Shermer's Last Law

Date: Sat Dec 22 2001 - 22:59:28 MST

Shermer's Last Law

Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable
from God
<A HREF="">By MICHAEL SHERMER</A>...........

    As scientist extraordinaire and author of an empire of science-fiction
books, Arthur C. Clarke is one of the farthest-seeing visionaries of our
time. His pithy quotations tug harder than those of most futurists on our
collective psyches for their insights into humanity and our unique place in
the cosmos. And none do so more than his famous Third Law: "Any sufficiently
advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

This observation stimulated me to think about the impact the discovery of an
extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) would have on science and religion. To
that end, I would like to immodestly propose Shermer's Last Law (I don't
believe in naming laws after oneself, so as the good book says, the last
shall be first and the first shall be last): "Any sufficiently advanced ETI
is indistinguishable from God."

Because of science, our world has changed more in the past century than in
the previous 100 centuries.
God is typically described by Western religions as omniscient and omnipotent.
Because we are far from possessing these traits, how can we possibly
distinguish a God who has them absolutely from an ETI who merely has them
copiously relative to us? We can't. But if God were only relatively more
knowing and powerful than we are, then by definition the deity would be an

Consider that biological evolution operates at a snail's pace compared with
technological evolution (the former is Darwinian and requires generations of
differential reproductive success; the latter is Lamarckian and can be
accomplished within a single generation). Then, too, the cosmos is very big
and very empty. Voyager 1, our most distant spacecraft, hurtling along at
more than 38,000 miles per hour, will not reach the distance of even our
sun's nearest neighbor, the Alpha Centauri system (which it is not headed
toward), for more than 75,000 years.

Ergo, the probability that an ETI only slightly more advanced than we are
will make contact is virtually nil. If we ever do find an ETI, it will be as
though a million-year-old Homo erectus were dropped into the 21st century,
given a computer and cell phone and instructed to communicate with us. The
ETI would be to us as we would be to this early hominid--godlike.

Because of science and technology, our world has changed more in the past
century than in the previous 100 centuries. It took 10,000 years to get from
the dawn of civilization to the airplane but just 66 years to get from
powered flight to a lunar landing.

Moore's Law of computer power doubling every 18 months or so is now
approaching a year. Ray Kurzweil, in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines,
calculates that there have been 32 doublings since World War II and that the
singularity point--the point at which total computational power will rise to
levels so far beyond anything that we can imagine that it will appear nearly
infinite and thus be indistinguishable from omniscience--may be upon us as
early as 2050.

When that happens, the decade that follows will put the 100,000 years before
it to shame. Extrapolate out about a million years (just a blink on an
evolutionary timescale and therefore a realistic estimate of how far advanced
ETIs will be), and we get a gut-wrenching, mind-warping feel for how godlike
these creatures would seem. In Clarke's 1953 novel, called Childhood's End,
humanity reaches something like a singularity and must then make the
transition to a higher state of consciousness. One character early in the
story opines that "science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by
disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the
nonexistence of Zeus or Thor, but they have few followers now."

Although science has not even remotely destroyed religion, Shermer's Last Law
predicts that the relation between the two will be profoundly affected by
contact with an ETI. To find out how, we must follow Clarke's Second Law:
"The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a
little way past them into the impossible." Ad astra!


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