Statement of personal philosophy
Disclaimer 1, 130828
After a few months of working around the edges of this essay I realize it will never really be done in the sense that other essays can be done. The ideas this essay spawns, the tangential discussions, the deeper consideration of various proposals and realizations along the way, all of these unexpected side-effects make it clear this essay will evolve forever, so I must simply designate some incarnation as version 1.0 and leave it be.
If this entire essay is too long for your patience, I recommend reading the section Window of Opportunity first. Not only does it veritably stand on its own, but it is, in some sense, the most important in that it is by far the most complete statement of my general state of mind and view of life that I have yet expressed in writing. The rest of this essay ventures into other topics, namely my views on the future of humanity.
This document attempts to convey my personal philosophy (which is not a well defined or particularly respected term). By this term, I refer to a confluence of other terms, namely "life stance" and/or "worldview" (weltanschauung). Just as the term "life stance" specifically aims to incorporate the notion of "importance" into the otherwise undirected notion of worldview, this document attempts to give the reader a sense for, not only how I believe the world "works", but what I believe are the important goals of an evolving and advancing intelligent species and its society, i.e., what matters.
Am I Really so "Mid-Lifed" that I'm Waxing About my Worldview? Thirty-eight is just around the corner (in fact, I rounded the bend during the editing process and prior to any publication of this essay), which I would have thought was a tad premature for a conventional mid-life "crisis", not that I regard this document as indicative of a crisis. The ideas presented in this document have been simmering in my head for several years and in fact, portions of it have been written previously in the collection of essays available on my website, which I call the Mind Ramblings, some more than a decade old at this point. So on one hand, these ideas are not really a mid-life occurrence for me; rather they stretch back to my early twenties. However, the desire (or need) to collate these ideas in a single over-arching thesis may still be a product of my age. While my past essays were on particular subtopics, this one attempts to convey the underlying basis of my views, the purpose, the passion, the all-encompassing framework which ties my previous essays together. In addition, it incorporates new sections and culminates in grander conclusions than I have previously expressed. I don't want to use the word magnum opus to describe this essay for two important reasons. First, it probably won't turn out to be very good and I don't want it to take credit as my "great work" (literal meaning), and second, I expect to continue to write for many years and in all likelihood this simply won't be my magnum opus in retrospect...at least, I hope not, given the previous point. That said, I can't help but recognize that the term loosely applies.
Why do people behave this way at this point in their life, permitting their philosophy to both grow and generalize to previously unseen levels? One possibility is that as one runs out of time to complete new projects, projects must by necessity become more grandiose (you can waffle on smaller tasks when you have the opportunity to get around to the big projects later, but eventually it becomes "later" and you must tackle the larger projects or concede their possible omission). Perhaps as time runs out, there is increasing pressure to leave a mark, to make sure a wake of purpose and impact follows in one's path. The fear that life will end without accomplishment must play a large role in this sort of peculiar mid-life behavior. However, for me, I believe there is yet another explanation: I have ideas that I don't want lost to the world if and when I die (an admittedly odd turn of phrase that will make more sense later). My ideas may be of absolutely no value — they certainly may be of practically no originality — yet I panic at the notion that if I were to die, no one would ever realize the depth of my pondering and conviction on these matters. If anything expressed in my writing has any causal effect on future minds or society, then that is essentially the point of this essay and it will have been successful. Whether it will turn out that way (whether I will have any appreciable effect on the world) may never be known unless the effect is quite large...which I doubt.
As a side-note, I would point out that certain sections of this essay might be lifted out without modification as stand-alone essays on their associated subtopics, most notably On the Subject of Magic and Window of Opportunity, and to a lesser extent Implications of Computerized Intelligence on Interstellar Travel, and The Likely Rarity of "Mind" in the Universe, in so far as those last two sections are already summaries of earlier independent publications.
I coin a new term in this document, cosmic futurism, in which to bundle the entirety of my personal philosophy. This practice is common in language, perhaps even common in thought — once a set of ideas is clear enough to represent a bounded and relatively complete concept, it is frequently cognitively labeled, and in so doing is reduced to a single all-encompassing term which can be more easily communicated or remembered. The obvious reason, then, for me to coin a new term is that no existing term adequately describes the entirety of my ideas.
Another reason is that many philosophies enjoy the benefit of a publicly recognized label (materialism, existentialism, idealism, etc.) and if, by chance, mine gains any notoriety (yeah right), it should likewise have such a label so as to better slot it into the overall corpus of available philosophies. Granted, other "philosophies" are generally more abstract, taking as their primary goal the task of offering models of reality, physics, thought, etc., while mine refers simply to a far more prosaic prescription for future human endeavors, with any statements about the "nature of reality" being relegated to the underlying reasoning in favor of that prescription, all of which will become clearer throughout this document. This distinction is not lost on me. The closest this exposition comes to flirting with conventional philosophy is my sporadic comments on the nature of "purpose" as it relates to the presence or absence of conscious minds, and by extension my partial embrace of a veritable nonexistence (even retroactively applied) of objects (including people and minds) once their effects wither in the timeline (I promise this will all become clearer as the reader proceeds)...but I'm getting ahead of myself.
Cosmic futurism, as its composition suggests, is a two-parter, a "cosmic" modifier to "futurism", so I will define it in parts. The term "futurism" usually refers to an unrelated art movement from the early twentieth century, and this use is so prevalent that it is rarely used in the way I use it here, which is along the lines of the term "futurist". Futurists are people who attempt to rationally — perhaps even systematically — predict and comprehend the future of humanity...and yet the term futurism is reserved almost exclusively for the unrelated art movement. I have commandeered it because, quite simply, it is apt to the topic at hand and is a natural fit to its sibling "futurist"...but be clear that I refer to futurism in my intended form, as the practice of studying and contemplating the future of the human species and society.
