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Rethinking Galactic Empire

How much would an extraterrestrial civilization resemble our own? The question resonates because on the one hand, the signature of our activities is what we tend to translate into the SETI search. We look, for example, for the signs of civilizations that are like us but more advanced technologically, which means we apply human thinking and motivations to cultures that are by definition not human. This is natural enough, because we’re the only technological civilization we know about, but it leads to results that may mislead us and obscure the actual situation.

Fermi’s Great Silence bothers us because we assume that what Milan Ćirković calls advanced technological civilizations (ATCs) will necessarily move out into the galaxy to colonize it. Yet we see no signs of this, no presence of an expansive power, no characteristic emissions telling us of any intelligence operating around nearby stars. This observation becomes a paradox only if we think in specifically human terms, relating what advanced cultures might do to our own history. If ATCs behave differently, then there may be no paradox — the galaxy may be rife with civilizations that simply operate according to a different set of principles.

Milan Cirkovic

Ćirković (Astronomical Observatory, Belgrade) continues to be one of our most innovative SETI thinkers, pushing well outside the conventional paradigm to ask what truly alien intelligence might do. And in an upcoming paper to be published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, the astronomer also questions our own understanding of human history, asking whether expansive colonization is necessarily emblematic of our species. If it is not, we should not be so quick to rule out alternative scenarios for alien action. We might re-think an expansive colonial model in favor of one Ćirković calls the ‘city-state.’

Moving Beyond Biology

Imagine for a moment that as humanity and technology continue to intertwine, we move into a period when human capacities become extended so far beyond those of present day people that what is widely called a ‘posthuman’ civilization emerges. Would such a culture still be bound by biological motivations that characterize us today? Ćirković sees a contradiction in the thinking of many technological optimists, who support evolutionary explanations for mankind’s origin but seem unprepared to abandon the biological paradigm when considering what future civilizations might do when they move beyond it.

The situation seems to be as follows: if we agree that specific biological motivations have been a determining factor in the biological (human) phase of the history of our species, it would be only reasonable to argue that, with the transition to the postbiological (posthuman) phase, the old biological impetuses and motivations will become largely irrelevant. Paradoxically, it is rare to encounter such attitude in tech-optimists/transhumanist circles; in general, the predominant view is that the posthumanity will enable faster, better, larger, etc. steps toward achieving the same old, biological, Darwinian aims and goals. In other words, just new means toward old ends. I hereby argue that such view is old-fashioned, illogical and ultimately untenable. Rejecting it could throw some new light on issues in both future studies, as well as the discussions of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations and ongoing SETI projects.

That ‘new light’ considers the possibility that, as Sir Julian Huxley surmised in an essay written as far back as 1957, natural selection will have little to do with a true posthuman future. Instead, we have to look to other modes of evolution encompassing technological and cultural change. We may consider advanced technological civilizations as outcomes of such evolution that have now become immune to existential risks, societies that can manipulate the surrounding universe to a high level of precision, reaching what Nikolai Kardashev called a Type II level, able to use all the energy resources of their own planetary systems.

The Expanding Empire vs. the City-State

And because Ćirković questions what the expansive colonial model implies, he is drawn to ask what a Type II civilization would do with its power. The ‘city-state’ model is one focused on optimizing its activities, heeding the problems of further expansion and drawing heavily on its computational abilities. Rather than looking for signs of outward-reaching super-civilizations (much less Kardashev Type III societies, which Ćirković sees as unlikely to arise), we should ponder cultures that have a keen eye on their own limitations and an ability to use resources close at hand.

We’re in the area of postbiological evolution, as outlined here:

As an example, the imperative for filling the complete ecological niche in order to maximize one’s survival chances and decrease the amount of biotic competition is an essentially biological part of motivation for any species, including present-day humans… It would be hard to deny that this circumstance has played a significant role in colonization of the surface of the Earth. But expanding and filling the ecological niches are not the intrinsic property of life or intelligence – they are just consequences of the predominant evolutionary mechanism, i.e. natural selection. It seems logically possible to imagine a situation in which some other mechanism of evolutionary change, like the Lamarckian inheritance or genetic drift, could dominate and prompt different types of behaviour. The same applies for the desire to procreate, leave many children and enable more competitive transmission of one’s genes to future generation is linked with the very basics of the Darwinian evolution. Postbiological civilization is quite unlikely to retain anything like the genetic lottery when the creation of new generations is concerned.

The trick from the SETI perspective is to identify such a civilization, one without a pressing need for outward expansion beyond, perhaps, a few neighboring stellar systems. In fact, molecular nanotechnology might create such an efficient utilization of resources that an extraterrestrial culture would have little reason to look elsewhere, although Ćirković assumes that ATCs will, for reasons of research and prudence, become quite adept at monitoring the rest of the galaxy through a variety of observatories and nanotechnology-based interstellar probes. That model has a precedent in ancient Greek city-states that deployed networks of agents operating outside their own territories.

47 Tucanae

It’s a compelling argument, and you’ll find a rich science fiction treatment of some of its themes in Greg Egan’s Diaspora (1997), where a society of uploaded minds deals with the consequences of its freedom from biological motivations. Egan’s characters need not worry about their genetic heritage, their ecological boundaries, the pressures of population or any need for expansion through the colonial model. With access to information without the need of physical presence, the driving factors of the empire-state begin to dissipate. Even a dying star may not force expansion onto a culture like this, as Ćirković notes:

It has been claimed in the classical SETI literature that the interstellar migrations will be forced by the natural course of stellar evolution. However, even this “attenuated” expansionism – delayed by on the order of 109 years – is actually unnecessary, since naturally occurring thermonuclear fusion in stars is extremely inefficient energy source, converting less than 1% of the total stellar mass into potentially useable energy. Much deeper (by at least an order of magnitude) reservoir of useful energy is contained in the gravitational field of a stellar remnant (white dwarf, neutron star or black hole), even without already envisaged stellar engineering. Highly optimized civilization will be able to prolong utilization of its astrophysically local resources to truly cosmological timescales.

Image: The globular cluster 47 Tucanae, about 15,000 light years from Earth, and 120 light years across. The stars in 47 Tuc are about 10-12 billion years old, making them among the oldest stars in the galaxy (more than twice the age of our own sun). Could some of these stars be the home of non-expansive, ‘city-state’ civilizations? Credit: Southern African Large Telescope.

To Observe the Unobservable?

Ćirković goes on to make the case against galactic empire in terms of both feasibility and cost, probing as well both political and ethical reasons for the city-state model to prevail. But back to the SETI question: Just how observable would a civilization following the city-state model actually be? We may find that our current technology is unable to make such detections, these being cultures whose very efficiency and adaptability to local resources renders them all but invisible to us. We do, however, get at least some relief from the otherwise inexplicable paradox of Fermi.

