Assessing Imaginative Proposals
by Stephen P. Cook email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Project Worldview, 332 Weed Road, Weed, NM 88354 USA
Dept. of Astronomy, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM 88003 USA
published as chapter 5 in ed. A. Hanslmeier etal Life on Earth and other Planetary Bodies Springer Science (early 2013)
seems the SETI community seeks to encourage imaginative speculation, but
discourage promoting pseudoscience and wasting time/resources.
This chapter considers the question "How seriously should
imaginative proposals be taken?" After considering the worldviews behind
such proposals, it provides guidelines for evaluating them. These reflect
beliefs that proposed research 1) should be evaluated with skepticism and be
subjected to questions of a social and ethical nature, and 2) can still be
valuable even if ET is never detected.
To illustrate, four imaginative proposals are evaluated:
1) conducting SETI using high tech telepathy, 2) putting artificial black holes to work, 3) probing eukaryotic cell division for a fourth dimension component, and 4) promoting global brains as the foundation of long-lived civilizations.
(pre-publication version, August 5 2012)
Questions, Worldviews, Ethics
Supposedly one of the strengths of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) community "is its imaginative capacity to take seriously things that most people dismiss out of hand." That praise, as we'll see, was prompted, not by a speculative proposal, but by rash action that outraged some. It was followed by an editorial call for discussion and assessment as to how to proceed in the particular matter. As related to SETI, this chapter will broadly consider the question "How seriously should imaginative proposals be taken?" It shall provide guidelines for evaluating them and deciding "When does imaginative become outrageous?"
Having posed these questions, let's start with another. Perhaps the most important SETI related question (which I'll label Q1) was asked by Enrico Fermi in 1950, "Where are they? " Given the estimated 7 x 1022 stars in the observable universe (Driver 2003), if our star and its planetary system featuring one intelligent civilization are in any way typical, we should find abundant evidence for intelligent life beyond Earth. That we have found none is known as the Fermi Paradox. In its entry on this topic, that wonderful addition to the fledgling global brain known as Wikipedia lists sixteen possible explanations for this null result.
To bolster my argument that how this question is answered depends more on one's worldview than on weighing evidence, I wish to consider four of these possible solutions: 1) human beings are not listening properly; 2) communication becomes impossible after the civilization experiences a technological singularity; 3) human beings were created alone; 4) it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself. Specific detailed examples illustrating each of these generic solutions will be presented in the form of real proposals that I'll evaluate. Before turning to those proposals, I 1) briefly discuss worldview analysis and development, 2) review some history surrounding the astrobiology and SETI field, and 3) use both to develop criteria by which imaginative proposals can be evaluated.
In connection with Project Worldview (www.projectworldview.org) I analyze worldviews in terms of eighty worldview themes, each having a formal name and description. In what follows these themes will be identified by use of quote marks and capitalization. I promote the use of questions to encourage worldview development. The questions are of two types: general ones, especially useful to people interested in systematic exploration and building worldview literacy (Cook 2009), and specific ones composed or selected to help explore a particular topic.
Those that follow are of the second type. Thirteen of them will be labeled. After the SETI specific Q1, which you met, Q2--Q7 are deep physics related questions to which as yet there are no definitive answers, Q8 and Q9 are other astrobiology /SETI specific questions, and Q10--Q13 are ethics related ones.
is historically connected with science fiction and lots of stimulating
speculation, some of it related to the opening provided by physicists' inability
to provide definitive answers. This
is not to say this field is unstructured and anything goes.
For example, it's generally accepted that astrobiology/SETI does not
involve study of UFOs. What does it involve? The
NASA Astrobiology Roadmap (Des Marais 2008) identifies three areas of focus
with related questions:
1) "How does life begin and evolve?" 2) "Does life exist elsewhere in the universe?" 3) "What is the future of life on Earth and beyond?" They are followed by seven Science Goals, further outlining domains of investigation.
The four proposals we'll meet have several things in common. Most people would consider all of them bold, imaginative, and highly speculative--to some they are outrageous. Science fiction or apocalyptical literature classics have inspired parts of each of them. Despite all this, they should be taken, to an extent that remains to be identified, seriously, as their creators intended. They all fall within the legitimate areas of focus outlined in the Roadmap.
Before presenting questions Q8--Q13, which connect with environmental, social, and ethical concerns, consider some related astrobiology/SETI history. A logo "planetary protection--all of the planets, all of the time" is one visible sign of such concerns at NASA's website. Partly based on the dictates of a 1967 UN treaty, it refers to both protecting other worlds from contamination by terrestrial life, and protecting Earth. While the latter refers to protecting our planet from hypothetical extraterrestrial minute life forms unexpectedly brought back by returning spacecraft, it seems people are increasingly concerned about dangers to human civilization associated with a quite different technology: active SETI.
