Re: seti@home is SORTA WORKING
Sun, 11 Jul 1999 18:32:45 -0700, Robert J. Bradbury, writes, quoting me (Hal):
> > We have faced many puzzles throughout the scientific era which seemed
> > intractable in their time. Nothing we see today in the universe is
> > inherently more difficult to understand. We have come up with solutions
> > in the past based firmly on natural law, without having to posit divine
> > intervention. There is every reason to expect that we will continue to
> > do so in the future.
> I believe I am presenting something that you might consider to be a
> natural law.
> In a rough form it goes something like:
> (a) Self-replicating nanomachinery randomly occurs
> (b) Self-replicating nanomachinery develops a program for
> self-preservation with occasional variants
> (c) Self-replicating nanomachinery "evolves" a mechanism for
> storing and utilizing "information" [software] (i.e. decisions
> based on learned experience) develops and trumps hardware
> (d) Intelligent software (IntlgtSft) develops (really trumping hardware)
> (e) IntlgtSft "comprehends" the rules of the game (and the limits).
> (f) IntlgtSft takes us to those limits.

But you are also suggesting that these events occur often enough that the local region of space is within the sphere of influence of your IntlgtSft. You aren't just arguing that maybe some of the bizarre galaxies we see are "alive", you are suggesting that our own galaxy is. And by the probabilities, it implies that our own region of space has been "alive" and under the control of intelligent software at least throughout human history.

Now, you want to invoke the "aliveness" of the local galaxy to explain astrophysical observations like gravitational anomalies. But why couldn't a philosopher of 200 or 1000 years ago similarly have evoked aliveness to explain the scientific puzzles of his day? We know, looking back, two things. First, many people did so, attributing natural phenomena to various gods. And second, such explanations, although easy, were wrong. Only by looking for reasons beyond godlike intervention have we made scientific progress.

Yet there is no stronger philosophical argument today to look for explanations in intelligent aliens than there was 500 years ago. If the aliens are responsible for gravitational anomalies, they could equally have been responsible for the epicycles of planetary motion. Since divine intervention has been wrong every time before in explaining Nature, we should continue to assume that it will be wrong in the future and look for explanations which don't rely on intelligent intervention.

I have offered various possibilities for invoking aliens to explain the universe, like putting up a giant TV for us, or meddling in human history, and you have agreed that these are possible. Perhaps you were being facetious. Please indicate clearly whether you think your ideas are any more likely to be true than these possibilities.

Personally, I agree with Robin Hanson's reasoning which I quoted earlier. The universe we see appears to be much the same everywhere, until you get way out to cosmological distances. Either it's all alive, or it's all dead, and at this point the evidence points towards "dead". That's simply the most economical interpretation of what we see around us.

As Robin emphasizes, this means that there must be a "great filter" which prevents your progession from occuring. Some or all of your steps must be hard ones. We don't know which ones are hard. It could be that some of the ones we have passed already are hard. Perhaps life is so astronomically impossible such that only one galaxy in 100 billion has even one planet that has evolved life by now. Or, more pessimistically, life and even intelligence may evolve more frequently, but it may be very hard to safely pass through some dangerous era which still lies ahead of us.

We don't know. I prefer to be optimistic and to hope that the hard steps lie behind us. That way I don't have to believe that most technological civilizations destroy themselves. But either view is more palatable than the belief that superintelligent aliens are all around us.