05 May 2010

Extraterrestrial Ethics, and why we might want to spend our time worrying about our own world for now

In this NYT essay today, Robert Wright discusses the issue of whether we can expect extraterrestrials to have ethics (in light of Stephen Hawking's comment on his TV series to the effect that things didn't go so well for the Native Americans when a technically superior society showed up). This whole discussion is rather old hat among those who've pondered these issues for the past 50 years or so, but I'll throw in my 2 cents anyway.

First, the point is really moot, because there's no plausible scenario in which it would ever make economic sense for one sentient species to try to exploit another across interstellar distances. See this post, which should illustrate why this is so.

Second, and for some of the same reasons as are discussed in that post, the chances are that even communication with xenosophonts (to use a coined word I rather like), even assuming that it is a near certainty that they exist in large numbers scattered throughout the universe, will never be practical. At least, not unless we learn some completely unknown technologies to overcome the limitations of the speed of light, which limits not just transportation but communication as well. Some people love to point at the rapid technological progress in the last 200 or so years, but one thing it'd be well not to overlook is that progress in science normally proceeds through refinement and expansion into new areas of understanding, not through discovery that old ideas were wrong. For example, Newtonian gravitational theory isn't wrong, it's a special case of general relativity that happens to work perfectly well for almost all purposes. Similarly, we may learn all kinds of exotic new things, but we're not likely to find out that, oh, wow, the speed of light isn't a natural physical limit to the translation of particles in space, after all.

I wouldn't say rapid interstellar communication or travel are definitely impossible, but those who plead extraordinarily for these hypothetical future breakthroughs have the burden, at least, of explaining what kinds of breakthroughs might make that possible. Wormholes? Well, maybe, but so far the existence of such things is pure speculation.

So, for now anyway, I'd say that whether extraterrestrials will be getting in touch soon, and whether they'll be naughty or nice, should be the least of our concerns, because the chances of that being an issue we actually have to deal with are pretty well zero.

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