Note that while the central theme of futurism is often technology, it is societal changes and human changes that are of primary importance to futurism; technology is simply recognized as one of the main methods by which those changes may occur.
I refine futurism with the modifier "cosmic". In so far as futurist thoughts and writings are often allied with science fiction (many "hard" science fiction writers being, in effect, futurists), and given the strong overlap between science fiction and space, it may not be a dramatic extension to associate futurism with the cosmos...but I do so explicitly, so as to emphasize the crucial role of the universe beyond Earth to humanity's future. More to the point, I see humanity's role as a major player in the universe as our ultimate purpose, not merely a tangential stage of our ongoing evolution. In fact, it should practically be the destiny of any sentient and technological species to take the existence of "mind" and intelligence and emotion and passion out from our respective home-worlds and spread across the universe...and in the process, imbue the otherwise purposeless, dead matter of the universe with conscious life, with mind.
On the Subject of Magic
Let me comment on what may at first seem like an unrelated topic: magic. I like to use the word magic because, even to the most resistant of readers, it should invoke the connotation to which I refer with a verisimilitude that other terms would not. However, this concept is embodied by numerous terms. I will list a few here: supernaturalism, spirituality, religion, god, angels, miracles, souls, ghosts, good and evil, the devil, curses, heaven, hell, karma, reincarnation, laying on of hands, psychic ability, palm-reading, tea-leaf-reading, crystal balls, tarot cards, astrology, superstition, resurrection, transubstantiation, walking on water, mythical creatures, virgin birth, prayer...and that is an incomplete list. The idea here is forces, beings, creatures, and events that — by their very definition — cannot fit into the natural universe but rather must rely on causes external to nature. I would use the term supernaturalism to make my point except that to most people that term is more palatable, perhaps even more plausible. Magic, as a term, should make it as clear as possible to the reader how all of these things appear to me. That is, while supernaturalism may impose a thin veneer of respectability and therefore cloud the reader from empathizing with my perspective, magic is more readily recognized as a concept of unconditional fiction.
I don't believe in magic.
Meaning, I don't believe in any of the items in the list above, nor do I believe in any related ideas not included in the list (i.e., I am a materialist, although I am entirely comfortable discussing immaterial concepts, such as mind, in so far as they are phenomena born purely of material causes). I believe the magical vs. nonmagical divide is fundamental in classifying worldviews since it completely underlies how one thinks the universe works. There can be no greater distinction than whether physical reality is based on comprehensible and rational principles or whether it is based on magic. The distinction between nonmagic and magic is greater than the distinction between any two "kinds" of magic (thus, ala the list above, I consider a disbelief in both prayer and astrology to be a greater distinction than between belief in prayer but not astrology, or vs/va). Two people quibbling over which of their respective religions is true at the expense of the other are both far more similar to one another than to a third person who dismisses both religions, in addition to all others, on the grounds of being anti-magic.
A nonmagical worldview implies that the universe can, in principle, be understood as well as manipulated. A nonmagical worldview gives credibility to endeavors of discovery and learning. Not only does it enable us to learn, it permits us to learn by allowing us a basis of knowledge upon which empirical investigation can operate. Contrarily, a magical worldview would necessarily imply the opposite — that on some level the world disintegrates into imaginary arbitrariness, a barrier beyond which no one can ever hope to extend reasoning or grasp understanding. Magic doesn't merely revoke our ability to learn about the world, it revokes our permission to even try (for only a fool would try to comprehend the definitively incomprehensible)! Magic is the death of empiricism; it doesn't even allow us a rational foundation on which to build subsequent knowledge since it explicitly precludes trusting any experimental result.
As I see this to be the fundamental distinguishing aspect of various worldviews, and since I perceive that few people subscribe to such views with unwavering completeness, I consequently feel at odds with the general population. Practically no one truly dismisses magic all the way down to the lowest basis of reality. Exclude people who are dismissive of the popular organized religions, and you are left with those who still "believe in god." Exclude those people and you have the rest who subscribe to various religious or spiritual beliefs. Further exclude even the vague spiritualists and you still have those who cling to inextricable forces at some level of reality, even if only in rather new age "energy" or "aura" based ways. Even after all such filtering, you may still be faced with people who disregard a purely physical origin of life or basis for mind, or origin of the universe, or perhaps even a rational explanation for existence. Very few people, in my view, truly embrace a steadfast nonmagical universe at every last conceivable level of reality, yet I don't see how it could logically be any other way.
Window of Opportunity
In a universe 14 billion years old we — you — are granted a scant few decades in which to — and I phrase this oddly — in which to exist. Most people would say "in which to live", but I think that phrase fails to capture the true magnificence of the circumstances. To be sure, living is pretty impressive. To be a biological (at this point in history) being, an intelligent and inquisitive mind in a world of stars and rocks...and void, so much void...is admittedly incredible, but to exist is even more fundamentally astounding. To be a conscious agent in the world, thinking, feeling, aware — to be active in the world, shaping and altering the path not only of human history but of the universe's history, for there to even be a world to be active in in the first place — this is the most amazing thing about your life, about your existence.
You are conscious now, but you weren't a billion years ago and you (probably) won't be a billion years from now. Revel in your existence.
