Do Extraterrestrials Philosophize?

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The novelist and philosopher R. Scott Bakker recently put out a mind blowing essay on the philosophy of extraterrestrials, which isn’t as Area 51 as such a topic might seem at first blush.  After all, Voltaire covered the topic of aliens, but if a Frenchman is still a little too playful for your philosophical tastes , recall that Kant thought the topic of extraterrestrial intelligence important to cover extensively as well, and you can’t get much more full of dull seriousness than the man from Koeningsberg.

So let’s take an earnest look at Bakker’s alien philosophy…well, not just yet. Before I begin it’s necessary to lay out a very basic version of the philosophical perspective Bakker is coming from, for in a way his real goal is to use some of our common intuitions regarding humanoid aliens as a way of putting flesh on the bones of two often misunderstood and not (at least among philosophers) widely held philosophical positions- eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory, both of which, to my lights at least, could be consumed under one version of the ominous and cool sounding, philosophy of Dark Phenomenology. Though once you get a handle of on dark phenomenology it won’t seem all that ominous, and if it’s cool, it’s not the type of cool that James Dean or the Fonz before season 5 would have recognized.

Eliminativism, if I understand it,  is the full recognition of the fact that perhaps all our notions about human mental life are suspect in so far as they have not been given a full scientific explanation. In a sense, then, eliminativism is merely an extension of the materialization (some would call it dis-enchantment) that has been going on since the scientific revolution.

Most of us no longer believe in angels, demons or fairies, not to mention quasi-scientific ideas that have ultimately proven to be empty of content like the ether or phlogiston. Yet in those areas where science has yet to reach, especially areas that concern human thinking and emotion, we continue to cling to what strict eliminativists believe are likely to be proved similar fictions, a form of myth that can range from categories of mental disease without much empirical substance to more philosophical and religiously determined beliefs such as those in free will, intentionality and the self.            

I think Bakker is attracted to eliminativism because it allows us to cut the gordian knot of problems that have remained unresolved since the beginning of Western philosophy itself. Problems built around assumptions which seem to be increasingly brought into question in light of our increasing knowledge of the actual workings of the human brain rather than our mere introspection regarding the nature of mental life. Indeed, a kind of subset of eliminativism in the form Blind Brain Theory essentially consists in the acknowledgement that the brain was designed for a certain kind of blindness by evolution.

What was not necessary for survival has been made largely invisible to the brain without great effort to see what has not been revealed. Philosophy’s mistake from the standpoint of a proponent of Blind Brain Theory has always been to try to shed light upon this darkness from introspection alone- a Sisyphean tasks in which the philosopher if not made ridiculous becomes hopelessly lost in the dark labyrinth of the human imagination. In contrast an actually achievable role for philosophy would be to define the boundary of the unknown until the science necessary to study this realm has matured enough for its’ investigations to begin.

The problem becomes what can one possibly add to the philosophical discourse once one has taken an eliminativists/Blind Brain position? Enter the aliens, for Bakker manages to make a very reasonable argument that we can use both to give us a plausible picture of what the mental life and philosophy of intelligent “humanoid” aliens might look like.

In terms of understanding the minds of aliens eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory are like addendums to evolutionary psychology. An understanding of the perceptual limitations of our aliens- not just mental limitations, but limitations brought about by conditions of time and space should allow us to make reasonable guesses about not only the philosophical questions, but the philosophical errors likely to be made by our intelligent aliens.

In a way the application of eliminativism and BBT to intelligent aliens put me in mind of Isaac Asimov’s short story Nightfall in which a world bathed in perpetual light is destroyed when it succumbs to the fall of  night. There it is not the evolved limitations of the senses that prevent Asimov’s “aliens” from perceiving darkness but their being on a planet that orbits two suns and keep them bathed in an unending day.

I certainly agree with Bakker that there is something pregnant and extremely useful in both eliminativism and Blind Brain Theory, though perhaps not so much it terms of understanding the possibility space of “alien intelligence” as in understanding our own intelligence and the way it has unfolded and developed over time and has been embedded in a particular spatio-temporal order we have only recently gained the power to see beyond.

