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On Earth and in Outer Space
Please see the end of today’s newsletter for some news and housekeeping.
In January I gave a fairly extensive interview to Le Devoir, Montreal’s best newspaper, on the subject of extraterrestrials. The resulting article describes me as une bibitte intellectuelle, deploying a term that in Québécois French means “bug, critter”, while among the few remaining speakers of Louisiana French, I learn now from Wiktionary, it means (vulgar) “penis, dick, cock”.
Whatever the author may have meant, I took no offense, and was happy as always to do my part promoting scientific literacy to the larger public. I’m not exactly aspiring to be a Neil deGrasse Tyson (for one thing it’s my considered view that what Tyson thinks of as scientific rationality is in fact pure ideology, power seeking to naturalize itself, etc.). But still I take seriously that part of my mission as a professor of history and philosophy of science, the “public-facing” part, whereby periodically I remind people about things like Ockham’s razor when they start raving about the photos of mysterious shining objects in the stratosphere that the government wants to hide from us.
And so, when a journalist at La Croix Hebdo here in Paris read the piece in Le Devoir (the metropole again lagging behind the outpost), and this past week interviewed me about the recent surge in calls to the “UFO hotline” set up by the French Centre National d’Études Spatiales, I found myself with a more finely honed message than the one I shared a few months ago, and which I would like to hone even more finely here.
I often think about George Berkeley’s observation (without recalling quite where he offered it) that when we think we are imagining to ourselves the heat of the sun, what we are really imagining is the heat of a stove or a similar familiar source of mundane household warmth. A stove is already hot enough to reduce my hand to ash fairly quickly. And without a hand left, without any nerve endings to give me any report at all on the external world, I’m hardly in a position to note the difference between 300 degrees Fahrenheit and 5,700 degrees Kelvin. Both, Berkeley thinks, are just too darn hot.
It strikes me that a good deal of our representation of the world around us is like this, not just of qualitative degrees of difference, but also, or perhaps especially, of quantitative differences of scale. For example (to return to one of my favorite themes), we systematically misrepresent the relative proportions of biomass on Earth according to phenomenological salience in human social reality (plants are around 265 times more present than all animals combined, and by far the most animal mass is made up by insects). And similarly, although I grew up with Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions” echoing in my head, if you were to ask me on the spot how many stars there are, a large part of me still wants to respond: “About 500 or so?” That part of me is the one that remains grounded in the “closed world” described by Alexandre Koyré, the premodern cosmos of concentric spheres, and of celestial bodies lodged in these spheres at distances from one another —and from us— that are conceivable on more or less the same scale as the distance from the Earth to the moon, or from Paris to the Antipodes. Too far to travel, but not too far to think.
The closed-world cosmology conceives what we now call “outer space” as coextensive with the observable night sky. Our default folk-theory of the sky and its objects, as a vestige of the closed world cosmology, is one in which distances between star systems is not significantly different from those between the planets of our own system. In the same folk-theory, after all, the planets are also “stars”, though stars with errant orbits around the Earth. Relatedly, I find that when I try to represent to myself large-scale cosmological structures, such as the “filaments”, or the clusters of superclusters of galaxies held to be the largest “objects” in the universe, what I actually imagine are the artist’s renderings that I have studied on previous occasions, which are themselves based as much on conventions of graphic design as on the data passed from the scientists to the artists in order to produce the image. I have no positive idea of my own of what a filament is. It’s either a place-holder for someone else’s technical term —like “black hole” or “dark matter” or “string”— or it’s a cartoon, pleasing to the imagination but more or less disconnected from the thing itself.
There is a commonplace, bolstered by narrative accounts such as Koyré’s, that the end of geocentrism knocked humanity out of its previously central position in the cosmos, and soon enough contributed to a general crisis of meaning, as articulated famously by Blaise Pascal when he complains that “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces horrifies me”. What we often leave out, though, is that the crisis was not just moral or existential, but cognitive: an ordinary person cannot be expected adequately to comprehend our current best cosmological models, and one result is that we are compelled simply to learn mantras repeated by experts — for example the phrase “billions and billions”. That some people are resistant to this passive acceptance, and either flee into fringe alternative models or passively default to what I have called the folk-model whenever they are caught off guard or are relaxing at a safe distance from the experts, should come as no surprise, to Tyson or anyone else.