Large radio dishes have been used to send messages to roughly twenty carefully selected targets. Citing both the unknowns we confront in taking our first steps in exploring the celestial neighborhood and our own history of what more technologically advanced societies have done to primitive ones, many (including Carl Sagan, Phillip Morrison, Stephen Hawking, and Jared Diamond) have urged us to just passively listen and stay safely hidden until we learn more. Theirs and new concerns were publicized in David Brim's 2006 article "Shouting at the Cosmos." Troubled by plans of others to attract attention to Earth's civilization by raising its detectable profile by "many orders of magnitude," he charged that frustration with lack of results from passive SETI was behind this "risk that a handful of individuals have decided to inflict on us (Brim 2008)."
This controversy brought the editorial in the October 12 2006 issue of Nature I mentioned at the beginning. While asserting that risks posed by active SETI are small and "at the speed of light, take decades to arrive", nonetheless the editors urged they be taken seriously and openly discussed. Since this appeared, at least three transmissions to two different targets have been sent.
Many of those expressing concerns about active SETI, are less motivated by fear that someday ET will subjugate Earth in Independence Day movie fashion, and more by fear of questions and public relations disasters. Are space cowboys operating radio telescopes? Is this more evidence of science and technology out of control? Upon hearing the alarm about this supposed threat supposedly created by irresponsible astronomers, how many people will forget about astronomers' efforts (loosely called Spaceguard) to protect us from potential civilization ending cosmic catastrophe by tracking down Near Earth Asteroids?
Some of what you've read in this Introduction has been presented to build the case for evaluating both astrobiology/SETI related speculative proposals and potential rash actions with more than the usual current knowledge/know how based reality check/pragmatic skepticism. I'd say they should also be subjected to questions of a social and ethical nature. Here are some to consider.
The first is composed of the words of anthropologist Kathryn Denning, who points out that SETI research can still be valuable even if it never detects ET.
Q8: "Does this proposal generally benefit us in the context of our own social evolution, and in particular, [encourage us] "to think about our own future in the broadest possible way...and [in considering] the case study of humanity... [encourage] our best to fine-tune its use? (Denning 2009)" Q9: "Does this proposal provide evidence of responsible conduct of research and proper precautions to ensure that individual, ecosystem, planetary, and other worlds are not harmed?" Q10: "In deciding whether a proposed action is morally right, am I comfortable with its perceived social benefit and the extent to which it produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people?" (Greatest General Good Principle) Q11: "If I were in the shoes of someone affected by this, facing similar circumstances, could I live with the consequences of what this decision involves?" (Principle of Fraternal Charity) Q12: "What would be the results if everyone acted in this manner?" (Principle of Universality) Note: Q10--Q12 are from the description of the "Ethical Orientation" worldview theme.
A final screen is provided by Q13: "Will the authors of the proposal profit from it? Do they have undisclosed conflicts of interest or hidden agendas which could impair their objectivity?" The first half of this recalls New Age renegade quantum physicists and many others profiting from "quantum flapdoodle," to use Murray Gell-Mann's term. My investigation of the principal behind Proposal #1 has failed to turn up any evidence of this. After quantum flapdoodles, consider those predicting futuristic, fantastic technological advances "in my lifetime." Some of these are undoubtedly motivated by a desire to sell books, others conceivably by frustration and inability to accept a more realistic "we may never know if this is possible!" verdict. This may apply to certain claims of "technology singularity" enthusiasts--we'll meet some in both Proposals #2 and #4.
Then there's Proposal #3.
Someone with impressive scientific credentials but an intelligent
design/creationist not so hidden agenda advances its first hypothesis.
I advance its second and it's a doozy!
If the other proposals don't challenge the astrobiology/SETI community in
its effort to be open to imaginative speculation, but avoid promoting
pseudoscience and wasting researchers' time and resources, this one surely will!
#1: Conducting SETI Using High Tech Telepathy
Fred Thaheld wisely does not use the word telepathy in describing his "new empirical approach" (Thaheld 2006) for conducting SETI, preferring instead the terms "biological nonlocality" and "controllable superluminal communication (CSC)." While Thaheld agrees that entangled photons, as in experimental confirmation of Bell's inequality, probably can't be used to transfer information faster than light since "once a measurement has been made, the wave function collapses and they become disentangled," he argues "the situation is much different for entangled living entities [where] we are looking at a massive number of living entangled particles at the macroscopic level, either resisting the usual decoherence or utilizing it...to either maintain or regenerate entanglement after each measurement."
