24. Extraterrestrial Intelligence

     The intelligence with which we are familiar is limited to specific life forms we know on this planet. The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (S.E.T.I.) has been called a "science without a subject", because by definition it is about something which we have not yet encountered (New Age fantasies notwithstanding!). We are looking for our counterparts somewhere else, but do not have an external perspective from which to grasp even what we ourselves are. Perhaps our concept of intelligence is as geocentric as our concepts of culture and biology, in spite of the drive to abstract intelligence from its roots and infrastructure. In other words, our notions about E.T.I. are limited in that we tend to imagine only beings in our image, but also because we lack a general perspective, or theory of intelligence, within which to place that or any other image. In this circumstance speculation cannot advance much further than the science of Aristotle or the medieval scholastics. Yet pondering the "science without a subject"-- even when it seems to be stating the obvious-- helps at least to organise thought about life and intelligence on this planet, and is a step toward that cosmic perspective.

     Scientific research leans toward tangible pursuits. S.E.T.I. concentrates on the earthbound detection of intelligent signals from deep space. Exobiology, on the other hand, consists virtually of the search for organic chemistry within our solar system, particularly on Mars. A huge gap remains between these domains for want of an experimental, observational, or even theoretical basis. And that is the entirely speculative study of what possible alternative forms of intelligence could exist, and their alternative evolutionary histories. Here are some rudimentary thoughts about what is admittedly the realm of science fiction.

     To begin with the obvious, the human form and intelligence has evolved, and is maintained, as part of a biosphere. This has several implications. First, it is the fortuitous result of a long and vulnerable evolutionary history. This is relevant to the last factor in the "Drake Equation" for estimating the number of detectable civilizations. If technological civilization is inherently inimical to the biosphere that maintains it, it could only be short-lived. The advanced civilizations of sci-fi imagination would have to have resolved basic dilemmas currently facing us regarding their impact on the biosphere. (Hence the importance of the question the character Ellie poses in Carl Sagan's Contact: "How did you do it?" ) One extreme dilemma is the possibility of organic life being entirely or partially supplanted by competing and evolving artificial life forms, in which case a largely unpredictable ecology-- perhaps more robust than organic life-- would replace the present biosphere. It would have its own rules, but intelligence within it would no doubt face some of these considerations. For instance, it would also obviously have to be self-sustaining, though perhaps not over such extended time scales as organic life has required-- if it evolved at a much faster rate.

     Second, because evolutionary advancement means rising in trophic pyramids, an advanced life form will probably, like us, constitute a relatively minor part-- at least in terms of biomass-- of a very large self-sustaining ecological system. This is what renders unrealistic the barren landscape, populated only by intelligent humanoids, depicted in Bradbury'sThe Martian Chronicles). As an organism in its own right, the biosphere has followed its own evolutionary parameters, in terms of which ascendancy toward the human form is irrelevant, and could only be permitted as the exception and never the rule. The great mass of life must remain lowly precisely to support the higher forms. This parallels the fact that life does not exist except in isolated localities within vast reaches of a universe that is on the whole empty.

     What does it mean to be at the peak of a trophic pyramid or food chain? Above all, it means playing by the prevailing rules of the biosphere-- the "game of life". This means that organic intelligence is highly conditional. We are the genetic heritage of the biosphere itself. We are here as consciousness by virtue of our programming as life, standing on the shoulders of a vast network of present and past forms. The nature of our intelligence is conditioned, if not strictly determined, by our participation in that game. This heritage is animal. We exist as bodies, as flesh that lives by consuming other flesh. Our minds themselves are made of flesh and we perceive and think with the intelligence of flesh. Only by recognizing the embodied (and hence parochial) nature of our own intelligence will we succeed in creating a general concept of intelligence capable of embracing the differing constraints upon alternative embodiments and varying levels of freedom from those constraints.

     Conditionality means living with priorities, the rules governing the body in the game of survival. The mind, as an extension of the body, has internalized these conditions for its existence as values -- good, bad, pain, pleasure, etc. A stone has a more unconditional existence than an animal because the conditions required for its existence are less stringent, simpler and fewer. It has no use for values. We can only speak of values, preferences and the qualities of experience where a being has internalized the conditions for its existence in order to be able to act on the environment so as to bring those conditions about .

