Friday, June 08, 2012

Fermi's Paradox meets Clarke's Law: Nature = Technology = Magic

In a blog posting earlier this year, Canadian science-fiction writer Karl Schroeder proposed to solve Fermi's paradox. The paradox has to do with the apparent absence of intelligent life in space.  "Where are they?" physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked. It would seem that civilizations millions of years older than Earth's should be conspicuous by their artifacts. Hence, the paradox. If they're out there, we must conclude, they're awfully tidy, which is how Schroeder wraps up the issue.

He proposes that advanced civilizations "go green" and integrate themselves into nature so perfectly that they remain hidden. Adapting Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law, Schroeder expresses his solution to Fermi's paradox as,
 "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature." 
Clarke rendered his law originally as,
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."* 
So, anything that stumps our powers of explanation might be an instance of
1. A supernatural process
2. A natural process
3. An advanced technology

The challenge for us is to figure out what's what. That is, if any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature and from magic, then any sufficiently frustrating-to-science natural process will be indistinguishable from a sufficiently advanced technology and from magic. And any instance of magic we might mistake for a complex corner of nature or an advanced technology. For now, let's reserve magic as god of the gaps.

If a civilization's technology, designed by that civilization's intelligence, ever becomes so "green" that it becomes indistinguishable from nature, then it will have ended nature as something distinguishable from technology.  In such a universe we have no criteria by which to distinguish nature from advanced technologies, that is, from intelligent design. This restatement of Schroeder's point has a point, which is that we should cease debating naturalistic evolution versus intelligent design. We claim to have criteria by which to distinguish the two causes, based on their effects, but Schroeder's conjecture suggests otherwise.

The universe might be somebody's well-organized garbage dump, albeit not self-evidently so.  That's one interpretation. "Nature is somebody's science project," quips the star larvae home page. Another interpretation. Alternatively, we might see the universe as somebody's art work. Or somebody's magical conjuration. Or somebody's dream. Or whatever. Are these interpretations necessarily mutually exclusive? (The star larvae hypothesis proposes above all, as did Whitehead, a biological interpretation: nature—the universe—as organism.)

The multiplicity of interpretations leads to a metaconclusion, perhaps, which is that we perceive the world through the lens of our instincts, conditioned biases, temperamental leanings and so on. Nothing profound there. But when we ponder the universe as a whole, the vastness of the object accommodates all conceptual frames. The concept of universe is an epistemological black hole.

The star larvae hypothesis embraces Schroeder's interpretation of Fermi's paradox because it points in a promising direction. But the hypothesis plays favorites. Schroeder says high-tech civilizations hide their garbage in plain view but camouflaged as nature.  The star larvae hypothesis says high-tech civilizations simply ARE nature. Nature is high tech.  Both narratives, though differing in their figure/ground designations, point to a common conclusion: If you want to see where technology is headed, look to nature.

The star larvae hypothesis invites us to contemplate the twinkles that dot the night sky and see the canopy not as housing, or hiding, technological civilizations but as comprising civilian technicians, engineered bodies abiding, alive.

*Clarke's first two laws, worth pondering in their own right, are (1) "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong;" and (2) "The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."