Nevertheless, I think there are limitations to the model. After all, it isn’t even clear the extent to which the kinds of philosophical problems that capture the attention of intelligence are the same even across our own species. How are we to explain the differences in the primary questions that obsess, say, Western versus Chinese philosophy? Surely, something beyond neurobiology and spatial-temporal location is necessary to understand the the development of human philosophy in its various schools and cultural guises including how a discourse has unfolded historically and the degree to which it has been supported by the powers and techniques to secure the survival of some question/perspective over long stretches of time.

There is another way in which the use of eliminativism or Blind Brain Theory might lead us astray when it come to thinking about alien intelligence- it just isn’t weird enough.When the story of the development of not just human intelligence, but especially our technological/scientific civilization is told in full detail it seems so contingent as to be quite unlikely to repeat itself. The big question I think to ask is what are the possible alternative paths to intelligence of a human degree or greater and to technological civilization like or more advanced than our own. These, of course, are questions for speculative philosophy and fiction that can be scientifically informed in some way, but are very unlikely to be scientifically answered. And if if we could discover the very distant technological artifacts of another technological civilization as the new Milner/Hawking project hopes there remains no way to reverse engineer our way to understand the lost “philosophical” questions that would have once obsessed the biological “seeds” of such a civilization.

Then again, we might at least come up with some well founded theories though not from direct contact or investigation of alien intelligence itself. Our studies of biology are already leading to alternative understanding of the way intelligence can be embeded say with the amazing cephalopods. As our capacity from biological engineering increases we will be able make models of, map alternative histories for, and even create alternative forms of living intelligence. Indeed, our current development of artificial intelligence is like an enormous applied experiment in an alternative form of intelligence to our own.

What we might hope is that such alternative forms of intelligence not only allow us to glimpse the limits of our own perception and pattern making, but might even allow us to peer into something deeper and more enchanted and mystical beyond. We might hope even more deeply that in the far future something of the existential questions that have obsessed us will still be there like fossils in our posthuman progeny.

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19 comments on “Do Extraterrestrials Philosophize?

  1. rsbakker says:

    Some great observations, Rick. I agree that a blind brain approach doesn’t do so much to determine the contents of alien intelligence ‘possibility space,’ but insofar as ‘neglect structures’ follow from biological considerations that generalize, it does allow us to suggest that, for instance, most aliens would figure out their environments before themselves… stuff like that.

    But the most important thing it does, I think, is demolish any attempt to use human intelligence/experience (sapience/sentience) as a way to delimit what David Roden calls ‘posthuman possibility space.’ Blind brain theory entails speculative posthumanism.

    By the way, be sure to check out Eric Schwitzgebel’s most recent musings on the topic of Weird Minds over at his always excellent Splintered Minds.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Hello Scott,
      To start I should let you know how much I enjoyed your alien philosophy piece and felt draw to write about it in the hopes of generating more discussion (my essay should be up on the IEET website soon) and as a means of personally wrestling with the ideas you presented.

      That said, whereas I think there is something very interesting about both blind brain theory and elimitivism I am not sure how its assumptions don’t rest upon a constrained rather than an expanded notion of Roden’s posthuman possibility space.

      I myself am unsure what exactly I am leaning towards, but these examples might help give some indication.
      Isn’t it possible that the sharp internal/external distinction as far as knowledge is concerned might be an evolutionary/historical accident? One can at least imagine forms of intelligence that don’t possess internal states at all – i.e. zombies, but I am thinking more of collective forms of intelligence where any distinction between internal and external is significantly eroded.

      Also, it possible that the “blind brain” period of any intelligent species is extremely short compared to the period when it has been supplanted either by having asserted control over its internal states or having been supplanted by a successor “species” that possesses such control, and that therefore even if we knew everything about a species starting neurobiology or environment we wouldn’t necessarily be able to guess much about its philosophy?

      On a totally different note: do you tackle any of these issues in your novels? Any suggestions which of your books someone with a philosophical bent should start with?

      • James Cross says:

        I like the discussion here. A couple of comments.