     However, conditional existence is a broader notion than physical embodiment. There could be forms of existence that are non-physical yet conditional. This would imply a basis for an intentional structure, as it does for organisms, reflecting structure in the worlds in which they exist, and implying mind-- thought, perception, value, etc. The "right kind of intentionality" presupposes a conditional if not physically-embodied mind. Physical embodiment would guarantee conditionality, provided it is true that it can only arise through what I have been calling a game of survival. But conditionality is the more general concept, and does not in itself guarantee embodiment.

     To be in our position means to inhabit a physical universe, as a product--at least initially-- of natural selection. We are not talking about beings from "other dimensions" but about possible consciousness which, like ours, has evolved within the physical infrastructure of a game of life-- even if not based on the same or any organic chemistry. The emphasis here is upon the evolution through a game tree-- i.e. through some series of lawful interactions in the physical world, of the nature of a proof in a formal system whose elements happen to be physical. Such life-- whether satisfying definitions of earth biology or not-- would have a history and a logical development analogous, if dissimilar, to our own. This would include evolution of the species form through natural selection operating upon individual units that reproduce and disappear, making space for new individuals. Note that death of the individual is a necessary feature of genetic recombination-- without which advanced evolution seems impossible. Though mortality is the platform for the evolution of advanced intelligence, such intelligence becomes capable of addressing it as an issue, and perhaps surmounting it.

     But is evolution by natural selection a universal precondition for life, or is it merely a terrestrial fact (or something in between)? In other words, can there be a basis for the self-elaborating intentionality of a complex adaptive system other than its participation in a game of survival? Must it be self-reproducing-- which implies generations and death-- and part of a chain of being-- which implies competing with, exploiting and consuming other creatures? Perhaps there are unknown mechanisms through which a self-maintaining system could evolve merely through its process of self-definition. Perhaps a cognitive system could self-organize in some way that did not involve survival of competing genes, nor even the existence of multiple individuals. After all, the chemical elements and compounds we are familiar with evolved through a non-biological process of self-organization. At the other end of the scale, cultural evolution is only partly a matter of selective pressures. There are individual conscious creations upon which selection acts to appropriate them as part of the collective expression. Could a self-organizing principle act upon a system, bringing it without natural selection to a state in which it can consciously act upon itself? (Perhaps life as a whole could be viewed as such a system, the existence of individuals and even species being irrelevant on that scale-- just the microscopic texture of the single multicelled organism. There would be no "environment" for such a system-- nothing which was not part of itself).

     To be in our position also means to be self-reflective. We must assume this also about those with whom we wish to communicate. Reflexive consciousness (the awareness of awareness) is the condition for transcendence of the particularities of embodied life. If this is a function of complexity, then it is reasonable to assume that any race capable of physical space travel or sending physical signals into space will be reflexively self-conscious (even if they happen to be "artificial"). If so, then we can assume they will have similarly confronted issues of mortality, ethics, individual vs. collective, and transcendence of the body and its programming. They will have a philosophy and a "spiritual life", and will be similarly to some degree befuddled by contradictions and regressive tendencies within a consciousness at once transcendent but remaining to some extent conditioned by the path of their evolution. They will experience the suffering of (bodily) existence, and will manifest inconsistencies in their behaviour associated with the split between embodied programming and reflexive consciousness. (In short, they will be "human"!) The question is to what extent they will have resolved these dilemmas.

     In order to produce a technological civilization capable of space travel, they will necessarily possess some appropriate way of manipulating the environment. For humans it is the hand, in conjunction with eyes that focus and an upright posture that frees the hand, but could be some alternative arrangement in other forms. The intelligence of cetaceans, for example, could not manifest as technology because of their lack of appropriate organs.

