Month: February 2017

Building the Tower of Babel

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I spent this past weekend visiting some old friends. One of my friends is a Dominican Friar who was gracious enough to allow me to stay in one of the guest rooms at his Priory. One night while I was there he invited me to sit down with the other friars during their social hour. I think mostly he just wanted me to meet them, but as I was sitting there they ended up on the subject of what level of human technological enhancement was appropriate. Obviously this is a somewhat fraught issue for most religions, and definitely all of the traditional religions. I don’t want to misconstrue what my hosts said, nor do I claim any great insight into Catholic doctrine on this matter, so I won’t attempt to reconstruct the discussion. But it led to a conversation with my friend afterwards where I mentioned the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA). I’ve always felt that the MTA seemed to have missed the point of the story of the Tower of Babel, and my friend the Dominican (without any prodding from me) jumped to an identical conclusion. It was nice to have the support of someone else on this point and additionally it reminded me that I had wanted to write a post examining just this question. That is, does the story of the Tower of Babel speak to the goals religious transhumanism?

To conduct the examination we need to answer two questions: First is the story of the Tower of Babel a caution about using technology in an attempt to become like God? Second is using technology to become like God one of the primary goals of the MTA? The second question is easier to answer than the first so we’ll begin there.

It is always dangerous to speak for a group you do not belong to, particularly when you are a critic of the group. I could point out that my criticism is meant in the most constructive and friendly way possible. But, even so, as a reader you would have every right to question my objectivity on this point. If you have any worries on this point I would urge you to follow all the links and educate yourself by reading what the MTA says about itself. That said I am not trying to be unfair or prejudiced, and in that spirit here is my best summary of what the MTA believes: All of the promises made by Christianity, and Mormonism in particular, (resurrection, immortality, the creation of worlds, etc) are going to be accomplished through human ingenuity, in the form of technology. As I said you should follow the links to their website, but I think point four of the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation says much the same thing:

We believe that scientific knowledge and technological power are among the means ordained of God to enable such exaltation, including realization of diverse prophetic visions of transfiguration, immortality, resurrection, renewal of this world, and the discovery and creation of worlds without end.

Perhaps, this, by itself, is already enough, and, from the standpoint of religion, you can already easily see why the Tower of Babel story is applicable. But for those that are not convinced or would like more evidence, let me break it down. First the principles I’ve already pointed out are just the Mormon veneer on top of main body of transhumanism. The MTA is not merely espousing a particular Mormon take on transhumanism they fully endorse the goals of the broader transhumanist movement. This is made clear when they explain what it takes to join the MTA:

The association requires that all members support the Transhumanist Declaration and the Mormon Transhumanist Affirmation.

The Transhumanist Declaration gives one the impression that the sky’s the limit with respect to technological enhancement. For example let’s look at points 1 and 8 of the declaration (the first and last points):

Humanity stands to be profoundly affected by science and technology in the future. We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth.

We favour allowing individuals wide personal choice over how they enable their lives. This includes use of techniques that may be developed to assist memory, concentration, and mental energy; life extension therapies; reproductive choice technologies; cryonics procedures; and many other possible human modification and enhancement technologies.

If you’re still not convinced let me close this section by providing a few examples of things transhumanists and the MTA in particular are definitely in favor of:

Cryonics: That is freezing or otherwise preserving someone when they die with a view towards bringing them back from the dead at some future point.

Genetic Modification: Obviously genetic modification can take many forms, but under the heading of human modification and enhancement the MTA is in favor of using it to the maximum extent possible as a means of increasing intelligence and of course, eventually providing immortality. If you’ve seen the movie Gattaca that’s probably a pretty fair representation.

Cybernetic enhancements: This category might cover getting rid of perfectly functional eyes and replacing them with more advanced robotic eyes, or some sort of direct connection between your brain and a computer (think the headjack from the Matrix.)

Mind uploading: The most radical idea of all would be the ability to copy your mind and then upload it to some sort of computer, allowing you to live on as a virtual being. This enhancement encompasses the benefits of all the previous enhancements, but is also probably the most difficult technically.

As I said I’m reluctant to speak for a group I’m critical of, and if you have doubts as to whether I’m accurately portraying the principles espoused by the MTA then you should definitely follow the links and read things for yourself, but from where I stand there can be very little doubt that the answer to my second question is: yes, one of the MTA’s primary goals is to become like God through the use of technology. With that, hopefully, out of the way let’s turn to the first and more important question. For the religious, is the Tower of Babel story a caution against efforts like this? Or more broadly what is the official LDS stance on achieving divinity through technology?

There will of course be people who think this sort of technological enhancement is a good idea regardless of what I say about the Tower of Babel or anything else. And there will be people who think it’s a bad idea, also regardless of what I say, but for those in the middle the Tower of Babel is a good place to start. Particularly if you’re Mormon. (Though as I pointed out even my very Catholic friend immediately made reference to the story of Babel.)

The reason it’s particularly good for Mormons is that it’s one of the few Old Testament stories to be mentioned in the Book of Mormon. And of those it’s definitely the most prominent. If we proceed from the assumption that everything in the Book of Mormon was put there for a reason why was it necessary to have a second telling of the story of the Tower of Babel? If you accept the idea that it’s a cautionary tale about using technology to achieve divinity in circumvention of God then the straightforward answer is that this is an issue modern saints would be grappling with and it was therefore helpful to have a reminder. I don’t know about you, but on the face of it, this connection, along with the underlying moral, make a lot of sense. And in fact I’m going to call this the traditional interpretation. However for the moment let’s assume that this is not the moral of the story of Babel. This is obviously the MTA’s position. And if it isn’t the moral why do we need a duplicate account? What is the alternative moral which is so important that the story needed to be repeated?

Lincoln Cannon is one of the founders of the MTA and a past president and therefore among its most vocal defenders. As you might imagine he has written an article explaining that the goals of the MTA are not the same thing we are being warned about in the story of Tower of Babel. This article is titled Ethical Progress is Not Babel, and I intend to deal with it in depth, but for the moment we’re just looking to see if he has an alternative moral for the story. I would say that he alludes to one. Drawing on a quote from Lorenzo Snow (which we’ll return to) Cannon writes:

Snow suggests that the builders’ moral failing was in allowing technical achievements to outpace moral achievements. The technical achievements in themselves were not the problem, but rather the problem was the relative lack of virtue.

To begin with even if we grant this moral, which we’ll call the MTA interpretation, I’m not sure that our technical achievements haven’t outstripped our moral achievements. A subject I’ll be returning to. But, also, why would this moral be more likely than the more obvious moral. Or to put in other terms how can we go about deciding which moral is more likely to be correct? Of course as religious people we are entitled to receive revelation with something like this, but as that is largely a personal endeavor we’re going to leave it out. What methods can we turn to in the absence of revelation?

Well first, most of the lessons contained in the scriptures are pretty simple. We’re told to have faith, repent, get baptized, love God and each other. I’d be willing to grant that the traditional interpretation of the Tower of Babel story is not quite that simple, but it’s certainly more simple than the MTA interpretation.

Second, when the Lord does instruct us through the scriptures, the obvious explanation is almost always the correct one. (I understand saying “correct” is a loaded term, but I think you know what I mean.) This is not to say there aren’t layers of meaning to the scriptures. But that’s not what we’re seeing here, the MTA interpretation ends up in a place that’s almost the exact opposite of the obvious meaning. I definitely can’t think of any scripture where God commands people to, for example, tell the truth, and the correct interpretation ends up being that lying is the only way to be saved.