        I can’t really see how we can ever advance beyond the “blind brain” period at least with anything remotely resembled brains that have evolved on Earth. It may not be possible at all. The problem is that consciousness is generated by the brain so in order for consciousness to gain access to all of the inner workings of the brain would require as much or more information processing power as the brain itself. It would be like loading the contents of the computer with its memory maxed out with information into a subset of the same memory, although this analogy is imperfect because it is not just a matter of memory but also of processing power.

        Of course, there may be some way out of this dilemma but nothing occurs to me at the moment.

        What does strike me as something that might be superseded by future evolutionary development are our cultural artifacts, including philosophy itself to address more directly the question of whether extraterrestrials philosophize. To which, I would answer probably not any more.

      • Rick Searle says:

        Hi James,
        Not sure I agree with you here:
        “I can’t really see how we can ever advance beyond the “blind brain” period at least with anything remotely resembled brains that have evolved on Earth. It may not be possible at all. The problem is that consciousness is generated by the brain so in order for consciousness to gain access to all of the inner workings of the brain would require as much or more information processing power as the brain itself. It would be like loading the contents of the computer with its memory maxed out with information into a subset of the same memory, although this analogy is imperfect because it is not just a matter of memory but also of processing power.”
        I suppose it depends if we need a complete/granular model of the brain to fully understand it. For example, I can understand how the sun works without having to duplicate all of its information as in position of every atom etc. If the brain truly is just a physical system why would it be any different?

      • rsbakker says:

        “That said, whereas I think there is something very interesting about both blind brain theory and elimitivism I am not sure how its assumptions don’t rest upon a constrained rather than an expanded notion of Roden’s posthuman possibility space.”

        But Roden’s PPS is distinct from biological alien possibility space (though perhaps not, interestingly enough, post-biological alien possibility space!). Also, note that in discussing the Thespians, all I really need to do is talk about their ability to report the metacognitive information available–‘experience’ need enter the picture at all. I think the metacognitive constraints I adduce would be entirely amenable to Scrambler’s say, or any other soulless SF construction. I’m willing to accept eusociality as an evolutionary constraint, however. Surprise is the only truly unsurprising thing.

        “Also, it possible that the “blind brain” period of any intelligent species is extremely short compared to the period when it has been supplanted either by having asserted control over its internal states or having been supplanted by a successor “species” that possesses such control, and that therefore even if we knew everything about a species starting neurobiology or environment we wouldn’t necessarily be able to guess much about its philosophy?”

        This is the cornerstone observation for the way I see the near to intermediate future playing out. We’re progressively moving from ‘shallow information’ environments, the set of ancestral environments that sculpted our idiosyncratic collage of heuristic capacities, into scientific of ‘deep information’ environments which are bound to give our blind brains fits. The process of metacognitive augmentation required to solve these new environments already seems to be well afoot, if you ask me! I’ve long thought exactly what James says above, that philosophy in the intentional sense is something that species likely outgrow as their brains become more ‘sighted’!

        “On a totally different note: do you tackle any of these issues in your novels? Any suggestions which of your books someone with a philosophical bent should start with?”

        Well, Neuropath is the one directly patterned on blind brain theory, but I don’t like recommending that book. My fantasy stuff deals with all these themes in photographic negative, and it’s certainly much more popular!

      • Rick Searle says:

        Wow Scott- thanks for the extensive reply.

        “This is the cornerstone observation for the way I see the near to intermediate future playing out. We’re progressively moving from ‘shallow information’ environments, the set of ancestral environments that sculpted our idiosyncratic collage of heuristic capacities, into scientific of ‘deep information’ environments which are bound to give our blind brains fits.”

        I think we’re probably largely in agreement then that the really interesting developments occur after brains are no longer blind – whether those brains are on earth or beyond- and the range of ways intelligence can develop after becoming” sighted” is likely much larger than whatever evolution has accidentally stumbled across in the past. Or, to put it another way, the WEIRD stuff happens over the course of the long future.

      • James Cross says:

        Rick,

        You are changing your argument.

        You originally talked about a species gaining access and control of its internal states. Simply developing a working scientific model of the brain is quite a bit different. A lot of progress has already been made on that and it is not unreasonable to think we could do that without any great transformation. I wouldn’t consider that achievement promoting us to the post-human.