A few years ago Thaheld's argument would have been much easier to dismiss. Paul Davies once saw "wishful thinking" in "considerations of decoherence-evasion" (Davies 2004) but also wrote, "The situation would be transformed, however, if unexpectedly long decoherence times could be demonstrated experimentally in a biological setting." One could argue that the situation changed in 2010 with three findings: 1) of unexpected long-lived quantum coherence at room temperature in photosynthetic bacteria. (Engel 2010), 2) that "photosynthetic proteins are 'wired' together by quantum coherence for more efficient light harvesting in cryptophyte marine algae" as reported in Nature (Collini 2010), and 3) construction of a theoretical model that suggests quantum entanglement is behind the stability of DNA molecules (Rieper etal. 2010).
Thaheld's SETI proposal is inspired by reports of experiments involving spatially separated paired human subjects or human neurons grown in multi-electrode arrayed basins inside noise-shielding Faraday cages. Visually simulating just one of the humans with a flickering checkerboard pattern or one of the basins with a laser reportedly produces simultaneous electrical waveform patterns in both subjects or both basins, and in general results that "indicate the possibility of quantum entanglement and non-locality at the biological level." Some will see these as high tech, more reproducible versions of experiments involving human senders and receivers, i.e. telepathy.
While few physicists believe in telepathy, Nobel laureate Brian Josephson is one who does. In 2001 he wrote, "Quantum theory is now being fruitfully combined with theories of information and computation. These developments may lead to an explanation of processes still not understood within conventional science such as telepathy...There is a lot of evidence to support the existence of telepathy, for example, but papers on the subject are being rejected --quite unfairly." In response, in a London newspaper Oxford quantum physicist David Deutsch expressed what is undoubtedly the physics community consensus feeling, "It is utter rubbish. Telepathy simply does not exist. [Those who believe in it have been] hoodwinked into supporting ideas that are complete nonsense."
Before even thinking about extending such experiments to SETI, one must accept the plausibility of several highly questionable assumptions, most notably 1) the same universal biomolecules make up both us and extraterrestrials and we share an evolutionary history to the extent that some quantum entanglement exists, 2) the distance between members of a pair of entangled structures is not a factor: a disturbance of one will instantaneously affect the other, and 3) as Thaheld puts it "superluminal signals are constantly arriving from advanced and not so advanced civilizations...probably looking a lot like noise" in human EEG records.
He goes on to outline how the experiments would be conducted and concludes, "It would appear that the critical elements in any EEG SETI-type search will involve an empirical blend consisting of the proper algorithms, filters, viewing windows, amplification and either compression or expansion of the derived data."
Before evaluating Thaheld's proposal, I connect it to resolving the Fermi Paradox by suggesting that human beings are not listening properly. It implies they should use their mind instead or their neurons instead of their radio telescopes as detectors. I also connect it to the science fiction theme of using mindships not spaceships to explore the universe. This was most notably done in Olaf Stapledon's 1937 classic Star Maker, which begins with an Englishman's out of body experience: a journey to an inhabited planet thousands of light years away. Unanswered questions that occupy physicists and are relevant to using the mind in SETI are "Is superluminal communication possible?" (Q2) and "What is consciousness and what special relationship (if any) does it have with life?" (Q3)
While Thaheld's proposal avoids any speculation about the quantum basis for consciousness, the only thing I was able to uncover about his education or professional background (besides lots of publications) is his position on the advisory and editorial board of the online journal NeuroQuantology. Recent issues of it contain papers that, like Thaheld's, are founded on a quantum interpretation of EEG data, but more directly connect with the hypothesis that consciousness can be traced to neuroquantum interactions. I suspect lots of NeuroQuantology readers have worldviews one would call "New Age." Such worldviews are often built around the quest for heightened (even cosmic) cosmic consciousness and "Vitalism," "Mysticism," "Magic," "The Artistic Worldview," "Belonging to Nature," and "Healthy Orientation" worldview themes.
Evaluation: As a practical plus, Thaheld believes what he proposes would be "very simple and cheap to carry out." While that may apply to high tech telepathy experiments involving human brains or neurons, I question the extension to SETI. In this regard, even if one accepts all of Thaheld's assumptions, in the end, after reading his thirty nine page paper I still had no clue as to exactly how responses in human brains or instrumented neuron basins identified as extra-ordinary would be linked to extraterrestrial intelligence! Among his more puzzling statements is "while it would be nice to prove the existence of biological nonlocality and CSC here on earth before embarking on this SETI approach, we may be forced to look outside the confines of the earth initially as outlined." Is he saying that funding for this work as astrobiology or SETI may be available whereas funding for it as parapsychology research would not?