Finally most gospel principles are repeated multiple times, but I can’t think of another place where we’re urged to not let our technology outstrip our ethics. Or where we’re urged to pursue technology as the true source of all the long promised blessings. In other words what other scriptures support the MTA interpretation? On the other hand there are lots of examples of scriptures which support the traditional interpretation. To give just a few examples:

  • When the Children of Israel made the Golden Calf: This may not seem very high tech to you, but for the time it was. Also this is another example of finding salvation in something we’re able to build for ourselves while ignoring the plain commandments of God.
  • Another, similar example is the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Once again we have someone using wealth, power and yes, technology to redirect legitimate worship away from God and to something constructed and conceived by humans. And once again the right course was to refuse to bow down, even if it meant being thrown into the fiery furnace.
  • Moving from the Old Testament to the New we have the story of Simon, who sought to buy God’s power. At first glance you may not immediately see a connection, but if we do manage to reverse aging or resurrect people, or upload their mind into a computer. It’s going to be far easier to access that technology with money than by living a good life.
  • Moving to the Book of Mormon, not only do we have a repeat of the story of Babel, but we also have the story of the Rameumptom. Again, it may not seem like technology, but it’s another example of people building something designed to act as a shortcut to salvation. It’s basically an exact mirror of the Tower of Babel story only on a smaller scale.

It’s possible that you don’t see the connection in one or more of the examples I just cited. But for the MTA interpretation to be the best interpretation of the Tower of Babel story, you have to:

  1. Reject all the supporting examples for the traditional interpretation.
  2. Find other scriptural examples which support the MTA interpretation.
  3. Explain why the MTA interpretation is the more correct interpretation despite being more complicated.
  4. Justify why an interpretation which is exactly the opposite of the obvious interpretation is nevertheless the correct one.

As I mentioned already, Cannon has an article explaining how the Tower of Babel doesn’t mean what I (or my friend the Catholic Priest) think it means, and it’s finally time to turn to that article and examine his argument. Though if you’re expecting him to cover all four of the points I just made (or actually any of the points I just made) you’re going to be disappointed. Still he brings in some interesting sources, so it’s worth taking a look at what he has to say.

The first quote, which I already alluded to, is from Lorenzo Snow:

We should strive earnestly to establish the principles of heaven within us, rather than trouble ourselves in fostering anxieties like the foolish people of the Tower of Babel, to reach its location before we are properly and lawfully prepared to become its inhabitants. Its advantages and blessings, in a measure, can be obtained in this probationary state by learning to live in conformity with its laws and the practice of its principles. To do this, there must be a feeling and determination to do God’s will.

This is the statement Cannon draws on for his moral for the story of Babel, that is, that we should not let technology get ahead of morality. To be honest I’m not really getting that from this quote. I think, if anything, a better interpretation would be that we need to focus on our personal righteousness, rather than being anxious or even concerned about whether we can hasten salvation with technology.

Also, I find the term “lawfully”, and his discussion of conforming to the laws, to be interesting as well. There are certain covenants associated with salvation. And some of those are associated with major life events. We’re baptized when we reach the age of eight, we prepare for the afterlife by going through the temple at around the time we are considered to be adults. Additionally, while they aren’t technically covenants, we have baby blessings for the newly born and we dedicate the graves of the newly dead. What sort of law or ritual applies to being revived from cryonics, or being reconstructed from DNA? Are the brethren just waiting until the technology is ready before introducing the ordinance of cloning?

Returning to the Snow quote. I could certainly see how other people might have a different interpretation of it than I do, but I can’t see anyone declaring it to be slam dunk for the MTA interpretation of the Tower of Babel.

The second quote he references is a long one from John Taylor. In fact Cannon’s article is 2/3rds quotes from early Church leaders and only 1/3rd his explanation of those quotes. He is making a complicated and controversial claim and one of my criticisms is that 400 words does not seem sufficient to explain it. In any event back to the Taylor quote. I won’t include all of it, but Cannon helpfully bolds two sections, the second of which appears to be speaking the most directly to his point:

We are here to do a work; not a small one, but a large one. We are here to help the Lord to build up his kingdom, and if we have any knowledge of electricity, we thank God for it. If we have any knowledge of the power of steam, we will say its from God. If we possess any other scientific information about the earth whereon we stand, or of the elements with which we are surrounded, we will thank God for the information, and say he has inspired men from time to time to understand them, and we will go on and grasp more intelligence, light and information, until we comprehend as we are comprehended of God.

I have no problem agreeing that John Taylor is here saying that technology comes from God. That technology is not evil. But there is a huge difference between saying that technology comes from God and saying that technology is how we become Gods. Additionally there is a difference of kind and not merely of degree between using technology to broadcast General Conference to, say, Tierra del Fuego and using technology to live forever. Again, it’s an interesting quote, but it is not even close to being the same as the MTA interpretation of the Tower of Babel story. Still, if you have any doubts, I urge you to read Cannon’s entire article.

The final quote he includes is from Joseph Smith:

This day I have been walking through the most splended part of the City of n New Y- the buildings are truly great and wonderful to the astonishing [of] to eve[r]y beholder and the language of my heart is like this can the great God of all the Earth maker of all thing[s] magnificent and splendid be displeased with man for all these great inventions saught out by them my answer is no it can not be seeing these works are are calculated to mak[e] men comfortable wise and happy therefore not for the works can the Lord be displeased only aganst man is the anger of the Lord Kindled because they Give him not the Glory.

(The spelling and punctuation are from the original document.)

At this point I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but yes, we agree technology is not evil by itself. Technology can be useful both in general and as it relates to the specific goals of the Church. But none of these quotes speak to the specific idea of using technology as a way of accomplishing all the things God has promised. I don’t think it’s very controversial to say that in the middle of the 1800’s when the Presidents of the Church talked about technology that they were not speaking about mind uploading, cybernetic replacement or cryonic resurrection. Fortunately one of the great things about the LDS Church is that we have ongoing revelation, and 15 prophetic leaders who give us counsel twice a year. And as far as I can tell none of them have come out in support of any of these technologies, certainly not as the means for achieving something like the resurrection of the dead as described in scriptures

And yet if the MTA is to be believed this is how it’s going to be done. Which means these aren’t marginal issues that reasonable people might disagree on, like whether it’s okay to take doctor prescribed marijuana in states where it’s now legal. Rather, issues like resurrection and immortality are fundamental to the entire gospel plan. And if the brethren aren’t pursuing them or investing in them or even talking about them, what does that say? And remember the Church does invest in things, if this is as important as the MTA claims, what does it say when the Church invests in the City Creek Mall, but not in life extension technologies? If these things are as critical to the gospel plan as the MTA claims then the only conclusion is that the brethren have completely failed in their jobs. It’s difficult to see how these two viewpoints can even co-exist, and one is tempted to view the MTA as more of a schismatic offshoot, than anything else.