But you don't get much time for it. Each of us gets the most infinitesimal flicker in which to exist. Imagine the eons of time that transpired before you arrived. Visualize the initial inflation and subsequent expansion of the universe, stars being born, burning out, exploding or fading. See planets coalescing from dust, cooling, gurgling and frothing with volcanic and biological activity — whole worlds emerging, species arising, evolving, entire civilizations older than humanity watching in horror as their own sun engulfs them in its death-throes — trillions of ancient distant alien minds erased forever. Comprehend for a moment whole galaxies forming, pairs and trios converging like clouds of smoke, the entire universe surging like the ocean over a reef. This saga played out for 200 million times longer than your lifespan before you came along and you didn't witness one second of it...and it will barrel right on past you and thunder onward for considerably longer after you die.
Here you are, granted a lifespan of a few decades. The brevity of your window of opportunity is positively terrifying. This is your chance. Chance to do what? That isn't the right question. The question is, will you have a causal effect on the timeline? Clearly, in some way, practically everyone has a tangible effect on history. Every tree felled, brick laid, shirt sewn, stalk of grain reaped, coin minted, page printed, and meal cooked was a contribution to our growing civilization. The butterfly effect would even argue that the occasional innocuous action may have rather dramatic effects down the line, but that isn't the interesting challenge. You can no more take credit for your butterfly effects than for having been born in the first place. To merely exist such that the ripples of a mediocre life passively reflect through history is not particularly majestic. The real challenge is to be one of those few people who have a direct effect on history.
Truthfully, the odds are against you. Practically no one has ever led a life that mattered in the way I am describing here, perhaps mere millions out of an estimated 100 billion throughout history being worthy of the award, fractions of a percent. To me, each of the remaining ineffectual lives was, in a way, pointless. Solipsistically, they are people who never existed, minds that never thought. The only saving grace is that damn butterfly effect. That is the one thing that gives us a glimmer of minuscule purpose...but we should strive for the greater impact, to discover or create or invent or shape or influence something, anything! Leave your mark! The limit of this line of thinking is that if, in retrospect, your life turns out to have had no effect, then you will retroactively cease to have ever existed in the first place (I have not yet found a specific branch of philosophy that describes this concept, although I'm sure I've merely overlooked it -- admittedly, solipsism, monistic idealism, and subjective idealism all come close in various ways).
14 billion years have transpired in this universe. The predominant question of your life is, 14 billion years from now, will the universe be different for your having existed in it?
One area of study that exemplifies both the astounding advancement and the ill-informed youth of current science is that of the brain and mind. What we have learned so far is breath-taking, not only about the brain's lowest functionality (chemical and cellular), but also about how the brain yields mental processes including complex facets of personality and intelligence — and impairment thereof...and yet many questions range from incomplete explanation to virtually untouched mystery. We don't adequately understand how the brain produces the underpinnings of intelligence such as reasoning, deduction, and inference. We are only just beginning to formulate models of how the brain performs pattern recognition, classification, matching, and retrieval. Memory, learning, language, emotion, social behavior, all of these areas of study are being advanced — and impressively so — but we are still in the early stages of an era of incredible discovery.
And then there's consciousness. We don't even have a well-agreed upon definition or set of distinguishing traits for consciousness. Consider the task of attempting to define and describe qualia (canonically the "redness" of red). Given that such matters of subjective experience are, in a way, explicitly beyond the reach of mere linguistic description, we stumble to even describe this echelon of mind without getting tongue-twisted. For me, qualia is amongst the most astounding aspects of mind. As just shown, people usually use color as the demonstrative example but for me the premiere example of qualia is pain because the conscious experience is so visceral. Why is pain painful? How can it be quite so painful as opposed to being merely an additional state of mind in a long list of various phenomena? More amazingly, while many people highlight different realizations of related qualia (red vs. green), I am more flabbergasted as to how different kinds of qualia can be so utterly varied? How can one nerve impulse trigger "red" while another triggers not necessarily "green" but rather "F-sharp", or "salty"...or "excruciating agony" (synesthesia has obvious implications for this discussion). As one with a fairly low pain-threshold and a general resistance to many pain medications, I really wish I understood pain.
One thing we can be certain of (those of us who subscribe to a nonmagical view of the universe) is that every single aspect of the mind follows directly from the physical behavior of the brain (including whatever role the CNS may ultimately play), no matter how ethereal it may seem. This conclusion has startling implications which, while once quite rare, have recently become commonplace both in science fiction and in general popular awareness. Certainly the most fundamental implication of a purely neurological basis for mind is that very few subsequent theories could require minds to depend on brains. Rather, minds could emerge from other physical substrates, the most popular suggestion being some form of computer. Furthermore, not only might new minds be created in artificial substrates (what we call artificial intelligence), but minds currently housed in brains (i.e., humans) might be freed from that dependency to reside in other substrates, a concept which has enjoyed numerous labels including mind uploading, whole brain emulation, and substrate independent minds.
However, while the notions of artificially computerized minds and of the computerization of human minds are now widely recognized, they nevertheless beg credulity with most people. In other words, while practically everyone is now familiar with these ideas, they still doubt their plausibility. One of the most obvious explanations is that most people presumably do not follow a purely physical (i.e., neurological) theory of mind. While they enjoy fictional stories about computerized minds, they don't actually believe such things are possible. So be it. Time will surely reveal the truth on this matter since science continues daily, hourly, to advance this study on multiple fronts: neurological, cognitive, theoretical, computational, even mathematical. Whether computerized minds can be accomplished will simply be discovered in time, so we hardly need to argue about it.