As far as social and ethical concerns, I don't see any obvious negatives (although I suppose if it were implemented extraterrestrials could psychologically traumatize us more than they are currently already doing!) There could be real benefits to human knowledge and psychological development in (most likely) helping put to rest belief in telepathy or (remotely conceivable?) demonstrating its reality and unraveling how it works.
can argue that any well-designed experiments aimed at probing deep physics
questions like Q2 and Q3 have fundamental research value.
While our next proposal (#2) touches on (what will become) all six of
those questions we identify, both it and the following one (#3) were most
immediately inspired by Q4: "Is our universe seemingly being fine-tuned for
life indicative of its intelligent design?" In his book The
Trouble With Physics, Lee Smolin groups answers to this into three
possibilities: "1) Ours is one of a vast collection of universes with
random laws. 2) There was an
intelligent designer. 3) There is a
so-far unknown mechanism that will both explain the biofriendliness of our
universe and make testable predictions by which it can be confirmed or falsified
#2: Putting Artificial Black Holes (ABH) To Work
As Louis Crane describes it, "The origin of the ABH proposal is very peculiar. [I] was reviewing the work of Professor Lee Smolin, which was latter published in a book entitled The Life of the Cosmos (Smolin 1997). Professor Smolin proposed that the universe we see was only one of many universes." We pause here to identify our Q5: "Are there other universes besides our observable universe?" Crane continued by noting Smolin's assertion "that new universes arise from old ones whenever a black hole is produced" and identifying his own contribution. [I] "proposed that the evolutionary process of universes should include life. This is possible if successful industrial civilizations eventually produce black holes, and therefore baby universes...This led us to consider the possibility of producing ABHs, and to explore how they might be useful."
The first part of the title of Crane's prize-winning essay "Star Drives and Spinoza" (Crane 2009) identifies one way to put ABHs to work: taking humans to the stars, which Crane thinks is "the least difficult possible approach" to doing this. The title's second part connects with using ABHs to spawn new universes and, as Crane puts it, "Spinoza's pantheistic idea of God as identical to the creative power of the universe."
One doesn't have to look far for the science fiction connection: the climax of Stapledon's book comes when the hero finally meets "The Star Maker." Whereas Stapledon's work emphasized telepathically linking minds, forming a collective consciousness, and spreading this until the whole cosmos is alive, Crane's proposal culminates with humans becoming the creators.
It begins with assessing both the theoretical and practical obstacles to putting ABHs to work. He envisions first making them "by firing a huge number of gamma rays from a spherically converging laser. The idea is to pack so much energy into a small space that a BH will form." His belief this is theoretically possible carries weight given his stature as a quantum gravity researcher. As for actual implementation he argues ABHs are possible "if an advanced future industrial society were determined to make them."
After lengthy discussion of the "could it be done" and the "how to do it," Crane addresses the "why do it?" After identifying ours as a "time of alienation and aimlessness" and "confusion as traditional spiritual ideas fall," Crane contrasts this with a distant future in which putting ABHs to work becomes "a central project for the whole world." He imagines the efforts of ABH builders as having "a higher purpose in that they result in the creation of new universes and new life, as well as spreading their descendents throughout the universe."
Before I can connect Crane's proposal to resolving the Fermi Paradox, its needs to be linked to a concept popularized by people like Ray Kurzweil and John M. Smart: the technological singularity. Driven by progress in semi-conductors, nanotechnology, computers, and artificial intelligence, in recent decades technology has advanced at an accelerating pace. Supposedly one can extrapolate into the future and imagine positive feedback effects leading to a still faster rate of change, culminating with a singularity event after which the future becomes highly uncertain. Among technology singularity enthusiasts, Smart is the one whose ideas are perhaps most closely tied to Crane's. With his developmental singularity hypothesis he asserts (Smart 2009) that "our universe's hierarchical and energetically dissipative intelligence systems are developmentally constrained to produce, very soon in cosmologic time, a very specific outcome, a black hole analogous computing system." After mentioning Smolin, he notes "such a structure is likely to be a core component in the replicative life cycle of our evo devo universe within the multiverse..." Smart sees this as part of an irreversible process leading to transcension. In contrast to the expansion throughout our observable universe theme in Stapledon's book, transcension involves intelligence that "leaves the visible universe over time, in order to meet other intelligences and/or partially reshape future universes."
