Quote note (#113)

Elon Musk (in conversation with Ross Andersen) ponders upon the Fermi Paradox:

We might think of ourselves as nature’s pinnacle, the inevitable endpoint of evolution, but beings like us could be too rare to ever encounter one another. Or we could be the ultimate cosmic outliers, lone minds in a Universe that stretches to infinity.

Musk has a more sinister theory. ‘The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’ he told me. ‘Like when you’re playing an adventure game, and you can see the stars in the background, but you can’t ever get there. If it’s not a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilisation that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mould in a petri dish.’ Musk flipped through a few more possibilities, each packing a deeper existential chill than the last, until finally he came around to the import of it all. ‘If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,’ he said. ‘And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilisations.’

September 30, 2014admin 15 Comments »

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15 Responses to this entry

  • Nick B. Steves Says:

    Remind me: Why do “we” believe the development of intelligent, space-faring life would be so common? Why, IOW, is the “science” so settled?.


    Orthodox Reply:

    Why did people vote for Obama?


    Alrenous Reply:

    Classical black holes – the kind with event horizons – don’t exist.

    Junk‘ DNA isn’t junk, it’s mainly meta-DNA.

    We’ve almost never been able to predict what future technology will look like. Instead of flying cars, we have genome reading that’s getting cheaper at a faster rate than Moore’s law.

    Oh! But we’re completely certain that we know what our civilization will look like 10ky from now or 100ky or 1My. It will be definitely visible to our current instruments. This conclusion is totally trustworthy, guys.


    William Newman Reply:

    No, black holes still probably exist. The equations describing quantum mechanics and gravitation break down in the vicinity of a black hole’s event horizon; this is not news. We don’t have data to clear things up (except partial exceptions like the large-scale structure of cosmic background radiation, which could have frozen in statistical properties which depend on a period of the big bang when the QM/gravity interaction was very important), but that hasn’t stopped physicists from trying to figure out how to extrapolate something reasonable around the breakdown for longer than I’ve been alive. I sorta support that theoretical effort — that approach has worked very well several times in historical physics, notably for Einstein and Dirac — but even if this particular extrapolation is unusually insightful and promising, it doesn’t prove its conclusion, because the equations it’s working with just aren’t solidly established in that regime: at most it just makes its conclusion more plausible. And FWIW I haven’t looked at the original technical work, not even the abstract, but from the way it’s reported it sounds as though it’s about how one particular path to a black hole state wouldn’t behave as previously expected, not about showing that a black hole state wouldn’t behave as previously expected.

    And no, junk DNA is probably mostly junk DNA. (1) We have over a century of systematic work looking hard for the behavior of inherited characteristics for various reasons, including pragmatic plant and animal breeders, curious scientists fiddling with variant neurospora and drosophila and mice, and physicians trying to understand heritable human conditions. Over and over again when we figure out how some malfunction or adaptation works, it turns out to fit the ordinary Darwin/Mendel/DNA/centraldogma story that says the non-junk DNA is where the action is, and the exceptions that test the rule (like jumping genes, trisomy 21, or adaptive genes spread between organisms by non-Mendel mechanisms like viruses) can be strange but still generally don’t mean that any large proportion of junk DNA matters. (2) We have accumulated enough DNA sequence data that we know a lot about the statistics of evolution of DNA patterns over time, and the patterns of change in most junk DNA look enough like unconstrained random accumulation of mistakes — very different from the evolutionarily constrained changes in the bits of DNA that code for functional things like proteins — to give a *lot* of evidence that the junk DNA doesn’t affect reproductive fitness in any sharp way. (You may ask: what would be a not-sharp way? E.g., a constraint that two genes not be too close to each other on the same chromosome.) We also know enough about the math (of information theory, genetic algorithms, and the like) to expect junk DNA as a consequence of plausible estimates of the fitness constraints on evolving organisms. Neither (1) and (2) are evidence the recent results on heritable Lamarck-style adaptation are necessarily bogus, but they are strong evidence that such a phenomenon would be a rare anomaly.