Anyhow, if our folk-theory were true, one might reasonably hope just to keep improving on space-shuttle-like technologies, on the sort of airplane-shaped or rocket-shaped crafts we already know, or perhaps to trade this bilateral design for a radial symmetry, and to travel by saucer between stars more or less as we may reasonably expect to do soon between Earth and Mars. But the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.25 light-years away, which is to say over 40 trillion kilometers. Intriguingly, this star does have at least one habitable exoplanet, but at such a distance from Earth it is much more likely that, if its inhabitants ever were to visit us, this would be by means of a currently merely theoretical technology, such as teletransportation, than that they would figure out how to build a familiarly shiny metallic spacecraft that is somehow both durable and fast enough to deliver its passengers from there to here.
In other words, dematerializing your atoms and making them reappear light-years away is relatively easy (if we can measure degrees of ease between two currently impossible scenarios) when compared with the alternative strategy of taking those atoms and putting them in a space-bus and physically transporting them 40 trillion kilometers (Mars is 55 million kilometers away at the closest point in its orbit). And this difficulty is only aggravated when we consider the vastly greater distances of the vast majority of other stars with habitable exoplanets.
In short, it is vastly more reasonable to suppose that all the rumors from Area 51, and all the new government photos that are making the news again, are of Chinese drones or some other spy technology: objects that are strictly speaking unidentified and flying, but still not what people like to imagine when they speak of unidentified flying objects. I thus find myself in a position much like the priest who, legend has it, refused to look through Galileo’s devices and see the moons of Jupiter for himself, as he knew well enough from Aristotle and Ptolemy that Jupiter has no moons. Similarly I do not need to look at the recently leaked photographs, as I know well enough that they are not of alien spacecraft. (The difference between me and the priest, of course, is I really know.)
Our difficulty in comprehending the difference between millions and trillions of kilometers seems to follow the same pattern as the difference between the stove and the sun. I think this is fairly clear, and that readers will have remained with me up until this point.
But now I want to say something bolder: our search for intelligent beings in space is also very much like our estimation of the heat of bodies. That is, the only idea we are in fact able to conjure of what intelligent beings elsewhere may be like is one that we extrapolate directly from our idea of our own intelligence. And what’s worse, in this case the scientists are generally no more sophisticated than the folk.
Consider the “Pioneer plaque” and the accompanying recordings of terrestrial sounds that rode out into space on the Pioneer 11 craft in the early 1970s. This attempt to epitomize a particular conception of life on Earth presupposed quite a bit, not least about the sensory organs of the extraterrestrials that might enconter them. The scientists who decided on what to include were of course not excluding the possibility that there are other beings with other organs we might have more difficulty accessing. But the audiovisual lesson sent with Pioneer seems to betray more than a faute-de-mieux methodology — it also involves at least an implicit commitment as to what is to count as the sort of being worth contacting. Those beings are worth contacting, namely, that are intelligent, while intelligence is an honorific notion masquerading as a descriptive one: those beings are intelligent that are capable of appreciating the audiovisual lessons we have gone to the trouble of giving them.
The presumption of suitably similar sensory organs as an exclusive mark of discernible intelligence thus results in a narrowing of the bandwidth of investigation. To be sure, not every theorist falls into this trap. Susan Schneider for example notes that far from displaying the ability to construct dazzling mass-scale artificial environments, “advanced” beings might in fact blend perfectly into their natural environments, literally becoming coextensive, atom for atom, with gas clouds or stars. (Incidentally, to recognize this theoretical possibility is in certain respects just to return to a very common premodern presumption according to which the celestial spheres are endowed with an intelligentia supramundana.) Now, obviously, such a conceptual possibility should not mean that we abandon looking for beings with eyes and ears, or something close to these. But there is considerable room for exploration, both theoretical and practical, between these two extremes.
One obstacle to opening up our idea of what might count as intelligence to beings or systems that do not or cannot “pass our tests” is that, with this criterion abandoned, intelligence very quickly comes to look troublingly similar to adaptation, which in turn always seems to threaten tautology. That is, an intelligent arrangement of things would seem simply to be the one that best facilitates the continued existence of the thing in question; so, whatever exists is intelligent.
This is just the sort of account of “rationality”, if not intelligence, that at least some provocateurs throughout history have sought to promote: nature itself is rational, since it always just does its thing, and it does it so perfectly and reliably that you can’t even imagine what it would be to say that nature has “failed” or “come up short”. This seems prima facie absurd, and yet, at least when we are talking about biological adaptation (exobiological or terrestrial), as opposed to simple optimality in physical systems, it may in fact be useful to construe intelligence in just this way: every existing life-form is equally intelligent, because equally well-adapted to the challenges the world throws its way. This sounds audacious, but the only other possible construal of intelligence I can see is the one that makes it out to be “similarity to us”, which hardly helps us to distance ourselves from Berkeley’s stove.