Before evaluating Proposal #2, we connect it with more questions. Consider first "Of what fundamental stuff (matter, energy, space, information, etc.) is the universe made?" (Q6). To Smart the universe is "a purposeful information processing system in which biological culture...has the potential to play some integral (e.g. anthropic) yet transient universe-guiding role." A key assumption of his involves more than a "Yes!" answer to our last deep physics question, "Do higher spatial dimensions really exist?" (Q7) It gives human consciousness and intelligence the capability to leave our three dimensional world.
Which brings us to how this proposal resolves Fermi Paradox: communication becomes impossible after the civilization experiences a technological singularity involving transcension. The science fiction/apocalyptic literature connection here extends beyond Stapledon to the transformation of the children in Arthur C. Clarke's 1953 book Childhood's End, and the omega point Pierre Teilhard de Chardin describes in his 1950 book The Future of Man.
While the worldviews of people comfortable with Proposal #2 undoubtedly include some of the same (New Age related themes) linked to Proposal #1, there are significant differences. For starters, I'd point to (and will shortly discuss) "I Know What's Best for You" and "Elitism" worldview themes. More immediately I'd say the folks who want to build ABHs for interstellar space travel and creation of baby universes have a different relationship to technology (more of a "Technology Fix Mentality") and nature than many New Agers are comfortable with. Not content to belong to nature, they want nature to serve humans. If "Anthropocentrism" means humans have dominion over the natural world and should not hesitate to develop it to meet human needs, their beliefs vastly extend the word's meaning. Smart categorizes his model of the universe using the terms anthropic and teleological. A mere anthropic model suggests some special link between humans and the universe. Qualifying that with teleological says that Proposal #2 is about fulfilling what its promoters see as the purpose of our species: its special destiny is in "recreating the multiverse" (Crane's phrase).
Evaluation: Unlike Proposal #1, practically implementing just the first phase of Proposal #2, building ABHs, would be extraordinarily expensive, energy and labor intensive, and complicated. Given the most likely "No!" answer to the part of Q2 regarding physical objects exceeding superluminal speeds, using "stardrives" to spread throughout the Galaxy would take time. (Crane feels physical law forbids using "wormholes or warpdrives.") As for the "Spinoza" part of the proposal, even Crane questions its theoretical basis, writing, "It is not certain that black holes create baby universes."
To find more positives, consider our questions. As previously hinted at, pursuing the basic research needed to fully evaluate Proposal #2's technical feasibility would have obvious benefits with respect to answering our questions Q2--Q7. A (Q8 related) societal benefit that would accompany the building of an ABH would come from its being (in Crane's words) "the ultimate renewable energy source." Another one would involve the creation of baby universes putting transcendental meaning into lives devoid of it.
So much for positives. When we consider the ethical aspects of questions Q9--Q12, our evaluation of Proposal #2 quickly turns negative. Unlike Proposal #1, clearly Proposal #2 is one for the distant future--which is fortunate, since it is currently unacceptable from a social and ethical view point. If the word "telepathy" is the downfall of Proposal #1, the phrase "playing God" will kill Proposal #2. Up to this point, our analysis of worldviews has not touched on religion. Whereas Stapledon had enough sense to imagine his hero meeting up with the Star Maker = God near the story's end, it seems the Proposal #2 folks want to take over a key part of "Monotheism" territory. If their scheme wasn't so futuristic, focus on their seeming disrespect for what the vast majority of worldviews worldwide are founded on--"I believe in one God who is the Creator of the Universe"--would be warranted.
While many of them profess to be systems thinkers (and value "Dancing With Systems"), it could be that business and reductionistic problem solving success among technological singularity enthusiasts has fostered an incredible arrogance that hides ignorance of the holistic scheme of things. When compared to the negative connotations of atheism, the "Secular Humanism" many of them embrace has wonderfully positive attributes, but "Authoritarianism" isn't one of them. In that regard, one worries that those who feel they are truly the technologically elite will one day, perhaps under the pretense of some singularity crisis, naturally take their place at the head of a totalitarian technocrat state and proclaim "I Know What's Best for You." (Remember the putdown of this paragraph: we'll use it again, with just a few words changed, in critiquing Proposal #4.)
Transition: The challenge of finding another proposal that tops Proposal #2 in terms of boldness and scope (in space and time) is so tough we will not accept it. Rather we have chosen Proposal #3 for the worldview contrast it provides. Let us get the Achilles heel of this proposal immediately out in the open. It isn't the public relations "playing God" disaster of Proposal #2, it's another scientific acceptability issue like the telepathy problem of Proposal #1, only bigger. Proposal #3 asks us to put aside a Darwinian evolutionary perspective and consider how an Intelligent Designer (=God) might have created a particular structure. This is such a turn off to the scientific community that such a proposal seems to be a non-starter. For that reason we will soon amend the original idea.