The paper is Ćirković, “Against the Empire,” slated for publication in JBIS and now available online. This paper is a comprehensive distillation of transhumanist ideas looked at in provocative new ways, its application to SETI one that challenges the basic assumptions of our radio and laser surveys. You’ll find much to mull over and much to argue with here. I wonder, for example, whether the lack of observed Type III civilizations in our cosmological neighborhood is truly a sign that galactic empires cannot form. Perhaps a Type III culture, able to harness the resources of its entire galaxy, would be even more difficult to detect than a nearby Type II, operating as it would be under assumptions that are even more alien to us than Ćirković’s city-states.

But opening up SETI to inquiries like these is heartening in many respects, and will be even more so if we continue to find no sign of intelligent life after another few decades. The astrobiological evidence thus far points in the direction of widespread life. If intelligence does arise on a modestly frequent basis, we may be living in a galaxy filled with thought whose pooled knowledge is simply unobservable, at least at this juncture of our own development. The thought that we are not alone, even if we are in the presence of moderate and sustainable societies much unlike our own, offers a satisfactory resolution to Fermi and a provocative picture of a possible (post)human future.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jim Baerg May 12, 2008, 10:37

    It’s not clear why this should happen in *every* case. One exception that does expand will take over the galaxy & become obvious.

    A motivation for expansion that would apply to any culture is prudence: The more spread out the species/culture the less likely any disaster would be that could destroy all of it.

    See http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/longnow/ especially the part near the end where he discusses off earth settlements.

  • Andi Chapple May 12, 2008, 11:00

    thanks for the post – these really are ideas worth mulling over, and I look forward to the link to the whole paper when it becomes available.

  • Geb May 12, 2008, 11:05

    Unless civilisations become perfectly homogenous as they advance, I don’t think you can keep people in once place forever. There will always be disagreements, groups thinking that they could live better by themselves, self-imposed exiles, and the like. Evolved desires to expand wouldn’t have to apply if you remove direct inheritance of traits, but mutations in social ideas will still turn up leading to changes. Some of those changes will always be a desire to go somewhere else.

  • John Hunt May 12, 2008, 12:37

    Very interesting topic.

    The Great Silence has more to do than just that ATCs have not colonized distantly. It also means that they have chosen not to communicate with distant emerging civilizations (such as ourselves) when, in fact, they would be able to at very great distances.

    Yes, ATCs may not need to colonize for resources. Yes, they may not colonize just because they can. But we also have to imagine a reason why they wouldn’t want to communicate with us. Is it because ATCs no longer feel the need to communicate with anyone (including themselves)? That seems unlikely to me. Do they choose not to communicate with us because of the “Prime Directive”? I find that more plausible.

    There is also the issue of timing. Imagine that, prior to loosing the motivation to communicate, ATCs were able to launch nanoprobes at portions of the speed of light that can survive not just 4 light years but 1,000 light years. They would then be able to spread evidence of their existence a great distance. If those probes were designed to self-replicate then they could spread evidence at even greater distances. I’m inclined to think that we’ll be able to launch such probes in 200 years or less. This necessitates the loss of our desire to communicate in a relatively short period of time.

    Also, there is the issue of whether ATCs leave any biologic-based colonies behind before they loose their biologically-based motivations. If so, those colonies would still desire to commicate and colonize. It’s not an air-tight argument but something to think about.

    It might also mean that ATCs have lost the desire to expand in order to explore for the joy of increased knowledge. Well, if we’re willing to imagine an ATC loosing the motivation to increase their knowledge of the distant universe then why not go all the way and imagine that they have also lost the biologically-originated motivation to survive. Just how intelligent would be an ATC if they lost that?

    But there still remains, what I consider a valid and even probable explanation. They don’t communicate with us because they no longer exist. They destroyed themselves by means of the natural course of their technology. Just like the direction we’re heading with nanotech, biotech, physics experiments, and AI. That’s one scenario that deserves our attention due to the likelihood of it being true and the need to avoid it.

  • John Hunt May 12, 2008, 13:06

    An interesting thought comes to mind. What if certain ATCs realize that independent thinking and even learning in their civilizations could lead to progress which might lead to an existential threat. They would have reasonable motivation to control all members of their civilization in any area which could lead to the development of an existential threat. It would be difficult for us to imagine because we have a hard enough time controlling teenagers in our homes much less being able to control the entire world! But we see our own society becoming much more capable of monitoring the behaviors of individuals. Also, I think that a number of people would advocate control of progress in areas such as nanotech and biotech in order to prevent such an existential threat. Control could be far more acceptable if there were a bad incident but did not cause our extinction. Sort of like our response to 9-11. Perhaps this level of control would prevent ATCs from allowing uncontrolled colonization.

  • Darnell Clayton May 12, 2008, 13:48

    That’s a very interesting concept, although I would have to side with Geb regarding whether every individual in a society would be able to get along with each other.

    Also, one scenario that some people have not discussed (or that I have not heard much about) is what if humanity IS the most advanced civilization in the galaxy?

    Whether its from us being “first out” or that everyone else is dead, it may be up to us to not only explore the galaxy, but to colonize it as well.

    Just my $0.02

  • James M. Essig May 12, 2008, 21:21

    Hi Folks;

    This is a really interesting discussion. Paul, awesome article by the way!
    It occurred to me that a galactic empire might well form in an analogous manner that the UN on Earth is a world body of nations. There might also be a few major alliances within a given galaxy in a manner similar to the defunct Warsaw Pact, the Nato-Alliance, or the EU on Earth.

    Regarding energy storage mechanisms for such civilizations, perhaps energy derived or collected from the planetary systems’ stars could be converted to matter/antimatter batteries and stored in dense compact form for future use for periods extending billions to trillions of years into the future. Examples of such antimatter batteries might exist in the form of large strangelets and anti-strangelets in the form of large quark nuggets. Other dense forms of material might be converted to pure energy by Fermi-Dirac annihilation in a gradual controlled manner.

    If a given empire, galactic or planetary, found that it could not exceed the special relativistic speed limit of C, it might still foster space travel beyond its galaxy or stellar neighborhood for scientific and exploratory purposes, but the civilizations might have decided to put an increased emphasis on spiritual development and existential psychological development. In short, they might also look into truly metaphorically inner space or into the study of their psyches, souls, emotions, feelings, etc., in order to explore the vast depths of an aspect of their being, their souls.

    Although I have no intention of converting anyone here, I mention, as a an ordinary human Catholic for the sake of philosophical discussion, that a renowned Catholic theologian about a century ago wrote his belief, that in this life, we as humans just see a glimpse of our individual spiritual and immortal souls as if a surface glimmer of a vast ocean of existence, infinite and unfathomable. My hope is that ETI from ATCs would also have souls and not simply be only super evolved, super-intelligent animals without spiritual and immortal souls.



  • bchurch May 13, 2008, 0:31

    Interesting stuff. Whenever we try to extrapolate our experience as a species on to others, it’s tough to know what the proper baseline is. So much of our evolution may be unique, it’s basically guess work and imagination to expand on our sample size of one.

