Monday, July 21, 2014

Beam Me Up, Scotty ...

I'm reading The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence (Houghton Mifflin, 2010) by Paul Davies, a physicist and popular science writer.  I've never been a fan of his, but I hoped he would give me some idea of the current state of the scientific search for extra-terrestrial life and intelligence, and he is doing that. So far it appears that the current state of SETI is about where it was the last time I looked, a couple of decades ago, though Davies does have some intriguing ideas about where it might conceivably go.  Conceivably.  Maybe.  Hypothetically.

But right now I want to gripe about a famous quotation from Calvin and Hobbes, that Davies uses as an epigraph to chapter 4: "Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us."  Davies ascribes it to "Bill Watterson, cartoonist," but what the hell, I know that white people find it difficult to distinguish between a writer and the words he puts into the mouths of his characters, and I wouldn't be surprised if Calvin was speaking for his creator there.

What bothers me about the quotation is its nerdy contempt for all human beings except the speaker.  I've written before about this
misanthropic dismissal of human intelligence.  The most extreme case I can think of was someone on the first computer BBS I frequented, back in the mid-1980s.  He said that he didn't think there was such a thing as human intelligence; there might, he allowed, be such a thing as real intelligence somewhere else in the universe, but not among Homo Sap, and not on this planet.  That was interesting in so many ways.  First off, since he wasn't intelligent by his own assumption, why should anyone take him seriously?  We're all dumb here -- you're dumb too, or you wouldn't be here.  Second, "intelligence" is something that most of us ascribe to human beings, and to a lesser extent to other animals.  It has no meaning except as a trait human beings have, and until we actually encounter "intelligent" extraterrestrial organisms, we won't have a basis for comparison anyway.  It's sort of like saying that there's no such thing as human beauty, except that we human beings do perceive beauty in other animals, in plants, in inorganic things (from quartz crystals to the Grand Canyon), in natural phenomena like sunsets or the night sky.  I suppose that a human being could decide that no human beings are beautiful, that only seal-point Siamese cats or the Andromeda galaxy are really beautiful; but I would reply that while it's fine for him, I (like many other people) do find many human beings beautiful.  Beauty, like intelligence or goodness, is in the eye of the beholder.  If everybody is ugly, then nobody's beautiful; if everybody's dumb, then nobody's dumb.  Or at least, some are dumber than others.
Hand in hand with this attitude goes the assumption that if real intelligence comes along, whether extraterrestrial or computer-driven, the misanthropic nerd will get to be its BFF.  It's partly a religious fantasy as well as a racist one, of being Chosen and finally Rescued / Raptured from the inferior herd by the Truly Cool People from Outer Space, or Cyberspace, or Heaven, or what you will.

Thinking of this made me wonder, not for the first time, why so many people are so eager to know that there are other people -- preferably superior, though not so superior that they won't be super-nice to us when we finally meet -- elsewhere in the universe.  True, it would be interesting to know, though as Noam Chomsky pointed out in another context, Society is happily in ignorance of insignificant matters of all sorts.  (Yes, I consider the existence of extra-terrestrial life an insignificant question in the present state of our ignorance.)  One of the recurring themes is that it would be bad to be "alone," though again this doesn't seem like a very pressing concern compared to war, poverty, hunger, and disease on this planet.  Since human beings don't get along with each other as well as we ought, why do we need more species to not get along with?  It's like the desire to colonize other planets because we've about ruined this one.

Even if we do discover that there are civilizations in other solar systems or galaxies, it is extremely unlikely, to the point of certainty, that we would be able to communicate with them or they with us, let alone go for a visit.  Some people might find it comforting to know that there are other people in the universe, but at least as many would feel threatened -- despite the minimal, not to say nonexistent nature of the threat -- and would start trying to gin up concern about defending ourselves against the Andromedans.  Others would start collecting money to send missionaries to those poor benighted aliens who don't know Jesus.  As I say, I consider the question whether there is life in other solar systems to be insignificant, and I feel sure it's a distraction for most people who think it's important.

Then there was the quotation in the meme above, which was shared on Facebook by a former co-worker, newly retired.  The very term "common sense" always gets my back up, for reasons I've gone into before, but the meme made me giggle because, as I suspected, my friend had no idea who Robert G. Ingersoll was.  He was a famous 19th-century Freethinker, the most popular speaker in America in his day, known as "the Great Agnostic."  It's safe to say that his idea of common sense was very different from my former co-worker's, who's a mushy Cafeteria Christian with common-sense middle-American politics and attitudes.  She's a very nice person, but she wouldn't have gotten along with Ingersoll.  He was, for instance, a prominent abolitionist too, and while as a decent white American born in the middle of the twentieth century, my friend disapproves of slavery since it's a safely dead issue now, I doubt she'd have felt the same way had she been born in antebellum America.  I mean, slavery was just common sense in those days.

That's the thing about common sense: it may be common, but it's not very sensible.  I'm not sure whether the people (including the scientists) who are obsessed with knowing that We Are Not Alone have too much common sense, or too little, though so many of the arguments are couched in terms of common sense: the universe is so big and there are so many stars, there must be other planets and there must be people out there, it would totally suck if we were alone!  In a matter like this, there is no "must."  There's only evidence, and right now there isn't any.  I notice from Davies's book, which I finished reading over the weekend, that the proponents of SETI are still overstating what they know.  More on this later, I hope.