In closing, let’s change tacks, and imagine that it’s true. Imagine that the MTA is everything it claims to be and God’s plan is to allow us to discover and perfect the technology necessary to achieve Godhood on our own. The MTA itself admits that this is only possible if our morality keeps pace with our technology. As you look around and take stock of the modern world, do you really think that’s the case? Are we really that much more righteous with our computers and jet airliners than the early saints were with their electricity and steam engines? Are we a thousand times more righteous than the twelve disciples and the people who followed Jesus because their technology was a thousand times more primitive? Is the modern world really so righteous that people who can barely be trusted with iPhones, are nevertheless on course to be trusted with omnipotence?


I’m definitely not ready for omnipotence, but I may be ready to handle the responsibility of a dollar a month, if you think so too, consider donating.


Picking Apart Immigration

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After our brief detour through Fermi’s Paradox, it’s time to return to politics, if only because it’s been so crazy. It’s a few days shy of a month since the inauguration and whatever your criticisms of Trump might be I don’t think anyone would say that he’s been lethargic. As of this writing he’s issued 12 executive orders, along with 12 presidential memorandums and four proclamations. Interestingly, this is actually about the same rate, if not a little slower than Obama’s pace during his first few weeks. Though I don’t remember anywhere near the same level of uproar. Which probably says something.

Trump being Trump I assume that everything he does generates some level of controversy, but the greatest controversy has been reserved for his seven country travel ban. And if I’m going to dive back into politics I might as well dive in at the deep end. Which I guess means that I’m less likely to break my neck, but more likely to drown? Or perhaps what it means is I’ve stretched the metaphor too far. In any event let’s talk about Trump’s travel ban and the issue of immigration more broadly.

Of course it’s difficult to deal with anything this controversial without courting controversy yourself, and I imagine this is going to be one of those blog posts which may get me into trouble. But that’s why they call me Jeremiah.

The travel ban is controversial for at least three reasons. First because it was enacted by Trump and at this point anything Trump does is going to be controversial. Second because of it’s shoddy and rushed implementation. And third because it’s part of the larger immigration debate which was hugely polarized long before Trump even entered the scene. I would argue that the actual travel ban, when considered in isolation, is not that controversial. You could certainly imagine Bush enacting something similar in the wake of 9/11 and getting very little push back. Perhaps you disagree with me on this, that’s fine. The point I’m really trying to get at is that while I think the ban looks differently when viewed in isolation, it’s very difficult to do that. The issue of immigration is so divisive already that any particular policy is going to come with a certain amount of rage already built in. But, perhaps if we can’t isolate the ban we can at least look at the broader issue of immigration in isolation from the very emotional subject of Donald Trump. In other words I think the best way to understand the travel ban is to start at the exact opposite end of things, with a 50,000 ft. view of immigration in its entirety.

For this 50,000 ft. view I’m going to start with a thought experiment. For the purposes of our experiment I’m only going to talk about the US, even though Europe is arguably dealing with an even larger immigration crisis. With that caveat in place our thought experiment is, how many people would immigrate if there were zero restrictions? Fortunately, for us, they do polls on this subject and so we don’t have to guess. According to these polls, as of 2010 there were an estimated 145 million people who wanted to come to the US. That’s a good number to start with, but there are several reasons to think that it might be low.

First, 2010 was before the recent migrant crisis, in particular it was before the Syrian Civil War.  Presumably, at a minimum, there are a lot more Syrians who would like to come to the US in 2017 than there were in 2010. Second, the population has continued to increase in many of the places where people are most eager to emigrate. (For example the population of Sub-Saharan Africa has gone up by at least 120 million people since 2010). But the biggest reason for assuming that 145 million is low, is that those are just the people who have the US down as their first choice. The true number of people who want to immigrate period is actually 458 million, and I assume that if someone from Syria has put down New Zealand as their first choice, that if that doesn’t work out they’re more likely to change their immigration destination, rather than giving up all together. In other words I’m sure they’d “settle” for the US if the US had no immigration restrictions and New Zealand did. Finally, it’s unclear how the current immigration system factors into the polling. The poll question was just “To which country would you like to move?” I assume at least some people factor in the legality of immigrating when answering the question and if there were no restrictions the number of people who would like to move to the US would almost certainly go up.

You are welcome to follow the link to the poll and come up with your own number, but as far as I can tell 145 million is the bare minimum, and I don’t think it would be at all unreasonable to assume that the number might be as high as 640 million. If you suspect that I didn’t pick that number at random, you’re right, it’s twice the current population of the US. And given that there are billions and billions of people worse off than even the most impoverished Americans, the 640 million estimate might still be too conservative. In any event, as I frequently say, I can’t predict the future, so I don’t know how many people would actually immigrate if there were zero restrictions, but it does seem like picking a number in the hundreds of millions is a very safe bet. So rather than telling you what my estimate is, or fixing on some number as a best guess, I want you to just pick a number. How many people would come to the US if there were really no restrictions on immigration? If the number you pick is lower than 100 million I might accuse you of being naive, but you’re free to choose whatever number you feel is reasonable. Do you have the number? Good.

Now, based on that number, do you think it would be feasible to get rid of all restrictions on immigration? Of course there are all sorts of reasons for it being infeasible. It could be politically infeasible or logistically infeasible, it could be infeasible from the standpoint of assimilation, or, to pick what I imagine would be one of the most common objections it could be infeasible because it would end up letting in too many terrorists. We’re going to talk about all of these issues in just a minute, but let’s imagine that you’ve already considered all of them, and despite that you’re of the opinion that it is feasible. Perhaps you think free market forces and the invisible hand would end up solving all the difficulties. At this point, if, after coming up with a number and considering feasibility, you consider it doable, then great. Go ahead and advocate for that, go ahead and fight for that solution. I feel that it’s hopelessly unrealistic, but at least there is zero hypocrisy. At least it’s a coherent ideology. And who knows it might be worth trying. In other words you’re done. You can skip the rest of the post. You already have a solution to the immigration problem.

However, I suspect that if you’re intellectually honest than you will admit that we probably can’t have completely unrestricted immigration. No one seriously imagines that you could triple the population of the US, and even increasing it by 50% (the 145 million estimate) would be colossally difficult even if there weren’t political obstacles. And the election of Trump, if it has done nothing else, has, at a minimum, demonstrated conclusively that there are political obstacles to more immigration.  Having established that unrestricted immigration is not an option, all that is left is restricted immigration. But what standard should we use in arriving at these restrictions? There’s obviously two sides to the issue, and most people approach restrictions from the standpoint of, “Who do we want to let in?” but when speaking of restrictions it makes at least as much sense to approach them from the standpoint of, “Who do we want to keep out?” But as the first approach is more common we’ll start there.

To start with let’s establish a baseline by looking at how we currently handle immigration. Once we have some idea of the current standard, we can move on to discussing other possible standards. Perhaps the easiest way to discuss the current situation is by providing a few statistics:

  • The current number of legal immigrants in the US currently stands at 42.4 million as of 2014.
  • Of these 50% are from Latin America, and over half of the Latin American immigrants (or 27% of total) are from Mexico.
  • The top ten countries for immigration are either in Latin America, large countries themselves (China, India) or have a long standing relationship with the US. (Philippines, South Korea and Vietnam).  
  • The top ten countries account for 60% of all immigrants.
  • Of the 42.4 million immigrants 11.4 million are here illegally, and of those 62% are from Mexico.

