Extraterrestrials – no.

Popular Mechanics has an article on scientists searching for alien life. Pointless, pointless, pointless. To quote the words of a futurist who inspired me early on, Marshall T. Savage:

There is a program to actively search for signals from other civilizations in this galaxy: SETI. This is a noble cause, but it seems slightly absurd. Scientists huddle around radio telescopes listening intently to one star at a time for the sound of dripping water, when what they are seeking would sound like Niagara Falls. The most cursory radio snapshot of the sky should reveal K2 civilizations as clearly as the lights of great cities seen from orbit at night. That we don’t see any such radio beacons in the skies probably means there are no Kardashev Level Two civilizations in this galaxy.

Perhaps advanced civilizatons don’t use radio, or radar, or microwaves. Advanced technology can be invoked as an explanation for the absence of extra terrestrial radio signals. But it seems unlikely that their technology would leave no imprint anywhere in the electromagnetic spectrum. We have been compared to the aborigine who remains blissfully unaware of the storm of radio and TV saturating the airwaves around him. Presumably, the aliens use advanced means of communications which we cannot detect. What these means might be is, by definition, unknown, but they must be extremely exotic. We don’t detect K2 signals in the form of laser pulses, gamma rays, cosmic rays, or even neutrinos. Therefore, the aliens must use some system we haven’t even imagined.

This argument, appealing though it is, cannot survive contact with Occam’s razor – in this case Occam’s machete. The evidence in hand is simply nothing – no signals. To explain the absence of signals in the presence of aliens, demands recourse to what is essentially magic. Unfortunately, the iron laws of logic demand that we reject such wishful thinking in favor of the simplest explanation which fits the data: No signals; no aliens.

The skies are thunderous in their silence; the Moon eloquent in its blankness; the aliens are conclusive by their absence. The extraterrestrials aren’t here. They’ve never been here. They’re never coming here. They aren’t coming because they don’t exist. We are alone.

For a past post on the topic, see ‘Aliens – There are None’. Of course, there are plenty of alien apologists in the comments. In my experience, belief in aliens tends to be symptomatic of naive, television-and-movies-based SL2 futurism. Geoffrey Miller thinks that we haven’t met aliens because they’re all stuck in wirehead mode, but I’m skeptical. I also notice that it is right around the 10-year anniversary of the announcement of microfossils supposedly found in a Mars-originating meteorite. Of course, this turned out to just be mud.

My angle: if we want to see aliens, we’ll have to make them with our own hands.

Oh yeah, another thing. Anne C. released a podcast.

Comments

  1. I wouldn’t write off ET just yet.

    “To explain the absence of signals in the presence of aliens, demands recourse to what is essentially magic” reminded me of Clarke’s Law – Any suficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    Savage implies that SETI has searched the entire electromagnetic spectrum, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, only recently has any effort been made to look for something as obvious as laser pulses.

    Much of SETI makes the assumption ET wants to be found – that they’ve set up beacons saying “here I am”. I think that’s ridiculous. This would possibly advertise your existence to a hostile civilization far advanced from your own, with usually terrible consequence. Alternately it would advertise your existence to a less-advanced civilization, with terrible consequences for them. Therefore a smart, ethical civilization would be “stealthy”. Even we have the technology to encode communications in ways not easily distinguishable from noise, so I don’t think it would be that hard for ET to hide.

    Absence of proof is not proof of absence.

    (Haven’t read you earlier post yet so I apologize if this has already been discussed)

  2. DavidtheDuke

    There’s no reason either to make a conclusion. As far as I and others can tell they’re not interfering on the buildup to a Sing, so their existence is irrelevant so far in prioritization of any Singularitarian subgoals.

  3. Yes, this is what I am telling everybody. No signals, no aliens.

    If there was a signal, it would be an instant reshaping of everything around us. A sudden assimilation, spreading from a distant star with the nearly speed of light in every direction.

    A dark spot in the sky, an inflating bubble of organized matter escalating all over the place. I mean, all over the space. Just before hinting us, it would cover almost half of the sky.

    Then – You have just been assimilated.

    Do not expect a pathetic Marsian with a gun blaster or a silly Venerian in a hippy kimono!

  4. Kip Werking

    I tend to agree with Geoffrey Miller on this one.

    I’m not claiming to be 100% confident. But what are the philosophical implications of us being alone—or being first—in the universe?

  5. But what are the philosophical implications of us being alone—or being first—in the universe?

    Not very deep, only that the earth is rare. I wouldn’t worry about it, as we will create and become a trillion alien species that will provide us with the same stimulation and interestingness as if we had ran into them.

    Your wording makes it seem like the philosophical implications could have influence on the conclusion, rather than vice versa… not to be preachy, but rationality doesn’t work like that. You take the evidence on its own terms, make your probabilistic conclusion, and then consider the philosophical implications… in that order.

