Monday, December 06, 2010

ET’s and their impact on us

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah


In this second post on Paul Davies’ The Eerie Silence: Renewing our search for alien intelligence, I want to focus on his discussion of what ET’s could be like and what the impact of the reception of a clear, meaningful signal would be on us.
First, if ET’s contact us, whether deliberately or not, they most likely will be (much) more technologically advanced than us. At minimum, they will have developed radio communication and mastered radio astronomy, thoroughly knowing what the Galaxy is like (structure and contents: stars, nebulae, dust, halo, etc.). And since our civilization is very recent, more likely they will have appeared ages ago (the Milky Way is about 12 billion years old) and have had time to make unimaginable progress. (If we’ve progressed this much in the past few centuries or millennia, think how they would be after millions, if not billions of years.) One immediate conclusion stressed by Davies, is that the existence of such ETs would imply that civilizations are not doomed to disappear – through various risks, internal or external – after a short time, as it has been feared and argued for many years.

This leads him to a discussion of the Fermi Paradox, which the Italian physicist stated very simply 60 years ago, “where are the aliens (if they exist, they should have reached here already)?”, and which Davies and many other thinkers regard as a very strong argument, even though there have been many proposed explanations for it, some stronger than others (see the recent book by Stephen Webb). Indeed, with millions of years of scientific progress and technological development, the aliens would have known pretty much everything about the Galaxy and, most probably via self-replicating machines, colonized or networked through it. They probably would be able to extract energy from rotating black holes, which Davies explains very simply, steal planets (for useful materials), program viruses, and… reengineer themselves! Indeed, just think of what a combination of advanced nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and information technology can do just a century or two from now, then extrapolate hundreds of thousands or millions of years into the future.

Here’s what Davies concludes from a discussion of the above considerations:

I think it very likely – in fact inevitable – that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of intelligence in the universe. If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature, a conclusion that has obvious and far-reaching ramifications for SETI.

By “post-biological”, the author means “reengineered” creatures, with largely enhanced capabilities, particularly brain power, up to any fundamental limits imposed by physics. Long before that, ET’s will have “transitioned” to super-machines with “godlike mega-brains”. Davies then spends several pages further envisioning the nature of such machines (perhaps EQC’s, “extraterrestrial quantum computers”) and what that would do, for the species and w.r.t. the Galaxy. “Why would such an entity bother to contact us?” he asks. He concludes that such “entities” would not even have any interest in the physical universe, they may perhaps spend their time solving elaborate Math problems, proving new theorems, entirely living a life of the mind…

OK, let’s come back to issues that our minds can at least imagine and perhaps address, such as what would happen if we receive a message from a species which is, let’s hope, not so far ahead of us. Should we fear or should we welcome such a contact? Davies tells us: “An alien civilization that goes to the trouble and expense of actively trying to contact us would probably be highly altruistic.” I agree. In fact, Davies imagines that such a species would want to help us make faster progress, for example by telling us how to achieve (sustained) nuclear fusion and thus solve our energy problem. It might tell us where in the “Galactic Wide Web” we could simply download the blueprints/solutions/data for whatever we may want to know at this point in our technological and cultural stage.

So, science-wise and technology-wise, we most likely stand to gain from such an encounter. What about culturally, especially our religious systems of belief, which are so widespread and engrained in most human societies? Davies has several good pages on the topic, although he focuses almost entirely on the impact that would have on Christianity.

He writes: “Undoubtedly, the most immediate impact of an alien message would be to shake up the world’s faiths.” A paragraph later, he gets more specific: “Christianity is the religion most challenged by the concept of extraterrestrial beings, because Christians believe that God became a human being (specifically, a Jewish political dissident).” He then explains that because Jesus’s goal was to save humans, not dolphins or gorillas, and not even the Neanderthals, the question poses itself: should aliens be the subject of salvation? If yes, how and by whom; if not, why not? Davies then goes on to briefly review the few Christian thinkers who have over the past few centuries tried to address this problem, coming up with two possible standpoints: multiple incarnations (“one savior for each deserving species”) or only one savior (Jesus), and Christians called upon to spread the word throughout the Galaxy and the Universe.

Then Davies draws more general conclusions: “What is clear, however, is that any theology with an insistence on human uniqueness would be doomed.” (And here I should point out that this largely applies to Islam, at least in its standard views, even though many Muslims not only accept ET’s but even claim that the Qur’an alludes to them.) Davies adds: “Although slow to change, religion is very adaptable.” He compares this new challenge to that posed by Darwin’s Evolution, which also questioned Man’s special status within most religions; he concludes: “The discovery of advanced extraterrestrial beings would represent a far more explicit threat of the same nature, and prove that much harder to assimilate.”