However, I would emphasize that practically anyone who viscerally disregards magic should feel hard-pressed to argue against the physical plausibility of computerized intelligence...or minds.
Not only do I believe that the computerization of intelligence is possible but I actually consider such a transformation to be a natural evolution of life anywhere that intelligence arises. Where ever in the universe that life originates and subsequently evolves technological intelligence of sufficient power to create computers, I suspect that the eventual computerization of intelligence is a near inevitability...and I regard it as a good thing. Yes, it may involve such a profound change to a species and its society as to represent a quasi-extinction event, but it is an extinction through transformation, not disappearance. The potential advantages are staggering to consider. Obvious examples include direct control over mental processes to achieve greater ease of mental suffering, enhanced cognitive abilities, increased empathy and other forms of multi-mind shared experience...and perhaps most viscerally, truly convincing virtual reality (another popular science fiction motif). However, I think there are two specific advantages worth considering above all others: indefinite lifespans and easy access to interstellar space travel (which depends in part on indefinite lifespans).
There are many definitions of life and ultimately it may not come down to who is right or wrong about these definitions, but rather how one views the world. I won't describe or even list other common definitions, but rather will offer my take on the issue. In my view life is, at heart, a form of information processing (and in a related sense, a process of preserving information integrity against entropy). Life is a form of transformations and computations on data and I don't just mean the canonical example of DNA as a code by which biological objects are constructed; I mean that all life processes can be viewed as computational processes. A less common example is the immune system and obviously a very common example is the brain and mind. Many neurological circuits can be conceptualized as network encoded algorithms (i.e., algorithms whose behaviors are innate properties of particular network configurations, as well as modification/growth/evolution schemes for those networks). In some cases those algorithms have even been developed by computer scientists independently of evolution's neurological solutions both in networked and non-networked form...or even as more generalized mathematical functions. I strongly believe that every single last facet of mental function can be — and will be — reduced to comprehensible network algorithms and in most cases be subsequently reduced to more abstract algorithmic or even mathematical descriptions. Everything the brain does, and every behavior it produces will not only be explainable as information processing by analogy; it will be revealed to be information processing...and not just the obvious contenders, like vision, which we readily admit are clear examples of information processing, but also things like emotion, motivation, personality...and all forms of impairment.
Ultimately, this view prescribes not only that life and its physical systems, such as the brain, are about information processing, but so is mind. Mind is the collective emergent behavior of information processing occurring in the brain. If mind is processing and if brain is data (careful, brains don't distinguish computational units and storage units the way cpu-ram based computers do; the brain's "data" is encoded in its neural units and interconnections), then that data is subject to the same kinds of data integrity practices we are already familiar with. The reason biological minds wither and die is, in part, because the brains that support those minds fail to achieve sufficient data integrity over long time scales. Not only do brains fail catastrophically when animals die or are killed suddenly, but even the brains of animals that live long, healthy, natural lives, steadily succumb to the ongoing degradation of the overall organism. A primary reason for this decay is that life is constantly staving off entropy to maintain information pattern, and resisting entropy requires an input of energy properly organized and directed to the task of maintaining that pattern against an onslaught of noise. Evolution must work extremely hard to find methods of resisting entropy and gene-level theories of evolution simply have no power to achieve this goal after an organism has lived long enough to ensure the survival of its offspring. Theories such as the "grandmother" hypothesis support a possible, and tenuous, advantage for two older generations instead of just one, but the advantage falls off rapidly (there is no great-grandmother hypothesis and the grandmother hypothesis seems to apply to practically no species other than humans, if at all). There may even be an evolutionary advantage in enforcing death of older generations to free up resources for younger ones. Ultimately, however, each individual is a pattern of information briefly held together against a wind of chaos trying to shred it with every passing moment.
The point is that where evolution, blind with no foresight, has logically failed to achieve indefinite data integrity, modern engineered solutions can do much better. We can formulate, with solid mathematical confidence, methods for preserving data in the face of various known or expected rates of degradation. By definition, such methods involve various forms of redundancy. Biology uses redundancy for the same purpose, but we can extend the process almost infinitely further. This goal is difficult for modern medicine to achieve on biological systems due to their convoluted complexity (there's that foresightless evolution cropping up again), but with the coming computerization of intelligence, we can preserve a mind to any predetermined age (within statistical confidences, never perfect guarantees of course). We can easily predetermine a relatively old age and preserve a mind (an information pattern encoded in a physical substrate) to that age based on expected rates of decay counteracted with requisite degrees of redundancy and associated repair...and incidentally we don't need to choose a particularly old age in advance since any given intervention only needs to last long enough for the next technological breakthrough to come around the corner.
Implications of Computerized Intelligence on Interstellar Travel
I have written about the following point before (see reference below). Due to the dramatic simplification of space travel for a robotic being, it is logical to expect practically all space-travel by all sentient species to be undertaken in that form. There is another reason why this may be true however, one that is not predicated on mere feasibility but rather on likely timelines of technological development. I posit that it may be reasonable to place technological breakthroughs on a relative timeline such that certain technologies are expected to arise earlier than others in the evolution of tool-use by virtually any intelligent species. There are at least three reasons why this may be the case. First, some technologies are prerequisites to others, such as many tools which are crucial for various manufacturing techniques, or alternatively, simpler parts which are incorporated into a whole (you can't build a wagon without a wheel). Second, some technologies require a more complex society (command hierarchy, role-delegation, and project management for example) and a greater investment of societal resources (vast ocean-going ships naturally follow simple one-person dinghies in the historical record). The third reason is that some technologies are fundamentally more sophisticated in that they require a more thorough understanding of the principles of nature or more precise or otherwise more complex manufacturing methods...or perhaps they simply require base materials and/or energy sources that are not available in earlier time periods.
