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Classical thinking about Fermi paradox may have as much relevance to extraterrestrial civilizations as this Soviet-era sports arena to giant invading robo-crabs.

We spend hundreds of millions of dollars and entire careers listening to signals from outer space. Longing for first contact is ingrained in our culture and seems like a real possibility. But so far the universe shows no signs life.
Thinking about it more carefully, we may extrapolate forward the path of our own civilization and see that the mode of future existence quickly becomes unrecognizable to our current selves. This means that the universe teeming with advanced civilizations may look to us exactly as it does now. Fermi’s paradox is only a paradox of stretching our parochial thinking over the entire cosmos.
This parochial thinking stems from the hidden assumption about our own cognitive universality — the ability to recognize and understand everything there is to understand, given enough time and resources. On a more close examination we see that this assumption falls apart — in all probability we are cognitively closed creatures, our thinking is bound by our biology.
Because we are cognitively closed, for us to encounter extraterrestrials millions of years ahead in evolution is like for an ant to encounter a human being. We explore this analogy and arrive at an unexpected conclusion — there are no highly advanced alien civilizations out there at all. “Civilization” is just our parochial concept that fails to capture what we are after. Something is out there, but we cannot say anything meaningful about it at all.

O n a clear starry night it is just impossible not to drown in the monumental vista opening above. Like a starfish whirling quietly through space, our galaxy is but one among gargantuan, unknown, possibly infinite number of others. All the countless stars we see above are from our own galaxy, mostly from the same spiraling arm we ourselves sit on. Majestic Milky Way sweeping across the sky is the spiraling arm next to us. Our naked eyes cannot see anything that lies beyond, it is too dim and too far away. But there are billions of other galaxies out there. It does not matter much if our planet is typical or very rare — given the sheer number of other planets, the universe is bound to be teeming with life². Yet the landscape we see above us seems barren. “Where is everyone?” we ask.

What would it look like if the universe was, in fact, teeming with life

Let us start in a familiar territory — our own civilization. When trying to understand how an advanced extraterrestrial intelligence might look like, it makes sense to start by asking what our own planet might look like many years from now. Let’s assume that we don’t mess up and that we will progress to a point when we ourselves become an advanced intelligence. What would we look like? Will our little planet be embraced in skyscrapers, starships buzzing above, Dyson spheres providing us with energy and warp drives sending us to explore outer space? I don’t think so. I think that whatever the future holds, it is not something we can predict or imagine. Richard Dawkins, fierce biologist from Oxford, once said “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, the universe is queerer than we can suppose”. Let me explain why.

Our way of life has changed markedly in the last hundred thousand years. Just compare living in a New York condo to living in a prehistoric cave. I know some people who will insist with great gusto that nothing much has changed since then. But I know of no one who would take the cave over the condo. Even though big part of our lives still rotates around calories, sex and social ladder (more for some people than for others), whole new worlds of meaning are now open for us. For example, we can engage in pursuit of discovering what it means to be a human being through literature; or we can go on a quest of uncovering the secrets of the universe through quantum mechanics. In the process we may come to find fundamental changes within us and embark on a life journey which is unlike that of any prehistoric man.

Important commonalities still remain though. Even if our current way of life was inconceivable to a prehistoric man, he might have guested correctly, after scratching his hairy prehistoric head really hard, that humans will still search for food, have sex and care about social standing. Basic human nature never changes, as many people like to say. But this basic nature is not solely human. It is engrained in our evolutionary history. For example, baboons are a highly social species as well. They live in large groups where every individual knows everyone else and knows his own place. An alpha male would likely not be the strongest male, but the one with best social skills. Distinguished Stanford primatologist Robert Sapolsky succinctly characterizes the life of baboons as follows: “They spend 3 hours a day for calories and the rest of their time they spend making other baboons miserable. If a baboon is miserable, it is because another baboon has worked very hard to bring that state about.”³ Sounds familiar? What unites a modern day New Yorker with a prehistoric hunter also unites New Yorker with a baboon. In other words, we share our evolutionary history and our biology. And our biology is what drives our most basic needs and desires.