Proposal #3: Looking for Holism in Eukaryotic Cell Division
While my own worldview is quite different from that of Jonathan Wells, I nevertheless respect his dogged pursuit of an education. After years of work, in 1986 Wells received a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Yale University, specializing in 19th century controversies involving evolution. Driven by hatred for Darwinism, and motivated to learn enough to destroy it, he changed educational direction. It took eight years, but he eventually obtained a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cell Biology from UC Berkeley, specializing in embryology and evolution. He now serves as a Senior Fellow with the Center for Science & Culture at the Discovery Institute, a conservative, non-profit group that advocates intelligent design and teaching anti-evolution creationism in schools.
In that position, he published a paper (Wells 2005) about centrioles, structures found inside centrosomes in the nuclei of the cells of eukaryotes (all life except bacteria) that serves as the basis for this proposal. They play a key role in cell division in anchoring the ends of the thread-like spindle. Biophysicist Walter Marshall adds, "Centrioles have a complex, ninefold symmetric structure, and reproduce by an intriguing duplication process. The complexity and apparent self-reproduction of centrioles raises the question of how such a structure could have evolved, making them a favorite topic for theological speculation by ‘intelligent design’ creationists (Marshall 2009)."
As The Discovery Institute website puts it, "Since centrioles contain no DNA, they have attracted relatively little attention from neo Darwinian biologists who think that DNA is the secret of life. From an intelligent design (ID) perspective, centrioles may have no evolutionary intermediates because they are irreducibly complex." Marshall counters "Centrioles are capable of robust self-assembly and can tolerate dramatic perturbations while still maintaining basic functionality. Far from being irreducibly complex, centrioles appear to be based on a rather minimal underlying core structure requiring only a handful of genes to construct."
Apparently Wells looks at electron microscope images and sees the blades of a fan in centrioles. He hypothesizes "they are holistically designed to be turbines" and imagines they "could generate oscillations in spindle microtubules" leading to production of an "ejection force tending to move chromosomes away from the spindle axis and the poles." Wells uses this to make testable predictions centering on the timing, frequency, and regulation of the oscillations. Their experimental confirmation would not establish the holistic (here meaning intelligent) design of the centrioles, nor be especially relevant to question Q4.
The word holistic connotes unity, a refreshing respite from the divisive bickering that seems to accompany competing religious beliefs. Building on this, let's add an additional hypothesis to this proposal. Wouldn't it be wonderful if science could establish that all living things, are physically linked together? Think of it: hurting something else that seemed separate from you would actually be like hurting part of yourself. Such a connection in time has recently been pointed out. Every cell "could, if the records were available, trace its ancestry through an unbroken chain of cell divisions backward in time through an almost unimaginable four billion years to the emergence of the earliest forms of cellular life on this planet (Kirkwood 2010)." What of a physical connection, what basis is there for imagining this? The argument is as follows.
Assume information is the ultimate stuff of the universe (recall question Q6) and recognize life physically embodies it. Assume all information is preserved. Recognize life preserves information in genomes. Like David Deutsch, see a genome as "an internal representation of the world, constructed over vast time scales by evolution. It embodies the information needed for the organism to be adapted to the environment (quoted in Davies 2009)." Cell division involves transmitting information, some of which is seemingly lost (through copying mistakes, genetic reshuffling in meiosis, etc.). Assume that even though we see the spindle in such cell division break, to preserve information some connection to a fourth spatial dimension does not break.
I can conceive of such a connection in three ways: 1) via a holographic screen (Bousso 2002), 2) using a fourth spatial dimension that is expanding relative to the other three at the speed of light (McGucken 2008), or 3) using a real fourth spatial dimension. I use this last one to facilitate making a testable hypothesis: all life that reproduces via cell division is connected by a previously undetected thread-like structure in a fourth spatial dimension. This additional hypothesis, along with Wells' predictions, can be tested using the same new technology: four dimensional electron microscopy, where time provides a fourth dimension (Zewail 2010). Basically three dimensional high-speed movies of the microtubular spindle breaking would be analyzed in search of a constraint in an invisible fourth spatial dimension. (Something moving perpendicular to all possible directions in three dimensional space would be headed in the direction of this realm.) Note: astral microtubules, involved in orienting the spindle in cell division, have an amusing name. I realize it refers to their star-like shape, not a connection to the astral plane!
