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Transhuman Spirituality and the Fermi Paradox - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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May 19th, 2008


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02:23 am - Transhuman Spirituality and the Fermi Paradox
Charles Stross wrote an interesting short essay on why the Fermi paradox may be completely illusory. I agree with his analysis, in large part because it makes absolutely no sense to me that humans are the only intelligent technological species in the galaxy, and like Stross, I find the argument that if other older civilizations existed at least one would have already colonized the galaxy to reveal vastly more about the beliefs and prejudices of the person holding them that opinion than any actual truths.

In any case, Stross's essay also has several fascinating links. astronomer Milan M. Cirkovic's article Against the Empire is an interesting discussion of why highly advanced expansionist civilizations may well be vanishingly rare or non-existent and since only highly advanced civilizations have a hope of accomplishing interstellar travel, the fact that the galaxy has not already been colonized by one or more civilizations likely means absolutely nothing about existence of such civilizations.

However, from my PoV, the true gem of the links was the essay by futurist John Smart Answering the Fermi Paradox (which builds on the theories of astronomer Lee Smolin, discussed in his excellent work The Life of the Cosmos, and even more so, the link in that essay to Smart's earlier essay, Intro to the Developmental Singularity Hypothesis.

Calling either of these works science is stretching that term well beyond all usefulness, they are a mixture of thought experiments and statements of belief. However, what impresses me about them, and especially about the second piece is that it so closely sums up my own beliefs about intelligence, complexity, and the inner workings of the universe. Something remarkably close to the developmental singularity hypothesis is one of the core tenets of my highly idiosyncratic personal spirituality.

Seeing what amounts to a description of the core of my spiritual beliefs detailed and analyzed in this fashion was truly fascinating, especially when the various implications of the idea are explored. It will likely eventually be possible to test the Developmental Singularity Hypothesis, and (unsurprisingly) I believe it will be proven correct. However, for now it is merely a statement of belief, and but it is one that I fervently share.
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From:heron61
Date:May 19th, 2008 07:33 pm (UTC)
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*nods* I've seen that before and assuming that Smart's ideas of transcension are incorrect, then Landis' percolation theory works especially well in combination with Cirkovic's ideas. I can see it easily being true that non-expansionist civilizations are more stable and longer-lived than expansionist ones (in addition to this being true on Earth, the energy and time expenditures needed for interstellar colonization are likely to always be significant and could lead to various forms of social and political problems. Thus, even if some civilizations attempt to expand, they don't last as long and their colonies have the same issues. Thus we're likely looking at a situation where P < Pc or (at best) P close to Pc, which means there are very large uncolonized areas.

In the comments to your post on this, I also especially liked the summary that someone posted.

Of course, all of this assumed that there is nothing resembling a moderately cheap near C drive or any sort of FTL drive that doesn't require highly specific conditions that our solar system doesn't meet.

Edited at 2008-05-19 07:44 pm (UTC)
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From:mindstalk
Date:May 19th, 2008 02:38 pm (UTC)
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I find the anti-Fermi arguments profoundly unconvincing. But a better argument right now might be to point out that Smart's "Transcension, not Expansion" hypothesis means that the existence of technological aliens is irrelevant, because we'll never meet them. They're off in their solipsistic black hole supercomputers, and some day we'll be in ours, instead of going to look for them.

Fermi always had an answer of sorts: Carl Sagan's vision of millions of civilizations, stuck on their home planet, communicating over the millennia with radio, and dying when their sun did. More generally, Fermi is saying "if it is possible to travel the stars or for life to have a visible impact on the universe, we should see them already", which can be answered with either "we're first" or "it is not possible to have an impact or to meet other races". Besides the plausibility problems (a slow robust self-rep AI with, sorry Smart, no inclination to "transcend", doesn't seem implausible to me), whether such a vision of the universe is more cheerful than one in which we just happen to be first is, I think, a matter on which we might disagree.

