Thursday, February 12, 2015

How Aliens Spend Their Time

Ever since my youth I've had a passing interest in what intelligent aliens might be like. Though I didn't read much science fiction, I was exposed to plenty of it on TV and at the movies. I saw the 1953 film version of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, in which Martians attempt to conquer the Earth. In the famous 1960 Twilight Zone episode, The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, crafty aliens create mayhem by stoking fears in a clever parody of McCarthy-era politics. Then there was the 1962 Twilight Zone episode, To Serve Man, in which seemingly friendly aliens are actually taking humans back to their planet in order to eat them. Unseen aliens occupy the background of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. For unknown reasons they have placed black monoliths at various locations in the solar system in order to accelerate the evolution of humans. The Alien series, which began in 1979, features creatures which, though possessing intelligence, operate on the basic model of catching and feeding on members of advanced civilizations that have had the misfortune of encountering them during space travel. Of course, there are other well-known films that feature aliens, but I don't count those produced by George Lucas or Steven Spielberg as worthy of consideration. The same goes for Superman, Star Trek and most TV science fiction.

My perspective has changed somewhat in recent years while I've had plenty of time on my hands. My children have grown up, and I no longer have significant responsibilities. This has affected how I think about intelligent aliens. I've also been thinking about where evolution might lead and the potential effects of super-intelligence on mankind. It seems that the aliens portrayed in the above films and TV programs are unlikely to exist, because most of them are based on anthropomorphic models. For example, we might like the idea of conquering the inhabitants of other planets, but if we were sophisticated enough to do that we would probably be sophisticated enough to solve whatever problem we had without leaving home. The Alien creature is perhaps the most plausible of the group, because it follows a Darwinian model with no evidence of anthropomorphism, making it among the scariest of all space monsters.

I have often thought since the 1972 Pioneer 10 mission that the idea of sending a message to intelligent aliens might be a bit naïve. There are some elements of anthropocentrism here, at least to the extent of presuming that intelligent aliens would analyze our information in a manner similar to us. Many people seem to think that we will have a great deal in common with aliens: they will be glad to hear from us, and we will be glad to hear from them; we will feel happy that we are not alone in the universe. It is possible that we will come into contact with such beings, but when I think of extremely advanced beings, I don't think that that will be the case at all.

With billions of galaxies each containing billions of stars, and with most of those stars orbited by planets, it is highly probable that countless other planets have life on them. We have had civilizations on Earth for about 10,000 years, which is an extremely short period in the history of the universe, so we cannot know what a civilization might look like after 100,000 or 1,000,000 years. My guess is that many highly advanced alien species exist now and many have already reached extinction.

Putting this in a Darwinian context, what would it be like to live in an extremely advanced technological society? If you assume that such beings cooperate or live separately, none of the aspects that we associate with survival would be relevant. Everyone might essentially be immortal. No one would have to work. The infrastructure would be self-maintaining. Energy, food and shelter might be limitless. Children, if desired, could be designed and created with little effort, though there may be no reason to have them anymore if everyone were immortal. It seems likely to me that none of the challenges that we associate with living, other than psychological ones, would come into play. It also seems plausible that such beings might arrive at a boundary in their understanding of the universe, leaving them with nothing interesting to discover. Cosmology, physics and all of the other sciences might reach an explanatory limit that could never be surpassed.

This situation would be so foreign to us that we can hardly contemplate it. What would people do if they had no struggle? It is possible that they would find ways to entertain themselves for eternity, but at that point choosing not to exist might also become an attractive option. Perhaps advanced civilizations voluntarily go extinct. This is a far cry from our current worldview, but it is something worth thinking about. Possibly we have not come into contact with intelligent aliens only because most of them have decided to die.

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