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Self-Consciousness Among the Stars

As a coda to our recent SETI discussion, two newspaper stories on the subject ran over the weekend. I follow how the media handle this subject because public interest in SETI seems to remain high, and the cultural expectations that show forth in these articles may give us a glimpse of what would happen in the event of an actual detection. Moreover, the Allen Telescope Array has re-focused attention on this quixotic endeavor.

Sometimes it seems that we humans give ourselves too much importance in the cosmic scheme of things. After all, what would our little planet have to offer in a galaxy that, as The Age (Melbourne) notes, is made up of 100 billion stars (and there’s that number again, 100 billion, which reminds me that estimates of our Galaxy’s stellar population range from this low-ball figure all the way up to Timothy Ferris’ whopping one trillion). Aren’t humans, we ask, just one more backward species trying to evolve?

Maybe, but the problem is that we have no way of knowing the answer. If we are the only civilization in the Orion Arm, then we’re hugely significant. If we’re one of ten thousand, then we’re not. Without further evidence, we can’t draw any conclusions. The Age notes that even as the Allen Array comes online, the southern hemisphere has been without a SETI search since 2005. In fact, there remain unanalysed data left over from Southern SERENDIP, which began in 1998 at the Parkes Observatory and now, absent government funding, languishes.

Thus Ain de Horta, project scientist with SETI Australia:

“We’ve got stacks of CDs full of data that we just haven’t had a chance to get through because there’s a shortage of time and staff. A couple of hundred thousand dollars wouldn’t go astray. That would get our equipment up and free us from our teaching duties to get some analysis done. The thing my colleague and I hate the most is that we started all this and we haven’t been able to complete the first bit, put it to bed, as it were.”

It would be useful to resurrect funding at Parkes, given that although the Allen instruments will be able to cover a wide swathe of the Galaxy, a southern skies search opens up even more celestial real estate. The Allen attempt starts out listening to billions of star systems toward the galactic center, but then focuses in on individual nearby stars. A renewed Parkes search wouldn’t have that range but would at least complement the ambitious Allen instruments and extend the hunt.

Ben Bova, meanwhile, in an article in the Naples Daily News, notes that the oldest stars are doubtless drenched with radiation associated with the black hole at the galactic core. But elsewhere, in the ‘suburbs’ of the disk, doesn’t it just take time to raise up an intelligent species? Maybe, but perhaps they’re extinguished by asteroid and comet collisions or destroy themselves through misuse of their own technology. Bova, a science fiction writer and former editor of Analog, wonders too about just what it is that we mean by intelligence.

Or maybe [writes Bova] intelligence is not as inevitable as we assume. After all, Earth existed for almost all of its nearly 5 billion years without an intelligent species. Maybe intelligence is just a special kind of adaptation, not an inexorable end point of evolution. Of all the myriads of species on Earth, only one has produced true intelligence.

Lonely Minds in the Universe

Giancarlo Genta, who has written wisely and sanely about SETI in his new book Lonely Minds in the Universe (New York: Copernicus, 2007), would add that we don’t really know whether intelligence and self-consciousness always co-exist. Just how anthropomorphic do we want to be in our definition of these things? Let me quote from the book:

Human beings are both intelligent and self-conscious but, if it may be easier to give a theoretical definition of consciousness than of intelligence, it is much more difficult to tell whether a being is self-conscious or not. Besides, it is not even clear whether consciousness is a ‘discrete’ characteristic (i.e., a characteristic that either is present or is not), or a ‘continuous’ one (i.e., one that may exist in different degrees).

And later:

On Earth, consciousness and intelligence appear to be strictly related to each other. Will it be so when (and if) we discover other intelligent beings?

And this:

When we say we are looking for extraterrestrial intelligence, are we looking for only intelligent beings, or conscious beings, or beings like ourselves who are both? When we search for extraterrestrial intelligence, are we actually searching for extraterrestrial minds?