It is very hard to tell to what extent we are determined by our biology. Nature vs nurture debates have been going on at least since ancient Greece and are as hot in modern society as they ever where⁴. But I don’t think anyone doubts that at least a very large subset of our interests is dictated to us by our genes, so to speak. For example, if we take an antisocial species like octopus and suppose that in the future it’s ancestors develop human level intelligence, it is far from clear whether it will care for social standing. A species that does not use sexual reproduction will hardly care for sex. And robotic explorers from space will not salivate at the sight of organic food. Things we hold very dear to our heart may be linked with our biology to a far greater extent than we would like to acknowledge. Maternal love, our deeply held moral convictions and even our sense of self are arguably contingent on the peculiarities of our evolutionary history. In his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, Darwin noted that if humans had evolved as bees had, “there can be hardly a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.”

Because of this intertwining with our biology, it may seem reasonable to suppose that human nature will not change for tens of millions of years to come. It may seem reasonable that we may correctly guess some aspects of humanity’s future life. A prehistoric man could have made a correct guess about his future, and so can we. But there is a very good reason to think that this is not so. For the first time in the history of life on this planet, a species has began to modify it’s own genetic code. With the advance of genetic engineering and discovery of the latest gene-editing tools like CRISPR, intelligent design started meddling with the source code of life. Life started de-Darwinizing itself. Because the technology is so new, it is very hard to say what implications it is going to have. But the possibilities seem equally wonderful and scary. What would humans, who have been redesigning themselves for thousands of years, look like? Would they even be recognizable as humans? What would be their goals and desires? Which longings would be cut out with the code? Which new ones would appear? Given such changes, changes the likes of which have never before happened on this planet, it becomes very hard to predict even our close future. Human nature may never change, but there may soon be no humans left to exercise that nature.

Gene editing may well be a technology which could change the face of this planet beyond recognition, but there are other revolutionary technologies looming on the horizon which may dispense with biology altogether. Another possibility that even our deeply embedded biological features may come to an end comes from research in consciousness and artificial intelligence. Many people feel optimistic that we will create machines that are as intelligent as we are sometime in this century, maybe even conscious machines. I am not one of those optimists⁵. But even if it does not happen in this century, are there good reasons to suppose that it will not happen during the next thousand years? Or a hundred thousand? If we don’t mess things up, there do not appear to be any fundamental obstacles to creating at least non-conscious human-level general intelligence somewhat soon, general intelligence that will be good enough to improve itself. I am not going to recount vivid and scary details of what happens next, do read Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence if you haven’t yet. In one word, it will be something akin to summoning a genie. It is unclear though if this particular tale will have a happy ending or if it will end like most genie tales do — with the protagonist realizing he did not know what to wish for when it was already too late.

Be it genes or genies, if we transcend our biology, it becomes impossible to predict what our civilization will look like. Our most basic longings will change, new things, unimaginable things, will come to take their place. If we were to turn to popular movies to portray our future, Lucy and Transcendence do a much better job than Starwars and Startrek. Maybe an even better portrayal comes from Kubrick’s Space Odyssey or Tarkovsky’s Solaris. It is unclear if we are going to inhabit real or virtual bodies, whether we are going to live in real or virtual environments, what we will build, how we will live, what laws of physics will seemingly give way, and how our goals and desires will change. If we mastered all these technologies, transcended our biology, would we really build skyscrapers and starships? What for? We might begin to look a lot more like the Monolith from Space Odyssey or like quantum dust from Transcendence. Or indeed like Solaris itself. We may come to trancend space and time itself. Desire for space exploration may start seeming very parochial. We may discover that it really was not what it appeared to be. Stout from Solaris puts this as follows:

In this situation mediocrity and genius are equally useless! I must tell you that we really have no desire to conquer any cosmos. We want to extend the Earth up to its borders. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. We don’t need other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle to make contact, but we’ll never achieve it. We are in a ridiculous predicament of man pursuing a goal that he fears and that he really does not need. Man needs man.

If and when we unlock the secrets behind our consciousness, the world may move further still from what we can recognize as anything at all. New qualitative feelings, conscious renderings of abstract things, interconnectedness of individuals, dissolution of individuals. What happens when we connect two consciousnesses together? What happens when we connect all consciousnesses together? If we are no longer bound by our bodies, how will our sense of selves change? Even today the nature of our self is a hot discussion topic in philosophy and neuroscience. Buddhist teachings, which are no longer as esoteric as they used to be⁶, tell us that no substantial self exists. And many neuroscientists seem to agree. What will happen to our connected consciousness of the future? Maybe the very notion of an individual will disappear. What new notions will come in its place? Will anything be ever born and will anything ever die? How will such mode of existence, I now hesitate to call it civilization or life, evolve for the billions of years to come?