    I think a lot of what gets lumped into “intelligence” and technological civilizations may actually be divided into subcategories, none (or few) of which necessarily follow from the other. The capacity for abstract thinking, artistic and imaginative thinking, language, manipulating the environment, tendency to coalesce into groups, desire to spread and colonize, etc. Of these, humans are the only of millions of species on Earth to have ever developed abstract and artistic thinking and an advanced ability to manipulate the environment (and arguably complex, grammatical language). The others are relatively common but by no means universal.

    All this is assuming the evolution of complex life, which seems far from inevitable either– even on planets suitable for it. We don’t even know how common photosynthesis is. Microscopic organisms can get energy from other sources, but most of them would seem to preclude large, advanced animals. (How common or necessary are animals even? Are static organisms like plants the more likely result of evolution?)

    Add to this the fact that most species on Earth go extinct relatively quickly (in geological terms). It’s widely believed that humans barely survived such a fate about 200,000 years ago– even in an environment that may be (for all we know) uniquely suited to complex organisms.

    Even once one gets all the necessary biological factors, there may be geologic and environmental ones that preclude civilization. Not every species on Earth has been as lucky to have land routes to continents across the planet. Isolation only reduces the chances of long term survival.

    Even assuming ambiogenesis is somewhat common in habitable environments, any given species faces almost innumerable barriers to technology and galactic civilization. My firm feeling is that even if life is ubiquitous in the galaxy, we may be the one in a trillion chance for an actual technological civilization; and if that’s true, it shouldn’t be cause for surprise.

    In any event, it seems more likely that we are the first (which is even still presumptive of our ability to survive beyond reliance on Earth) than that other advanced civilizations are out there and somehow hiding in plain sight.

  • stars May 13, 2008, 3:15

    great article. So interesting.

    Can’t recall if this idea came from Kurzweil but perhaps at some point the main goal of ATCs is to find new things to learn since its needs are not to support anything biological.

    Following this train of thought I could imagine that preservation of the universe is a goal. I’ve wondered if the expansion of the universe has to do with ATC intervention as part of a larger plan. Instead of the current dark energy/matter theories. Or literally the ATCs ARE the dark matter themselves , preventing a universal ‘big crunch’, gravity collapse.

    Could also imagine splinter groups of ATCs that travel the stars acting as the equivalent of “guardian angels”, invisibly assisting more primitive cultures/individuals much like their humanitarian counterparts.

    Many many possibilities. Though I feel confident that ATCs would not be strongly motivated to ‘conquer’ primitive biological societies like ours. We have little to offer them that they dont already have. Perhaps accounting for the silence.

  • Luis Dias May 13, 2008, 7:11

    Hello long time lurker, first post.

    Good questions posed. But I am afraid that the answer is quite simple and that the thesis shown is completely wrong.

    Evolution never stops. Never. Ever. Even in terms of internal economics, this has been true: the current economical system is always what has survived and prospered the most from last crisis, independent of any criticism we may (and do) have against it. We can dislike “empires” all we want, but natural selection is clear about this: evolution always chooses against isolationism. It always expands.

    Let me give you an example for a better picture.

    Imagine two (or more) competing “countries” inside a civilization. I imagine there are “countries” or similar political machines because they provide variety inside a planet that creates competition, therefore evolution. Imagine two somethings like that. Now, “country A” proposes:

    – Evolution goes not to outside, but inside. Let’s go introspect and dominate matter and energy for ourselves. We don’t need galaxies.

    “Country B” proposes:

    – Evolution goes outside, not inside. Let’s go explore and colonize the galaxy.

    What’s the outcome? Even considering that “A” reaches a more pleasant and marvelous “state”, it confined itself to just one planet. It desires nothing more than that. It stagnates from our barbaric “empire” point of view. “B”, on the other hand, may be more barbaric than “A”, but it has spread throughout the galaxy. It will always be “B” that gets to be the galactic empire. If a supernovae explodes near the first planet where “A” dwells, its inhabitants die. “B” may suffer a “tsunami” like disaster but soldiers on.

    The questions are:

    Who survived?
    Who conquered the galaxy?
    which would be more probable to encounter?

    Those are darwinian questions. Morals and Ethics are irrelevant. Rome had a civilization. Barbarians simply destroyed it, not because they were better people. They were stronger. QED.

  • Steve May 13, 2008, 11:07

    A good attempt at thinking like an alien! I do not think a Type III Civilization would be *at all* obivious and simply reflects a human inability to realize how “alien” a real alien could be. If a Type II Civilization could hide itself that well, how much more a Type III?

    And not to put to fine a point on it, I still think it’s possible *some* pulsars might be what they were first thought by some to be, including the Soviets – some type of “Homing” or navigational signal.

    Yes, the Astrobiological evidence so far could be taken to imply life in the Universe is common. I don’t think intelligence is going to be that rare, either. But a *nonhuman* intelligence could, by its nature, be all but invisible to our Homocentric selves…

  • ljk May 13, 2008, 14:40

    Maybe we are a simulation by a Type III civilization to study
    their theories on how early societies evolved. Or failed.

    Fourteen pulsars were used as devices on the Pioneer Plaques
    and the cover of the Voyager Interstellar Records to help ETI
    locate the Sol system in the Milky Way galaxy, so they have
    served that purpose for us at least a few times.

  • kurt9 May 13, 2008, 15:25

    The article raises a valid point. There was a Australian transhumanist that questioned the endless growth paradigm that American transhumanists are into. He suggested that the future would consists of about 20 billion “people”, most of them living in space habitats. Biotech would eliminate disease and aging as a condition of life and nanotech would make material wealth creation easy and cheap. The 20 billion people in this “golden age” society would be satisfied such that further expansion would be unnecessary.

    My response to this was that it sounds really, really good! I could be happy in such a future society.

    The problem is: what about the competition? WE may be happy with this kind of arrangement. But “others” may not, whomever the “others” may be. Such a steady-state society becomes effeminate. Effeminate societies tend to “loose” to competitive societies that are less effeminate. This is one reason why I think a growth paradigm will prevail.

    Another issue is: Are we really all happy living together? I think not. One is the lack of opportunity. Some people are driven to excel, in business/technology. Other people are self-reliant and feel that they do not need to be a part of a social-welfare state. Other people simply want and seek “openness”. These three desires often (but not always) go together in the same individuals. Having spent the past 7 years of my life in a generally low-growth economy with limited opportunity, the appeal of an open, endless frontier is very appealing to me. Given my current situation, I would certainly welcome the opportunity to go “elsewhere” and create a whole new life for myself. No doubt there are many others who feel the same.

    Can a single solar system offer openness and opportunity for all of us disparate selves? For the next few centuries up to a 1,000 years (assuming variants of O’neill space colonization), probably. 10,000 years? I doubt it. I believe that there will always be malcontents that will want to leave and create new lives (and societies) for themselves. Advanced biotech and nanotech will make this easy, regardless of the availability of FTL.

    SOME people will want to leave. It is these individuals that will fuel the expansion out into the galaxy.