Based on these numbers, if I were going to describe the standard underlying the current system I might say that it’s “proximity”. The closer the country is the more immigrants there are. Obviously you would also have to factor in poverty and need to a certain extent, though Canada still comes in at #11, and most people would not consider the Canadians to be noticeably more impoverished than the Americans. But they are proximate. As I mentioned, there are a fair number of Chinese and Indian immigrants, but that’s mostly because there’s a fair number of Chinese and Indians period. If you looked at the number of Chinese immigrants as a percentage of all people who are ethnically Chinese you’d find that the percentage is pretty small. Therefore I still think proximity is the best standard for describing our current system. Once again, if for some reason an immigration system based on proximity seems perfect (or as perfect as we’re likely to achieve) then, like the people in favor of zero restrictions, you can skip the rest of the post.

In case it isn’t clear, my goal is not to convince you of the correctness of my opinions on immigration, but rather to help you examine your own opinions with a little more depth. Having covered the current system, let’s move to examining some other potential standards for deciding who we should admit and what a system would look like if it was built around that standard.

The first standard I’d like to discuss and the value that many people point to when talking about immigration is the value of need. When you hear about refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War or Iraqis who helped out American troops, and now fear for their life, these are people invoking the value of need. Within the LDS Church we heard something very much along these lines with Elder Patrick Kearon’s talk during last April’s General Conference. I am certainly sympathetic to this standard, and would be happy to count myself as a devotee. But as we’ve already seen, just because we’ve decided on a standard doesn’t mean that we can suddenly let in everyone who meets the standard. Ideally we’d welcome the most needy people because that’s where we can do the greatest good.

As I said I’d be happy to count myself as an adherent of the standard of need. Which is in part why the current immigration system is so depressing. Definitely there is some allowance for need, but it’s remarkably small. If we compare the list of the ten poorest countries in the world with the list of countries with more than 50,000 immigrants, we find that only two of the bottom ten countries even appear on that list. Mexico, which is generally ranked around 68th in per capita GDP (putting it in the upper half and almost in the upper third of countries) dominates immigration statistics. But under any rational standard of need, which recognized that we couldn’t take everyone, we would almost certainly exclude a country whose biggest food issue is eating too much of it.

Another standard which is commonly referenced is the standard of admitting immigrants based on their usefulness. Many people who extol the virtues of immigration often point to all of the businesses which have been started by immigrants, or they might mention that the CEO of Microsoft is an immigrant. Once again, there is a small allowance for this sort of thing in our current immigration system, the best known example being the H-1B Visa. But many people argue that with programs like the H-1B, that it’s far more a question of cost than of competence. Companies like Apple and Microsoft and Facebook and Google hire people on the H1-B Visa not because there are no Americans capable of doing the job but because hiring Americans is expensive. By this I am not saying that there’s no benefit to allowing people like Sergey Brin and Elon Musk to immigrate, or that there’s not some benefit to the economy at large. Merely that the number of people who are truly unique is pretty small. There is only one Einstein, but there are thousands of junior database administrators. Which is to say that this standard, unlike the previous standard does not truly apply to that many people and even as it is currently implemented it excludes far more people than it includes.

As I said when examining people based on their usefulness it’s less about a unique skill set and more about reducing cost. At first glance this seems like straight indefensible greed. But advocates will argue that this is not the case. That importing skilled (and unskilled workers) is the best thing to do economically. The issue then becomes economically best for who? Several people have remarked that you see very few billionaires who are opposed to immigration, but there are a lot of people in the bottom 25% who are very opposed to immigration. And I would argue that they probably have a point. When you consider the increasing automation of low-end jobs (and the subsequent competition for those that remain), the increasing inequality and above all the increase in generalized despair. It seems evident that when people talk about what’s economically best they may only be talking about a very narrow slice of the country and its citizens.

As I mentioned above when people talk about immigration being a net good, when they advance a theory of the “more the merrier”, they are largely operating from this capitalistic, invisible hand standard. But as we’ve agreed we can’t accept everyone, there has to be a cut off, and the problem with this particular standard is that the cut of is extremely vague. First off we may have already passed it and secondly it becomes difficult to shut off immigration even if we have. Not only is there the expectations of current and future immigrants but there are also the expectations among business owners that they will continue to have access to cheap labor. Thus you can easily end up in a situation where immigrants and business owners may continue to benefit long past the time when it has become a net loss to the society at large.

At this point we have three standards for accepting immigrants: need, utility, and economic benefits. You can certainly see how our current system mostly does a horrible job of trying to combine all three which results in defaulting to a system of immigration being decided by proximity. Additionally there are certainly other standards which I haven’t mentioned but all of them come down to a question of who gets admitted and who gets rejected.

Now I’d like to turn towards examining two standards which approach things from the standpoint of who should be excluded. The first standard is very simple. It’s the legal standard. When deciding whether to admit or reject immigrants what does the law say? This is another standard under which our current system does very poorly, with the law being completely disregarded in many cases and in many places. It is also the standard which has prompted perhaps the greatest amount of debate, with things going so far that the sides can’t even agree on which terms to use. One side speaking of immigrants being illegal while the other side speaks of them being merely undocumented. I’ve spoken before about the dangers of abandoning the law. And while I don’t think this is quite as high stakes as the presidential question, it’s still a very bad idea to route around laws you find inconvenient.

The second exclusionary standard I’d like to discuss involves assimilation. One of the biggest throttles to immigration is the speed at which we can assimilate new immigrants. This is of course if you believe in the need for assimilation, which many people do not. I don’t have the space to get into a full discussion of all the various arguments being made by the two sides, but I think that anyone who suggests that no assimilation is required, is frankly, being ridiculous. Under that standard if you forcibly deported all the people from North Dakota and brought in the entire country of Bhutan (they have roughly the same population), you would expect that, other than the cuisine and the language, you wouldn’t notice any difference. They would have the same educational attainment, the same economy, the same roads, etc. As I said this is ridiculous. You may disagree with the level of assimilation required, you may disagree with what assimilation should involve, and we may have serious differences on the speed of assimilation, but there is a limit to the number of immigrants who can be assimilated, and I am strongly of the opinion that the emphasis on diversity has actually slowed down the rate of assimilation.

In the end what’s missing from the issue, and what I’ve, in some small way, attempted to provided is rational discussion. I don’t really care which standard you feel we should apply in deciding who to accept, or whether you feel like only the barest amount of assimilation is necessary or whether you feel that Trump is a gigantic bigot. What I do care about is getting people to acknowledge that there are hard choices to be made. If you’re in favor of lots of immigration, I assume it’s because you believe that there are lots of benefits. Do you also believe that there are some downsides as well? If so what are they? What are you willing to do to mitigate them? Perhaps you think that we already do a lot to mitigate these risks, but even with the best screening in the world there are going to be some immigrants who do bad things. Bad things which wouldn’t have happened if there were no immigrants. How much bad stuff are you willing to tolerate? Would you be okay with another 9/11? The point is not to say that there is going to be another 9/11, but to get people to rationally consider the tradeoffs of immigration. And, as I said from the very beginning, even in the best case scenario, we are going to have to reject some, if not most of the people who want to come to the US.

