Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Much Ado About Nothing

I just read a Mars Phoenix-inspired article in Technology Review called “Where Are They?” with the subtitle “why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing.” The author is Nick Bostrom, a clearly intelligent guy at Oxford who thinks and writes a lot about post-humanism and “transhumanism” as well as various philosophical subjects.

This article falls into the philosophical category, which sometimes seems to involve extensive speculation and “logical” analysis drawn from essentially nothing and leading for the most part back to nothing. Here the idea is that the best result for “is/was there life on Mars?” would be a null result. Why? Because if life has evolved more than once in our small “neighborhood,” it implies that over time, life is relatively easy to start. But since we have detected no signs of intelligent life beyond Earth, if life is simple to start, then it must be subject to some sort of filter against survival to the point of interstellar communication and travel. So we are probably doomed to wipe ourselves out as other technological civilizations must have done (and hence, “where are they?”).

There are many more words to Bostrom’s argument, but that’s essentially it. In another form, if it’s difficult for life to even arise and if we are unique in the Galaxy or even the observable universe, then we may have already made it through evolution’s worst bottleneck (whether that was becoming multicellular or intelligent or whatever). If so, then maybe we have a chance at not wiping ourselves out with one or another “existential threat” technology, though many of them exist and more are probably on the way.

Of course Mr. Bostrom is free to analyze and hope for anything he likes, but I think such arguments are essentially silly, because they all boil down to extrapolation from a sample size of one – life on Earth. That’s all we know about now, and until we know more, it’s impossible to draw any conclusions about how common or uncommon life or intelligence may be in the universe at large. And if there are other intelligent beings somewhere, it’s probably impossible to escape from our own biological and cultural biases and draw any reliable conclusions about what those other beings "must" or even might do.

This doesn’t mean that I think the questions of life and intelligence are uninteresting or unknowable. To the contrary – I think these are among the most interesting questions for near-term and long-term research and exploration (not to mention science fiction writing). But I think that when you start to say, for example, that because some humans have thought of the idea of self-replicating Von Neumann machines which would explore and seed the Galaxy with copies of themselves, that at least one technological civilization reaching the point of being able to do so would certainly do so. Maybe there are UCG guidelines against this (United Civilizations of the Galaxy, of course). There are many possibilities, some of them perhaps hidden in physics we don’t even know yet. Maybe light and radio waves are impossibly old-fashioned methods that no civilization would be caught dead using after their first 500 years of communication technology. I don’t know. I expect we will learn more in the next 20 years than we have learned in the past 200 (or maybe 2000), unless we do manage to destroy ourselves, which is certainly a possibility.

In the meantime, we suffer the curse of living in interesting times. I personally hope we find evidence of simple or advanced life on Mars or elsewhere in the solar system, and that the Universe is brimming with advanced life forms. We probably won’t know for a while, though who knows, maybe Phoenix will dig up some intriguing evidence next month. Until we learn more, it’s my hope against Nick Bostrom’s, and may the best hope win.

P.S. The screen shot is from Orbiter, showing the Mars north polar region - I added a new landmark at the approximate position of Phoenix, lower left of the image.

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