Much of science fiction — and much speculation on the future of humanity — involves human space travelers, and by extension, presumes the notion of alien space travelers. I believe this is unlikely to occur not merely due to the difficulty of biological space travel but because I find it incongruent with the more likely timeline. There are two contending timelines, one in which the technology of interstellar space travel precedes computerized minds and one in which it follows. The general consensus seems to be that interstellar space travel will arrive first, which is why the travelers will consequently be biological in nature. The reasoning may be that the seemingly mundane task of physically moving stuff from one place to another seems conceptually simpler than the vast incomprehensible complexity of intelligence and mind. However, I believe this reasoning may very well be wrong. If computerized intelligence is a mature technology long before interstellar travel, then biological organisms will never leave their home solar system; the gross inefficiency of such an endeavor will be economically irreconcilable.
As a side-thought, the single strongest point of evidence against the vast majority of UFO-related alien visitation claims is their biological nature (e.g., the canonical "little green men" or the ubiquitously recognizable "grays"). If aliens do exist, and if they visit Earth, they will come not in their naturally evolved biological form (not even some vastly medically enhanced form), but rather in the computerized and robotic form into which they must inevitably evolve before venturing to the stars (one might concede that robots built at nanoscale may be indistinguishable from biological organisms when viewed at a macroscale, but nevertheless the spirit of common alien lore has always held that such visitors are biological beings, not nanoscale-engineered robots). In my opinion, no single argument against UFOs and aliens is as great as this fundamental misapprehension of their likely state of being.
For a more thorough explanation of this thesis, please read my article, "Implications of Computerized Intelligence on Interstellar Travel", H+ Magazine, 2011, available at http://hplusmagazine.com/2011/09/23/implications-of-computerized-intelligence-on-interstellar-travel/ , as well as being available on my website.
The Likely Rarity of "Mind" in the Universe
The following point is one I have written on multiple times (I reference a lengthy technical paper on the topic at the end of this section). It is not a popular theory; in fact, most people are strongly averse to to it. I am dubious about the prospect of widespread intelligence in our galaxy. I suspect it is much rarer than most people (including most knowledgable scientists) believe. Where ever intelligence arises by biological evolution, where ever it achieves technological prowess, it will eventually computerize its own minds and in so doing will make space travel so easy that it will saturate its home galaxy in short order. Consequently, I would argue for rapid galactic saturation from each home world of an intelligent species. In fact, I would argue that each eventual interstellar colony is the site of a potential full-fledged colonization wave due to social, political, and cultural isolation from the homeworld and all other colonies (and colonies should number orders of magnitude higher than mere species). This line of reasoning would suggest that a galaxy with a mere ten sentient species should have been practically painted with life ten times over at the species level alone, perhaps hundreds or thousands of times over at the colony level. Think about that: a mere handful of species could produce hundreds, possibly thousands, of independent interstellar-isolated societies, each of which will be free to pursue its own cultural evolution that may yield subsequent galactic-expansionist behavior.
Yet many proponents of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) believe there are not merely a handful of such species in our galaxy, but rather thousands, enough to form a veritable galactic community of unique species. Note that by extending my argument that interstellar colonies count as independent sites of subsequent exploration efforts, a belief in thousands of ETI species (not an uncommon view at all) would yield tens or hundreds of thousands of independent colonies from which future waves of pan-galactic colonization may embark (I pursue this view of interstellar colony independence at some length in the paper referenced below).
While such a view is already problematic in the face of the "great silence", and was thus the impetus for Fermi's famous paradox, it becomes virtually untenable when considering computerized intelligence due to the vastly increased ease of access to space. Such minds, such beings, such full-fledged civilizations, so replete with technological mastery over nature that space travel is as accessible to them as bicycle travel is to us (yes, it really may be that easy for them), will spread across a galaxy as easily as bacteria across a Petri dish. Their proliferation will be so unwavering, and their conversion of mundane matter into mind- and civilization-supporting infrastructure will be so unnatural and ubiquitous, that each colonization wave (possibly far more numerous than the underlying species) will most likely leave indelible marks everywhere it goes. A galaxy containing but a single intelligent species should shine with a blinding signal of its presence, of its impact, of its transformation of inanimate matter into the thinking, data-processing, mass-converting machines of ultra-advanced civilization. By extension, if humanity survives, I theorize that our own galaxy will "shine" in a similar manner in as soon as a few million years, but a spark in the age of the galaxy overall.
There are counter-arguments to this view, and they aren't all necessarily terrible ideas (some are pretty bad though). It is certainly possible I am somehow wrong about all of this, but I have read and considered (and written about previously in far greater detail than presented here) many arguments on this topic and have not seen many that I think hold much hope. I conclude that it is definitely possible that we are amongst the only intelligent species in our galaxy.
Note, crucially, that I offer far less speculation on the presence of intelligent life in other galaxies, the reason being that without resorting to faster-than-light theories of space travel, the age of the universe is simply not sufficient to guarantee that space-faring civilizations — even those diffusing in all directions with the ease and efficiency of computerized minds — should have reached all but their nearest galactic neighbors (it isn't even clear that inter-galactic travel is feasible except between very close neighbors, such as to or from Andromeda in our case). Given the number of galaxies in the universe (curiously, within a single order of magnitude of the number of stars in our galaxy), I would permit there to be almost countless examples of advanced intelligence in the universe. I am merely reserved about its prevalence within our own galaxy. Incidentally, this theory has implications for SETI, namely that we should direct more of our search efforts to other galaxies.
