The Fermi paradox and a revolution in the head

Cupcakes in the shape of orange extra-terrestrials. These may not be a fully accurate representation of aliens.

Today, like on most days, I walked to work.  Walking is a funny thing.  While walking, one kind of falls forward while pushing backwards against the planet Earth with one’s feet in an intricate two-step dance. The Earth pushes back, and one is propelled forward in a sort of lurching way.  It is kind of clumsy, and takes babies a while to learn it.  But, like everyone else, I did not think about this while walking, I thought about my work for the day, my family and friends, and some things about science.  It was kind of a semi-related jumble of thoughts as I tried to figure various things out, particularly my thoughts about something odd that has confused me for a long time about life elsewhere in the universe.

Many scientists became intrigued with science because they were fans of the television series Star Trek.  For me it was the original series with Kirk and Spock.  Perhaps you have seen this series: Spock is an alien, he has pointy ears and green blood; Spock, Kirk and the crew visit many worlds and meet many other aliens.  Although it seems quite dated now, like many scientists, I have a great affection for this old series.

Partly because of entertaining fiction like Star Trek – where aliens and interstellar travel are the norm – the idea of intelligent extra-terrestrial life is no longer novel.  I have had dinner a few times with people working on the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence project (SETI).  They explained that it would change the world if SETI found ET.  I was unconvinced, as many people already believe ET is out there, and that ET looks much like us, but with pointy ears, green blood, and a somewhat dispassionate logical nature.  But my thinking has changed as I will explain.  The SETI people also argued that ET would want to share advanced science with us.  Again, I was unconvinced, and thought that ET was more likely to share things with us, perhaps forcefully, that we could not work out for ourselves with the scientific method, things like religious beliefs.  That is, their religious beliefs.  That would be analogous to what happened following the discovery of the Americas by Europeans.  However, even regarding this latter possibility I have become skeptical as I will explain.

I have heard many talks wherein the number of ET civilizations in the universe is estimated.  Usually a large number is obtained.  By this calculus it is argued that we can expect to meet many ETs like Mr. Spock, but to date we have not done so.   This is called the Fermi paradox: simply put, where are all those darn aliens?

I suppose part of my argument is already clear by my identification of ETs with Spock.  It seems, as I said, dated now to imagine that an alien would be much like us except for pointy ears.   But is it any more realistic to imagine that aliens would think like us?

As in my previous post about music, note that the way we think is very odd indeed.  Right now, there is a modern “revolution in the head” taking place at McGill and elsewhere, as psychologists and others apply quantitative methods to understand how the brain works, how we learn things, how we remember things, and so on; I encourage you to check out the interesting neuroscience being done at the Department of Psychology at McGill.  Everything is patterns, relationships, similarities, and jumping to conclusions.   Our thinking processes involve and invoke shortcuts for cognition and shortcuts to quick action, presumably as a result of our evolutionary history.  An indirect indication of this is our reliance upon and the success of the scientific method.  It is successful because it allows us to tease truth out of patterns of preconceptions.  The preconceptions are our initial guesses which we refine into theories, and to which we apply the method.  We need the method to tell us what is correct, we need the preconceptions to have ideas to test for correctness in the first place.  We have no trouble coming up with preconceptions.  They arise, at least partly, because of how our brains work, how we expect to see patterns, sometimes seeing them where none exist, as in how our sleeping brains can turn randomly-firing neurons into coherent dreams.

It is difficult to dispassionately assess how we truly see the world, and to appreciate the extent to which the world we live in is a shared invention of our thinking processes. Imagine how an alien would see us going about our daily chores.  The alien might have a simple reductionist view.  We might appear as inscrutable and clumsily lumbering automatons, breathing oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, creating sound waves, capturing photons, and so forth.  Assuredly, this is not how we see ourselves.  But think how different our days are – living in a network of relationships and interactions with others – from the physics and chemistry of taking a walk with a friend, or catching some fresh air.

So, and in summary, why should aliens think like us?  Recent advances in neuroscience indicate the way we think is very odd indeed.  Perhaps, like the earth being the centre of the universe, this is another example of anthropocentric chauvinism.  Perhaps Mr. Spock is not looking for us across the void.  Perhaps the calculus leading to the large number of ET civilizations has neglected a multiplicative factor involving the unlikeliness of ET’s thinking processes being like, well, ours.  Perhaps, if the SETI project is successful, the aliens they find will seem very very strange to us, and vice versa.  Or – and please forgive me one last pun – what do you think?

Photo credit: by Tama Leaver, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons, and used under licence.

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