback system regulating them."

"Life" is, in this context, a systems phenomenon, not a particular attribute of "carbon fleshbag bodies".
one in a billionsiege on March 30th, 2010 08:24 pm (UTC)
Not only that, but the presumption is that carbon-based life generates chemicals, like sugars and proteins, with a particular "handedness" which lends itself to polarizing any light reflected from it or passing through it. So life-bearing worlds would tend to polarize light in a particular chirality, making them easier to detect as a whole, while lifeless worlds should have no particular polarization.
Your Obedient Serpent: big ideasathelind on March 30th, 2010 09:55 pm (UTC)
Like I said: "chemical and physical conditions that would be unstable without the presence of a homeostatic feedback system regulating them."
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on March 30th, 2010 09:57 pm (UTC)
I wasn't presuming any such thing. ;)

Too much of that kind of presumption and the definition of life becomes a tautological straitjacket when observing the rest of the universe. And is the exact problem I was talking about. We have a great number of presumptions about life that . . . might not actually have too much bearing on what life, out there, is.
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on March 30th, 2010 09:54 pm (UTC)
Maybe a good hypothesis. The problem with looking for things that we might not be good at finding is that we're not good at finding them. Right now there could be people on the sun - sentient beings with advanced technologies - that are trying to talk to us but we simply speak no mutually comprehensible language.

This is made more complex but there being no good definition of what life is, of course. There is no consistent definition that covers everything we want to cover as life while discludes everything that is "obviously" not alive. Not that I've heard, anyway.
Hydrahydra_velsen on March 30th, 2010 07:46 pm (UTC)
1. We are alone - We expand through the stars, war amongst ourselves, and generally have a great time wrecking the universe.

2. We are not alone, but we are the most advanced civilization - We expand through the stars, war amongst ourselves, exploit or displace primitive cultures, and generally have a great time wrecking the universe, maybe with a little tinge of white guilt as an afterthought.

3. We are not alone, and there are more advanced civilizations - The older and more advanced civilizations have already grabbed the good territory and we are left with the scraps. We war amongst ourselves, get exploited and displaced, get absorbed into a larger older empire, or get exterminated.

4. We are not alone, and stay silent - We expand silently, using non-broadcast communications, cease all radio/television broadcasts, and generally try our best to stay as silent and well-hidden as possible in order to grow large and powerful before any other old, powerful, and advanced empires out there notice us and decide to see if we're worth conquering. More than likely any large, old, and powerful empires out there would also be doing exactly the same thing.

Personally I'm all for option #4, just to be on the safe side.
one in a billionsiege on March 30th, 2010 08:26 pm (UTC)
I suspect if they're out there (and I presume they are), they're using gravitic communications of some sort. But then, I have this thing about gravity.
Tombfyretombfyre on March 30th, 2010 08:08 pm (UTC)
Aye, I'm kind of indifferent on the subject as well. I personally wouldn't mind meeting some neat ETI, but I figure the majority of the race wouldn't know what the hell to do with themselves if such an event took place.

There's Drake's Equation of course, but that's just math, not hard evidence. The galaxy is a big place, and I really doubt we'd even come into contact with anything for a very long time. Provided of course there's anything to come in contact with at all!
Your Obedient Serpent: causticathelind on March 30th, 2010 10:08 pm (UTC)
The Drake Equation is a sequence of unknowns, multiplied together to assert a Great Big I Dunno.
Tombfyretombfyre on March 30th, 2010 11:00 pm (UTC)
Yep, that sums it up pretty well. :3
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Your Obedient Serpent: big ideasathelind on March 31st, 2010 06:31 am (UTC)
Here's another Big Question:

Is "sentience" an inevitable emergent property of a sufficiently-complex nervous system, or is it a peculiar evolutionary solution to the specific environmental conditions experienced by early hominids? Is it hardware or software? Can the human hardware run different software?

Edited at 2010-03-31 06:31 am (UTC)
Christopher Bradleycpxbrex on March 31st, 2010 06:44 pm (UTC)
Sentience is an illusion created by our inability to accurately deduce the causes for our own behavior, the behavior of others and our behavior en masse (and might be one of the many reasons computers will never be sentient, why they do something will be reasonably obvious). Our consciousness is neither hardware nor software. It's biology. The analogy between human minds and computers is tortured. So, the last question is "no". ;)
Hafochafoc on March 30th, 2010 11:01 pm (UTC)
Personally, I choose to believe there is intelligent life somewhere else in the Universe because I want there to be intelligence, and there sure as fnord isn't any down HERE.
KehzaFox: sciencekfops on March 31st, 2010 01:23 am (UTC)
I lean more to the side of believe that there might be something else out there, though maybe they are no more than bacteria... dunno about intelligence.

To some up my philosophy though: SPACE IS COOL!
SilverClawbfdragon on March 31st, 2010 01:33 am (UTC)
I suppose I'm just about as agnostic then you are, other then simply the statistical likelihood seeming to be very high. What i do wonder about more is this meeting between intelligent races.

I think we as humans attribute a lot more of what is our sense of humanity to things that are really very much rooted in very deep parts of our brain. I'm not saying that it is so much a good or bad thing, but I think that the difference is very likely going to seem insurmountably large when trying to communicate and interact with a alien inelegance. Our actions are going to seem incomprehensible to each-other. It could go many ways. I can't help but imagine a species that is both exceedingly clever while having very little sense of 'self' like we might imagine. Octopus for instance are supposed to be extremely clever animals, but behaviorally they don't seem to exhibit very much in the way of anything we can relate to at all, much less empathize with.

This of course means that the reverse is likely true. We often think of aliens flying around, passing us up for some flaw that we have yet to overcome. IT makes for interesting stories, letting us look inwards as we consider what something like us might think of us from an outside view, but the fact is, it may be that they simply have nothing that would drive them to make the effort. Rather then something that is based on some sort of value or judgment, there may simply be nothing in their psychology that might give them the desire to connect, even if they did consider us living, equally intelligent things.
Araquan Skytracer: Sciencearaquan on March 31st, 2010 05:54 am (UTC)
Speaking of clever and little sense of self, and octopi, have you ever read Blindsight by Peter Watts? This is something I prodded athelind to read some time ago. I think it's one of the best works of fiction I've ever read regarding an encounter with truly alien intelligence.
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