    Of course, this expansion is unlikely to occur at the rate that many American transhumanists expect. However, it WILL occur on its own timescale. I find it difficult to believe that a solar system wide civilization would persist for millions of years and, yet, produce NO malcontents who would leave. This brings up my final point for why I think Cerkovic is most certainly wrong.

    Cerkovic commits the same fallacy that most other SETI do when contemplating the nature of ATCs. This fallacy is to assume that EVERY SINGLE INDIVIDUAL of such an ATC will share the same values and goals as everyone else does. This has never been the case with our civilization. Why would it be different for any other ATC? As our technology advances and social culture becomes more diverse, beliefs, values, and goals that people have also becomes more diverse. Life does not evolve linearly. It radiates in all directions. So does the varieties of personal beliefs, life-style choices, and objectives. There is no reason to assume that this trend will end anytime soon. All of the assumptions of a “steady-state” ATC are based on this flawed assumption of an organized society.

  • Mark May 13, 2008, 16:17

    Expanding to fill the available territory is not a specifically human behavior; we observe the same trait in all living species on Earth. Nor is it easy to imagine how evolution could fail to favor this trait on any conceivable world. The most plausible explanation for the Great Silence is that, for some reason not yet clearly identified, we’re alone.

  • David May 13, 2008, 23:26


    Charles Stross has written a fascinating novella “Missile Gap”, based the very premise you wrote but with a twist. The novella is available for free download as a pdf file at http://subterraneanpress.com/index.php/magazine/spring2007/fiction-missile-gap-by-charles-stross/

  • James M. Essig May 13, 2008, 23:39

    Hi Folks;

    A continued outstanding discussion!

    Not to promote any form of spiritualism or try to convert anybody here, but as a matter of philosophical consideration given the totality of the intellectual concepts known to us humans, I bring up the fact that we in the Western cultural or philosophical tradition, in at least one faith based system such as the Catholic Church, have long held the theological and apologetic principles of the existence of pure created spirits that do not have bodies nor central nervous systems but are rather, accordingly, discarnate beings that were created presumably at or before the foundation of the time of the physical cosmos, what ever time would mean in this circumstance.

    The usually stated scriptural faith based principles are that their are nine choirs or hierarchies of angels with each ascending level being superior in power, intellect, and nature than the next lower rank or choir. Moreover, the powers of these beings are said to be far in excess of those naturally possessed by humans since these spiritual beings accordingly are not limited by, nor are they definable by bodies, brains, space, time, matter and energy because they are pure spirits.

    The point I am trying to make is that in a sense, the Catholic Church has assented to the mindset of the notion of the existence of far, far, superior extra-human created intelligences that are radically different, ontologically and existentially, from us humans. Being raised and schooled in the Catholic Faith and Tradition and having taken a personal interest in the concept of angels as such, I am naturally, and perhaps ironically to some individuals, very open minded and welcome , what is in my mind, the strong possibility of bodily extraterrestrial beings that procreate or other wise give birth to young in a similar manner in which we do.

    I can imagine that certain mental and other forms of psychological operating principles may exist in the makeup of bodily ETIs that have developed as a result of natural selection and other evolutionary forces like those that have shaped the development of human and animal life here on Earth. These principles appear ubiquitously across the entire animal kingdom on Earth including within us humans such as the capacity for physical aggression, and now, higher forms of aggression based on the subtle behavioral facets of our psycho-social-cultural makeup, the ability, drive for, and the enjoyment of tangible interaction in the form of affection, socialization, sexuality, the operation of goal directed behavior, the ability for sense based perception of our environments including the ability to maintain attention to particular tasks and the ability to filter out extraneous stimuli, the ability for intentionality and the list goes on.



  • graywyvern May 13, 2008, 23:41

    it requires very little more wisdom than we now possess to see that what is required of us is not expansion but contraction, back to a sustainable harmony with the (remaining) other lifeforms on this planet. there are people capable already of imagining that the wild places would be better left empty & not overrun with human activities; why not the empty places of the galaxy?

    this is not an end to knowledge but an end to a certain kind of greed.

    in fact the gospel of growth has blinded us to everything good about ourselves (as well as the rest of the planet): only then will our path become clear, and the means become known.


  • Ronald May 14, 2008, 3:48

    Although the above article presents an interesting possibility, the sustainable city-state, I tend to agree with Jim Baerg: such a self-contained and non-expansive civilization is not a necessary or inevitable outcome, just as a post-biological/posthuman state of civilization is a hypothesis and not a proven inevitable outcome.

    And even if it happens, the question remains at which Kardashev level it would stabilize: the hypothesis also allows for some expansion (Kardashev II), which is already quite significant (way beyond us for instance) and possibly detectable. In this the hypothesis seems a little contradictory.

    More important though, from a biological viewpoint, I would argue that expansion is not just a cultural thing, as is often asserted. On the contrary, expansion is a fundamental biological characteristic of species adapting and surviving, occupying as many niches and as fully as they can (I would rather even say that controlling our expansionist tendencies, at least here on earth, is often a greater challenge than promoting it). And the desire to explore and learn are innate characteristics of intelligence, not just a cultural thing.

    With regard to utilizing stellar gravitational energy: again, it is a totally unproven hypothesis that a civilization would be able and willing to do this, if there are better (easier, cheaper, safer, etc.) alternatives, such as utilizing other suitable stars.

    I think Jim Baerg’s risk-spreading argument is quite strong, combined with the innate desire of species, and particularly of intelligence, to explore and expand. Granted, as argued before by Adam and me, any civilization will need to find an equilibrium level of energy consumption sooner or later, even at a galactic level. But if the technological possibilities are there, it would be unlikely to remain limited to a single star level. Once a civilization reaches K2 level, i.e. has already settled beyond its own planetary system, it will be both very feasible and extremely tempting to move further and spread across the galaxy.

    Finally, an alternative to the often-postulated-but-unproven post-biological/posthuman state of civilization, would be a rejuvenating and life-expanding capability by means of bio-engineering, probably feasible even in the foreseeable future.

    Even one expansive civilization would be enough to explore and colonize the galaxy. It might be ours.

  • Ronald May 14, 2008, 4:32

    Some of the above comments came in after my previous post, hence I may seem to be duplicating others in it.
    But I agree with Darnell Clayton, bchurch, Luis Dias and Mark: surviving species are always adapting and usually growing, not stagnant.

    As I once mentioned before, there may be a delicate balance between a civilization being ‘aggressive’ enough to survive, but not so agressive as to self-destruct. This state may be very rare (we haven’t even proven it yet).

    It may be very hard to accept, but it is simply most likely (though of course not absolutely certain) that, although the MW galaxy may be teeming with life, we are the very first or at least the only presently surviving technological civilization.
    Quite a challenge and quite a responsibility.