So many questions, and looming above them all that big Fermi question — where are they? I suspect SETI will be a long, hard search. And if it ever does snag an undisputed signal from an extraterrestrial civilization, I would wager that it won’t be a directed beacon but an extraneous transmission that we’ll probably never be able to decipher. A huge event in human history, to be sure, but forever enigmatic, reminding us that in terms of communication, the distance between species, as sometimes between individuals, may dwarf our merely human comprehension.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Adam October 22, 2007, 9:56

    Hi Paul

    The “Wow” signal and many other non-repeaters may well be extraneous signals we just can’t verify. I’m hopeful about SETI and SETA – after all I’ve put my neck out to say ETIs could be here in Sol Space and we’re none the wiser – but the task is immense as you say.

    If warp drive and wormholes are for real then all our discussions may be kind of naive – they’re not here because they have better places to go to? We don’t visit Amazonian natives as a routine thing do we? To Them we may well be as remote and ultimately uninteresting, except to a few academics and missionaries. The academics might use nano-observers and invisibility so as to avoid contaminating the experiment, while the missionaries might well “go native” and be utterly indistinguishable except for peppering their language with some advanced concepts and helpful insights to lift us out of darkness.

    So They might be here, anyone of us, or utterly beyond our senses?

    I think we really have no way of knowing what options will be available to us when interstellar travel is actually practical and not just sketches on paper and wishfully hoping for new technological breakthroughs. If we have to truly adapt to life in free space to go interstellar then THAT new human species will approach it with a wholly different set of priorities to us.

    Likewise for Them.

  • Steve October 22, 2007, 12:44

    Speaking of the “Wow” signal – and the latest I read on that I think was written in ’05 – the circumstances surrounding it was just about the way I’d expect the first contact to happen. You get a “passing” signal and then it disappears.

    Why did it stop, then? I don’t know. Maybe somebody or something walked across the room and punched the “off” button. Maybe their version of Congress cut the funding for this “silly waste of time!” – or, maybe right then – the bombs fell.

    I know there’s not a scientific reason in what I just wrote, but – darn it! – it just “feels” right. That’s how I think it’ll happen, by accident.

  • ljk October 22, 2007, 13:43

    If the Wow signal was of ETI origin, then it likely was one of those
    leakage transmissions that Earth just happened to be in the path of.

    Though even leakage has to be pretty powerful to be detected from
    another star system and I am surprised that no one else detected it
    or that it did not last longer.

    Maybe it came from inside our Solar System.

  • Kurogawa October 22, 2007, 19:31

    I’ve recently been reading more and more about our little understanding “intelligence” and certainly the article touches on the difficulty of establishing self consciousness. I’m sure I read (sorry I have no references here) that the octopus was found to be self conscious, and as a result of this -recognizing itself in the mirror for example- the European Union is/was considering banning “fishing” them. I in fact am currently boycotting octopus “as a dish” while we have a better understanding.

    Then there is this crow in the south pacific which has even been seen to MAKE tools to get at food, and all sorts of things which we USED to think only we could do, then we extended to monkeys… then we seem to be extending to birds.

    Our understanding of Intelligence and Consciousness is pretty simplistic in my experience. We are heavily dependent on things like art or language, and if a species doesn’t display it…we don’t really concede they have these traits… at least we have not conceded easily. -Of course we are prepared to make an exception if they fly n from outer space!

    My point is we really have to understand these issues much better before we start assuming we are the only intelligent and self conscious animals here. That in itself would be profoundly important for how we see the universe of course. But more importantly there is a deep misunderstanding of the other here… and before we even think of dealing with ETIs seriously, I really think such issues have to be looked at much more closely. Though we might well be “the only minds in the universe which speak English and make music or paint” oops birds sing…mmm and wasn’t there that elephant painting abstract art? (yes this bit really is sarcastic) no evil intended. : )

  • djlactin October 23, 2007, 5:35

    The Fermi paradox is just a special case of Olber’s paradox (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olbers_paradox), with a similar but more constricting solution.

    Olber’s paradox asks, ‘if the universe is infinite, every vector from the earth should eventually intersect a star, so why is the sky at not completely lit up.’

    The answer: the speed of light is finite, so many stars are too far away for their light to have reached us yet. (With an appendix: space is not completely empty (gas and dust clouds obscure distant stars.))

    Here’s how the solution to Fermi’s paradox is the same but more restrictive: 1) ALL stars emit light
    2) ALL stars emit light for billions of years without interruption.
    3) All stars radiate in a full sphere.

