Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Natural Philosophy of Queerer and Queerer

A man's got to know his limitations.
--- Harry Callahan in Magnum Force 

A bit about Haldane's Law, and what it means about the search for other minds in the cosmos.

You might recall that in our first post, there was a quote from the great Enlightenment thinker David Hume.  To paraphrase, all we can understand is what we have felt - either internally or externally.  The essential point is that when faced with something unfamiliar we interpret it in terms of the familiar.  We discover the universe in small steps.  Big conceptual leaps are rare, and even they depend strongly on what the "internal sense" has long known.

J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964) was a distinguished evolutionary biologist and geneticist.  His Law is most often stated as:

I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.

A lifelong study of the evolution and diversity of life on Earth alone could easily have guided Haldane to that conclusion. We are still making sense of the biosphere that is right here in front of us, with the textbooks scrapped and rewritten on a regular basis.

Let's say Haldane was right. We believe we anticipate strangeness, but even the strangeness is strange. What could be stranger than a non-human intelligence, particularly a sophisticated one? Haldane says we can't meaningfully speculate about how strange they could become, and in ways we can't imagine. An alien being isn't just going to offer you a cup of coffee and then tell you about Seven Habits of Highly Effective Cosmic Guardians. Or it might, and then eat you.
Now that's discouraging. If Haldane was right, how can we know what to look for if we are in search of other minds in the universe? We might be looking straight at them and seeing nothing.

In fact, I would bet that we are doing just that. In his excellent book, The Eerie Silence, Paul Davies offers a different slant on the critique of UFO reality - that the UFO mythos taken as a whole isn't strange enough. Davies would fully expect something much weirder, not a phenomenon that falls right in line with millennia of folklore. There are those who would argue that UFOs are in fact plenty strange, but I think Davies has a point. If what is going on is something we can understand or even clearly define, then it's probably not aliens.
And yet when we talk about our first encounter with a non-human intelligences, we often think in terms of Hollywood fantasies like The Day the Earth Stood Still. Klaatu is a mythical man very much of Earthly making, and his landing on the Washington Mall only makes far too much sense to us. Why haven't they landed on the White House lawn? They already did - in our imaginations, which is likely as close as "they" will get. We are going to have to get way beyond that sort of scenario

So, if we are to form any hypotheses, or even conjectures, so we know what to look for when go in search of Other Minds, what hope do we have in light of Haldane's law? I don't have a clear answer, but perhaps we can formulate it in terms of our own limitations, and look for the silence behind our blind spots. What can't we see, and why?  

I am hopeful. Experience shows that we humans can eventually, over generations, get our arms around some pretty strange ideas, primarily using our talent for abstraction. For example, the very odd idea of a black hole was fished out of the mathematics of Einstein's equations decades before the first solid observational evidence that such things existed. By the time astronomers were ready to go looking for black holes, the theorists already had a fair idea of what to search for. Now there is evidence for many billions of black holes all over the universe and they are well incorporated into the astronomical paradigm.

The other bit of hope is that maybe Haldane's law is limited, and doesn't really hold for alien intelligences. Perhaps the constraints on the evolution of sentient life are so tight that we all end up resembling each other in important ways. Perhaps. But don't bet on it.

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