     An advanced culture, with a body of technological knowledge, requires the cumulative effort of many individuals over time. This implies communication and information storage, i.e. "language". Storage would not necessarily have to be external to the memory of the individual, especially if individuals somehow had super memory capacity and immediate access to each other's knowledge. Of course, language, reflexive consciousness and (non-material) culture is possible without a technological orientation. Again, the cetaceans may be a case in point, with their elaborate communication skills. Yet, if signals are to be sent across space, some means of directing electromagnetic energy seems to be implied. If a species communicated using electromagnetic signals (rather than sound), perhaps some natural means of amplification could be evolve (without externally fabricated amplification devices).

     The general considerations of biologists Maturana and Varela would apply to all cognitive systems satisfying their definition as "a system whose organization defines a domain of interactions in which it can act with relevance to the maintenance of itself" [26]. Hence, an alien cognitive system would, like all participants in the game of life, have an input of sensory surfaces and an output of effectors. The action of the system would be to maintain itself, through maintaining its inputs within certain bounds by means of its output. From the point of view of an observer, the question of a real world, upon which the system acts, does not enter. The action is effectively upon its own internal states, while the world is a concept in the cognitive domain of the observer. However, since our experience is of a real external world, we can only imagine that an alien mind would also project its own cognitive domain as "real". It might have proceeded, in addition, far beyond this "natural" relationship to experience.

     Cognitive domains can be ordered in terms of their comprehensive objectivity. A creature is superior which has a more adequate model of the world. It is difficult to formulate a concept of objectivity without reference to reality-- to "objects". Otherwise, all that can be said is that a cognitive system either works or doesn't work. (If a species succeeds in maintaining itself, then by definition its model of reality works!) Intuitively, we have a concept of intelligence that allows us to rank other creatures, in the terms of our own cognitive domain, on a scale of which we mark the definable upper limit. Would not the situation be parallel for an alien consciousness we would recognize as superior, except that the upper limit for it would fall within its (higher, and for us perhaps inconceivable) cognitive domain? It would be able to measure our limitations within its superior and more objective model, much as we are able to assess the intelligence of animals. We could learn from its extended cognitive domain, thereby expanding our own, provided it is not too far removed from ours.

     What are the imaginable extensions of objectivity beyond our present cognitive domain? Objectivity must be the perception of reality itself, independent of the "noise" of the channel or medium of perception. For humans, the medium of perception is the body and its personality-- supported from below by the entire genetic heritage of the game of life, and from above by the entire cultural edifice which is its extension. Objectivity therefore means freedom from the constraints and programming of this entire structure: nature/body/mind/culture.

     Human culture and thought aim to transcend the limits of embodiment and individual mind. Thought wants to extend itself beyond the body's localization in space and time, beyond the isolations of culture, of species, of life itself, and even beyond the limits of physical law. Thought wants to survive the demise of the body, the passing of civilizations and even the end of the universe. If this universe is but a cycle among others, mind can conceive its own continuity even beyond the confines of this cycle.

     There is a movement toward transcendence in western science and philosophy as there is in the highest spiritual traditions. Both seek universal and eternal principles, ultimate causes, unification of concepts, simplicity of expression, generalization, independence from relative conditional experience. One seeks its basis in the subject as the ultimate principle, the other in the external object. One creates a transcendent spiritual realm beyond phenomena, the other a realm of mathematically expressible law which stands above and beyond phenomena. If there is a direction to the evolution of consciousness, it is toward transcendence of physical limitations.

     In our case this goal has been supported by biological evolution long enough for conscious direction to be assumed. We might then expect advanced alien life forms to have taken charge of their destiny in some measure, and in some way to have transcended individual embodiment while retaining the evolutionary advantage of individual diversity. We might also expect a transcendence of the entire survival-oriented ethos of embodiment and biological programming. There would be resolution of the general problem of individual embodiment-- that is, of how to "ride" the material world in a way compatible with the goal of freedom, and also to have achieved a state of complete integration of the individual unit of consciousness within the collective mind. There might even be the ability to assume and change material form at will, and to interact with matter in general from a position essentially detached from material existence. This implies an objective and benevolent consciousness, with an absence of conflict and ego based on competition among bodies. These are the ideals of human spirituality, and perhaps they are also the goal of evolution, if not the reality of biological life. Spiritual ideas could be regarded as premonitions of the future of bio-technical evolution. (Indeed, in the West there is a close association between science fiction and esoteric spiritual teachings which concern themselves with the conscious evolution of humanity). Cultural evolution is built on the platform of biological evolution. In turn, a consciously directed technological evolution could be built upon the platform of culture. This could take many forms, including genetic engineering and artificial life.