In closing, this point about rational discussion is critical. For years both parties have avoided it. And every single presidential candidate going back to Reagan has essentially taken the position that immigration is an unmitigated benefit. There was no debate, there was no discussion, everyone in power (with a few exceptions) advocated greater levels of immigration and turned a blind eye to the current system’s many problems. This is, until Trump came along. He was a horrible candidate, his twitter feed is a study in bad decisions, he is almost certainly a narcissist, and he had scandals that would have sunk anyone else, but he talked openly about immigration, and pointed out the many problems with the current system. And now he’s President. Was it solely his stance on immigration? Maybe, but it’s also certain he wouldn’t have won without it. In the end by refusing to openly and rationally discuss immigration the people in power gave an enormous boost to the first candidate who did. And that candidate just happened to be Trump.


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Fermi’s Paradox and the Dark Forest

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I thought that while I was in the zone I would continue the discussion of Fermi’s Paradox I started in my last episode. As a reminder, the paradox is, that, despite the seemingly high probability that aliens exist, we have seen no evidence of them. As I also mentioned in my last episode (and explained at great length in an episode I recorded late last year) my explanation of the paradox is that we ARE communicating with aliens we just call the communication prayer, and the aliens God.

In order for this to make sense I am assuming that given enough time that aliens would be indistinguishable from gods. From a technological perspective everyone seems to basically agree that this would be the case. But what about from the standpoint of morality? Would aliens with the technology of gods also have the benevolence of gods?

At least one explanation of the paradox argues that aliens aren’t naturally benevolent. That in fact the reason we see no evidence of aliens is that they’re all hiding, worried that by revealing their presence they will give away their location to a galaxy full of other aliens who are not only more powerful, but who, once alerted to their existence, will have every reason to destroy them.

The recent science fiction series Remembrance of Earth’s Past (also called the Three Body Trilogy) by Chinese author Liu Cixin is built around this explanation of the paradox, and once again if you’re worried about spoilers you might just want to skip this episode.

Still here? Very well then, he calls this explanation the Dark Forest, and he describes it thusly:

The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life–another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod–there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.

Liu’s theory, and by extension his worry is not unique. There are many people who warn about the dangers of actively revealing our location and existence to the rest of the universe. Stephen Hawking has said that we should avoid revealing ourselves to aliens because contact between us would end up similar to contact between the Native Americans and the Europeans (with humanity playing the role of the Native Americans). David Brin, a noted science fiction author, has also been very vocal in urging caution. These people would have no need to issue warnings if there was not group of people, on the opposite side of the issue, who actively advocate broadcasting our existence as widely as possible. These broadcasts are called either METI (Messages to ExTraterrestrial Intelligences) or Active SETI (Search for ExTraterrestrial Intelligence). The two sides both have valid points, and it is not my intention to enter into a debate on the merits of METI. I’m more interested in discussing how benevolent advanced aliens are likely to be, though I can see where that discussion could have a definite bearing on the wisdom of METI.

As long as we’re in the realm of science fiction, there is another set of books which explores this issue. This series of books by Fred Saberhagen is about an intergalactic scourge of self-replicating robots called the Berserkers.  (Imagine the Terminator movies only on a galactic scale.) The Berserkers were created long ago in a war between two extraterrestrial races. Having passed beyond the control of their creators their mission is to destroy all life, and they feel no remorse or pity.  The books follow the desperate war for survival humanity is forced to wage against this most implacable foe. These fictional Berserkers are a fantastic example of exactly the sort of thing that Brin and Hawking are worried about. And if that’s the kind of aliens who are out there, then we should indeed do our best to remain hidden and it further goes without saying that METI is a colossally bad idea. But are the Berzerkers a good representation of the extraterrestrial civilizations we’re likely to meet? Or to restate it, what level of benevolence should we expect from an extraterrestrial civilization when and if we ever encounter one?

Let’s start by examining the hypothetical malevolent, aliens. The kind who wander the Dark Forest shooting infants and old men on sight. We can imagine that they would come in two types.

The first type are purposefully malevolent, e.g. the already mentioned Berserkers. While they could be similar to what was envisioned by Saberhagen, they could also take the form of an out of control AI, some sort of resource maximizer with no morality we can detect or a morality completely foreign to us. Despite our inability to understand them, they would have an expansive and all consuming purpose. Something that drives the extraterrestrial civilization to swallow up humanity if for no other reason than that they represent resources which can be put to better use.

Extraterrestrial civilizations in this category would not need to be truly malevolent, anymore than someone building a road is expressing malevolence towards the ant hill they pave over. The best example of this in fiction might be the opening of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Vogons show up to destroy Earth because it’s in the way of a hyper-spatial bypass. There is more interaction between the humans and aliens than between us and an anthill, but not much more. Humanity is simply not important to them. When one considers the, almost certain, vast technological difference between humans and any aliens we might encounter, positing that the interaction might be similar to that between us and the ants is probably not far off.

Of this first type we can say a couple of things, to begin with they would spread fast. In the example of both the Berserkers and the resource maximizers their malevolence comes from their single-minded motivation. This single mindedness would drive them to accomplish their goals in the most expeditious fashion possible which means expanding at a truly blistering rate from the standpoint of interstellar travel. Of course as has been discussed here and elsewhere it doesn’t even take a blistering rate of expansion for the Milky Way to have long ago been completely colonized.

Thus we are once again brought to Fermi’s Paradox and the question that created it, “Where is everybody?” If there is an advanced, expansionistic, single-minded, malevolent civilization out there, why have they not already arrived? The arguments related to this are well-trod, both by myself and others, but to restate it as it relates to this particular argument. Let’s assume that if we can make it another 10,000 years that we won’t have to worry about the Berserkers because it will either be obvious that they don’t exist or we will be technologically advanced enough to not have to worry. That sounds like a long time, but for the kind of rapaciously malevolent civilization we’re talking about it wouldn’t matter if they got to Earth two billion years ago or tomorrow, the result is the same. If the Berserkers had shown up at any point since the start of life 3.8 billion years ago, we’re assuming that it would all be over. In other words we’re 99.9997% through the danger zone. I choose the figure of 10,000 years, but if it makes you feel better you could use 100,000 or a million years and all you’re doing is moving the decimal point one or two places. The point is that if this kind of extraterrestrial civilization exists they should have wiped out life on Earth long, long ago.

The second category of malevolent extraterrestrial civilizations resembles the Europeans I mentioned earlier. They’re not single-minded about anything. They have plenty to keep the occupied in their own corner of the galaxy, but if they become aware of us, or specifically aware that we have something valuable. Some number of them will arrive to take it from us, without much concern for the impact. If we do fight back they may decide to exterminate us, but only because it’s easier than the alternative. This category of extraterrestrial civilization presents an interesting thought experiment. If they’re just consuming the raw material of the universe in the most expeditious fashion available, then they fall into the first category of malevolent aliens.

For them to fall into the second category, and for them to be of concern to the opponents of METI, their expansion has to have basically stopped, but we have to possess something so valuable that they’re willing to come and get it, expending the enormous resources necessary to reach us. (You may argue that for sufficiently advanced aliens the journey might be trivial. If so why aren’t they here already?)

What could we have that is so valuable? The costs of “importing” raw materials over a distance of multiple light years is so ridiculous as to be unthinkable. Only something unique could possibly have any interest to the aliens. Are we imagining that we have the only supply of iron or rhodium in the galaxy? No, the only thing truly unique to Earth is Earth based life, meaning that if anything the aliens might end up taking better care of the planet that we do. One could certainly imagine that they might take some humans and put them in a zoo, in fact the Zoo Hypothesis (closely related to Star Trek’s Prime Directive) is one of the explanations for the paradox. But just like humans, the aliens would probably want to largely leave earth alone. In any event this scenario bears no resemblance to the Dark Forest as described by Liu.

