Friday, May 2, 2008

Nick Bostrom Believes Discovering Extraterrestrials Would Be Awful

[In response to the article in MIT's Technology Review magazine by Nick Bostrom, and continuation of April 25 post below]

Are we better off not finding life?

Whether we trip across pond scum on Mars or a signal from ET, Nick Bostrom thinks it would be bad news. Bostrom is director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, and was a guest on Are We Alone? on August 27, 2007 [show available here].

Why is he hoping our efforts to find biology elsewhere will fail? Because, says Bostrom, to succeed will have profoundly depressing implications for the future of humanity. In particular, Homo sapiens will be doomed.

His argument goes like this. He starts by claiming that there is a “big silence” from the skies. After nearly a half-century of SETI, we’ve still not found a signal. So clearly, he maintains, that’s good reason to doubt the aliens are out there. And if the lack of any telecommunications doesn’t convice you, Bostrom suggests you try the Fermi Paradox, the idea that if cosmic intelligence were widespread, the aliens (or their self-replicating machines) would be here now. We’d see clear indications that they’d spread out and colonized large tracts of the Galaxy.

Now the way that Bostrom connects this apparent lack of clever critters with life on Mars is as follows: If we were to find life (dead or alive) on the Red Planet, that would tell us immediately that life must be commonplace. After all, if the next world out also spawned biology, it can’t be particularly rare. The universe must have germinated life in countless nooks and crannies. But the fact that we haven’t heard from ET (either via visits or via a signal) means that, despite the fecundity of the cosmos, intelligence never hangs around long enough to either colonize or broadcast. Our future is bleaker than winter on the tundra.

The logic is nice, but the assumptions are questionable. In particular, the claim that the universe appears devoid of intelligence is unfounded. Yes, there have been SETI experiments for a long while now – since 1960. But the total amount of telescope time devoted to this enterprise has been paltry. The number of star systems carefully examined for signals is fewer than one thousand. To say that we’re alone after having only looked at this incredibly small sample of the Galaxy is akin to arguing in 1400 AD that no major continent lies between Spain and Japan, because, after all, we’ve had ships for thousands of years and never seen it.

As for the Fermi Paradox, that’s a similarly impotent reason to say there’s no sentience in space. It’s a huge extrapolation from a very local observation. The fact that there are no polar bears in my backyard, despite the fact that they’ve had plenty of time to get there, hardly proves their non-existence.

In other words, there’s still no compelling reason to maintain that intelligence is a rare commodity in the universe. The jury’s still out on that one.

On our show, Bostrom made the daring claim that there’s a 20 percent chance the world we’re living in has no objective reality; it’s all just a simulation on a computer of the future. You’re no more than a sophisticated avatar, and that applies to your friends, too. It’s a gutsy thing to say. So is his dystopian view of the search for extraterrestrial life. But his pessimism needn’t discourage us, as it, too, is based on expansive conjecture, not data. Doing the experiment is the best way to know what’s correct and what’s not.


RRRGroup said...

Seth, et al...

So we discover extraterrestrial life (or not)....what are the implications?

That is, what happens once we hear from alien civilizations (or not)?

How does that impact humankind?

I mean, if we get a signal (or not), and we extrapolate from that signal (or lack of one), where does that take us?

So we're not alone (or maybe we are).

The result, either way, does nothing for humanity, unless there were ways to create an immediate interaction with another civilization, where a sharing of technology, medicine, theology, et cetera could take place, which is highly unlikely, unless a quantum immediacy were in situ.

The curiosity about other life forms of an intelligent kind is interesting, but for practicalities, there are none.

Either we're alone or we're not.

How that lowers the price of gasoline or elects a President doesn't compute.

So it's a futile endeavor, scientifically, philosophically, practically.

But it's fun I suppose.

Rich Reynolds

Taurus said...

Rich, with all due respect, that's an incredibly narrow and short-sighted view of the potential impact and ramifications of such a discovery.

Anyway, you're making some illogical comparisons;
How does the fact that the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence will not influence gasoline prices make it a futile effort scientifically and philosophically? Can you please illustrate how you're making that connection, I'm a little lost there.

Scientific discovery is not bound to make practical changes or impacts regarding the immediate needs of your personal life.

Investigations into the nature of Neutron stars have nothing to do with affecting the price of gas at the pump; if you think it should, then you must have a very weird definition of science.

The Hubble Telescope, multi-million dollar probes orbiting Titan, and rovers on Mars don't lower the price of gas either, by the way. Nor do they contribute to the elections of presidents. They're not meant to. They're meant to broaden our understanding of the universe around us and our context within.

