Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Philosophy after the Enlightenment

Metaphysics is essentially dead. Speculation about the ultimate nature of reality seems a waste of time when we can actually study the universe and learn about it. Whatever metaphysical speculation you come up with may one day be proved true or false, in which case why not wait for the answer? Alternatively, there may be no means of verifying or falsifying it, in which case why bother even to think about it, when we can spend our resources on questions that might have answers?

So here's Tim Urban discussing the Fermi paradox. Basically, even using the most conservative assumptions, if life develops on earth-like planets, even fairly infrequently; and it technological civilizations subsequently evolve, again even infrequently, there should be something like 100,000 technological civilizations in our galaxy, many of them presumably far more advanced and powerful than little old us.

So where are they? We have detected absolutely nothing that is suggestive of any technological civilization. Urban's discussion is very well organized and fascinating, so do read it. But I will say that the main possibilities include that life is actually exceedingly rare. That would be surprising because cosmologists have adopted the habit of thinking that our planet is nothing special. It would also be surprising because it seem evident from thinking about evolution on earth that if you get any sort of system that self-replicates with occasional mistakes, you are going to get evolution. But does evolution necessarily have to lead to multicellular organisms and nervous systems? Maybe the universe is full of pond scum, and nothing much more than that.

Another possibility is that technological civilizations arise,  but inevitably self-destruct because they can't handle the power they gain for themselves. That's certainly plausible, we almost did it during the Cold War and we might be about to do it now. On the other hand at least some of us are wise enough to avoid that. Why couldn't even 1% of civilized beings be more generally wise?

And there is the possibility that they're out there, but we can't detect them because they aren't emitting any signals that we would perceive as coming from a technological civilization. There is also the nasty possibility that a predatory species rules the galaxy and wipes out any competitors, in which case we may be on the menu.

These speculations are mostly fairly disturbing, but the point is, we may one day -- even soon! -- know the answer. Hegel, however, could never know anything.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Have you read The Vital Question by Nick Lane?

I spend quite a bit of my time thinking about this. I wager life is abundant, distances are vast and civilizations with advanced technology may be fragile.