What remains then is to assess the probability of such an encounter. That’s anyone’s guess. Davies presents his views, which are a mixture of hopes and of realistic appraisals of the field. No doubt, this is a fascinating subject.

19 comments:

Larry GIlman said...

“What is clear, however, is that any theology with an insistence on human uniqueness would be doomed.”

Not at all -- any more than a theology (or a humanism) with an insistence on the uniqueness of each individual human being is doomed by the verified existence of several billion such entities. The quoted statement sounds like wishful thinking to the effect that religions are archaic holdovers hollowed out by the discoveries of science, mere shells that will collapse at the first rough touch. Such claims have been made about extraterrestrial intelligence and religion for at least half a century now: see C. S. Lewis's perspicacious reply to them in his essay "Religion and Rocketry" (1958). Indeed, I very much doubt that anybody's worldview, religious or secular, would be as much shaken by a positive SETI detection as commentators almost always declare, given how imaginatively well-prepared for such an event we have been by over a century of science fiction. A 9-day wonder, a trigger for much earnest conversation -- yes. A mind-shaker? Let's not be silly. There is no chain of reasoning, theological or otherwise, that we could pursue the day after such a detection that we cannot pursue right now.

If Davies really does assert that Jesus didn't come to "save Neanderthals," he knows more about the matter than most Christians do, apparently, including me. Such childish jibes do not encourage me to hope that there is any serious address of theological thought in his book.

Nonreligious writers writing about religion, like so many anti-evolutionists writing about evolution, too often assume that they are well-equipped by their common sense to opine about a subject that they have, in fact, sampled only superficially.

Larry Gilman said...

PS. Salman, your blog is great -- I don't mean to sound snarky about it! Keep up the good work.

Ali said...

Interesting post, Nidhal.

“What is clear, however, is that any theology with an insistence on human uniqueness would be doomed.” (And here I should point out that this largely applies to Islam, at least in its standard views, even though many Muslims not only accept ET’s but even claim that the Qur’an alludes to them.)

This is funny for me. Davies writes on what he thinks how the world progresses and then makes this conclusion. His book is more of a rant than non-fiction (at least according to this review.)

Its like making your own fairy tale and then concluding that my belief is doomed because it does not confirm to your fairy tale. Surely I expect better than this from a person of such caliber as Davies. He makes too many assumptions and writes as if intelligence is geared ONLY to go higher and higher. What do we know? lol

And Nidhal, what has acceptance or rejection of ETs got to do with human uniqueness. If ETs do exist, does that mean humans are not unique? If so, how? I fail to understand why you even make this co-relation.

Ali said...

Davies:
"I think it very likely – in fact inevitable – that biological intelligence is only a transitory phenomenon, a fleeting phase in the evolution of intelligence in the universe."

Ali:
"I THINK its very likely that biological intelligence is gifted only to human beings."


Davies:
"If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I believe it is overwhelmingly likely to be post-biological in nature, a conclusion that has obvious and far-reaching ramifications for SETI."

Ali:
"If we ever encounter extraterrestrial intelligence, I BELIEVE it is overwhelmingly likely to be similar to human intelligence, a conclusion that has obvious and far-reaching ramifications for SETI."

Now, please tell me why I am wrong.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

Phew! what a dumb concept. Goodness! just imagine if it was written by Prof A. Rehman. I mean afterall, it is based on wildest of our fantasies with no scientific backing and is guised as "science". What an irony that the writer of this blog would mock at a Pakistani scientist and at the same time give space to dumb writings like these on his blog.
What exactly IS an alien, let alone intelligent alien? The dumbest explanation I often get is...just because there are extrasolar planets, there possibly is life out there too. Now tell me, if you discover an island somewhere in say Pacific Ocean, does it necessarily mean there would be Pizzas too?

Salman Hameed said...

"The dumbest explanation I often get is...just because there are extrasolar planets, there possibly is life out there too. Now tell me, if you discover an island somewhere in say Pacific Ocean, does it necessarily mean there would be Pizzas too?"

Sorry Akbar - this requires a two-steps in thinking. The claim is not that just because there are extrasolar planets out there, there must be life. But that the raw material for life (CHON) and the conditions needed for life (i.e. planets hosting conditions that we know support life on Earth exist) exist on other planets. This is the reason, people are excited about the possibility of life on Europa or Mars. So if there are three places just in our own solar system, it is quite likely that such conditions exist at other places as well. So the proper analogy with island would be: if we know that there is an island in the Pacific Ocean, it is quite likely that it will have trees on it. Or more specifically, if we know its latitude, then we may even be able to speculate about the kind of vegetation present over there...