I now want to put forward my central thesis. If the universe was in fact teeming with life, it may look exactly as it does now. There won’t be any little green men, spaceships, or electromagnetic signatures. All of this are transient artifacts of our civilization which will exist for a microsecond of cosmic time. Other life forms in different parts of the universe may well go through a similar development process, but as soon as they start to reverse engineer themselves, their mode of existence quickly becomes incomprehensible to us. Just as our mode of existence will soon become incomprehensible to our current selves.

It may be objected that we still see something when we look at the stars, some trace of those advanced modes of existence (AMoEs) that we will recognize as of unnatural source. But that may not be so. First objection comes from physics. Our knowledge of it is limited and we have no idea what future discoveries will bring. Just as electromagnetic communication could not be detected by prehistoric people, so could the entire plane of existence of advance MoEs be entirely beyond us. Let us not be as parochial as Lord Kelvin, who in 1900 said “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”⁷ And then our whole conception of reality changed. Our current speculations that AMoEs will exist in extra dimensions, be timeless, or take the form of quantum dust are almost certainly wrong. We simply don’t know what new technologies will bring. And it is overwhelmingly probable that whatever they bring, it won’t be something we would recognize as anything. Second objection comes from cosmology. We look at the stars with a knowledgeable face, seemingly understanding what we are looking at. But this is not so. If we take all the stars and planets and nebulae, all the galaxies and intergalactic matter, all the photons and neutrinos, in one word, all ordinary matter there is, it adds up to less than 5% of the total stuff that is out there. How do we know? Because we can “see” it by its gravitational pull. What is it? It is called dark energy and dark matter, “dark” being a shorthand for “we have no clue”. I am not saying that dark matter is an AMoE, although I guess it is conceivable. What I am saying, is that when we look at the night sky, we don’t really know what we are looking at: how big it is, where it came from, and what it consists of. Hard to find traces of “don’t know who” when looking at “don’t know what”.

Prehistoric people used to think that the Sun went round the Earth because that is how it looked like. Well, how would it have looked liked if the Earth went round the Sun instead? Exactly the same. We think that we have Fermi’s paradox on our hands because universe looks huge and barren. Well, how would it have looked like if the universe was full of life? Exactly the same. Fermi’s paradox is only a paradox because we pull our parochial thinking over the entire universe.

Human universality and cognitive closure

Let us now try to formulate this argument more precisely and explore it’s strange implications. Whether we are able to recognize advanced alien civilizations or not rests on the premise of human universality. Humans are supposed to posses a kind of general intelligence which in principle allows us to understand everything there is to understand. So for example, if aliens were to try to explain something to us, given enough time, we would be able to grasp it. Or if we were to see some kind of an alien artifact, we would be able to recognize it as such. If on the other hand we were not universal, we would be cognitively closed. We would occupy a certain niche, just like every other animal on this planet, and be limited to that niche. Birds might be relatively clever, but they will never understand general relativity or be able to read Dostoyevsky. No one in their right mind will try to teach a bird to construct an internal combustion engine. And a bird won’t recognize an iPhone for a technological wonder that it is. So which kind of creature are we — closed or open?

The argument in favor of cognitive closure usually goes like this. It is a fact of biology that our brains are limited physical systems, just like brains of every other animal. And our brains are certainly at least a necessary condition for our consciousness and thinking. Every brain’s abilities are limited. Ants probably can’t feel emotions as we do, birds have only rudimentary arithmetical abilities and quantum physics is totally lost on dogs. In the same way bigger and more advanced brains will posses abilities which will go beyond our grasp. Every brain must suffer from cognitive closure⁸.

There are however good objections to this line of thinking. One of the better known philosophers of mind of our times, Dan Dennett, argues against this position as follows:

This [kind of argument] would be compelling if it weren’t for the equally obvious biological fact that human brains have become equipped with add-ons, thinking tools by the thousands, that multiply our brains’ cognitive powers by many orders of magnitude. Language … is the key invention, and it expands our individual cognitive powers by providing a medium for uniting them with all the cognitive powers of every clever human being who has ever thought. The smartest chimpanzee never gets to compare notes with other chimpanzees in her group, let alone the millions of chimpanzees who have gone before.⁹

So we have language, which allows abstract thought, which allows modification of this thought, which allows, given enough time and resources, universal understanding. But there may be a problem with this argument. Language may have been a revolutionary tool to get hold of, but this tool itself may be rooted in and be limited by our neurobiology. It may have broke some rules and allowed us to partly escape the niche that we occupied, but the landscape of this new niche we are exploring may remain determined by our neurobiology.