One could imagine extraterrestrial civilizations between the two extremes, expansive, but taking millions of years to go from one solar system to the next. Even in this case the galaxy is so old we still have to wonder that we haven’t encountered them yet. And again we have to imagine aliens who are close enough that they will arrive in the window where we can’t defend ourselves, but far enough away that they haven’t arrived already.

As an aside, this all assumes that there is no faster than light travel. If faster than light travel is possible (we just haven’t figured it out) then the situation is drastically different. Even so, we’re still left with the original question of “Where is everybody?” and if aliens can travel at faster than the speed of light, they should be everywhere, including here.

Thus far we’ve approached the question by starting with the assumption that there are aliens who are both advanced and malevolent. Now we’re going to question that assumption by examining whether it’s really possible to be both advanced and malevolent.

We are accustomed to thinking of nature as being red in tooth and claw, a Darwinian struggle where only the strong survive. I have no problem granting that in most cases this is in fact the case. But I would argue that it can’t be the case for an extraterrestrial civilization. To begin with all extraterrestrial civilizations would have to start as single planet civilizations. If it starts out as warlike how is it going to get off that planet? Let’s imagine what our own situation would look like if we were more warlike.

Colonizing even Mars is going to be enormously expensive, and enormously fragile. It wouldn’t take much to hamper the efforts while they were taking place on Earth or to fatally damage the colony’s chances once they were established. We’ve already talked about the difficulties of creating a permanent settlement on Mars. Now imagine that Elon Musk is trying to do it while we’re at war with Russia. The difficulty, which is already off the charts, would increase an hundredfold. In other words unless the original one planet civilization has an extended period of peace and cooperation they’re never going to become a multi-planet, extraterrestrial civilization. Once they’d mastered cooperation would they abandon it the minute they spotted the first alien? Also in any encounter between two of these civilizations one would almost certainly be, technologically, thousands if not millions of years ahead of the other, leaving the weaker of the two no choice but to cooperate, and the stronger no incentive to abandon the cooperative spirit they already possess.

Of course if you read much science fiction you’re going to encounter alien races who didn’t learn to cooperate, they were born to cooperate. In other words they resemble social insects, like ants or bees, with one queen and a lot of workers. These aliens might cooperate very naturally with each other, but not at all with anyone else. Making them naturally malevolent to anything they encounter. Here at last, perhaps, we have found a model for our malevolent extraterrestrial civilizations.. Though most of the previous caveats still apply. Why have we not already encountered them? Or if they’re not expansionary, what do we have that would make them change their mind?

Also, in this specific scenario we’re imagining something that resembles a super intelligent ant colony. Obviously it is unforgivably myopic to draw conclusions based only on the evidence of life on Earth. But you’ll notice that none of the life forms which work in this fashion have anything close to what we would describe as intelligence. One can imagine (as Douglas Adams did) that Dolphins might be sentient, but it’s a lot more difficult to imagine how ants eventually evolve to be a space faring race. As I said, lots of science fiction authors have imagined extraterrestrial civilizations that operate on a model similar to ants and other social insects (Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers both come to mind) but in every case these aliens have been hand waved into being a space faring race. I haven’t seen any credible attempt to explain how they would have evolved into one.

Perhaps that point is overly pedantic, but consider this. Technological progress is fed by idea generation, idea generation is fed by creative individuals, generally operating in a competitive environment with other creative individuals. If the thinking for your entire society is done by a handful of “queens”, how many ideas will actually be generated? It appears quite likely to me that if such a civilization did exist they would be fatally hampered by the inability to creatively generate sustained technological progress. To look at it from another angle, if a society is mindlessly cooperative then wouldn’t they lack the mind necessary to develop technology in the first place?

Of course there are a group of people I’ve talked about previously who believe that progress and morality go hand in hand. From their perspective obviously any aliens we encounter would be benevolent. You will also recall that in both my episode on the Religion on Progress and during my episode on  Steven Pinker that I took issue with these people, and yet it may appear that I’m making a similar argument. That godlike technology results in godlike benevolence. There are, however at least two important differences. The most fundamental being the assertion that just because someone, somewhere will achieve godlike technology and benevolence that humanity will inevitably do it as well. Perhaps an even even bigger difference is their assertion that the current progressive ideology of the last few decades is what has put us on this inevitable path to future perfection.  All that said, to the extent that our views do overlap I’m happy to use their opinions as additional support for the idea that a certain level of civilization requires a certain level of morality. (Though even here they may be reversing cause and effect.)

Having come this far I’ve hopefully established that we can eliminate certain categories of aliens from consideration. If all conceivable extraterrestrial civilizations are benevolent, then we can dispense with any discussion of what non-benevolent aliens might do and how that impacts the paradox. And, finally, with any luck, we’re left with assumptions that more accurately reflect the true state of the universe.

This is important because the field is already crowded with assumptions. Most of them derived, not from the sort of deep examination we’ve engaged in, but rather from the most recent TV show or movie the person saw (a point I made in my last episode.) If you were to establish a composite picture of alien contact based on the average person’s vision of it. Call this the distilled conventional wisdom of what aliens are like. It would involve them arriving suddenly, without any warning, sometime in the next few years. In addition, while they would be recognizably alien, they wouldn’t look too weird and they would have technology that’s advanced, but not too advanced, the sort of thing that given a few days or at most a few weeks, humans could easily reverse engineer. According to this convention wisdom we may marvel at their strange appearance, or be baffled by their weird ideas, but interaction with aliens really comes down to their technology. How does it work? How can we defeat it, steal it or use it to cure cancer?

Everything about the conventional wisdom of alien contact is silly, the silliest part being that they would arrive in the next few years after not giving any evidence of their presence for the last ten million. The next silliest is our conception of their technology. First what makes us think that alien technology is even going to resemble our technology. Remember Clarke’s Third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Secondly what makes you think that their technology would even enter into it?

If aliens are malevolent then of course their technology matters because how else are we going to stop them? If they’re neither excessively malevolent or excessively benevolent then their technology matters because what else do they have to offer? But if, as we have concluded in this episode their benevolence probably exceeds our own, then their technology might be of secondary importance, assuming we even recognized it as technology and didn’t just view it as magical (or perhaps even more likely miraculous). And of course we haven’t even taken into account how the aliens would react to us. One assumes that they wouldn’t just give us super-advanced technology and then wash their hands of the whole situation. They might just leave us alone, but if they were going to interact with us, it seems obvious that they’d want to improve our morality first.

I’d like to expand on that point with an analogy. Imagine that we’re dealing with a group terrestrial people perhaps an uncontacted tribe. As a starting point imagine which presents the greater difficulty, supplying them all with cell phones or implanting a morality into them? And when I say implanting morality, I’m not just speaking of giving them a bible, I’m talking about imparting actual morality, such that this group, going forward, ceases from all murder, rape, theft and even extramarital affairs. I think the answer is obvious. Just giving someone some technology is easy. Teaching them correct behavior (and here you may define correct behavior as anything you like) is extremely difficult, particularly if you have any interest in their behavior conforming to those teachings.

It would be the same for any highly advanced aliens who might exist. Giving us technology is easy. Teaching us how to use it without causing untold damage, that’s the hard part. Thus if a benevolent extraterrestrial civilization does choose to contact us, they might be far more worried about our morals than our tech level.