  • johnF May 14, 2008, 6:38

    I agree, the simplest explanation (at the moment, further evidence can always change things) is that intelligence and life itself are rare. The average time between inteligences encountering each other might be many times the lifespan of the human race to date. That said if we are truly and completely alone i’d say there is something funny going on…

  • george scaglione May 14, 2008, 9:12

    jim,everybody,with regard to the above.i am as i have said having technical problems so i have not right now the ability to send or receive e mail .however i find that this site seems to be working just fine as far as i can see…so,that said. – jim,i do not see what you are driving at in so far as your discussion of aliens who may or may not be spiritual or have spiritual beliefs!? maybe if you re phrase it or explain it differently i might better see your point. also,johnf above,yes,it is very very possible in my mind that there are HUGE distances between intelligences in space or even that LARGE SECTIONS of space might be devoid of any intelligence at all (lol just sometimes the small office i am sitting in right now is like that!!?), but again,another possibility…the “next intelligence over” might be sooooooooo many light years away that for all practical purposes as far as we can see it does not even exist.i hope that that is not the case by the way! respectfully to all your friend george who now finds that in spite of his technical problems he can thank goodness at least communicate here.!

  • ljk May 14, 2008, 11:27

    The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, Antiquity to 1915

    A Source Book

    Edited with Commentary by Michael J. Crowe

    This book presents key documents from the pre-1915 history of the extraterrestrial life debate. Introductions and commentaries accompany each source document, some of which are published here for the first time or in a new translation. Authors included are Aristotle, Lucretius, Aquinas, Nicholas of Cusa, Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Fontenelle, Huygens, Newton, Pope, Voltaire, Kant, Paine, Chalmers, Darwin, Wallace, Dostoevski, Lowell, and Antoniadi, among others. Michael J. Crowe has compiled an extensive bibliography not available in other sources.

    These materials reveal that the extraterrestrial life debate, rather than being a relatively modern phenomenon, has extended throughout nearly all Western history and has involved many of its leading intellectuals. The readings also demonstrate that belief in extraterrestrial life has had major effects on science and society, and that metaphysical and religious views have permeated the debate throughout much of its history.

    Michael J. Crowe is the Rev. John J. Cavanaugh Professor Emeritus in Humanities in the Program of Liberal Studies and Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame. He has published a number of books, including The Extraterrestrial Life Debate,
    1750–1900: The Idea of a Plurality of Worlds from Kant to Lowell.

    Details are here:


  • kurt9 May 14, 2008, 11:34

    “…what is required of us is not expansion but contraction…”

    The opponents of freedom and openness lurk everywhere. Is there any reason to believe that this would not be the case for other ATC? This further reinforces my point that a “steady-state” civilization is neither possible or desirable.

    I think Cirkovic is completely wrong.

  • James M. Essig May 14, 2008, 12:32

    Hi George;

    Thanks for the above comments. I guess what I was driving at is that some faith-based systems have ironically for millenia or at least centuries already had the notion of created non-human intellegent beings.

    Being of the Catholic Faith and having a keen interest in the concept of pure created spirits, I am naturally inclined to consider bodily ETI as a very strong possibility. In fact, if we ever meet bodily ETI or they somehow choose to reveal themselves, based on what kind of food they can eat, I would be glad to stoke up my charcoal grill and invite them to a cook out. I would like to discuss exopolitics, exo-psychology, exo-biology, physics, interstellar astronautics and space-propulsion, and matmematics with them and the list goes on and on.

    Glad to see that You can access the Tau Zero site.


    Your Friend Jim

  • Athena May 14, 2008, 13:01

    I will wait to read Milan’s entire paper before commenting extensively. The point about no species (re)acting as a single-willed unit is crucial. Ditto the fact that exploration seems to be vital for our well-being (and something even more pertinent if we become immortal, unless we disappear into virtual games).

  • ljk May 14, 2008, 13:19

    Against the Empire

    Authors: Milan M. Cirkovic

    (Submitted on 13 May 2008)

    Abstract: It is argued that the “generic” evolutionary pathway of advanced technological civilizations are more likely to be optimization-driven than expansion-driven, in contrast to the prevailing opinions and attitudes in both future studies on one side and astrobiology/SETI studies on the other. Two toy-models of postbiological evolution of advanced technological civilizations are considered and several arguments supporting the optimization-driven, spatially compact model are briefly discussed.

    In addition, it is pointed out that there is a subtle contradiction in most of the tech-optimist and transhumanist accounts of future human/alien civilizations’ motivations in its postbiological stages. This may have important ramifications for both practical SETI projects and the future (of humanity) studies.

    Comments: 17 pages, no figures, accepted in JBIS

    Subjects: Astrophysics (astro-ph)

    Cite as: arXiv:0805.1821v1 [astro-ph]

    Submission history

    From: Milan M. Cirkovic [view email]

    [v1] Tue, 13 May 2008 10:52:19 GMT (136kb)


  • Ronald May 14, 2008, 18:28

    James, I like your reconciliation of science and the ‘natural’ world with the spiritual. Maybe there is not even a contradiction, but merely our present lack of understanding.
    As the late great Sir Arthur once said, a very advanced civilization might seem like magic to us.

  • Ronald May 14, 2008, 18:39

    @kurt9: do not be too harsh; though I largely agree with you, there is a distinction between contraction, rigidity and stagnation on the one hand and equilibrium, harmony and self-control on the other.

  • kurt9 May 14, 2008, 22:28


    Why are optimization and expansionism considered to be mutually exclusive? Is it not likely that both will be pursued?


    The problem with buzz words such as “harmony” and “self-control” is that they are often used as justification for one person or group of persons to impose their will and beliefs on others who do not share them or to restrict personal autonomy and economic liberty.

    The “limits to growth” mentality is zero-sum. Human expansion into space is positive-sum. I believe in positive-sum. I despise zero-sum and am contemptuous of it, for good reason.

    Different people have different goals. When goals are incompatible, the choice between zero-sum and positive-sum results.

    Positive sum means that everyone can go out and do their own thing. Everyone is a winner. Zero-sum is where someone wins and someone else looses, because the people who “loose” are not allowed to go “somewhere else”. Zero-sum results in conflict. Conflict, of course, is very bad. And the people, mostly of “liberal-left” persuasion, tend to be more effete than their opponents. This most certainly assures that they will loose any conflict that results from zero-sum.

    Zero-sum results in conflict. That is why it is always morally wrong and why the people who advocate such are “bad” people.

    In the U.S., both the “liberal-left” and the neo-con/social conservative movements are zero-sum. They are very evil. On the other hand, libertarianism is a positive-sum world-view. That is why it is good.

    Expansion is positive-sum. Positive-sum is where everyone gets to have and be whatever they want. This is why it is moral and why it will ultimately prevail in the future.

  • James M. Essig May 14, 2008, 22:30

    Hi Ronald;

    Thanks for the above comments.

    It occurred to me that even known laws of physics applied to the extreme limits might even seem like magic.

    I can imagine living on Earth a trillion years into the future wherein a sub-C reactionary thrust powered space craft would show up that was launched from our millennium, reached a gamma factor of 10 EXP 11 and then decelerated after completing one gigantic curvilinear path throughout the cosmos.