Before evaluating this proposal, I note that many intelligent design creationists resolve the Fermi Paradox by arguing God uniquely created human beings, and there is no extraterrestrial intelligence. Their worldview is typically built around themes like "Vitalism," "Monotheism," "Belief in a Personal God," "Religious Fundamentalism," "Moralistic God," and "Anthropocentrism." They don't fully appreciate "Scientific Method" nor "Global Vision." Preferring "Focused Vision," they don't see how the slow changes wrought by mutations and natural selection can gradually accumulate into something meaningful over geologic time.
Evaluation: Predictions made by Proposals #1 and #2 are questionable as to testability; Proposal #3 overcomes that difficulty. But scientific community repulsion with Wells' agenda to destroy evolution means his predictions may not get tested. The additional hypothesis boosts the chances it will get such a chance.
In contrast to the scientific community, the American public, with its high % of scientifically illiterate citizens and non-believers in evolution, impressed by Wells' claim that it may lead to better understanding of cell division and cancer, may buy his contribution to Proposal #3. That public generally hasn't bought what Ursula Goodenough, in The Sacred Depths of Nature, calls "The Epic of Evolution." This, she feels, has "the potential to unite us, because it happens to be true."
Astronomers like Carl Sagan and Jill Tarter have speculated on what might inspire a "universal religion." Confirming the added hypothesis of Proposal #3 would dramatically bolster arguments that "ultimately, we all are One." The analytic approach suggested to test it was inspired by a scene from Heinlein's 1961 science fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land in which an object disappears into the fourth dimension. Its confirmation would answer physics question Q7, and by suggesting the fourth dimension's seemingly special connection with life, undoubtedly spur new theories of what consciousness is, addressing question Q3.
Transition: Unlike the previous three proposals, the last one does not connect with our deep physics questions. Paradoxically I think of it as both being most relevant to SETI, and potentially offering the most in terms of human societal benefits. Whereas Proposal #1's SETI connection is through the search, Proposal #4's is through the meaning of intelligence. Like Proposal #2 it imagines a technological singularity that would affect the whole world, and like Project #3's amendment, it seeks a way to instill in humans a feeling of unity or Oneness.
#4: Global Brains, the Foundation of Long Lived Civilizations
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary
defines intelligence as "(1): the ability to
learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations...(2):
the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one's environment."
In a "Life in the Universe" public lecture, Stephen Hawking
said, "It is not clear that intelligence has any long-term survival
value." To make that value explicitly clear, I would
redefine intelligence as follows: the ability to both adapt to and manipulate a
changing environment to insure long-term well-being.
In considering the evolution of post biological phase of an intelligent
civilization's development, Steven Dick has formulated "The Intelligent
Principle," which ends "to the extent that intelligence can be
improved, it will be improved (Dick 2006)."
To me, this validates what I've
formalized as the Generalized Optimal Action Principle (Cook 2010).
Its application recognizes that the fit between life on Earth and the
planet Earth environment will be optimized over time.
Unlike other living species, we have the ability to optimize that fit to
maximize our long-term well-being. I'd
say the extent to which we do that measures our intelligence.
By "our" I mean the collective human species.
The applicable well-being associated with my definition of intelligence
is that of all human individuals.
Proposal #4 recognizes that our
well-being depends on the continued ability of Earth to support life, and values
an "Ethical Orientation" based on questions Q10--Q12.
It was initially proposed (Cook 1990) many years before the worldwide web
existed in its modern form. Disturbed
by problems I attributed to greed and self interest based economics, in
particular an increasing gap between the world's "haves" and
"have nots," and increasing evidence of the integrity of the Earth's
biosphere being compromised, I imagined an artificial intelligence/global brain
type solution to these problems. I
called my solution Gaia or GAIA and initially envisioned her as follows.
Gaia is both a human collective consciousness and a goddess that lives in every head. Its software is called GAIA, standing for "Goddess Artificial Intelligence program A," the last A signifying this will be the first of a steadily improving creation. Hardware associated with bringing Gaia to life begins with fitting a tiny microprocessor/memory chip into a person's tooth, putting a sensor into a fingertip, enabling an interface with "the global village communication grid," and selecting a pleasant speaking voice for her. GAIA is smart, especially attentive to impacts on the biosphere, and eager to regulate individual self interest based decision making using steadily refined assessment of what will benefit the whole species and its planetary home in the long run. It will allow humanity to perceive itself both as a whole and a collection of parts. Like the remembered voice of a wise parent or wisdom from a sacred religious book, Gaia supplements and helps develop your own conscience. Besides functioning as the empathy concerned, other-oriented part of your conscience, she also is your teacher, doctor, counselor, therapist, or just a good, caring friend who is always there.