I’m certainly not the first to note the irony packed into such great expenditure of time and energy searching for extraterrestrial humanoid intelligence while neglecting possible non-humanoid intelligence on earth. In fact the situation on Earth may be very much like the one Schneider contemplates in space, though considerably less evasive of our efforts to notice it should we wish to do so. Ubiquitous living systems on Earth, that is —plants, fungi, bacteria, and of course animals—, manifest essentially the same capacities of adaptation, of interweaving themselves into the natural environment in order to facilitate their continued existence, that in ourselves we are prepared to recognize as intelligence.
But, some human exceptionalists will say, it is not so much the fact that we have an audiovisual sensory apparatus that justifies calling us “intelligent” —spiders and fish have this too—, but rather that we use this apparatus coupled with our capacity for symbolic representation of reality using “higher” cognitive capacities. Likewise, we should expect any extraterrestrial being that encounters the Pioneer plaque not just to “see” it, or to have the plaque within its visual field, but to see it as a representation. That’s the kind of alien we want to meet.
Yet back on Earth it is not at all clear that the evolved capacities in virtue of which the Pioneer plaque got made circa 1972 are in fact such an unusual thing. We generally suppose that human art —in the broad sense of both tools and externalized representations— counts as such only to the extent that it reveals innovation rather than species-specific stereotypy. Thus a beaver dam is often thought to be “natural” rather than “artificial” because, in building it, the beaver is simply realizing something that is programmed into its genetic essence (or whatever updated translation of that term you prefer), and is not belaboring any question of its originality or innovativeness (unless…).
But this distinction may be in large part a bias shaped by our peculiar historical circumstances (such biases are sometimes known as “ideology”). We know that for around 1.5 million years our Homo erectus ancestors produced “biface” carvings in stone, long erroneously called “hand-axes”. Research has fairly decisively shown that they were never used as axes, and may never have been tools in a narrow sense at all. They may have been the “stubs” resulting from a manufacturing process of tools that have since decayed; or —a minority view if an intriguing one— they may have been externalized representations of bilateral symmetry, produced by males in order to impress upon potential female reproductive partners their suitability for producing bilateral and therefore healthy offspring. I don’t want to argue for this view, but only to say that if it is true, as it might be, then this is an example of an activity continuous with human reprentational art that nonetheless plainly existed long enough and stably enough to be considered a species-specific stereotypy rather than a product of mental-representation-driven innovation.
There are many comparable such externalizations throughout the animal kingdom: pufferfish with their sand mandalas, bower birds with their bowers, to name a few. The latter are particularly noteworthy given the disparity between their dazzling and colorful constructions, on the one hand, and the dull, black, diminutive bodies of the males on the other. At least some plausible reconstructions of their phylogeny suggest that bower bird ancestors may have been more impressive in their plumage and morphology than the ones that today impress with their constructions, and moreover —this part is key— that their ability to produce such constructions may be seen as a compensation for, or may emerge in evolutionary tandem with, a parallel loss of bodily markers that on their own would be enough to impress a potential mate.
Once we establish this continuity, between the colorful plumage of the bower bird ancestor and the colorful bower of the present-day bower bird, we are constrained to acknowledge that the conceptual distinction we make between externalized products of our representations, on the one hand, and the simple conformation of the bodies of living beings on the other, is not particularly well-founded. And with this realization the numerous instances of “representational art” inscribed directly into the bodies of living beings suddenly become visible: the “eyes” in the tail of a peacock, to cite an obvious example, or an even more wondrous if lesser-known one, the “panel” an Australian peacock spider throws up on its back when it is performing its mating dance.
This is an open question in arachnid aesthetics, of course, but as far as I can tell the “design” on the spider’s panel is a somewhat stylized representation of a face. But here’s the really weird thing: unlike peacocks, which do have eyes, spiders do not themselves have faces, or at least anything sufficiently like a face to trigger the human facial-recognition center of the brain. The peacock spider’s fake face looks to us more like a face than its real face does. This should not be too surprising in fact, as there is also nothing truly xylous about a “walking-stick” insect, though it does a fairly good job of looking like wood.