    Naturally, a means would need to exist to cancel out the effects of CMBR and massive particle induced drag. This would indeed be hard to do as our onsite colleague Adam has mentioned in another thread previously, but the appearance of such a craft with the emblem or indicia somehow embossed on it with the letters U.S. Space Command arriving at, or showing up in a trillion year old human civilization might seem somewhat freaky to our distant descendants.

    If we could devise a way to electrodynamically cancel out 1 million plus Gs of ship acceleration, this might seem as exotic as gravity or inertia modification schemes. I can imagine super strong ship based magnetic fields inducing a dipole moment on all the atoms composing the ships contents including crew members wherein additional magnetic fields would be applied to resist the magnetized contents of the ship including the crew members bodies. Nanotech means of precisely instilling charge within the ships contents including crew members bodies might also be a means for electrodynamic field effect canceling out of acceleration forces. The underlying theory for such electrodynamic systems is nothing other than early to mid 20th century atomic physics, 19th century Maxwell Equations based electromagnetic theory, and principles that most ordinary domestic household electricians work with every day.

    If we could somehow inertially reach C without destructive interaction with the interstellar medium, special relativity would suggest that we would become physically temporally eternally extended into the future. In one Planck unit ship time, we would travel an infinite number of light-years and an infinite amount of time into the future.


    Your Friend Jim

  • george scaglione May 15, 2008, 8:24

    jim,thank you for the above clarification as life forms such as ourselves evolve i have the idea that the physical body becomes less important if only because of technology becomming more and more superior.funny thing those who have “seen” the aliens who fly ufo’s seem to constantly describe them as small and rather punny by our standards…sort of fits right in does it not!?to take this to its farthest extent i believe that the late arthur c clarke depicted his highly superior aliens from 2001 a space odyssey as almost pure intelligence stored in the matrix of space.fits in too.maybe the aliens from carl sagans contact too. it was so cool that neither author really “showed” their aliens! therefore leaving our imaginations to run riot.read something years ago about clarkes aliens which pretty much described them as i just have above and i tend to agree 100% . like to know what you and the rest of this highly intelligent group thinks talk to you soon your friend george ps yes i am lucky to be able to communicate here if for now i amm having certain technical problems elsewhere which stop me from using e mail for thank god only afew days! ;) g

  • george scaglione May 15, 2008, 8:34

    jim just wanted to answer that other posting above and yes most certainly a sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic! lol i do tend to think in terms of the late great arthur c clarke!! funny thing in the above communication the smiley face i included was replaced by the machine with lol a much better one! a terrible shame that clarke and sagan are no longer with us! i once had the honor of receiving back a snail mail from dr sagan long before the age of electronic communication.respectfully one and all your friend george

  • ljk May 15, 2008, 9:32

    Kurt9 said:

    “ljk, Why are optimization and expansionism considered to be mutually exclusive? Is it not likely that both will be pursued?”

    Don’t ask me – I am all for progress and expansion of our
    society. In fact, I doubt we will survive as a civilization or
    even a species without it. Same goes for most other potential
    ETI in the Universe.

    James Essig, long before one trillion years from now, Earth will
    be long, long gone. In just a few billion years, the Sun will
    expand into a red giant star and if it doesn’t vaporize our
    planet outright, our globe will be fried into molten slag. This
    assumes no one will have rearranged Earth or the Sun by then
    to either extend their existences or make them into something
    more useful for an advanced society.

  • James M. Essig May 15, 2008, 12:44

    Hi ljk;

    Thanks for the above comments. In fact, after only about 1 1/2 billion years, the Sun’s output will begin to increase to the point where our current biosphere would be essentially destroyed from greenhouse effects, atmospheric chemistry effects, and biospherical destruction. Hopefully, we will have moved on to another planetary system or learned how to alter the net radiant energy flux density impinging on our planet.


    Your Friend Jim

  • george scaglione May 15, 2008, 13:01

    ljk you know,about your comments above. i am a little confused myself.over the last few days i have watched programs on tv that have mentioned 55 billion,and… one trillion years into the future! now,yes, it gets a little confusing. the 55 billion year figure quoted that as “as long as” the universe would last.the trillion year figure had man still surviving in a dying universe of the distant future doing things like orbiting dead stars! can you my friend,no pun intended,shed some light?! and yes i know earth per say has only about 5 billion years left.but there is no reason we can not move to a new home by then.maybe even “build” one! your ideas are more than welcome. respectfully, your friend george

  • Ronald May 15, 2008, 16:02

    @kurt9: rest assured I also strongly believe in freedom, progress (technological, social and otherwise), growth and expansion of humankind, particularly into space.

    As ljk points out human expansion into the MW galaxy is even a necessity for our long-term survival.

    However, I also believe that that expansion must not be predatory, merely exploitative (though utilization is a useful and necessary part of expansion), and short-sighted, i.e. not merely the export and continuation of our present problems and conflicts. Our present problems here on earth and dealing with this earth must be dealt with and solved here, before we are even ready to go and settle somewhere else (except for certain major external threats). Utilization of any planet must be as sustainable and efficient as possible. That is what I mean by ‘equilibrium’ and self-constraint. I want a true civilization to spread across the galaxy, not a rag-tag of predatory savages, not even under the disguise of personal freedom, if it were to ‘wreck another planet and move on’. I believe this is also what galactic civilization truly means: expansion into the cosmos, but at the same time sustainability and equilibrium per settled planet.

    Though I also strongly belive in personal freedom, that must not be oppressed by an individual or group, the opposite sometimes also has to be considered: personal freedom must not lead to destructive behavior resulting in serious damage to others ot the (global) community as a whole.

  • The Fool May 15, 2008, 16:17

    Intriguing article

    I would imagine that very soon, within 100 years, we will have have humans out of the solar system and within 1000 years we won’t be relying on only one sun so the sun burning out won’t be too much of a problem. But only time will tell.

  • Ronald May 15, 2008, 16:37

    Hi James, george,

    I read it is even worse: after about 0.5 – 0.6 gy the earth will already get too hot for most higher life (about the time since the beginning of the Cambrium) and after about a similar period, i.e. some 1 gy from now earth will be too hot for any biological life.

    However by that time the habitable zone of our sun will have moved outward to encompass Mars.

    With regard to the distant future, I understood from ‘The five ages of the universe by Adams and Laughlin’ and from Adam Crowl in another thread on this website, that our ‘stelliferous’ universe has trillions of years to go (up to about 100 trillion or 100,000 gy), plenty of time. I also understood, that by far most of that time (say, from about 100 gy onward) will be dominated almost exclusively by very long-lived and metal-rich red dwarfs, i.e. plenty of planetary material. In the distant future the prime occupation for a civilization may be planetary engineering (terraforming), maybe even stellar engineering.

  • Administrator May 15, 2008, 17:03

    A quick second to your mention of The Five Ages of the Universe, Ronald. It’s one of the most absorbing books I’ve ever read, taking us trillions of years into the future for a look at what should happen assuming a continuously expanding universe.