To summarize, the reason that I hold the position that humanity is a rather rare example of conscious mind in the universe is that I more thoroughly embrace the implications of computerized intelligence and the subsequent ease of interstellar colonization...and that is because I have an utterly materialistic theory of mind, reliant on no magical phenomena which should otherwise escape technological grasp.
For a far more technical and more thorough treatise on this issue, please read my article "The Fermi Paradox, Self-Replicating Probes, and the Interstellar Transportation Bandwidth", available at http://arxiv.org/abs/1111.6131 , as well as being available on my website.
The Importance of Preventing Human Extinction
The title of this section may seem rather silly. Shouldn't the importance of preventing our own extinction be practically self-evident? However, the view that mind is properly rare in the universe puts an even greater burden of responsibility on humanity in this regard. Sure, it would be sad if we went extinct. The legacy of our species would be lost, the product of our civilization would be lost. As I have described in an earlier section, if we die out and leave no significant remnants, it will be as if our entire species never actually arose in the first place. These reasons alone would make it a travesty if humanity were lost. But if humanity represents something even rarer, then the loss is that much more tragic. In a universe full of intelligent species, the loss of one is less severe to the whole (albeit no less disappointing to the species itself), but in a universe in which that species represents something even more infrequent, then its loss is compounded as much. If things like minds are really spectacularly scarce, then we represent one of the greatest achievements of the universe itself. Mind is how the universe achieves the goal of producing consciousness, if it is a goal in the first place. Mind is how a universe makes its own claim to specialness in the metaverse of infinite universes (I refer here merely to the notion of multiple conceivable universes, like the library of all possible books, not necessarily to a steadfast adherence to a true multiverse theory as representative of reality); those universes that produce mind are infinitely more special than those that do not, and those that manage to preserve it without extinction are even more hallowed still. In fact, mind is, perhaps, the only thing that gives the universe any purpose at all. A universe in which mind never evolves is, conceptually, a universe which never existed (queue a tangential discussion of the anthropic principle) — the tree that no one heard fall really didn't make a sound after all.
If humanity's destiny is to give the entire universe its ultimate purpose then it is an unforgivable crime for us to let ourselves go extinct, especially due to negligence and short-sightedness. This is not merely a selfish argument about preserving ourselves because we don't want to die...or because we don't want to let our species die. This is a much more fundamental argument about the purpose (if that is the right word) of the universe. However, in the extreme we can go one step further — the universe is, after all, physical in nature, but there is something abstractly grander than the raw muck that comprises the universe: existence. Without mind, in what sense is there really existence? Physically? Of course yes (I refuse to debate with the contrary view), but meaningfully? I'm not so sure. This is, after all, the point of the infamous tree-in-the-forest question. Consequently, we might assign humanity the responsibility not only for granting purpose to the universe (as if that weren't a large enough calling), but perhaps the responsibility for granting purpose to existence as well.
That we may yet die out when we might very well bear the torch for existence incarnate is a travesty of a degree for which language offers no sufficient conveyance.
The Importance of Escaping Earth
If we don't escape Earth, we're doomed. There are two unrelated reasons we're doomed. First, there is the statistical argument that eventually, some random calamity will cause our extinction. It could be an asteroid or comet, it could be a supervolcano, it could be climate change (whether anthropogenic or not is irrelevant to the discussion), it could be a pandemic, it could be nuclear war, a threat which is not yet fully obviated, it could be a nearby supernova, a not-so-nearby hypernova, or even a not-remotely-nearby galactic ray burst (GRB) (hypernovas and GRBs have at least a partial relationship to one another in that the former may be one cause of the latter). The sheer number of things that could render us extinct gives one pause.
There is another reason we're doomed. Even if we dodge every conceivable chance extinction risk, the sun will die. While the sun won't start to really begin to enter a supergiant phase for around five billion years (and will then steadily worsen through eight billion years) estimates on when the habitable zone will effectively evaporate are closer to one billion years. Think about that for a moment: at about 3.5 billions years old, life on Earth is almost 80% of the way to its grave. Life on Earth has that long, one billion years, to get its act together and get out of dodge, as the saying goes. If it doesn't, then the legacy of life on Earth will utterly and completely end.
Aside from the possible temporary solution of engineering the sun to maintain livable habitat for longer than would be naturally available, there can otherwise only be two more permanent saving graces. Either Earth will send minor products of its successes into the galaxy like messages in a bottle floating in the ocean (libraries and archives of civilization for example) or life itself will live on by leaving Earth to escape an inevitable demise. Clearly, the latter solution is preferable (better to save ourselves than our diaries). Likewise, since I have argued that the emergence of intelligent species may be quite rare, there is a serious risk that if humanity is lost, so is Earth — Earth may easily never produce another species that achieves (and can be responsible for) conscious mind. We are probably Earth's only chance. Furthermore, as explained, we may be one of the Milky Way's only chances. As goes humanity, so goes the galaxy...possibly.
