≡ Menu

Seeing an Empty Cosmos

Michael Anissimov looks out at a universe devoid of intelligence other than our own. Here’s a clip, referring to Frank Tipler’s 1980 paper “Extraterrestrial intelligent beings do not exist”:

It was quite a few years ago when I looked up to the stars, with Dr. Tipler’s book in my hand, that I realized he was right – the stars are empty, ready to be harvested and spun into pure energy with the help of gravitational singularity goodness. No aliens, green bug-eyed ones or otherwise, are waiting there to be inconvenienced.

And this:

Luckily, hypertelescopes may finally put the nail in the coffin of SETI – perhaps 100 years from now. We will be able to see even the simplest of flora, if they exist in large numbers on exoplanets. (Though what we should really be looking for are Dyson spheres or disappearing stars, and as far as we can tell, there are absolutely none.) After we look at a good thousand earth-sized objects and see nothing there but vast, dead wastes, we’ll start getting used to the idea that we are truly, actually alone.

My own guess is that ETI does exist but is spectacularly rare.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ljk January 20, 2007, 22:03

    I can’t believe he uses Frank Tipler to bolster his speculative and
    rather negative (to say nothing of hubristic) argument. He may
    condescendingly portray folks who were around for decades before
    he was even born as optimistic, but it sure beats the pessimism
    and self-centered attitudes I see with way too many of today’s
    youth. Makes one worry for the future.

    Ever read his Physics of Immortality:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_J._Tipler

    Sounds like a version of an old Isaac Asimov SF plot to me,
    to say nothing of sheer speculation.

    And didn’t we just go over the fact that sending von Neumann
    probes everywhere would probably not happen or work?

    And that old chestnut: They haven’t visited us, so therefore
    they must not exist. And we’ve been exploring the Cosmos
    seriously for what, a couple centuries maybe, and haven’t
    seen anything intelligent, so again, they must not exist.

    We need to explore for many reasons, plain and simple.
    His gripes against SETI are not only unscientific, they do not
    even offer any alternatives.

    So we sit on our hands, hope aliens visit us someday, and
    otherwise keep watching the boob tube and kill each other
    off while our planet’s room and resources dwindle.

    The Singularity cannot come soon enough.

  • bigdan201 January 20, 2007, 22:19

    yeah, SETI has barely seen anything. i think the simple fact that intelligent life and civilization developed here is more than enough of a reason to consider alien life.

    It probably is rare.. but the universe is too big, varied and strange to not have something like aliens in it.

    I dont think SETI will find them anytime soon though. hopefully that whole project has more benefits to science than simply searching for other life.

  • Adam January 21, 2007, 0:58

    Hi All

    To defend Tipler he has changed his “speculations” somwhat these days. He believes there are no aliens within our Hubble horizon, but almost certainly many, many aliens through-out the Universe as a whole. His current version of his Omega Point Theory makes them an absolute requirement as They’re needed to cause the collapse of the Universe by burning baryons via reverse baryogenesis (just as we’re required to do, if we survive to Galaxy-conquering super-species stage. Otherwise some other species in our section of the Cosmos will have to take up the task.)

    The details are laid out in a paper in the International Journal of Astrobiology…

    Frank J. Tipler, 2003, “Intelligent Life in Cosmology,” International Journal of Astrobiology 2: 141-48.

    http://tinyurl.com/2z5oeh

    …which I managed to pick-up free when that issue was complementary. Now it’s a pay-to-download kind-of-thing.

    Adam

  • Kurt9 January 21, 2007, 14:02

    I think ETI exists, but not in our galaxy and probably not even within our supercluster of galaxies. In any case, exploration is good because if we are to have a long-term future, we have to get our eggs out of one planetary (or solar system) basket. Anyways, if we are alone in the supercluster of galaxies, think about how all of that real estate is all ours’. Not a bad thing at all.

  • Sam Dinkess January 21, 2007, 21:00

    The question is one where both alternatives and everything in between are “obvious” to someone, and the truth will be just as obvious once it’s known. Being alone appeals to human solipsism, just as being in a universe teeming with intelligence–especially superior intelligence–appeals to our desire for things greater than ourselves that we can (at least in part) relate to. My tendency is to think the galaxy is, most likely, a very dense ecosystem of life and intelligence, but that we haven’t become sophisticated enough to conceive of its subtleties.

    I don’t believe intelligence is rare, but rather intelligence within the narrow technological and biological window we recognize today. Technology becomes more subtle much faster than its effects become more overt, and there’s no evidence that processes just as complex as our brains can’t develop in a far stranger (e.g., higher- or lower-energy) medium than organic chemistry. The possibilities for complex structure in exotic environments are just not within our ability to explore at this point, but once we have a mathematical understanding of human consciousness (yes, it will happen), I think we’ll start finding similar patterns (and even more involved ones) in some quite surprising places. We may wake up one day and find, to our surprise, that intelligence isn’t what we thought it was–and neither are we. That point, I think, could be thought of as Singularity 2.

    We would blink, and a cold, empty universe would suddenly seem like an awesome and perhaps terrifying jungle.

  • Adam January 22, 2007, 1:42

    Hi Sam

    That’s a good gedanken experiment. Do you mean that ETs know all about us – are all around us – and we’re too slow, too biological to notice them?

    Adam

  • rick January 22, 2007, 8:47

    Problem is – if he is saying absolutely that no ETI exists – well, then prove it!
    Its one thing to doubt, its another to claim. And just as in all claims – them must be proven otherwise they are speculation.