Nidhal Guessoum said...
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Nidhal Guessoum said...

Whew! Looks like I – or rather Davies – hit a nerve there… Why my post elicited such aggressive comments and language (“childish jibes”, “more of a rant”, “a dumb concept”, “dumb writings like these”) is pretty mystifying to me. Indeed, if the views expressed by Davies are similar to those that “commentators almost always declare”, then why the uproar? More importantly, why not offer arguments instead of dismissals (Davies is not qualified to talk about the subject)?

I’ll try to be brief, but I have to respond to Larry, to Ali, and to Akbar.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Larry, if finding out one day that we’re not alone in the universe/galaxy and that some aliens out there have far superior minds, lives, knowledge, and understanding of the world would be no more than “a 9-day wonder” for you, then fine; I doubt that the rest of the world would react that way. Realizing one day that our minds (which means all we have come to know, believe, and hold as important and great) is simplistic at best would surely be a “mind-shaker”, no? But that’s all hypothetical, and it’s difficult to argue about attitudes and personal philosophies…

And Davies’s book, to be fair, is not mainly interested in the theological impact, that subject gets less than 10 pages at the end, the book is mainly focused on the SETI project, the assumptions made so far, the techniques and approaches adopted by the practitioners and the enthusiasts, and quite a bit of speculation about what the ET’s would more likely be like and hence what to expect (in terms of searches, findings, and impacts). I don’t think it’s fair to trash the book and the writer just because it doesn’t address the theology issue in depth and in detail (though I’ve only provided a fraction of what is presented). Oh, and if the Neanderthals were supposed to be saved by Jesus, please explain to me/us. That may have been a “jibe” on the part of Davies, but he was just trying to make a point: humans only were the subject of his mission of salvation, were they not?

I think the only issue on which you may have a point is that of “human uniqueness”, which has indeed remained undefined (by Davies, by me, or by you). So if one is very impressed with humans (for various reasons, particularly religious/spiritual ones), then one will tend to view them as “quite unique”, probably withstanding the challenge of aliens. But on purely objective grounds, if we encounter aliens that are superior to us in every way, then it will be difficult to argue that we are “unique”.

Nidhal Guessoum said...
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Nidhal Guessoum said...
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Nidhal Guessoum said...

Ali, I honestly didn’t understand what “fairy tale” you think Davies has been constructing. You say “He makes too many assumptions”, and that too I didn’t understand. If you read my two posts together, you will realize that Davies certainly does not claim that ETs must exist or that even basic life out there must exist. He is discussing the possibility of their existence, in which case he builds “maximum-likelihood” arguments about their capabilities (given the certainly that they will be at least as “advanced” as us), their presence/distribution in space, and hence the impact of our eventual encounter with them. What’s so fairy-tale about such a discussion?
And Ali, you do know that most Muslim thinkers argue on the basis of the Qur’an (I can cite you the relevant verses if you like) that everything on earth and in the heavens has been made “subservient” (taskheer) to humans, don’t you? Why would everything be made for us if there are other species that may be superior to us or more capable than us even spiritually?

Finally, Akbar, I am not sure what “dumb writings” you are referring to, can you please be more specific so one can respond more properly? Salman has already replied on the question of “do extra-solar planets make the possibility of life out there more likely”, so I won’t add. I’ll just wait for your clarifications.

Jonathan Robinson said...

great post!
Of course a lot depends, regarding the impact on the world's faiths, on what the Aliens say when we meet them. Some Christians have suggested that if an Alien civilisation had managed to avoid destroying itself with technology then it probably operated according to Christian principles.

The general assumption is that such aliens would be thorough going methodological naturalists, and they may well be, but that is an assumption usually made by methodological naturalists, if they turned out to be "spiritual" they may well bolster one religion or another.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks, Jonathan.

You make two good points, the one about the aliens' philosophy/worldview/faith and the one about their assumed subscription to methodological naturalism.

Some day we should talk about methodological naturalism, and let's hope it won't explode... :-)

Ali said...

I thought I posted a longish comment.
Sad to know that it did not get posted.

Salman Hameed said...

Ali,

We do not moderate comments on Irtiqa. I only delete advertisements. As you may have noticed, all comments appear immediately, unless the post is more than 2 weeks old - then I have to okay them (as those usually get more spam).

Given that, no, I did not delete any of Nidhal's comments. And I did get your posted comment, but I don't know why blogger did not publish it. Sometimes this happens - without any designs to censor or suppress things.

Since I did get your comment via e-mail, I will publish it after this posting.

Salman Hameed said...

THIS COMMENT IS FROM ALI:


Thanks Nidhal.