  • James M. Essig May 15, 2008, 20:30

    Hi Ronald;

    Yikes!! 0.5 billion to 0.6 billion years. I hope we find safe off world living quarters well before then. Even Mars will be too hot in its current orbit to sustain life in an ambient environment when the Sun becomes a red super giant, perhaps even the planetary moons of the closest gas giants as well.

    Regarding the production of red dwarf stars from ambient pressured precursor gas clouds, the idea of using huge thermonuclear devices to perturb the density fluctuations of interstellar gas clouds in just the right manner based on sensitivity of proto-stellar formation and late stage gas cloud evolution on initial conditions, in short, based on any operating chaotic phenomenon has long since intrigued me.

    The devices might be derived from cometary low atomic mass elements and isotopes wherein the aggregated blended matter would be formed into lunar or earth sized thermonuclear devices. The devices might be arranged at locations on the order of several light-years to fractions of a light-year apart wherein they would be detonated in a temporal pattern to compress or otherwise induce motion in the interstellar gas clouds via the radiation pressure and plasma pressure imparted to the gas clouds by the explosion energy. Assuming that chaotic gas cloud dynamics can be harnessed to such precision, I could not think of much better applications for huge thermonuclear devices.

    Future supercomputers and interstellar probes should be able to map out gas clouds in a galactic cartographic manner at least to such a degree in order to determine whether or not such a technique is viable.



  • James M. Essig May 15, 2008, 20:52

    Hi George;

    Since you had mentioned that you sometimes pick up an issue of Scientific American, which is a great magazine by the way for all of us space heads to read, Scientific American I believe about a decade or decade in a half ago put out an issue, one of their thicker issues that focus on a particular topic, about the projected future of the universe into the very deep cosmic future, e.g., at least until 10 EXP 1,000 years into the future. The discovery of the expansion rate speed up or the evidence for such since this report came out I am sure has changed the scenarios, but perhaps certain far distant future effects remain the same such as a conjectured symmetry breaking of the electric field into multiple separate forces and the separation of the magnetic field into multiple separate forces in as an analogue to the electro weak symmetry breaking that occurred very shortly after the formation of the initial big bang. Accordingly, the electromagnetic force might seperate by symmetry breaking into a seperate magnetic force and a seperate electric force


    Your Friend Jim

  • alex May 16, 2008, 1:24

    “Imagine that, prior to loosing the motivation to communicate, ATCs were able to launch nanoprobes at portions of the speed of light that can survive not just 4 light years but 1,000 light years. They would then be able to spread evidence of their existence a great distance. If those probes were designed to self-replicate then they could spread evidence at even greater distances. I’m inclined to think that we’ll be able to launch such probes in 200 years or less.”

    yes, the absense of a galatic empire isn’t a problem – it’s the lack of communication probes. because it takes only one malcontent with an AI and some nanotech to build some pretty obtrusive ones, right?

    really, nanotech must become carefully restricted and guarded tech – the problem of individuals dabbling in nano and building WMDs would push societies to ban private use and access to assemblers.

    CONTROLS on dangerous tech may operate to homogenize societies and their activities. in which case there’s more consideration and societies are careful/ethical and build unobtrusive probes that delay contact with ‘fledglings’.

    lone crackpots or even small groups of crackpots experimenting on the galaxy seems very unlikely

    the nature of nanotech or other cheap and potentially destructive technologies creates such a difficult problem.. how do ANY ATCs get along when they are divergent , disparate, and evolving??

  • Ronald May 16, 2008, 4:11

    I could have added that, according (among other sources) to a recent (March) article in Scientific American (The end of cosmology?), in that distant future, the galaxies within one cluster or even within one supercluster will have congregated into one supergalaxy as a result of gravity, while at the same time the different superclusters/supergalaxies will have moved very far apart, even beyond each others event horizon (i.e. observable universe) as a result of cosmic inflation.
    As we know, Andromeda and our MW will merge from 2.5 – 5 gy from now, possibly also M33 (Triangulum) and some dwarf galaxies within our Local Group. Our Local Group and other galaxy clusters within our supercluster are moving toward the Virgo cluster (and particularly M87 within it), attracted by its huge gravity and will probably merge in anywhere from 36 – 180 gy (speed estimates vary greatly). So the result after some 100 – 200 gy, as I understood it, will be an observable universe of one immense supergalaxy consisting of something in the order of 10^15 (million billion or thousand trillion) or more stars, almost exclusively long-lived metal-rich red dwarfs, with lots of (big) planets. And the entire universe consisting of many of those disparate observable universes. A situation, it seems, persisting more or less stably for many trillions of years.
    Anyone anything interesting to add to this (or correct my view)?

  • Adam May 16, 2008, 4:15

    Hi All

    Thanks for the hat-tip Ron. Paul’s right about the book. For more details see their paper “The Dying Universe” and their collaboration with Peter Bodenheimer, “The End of the Main Sequence”, which models the full evolution of red dwarf stars.

    Of course their work only lightly touches on the possible future role of intelligence in cosmic evolution, and leave metric engineering or escaping into other Universes alone. Intelligence might have a much bigger role in the cosmos than merely inhabiting it.

  • Adam May 16, 2008, 4:32

    Hi All (again)

    One further thought is just how rapid total “consumption” of the Universe would be in astrophysical terms if any species went exponential and plunged into the cosmos. But that’s not the only growth pattern available. Asymptotic approaches or linear growth (as in all growth at the frontier) might allow a more stately conversion of galaxies into habitat.

    But such growth, mindless or guided, is driven purely by ancestral genetic imperatives. Is that really what an interstellar culture would contemplate? Exponential growth runs into the lightspeed wall very quickly, leading to a dead core and eventual sputtering out of the frontier as resources are consumed. Paul Birch has argued that growth can continue forever if the Universe is infinite and colonisers are counting relativistic trip time as calendar time – but what a prospect! After a certain era, merely millennia away, the would be colonists will arrive in a Universe gone dark and all matter attenuated by cosmic expansion.

    Such infinite expansion is absurdly presumptuous – we just can’t know if the Universe is infinite. It will always be a hypothesis, unverified, because the radius of curvature of the cosmic topology could merely be out of current sight.

    But who can say? Could there be infinite parallel Universes somehow accessible? If so, then the Fermi Paradox becomes even worse…

  • george scaglione May 16, 2008, 8:24

    jim,everybody above for about the last dozen postings!…thank you very very much for your insights! i now clearly see that we have a very good chance as a species to stick around for a VERY long time! imagine what we could accomplish in a million,a billion,a trillion years!!!!! there may be no problem which we cannot solve! we may someday have human societies in orbit around numerous stars for the lifetime of those stars,mimicking as it where how it all began in the lifetime of our cradle the earth! however there is as it where one “fly in the ointment”, that is that we must prove intelligent enough to survive for a very long period of time and not destroy ourselves over say,some petty conflict.a great future lies ahead! …very respectfully to all my fine friends here. george

  • James M. Essig May 16, 2008, 23:44

    Hi George and other Folks.

