Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Anthropomorphism and Extraterrestrial Life

I am reminded of the ongoing circle of imaginative discourse involved in attempting to see planet Earth and its cosmic relevance through the eyes of an extraterrestrial over at Paul Gilster’s Centauri Dreams. In his piece Self-Consciousness Among the Stars he says;

Sometimes it seems that we humans give ourselves too much importance in the cosmic scheme of things. After all, what would our little planet have to offer in a galaxy that, as The Age (Melbourne) notes, is made up of 100 billion stars (and there’s that number again, 100 billion, which reminds me that estimates of our Galaxy’s stellar population range from this low-ball figure all the way up to Timothy Ferris’ whopping one trillion). Aren’t humans, we ask, just one more backward species trying to evolve?

Maybe, but the problem is that we have no way of knowing the answer. If we are the only civilization in the Orion Arm, then we’re hugely significant. If we’re one of ten thousand, then we’re not.

Giancarlo Genta, who has written wisely and sanely about SETI in his new book
Lonely Minds in the Universe (New York: Copernicus, 2007), would add that we don’t really know whether intelligence and self-consciousness always co-exist.

Paul encapsulates both points of view by either referencing in the third person or by quoting someone else. It would have been nice to know his opinion.

The opinion I hear most often, but do not share, is the former; namely that if a civilisation is capable of interstellar travel, we could not possibly be of any interest to them.

But I beg to differ. Regardless of the frequency of other life, as he himself illustrates, we have no real idea of how intelligence and consciousness from another environment might present itself. If we were to happen upon life that was obviously sentient but very different to us, we’d be intrigued and we’d stop or at least observe.

The futility of such a comment though is obvious. How can we possibly presume to know how another intelligence would think? If one extends that argument further, then a massive question mark must even appear over SETI as well.

So it seems we have no choice but to anthropomorphise because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t even get started, and there’s not much point to that.


Dustin said...

Nice new blog.

You make a point that I've made so many times before, generally without any takers.

Why would we assume that we could understand the intentions and/or motivations of something that would likely be so radically different from us?

We, obviously, have a near impossible time understanding the people on the opposite side of our own planet, so why would we understand something even more different than us any better?

Stuart said...

Thanks Dustin,

Nice to come across someone else with humility! Assumptions are pointless. But, we cannot sit here in a vacuum and to deny irritating personal expression would be depriving ourselves of the pleasure of mocking those who apparently think like aliens. Bless them for they know not what they sayeth.

Alfred Lehmberg said...

"So it seems we have no choice but to anthropomorphise because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t even get started, and there’s not much point to that."

We kick off a couple of centuries of bowdlerized Descartes and errant scientism with "_I_ think therefore _I_ am," so a certain amount of anthropomorphism is a predicted given, even a necessity as you say... ...but when that seminal anthropomorphism presumes an arrogance, a premature attitude, or an unearned and presumptive hubris it serves neither itself or its student and dishonors its teacher, eh?

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