    Therefore, (neglecting clouds) every star will cast a few beams that will eventually intercept any arbitrarily designated body (say, for instance: Earth) that lasts long enough.

    The answer to Fermi’s paradox is the same: the speed of travel is finite, so
    there are three further constraints:
    1) NOT ALL stars ’emit’ signs of intelligence (radio waves or travelers).
    In fact, I’d quesstimate at most a couple hundred per galaxy (out of up to a trillion stars). [NB: “My preferred ” solution to the Drake equation gives N = 1.]

    2) NONE of the stars that do ’emit’ intelligence do so for billions of years.
    3) (If we’re talking about travelers) NONE of these stars emits a complete spherical shell of craft: they will target and aim.

    So the solution to Fermi’s paradox is: They’re rare and far away and haven’t had the time or the numbers to reach our unremarkable stellar system.

  • Adam October 23, 2007, 7:09

    Hi Kurogawa

    We evolved from animals and yet keep being surprised when they have traits like us. But there’s more to mind than individual smarts – human mind is a collective experience, with a place and context for its expression. Thus why we notice human like traits in smart animals when they’re around us – they’re participating in our collective mind behaviour as best they’re able, as much as makes sense to their hereditary limitations.

    Remember: mind is a collective thing – all our unique mind expressions, like mathematics, language, writing and so forth, require a group of human beings with a shared history. Else there is no mind, just smart behaviour.

    How did mind spring forth from a bunch of bipedal apes, allow them to become a super-species and potentially become galactic colonizers? That’s the question we need to ask before we can really gain insight into the prospect for ETIs.

  • rob October 23, 2007, 14:19

    djlactin Says:

    October 23rd, 2007 at 5:35

    So the solution to Fermi’s paradox is: They’re rare and far away and haven’t had the time or the numbers to reach our unremarkable stellar system.


    I like your line of reasoning. It’s interesting and I agree with it.

    I’d add that once another intelligent civilization realizes, like we have, how long it would take its ‘beacon’ to reach another intelligent civilization, and that this is an ‘inefficient’ way of trying to make first contact with other intelligences, they will probably shortly arrive at a technological singularity that will completely and fundamentally alter how they think about first contact anyway.

    In other words let’s say some far away civilization like ours beams signals into space, then within 100-200 years their technology advances and their entire culture and world are transformed by AI, which will then itself evolve at a rate far greater than the analog civilization it came from, and which will probably be the ‘entities’ that make decisions about how/when/if to communicate with other intelligences in the universe.

    And I would argue that an advances AI intelligence, which has no biological barriers to interstellar travel, wouldn’t have much interest in a primative SETI/METI means of communication.

    I would further suggest that these AI intelligences, much like Kurzweil believes, will be microscopic (all technology evolves to smaller and smaller structures, eventually down to the nano level) and they may well be floating around us as I write this. Or they may have already passed by. Or they have no interest in us until our AI evolves. Or we merge with our AI.

  • Kurogawa October 23, 2007, 17:52

    Adam, I am unfamiliar with your definition of “mind” but I think I can make sense of what you mean, and, irrespectively of whether I agree with it or not, I would be very skeptical of your assertion that “they’re participating in our collective mind behaviour as best they’re able”.

    Yes WE participate in their skills by observing, commenting on them and drawing conclusions within our communal understanding and shared history… but, apart from certain chimpanzee and bonobo experiments of socializing “us and them” I doubt very much that the interaction is generally from them to us… ie the octopus and the birds have not really interacted with us, as I understand it “in the communal mind”. and I am quite uncomfortable with this theory excluding these animal from having any conceivable intelligence…and suddenly being merely “clever”, for not having language or wrieten history.

    Yes I am in total agreement that history and language ARE an essential part of OUR story of reaching to the stars… and that will inform us of that only, not of other species’ histories. I don’t deny the fact that these animals may well be simply quite clever, but that is an essential issue which has to be tightly defined first to demonstrate that we are not just hyperbolically and complexly clever. It is worrying to me that we as a species have always tried to be special and have been so good at ignoring the fact that most of our special features are held by many other beings around us already. Anyway I feel I’m repeating myself.