     The premises of science and technology-- and of AI and AL in particular-- resemble those of spiritual idealism: namely, freedom from the vulnerabilities and particulars of embodiment. In both cases, identity is viewed as independent of infrastructure. Liberation from biological programming-- from identification with the body and the parochial quality of thought which is part and parcel of embodiment-- is the ideal of spiritual man. The logical consequence of this transcendence is the archetype of objective loving kindness touchingly portrayed in the film Contact.. No doubt we have imaginatively projected this ideal, first onto a fatherly God, and more recently onto superior alien beings. But perhaps it is also our own real destiny and that of life throughout the universe.

     Consciousness as a product of the game of life owes its allegiance not to truth but to survival of the species and its representative embodiments. Nevertheless, human cognition has gone beyond this to conceive the possibility of reality transcendent and independent of human cognition, and this is the meaning of objectivity. We might expect the same and more from a superior consciousness, which would be yet more independent of its own cognitive mechanisms, more in allegiance to truth, less divided in its being. If there is a universal Truth, then evolutionary advancement throughout the universe must converge upon it.

     What about the possibility of a race with superior technology but without superior moral development? How far can technology outstrip other aspects of evolution, particularly the movement toward objectivity? Our concerns about this are naturally inspired by our own situation, for which the jury is still out. What trends can we detect in recent human history, that might shed tentative light on this question?

     Because of population expansion, and secondarily because of technology, there has been increasing contact between tribes of humans and gradual effacement of boundaries. Though not a peaceful process, it may yet be one which implies peace, as we move toward the "global village". As the world comes more and more under the hegemony of Western (urban) civilization, there is a unity emerging through shared cultural images, in spite of the many problems this entrains-- such as overcrowding, pollution, increasing competition for dwindling resources, and the destruction of traditional values. There is therefore a natural drift toward the cooperative values and legal civil authority necessary for a planetary community. There is the possibility for the successful negotiation of this very dangerous transitional phase. The Cold War was a symbol of deep inner polarization between cooperative and individualistic values. It's end is a hopeful sign of integration, and the collapse of the heroic Soviet experiment may signify a major lesson: that the way toward resolving such contradiction is more gradual, natural, and "bottom-up".

     Two major questions about corporate oligarchy as the future world government: how will wealth be distributed, and how will it address damage to the biosphere? These are quantitative and qualitative aspects of the same issue: how good will life be for humanity as a whole, not to mention other species? They relate to the collective vision of humankind and those in power, in particular. In the evolutionary terms of this discussion, the question is whether such vision will be adequate to the situation-- sufficiently objective-- or whether it will remain tribal, small-minded, self-serving, parochial. The opinion of celebrated zoologist Desmond Morris is pessimistic, based on long experience with the ingroup behaviour of primates and with animals in captivity (which urban humans essentially are).[27]

     Personally, I believe we are learning, like young children or adolescents, that we are not free to do just as we please, and that our situation is guided by natually imposed limits on how far out of kilter things can get. If there exists a workable balance between technology and Nature-- between the needs of billions of humans and the needs of the biosphere-- I believe we will stumble upon it through trial and error, if not too late. The question, from the point of view of this discussion, is whether this balance allows for the indefinite advancement of technology-- into space travel, colonization, contact with other worlds, etc.. And if so, how wide is the margin of tolerance between trial and error? Does it permit, for instance, unbridled species-specific rapaciousness carried into space? The popular sci-fi imagination pictures extremes of possibility: the wise and benign aliens of Close Encounters and the malicious aliens of Independence Day. Personally, I favor the former as the long-term scenario, and view the latter as part of the immature ways of childhood to be left behind, a projection of our present fears. The lesson of paleontology is that nothing is guaranteed.