How urgent is this risk? Solar death is not the serious issue here, despite the demonstration above that life is almost 80% of the way through its total window or opportunity (to use a phrase coined earlier in this same essay). A billion remaining years is an insanely long time from evolution's point of view. While Earth is around 4.5 billion years old and life is thought to be around 3.5 billion years old, the entire legacy of life more complex than a single cell only spans a billion years and there have only been "complex" animals for 500 million years. If all life on Earth larger than a cell died out, it may yet rebuild itself to modern levels of complexity before the sun dies. If all life on Earth more complex than mammals died out, it could possibly rebuild itself with hundreds of millions of years to spare to solve the "escape" problem, so we don't need to obsess over the solar death problem quite yet.
The serious risk is the random killer. If a hypernova or a GRB sterilizes our planet, we will get very little warning. It is unlikely we will be rendered literally extinct by an asteroid (we're doing a decent, if sickenly underfunded, job of detecting and mapping them, although we certainly aren't out of the woods), but an errant comet could blow us away next year (and an asteroid could certainly flatten civilization). A pandemical flu probably wouldn't render us extinct, and in fact I am doubtful that any conceivable disease could...but as with asteroids, a sufficiently lethal disease could knock humanity down so hard we could take centuries to recover...and in the interim we could fall to the other threats just listed. To put it differently, while the more serious threats (those that are truly extinction-level), like GRBs and comets, may be rarer and we should therefore expect more time to prepare for them, the less serious threats like asteroids and pandemics could cost us so much time in recovery that the more serious threats then have extra time to wipe us out. Consequently, the seemingly less serious threats could, themselves, trigger our demise and we must therefore take them as seriously too.
Truthfully, I am not too worried about the risks described above from the point of view of true and absolute extinction. Some of the risks above could accomplish such a feat, but their greater danger is, in most cases, relegated to varying levels of civilization collapse (which would admittedly suck). However, there is an entirely different class of risks, those of our own making. Civil and political strife, progress-crushing totalitarianism, inequitable access to resources, polarizing and stifling religious extremism, and sheer obstinance to the ability of climate change to destroy our modern economies and social stability, could effectively halt (or vastly diminish) the forward progress of mankind. While these manmade challenges may not literally render humanity extinct, they could hold us back while the true killers (comets, GRBs, etc.) lurk in the shadows. Of these, I rank conservative religious fundamentalism as the worst since it seems to be so infectious. Vast swathes of human history have been rendered veritable quagmires, as far as scientific and technological advancement are concerned, by the wholesale embrace of anti-intellectualism. My greatest concern is the possibility that a truly global movement of religious or quasi-moralistic fundamentalism could lock humanity into a dark age the likes of which we have never seen.
We need to disperse humanity across multiple cosmic locales as quickly as possible, not only to remove the single-point-failure that an asteroid or comet could impact Earth (or the other related examples described above) but also to maintain the cultural diversity of our civilization so that individual societies that choose a path of xenophobic anti-intellectual rot can't easily infect the larger pan-human civilization. Contenders for human colonization would be the moon and Mars (and possibly self-sustaining space habitats, but I find the prospect borderline absurd), but in the long run, the only way to insure our survival is to spread in all interstellar directions as fast as we can go...and interstellar travel will require computerization of intelligence, of mind, of society...of our species.
Earlier, I wrote of an admittedly odd theory in which a person who leads a life with no effect on history may be viewed as retroactively having never actually lived, or even existed. The same argument applies to whole species, civilizations, even planets. If humanity winks out, then in a certain way, it will be as if we were never here in the first place. Our sole hope will rest with a few interstellar probes (Pioneer and Voyager), nothing else will remain of us (our various radio-spectrum (give or take) leakage won't help since it decays below cosmic background levels within a rather small radius). This may yet be our fate. By extension, if biology on Earth never produces another sentient species then the entire legacy of evolution on Earth will have, in a sense, never occurred. This utterly bizarre prospect haunts me, but the truly terrifying thing is that this argument can be scaled up further: perhaps our galaxy will never "have a purpose". At the apex, there is the consideration of what happens when the last sentient species in the universe dies, which incidentally need not necessarily occur particularly near the physical end of the universe, it could occur much earlier. On that day will our entire universe retroactively lose all purpose; will it have never actually existed? Unreal.
There is even the possibility (strong likelihood in fact) that there is no way to escape the universe's eventual death, that we cannot "recharge" or "reset" it nor can we "leave" it for another one. If purpose derives exclusively from the tangible effects of past and present conscious minds on the perception and experience of future minds (or the indefinite perpetuation of past minds), then the task of establishing and maintaining purpose becomes a desperate flailing to keep consciousness going forever. Even if a continual stream of mind meanders through time for trillions of years before finally succumbing to the inescapability of the universe, then at that moment, the entire history would effectively be erased, as if it had never occurred at all, an entire universe rendered causally meaningless...and this could be a guaranteed fate of all universes if it turns out there truly is no way to escape. This theory proposes that there's literally no point to anything (the culmination of existential nihilism incidentally)...which is precisely why I won't bother considering it further: it is just too utterly tragic...to say nothing of being completely ridiculous.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let us consider more prosaic and immediately pressing matters for the time being. We must deal with humanity's Earthly cage; the rest can be dealt with later.
The arguments and points of view presented so far lead to the ultimate conclusion I now offer. Humanity's role in the universe is clear to me, as is the depth of our responsibility for that role. If conscious minds are rare, and if we deem them to be of value (I will assume that is not an interesting question), then we must spread. This is not merely an imperative for the legacy of humanity, although that is a good reason in itself. The call to spread human minds through the universe is also so that we can guarantee that any minds, in some form, persist...and admittedly furthermore to insure that humanity makes some contribution to that legacy of mind in the universe (lest we risk purposelessness, or even veritable nonexistence, as explained throughout this essay). As more and more raw matter is converted into technology, and as some of that matter directly serves as substrate for minds, we will literally transform an increasing portion of the inanimate universe into thinking, feeling stuff.