Rich, you're an adult, right? You can't SERIOUSLY be suggesting that the only science worth doing is that which has a practical impact on your own immediate physical needs.

I mean, do you want a list of all the science being done right now that doesn't affect the price of gas?

Why single out SETI?
Why not the whole of astronomy?

Of what practical use is the discovery of exo-planets, or hydrogen nebulae, quasars, pulsars, elliptical galaxies, Red Dwarfs, White Dwarfs, etc etc?

Here's a better question Rich.

How did the Deep Field imagery of distant galaxies by the Hubble Space Telescope lower the price of gasoline or elect a president?

Taurus said...

BTW, here's what Carl Sagan had to say in direct response to the worthiness of SETI's endeavor:

"The detection of radio signals from space would illuminate many questions which have concerned scientists and philosophers since prehistoric times. Such a signal would indicate that the origin of life is not an extraordinarily unlikely event. It would imply that given billions of years for natural selection to operate, simple forms of life generally evolve into complex and intelligent forms, as on Earth, and that such intelligent forms commonly produce an advanced technology. But it is not likely that the transmission we receive will be from a society at our own level of technological advance. A society only a little more backward than we will not have radio astronomy at all. The most likely case is that the message will be from a civilization with a far superior technology. Thus, even before we decode such a message, we will have gained an invaluable piece of knowledge: that it is possible to avoid the dangers of the period of technological adolescence we are now passing through.

There are some who look on our global problems here on Earth - at our vast national antagonisms, our nuclear arsenals, our growing populations, the disparity between the poor and the affluent, shortages of food and resources, and our inadvertent alterations of the natural environment of our planet - and conclude that we live in a system which has suddenly become unstable, a system which is destined soon to collapse. There are others who believe that our problems are soluble, that humanity is still in its childhood, that one day soon we will grow up. The existence of a single message from space will show that it is possible to live through technological adolescence: the civilization transmitting the message, after all, has survived. Such knowledge, it seems to me, might be worth a great price.

Another likely consequence of the receipt of an interstellar message is a strengthening of the bonds which join all human and other beings on our planet. The sure lesson of evolution is that organisms elsewhere must have had separate evolutionary pathways; that their chemistry and biology, and very likely their social organizations, will be profoundly dissimilar to anything which is familiar here on Earth. We may well be able to communicate with them because we share a common universe; because the laws of physics and chemistry and the regularities of astronomy are shared by them and by us. But they may always be, in the deepest sense, different. And when we recognize these differences the animosities which divide the peoples of the Earth may wither. The differences among human beings of separate races and nationalities, religions and sexes are likely to be insignificant compared to the differences between all humans and all extraterrestrial intelligent beings.

If the message comes by radio, both transmitting and receiving civilizations will have in common at least the details of radiophysics. The commonality of the physical sciences is the reason that many scientists expect the messages from extraterrestrial civilizations to be decodable. No one is wise enough to predict in detail what the consequences of such a decoding will be, because no one is wise enough to understand beforehand what the nature of the message will be. Since the transmission is likely to be from a civilization far in advance of our own, stunning insights are possible in the physical, biological and social sciences, insights reached from the perspective of a quite different kind of intelligence.

Decoding such a message will probably be a task of years and decades, and the decoding process can be as slow and careful as we choose. Some have worried that such a message from an advanced society might make us lose faith in our own, might deprive us of the initiative to make new discoveries if it seems that there are others who have made those discoveries already, or might have other negative consequences. But I stress that we are free to ignore an interstellar message if we find it offensive. Few of us have rejected schools because teachers and textbooks exhibit learning of which we were so far ignorant. If we receive a message, we are under no obligation to reply. If we do not choose to respond, there is no way for the transmitting civilization to determine that its message was received and understood on the tiny distant planet Earth. The receipt and translation of a radio message from the depths of space seems to pose few dangers to mankind; instead, it holds the greatest promise of both practical and philosophical benefits for all of humanity."

Someone else also said this:

"There is a kind of fascistic taint among those who should be more tolerant and/or open-minded when it comes to SETI and other intellectual/scientific pursuits."

Sound advice.

RRRGroup said...


I was merely being petulant, sort of.

We're born, we live, we die.

Science doesn't alter that, so examining the skies for extraterrestrial life may be an interesting pastime, but let's not put it in a category that seems to be important.

Sure, SETI is fine with me, but like everything else, it's meaningless in the great scheme of things,

For instance, the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone helped us understand the Egyptian civilization, but understanding didn't put food on the table nor provide answers to any exigency of everyday life.

"Great discoveries" move mankind forward, I agree, but in the end it's a black void (for everyone), so I think getting worked up about another possible civilization extant in the Universe is existentially perverse.