    If we are alone, it only means that the probability of formation of intelligent life is very low in the multiverse. It shouldn’t be surprising. Self-replicating conscious life of this nature is too miraculous to pop up that frequently.

  6. I also see no reason, why those hypothetical alien races would escape this Universe ASAP, without sending first a nano robot or two, to conquer this one.

    A collapsing and escaping alien is no more probable than a “peace brothers and don’t bother with each other!” one.

    One of those SETI people once said, that this project (SETI) is bound to succeed. It is rather bound to fail.

    It is also a big EITHER here. Either SETI, either Singularity. The day the contact will be make at Arecibo, the Singularity is dead. And with every passing day without a contact, the Singularity is more certain.

    Why? Be cause no atom in this Galaxy would be left untouched after a single Singularity somewhere. But if somebody (many) out there just talk and talk via the radio for million or more years – the Singularity seems unreachable for them (an for us, most probably).

  7. jeriaska

    “I also see no reason, why those hypothetical alien races would escape this Universe ASAP, without sending first a nano robot or two, to conquer this one.”

    Consider the possibility that alongside their technological singularity this hypothetical alien race developed their ethics as well. Rather than strewing their genes, memes, and other forms of viral waste over the universe they might opt instead for the more environmentally conservative route of engineering inner and virtual space, thereby leaving the opportunity for latecomers such as ourselves to emerge independently.

    Perhaps an evolved intelligent civilization with all its material needs adequately satisfied might find the idea of conquest about as unpalatable as we increasingly do. There is plenty of room at the bottom to build up before going about plastering the night sky with copies of one’s biological signature. LA based futurist John Smart goes into this hypothesis in detail in his writings on MEST compression.

  8. Both ways. Up and down.

    Cooperation and deflection problem. Why do you think, everybody would cooperate in the “be pasive!” game? Some would not – and won the Universe! Therefore – almost nobody cooperates in those kind of situations, where defletion wins.

    No aliens, trust me!

  9. Kip Werking

    “But what are the philosophical implications of us being alone—or being first—in the universe?”

    “Not very deep, only that the earth is rare.”

    Oh but you are implying much more than that. That the earth is rare is entirely consistent with there being thousands (millions? billions?) of civilizations out there, with thousands (millions? billions?) of dead planets for each one of them. The known universe is a big place.

    No, you’re implying the earth is the *sole* home of a human-level civilization—that it is first and perhaps only. To say that this shouldn’t be surprising seems to my (probability-disinclined) mind like saying it shouldn’t be surprising that one draws the most highest possible hand in poker.

    You might better understand what I mean when I elaborate on my concern. First you write:

    “I wouldn’t worry about it, as we will create and become a trillion alien species that will provide us with the same stimulation and interestingness as if we had ran into them.”

    But this is not at all the sort of concern that worries me. I couldn’t care less about civilization-diversity in the (multi) universe. I am not engaging in wishful thinking, and the valence effect is my favorite cognitive bias, and the one I least tolerate in others. Or rather, if I am exhibiting the valence effect, it is only to the extent that I don’t want the human race to be the special creation of some Creator/Deist god. Indeed, if anything, it is the hypothesis that we are alone/first that has traditionally been associated with wishful (e.g. religious) thinking.

    Rather, my concern was more along the following lines: for centuries science has been knocking down claims that humans are special. The notion that human beings are special in the universe is one of the surest losing bets in the history of science. Copernicus, Darwin, all of the major revolutions made us feel smaller. As Gould put it:

    “The most important scientific revolutions all include, as their only common feature, the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos.”

    Let’s call this tendency KNOCKEM (because science keeps knocking us down). Let’s call your thesis that we’re first, FIRST. The problem, as far as I can see, is that FIRST flagrantly violates KNOCKEM.

    Now you write:

    “Your wording makes it seem like the philosophical implications could have influence on the conclusion, rather than vice versa… not to be preachy, but rationality doesn’t work like that. You take the evidence on its own terms, make your probabilistic conclusion, and then consider the philosophical implications… in that order.”

    I don’t mind the preaching; I often preach myself. And I agree that “philosophical implications”, accordng to certain characterizations of that term, should not influence our decision process, and certainly not because the implications would be bad. For example, the evidence in favor of one race being, on average, smarter than another race is what the evidence is. We might all wish that all races were equally intelligent, but that should have no bearing on whether the races actually do have this property. The universe doesn’t give a damn about satisfying our wishes.

    But when you characterize “philosophical implications” in that way, I think it’s clear that the sense in which FIRST violates KNOCKEM is *not* like that. I’m not saying the FIRST is unlikely because it would be *bad*; I’m saying it would be more unlikely to the extent it violates a loose but robust trend throughout the history of science–KNOCKEM.