Humanity's purpose is to populate the universe and thereby convert as much dead matter into mind-supporting substrate as possible, to bring the universe as maximally "to life" (and "to thought") as physically possible.
I am not the first person to realize the idea that as intelligence spreads it literally transforms the dead universe into an ever-expanding physical basis for mind, but it is worth reiterating since it is so astounding. This notion raises really fascinating questions too. For example, what are the physical limits of such an extrapolation? How much mind can the universe support; how much can you get for a given unit of matter (while "units of mind" may seem pretty ungrounded, we can agree as a general heuristic that two separate minds (of similar type, say human) are approximately twice as much mind as one — admittedly, disregarding that some minds may be more "mindful" than others, a concept which I dispense with here)? The human body supports a brain with a mass ratio of around two percent, which suggests that a mind can be achieved with a matter utilization of at least two percent (in other words we should be able to render at least two percent of the mass of the universe as direct mind substrate)...but of course a human cannot exist in isolation for long; it requires a steady influx of energy to stave off entropy and otherwise "run" the mind (i.e., to avoid death, which would otherwise occur in a matter of days, weeks at most), so a universe that is completely converted to two-percent brain (in the human sense) has no energy left to support the underlying substrate; it will die in a matter of days. Thus, the actual energy requirements (mass requirements) include an additional influx as a function of time: so, what proportion of a brain's mass is required per unit time relative to the mass of the direct substrate itself (the brain))? For example, humans canonically consume around 2000 Calories per day, although that is a very loose figure, and I concede that converting ingestible Calories directly to equivalent mass or energy is a complicated endeavor. A brain that is prescribed to exist forever requires an infinite supply of energy...which is impossible, but one that should exist for, say, 100 years or a million years, requires some finite amount of total energy to support it over that duration (incidentally, at 2000 Calories a day, 100 years requires 73 million Calories — some of which can be recycled of course.). If allotted only that much energy as a store, the brain will die at the end of that period. So, the question of how much mind the universe can support is dependent on how long we wish each individual mind to exist (assuming minds will remain strictly distinct and disconnected even as computerization renders their underlying components more directly accessible, which is highly doubtful). Supporting a greater total amount of concurrent mind requires a wider distribution of the available energy, thus decreasing the achievable lifetime of each mind. Put differently, resisting entropy for a pattern of N bits for a duration of T time requires less energy than supporting Nx2 bits for T time or N bits for Tx2 time.
The question is then unconstrained and cannot be answered with a single number, but rather with a spectrum of options. The universe can support X amount of mind for Y years, or it can support Xx2 mind for Y/2 years, etc. This suggests a fascinating realization: if intelligence and mind spread across the universe at a rapid pace, thereby requiring increasing energy utilization, will they actually do so with sufficient impact to expedite the end of the universe?! Stars are already burning of course, but everything smaller than a star is, in essence, a fully charged matter/energy battery and will last forever (short of effects like proton decay) until we convert it to energy (a process which must, in the long run, degrade to an unrecoverable state, the infamous "heat death"), so using such energy sources (burning up chunks of matter) effectively speeds up the dissolution of the universe. Likewise, an advanced civilization may need to "burn through" existing stars at an artificially accelerated pace in order to meet their advanced technological requirements, much in the way we use a bellows to accelerate the burn rate of wood since its natural burn rate is insufficient for industry, so that is yet another way in which intelligence may speed up the impending end of the universe, by decreasing otherwise natural solar lifetimes. This is a rather fascinating if preposterous notion that I have not heard described before, i.e., that an increasing presence of mind (or namely, of advanced civilizations) actually causes the universe to die faster by figuratively increasing the universe's metabolism...but someone has probably already thought of it before me since that seems to always be the case for me.
I have ventured away from (not fully off) topic. Let me reconsider my earlier point. I still believe it is important that matter (which is in some sense, simply a form of energy reserve) serve some purpose, and at the present time practically all matter in the universe serves next to no "purpose" with regard to supporting conscious minds (with two exceptions: to make our sky pretty, which affects our aesthetic perceptions, and to otherwise provide scientific information about the form of the universe to conscious spectators, which of course has a tangible effect only in as far as it is perceived by minds at all, and secondarily to fuse up elements for down-the-road worlds that ultimately house sentient species)...and as I have argued, the presence of mind is, by some line of thought, the ultimate purpose of existence...but then for any given unit of mass, what role should we assign it? Should this planet or that asteroid or this star or that brown dwarf support the future energy requirements of existing (or future) minds (should it be regarded as food) or should it, itself, be converted into new minds (should it be regarded as baby minds)...or perhaps it should be incorporated into additional components of existing minds (similar to the food line of thought but with regard to new substrate as opposed to a metabolic energy source). In other words, should a unit of mass support substrate (brain) or energy influx (metabolism)?. As we spread across the universe and convert one dead rock (mostly stars actually) after another to serve the goals of an intelligent and conscious civilization, each society will establish policies as to when various raw material reserves should merely support the current population and when they should be used to reproduce or construct new minds. These seemingly insane questions are the kind that will face future interstellar civilizations.
If we don't ensure that the universe becomes a great mind engine, then will any of this have ever been for anything?
Honestly, I can't believe I sit around thinking about this stuff.
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