"What’s so fairy-tale about such a discussion?"

Ha-ha.
The difference is I guess in our definition. What I call a 'fairy tale' is what you call 'maximum likelihood arguments.' These arguments are based on pure speculation and conjecture. You can use sophisticated names for your arguments like Fermi Paradox and Drake equation to make them
appear 'scientific.' But fact of the matter is such arguments are as hollow as fairy tales.

"... everything on earth and in the heavens has been made “subservient” (taskheer) to humans, ..."

Not sure whether 'subservient' is the right word here. i think everything is made subservient to God. Which verse are you talking about?

"Why would everything be made for us if there are other species that may be superior to us or more capable than us even spiritually?"

The big word here is 'IF.'
And anything that comes after this big word is pure conjecture. I am not saying that there are no aliens better than us. There might be. We do not know this (yet). But, Nidhal, you are assuming that there are aliens that are far superior to us. And at the same time you are downplaying our significance as human beings by using your assumption as if it is fact.

PS. Salman i wish you did not delete Nidhal's outburst. :)

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks, Ali.
As Salman confirmed, he did not delete any “outburst” or comments I posted; I wrote a long reply, and when I tried posting it, it created a mess, so I had to delete and repost by pieces, tripping up again as I went. No, seriously, I guarantee you that Salman will never have to delete any comments, as I won’t ever insult anyone or use inappropriate language.

Now, about “taskheer” (ok, let’s say “subjected”, not “made subservient”, though the term in Arabic is more powerful than that), please check the following verses: 14:33 and especially 31:20. But please let’s not launch into that discussion now, I’ll be happy to post something about that topic some day, and we can then discuss it at length. I just don’t want this thread to go into a new, somewhat controversial direction.

Regarding speculations and fairy tales, I think the difference between you and me is that you are not at all convinced that if ET’s exist they most likely are much more intelligent and advanced than us, and I am pretty convinced of that. Succinctly: do you agree that in the history of life and intelligence on Earth, things have gone upward? (Why things have gone more complex and sophisticated in every aspect is another discussion…) If you agree, as I’m sure you do (it’s pretty obvious, unless you do not believe that anything has evolved for ages), then the argument is pretty simple: given more time, species will evolve more, and ever more sophisticated ones will appear; plus, at some stage a species becomes able to direct its own evolution (by reengineering itself, by controlling the environment), and you can be sure species will try to push themselves up, not down. So why do you think that aliens will not be more advanced than us?

BTW, I am far from convinced that aliens of any kind exist out there; I am not against the search; I am just saying that all these arguments, which I find pretty logical and robust, build on the assumption of a possible existence of advanced species, which is hugely uncertain. But the follow-up arguments in themselves are not “fairy tales”.:-)

Ali said...

Thanks, Salman for re-posting my comment. I did not think you deleted my comment, but I did think you deleted Nidhal's comments. Because there were so mnay comments of Nidhal that were deleted, I thought he must have been really mad at those of us who posted "aggressive comments and language." And i was curious to know how mad he was. lol

...........


Interesting, Nidhal.

"Succinctly: do you agree that in the history of life and intelligence on Earth, things have gone upward?"

Absolutley.

"So why do you think that aliens will not be more advanced than us?"
I am not saying that aliens will not be more advanced than us. What i am saying is that we just do not know. And, I do not think we have enough knowldge to believe that they will be more advanced. We are simply speculating on what little knowledge we have and thinking that because complexity, sophistication and intelligence we see is headed upwards, it cannot have any other trajectory.

I will explain why.
Imagine a seismograph.
For someone sitting on one of the ascending lines of it might think that the trajectory of that line is upwards and upwards only. But someone who can see the complete seismograph will know that that line's trajectory is not directed upwards forever. How do we know that we are not sitting on an ascending line of a 'seismograph?'

Fermi Paradox makes a lot of sense to me. But its still a paradox. I do believe there are aliens out there. We may not have discovered them (yet). But they are there. (verse 42:29) I just do not know whether they can be more advanced than us. So my answer to Fermi's question "Where are they?" is that they are there in their homes just like we are here in our home.

"I am just saying that all these arguments, which I find pretty logical and robust, build on the assumption of a possible existence of advanced species, which is hugely uncertain. But the follow-up arguments in themselves are not “fairy tales”.:-)"

Arguments, no matter how logical and robust they may be, that are based on assumptions are as hollow as fairytales. I can assume that I can fly and start off on a record making journey, visit Mars, Andromeda, Betelgeuse, etc, etc. Does my expedition not sound like fiction right from the start? I can make it interesting by throwing in some sophisticated stuff on my journey. But still, no one can believe I am talking any sense. lol