Skeptics and extropians

From: Dickey, Michael F (
Date: Wed Jan 16 2002 - 07:56:05 MST

Hi all, my first encounter with the 'extropians' was a small article written
in an old issue of 'Skeptic Magazine' The article was short but spoke of
extropians in a positive light, but made a point to recognize that people
can uncritically support any view point if it supports their world view.
The article warned of worshiping technological advance like a god. Though
it conceded that the extropians had a good point, at least for most problems
that plague humanity that can be solved will likely be solved through
science and technology, but considered the question of cheating death and
disease too far off to guarantee a resolution too. The article mentioned
some of the members, such as Roy Walford, Marvin Minksy, and Kurzweil,
people I knew of, read books by, and respected. Shermer, who is the
publisher of Skeptic magazine, now produces a skeptic bent TV shot called
'Exploring the Unknown' and writes a monthly column in Scientific American
under the title Skeptic. A few months back, he re-iterated the warnings of
uncritically placing faith in something (in this case the progress of
technology) when writing of cryogenic suspension. This month, however, he
writes an article describing how the first extra terrestrial intelligence we
come across will likely be so advanced as they will appear 'godlike' to us.
Interestingly, he hits on very extropian themes such as the singularity and
the prophetic and logical predictions of Kurzweil in 'Spiritual machines'
It seems that extropian ideas are creeping into the mainstream more science
fields more and more.

Here is the article.


Michael D


We have two spring events planned at Caltech: March 3 (John George on
Extremism and Terrorism) and April 28 (British cosmologist Janna Levin on
"How the Universe Got its Spots"). More on these later. Meanwhile, I thought
I would post my latest Scientific American column because this one generated
more reader mail than all my previous columns combined (9 previous ones). It
was mostly mail from Christians who argued that God cannot merely be an ET
because no ET would die for your sins. Here's the column. It appeared in the
January issue of Scientific American.

Shermer's Last Law

Any sufficiently advanced Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence is
from God

Michael Shermer

As scientist extraordinaire (most profoundly as inventor of the
communications satellite) and author of an empire of science fiction books
and films (most notably _2001: A Space Odyssey_), Arthur C. Clarke is one of
the most far-seeing visionaries of our time. Thus, his pithy quotations tug
harder on our collective psyches for their inferred insights into humanity
and our place in the cosmos. And none do so more than his famous three laws:

Clark's First Law: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that
something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he sing the limits
of the possible
is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."

Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic."

This last observation stimulated me to think more on the relationship of
science and religion, particularly the impact the discovery of an
Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (ETI) would have on both traditions. 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 warns, the last shall be
first and the first shall be last): _Any sufficiently advanced ETI is
indistinguishable from God_.

God is typically described by Western religions as omniscient and
Since we are far from the mark on these traits, how could we possibly
distinguish a God who has them absolutely, from an ETI who has them in
relatively (to us) copious amounts? Thus, we would be unable to distinguish
between absolute and relative omniscience and omnipotence. But if God were
only relatively more knowing and powerful than us, then by definition it
_would_ be an ETI! Consider two observations and one deduction:

1. Biological evolution operates at a snail's pace compared to technological
evolution (the former is Darwinian and requires generations of differential
reproductive success, the latter is Lamarckian and can be implemented within
a single generation). 2. The cosmos is very big and space is very empty
(_Voyager I_, our most distant spacecraft hurtling along at over 38,000 mph,
will not reach the distance of even our sun's nearest neighbor, the Alpha
Centauri system that it is _not_ even headed toward, for over 75,000 years).
Ergo, the probability of an ETI who is only slightly more advanced than us
and also makes contact is virtually nil. If we ever do find ETI it will be
if a million-year-old _Homo erectus_ were dropped into the middle of
Manhattan, given a computer and cell phone and instructed to communicate
us. ETI would be to us as we would be to this early hominid--godlike.

Science and technology have changed our world more in the past century than
it changed in the previous hundred centuries. It took 10,000 years to get
from the cart to the airplane, but only 66 years to get from powered flight
to a lunar landing. Moore's Law of computer power doubling every eighteen
months continues unabated and is now down to about a year. Ray Kurzweil, in
_The Age of Spiritual Machines_, calculates that there have been thirty-two
doublings since World War II, and that the Singularity point may be upon us
as early as 2030. The Singularity (as in the center of a black hole where
matter is so dense that its gravity is infinite) is the point at which total
computational power will rise to levels that are so far beyond anything that
we can imagine that they will appear near infinite and thus, relatively
speaking, be indistinguishable from omniscience (note the suffix!).

When this happens the world will change more in a decade than it did in the
previous thousand decades. Extrapolate that out a hundred thousand years, or
a million years (an eye blink on an evolutionary time scale and thus a
realistic estimate of how far advanced ETI will be, unless we happen to be
the first space-faring species, which is unlikely), and we get a
gut-wrenching, mind-warping feel for just how godlike these creatures would

In Clarke's 1953 novel _Childhood's End_, humanity reaches something like a
Singularity (with help from ETIs) and must make the transition to a higher
state of consciousness in order to grow out of childhood. One character
in the novel opines that "Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as
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
predicts that the relationship between the two will be profoundly effected
contact with ETI. To find out how we must follow Clarke's Second Law,
venturing courageously past the limits of the possible and into the unknown.
Ad astra!

Michael Shermer ( is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine,
the Director of the Skeptics Society (, host of the Skeptics
Science Lecture Series at Caltech, columnist for Scientific American
(, and author of Why People Believe Weird Things, How We
Believe, and The Borderlands of Science.

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