As an example, suppose we go to a nearby solar system and encounter intelligent alien civilization there. Will they have mathematics? Will their maths be similar to ours? This is another way of asking “Is mathematics universal or is it rooted in the particularities of our organism?” This question has occupied philosophers for generations and, as far as I am aware, no convincing line of reasoning exists either way. It is very hard to imagine how mathematics can be different. But we also have to accept that if it was rooted in our biology, it would be impossible to imagine for us how it could be different. What can’t be doubted is that it is very hard to put forward arguments about how constrained or unconstrained we are by our neurobiology while being subject to it.

Another way to see how limited our language may be is to think about the redness of red. Can you describe it to a person who never saw red? What about to a blind person who never saw any colors at all? The fact that our qualitative feelings always stay personal may be a limitation of our language. And it is not at all clear how we can transcend this limitation no matter what new ideas we develop, provided we stay within our biological limit. Language was certainly a revolutionary invention, it allowed us to do things which have never before been done on this planet, but it is uncertain whether it opened the doors of universality for us.

Another blow to our hope of universality comes from Scott Aaronson, professor of mathematics from MIT. He argues that even if we suppose that Dennett is right, and that this does mean that we are capable of universal understanding, it turns out that we are still cognitively closed simply due to resource limitation. “Given enough time and resources” turns out to be a restriction no less fundamental than limitation of our language:

One might think that, once we know something is computable, how efficiently it can be computed is a practical question with little further philosophical importance. … I offer a detailed case that one would be wrong. In particular, I argue that computational complexity theory — the field that studies the resources (such as time, space, and randomness) needed to solve computational problems — leads to new perspectives on the nature of mathematical knowledge, the strong AI debate, computationalism, the problem of logical omniscience.¹⁰

Given these considerations, the case for human universality looks bleak. Even if the invention of language did allow us to break out of our biological niche, for all we know, this new niche may still be determined by particularities of our neurobiology. There may be a landscape of possible minds and intelligences. Our knowledge may be like a river flowing in this landscape that flooded (and is still continuing to flood) a valley it was going through, but it did not flood the entire continent. And even if it could do it in principle, it would be limited by complexity of the posed problems. It is like trying to flood a continent that has infinitely high mountains. It seems that this prevents our knowledge from being universal even in principle.

Ants and analogies

Let us now turn to implications of all this. One way, maybe the only way, to try to imagine something about a highly advanced civilization (AMoE) is to make an analogy. Let us take an ant for our example and let us try to imagine how an ant might view us, humans. We may then take what we learn and try to imagine how we might view them, AMoEs. If we were universal understanders, this analogy making would have not worked, since both humans and advanced aliens would have joined “the club” of universal understanders and the cognitive separation that exists between us and ants would not exist between us and aliens. But because, in all likelihood, we aren’t universal understanders, we may imagine highly advanced alien civilization that is as far cognitively removed from us as we are from ants. Let us explore this analogy.

Will an ant recognize a human as a representative of a more intelligent species? That would be hard to imagine, since ants most certainly don’t have a concept of a species and how they relate to each other. I am not even sure an ant could see an entire human at once. It is tempting to say “Well, an ant surely sees something when it sees us. So we will see something when we encounter AMoEs.” We might well see something, but it does not follow that we will recognize it as anything beyond our environment. To stay true to our analogy, we have to be careful not to endow our ant with our conceptual structure. An ant will see something, but the only distinguishing it will make will be within it’s own conceptual structure, which probably goes more along the lines of “terrain I can’t move on, terrain I can move on, climb up, danger, bite” rather than “woah, a leg of a representative of a more advanced species, let me climb it”. In the same way, the only distinctions we are able to make lie within our conceptual structure. To assume that we can recognize AMoE when we see one is to assume that an ant can recognize a more intelligent species when it sees one. It can’t.

It goes further. When we try to think hard about AMoEs, we are probably not saying anything relevant at all. Getting back to our analogy, there simply are no relevant thoughts an ant may think about a human, because ants just don’t have thoughts. Ants just do their ant-thing and it has no relevance whats so ever to humans. In the same way we do our own human-thing, including thinking, and it has no relevance to AMoEs what so ever. It is tempting to assume otherwise and say “Nah, we are different from ants” or “We are not as dump as ants”. But in doing that we assume our cognitive universality. AMoEs may operate the kinds of processes that are as far removed from human thoughts as human thoughts are removed from ant’s neuronal activity.