With over two decades of technological development to draw on, were I to update the description, I could provide many more details and make Gaia or GAIA seem more believable and imminent--coming soon to a brain near yours! Rather than do this, I introduce futurist and systems thinker Francis Heylighen who spent those decades on related research. Since we share a similar autopoietic based conception of living systems and feeling that, as he puts it, "all systems tend to evolve toward better adaptation or fit, which implies greater information or knowledge about their environment," I value his contribution to this proposal. In this regard consider two papers (Heylighen 2007a, 2007b).
In the first he asks "us to envision the future, super-intelligent web as a 'global brain' for humanity. The feedback between social and technological advances lead to an extreme acceleration of innovation. An extrapolation of the correspond-ing hyperbolic growth model would forecast a singularity around 2040. This can be interpreted as the evolutionary transition to the Global Brain regime." In the second he shares some details of his envisioned "intelligent global computer network, capable of sensing, interpreting, learning, thinking, deciding, and initiating actions: the global brain," and attempts to alleviate our concerns. "Individuals are being integrated ever more tightly into this collective intelligence. Although this image may raise worries about a totalitarian system that restricts individual initiative, the super-organism model points in the opposite direction, towards increasing freedom and diversity."
Before evaluating Proposal #4, consider how thinking about it might resolve the Fermi Paradox: by asserting it is the nature of advanced life to destroy itself. One can argue that perhaps the biggest uncertainty in estimates of numbers N of advanced civilizations revolves around the question, "How long L do advanced civilizations last, given internal disruptive forces?" Countering that, one could argue that creatures possessing intelligence, defined as I have, recognize those forces early and eventually take appropriate steps to disarm them. Such steps could culminate with a collective consciousness/global brain. Such action dramatically increases the value of L in Drake's equation, leading to greatly increased values of N. One could counter this by arguing that, since no data exists to indicate N>1, creating what Proposal #4 envisions may be very difficult. And by quoting Susan Blackmore, "Cultural evolution is a dangerous child for any species to let loose on its world (Blackmore 2009)."
Evaluation: I certainly do not share Heylighen's 2040 forecast for a technological singularity marking a transition to a global brain regime. I see no signs of progress toward rectifying the large differences in well-being/wealth /resource consumption between individual members of our species. According to The Economist (July 31 2010), an Oxford University group says 1.7 billion people (25% of the world's population) live in "acute poverty." Basically agreeing with Schneider that a fundamental natural principle is "nature abhors gradients" (Schneider 2004), I'd say our human society is dangerously unstable. If a global consciousness is to be truly global, everyone must participate and rectifying the haves vs. have nots problem in a sustainable fashion is essential.
Doing this will require making choices. Despite my general support of (passive) SETI, had I made billions of dollars from a high tech related venture like MicroSoft, I would have put lots of it toward the goals of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, rather than funding numerous science and technology related ventures (including the SETI Institute and the Allen Telescope Array) as has Paul Allen. This brings us to the worldviews behind those who would value Proposal #4. Many of them would undoubtedly be similar to those identified for supporters of Proposal #2. Important additions would be valuing "Sustainability," "Ethical Orientation," and leaning more heavily on "Dancing With Systems."
In terms of negatives and positives, on the negative side, in the last paragraph of the evaluation of Proposal #2, replace "holistic scheme of things" with "the extreme poverty, powerlessness, and hopelessness of a significant percentage of the world's population," and you have criticism that applies equally well to Proposal #4's artificial intelligence/global brain scheme. Another criticism: developing networks and software that are smart, have high emotional IQs, and are effective at meeting design goals may be an impossible task. Think about how difficult it can be in real interpersonal interactions to communicate empathy, compassion, anger over injustice, or how good it feels to help someone less fortunate. Then contemplate the challenge of doing that in the virtual world.
On the positive side, despite the above criticism, eventually implementing this proposal in some form seems more technically doable than Proposal #2, and less socially and ethically questionable based on questions Q9--Q12. And recall our definition of intelligence. I'd say that long-lived technologically advanced civilizations that survive the few hundred years of what has been called the cosmic bottleneck (Shostak 2009) deserve being considered intelligent. It seems that possession of something like a global brain increases their chances of surviving well beyond that, even if "still confined to a small chunk of real estate" to borrow Shostak's phrase. But perhaps the biggest plus: while this proposal would undoubtedly teach us something about SETI and the value of L in the Drake equation, a bigger benefit comes from both the thinking and the planning for our own future in the broadest possible way that it promotes.
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