If they are out there, we will never meet them.

Or, of course, we could be in some simulation or other zoo, where whether we meet anyone is up to the whim of the zookeepers.

Oh, and even if increased localization of main activity were a universal unbroken long-term trend -- bit of a strong assumption there -- that wouldn't mean impact is increasingly local. On Earth we're an increasingly urban population, but we scour the world. Not mining asteroids for titanium, platinum, and gold is a matter of economics (technology vs. gravity), not lack of desire. "Transcension" doesn't break conservation laws. Unless it does, with subuniverse creation, but that's as wackily blue sky as any other Singularity theory, with speculative physics to boot, and gets back to my "okay, aliens are then irrelevant" point.

Edited at 2008-05-19 03:09 pm (UTC)
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From:heron61
Date:May 19th, 2008 07:42 pm (UTC)
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See my above response to James for other possible answers that ultimately come does to the idea that while it happens, it's sufficiently limited that we haven't seen any.

Oh, and even if increased localization of main activity were a universal unbroken long-term trend -- bit of a strong assumption there -- that wouldn't mean impact is increasingly local. On Earth we're an increasingly urban population, but we scour the world. Not mining asteroids for titanium, platinum, and gold is a matter of economics (technology vs. gravity), not lack of desire.

Yes, and I expect that ultimately (with in my estimation ultimately pegged at between 50 and several hundred years from now) we're going to be exploiting the rest of the solar system for raw materials. However, unless cheap near C drives or moderately easy FTL exist, this will stop at the edges of the Oort cloud. The economics of importing raw materials from other star systems are simply never going to work out if we're limited to any sort of reactions drives. So, it centralization is indeed inevitable or at least very likely, what you would have is lots of civilizations that live on their homeworld, take resources and energy from the rest of their star system, and don't bother to do anything more than send small probes to other star systems.
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From:mindstalk
Date:May 19th, 2008 08:27 pm (UTC)
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Immortality and advanced automation can make even slowish STL drives pay off in a long term. There's shipping rare elements back, or using Nicoll beams to create an interstellar economy in energy.

And as I just noted in that subthread you like, the centralization trend is weakly balanced by individuals who prefer to live away from other people, or in the "country", or whatnot. And it's that that the paradox argument rests on. If 10 billion people prefer to live in cities on Earth, and 10,000 people prefer (and can afford) to live away, or with lots of space, the descendants of the 10,000 can drive colonization. (Only takes one pregnant rat to colonize and island.) Similarly, if 10 trillion people prefer to cluster around Sol, and only a tiny fraction of that want to personally see what's over at the next star, or to have children without population controls... that fraction's potentially enough to ignite the galaxy.
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From:heron61
Date:May 19th, 2008 08:53 pm (UTC)
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The questions that then come up are how small a number of people and a percentage of a civilization's resources are needed for successful interstellar colonization if that fraction is too high, then it may remain practically impossible because too small a percentage of the inhabitants are unwilling to devote the resources too it.

Also, I don't really see the purpose unless the individuals wish to colonize a planet. Assuming fusion power and various similar technologies, if you want to be isolated from everyone else, the inner Oort Cloud isn't a bad place to be. Assuming non-ludicrous tech, being 1,000 AU away from Earth is impressively isolated. Assuming non-explosive population growth (and if you have that, then I'm fairly certain that a civilization-wide crash is the logical next step), there's literally no reason to go further away other than a desire to settle extra-solar planets. Even if life-bearing worlds are common (which looks likely give both the abundance of planets and the ease & speed with which evolved here), they may be profoundly uninhabitable due to various biochemical differences.

Of course, I also do not remotely buy the Marshall Savage-esque infinite expansion through mobile habitats because all evidence points to non-explosive population growth and the obvious risk of collapse explosive population growth brings. My assumption is that the only civilizations that would be able to expand out of their star system are ones that are heavily invested in a steady-state paradigm, because I'm expecting all the rest to die off (or at least collapse) fairly rapidly.
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From:mindstalk
Date:May 19th, 2008 09:12 pm (UTC)
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Yes, certainly the fraction is a key question. But I still see non-expansion as a fragile or leaky future; there are many combinations of technology and society that lead to expansion, all of which have to be low probability to get a centralist-only universe.

