27 October 2019

A few comments on intelligent life in the universe in response to an article in Daily Beast

[You can't actually read this without joining DB for $1 for a month, but DB is kind of good anyway, so you might want to. Anyway, my comments]:

First, the article fails to make a clear distinction between reasonable estimates of the probability that we will discover extraterrestrial LIFE, which could mean only microbial life with a non-terrestrial origin, at some point in the relatively near future (seems quite plausible), vs. the likelihood that we will encounter or find actual evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. The latter divides into evidence of relatively nearby intelligent civilizations somewhat more advanced or comparable to our own vs. evidence of very distant extremely advanced civilizations. Such very advanced civilizations would likely be detectable across extragalactic distances. Any realistic estimate of the probability of finding intelligent life requires a full examination of the logic and evidence involved in the so-called Fermi Paradox, which this article entirely ignores. 

I have discussed these issues on my blog, www.gyromantic.com (search for Fermi Paradox). The gist is that there are very good logical reasons to conclude that intelligent life is exceedingly rare in the universe. So rare, in fact, that the chances of detecting or encountering another civilization close enough to make even centuries-long dialog times possible are vanishingly small. I see no reason to think that we are "alone" in the universe (chiefly because the universe is so very large that anything that can possibly happen likely will have happened, and repeatedly).  But I see EVERY reason to suppose that advanced civilizations are so rare, and so distant from one another, that for all intents and purposes they are on their own, and must make their own way, independent of others in the same general situation, in a vast, dark, and mostly empty cosmos.

This predicament is not as bleak as all that, however. We have every prospect of developing sustainable energy on our planet, and practical space flight and even space colonization in the general vicinity of our star, the Sun. From there, our civilization and its remote descendants could, with no foreseeable serious impediments, proceed to colonize other stars, spreading life and civilization that originated on our little world throughout first our region of space, star-hopping from one stellar system to the next. Exploiting the resources of material and energy to make new habitats for life and, specifically, intelligent life: us, and our descendants, who will gradually evolve into something trans-human, no doubt. And there is nothing foreseeeable that will stop this process. Stars are very, very far apart from one another, but time is vast, and the possibility of colonizing the entire Galaxy in something like 1 to 2 million years is not prohibited by anything. In fact, if we survive the next century or two, I would venture to say that it is nearly inevitable, and once our descendants have filled enough niches and established beachheads in enough locations, the complete extinction of the enterprise of terrestrial life will become a very unlikely occurrence. We will evolve into forms unrecognizable to our current incarnations, most likely, but there will be literally nothing to stop us. Even the complete colonization of the Galaxy will just be the beginning, because on the scale of galaxies (hundreds of thousands of light years), other galaxies are not far from each other. The Magellanic Clouds (smallish companion galaxies to the Milky Way) are roughly 180,000 and 210,000 light years, respectively. The huge Andromeda Galaxy is just under 2 million. This is a vast distance, but if we have developed the technology to build colony habitats to spread life in space over centuries, the later stages of the evolution of that kind of technology could cross such distances, and spread our civilization, or more properly its offspring, even to other galaxies. 

And there's every reason to believe this might well have already happened elsewhere in the universe, but space is so vast that we would not necessarily know about it... ever. Space is expanding so fast that more and more of the universe every moment is beyond the reach of any form of communication, forever, because nothing, not even radio or laser signals, can travel faster than light. But the point is that humanity's future in a universe that is mostly empty of intelligent life, is actually very bright. Eventually our region of the universe will be very full of intelligent beings and their handiwork. And they will be our children. 

Most people don't really think about the far future at all, but it actually is a reason for us to be very, very serious about preserving the ecosystems of our planet and making sure that we survive the next century or few centuries. Because we have every prospect of giving rise to intelligent civilization of a truly cosmic scale, that does not now exist, except so far from here that it resounds no echoes, sends no signals that we can receive, and might as well not exist for all that it matters to us here and now. But that situation will not persist, at least not everywhere. And if we want humanity's particular mode of existence to persist, and thrive, and develop in ways we cannot now even imagine, then we must ensure our survival into a future time when that becomes not only a dream, but a reality, even an inevitability. 



Nature simply does not care what we believe. 


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