In the end we’re left with aliens being most likely beings of godlike technology and godlike benevolence who are mostly concerned with making humans moral. Am I the only one who thinks that sounds like a religion?


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Fermi’s Paradox and the Movie Interstellar

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After several political posts of varying intensity I thought it might be nice to take a break, and return to some of my other interests. In particular I wanted to return to a discussion of Fermi’s Paradox. If you haven’t read any of my previous posts on the topic you can find them here and here. I would recommend reading them first, but I also suspect you might not bother, so for those that don’t, allow me to provide a brief introduction, both to the paradox and to my specific take on it. In brief Fermi’s Paradox is the seemingly irreconcilable set of facts that on the one hand, we have not been visited or contacted by aliens despite, on the other hand, billions of planets on which life could arise and billions of years during which they could have visited Earth. As for my take on it I think the simplest resolution of the paradox is that we ARE communicating with aliens we just call the communication prayer, and the aliens God.  

I have a couple of methods available for advancing this very unorthodox opinion (an opinion largely shared by no one else.) First I can show ways in which the beliefs of traditional religions (Mormonism in particular) fit in with the facts and even the speculations associated with the paradox. Or second, I can show how none of the other explanations for the paradox make sense, or at least show they make less sense than my explanation. Of course on top of all of that I have to be able to communicate my ideas period. Which is a bigger challenge than it appears even aside from the obvious limitations of being me. One of the ways to overcome that challenge is to piggyback on something from popular culture. And that is what I intend to do in this post, by discussing Fermi’s Paradox using the movie Interstellar.

I only recently got around to watching Interstellar. (I know. I’m behind.) And even though it never mentions Fermi’s Paradox it ends up lurking in the background nonetheless. The movie itself was interesting and beautiful, and engaging. It also about gave me an aneurysm. If you haven’t seen the movie and you don’t want to be spoiled then you should probably skip this post. But we’re also talking about an Oscar-winning movie (ok, it was just visual effects) from two years ago that made $675 million dollars worldwide. If you haven’t already seen it by now, can you really expect to not be spoiled? I certainly had no such expectations.

The point of talking about Interstellar is not to get into a detailed review of the movie. I’m more interested in talking about how the movie portrayed things like space travel, aliens, habitable planets, and the future of humanity, and tying that portrayal into a discussion of the paradox.

Let’s start with space travel. If you read my post from a couple of weeks ago you know how costly it is to get out of gravity wells. And indeed in Interstellar they needed a two stage rocket to get off of Earth, so there is some acknowledgement of what’s called the tyranny of the rocket equation. But after this brief nod to reality for the rest of the movie escaping gravity wells is trivial. In particular they have no problem either lifting off from a planet with 1.2 times the gravity of Earth or casually maneuvering in the vicinity of a black hole using just their lander. I have seen some weaselly answers about how the lander used a different fuel, with some people suggesting anti-matter. Ahh… yes those troublesome anti-matter engines are always flooding. They just cannot handle the tiniest bit of water. (That said the visuals of the giant wave were very cool.)

Moving beyond the physics of Interstellar the movie also implied that space travel had to happen quickly or it wouldn’t happen at all. Not to spend the entire post picking on the movie (though that may be where we’re headed) but as far as I could tell Cooper finds NASA and then launches into space the next morning, or maybe the next week? The timeline was a little unclear, but in any event it sure looked like he only had about 15 minutes to say goodbye to his daughter.

In reality any potential travel of the kind we’re talking about when we talk about the paradox, that is aliens spreading out across the entire galaxy, would happen over millions if not billions of years. Presumably this is one of the reasons why Nolan introduced the food crisis. For the movie to be dramatic there had to be some urgent reason to get off of earth. This is not to say there might not be some catastrophe that would make departing Earth both important and urgent, just that if there was, we’re probably screwed. As are the humans in Interstellar in the absence of the wormhole. Getting off the planet and creating a sustainable extraterrestrial colony (to say nothing of an extrasolar colony) would be the result of a slow grind lasting decades of not centuries. In other words if all other potential alien species are trying to get off their planet in the midst of a crisis while being sabotaged by Matt Damon, then it may make sense that we haven’t run into any of them, but I assume that’s actually fairly rare, particularly the Matt Damon part.

The next subject I’m interested in is the way the movie portrays aliens. Of course the paradox would be solved if we ever did encounter intelligent aliens. And they do just that in Interstellar. Though, once again, the movie ends up imposing a lot of implausible restrictions. To begin with it’s strongly implied that they aren’t aliens. That they’re humans from the future who’ve forgotten how to communicate with us. This is very convenient from the standpoint of telling the story, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense otherwise. Apparently they can understand humanity, and Cooper in particular, well enough to make a four dimensional copy of the daughter’s room (or maybe it’s even more than four), but not understand us well enough to actually have a conversation?

As it turns out, the inability to communicate is one favorite and common explanation for the paradox. When presenting this explanation people often use the metaphor of humans trying to communicate with ants. And it’s true that we are not great at communicating with ants. For instance we don’t have long conversations with ants about free will or the nature of the universe, but we can still communicate with them and we do so far more effectively than the aliens in Interstellar can communicate with humans. We can get ants to go where we want, we can move ants, we can kill ants, we can separate ants into their different roles, etc. I know that some of that doesn’t sound like communication, but trust me, getting snatched and moved someplace else communicates volumes. At this point we’ve seen zero evidence of intelligent extraterrestrials, while I think it goes without saying that ants have seen plenty evidence of us. And if aliens just wanted to let us know they exist there are plenty of things they could do to communicate that. In fact it would be difficult for them to not communicate it.

Instead, for some vague reason, these future humans have lost the ability to communicate with us. Also they wait to contact us (and I use the term contact very loosely) until the Earth is uninhabitable and we’re about to die. How are they sure this is when they should intervene? Were they ever worried about us during the Cold War? Does this have anything to do with the weird time-travel paradoxes? Perhaps, but in any event they intervene using their near godlike powers and set up a wormhole near Saturn. And this wormhole leads to a couple of planets that are essentially uninhabitable, and a third planet where nothing grows, but at least it doesn’t have 4,000 foot tall waves. And all of this is in another galaxy.. near a black hole so big they call it Gargatua…

This takes us naturally to the subject of habitable planets. I know I said I wasn’t going to spend the entire post picking on the movie, but perhaps it’s unavoidable, because it’s “stance” on habitable planets was kind of ridiculous. So we’ve got these aliens, or future humans, or whatever, and they want to rescue humanity, so they create a wormhole. I’ve already mentioned that we have to go all the way to Saturn to get to this wormhole. But to be fair perhaps they’re limited on where they can create these wormholes, and they can’t get it any closer to Earth than the orbit of Saturn. If so they must be really limited on the other side because, as I already pointed out, the only planets they can get near to on the other end are objectively awful. I’ve already mentioned the water planet with gigantic waves but in addition to that the planet is so close to the giant black hole that one hour there equals 7 years of time everywhere else.

The second is completely covered in ice, and based on the fact that there is no surface it probably isn’t even as good a candidate for colonization as Mars or Europa, which the ship passed on it’s way to the wormhole. The final planet appears to be a vast desert, whose main advantage appears to be that at least it has a breathable atmosphere?