(I'm feeling nihilistic lately, so disregard my ramblings.)


Norman Copeland said...

I agree with Taurus. The negative propagander surrounding the extra terrestrial intelligence question is preparing the average standard human intelligence for what potential possibility?
No thanks negative journalism.
Every army prepares the soldiers for the eventuality.

Nice job man, who do you represent?

Taurus said...

Rich, you're making some sweeping statements and broad generalizations but you're not substantiating them in any way.

"Sure, SETI is fine with me, but like everything else, it's meaningless in the great scheme of things"

That statement is meaningless because it's an unsubstantiated pronouncement; you're saying things without rooting them in any logical basis.

Did you read what Carl Sagan wrote?
Could you please respond directly to his points?

You *seriously* don't think that the potential knowledge in a decoded message could hold some practical value to human civilization?

No offense, but calling this a "black void" is just plain silly.

"(I'm feeling nihilistic lately, so disregard my ramblings.)"

Will do.

RRRGroup said...


I left you a lengthy reply but it didn't show up....(I must have goofed up the verification word.)

I love(d) Sagan, and take his opinions (posthumous as they are) seriously.

And you make good points, but your views are humanistic while mine are, as I wrote, nihilistic.

That is, SETI's approach is worthwhile in a theoretical. scientific sense, but as a practical matter, SETI and Ufology, along wiht lots of other endeavors are futile, metaphysically.

Wanting humanity to survive, peerhaps helped along by a civilization that has already weathered a long existence, is nice, but doesn't impact individual lives, in the long (or short rather) run.

My views, as insensible as they are, show up a little more complete at

Since you (and I) are talking about the meaning of life (I think), the dialogue is limited by taking place in a comments section of this blog (or any other).

But let's continue, and you tell me what the philosophical ramifications are of your view(s) as oppposed to mine.

Thanks for your patience with my obtuse views...thus far.


Anonymous said...

>>The logic is nice, but the assumptions are questionable.<<

I'd say until we find at least a single celled organism elsewhere, the assumption that there isn't intelligence elsewhere is perfectly reasonable. Zero/small number is still Zero. But hey, optimism is at least one component of what gets us out of bed in the morning.

Norman Copeland said...

Perhaps it would be very simple for an advanced race to erase every signal coming from this planet and duplicate signals we believe we're receiving, hey, that is counter intelligence isn't it?

So, that zero/small number speaks volumes.

I'm not waiting to be an idiot, I don't want to be an idiot. I don't want to be treated like an idiot. Does anyone else?

I think its disgusting that the cia and other government agencies lie, cheat and use smarmy swamping tactics for communication with civilians.

I don't trust them and won't until someone shows me some evidence supporting the existance of extra terrestrial activity.

I'm mad? I don't want to be, but, I myself have seen a flying vessel moving at very, very quick speeds across the sky.

I won't let any one stand in front of and tell me i'm lying.

So, thanks, because i'm 100% sure the government agents are not more intelligent than I am.

Who is giving the orders, leading us where and fending for us and our planetary resources?

radio01 said...

I think that the MIT article is mistaken in thinking the life on mars scenario would suggest intelligent life is short-lived. A much more likely hypothesis in such a situation would be that life is common, but the leap to human level intelligence is extremely rare.

The New York Times has an article along these lines:

It suggests that intelligence is not always helpful to animals.

Norman Copeland said...

If you’re using your intelligence to outsmart your group, then there’s an arms race,” Dr. Kawecki said. “So there’s no absolute optimal level. You just have to be smarter than the others.”

That article is contradictory. Sheer strength of numbers apply when using the arms race syndrome.
[And such euphemism is concerning?]

Flys are very territorial as fear of the tse tse fly will prove. Such prolific disease carriers could spread from continent to continent because of other 'non intelligence smarter than others animals'. The context of the animal kingdom balance is relevant.
When the wind blows north the crocodile will starve. So, the fly needed that particular strength of genetic memory because 15 generations of choosing food does not account for 1 billion years of genetic choices.

Rodents have positioned themselves for easy dominant world administration because of their control of the water supllies and ability to use it with the strongest strains of bio organisms active.

My opinion is contrary to the article. I propose that the strength of the genetic strain is duplicated at an agreeable standard conforming with nature and not lab analysis. Once again, the human believes that voyeurism is just the same as natural sex.

Strength of numbers, you've got to be them to believe them.

Ren said...

Exploration, in any sense, has always been fruitful, both in terms of putting food on the table and improving our lives (i.e. the greater scheme of things). When trade routes opened, food flowed.

When scientists dedicated themselves to figuring out what killed several million people back in 1918 and 1919, we discovered viruses, and the world is not the same since.