  10. The known universe is a big place.

    But the looming improbability of the emergence of life is apparently even bigger.

    To say that this shouldn’t be surprising seems to my (probability-disinclined) mind like saying it shouldn’t be surprising that one draws the most highest possible hand in poker.

    But there are an infinite number of events which happen only on 1 in 10^1000 planets, or 10^10^10 planets, or 10^10^10^10^10 planets. The universe is not “big” in comparison to these numbers. Apparently life is one of these events.

    Indeed, if anything, it is the hypothesis that we are alone/first that has traditionally been associated with wishful (e.g. religious) thinking.

    Of course… I spent many many years thinking that there were tons of aliens everywhere, Sagan-style. But eventually the evidence, coupled with some anthropic inference, threw those ideas out.

    Science does knock down human centrality regularly, this is true. In fact, it has. There are an infinite number of alien species in the multiverse, way more than Sagan ever thought of. It’s just that they may be extremely far away.

    For example, the evidence in favor of one race being, on average, smarter than another race is what the evidence is.

    Yep! Those beliefs that can be destroyed by the truth, should be.

    I’m saying it would be more unlikely to the extent it violates a loose but robust trend throughout the history of science–KNOCKEM.

    Understood – I’ll give this whole thing some more thought and more likely than not you will see another post about ETs at some point in the next couple weeks.

    Here’s a thought – KNOCKEM knocks us off our pedestal in the sense that the chance of beings like us emerging is extremely extremely small, when we like (in our arrogance) to think it is relatively large. We think we’re some special, convergent outcome of atoms bumping into each other. Rather, life only exists in a tiny minority of universes.

    If most of life in the universe were located next to other life, then most life would exist in crowded sectors. Bearing that in mind, it would be anthropically likely for ourselves to be born into such a civilization, where the proximity is obvious. The fact that it is not suggests that most intelligent civilizations are alone or separated by vast gulfs. We have to assume that our situation is “typical”. SSA and all that.

  11. mitchell porter

    The universe is not “big” in comparison to these numbers.

    We have no idea how big the universe is. It may well be infinite, and in fact you might suppose that finite universes form a set of zero measure in the space of possible worlds. I suspect you’re actually thinking in terms of our past light-cone, which is something distinct from the universe as such.

  12. On the other side of this Universe or in some other bubble of the Multiverse … maybe.

    But the Galaxy an the Local cluster seems to be empty.

    Now, we have the radio, but 500 million years ago, we already had oxygen in the atmosphere. An indicator, that something interesting is going on here.

    Are you saying, that those ET loosers were unable to detect our oxygen? That’s what I say.

  13. Everyone here is so ignorant. People, you don’t know anything about anything… All this talk of radio signals and the “rarity of life that replicates”. WOW. WE DON’T KNOW A WHOLE LOT ABOUT A GOOD BILLION THINGS.

    Try this: A lion on the plains of Africa sees a human. Their brain says life… probably smells strange… doesn’t move like other life on the plane. Point is: The lion doesn’t understand the human.

    When it comes to more advanced aliens, we’re like the lion. We see them, we tend to relate it to thingies we’ve come to understand and classify. But we don’t really GET IT. Stop talking in absolutes! Once again, WE DON’T KNOW.

  14. I find it hilarious how humans in every period generally think of themselves as the pinacle in knowledge and understanding. “Oh, but we developed flight and computers and rockets this century.” Yeah.. and? We throw around words like “wormhole”… a fuckin’ theory. In 500 years human will laugh at the overt simplicity of our current wormhole and dimensional theories. LAUGH. Sure, some of it will carry over, but a lot won’t.

    When people thought the world was flat, if someone were to tell them it was round that individual would have been thought insane. They had just as much self-assurance then as we do now.

  15. Xavier Thomas

    We want to know the answer so badly!! Our vantage point is so limited, our micro time span of existence so small. Yet, we have carried around for 5000 years, maybe more, the idea or revelation ( whatever you prefer) that we as humans are indeed the pinacle of creation with the added destiny to be one with the actual creator in the “infinite” mode. Tempting, comforting. Seen as spiritual junk or ultimate science, only time will tell. If the universe as we can currently “see” it is indeed all that we can see, the chances of locating another intelligent species seems remote. If we are the top end of creation, settled here on our relatively friendly speck of space rock, our time and future could be quite long, millions of years, or short, less than a 100 more. We as a species have a lot of impact on the span of our existence but at the same time, our current position is far from critical if we only gave ourselves a collective break. This planet has the capacity to service well over a 100 billion of us. If only we followed the designer’s operating instructions, the warrantee would hold.

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