    Awesome above discussion!

    I am not advocating a spiritualistic new age concept in what follows but rather am examining in an open minded way an idea based on concepts which have been widely articulated in the philosophy of our culture. I have a theory that the human energy body that certain so-called psychics say that they can travel out of body in and that which persons involved in so-called near death experiences claim to have is simply a body made of a material, perhaps super cooled non-relativistic neutrino material that is produced by the electroweak unification between the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force. As one might be aware, the neutrino is the particle with zero electric charge but which interacts with matter through the weak nuclear force reaction. A beam of pure neutrinos can accordingly travel thru light years of lead and remain largely unattenuated.

    My theory in another version is that the material out of which any human and extraterrestrial energy bodies are made is composed of photo-neutrinos which would be a hybrid force particle with characteristics of both the electromagnetic photon and the weak force neutrino. My theory would explain why energy bodies appear or at least are reported to pass through material objects by those having near death experiences. Which ever version of my theory is correct, the electroweak unification in physics, the basic form of the theory for which a Nobel Prize was awarded, is the basis for suggesting that super cooled neutrinos, or photo-neutrinos, can interact by electric fields or electronic like fields and thus form the continuous material that energy bodies and auras appear to be made of in the form of aggregates of massive numbers of cooled neutrinos or photo-neutrinos in bound states.

    If such neutrino, or photo-neutrino material exists, perhaps we can learn to build structures out of it or machines from it in which to enhance or more safely travel in any existent neutrino or photon-neutrino bodily form. I can imagine that such energy bodies are destructible by certain high energy events like supernova, in falling into black holes of small size or into the singularity of any macroscopic sized black-holes, close proximity to nuclear explosions and the like etc.. Thus, if we evolve to have such a base energy body form, we may ultimately and ironically still need protective infrastructure. Perhaps some very advanced ETI have already advanced to this stage.


    Your Friend Jim

  • Rayzon Detra May 18, 2008, 2:22

    While I find Cirkovic’s paper fascinating and stimulating, I must agree with many of the above comments: His underlying assumptions are seriously flawed, and the conclusions that result from them (while interesting) do not even begin to reflect the actual picture. His simplifying assumptions appear to be thus: (1)An entire species is regarded as a single, unitary civilization without independent subdivisions or individuals. (2)The advent of postbiological forms is assumed to preclude the survival of biological forms, which is necessary to preserve the assumption of a unitary species. (3)The nature of postbiological forms will in no way be affected by or derivative of the biological motivations that caused their creation. (4)The decisions of this civilization are exclusively rational. (5)Expansion and local optimization are mutually exclusive. And (5) all of the preceding assumptions must apply to ALL civilizations in the galaxy to avoid the evolution of Galactic Empire. Every single one of these assumptions is totally indefensible, and their combination yields a scenario whose probability of being correct is essentially zero.

    First, let’s deal with the unitary assumption. It’s standard, as far as science fiction goes, to treat entire species as embodiments of a single concept (e.g., warrior, telepath, logical, etc.), but real-world organisms are not like that because evolution does not favor it. Even ants and bees are too individually complex to satisfy such a model, and their colonies are ruthlessly expansionist. But even if we imagine a civilization comprised of perfect copies, the needs of a complex system require specialization, and that creates differing agendas. Or let’s imagine that every “component” is optimized for its function at a given time – nevertheless, the operation of the system will change the meaning of “optimal,” creating dynamics that impose differing agendas and voila, unity is violated. As the phenomenon of the “Long Tail” exemplifies, technology exponentiates diversity, it does not limit it.

    Now consider the assumption that postbiological is exclusive to biological. Why would that be the case? Since postbio includes uploaded human consciousness, we would have to assume that ALL of the humans who transfer themselves into these transhuman forms would eliminate ALL of their underlying biological motivations. But what exactly would remain if that occurred? We can talk about curiosity as if it’s some kind of advanced spiritual thing apart from biological impulse, but it’s not – it’s connected to the same evolved drives and ambitions as everything else. There would be no purpose behind completely purging human motivations, because the result would be psychological extinction – so the most we can plausibly imagine is that motivations would be retuned to focus on different and more helpful targets. The will to survive would thus continue, and however carefully we manipulated our motivations, there would still be complex manifestations of the same human behavior patterns. That means the desire to discover, to experience, and to spread will persist.

    But what if it’s not uploaded consciousness, but strong AI that defines our unitary civilization? Well, in that case, there is still the fact that biological minds created the underlying systems by which these machines evolved, meaning that evolved motives and ways of perceiving make up at least the kernel through which higher complexities developed. We are still given to impulses left over from fish ancestors, reptiles, and monkeys, simply because we evolved from them – so naturally machines evolved artificially from those programmed to emulate biological thought would exhibit complex derivatives of it. In other words, while I’m sure the vast majority of what such an intelligence does would be incomprehensible to us, I would be pretty confident that a tiny corner of its mind (and perhaps the physical manifestation of it) would resemble activities we could easily understand and interact with. Moreover, how can we imagine what kind of “life cycle” such an organism would have, even if we grant that it’s unitary? Might it not, as a singular organism, seek to propagate itself? Again, if even one case in the entire galaxy does, if not the whole universe, Cirkovic’s scenario fails.

    Basically, to understand the true picture, we have to recognize evolution operates in branching progressions – it takes all possible courses available under current conditions, and those conditions determine which propagate and define the future environment. Do not ask “What is THE future of THE human species?” If we are lucky, we will give rise to more different species and civilizations than we can imagine, pursuing every possible future. And what of the Fermi “paradox”? I fail to see where the paradox lies. Arthur C. Clark had it wrong – it’s not magic that advanced technology resembles, but NATURE. And ultimately, what difference does it make if the entire galaxy is swarming with technology that looks like nature, or just nature? It’s all nature. Everything that exists is nature. And we will never, ever, ever understand or communicate with beings that far beyond us.

  • R. Lee Fletcher May 18, 2008, 6:24

    Mirror-imaging another human culture, far less an alien species, is a classical mistake that is easy to make. However, arguments based on the laws of physics and the state of the universe as we know it stand on firmer ground. Our tools for observing the universe are getting better and more sophisticated very rapidly. We now have enough of a sample to fill in some of the terms in the Drake Equation, and this makes the Great Silence more disturbing.
    I see a two assumptions that are frequently made – not only in this forum – that I consider shaky at best. One is that there is only one path of development for alien civilisations. Even in our own single planetbound species we see much variation. The answer as to whether each scenario is correct is, I think, yes – somewhere in the universe.
    The other is that god-like power equates to god-like intelligence and/or godlike wisdom. Consider a hunter-gatherer in a jungle clearing looking at a pilot in a helicopter. The gap in technological capability, sophistication of social organisation, knowledge of the universe is immense. Yet the pilot of the helicopter belongs to the same species as the hunter-gatherer and is intrinsically no more intelligent. There is also no guarantee that he is any wiser or kinder than the hunter-gatherer. The historical record has plenty of cases in point.