    Raymund Eich Reply:

    The cynical interpretation is this:

    Carl Sagan wanted to reduce the US nuclear arsenal.
    Carl Sagan played up the effects of nuclear war as ‘nuclear winter’ as a means to that end.
    Carl Sagan played up the effects of ‘nuclear winter’ by arguing high-tech civilizations arise easily, but each such civilization inevitably destroys its home planet in a nuclear war before it can spread outside its home stellar system.
    (You may have noticed he elided how his desired US policy outcome would cause humankind to escape this “inevitable” fate).


    Raymund Eich Reply:

    Less cynically, belief that evolution must inevitably lead to high-tech intelligence comes from a common defect in human cognition. Call that belief ‘whig natural history.’

    I have a blog series that touches on this, http://raymundeich.com/tag/fermi-paradox/


    Posted on September 30th, 2014 at 4:50 pm Reply | Quote
  • Vypuero Says:

    The Fermi Paradox is not that much of a paradox – even if there are many civilizations it would take millions of years to search the whole galaxy it is so vast – if you could not go past the speed of light this would certainly be true, though even with FTL the time involved would be great – and how would you even know earth had a civilization? Our radio waves are what maybe a century or more? That is a small area in comparison. So it does not seem reasonable that “they would already be here” to me..


    Posted on September 30th, 2014 at 5:53 pm Reply | Quote
  • Frank Says:

    The Archons might not have built us, but they’ve been yanking our collective chain for untold ages. To what purpose, even Elon Musk can only speculate.


    Posted on September 30th, 2014 at 7:23 pm Reply | Quote
  • Quote note (#113) | Reaction Times Says:

    […] Source: Outside In […]

    Posted on September 30th, 2014 at 8:35 pm Reply | Quote
  • Edward Says:

    How are we so sure that we have seen no signs of aliens? We’re making assumption here.

    What if the activities of really advanced civilizations are indistinguishable from natural phenomena to us? How do we know for sure that the universe we observe is entirely uninfluenced by intelligence? Our relatively primitive ideas of what intelligent activity looks like may be wrong.


    Posted on September 30th, 2014 at 9:21 pm Reply | Quote
  • R. Says:

    The entire assumption that aliens would be engaged in large-scale stellar engineering or sending out gigawatts worth of wasteful EM spectrum radiation is just completely bogus. We can’t know what an alien intelligence would be like, or what it’d do.


    Aeroguy Reply:

    “We can’t know what an alien intelligence would be like, or what it’d do.”
    Actually, we know that they would please Gnon. They are knowable to the extent that we know Gnon. What we know about them, or technically, what we know they don’t do, expands our knowledge about Gnon.

    What is significant is not merely that some aliens don’t engage in large-scale stellar engineering, but that all aliens don’t engage in large-scale stellar engineering, to the extent that we can say that large-scale stellar engineering doesn’t please Gnon. We can even say that spreading life throughout the galaxy (if we had to will to do this it’s something we could be doing, and in such a way as to create a snowball effect where once started there would be no stopping it until the galaxy was saturated with life, which is why there is a sense of imminent impact) and conserving energy within the galaxy also doesn’t please Gnon. This is startling and significant because it also contradicts our priors meaning we have to adjust our priors. This is why theories like being in a simulation are taken seriously. This is why the technological singularity is taken seriously.


    Posted on September 30th, 2014 at 10:36 pm Reply | Quote
  • Kudzu Bob Says:

    You’re missing the point. Fermi concluded that intelligent life should be so common as to be everywhere. But it’s not.


    Posted on October 1st, 2014 at 3:25 am Reply | Quote
  • Alex Says:

    “the atmosphere which extends between heaven and earth is ever filled with a thick crowd of spirits, which do not fly about in it quietly or idly, so that most fortunately the divine providence has withdrawn them from human sight. For through fear of their attacks, or horror at the forms into which they transform and turn themselves at will, men would either be driven out of their wits by an insufferable dread, and faint away, from inability to look on such things with bodily eyes, or else would daily grow worse and worse, and be corrupted by their constant example and by imitating them, and thus there would arise a sort of dangerous familiarity and deadly intercourse between men and the unclean powers of the air” – St John Cassian


    Posted on October 1st, 2014 at 5:45 am Reply | Quote
  • Alrenous Says:

    On the other hand, if you’re taking life seriously, you’re doing it wrong. I might just be disappointed that Musk has to generate so many side-effects to even get near an appreciation of this. A mess of logical externalities.


    Posted on October 1st, 2014 at 6:01 am Reply | Quote

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