And we can bring this closer to home, too: in fact there’s nothing truly ursine about a Paleolithic hunter, though sometimes in the depths of a cave the trace of a figure of a bear will come out of him and get rubbed off on a wall. We know that just as in the case of the bower bird these externalized representations likely emerge in tandem with phenotypic changes that require “compensation”: notably, the loss of body hair is compensated for obvious reasons by the wearing of furs (we can date this moment fairly closely by genetically tracing the evolutionary forking apart of hair lice and clothes lice around 70,000 years ago), and this activity emerges in turn in close connection with evidence for new capacities of mental representation: I put on a bear skin because I have to to keep warm, but doing so in turn stimulates my power of imagining myself as a bear, and of spinning out counterfactual narratives about bears.
We have a deep urge to identify a rupture with nature at the moment the externalizations start happening “because of” internal representations. But the truth is the only thing for which we have any evidence are the externalizations; for the traces of bears on cave walls as for the peacock spider’s dance, I have no idea what’s going on inside the relevant beings to make the whole spectacle happen. I am not saying there is nothing going on, but only that the criterion of internal representation cannot possibly be of any real use in scientific explanation for marking off the one sort of representation from the other.
In the era of mechanical and digital reproducibility, moreover, we are again in a situation where there is generally little reason to suppose that any given effigy of a thing or a scene from the natural world was produced as a direct result of an internal representation. Thus I see a stylized pastel image of palm trees on my screen, or on a pizza box decaying in the gutter; I have no idea how these images came about, but the causal chain leading back to an actual human intention seems far away indeed.
What I see, everywhere, is mimetic exuberance. This is what an extraterrestrial visitor, equipped with the right visual organs, would see as well, and there is absolutely no reason to suppose that the visitor would or should be more impressed with the design on the pizza box than with the serrated edges of an insect’s abdomen that look so like a leaf.
There is in sum no good reason to think that evolutionary “progress” must involve the production of artifices, whether in external tools or in representational art. In fact such productions might just as easily be seen as compensations for a given life form’s inadequacies in facing challenges its environment throws at it. An evolutionally “advanced” life form might well be the one that, being so well adapted, or so well blended into its environment, simply has no need of technology at all.
But such a life form will also be one that has no inclination to display its ability to ace our block-stacking tests or whatever other proxies of intelligence we strain to devise. Such life forms are, I contend, all around us, all the time. Once we convince ourselves this is the situation here on Earth, moreover, the presumption that our first encounter with non-terrestrial life forms will be an encounter with spaceship-steering technologists comes to appear as a risible caricature.
There is almost certainly life out there. Perhaps it’s under the soil on Mars or in the phosphine clouds of Venus. It is not in the photographs of UFOs recently leaked from the Pentagon. To suppose that it could be, that non-terrestrial life and intelligence would be as preoccupied as we are with something as dull as transportation technology, is a gross failure of imagination.
In case you’re curious, I spend roughly six hours writing each week’s Substack post, taking the better part of each Saturday to do it. This follows a week of reflection, of jotting notes about points I would like to include, and of course it follows many years of reading a million books, allowing them to go to work on me and colonize my inner life nearly totally. I don’t know how much that’s all worth, but I know I appreciate your support very much, and if you have not done so yet, I would be very happy if you were to subscribe.
On Monday evening, April 26, 6-7pm London time, I will be in conversation with Julian Le Grand and Richard Bradley at the Marshall Institute of the London School of Economics about my 2019 book, Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason. Please do join us.
I wrote an amusing trifle about my experiments in NFT-minting, in particular “Stable Loci of Personal Identity”, for Damage Magazine. I’m now told this venue is associated by some with what was at least recently known as “the dirtbag left”. All I can say is: who cares? I am a person of a certain age, I’ve lived in Europe for years, and I will not ever make an effort to keep track of the youth subcultures of Brooklyn and their online radiations. Anyhow I like the people I’ve corresponded with at Damage, and I’m glad they contacted me for my thoughts on NFTs.
I am pleased to be contributing with some regularity to The New Statesman in the UK. I wrote something about Catholicism back in February, followed by a reworked version of a piece that originally appeared here on Substack. I just wrote for them something else about “barbarian philosophy” and “peasant metaphysics”, and expect to be writing for them about animal intelligence soon. If you don’t already read The New Statesman, you should.
There are probably some other things I’m forgetting at the moment, but anyhow I’d imagine this is already quite enough.