      • Rick Searle says:

        Oh, I wasn’t trying to change my argument. Apologies if I’m confusing- I’m trying to build the plane while in the air. I’m just assuming that with better models come more potential for internal control. Is such an assumption unwarranted?

      • rsbakker says:

        You’re the one who deserves the thanks, Rick. These are some challenging ideas I’m peddling, and I’ve come to regard balanced readings as something precious.

        “Or, to put it another way, the WEIRD stuff happens over the course of the long future.”

        Once you get past anthropomorphic constraints (which BBT can explain), you quickly see that this is pretty much inevitable.

        I’m slowly working my way toward a more global account, but if you’re interested, you can find more local considerations of the technological implications of blind brain theory here,

        https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2015/01/29/artificial-intelligence-as-socio-cognitive-pollution/

        and here,

        https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2014/05/20/neuroscience-as-socio-cognitive-pollution/

        Also, I see that Peter over at Conscious Entities has posted his opinions on Alien Philosophy. Busy day!

      • Jozsef says:

        Collectivization or distributed social cognition does not really circumvent the core thesis which might better be called the principle of cognitive neglect. Thought this might be considered a respectable strategy (ie, negarestani and brassier’s renewed hegelianism thinks it works!), but I think we should be suspicious if we accept some basic naturalistic thesis. Zurek proposes “no information without representation”, but representation here is thinly just construed as some kind of inscription or actual systematic material change. You can’t acquire information without this being codified in some kind of systematic differentiation or change within whatever it is that is underwriting the functioning of the cognitive system. So I don’t see where it matters whether we are talking brains or distributed social cognition. And it’s granted that we offload so much onto others and to the environment, but all those systems to register differences which then somehow coordinate action perception cycles of brains, must be undergoing systematic changes which are codified in regularities in the structure of their behavior.

      • Rick Searle says:

        Hello Jozsef,

        My curiosity regarding aliens with more social forms of cognition than our own is whether or not they would run into the same philosophical problems as we do. Or in another sense to what extent is BBT a consequence of the social nature of human knowledge or the solipsism of human consciousness?

      • Jozsef says:

        I think beyond a point we just have to be silent on the matter short of seeing other forms of cognition. But we’d expect them to have horizons of neglect that is margins of information integration which themselves have no information concerning information not being integrated. Now, the thing with social cognition, and to an extent this occurs with an individuals own cognitive timing, is that the boundaries of one modality can be made up for with information concerning another modality. You can gain information about someone walking up behind you via spatial localization information coming from sounds. But even an extended and socially collective system is still going to have limits to the number of modalities it has and to the ways modalities can overlap to compensate for neglect in other modalities.

      • Rick Searle says:

        “But even an extended and socially collective system is still going to have limits to the number of modalities it has and to the ways modalities can overlap to compensate for neglect in other modalities.”

        Completely agreed- epistemological blind spots are going to be there for any form of intelligence that is not an omniscient God.

  2. Michael Murden says:

    A few thoughts:

    Regarding brains and the sun, on the folk-psychological level you can understand brains well enough to manage social interaction without detailed knowledge of their internal processes. I think if you want to create intelligent beings from scratch you’ll need to understand human brains in much more detail. And of course human brains are much more complicated than the sun. A thermonuclear bomb is a tiny, short lived sun and we had that figured out fifty years ago. We haven’t created anything remotely as close to a human brain as a fusion bomb is to the sun.

    Regarding Blind Brain Theory, I read somewhere that the human brain uses twenty percent of all the calories human beings metabolize. Given how much of the human brain is dedicated to processing sense data, it’s clear that the ability to perceive the world accurately is expensive. If human beings spend huge metabolic resources on seeing well vision must have a huge pay off in reproductive fitness. Some kinds of self-perception also have high reproductive fitness payoffs. The ability to know how well you’re performing a task as you perform it and the ability to review your performance on a task after the fact can both pay dividends by improving performance on high value activities from hunting to courtship to taking a math test. I’d suppose that in general the perceptual tasks at which humans would have evolved high levels of ability would be the ones with higher payoffs in the coin of the realm, reproductive fitness. There is a payoff for the ability to see a rabbit well enough to kill it with a thrown rock. There appears to be no payoff for the ability to perceive the neurological processes that convert the photons impinging on your rods and cones into the vision that lets us move through the world. It makes sense that we are blind to the mechanics of seeing. I think it makes sense in the same way for us to be blind to the mechanics of how we monitor our behavior or create mathematics or love music. This suggests that there may never be a reproductive fitness payoff to real self-knowledge.

