03 October 2014

A (somewhat Materialist/Utilitarian) view of Human Significance

Having now finished Caleb Scharf's «The Copernicus Connection,» I want to point out a lacuna in his conclusions. He talks about various ways in which we are not as mediocre as the sort of pure Copernican paradigm would have it. He dances around the concept that our cognition and intelligence makes us SIGNIFICANT, in that we are capable of discerning the existence of life elsewhere. But I think he misses a major point here.

Cognition and intelligence do indeed make us qualitatively different, I would argue, from the rest of the biosphere even of Earth alone. Think about it this way. For a couple of billion years the Earth was dominated by archaea and bacteria, organisms which are inherently microcosmic and limited in numerous ways. Then came the era of eucarya, which are capable of forming larger organic structures and shaping the environment further. You could count the evolution of large animals and plants as a separate development if you prefer. But I would argue that the rise of an animal capable of modeling the whole cosmos (however imperfectly), and of building tools that actually transcend the planetary environment (so far just barely, but nonetheless)... is a quantum leap. This may have happened elsewhere before (we don't yet know), but we do know that it's happened here, and we are it. And this begs a huge question.

How might humanity make Earth a truly exceptional and significant place (even if it weren't already)? The answer to that seems obvious to me. From other parts of Scharf's book, and much else published recently, there's no doubt that roughly earthlike planets, where some form of life is POSSIBLE, exist, and all over the place. It may well turn out that the splendid isolation that the huge distances between stars helps to ensure may mean that many of these worlds, for whatever reason, remain lifeless. So, what does advanced life do? What is its prime directive? I would argue, "Go forth, and colonize environments where life does not already exist."

And this is what we, as a species, will do, if we don't make ourselves extinct first. Even if it's just sending one way seeding missions, I foresee in the future, we will send technological envoys to other stars, and where we find sterile environments where Earth based life could exist and thrive, we will insert that life into those environments. We will be the agent, the flower, if you will, of Earth's biosphere, in finding new environments where life can exist.
Scharf doesn't even mention this possibility, but I regard it as a near certainty for the future of humankind. That is, if we don't foolishly wreck our homeworld and become extinct ourselves first.

Of course, if you take the long view both forward and backward, this carries with it an interesting implication. If advanced life, such as has now arisen on Earth, frequently evolves technology and spreads itself to other nearby, then maybe not so nearby stars, why do we not see evidence of that? Or, is it possible we do? That it is in fact the origin of life on Earth? We can't rule that out, although there's no evidence for it either. But if we find most stars, with planets where life is possible, to be lifeless, we will have to conclude that intelligent / technological beings are not so very common in the universe, because a long, long time has already transpired in which they could have been active in just this way. Long enough to spread life throughout all of this and every other galaxy. And since that doesn't seem to have happened, I take it as a bit of evidence that we are not so mediocre after all, but a rare development in the universe that has the potential to wreak MAJOR change for the better, from the point of view of increasing the prevalence of life.

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