Wednesday, November 17, 2010

ET Phone Home?

greetings, comrades. i am sorry i havent been posting very frequently. truth be told, i havent had many ideas, and i have been very busy knitting and stuff, which sounds ridiculous, but its true. that being said, i did come up with an excellent post idea last week and i have finally found a moment to sit down and write it. huzzah!!!!!
so, in the current issue of the walrus, which is the only magazine i bother reading, there is a brief article about the SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) Post-Detection Taskgroup. put simply, this is a group of people from various fields (not just astronomers) who are listening away with various technologies in the event that aliens ever contact us, either on purpose or by accident. in the meantime, they come up with possible theories as to why they might be contacting us and what we should do if this ever happens. they also have (apparently rather heated) debates as to whether we should be soliciting alien communication by sending messages out. not surprisingly, this group includes philosophers, theologians, psychologists and even science fiction writers (?) in addition to the scientists.
there are two main schools of thought about why aliens might intentionally contact us. the first is that they are good and highly advanced and seeking greater knowledge of the universe, and the second is that they are evil and have most likely destroyed their own world and are looking for a new place to set up camp. based on these two ideas, the SETI taskforce spends its days trying to predict the behaviour of our alien friends before we ever meet them. both theories are interesting and have their merits, but i would like to introduce a point here that no one seems to have considered, and even if they did, there is really know way of addressing it.
my point is this: it is a fact that we are incapable of concieving of something outside of our own biology. we only have universal truths like "good" and "evil" because those have arisen out of our own experiences as carbon based lifeforms on this here planet. beings from other planets could and probably would have their own universal truths because of the differences in their biology and thus its unlikely that their version of higher consciousness would even be anything akin to the version we all inhabit.
to put it all more simply, go and watch any sci fi you like. every single alien can be related back to some kind of terrestrial creature or creatures. this is because our human brains are limited by our biology and our understanding of the world around us. on our planet, there are a fixed number of elements and strict physical rules as to how those elements interact with one another. what is to say that there isnt an entirely different set of elements and physical rules governing life on other planets? there is really no way of knowing. this seems just as likely to me as anything else, and so i would argue that it really isnt possible for us to try and predict the motives or behaviour of these aliens because our motives and behaviour stem ultimately from our unique set of "universal" truths.
ultimately, though, we have to work within our (probably) limited parameters, because what other choice do we have? regardless, there are a whole pack of people making piles of money to sit around listening to radio silence. right on.


Kyle Bailey said...

You reference how science fiction imagines aliens clearly shows just how unqualified you are to go off half-cocked on this subject.
Maybe if you spent less time 'watching sci-fi' and more time reading science fiction you would know that science fiction authors have been imagining aliens without terrestrial counterparts for a long time. The most famous example is the 'cloud creatures' in Arthur C. Clarke's 2010: Odyssey Two. Arthur C. Clarke, who was a practicing scientist himself, consciously chose to imagine what kinds of intelligent living creatures could evolve in conditions far different from the earth. He came up with gaseous life forms which have no known analogue on earth.
This is just one example of many. Personally, one of my favourites is the idea that living creatures may develop from crystal structures.
Anyway, your central point, that creatures from a different biosphere from us will not share the same concept of 'good' and 'evil' as we do isn't all that relevant....
Regardless of whether or not they have those concepts in their vocabulary, the way we interact with them will quickly determine whether or not WE consider them to be 'good' or 'evil' or a misture of both.
I mean, the black plague certainly knows nothing about 'good or 'evil'...yet it has universally been described as evil- since evil is in the eye of the beholder.

As to the idea that there are different sets of elements....I assume you mean that they won't be in the same relative abundancies? That isn't exactly news to anyone with a passing knowledge of astrobiology- see the wikipedia article on 'Hypothetical Types of Biochemistry' for details.

Regardless of whether or not possible extraterrestrial intelligence is silica-based, or evolved in ammonium solvent, or has the same carbon structure we do but with reverse chirality....the basic constraints on life would probably be ver similar. For example, organisms need to consume nutrients, excrete waste matter, reproduce with heritable characteristics, have some sort of corporeal organization that holds them together and allows the above to occur.....

Finally.....the SETI researchers are not listening to 'radio silence!' In fact, they are pointing their telescopes at bits of the sky which we don't know very well, and recording all the interesting stuff that happens there. They're not only paying attention to potential signals, and in fact, a huge number of interestings discoveries are made
while surveying the sky.

Cindy Bailey said...