  • andy January 22, 2007, 14:38

    From my understanding, it seems that ETI is far more likely than all this Singularity waffle that inevitably gets brought up to say that ETIs should all have transcended, transformed vast quantities of the universe, engaged in relativistic travel (which from radiation concerns would be difficult even for AIs), or other things which the Fermi-fundamentalists use to claim non-existence of ETI.

    We actually have evidence that planets can be habitable and a planetary biosphere can produce a technological intelligent species. The Singularity seems to be so much unwarranted extrapolation and technoutopian fantasy.

  • Sam Dinkess January 22, 2007, 15:41

    Adam,
    I doubt very much that anyone knows we exist, or would care very much if they did given how parochial we probably are in the likely scheme of things. This goes to my speculation about complex structure in exotic media–it’s no more likely that consciousness in (for example) supernova shockwaves would recognize us than we’d recognize it, and the same goes for consciousness in a neutron star. Processes in environments both higher- and lower-energy than ours would seem perfectly natural, and the local complexities in them like difficult mathematical curiosities. For instance, if we look at the Earth’s environment, the overall human effect is relatively simple, and even the individual human effect is trivial, but the motion and interaction of humans is a very complicated model.

    I’m confident there will come a day when such a model is in our hands, although unstable due to feedback problems, and we’ll begin finding fractal representations of it in media once thought too exotic to be classified as “inhabited.” If that happens, then we may discover some terrifying facts about our environment–such as that (wild speculation) perhaps we’re (a) part of a larger organism, (b) other such organisms have predators (i.e., systems that disrupt and co-opt those like ours), or more likely (c) that the conscious systems larger in scale than us are too complex to adequately model, and yet we might observe anecdotally that there are dangers from their interactions.

    Communication with such systems would probably be close to impossible–insane orders of magnitude more obscure than communicating with other Earth species. Moreover, it’s impossible to know, even if something was aware of our existence, whether they would distinguish individual humans from humanity, humanity from the general ecosystem, or if they would even bother distinguishing life from other natural processes.

    We group things into arbitrary categories based on evolution and the limitations of our brains, and other systems would have other limitations–so they would have different categories for things. We could seem utterly trivial, like finely detailed little notches on the surface of something else considered alive. Or, conversely, like highly diffuse, slow, and purely inanimate “clouds” of organic chemicals that ponderously interact over long time periods. We would have to navigate a universe filled with utterly bizarre things like this and avoid interacting with them too much in order to avoid unpredictable consequences. Eventually, though, if we achieve the mathematics mentioned above, we may be able to predict where to find things that aren’t too different from us (i.e., at least based in organic chemistry–originally) and feebly try our best to figure out some kind of communication.

    I think the universe will turn out to be a terrifying, labyrinthine, and inexplicable jungle, and that it would be the best of all possibilities if it turns out to be the case. The idea that it’s all just raw material waiting to be programmed into Microsoft products makes me sick, not to mention going both against my reason and intuition.

  • Adam January 23, 2007, 7:19

    Hi Sam

    Two SF scenarios spring to mind.

    Firstly, in EESmith’s “Masters of the Vortex” the vortices turn out to be nurseries for energy beings utterly unlike us, until someone ascends to their mental level. Prior to that revelation the vortices were assumed to be just statistical flukes. Higher life’s finger-prints might well seem like so.

    Secondly, in Greg Egan’s “Schild’s Ladder” a wholly other space-time turns out to be composed of an ‘ecosystem’ of possible space-time micro-structures right down to the Planck level at 1E-35 metres. Life encoded into mutating space-time sub-structure. Perhaps Life could be even more fundamental than what we blithely call “the Laws of Physics”? Empty space could seethe with Life and we’ve only to discover how to project ourselves into that micro-scale to explore an utterly vast realm. Each cubic metre has enough virtual mass-energy/space-time to build 1E+55 versions of our visible Universe – an unimaginable wealth of possibility. And there are theories with even more compact micro-structure.

    Adam

  • kurt9 January 24, 2007, 1:40

    In the old L-5 Society, we used to talk about the existance of ETI around 20 years ago. The consensus was either 1) they do not exist or 2) they have transcended conventional physical existance for something like “Schild’s Ladder” like Adam has suggested.

    The star trek scenario, where aliens have been doing intersteller travel for thousands of year where they still grow old in “natural” bodies strikes me as being so unlikely as to be a joke. There is no way that we or anyone else is going to be cruising around the galaxy for thousands of years with the biological and nanotechnological sciences remaining at an early 21st century. This is like having modern aircraft and naval ships, but where the medical technology is like the 15th century. This simply is not a plausible scenario.

    Either the aliens are like the monolith in “2001” (at minimum, probably something far more advanced than this) or they do not exist.

  • ljk August 19, 2009, 2:34

    Michael Anissimov blogging on the recent USA Today article
    about SETI:

    http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/michael/blog/2009/08/robin-hanson-on-seti-in-usa-today/

    As he has done in the past, Anissimov focuses on the negatives about SETI
    and alien life in general. He insults Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute
    and uses Marshall T. Savage to support his ideas, which is not a
    surprise in one sense as Savage has been anti-alien life for decades.

    However, Anissimov fails to note that the book he quoted Savage
    from was used by Savage to start some kind of space colonization
    effort that became almost cult-like. Their grandiose plans, while
    not implausible or even undesirable for a nation with a space
    infrastructure and large budget, proved far too big for his
    never-large group.

    Maybe this is what happened to all those other intelligences
    out there. Their number of space enthusiasts is always outweighed
    by those who want to stay and home and solve the problems of
    their world first.