Nick Bostrom Believes Discovering Extraterrestrials Would Be Awful

by admin on May 2, 2008

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

Are we better off not finding life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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