This analogy may even go further. Ants give us a glimpse of a hundred million years into the future. Since the universe is about 10 to 15 billion years old, it looks entirely plausible that there could be AMoEs that are 5+ billion years older than we are. To try to understand something about them, we would have to compare ourselves not to ants, but to stones. We tend to view consciousness as a crown achievement of nature. But could there be things that go beyond it? Long after the times when biology has been transcended, new processes could emerge that are as different from consciousness as consciousness is different from non-conscious matter. In fact, processes as different from life as life is different from non-living matter.

Wittgenstein and aliens

If we take seriously the idea that in dreaming about aliens we really do our parochial ant-thing, then the whole concept of advanced civilizations and aliens falls apart. Just as ants can’t dream about civilization and science, so we can’t dream about whatever it is that drives AMoEs. Concepts like “alien”, “life”, “civilization”, “species”, “thought” may simply be no longer applicable at that level of existence. In fact, cognitive closure and our analogy, taken together, compel us to this conclusion. It may be that in dreaming about aliens, not only do we do our ant-thing that has no relevance to aliens, but that we even fail to point out the subject with the word “alien”.

We arrive at a rather radical implication — even if the universe is teeming with life, there may not be any advanced civilizations out there at all, but in a totally different way than we usually suppose. “Civilization” is a concept that we invented and we use. But after a certain point it may simply not apply at all. And what happens afterwards is something we cannot speak about. Even the word “AMoE” may fail to capture anything. We may try to insist that there will be AMoEs on so on, but all these are our ideas, our ant-thing ways of looking at things. One of the most famous philosophers of language of the 20th century, Ludvig Wittgenstein, famously said “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” This applies here aptly.

But haven’t we just managed to say something about AMoEs? When we build the ant-human-AMoE analogy, we get somewhat of a glimpse at what advanced aliens are like. But remember that we are supposed to be little ants who do their ant thing and can’t have any relevant thoughts about AMoEs. But this analogy supposedly was relevant — didn’t the previous sentence just say something about AMoEs? So what just happened? Contradiction? Graham Priest, professor of logic from New York, is keen to point out that classical logic fails us when we speak about the ineffable. As he points out, logic is not even metaphysically neutral and it may indeed be possible to speak something about the ineffable, even though it may entail a paradox. So did we just manage to pry through a corner of the abyss, of the deepest recesses of matter and of the farthest edge of the universe, not seeing anything, but maybe gently feeling it’s dark mysteries?

[1] John Wheeler as cited by John Hogan in The End of Science.

[2] We don’t know how life started and I suppose it would be fair to say that we simply can’t estimate the odds of an unknown process. However majority of latest scientific theories embrace life not as a fluke but as a systemic process. It could be that just as surfers appear in many places where there are waves, so does life appear in many places the conditions are right for it to surf the waves of entropy. Many scientists begin to think that life appears quickly and inevitably, given the right conditions. See for example Eric Smith or Nick Lane.

[3] Not an exact quote. Can find this in many of his interviews. For example,

[4] Contrast, for example, two recent bestsellers — Sapolsky’s Behave and Markus Gabriel’s I am Not My Brain.

[5] I am of the opinion that the idea that we are going to create/simulate/upload a human mind to a computer is a fundamentally misguided one. Computers are syntactic engines and that means computation is subjective to an observer. In other words, I am not sure how a purely syntactical engine is supposed to create semantics. We need to think harder about casual structures of our brains before we can emulate them. I highly recommend Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature, it succinctly explains this issue, among many others. It is unclear though if we need anything like consciousness for general intelligence. So general intelligence may arrive sooner and it may arrive in an unconscious form.

[6] When Robert Wright, a pragmatic if materialistic Pulitzer-nominee, publishes a book called Why Buddhism is True, where he discusses topics of no self and enlightenment from a relatively scientific standpoint, you know something is brewing.

[7] From Wikipedia: Misattributed to Kelvin since the 1980s, either without citation or stating that it was made in an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1900. There is no evidence that Kelvin said this, and the quote is instead a paraphrase of Albert A. Michelson, who in 1894 stated: “… it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established … An eminent physicist remarked that the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”

[8] See, for example, McGinn, The Problem of Consciousness.

[9] Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach. See also


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Mathematician, philosopher, entrepreneur.

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