  • occam's comic October 24, 2007, 18:51

    Instead of Mind think culture or civilization or society.

    The point about separating intelligence from consciousness has got me thinking an individual human is not very intelligent by itself but is certainly conscious. It is societies / civilizations that are actually the source of intelligence but they are not very conscious. If we were able to make our society much more self-conscious would we be creating an AI?

  • Adam October 25, 2007, 7:25

    Hi OC

    Interesting idea – wasn’t that the underlying concept of David Brin’s novel “Earth”?

    As for Mind I don’t think we do it justice when we restrict it to a skull – we know it by its effects and they’re all around us. And not just artefacts – a ballet performance is as much Mind as a mathematical treatise.

    Kurogawa, sorry for the opacity of the idea. I understand your concern about saying animals don’t have this-or-that feature in common with humans – it’s naive philosophy that denies them consciousness, sentience or intelligence. Of course they have those things, but only so far as they’re useful to the phylogenetic history that got them to the present day.

    I think that Mind, as I am describing it, is what makes us unique, but animals can share in Mind in as much as they’re able. As I am trying to express it Mind is a collective activity of human beings – some social animals show something akin to it, but we’ve been shaped by the Baldwin effect to show a very refined degree of Mind. So much so that it has propelled us forward to be the super-species of large animals on this planet.

    It’s unique to us as much as a trunk is a uniquely refined nose amongst Proboscideans, swimming is uniquely refined amongst cetaceans versus other mammals, and so on.

  • Hamsterbaffle October 25, 2007, 12:15

    And remember that SETI is actuall the Search for Extra Terrestrial Radio Broadcasts, not intelligence.

    When I look at some of the complex behavior in (especially) the insect realm, I wonder if self-awareness is necessary for high technology. Certain species of ants “domesticate” aphids, feeding them and harvesting the sweet juice they excrete. Termite mounds have a kind of complex “urbanity.” Bees and many insect species have “mass telecommunication” through pheromones.

    Imagine a high-tech radio broadcasting civilization, insectoid in nature, with no “art” or “philosophy” or abstraction, no awareness of “themselves” or “us.” No morality. And no hope of communicating. Just trillions of bugs, colonizing and reproducing amongst their worlds . . .

  • george scaglione October 25, 2007, 13:57

    hamster,sorry,i was getting all set to write a sarcastic response until i read your whole posting.very good if somewhat “spooky” thoughts there.but,do you think that such an alien species could have space craft,star ships etc ? hope i hear from you on this because i’d really like to know what you and everyone else may think! best regards george

  • Gregory Benford October 25, 2007, 15:29

    The Genta book has many insights; worth reading!

  • ljk October 26, 2007, 9:48

    There may be plenty of cultures out there that would consider us
    lacking in both sufficient intelligence and consciousness.

    As for an insect race, see Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

    I keep hoping there are species out there that are both more
    intelligent and morally superior to us, but the way nature operates,
    it may be variations on red in tooth and claw everywhere.

    In the book Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience, one
    author actually did a guesstimate as to how many interstellar wars
    are going on in the galaxy right now. I forget the number and
    the details, but it was temporarily sobering.

  • Hamsterbaffle October 29, 2007, 21:04

    george scaglione Said:

    October 25th, 2007 at 13:57
    “. . . very good if somewhat “spooky” thoughts . . . do you think that such an alien species could have space craft,star ships etc?”

    I don’t know.

    Imagine a family of large jovian moons, all with comparatively low gravity. Imagine on one of these worlds, an organism evolves that propagates its offspring by rocketing them to the next habitable island in the methane sea, for instance. Perhaps eventually, the spores (or pods, or eggs, or whatever) might evolve the hardiness to survive suborbital flights to the other side of the world. Its not such a stretch then to imagine them colonizing the other nearby moons, and so on. So: space colonization without space ships.

    I haven’t read Starship Troopers, so if I’ve described the premise I apologize.

    Really, I just wanted to point out how hard it is to look at the question objectively. Insects illustrate the capacity of nature to do things that are extremely complex and even *seem* the result of intelligence. We should not ignore the possibility of discovering “technology” without “minds.”