    Regarding post-humanism, living beings have always had to adapt to their environments. Human beings still have to adapt, even if the aspects of the environment that most strongly influence human reproductive fitness are other humans. Will human beings or our descendants eventually achieve freedom from reproductive fitness? Will post humans “flip the script” and force their environments to evolve to suit them? Will they achieve immortality and thereby achieve freedom from tests of reproductive fitness? Will post humans retain some vestiges of humanity the way humans retain vestiges of apehood? If so, perhaps post humans will be what humans want to be, gods.

    • Rick Searle says:

      Hello Michael:

      Re: “Regarding brains and the sun, on the folk-psychological level you can understand brains well enough to manage social interaction without detailed knowledge of their internal processes. I think if you want to create intelligent beings from scratch you’ll need to understand human brains in much more detail. And of course human brains are much more complicated than the sun. A thermonuclear bomb is a tiny, short lived sun and we had that figured out fifty years ago. We haven’t created anything remotely as close to a human brain as a fusion bomb is to the sun.”

      I fear I wasn’t very clear on my initial “sun” example to James Cross. I am kind of groping around the idea that conceptual depth isn’t necessarily synonymous with either accuracy or ability to control. Trying to build a theory of mind from introspection alone may have gotten us much more layered (but inaccurate) models of the brain. What I wonder, visa-vi James’ issue is whether or not we can come up with an extremely revealing and effective model of the brain that is far less complex than the brain itself, or perhaps to put it differently, isn’t Blind Brain Theory just another way of expressing how knowledge always needs to work- as a form of reality compression?

      • James Cross says:

        The idea that most mental activity is unconscious goes back at least as far as Freud and the goal of psychoanalysis was to make the unconscious conscious.

        There is probably little value or point in attempting to make all of the unconscious conscious and, of course, I don’t think it is possible anyway. Routine functions like controlling respiration and heart, monitoring sensations, etc are probably better left to the unconscious.

        As Michael points out, the 20% of calories is critical. We might be able to devote more calories and more brain resources to consciousness by slowing down consumption of calories in other parts of our physiology. Meditation typically involves slowed respiration and heart rate and a degree of sensory deprivation, But this is at the margin and we would need a vastly different physiology to be able to divert more than a small amount of resources to the effort.

        I don’t think better models or understanding of the brain accomplishes much. We need a transformation in how the psyche operates.

        If we have a limited ability to make the unconscious conscious, the question is what of the unconscious would be most important to focus out energies on?

      • Michael Murden says:

        That makes sense. I’m a huge fan of Sigmund Freud, the king of highly layered, conceptually deep but largely inaccurate brain models built from introspection. Regarding the question “whether or not we can come up with an extremely revealing and effective model of the brain that is far less complex than the brain itself” I think the fidelity with which one needs to model something depends on the uses to which that model will be put. A model of the human brain adequate for the purpose of creating human-equivalent brains might need as much processing power as a human brain, but if a human brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron has 10 thousand synapses and each synapse can have 100 states one might be able to adequately model a human brain with a machine having 100 quadrillion logic gates. That’s not obviously impossible.

  3. […] Last time I attempted to grapple with R. Scott Bakker’s intriguing essay on what kinds of philosophy aliens might practice and remaining dizzied by questions. Luckily, I had a book in my possession which seemed to offer me the answers, a book that had nothing to do with the a modern preoccupation like question of alien philosophers at all, but rather a metaphysical problem that had been barred from philosophy except among seminary students since Darwin; namely, whether or not there was such a thing as moral truth if God didn’t exist. […]

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