14 May 2021

Star Trek and Reality

 I felt a little guilty signing up for Paramount+ (formerly, it would seem, "CBS All Access"), just to watch Star Trek Discovery, then cancel. At least I did pay them for one month. And in truth they don't have much else on there I care to watch. Star Trek is an indulgence. It's both surprisingly good and really, really awful at the same time. As plausible science fiction, it gets the big things totally wrong (and doesn't really try or care about them, I would say), but gets a lot of details intriguingly plausible. Pace Albucierre fans (if you watch him actually describe his theroy on YouTube, you quickly realize that a "real" warp drive would require massive amounts of energy and/or massive amounts of "negative energy," which, in terms of practical physics, simply isn't a thing). There is no plausible scenario for developing widespread faster than light travel. It's a science fiction "Deus Ex Machina" because stories without it tend to be dull. But in all the wide universe, including beyond the Timelike horizon (outside of which information and photons (same thing) can never reach here from there), there is no such thing. We can be quite sure of that for two reasons. FTL violates causality, which seems to be a fundamental pricniple of nature, and, Fermi. If civilizations capable of this technology existed, even if they were really really rare, the universe would be a very different place, because locally, on the scale of galaxies, and, especially, in the past when the expansion of the universe hadn't progressed as far, anyone capable of FTL could colonize vast tracts of space in times only minute fractions of the ages of the stars and planets that gave rise to them. The universe may be yet young, at 13.7+ billion years, but if FTL is possible and even one in a thousand galaxies has given rise to it sometime in the last few billion years, "they" would already be everywhere. And they're not. (This may not be obvious, but if you really think it through, it's pretty ironclad).

Transporters also create all kinds of problems. If you've ever read Daniel Dennett on consciousness and what might constitute the instigation and continutiy of particular self-awareness (i.e., the sense of being "me" and not an abstraction), you would never get in one of those things even if they did exist. Captain Kirk gets in. "A" Captain Kirk walks away from the transport site on the planet and blithely believes himself to have just been transported. But you will never convince me that the first Captain Kirk is not dead, and the second Captain Kirk is not a remarkably accurate simulacrum, with its own instigation of consciousness at the moment of reassembly. But the planck-time to planck-time chain of causation of one conscious state to the next is broken, and the new Kirk is not the old one. Or so I believe, and it's an issue that is never really dealt with in the fictional universe.
But littler things. The original Star Trek famously anticipated flip phones. In the current shows, people just talk, and the computer network figures out who they want to talk to, sets it all up, and that person hears them. This technology is not only plausible, it's almost here. As is the miniaturization of communicaition devices (including nerual interfaces) will likely mean that a time subcutaneous implant will connect us to the "net" all the time just by mentally activating it. This seemed like wild fantasy 50 years ago but will probably happen in the lifetime of people alive right now.
And medicine. The Tricorder and the ability to use genetic treatments to cure almost anything. While there are numerous fraught issues implicit in these technological developments, it does seem likely that humanity is close to figuring out the language of life, and how to fix things when they go wrong, pretty much perfectly. I've had arguments with people who don't think this is true, but it seems pretty obvious to me that we're heading in that direction. Some of the inevitable consequences of that kind of technology will be pretty dystopian, but it's inevitable.
And the same goes for environmental technology. We have a crisis on our hands right now; we've stressed the planet's resources to a breaking point, and have upset balances that have been in place a long time. Not forever, though. Google the PETM (Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum). Nature has given us (several times) global thermal and atmospheric composition crises at least an order of magnitude worse than this one. And from what I've read of it, I'm pretty sure our species (or a descendant species) would survive such a global catastrophe. And once we have established a presence in space (which we will; there's just no reason not to), we will have learned how to regulate environments and steward the habitability of our home world. THIS, I believe, advanced civilizations, albeit very rare, DO tend to learn to do. Out there somewhere is NOT a Star Trek universe, but there are advanced civilizations that have learned to focus and harness the remarkable adaptation that is "humanlike" intelligence to cohere and expand the living systems of their worlds and create the seeds of a new era of life in the universe that will endure for an unimaginably long time.
Doesn't make for exciting science fiction adventure stories, but the reality is pretty amazing too.

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