"wish to colonize a planet": Or build Orbitals, or lots of smaller habitats, or to see if they can build a Tipler time cylinder out of neutron stars, or manage a star for their own deep future immortality, or to personally *explore* other planets.

"there's literally no reason to go further away other than a desire to settle extra-solar planets": I guess some of my developments above could count as settling, even if they actually dismantle a planet. But I'm baffled by a statement like this: you seem to value diversity in general, yet dismissive of the real diversity of human desires (real and imaginable) which could lead to expansion.

"Assuming non-explosive population growth (and if you have that, then I'm fairly certain that a civilization-wide crash is the logical next step)": Why can't a system manage to have explosive population growth up to some resource per capita limit? The home system would settle into steady state, while people who wanted further reproduction would head for the "suburbs" or "country".

"all evidence points to non-explosive population growth": if you're talking about current demographic trends, that points to collapse and lack of a future due to lack of any people in some centuries, not to a steady state, which is a very precise point to reach without active management. (Like parabolic orbits, rare relative to elliptical or hyperbolic ones.) It doesn't support space cadetting, but it doesn't support anyone being out there, either.

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From:dancinglights
Date:May 19th, 2008 03:05 pm (UTC)
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I tend to take somewhat depressed comfort in the simplistic statistics of scale answer to the Fermi paradox as adopted by a lot of the astronomers I knowand best explained to me in a pretty little animation of Geoff Marcy's. Namely that if some arbitrary, intentionally optimistic probability is given for any "habitable zone" planet to have intelligent life ever, and one sticks that into the math of current theories on planet formation (frequency of formation and time to form) and the size of even just our own galaxy, one gets little blips of civilization so far apart in time and space that without also assuming extremely long timeframes of stability for most civilizations, it is very, very unlikely that any one blip would detect another within the thousands-year timeframe we've been looking.

Optimistically, this can actually funnel into the percolation theory approach and we just have to be substantially more patient. Pessimistically, it figures advanced civilizations tend to blow themselves up long before they get around to meeting their very distant nearest neighbors. I'd like to be optimistic.
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From:helen99
Date:May 19th, 2008 07:09 pm (UTC)
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Agreed. Civilizations can advance in ways that are very different from ours, depending upon an infinite number of possible variables. For example, suppose there were beings with no opposable thumbs, a comparably greater ability to 'mentally' focus and use ambient energy, and the ability to 'perceive' reality in a wider range of frequencies. These differences alone would cause their civilization to differ from ours in inconceivable ways.

It's possible that technology developed this group would hardly be recognizable as technology at all by us. However, it's also possible that they've already colonized the galaxy but just haven't bothered to tell us. After all, we don't always tell our pets we're going off to colonize...
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From:derekcfpegritz
Date:May 19th, 2008 07:22 pm (UTC)
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Hey, if I've got plenty of bandwidth and processing capability to handle any virtual scape I can imagine here at home, why bother with all the damn effort to pitch my ass toward some other star? To hell with it, I say: our Sun will provide several billions years of fusion-based power, so we don't have to worry about interstellar migrating until the furnace starts to go.
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From:heron61
Date:May 19th, 2008 08:24 pm (UTC)
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Pretty much. After that, I can see looking for a nice little M star to spend the next trillion or so years.
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From:derekcfpegritz
Date:May 19th, 2008 09:05 pm (UTC)
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Or just find a nice, nearby black hole and use it to pry open a wormhole to a side-universe and port ourselves into the new continuum.
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From:mindstalk
Date:May 19th, 2008 08:27 pm (UTC)
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But there are people who aren't like you, and would make different choices.

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