Monday, May 13, 2013

Are They Here Yet!
Are They Here Yet?

An "Alien"

One of the most common modern mysteries mulled over is “Are we alone?” Well the bottom line is we do not know and it is possible we will never know the answer to that.1

Never knowing the answer is only possible if we do not find alien life because frankly if we don’t find it we can never be sure that it isn’t out there or that we missed it somehow.

Here I will go through some of the arguments being made concerning Alien intelligence and whether or not they are out there. Now there are various arguments that are made to show that they are not out there. These arguments are quite absurd and question begging after all we are confined to one planet and haven’t yet begun to explore the cosmos in any real sense. So I suspect saying they aren’t out there is more than a little premature.

Silly argument number one.

Von Neumann machines.2

This argument is featherweight in seriousness.

In this argument it is claimed that has technology advances we will perfect technology to such an extent that we will create intelligent devices that will be built with near indestructible technology. This technology will be capable of self-repair and “reproduction”, it will be vastly more intelligent than even the brightest human and be effectively immortal.

This device will be launched into space and will travel the void between the stars. It will find planets and asteroids etc., where with its perfect technology it will make duplicates of itself and they too will spread throughout space. This technology will eventually number in the quadrillions and fill the universe has it gradually spreads with its near perfect technology.

What does this have to do with alien intelligence? Not a great deal in reality but in the fevered mind of its proponents it is a decisive argument against the existence of intelligent extraterrestrials. How? Well hard has it is to believe the argument is that if intelligent extraterrestrials existed von Neumann machines would be here right now on earth. Since they are not here extraterrestrials do not exist.

This argument is similar to claiming before Columbus that since no one had voyaged east to Asia that no one could voyage east because otherwise someone would have done it by now in a boat made of fingernail clippings.

Yes I’m treating an argument meant to be a serious one flippantly. Why? Because it deserves to be taken flippantly.

Von Neumann machines assume an awful lot and are pure fantasy Sci-Fi. What do they assume?

Well to start they assume that such a nearly perfect technology can in fact be created. Well maybe it cannot and we should not assume that it can. After all the laws of nature cannot be wished away and perhaps these nearly indestructible immortal machines simply cannot be built or if they are will not prove to be immortal.

After all space is huge and subject to intense radiation it would take time for objects, even von Neumann machines, to get through the vast empty stretches between the stars. And in those likely thousands of years; well the chances of permanent breakdown and yes destruction would be very high. After all even if a machine had only a 1 in a thousand chance of a breakdown in a given year after a thousand years it would probably be broken.

This is assuming that such perfect or near perfect technology can in fact be created in the first place. This is an assumption, there is no way of knowing until we do or frankly have failed or succeeded to do if such a technology is in fact really possible. We can’t assume that it is.

There is of course the related assumption that an Alien intelligence would create such a device in the first place. Why should we assume that? Just why would anyone create such a device? I mentioned above that we can’t assume that such a device is possible in the first place. Related to that is the possibility that even if such a device is possible perhaps the resources to create such a device are so prodigious that it is simply not worth the trouble.

After all more than 50 years of research have failed to create usable fusion reactors or in fact controlled fusion reactions that last more than a few seconds. And the energy required is enormous even to do that. Perhaps sustained cost efficient fusion reactions are not possible in the short term.3

Von Neumann machines are wish fulfillment devices that hark back to the notion that man has a Promethean urge to expand and that through devices like von Neumann devices will continue to expand. It is taken for granted that any intelligent species would “of course” develop such devices and send them off into the universe to multiply and fill the universe with themselves.

If they are intelligent machines just why would they do this? Just why would they swallow their program and like the verse in Genesis “be fruitful and multiply” and fill the universe? Also why assume that an intelligent alien species would think and do the same?

Also this thesis assumes that intelligence equals technology, along with assuming that it would have the human urge to expand and spread. It could easily be that technological intelligence is rare in the universe not intelligence per say. Also it could be that even species that have intelligence and technology frequently choose to limit their technical development.

In fact we have on earth several examples of non-technical intelligence. They are called whales. There is nothing per say preventing an aquatic dweller from being or becoming intelligent but perhaps in such an environment the development of technology is severely constrained to the point that it is very unlikely.4

The argument is pure Science Fiction based on a model of how something “should” develop when we have very little knowledge of such things. The absence of detectable von Neumann machines by us proves nothing except that we haven’t detected them.

One can easily reverse the story and say that since we haven’t detected von Neumann machines they are impossible to build. Same fallacious logic and same old nonsense.

Silly Argument number two.

Why aren’t they here?5

A variation of the above idea is the notion that intelligent aliens don’t exist because if they did they would have colonized the earth by now.

Aside from once again assuming that the aliens would be like us; the argument ignores that once again the physical barriers to colonization could be so formidable that it is not a practical option.

Of course like with von Neumann machines the argument is made that if intelligence existed out there someone in the vast stretches of the universe over cosmic time would have done this, i.e., solved these problems and done this stuff. Why assume that at all. One could just as easily assume that the problems are insolvable. It is conceivable that intelligence isn’t “rare” but that intelligence + technology is rare indeed. It could be that intelligence, even ones using technology, tends to restrict itself in its use.

Frankly the cost of space colonization could be so restrictive that it is rare along with being so difficult that it is as a practical option extremely rare indeed.

Of course like with von Neumann machines the fact that they’re not here may merely show that space colonization is not a practical option.  

And of course there is the possibility that we are the first. After all someone has to be the first one. And there is the possibility that technological civilization once it develops has a tendency to self-destruct very quickly in which case we could be very much alone right now.

Related arguments like the one that if they’re out there we would have detected their signals by now. Ignore just how much noise there is out there and how vast the universe is. And of course now we know that it appears that the noise is so deafening that even the signals that pour out from earth are reduced to static noise by c. 10 light years from earth.6

We have just found out that planets around other suns are common and are beginning to find out that other earth like planets may be “common” also. So perhaps we are not alone at all.7 

1. To start see Shklovskii, I. S., and Sagan, Carl, Intelligent Life in the Universe, Dell Pub. Co.,  New York, 1966.

1. Self-replicating spacecraft, Wikipedia Here. Barrow, John D., and Tipler, Frank J., The Anthropic Cosmological Principle,  Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986, pp. 576-612.

2. Fusion Power, Wikipedia  Here.

3. See Fichtellius, Karl Erik, Smarter than Man?: Intelligence in whales, dolphins, and humans, Pantheon Books, New York, 1972.

4, See Barrow et al, Footnote 1, pp. 510-575, Tipler, Frank J., Additional Remarks on Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, v. 22, 1981, pp. 279-292. See also  Barrow-Tipler Argument against Extra-Terrestrial Life  Here.

5. See Barrow et al. For an interesting but ultimately question begging look at the whole where are they idea see Webb, Stephen, Where is Everybody?, Praxis Publishing, New York 2002. The books conclusion that we are alone is an embarrassing embrace of the idea that “intelligence”  must be like us and the absurd notion that if they exist they would be here. The author denies doing so but does in fact do so. 

6. For space signals being quickly overrun by static see Space Radio: More Static Less Talk, Here.

7. See Jayawardhana, Jay, Strange New Worlds, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2011, and The Extrasolar Planets EncyclopaediaHere.

Pierre Cloutier

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