So why not keep looking to the skies, travel to the nearby planets, and keep wondering what if? Columbus did so, and look where we are. Einstein did so, and look where we are. Etc. Etc. Etc.

And if the explorers of today don't get to live to see the worlds on the other side of the horizon, someone will because of the work they've laid out.

Even with the wars and all other negative connotations that explorations and, why not, invasions bring with them, the positive has always outweighed the negative. Otherwise, we wouldn't be here, listening to the sky.

So let's get to work on going to the nearest star... Who's with me?!

Norman Copeland said...

Perhaps abolishing the official secrets act will help strengthen the international community trust standard.

Average men will have spaceships very soon, it will be regular and common. Perhaps we'll have a international civil war because of the acknowledgement of the resources which will be available, then you will need worrying thoughts about the potentiality of other races who may 'appear' and give testiment of their claim involving mans unorganised greedy meglamaniac attitude towards the accomplishment of wealth.

We need the establishment that this race is a scientific based race.

No disrespect meant, but, paganism is a real good start of developing a broad social acknowledgement of social development infrastructure of scientific analysis as is 'Ras Tafari' {head creator}.

Astronaughts need knowledge of a principle that does not concern men prophetizing among each other.

Astronaughts need experience of space and space travel, not the bible and some arrogant greedy prejudice scheming and plotting on everyone administration.

Don't be the boy banging the drum.

Bret said...

The Vatican's Chief Astronomer announced today that ET life would be welcomed by religion and not at odds (By saying no ET life is possible would be jailing God's "creative powers"). Good to hear it! Perhaps one day it will happen.

Ren said...


No where is it written that belief in a creator and belief in life in other parts of the known universe are mutually exclusive... Or collectively exhaustive. The possibilities, then, are truly endless.

Norman Copeland said...

''The Vatican's Chief Astronomer announced today that ET life would be welcomed by religion and not at odds (By saying no ET life is possible would be jailing God's "creative powers").

So, what, ''who asked him?''.

What credibility has those religions got without proof...

You could talk about faith , but, some of us are busy.

Telling people they can't go to heaven if they don't do this or don't do that. Errr... where is it then?

Cheap punks.

Ren said...

"What credibility has those religions got without proof..."

Yeah! Doesn't the Vatican Chief Astronomer know that absence of evidence IS evidence of absence!

I mean, as an astronomer, a scientist, if you will, he should have been taught to not believe ANYTHING until he can see it, feel it, taste it, smell it, or provide us a Hubble picture of it?

(I write all this very tongue in cheek, of course.)

Norman Copeland said...

Yes, whats disturbing is that men and women commit vows of celibacy without that proof.

Faith is powerful for some people, its a chemicle conversation and that is something which science will learn, but, you could say that those people have sensitive chemistry which is the reason they feel the need to 'surrender' themselves.

But, my chemistry tells me something different and I'm not saying extra sensory perception isn't reliable, on the contrary, research of higher states of sensing is a very credible scientific job.

But, I'd like to encourage the scientific quotient which represents the millions of men and womens fears of what is right and what is wrong.

What if an alien race had knowledge of an ambient state that encouraged such behaviour?

Chemicle warfare isn't just crude nasty germs...

So, yes, my friend lots of professionals perhaps haven't considered the connotations regarding their opinion and professional status and how that will influence the younger generations...

Ren said...


Perhaps this isn't the best place to discuss this, or even to explain this, but I have a very grounded faith in God AND belief in science. Like I wrote before, they're not mutually exclusive... Perhaps you can come over to my blog, and we can continue the interesting discussion there?

navyvet said...

We spend billions of dollars lowering the price of gasoline and millions (if not billions) electing a president. But answering the question 'Are we alone?' is not a trivial pursuit.

We do not allow politicians or oil executives to answer this question and we cannot buy or decide the answer by taking a vote.

This question is so fundamentally important to us that only people who are passionate, dedicated and have the ability to tackle incredibly difficult problems are allowed to answer it.

That's because this question deals with how we view ourselves and how we view our relationship to the universe around us -- to people, to other life and the world we live in.

People in this country benefit from the discoveries of Copernicus every day - because those discoveries had a fundamental impact on the design of the US Constitution.

What changes will that first confirmation bring? Who knows?

What if the first transmission is a DX table of other civilizations? What if the list is small?

What if it is just a picture? What if it is instructions for building a interstellar receiver?

What if it is nothing more than a beacon - that goes on and on and on...?

What if it turns out that life is more rare and valuable than we ever imagined? Forty years of searching already suggests this.

How does the answer alter our view of life? What if you suddenly realized what a privilege it is to be alive? That even a blade of grass is a miracle.