August 20th, 2008



Nick Bostrom is the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, who bills himself as “philosopher, polymath, leading transhumanist thinker and spokesperson”. In a recent publication, he popularizes the Great Filter of Robin Hanson. It is a response to the Fermi paradox, anticipated in a more lyrical vein by Blaise Pascal in his famous confession of fear elicited by the eternal silence of infinite space: “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie.” (Pensées, Brunschvicg 206, Lafuma 201) While working at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Enrico Fermi transmuted religious fear into scientific exasperation, exclaiming: “Where is everybody?” More pedantically, modern followers of Pascal point out the conflict between the vastness of the universe leading to the expectation of a plurality of intelligent life, and the lack of its manifestation, let alone its presence, in our purlieu. Hanson enumerates plausible candidates for groups of hard trial-and-error biological steps: one hard step at the beginning leading to life, then zero to eight steps leading to complexity, then two to three steps leading to sex, then a double step to society, then a single step to cradle, and then perhaps a final step to language. Overall, this breakdown adds up to seven to nine hard steps. All of these steps lie in our past. Any one of them may have constituted a real hurdle. Unless we already overcame all of such hurdles, it is likely that another catastrophic obstacle will arise in our path to debar us from interstellar colonization. Conversely, every instance of past or present life found to be lacking in our extraterrestrial peregrinations, would yield an encouragement to persevere on our path to planetary conquest. Or so thinks Bostrom, oblivious of the greater American wisdom, “that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” Thus our most responsible choice in this matter would put Donald Rumsfeld in charge of SETI.

Here is a brief for Rummy’s assumption of responsibility for the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. As a consequence of the Copernican principle, the place of man in the universe can not be unique. Accordingly, the universe must contain a multitude of minds with similar capabilities, and nothing could foreclose the emergence and development of superhuman minds elsewhere in it. Let us conjecturally identify the carriers of the most advanced class of intelligence with God, allowing for the possibility of plural divine minds. In other words, on the mediocrity principle, the human mind is most likely to occupy a statistically average place in the intellectual range that extends from prions to gods. Reformulating the simulation argument also due to Bostrom, we arrive at the following options, of which at least one must be realized in reality:
  1. the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a divine stage;
  2. any divine civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of autocratic simulations of their evolutionary history or its possible but unactualized variations;
  3. human minds are almost certainly beholden to divine providence and depend utterly upon its autocracy.
The first option conflicts with the principle of plenitude, which asserts that in the long run, everything that can happen, will happen. The second option is rendered unlikely by meddlesome traits universally observed among eggheads. The last remaining option is occasionalism, which postulates continuous supernatural intervention in all human actions. The apparent lack of such intervention yields a real conundrum. One way to resolve it is through postulating a motive for supernatural meddlers to abscond. Along these lines, John A. Ball, a radio astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, proposed that Earth was a zoo and that extraterrestrials were its keepers, observing its inhabitants. In his article published in 1973 in Icarus, an international journal for solar system studies, Ball pointed out: “The perfect zoo (or wilderness area or sanctuary) would be one in which the fauna do not interact with, and are unaware of, their zoo-keepers.” Yet thirty-five years later, the “zoo hypothesis” continues to receive a short shrift from scientists. It stands to their reason that any sensible space aliens would commence their contact with mankind with a formal connection with political, economic, and intellectual elite. Since no such contact has been experienced by our betters, it follows that space aliens are not in attendance around these parts.

A more credulous, and canonically more credible scientist is José Gabriel Funes, who replaced the opponent of “intelligent design” theory George Coyne, as the director of the Vatican Observatory. Recently Funes has gone on official Vatican record (English translation here) with speculations that alien life forms could very well exist and even remain free from Original Sin. A logical extension of this thought, identifying guilt-free aliens with our angelic zookeepers, would afford a Catholic resolution for our conundrum.

Cross-posted to [info]larvatus и [info]philosophy.