  • george scaglione October 30, 2007, 9:24

    yes hamsterbaffle you do make a real good point! naturally evolved “technology”…very interesting! thank you.your friend george ps i had never thought of anything like that before,real good! and thanks again g

  • ljk November 9, 2007, 17:40

    SETI: Is It Worth It?


    It’s a risky long shot that burns up money and might never, ever pay off.

  • ljk December 26, 2007, 15:49

    The Great Silence & 1.8 Gigayear Interval

    Are we the lone sentient life in the universe? So far, we have no evidence to the contrary, and yet the odds that not one single other planet has evolved intelligent life would appear, from a statistical standpoint, to be quite small. There are an estimated 250 billion (2.5 x 1011) stars in the Milky Way alone, and over 70 sextillion (7 x 1022) in the visible universe, and many of them are surrounded by multiple planets. The shear size of the known universe is staggeringly and inconceivably vast.

    The odds of there being only one single planet that evolved life among all that unfathomable vastness seems so incredible, that it is all but completely irrational to believe. But then “where are they?” asked physicist Enrico Fermi while having lunch with his colleagues in 1950.

    Fermi questioned, if there are other advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, then why is there no evidence of such, like spacecraft or probes floating around the Milky Way. His question became famously known as the Fermi Paradox. The paradox is the contradiction between the high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and yet the lack of evidence for, or contact with, any such civilizations.

    Given the extreme age of the universe, and its vast number of stars, if planets like Earth are at all typical, then there should be many advanced extraterrestrial civilizations out there, and at least a few in our own Milky Way. Another closely related question is the Great Silence, which poses the question: Even if space travel is too difficult, if life is out there, why don’t we at least detect some sign of civilization like radio transmissions?

    Milan Cirkovic of the Astronomical Observatory in Belgrade, points out that the median age of terrestrial planets in the Milky Way is about 1.8 gigayears (one billion years) greater than the age of the Earth and the Solar System, which means that the median age of technological civilizations should be greater than the age of human civilization by the same amount. The vastness of this interval indicates that one or more processes must suppress observability of extraterrestrial communities.

    Full article here:


  • ljk January 16, 2008, 15:14

    Has E.T. Made A Call?

    POSTED: 10:55 am PST January 15, 2008

    BERKELEY, Calif. — Across the globe, researchers searching for signs of life in space were abuzz this week with word that a mystery signal has been picked up by a giant radio-telescope in Puerto Rico.

    Now the dilemma is — how do you answer it?

    Dan Wertheimer of the UC Berkeley SETI Project, said the dilemma is compounded by the fact that the signal may never be completely decoded.

    “We probably won’t be able to decode it,” he said. “We’ll know something’s out there, but we won’t know much about their civilization.”

    From this Web page:


    I found this item via this Web blog:


    Does anyone have any more details on this subject?

    Thank you.

  • ljk September 16, 2008, 9:45

    Christian Theologians Prepare for Extraterrestrial Life


    June 15, 2008

    Little green men might shock the secular public. But the Catholic
    Church would welcome them as brothers. (Getty Images)

    That’s what Vatican chief astronomer and papal science adviser Gabriel Funes explained in a recent article in L’Osservatore Romano, the newsletter of the Vatican Observatory (translated here). His conclusion might surprise nonbelievers. After all, isn’t this the same church that imprisoned Galileo for saying that the Earth revolves around the sun? Doesn’t the Bible say that God created man — not little green men — in his image?

    Indeed, many observers assert that aliens would be bad for believers. Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research, once wrote that finding intelligent other-worldly life “will be inconsistent with the existence of God or at least organized religions.” But such predictions tend to come from outside Christianity. From within, theologians have debated the implications of alien contact for centuries. And if one already believes in angels, no great leap of faith is required to accept the possibility of other extraterrestrial intelligences.

    Full article here:


  • Frank November 11, 2008, 17:35

    There is a least one Christian religion that believes that God creates ‘worlds without number’ and that each of which has people on it. Anyone who believes that and knowing how we love to fight, would think it also likely that God would try to keep us from knowing about them.
    Perhaps one answer to the Fermi paradox is that we are not allowed to detect ETI.