If planets that can support life are really as rare as Interstellar makes them out to be (you have to go to another galaxy to find even a sucky one) it would be a great explanation for the paradox. Unfortunately we already know they’re not. Just looking at the planets we’ve found using Kepler (which by the way has only examined a tiny fraction of the galaxy, around one-millionth, if that) we’ve already found 3,565 planets, 34 of which are potentially habitable. If you do the math you’re looking at 34 million potentially habitable planets, without having to go to another galaxy (also I’m pretty sure that none of the 34 potentially habitable planets Kepler has found are anywhere near a black hole.) In fact the nearest potentially habitable planet is just the next star over. Which makes the choice of the wormholes’ end point even more baffling. All of this is to say that if Interstellar is your primary source of information about how common habitable planets then you’re going to end up with a lot of very wrong ideas.

The last element I said I wanted to examine from Interstellar is it’s vision for the future of humanity. I already mentioned that the food crisis is one of those things that is manufactured to provide urgency, but this is not to say that we couldn’t have some gigantic agricultural collapse. That certainly could happen, but the big problem with the scenario is that if we can’t grow crops on the Earth, we are unlikely to be able to grow them anywhere else. As I point out in the blog I already mentioned, nearly everywhere on Earth from Antarctica to the depths of the ocean, is more hospitable to life, particularly that life which evolved on Earth, than any conceivable extraterrestrial location. In Interstellar they lose the ability to grow okra. Let’s just say that if you can’t grow okra in Georgia you’re not going to be able to grow it on a lifeless desert planet in another galaxy.

Another fascinating element of Nolan’s vision of the future was the way in which they decided to declare the moon landings to be a hoax. First that represents something of a nightmare for me, so it definitely got my attention, second it implied a sort of collectivist mindset. None of us are going to escape unless all of us can escape. This is something else I talked about in my previous post on space colonization. There are a lot of noble ideals which end up not being compatible with the core value of saving humanity, and creating the illusion that we couldn’t even get men to the moon in order to help people to focus on Earth is definitely one of those ideals.

But of course the most consequential element of Nolan’s vision for the future of humanity was that we would someday transcend time, come back and save our past selves. This by itself is not that interesting. Nolan is not the first to imagine some sort of technological transcendence. Where it does get interesting is in how it relates to one of the leading explanations of the paradox. As I mentioned in one of my previous posts on the subject, many people favor the explanation that we are in fact alone. That despite billions of planets and billions of years that we are the only intelligent species in existence. By making the aliens future humans, Nolan comes to essentially the same conclusion. And it’s a conclusion with some terrifying implications. This is not the space to go into a full examination of all of them, but at a minimum it implies that there’s no one out there to save us. If, on the other hand, there are aliens you can always imagine that they my someday show up with the cure for cancer, unlimited free energy and super delicious donuts. You can also imagine something similar if God exists. But if neither exists then we have to save ourselves. And while some people may find that empowering (if they think about it at all). When I look around and see how flawed humanity is, I think if we’re all there is, then more likely than not we’re in a lot of trouble.

You may think that this is an awful lot of time to waste examining the ideas of a movie whose only goal was to entertain. Particularly since I agree that it was entertaining. But I read something recently (unfortunately I can’t locate it now) which made the excellent point that fiction, specifically movies and TV, are more and more taking the place of history as a guide for what might happen, or what should be avoided, or whether something is a good idea. To put it more bluntly we are being educated by entertaining lies rather than by reality. As I recall, the article used the example of a discussion about artificial intelligence. In any discussion of artificial intelligence you would not be surprised if someone referenced a Skynet scenario, drawing on the Terminator movies and the idea that a given artificial intelligence (in the movie it was Skynet) could come alive and immediately try to destroy humanity. Another example would be if someone (including myself) wants to talk about a post apocalyptic scenario they might reference Mad Max. This is in contrast to the past when people might talk about something being similar to Caesar’s rivalry with Pompey or they might draw inspiration from the Battle of Marathon (enough so that they created a race in it’s memory.)

In the past people were frankly inundated by history. A large part of schooling was learning Greek and Latin. This wasn’t so they could talk to people in Latin (or Greek) it was so they could read history in its original language. If you thought of history as their popular entertainment you would not be far off. But of course now, while history isn’t missing from our popular entertainment (The TV series Rome is a good example of this) it’s a pretty small slice. Entertainment these days is largely dominated by fiction (All superhero movies, Star Wars, anything animated) and present day navel gazing (essentially everything currently on TV). Using what has happened as a guide to what might happen, is no longer done. Instead we are educated (and I use that term loosely) by the fictitious imaginings of a few creative individuals with unclear (if not actively harmful) motivations.

There are two reasons for this change. First, there are certain situations, like a malevolent AI, or nuclear apocalypse which have no historical analogies. If you wanted to talk about some point of no return for AI, you could draw on history and use, say, Caesar crossing the Rubicon. But the Skynet example, despite being fiction, is a better description of what might actually happen. This first reason is generally harmless and possibly even useful. But there is another reason for people to draw on fiction rather than history, it’s more accessible and easier to understand. Unfortunately that doesn’t make it more accurate. In fact fiction is, almost by definition, less accurate. So in situations where there is something in history to guide us we should always draw upon that first.

What does this have to do with Fermi’s Paradox? Surely this is one of those things that has no historical analog and movies, even horribly misguided movies like Interstellar are going to be the best analogies we have. I know it seems that way, but with the paradox, that’s not the case. We have a wealth of history to draw on, in fact we have all of history.

While it is true that there are some who will argue that we have already been visited by aliens. (My own theories on alien divinity aside.) There is no evidence for an alien visitation as it is typically imagined. This is particularly true if you look at ALL of history, not just recorded history. Allow me to explain. There are various theories that Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid or the Nazca Lines were all built by aliens. But all of these are recent enough that humans could have built them. If we’re talking about aliens they could have left artifacts on Earth at any point in its 4.5 billions years of existence, now sure some of these might have been sucked into the mantel and destroyed, (or to avoid that they also could have placed them on the moon similar to 2001) but even accounting for that there were still millions of years for the aliens to leave some evidence of their presence. But they didn’t.

This is what I mean by using history not just popular culture when judging the likelihood of something. If you just pay attention to popular culture you probably think that aliens could show up any day now. That despite millions if not billions of years of not showing up, that it could happen next week. We see this conceit with Interstellar, and also with the more recent movie, Arrival. In fact I would I would be curious to see how people would respond if they were polled on the probability of aliens showing up. My guess is based on the enormous number of movies and TV shows depicting just that, that the probability would end up being quite high. Despite no evidence for it happening anytime in the last million years.

This is the danger of using fiction to understand the world. Any serious study of Fermi’s Paradox reveals that it’s one of the most important questions facing humanity. And if I’ve managed to convince you that the existence of God is tied up with it, then it only becomes more important. And yet people assess the probability of encountering or communicating with aliens based on a recent movie rather than on a sober assessment of reality.

The challenges humanity face are not trivial. The cannot be solved with an entertaining two (or in Interstellar’s case, three) hour movie. I think everyone should be hoping that God exists, because if not we most likely are on are own. And however much Anne Hathaway urges us to trust in love, if we are all alone in the universe I think it’s going to take a lot more than that to save us.


If you think I’m completely wrong about things then you should donate to this blog while you still can, because once the aliens do show up money will have no meaning.