A recent article in Science News, Can you hear me now?, explored issues around the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI) program. I see a Taoist twist on this, but first here is the editor’s short take on this:
An intelligent ET would probably just stay home.
Apart from jokes about how hard it is to find intelligent life on Earth, let alone in the rest of the galaxy, the possible existence of extraterrestrial beings — and the lack of contact with them — poses a perplexing issue.
Because the galaxy is several billion years older than the Earth, planets around distant stars have had plenty of time to produce civilizations that would by now possess technology millions of years beyond current human capability. Presumably those advanced aliens would have built vessels permitting easy interstellar travel and so should be conducting regular tours to their favorite Earthly vacation spots. But as the famously sagacious physicist Enrico Fermi long ago observed, alien life is conspicuous in its absence. “Where is everybody?” Fermi asked. Ever since, experts and amateurs alike have sought reasons why the best response to Fermi’s question is some-thing other than simply concluding that no aliens exist.
Of course, proving alien life’s existence would not require an actual visit from Klaatu and Gort or those Witch Mountain kids. A text message or even a Morse Code telegram would be evidence enough. But as Elizabeth Quill points out on Page 22, human strategies for finding such a signal have probably been attuned to the wrong medium: the electromagnetic waves, basically radio, that represent a transient phase in Earth’s communication technology. Seeking signs of ET by listening to radio waves is like trying to watch ESPN on a TV with rabbit ears.
So searchers for extraterrestrial intelligence are now attempting to imagine other ways that more advanced societies might advertise their presence. It may be, though, that they are not advertising at all and would prefer to conceal their existence from other civilizations. Because if anybody has developed high-speed interstellar spacecraft technology, the galaxy is a very dangerous place.
Imagine a ship only the mass of the space shuttle — at a mere 20 percent of the speed of light, its kinetic energy would exceed that of 15,000 hydrogen bombs. You wouldn’t want to invite a visitor to aim such a ship in your direction.
In fact, realizing the potential weaponry power of an inter-stellar spacecraft might be just enough to persuade a really intelligent civilization not to build one. And so the answer to Fermi’s question might be that everybody decided to stay safe at home. —Tom Siegfried, Editor in Chief
Okay, the first thing that comes to mind is how the Tao Te Ching ends(1)…
Reduce the size and population of the state. Ensure that even though the people have tools of war for a troop or a battalion they will not use them; and also that they will be reluctant to move to distant places because they look on death as no light matter.
Though adjoining states are within sight of one another, and the sound of dogs barking and cocks crowing in one state can be heard in another, yet the people of one state will grow old and die without having had any dealings with those of another.
If there are any civilizations thousands or millions of years ahead of us, you’d think they would have found greater contentment, settled down, returned to a way of life more in step with nature. That means, above all, not one bent on ‘progress’, at least as we define it.
A civilization so far ahead of us would have matured enough by now to realize fully the cognitive illusion that entraps thinking creatures, and adjust accordingly. We, on the other hand, are like infants who have just learned enough to get around. We still have thousands, if not millions, of years left of Circumstances to bring us to maturity, as chapter 51 puts it.
(1) Actually it ends one chapter later with, among other things, He who knows has no wide learning; he who has wide learning does not know. I can’t help but feel we are just at the bare beginning of ‘getting it’, and that is how it should be. After all, our planet is young, relatively speaking, with a lot of evolution left to undergo. We are still at the stage of setting it up, i.e., If you would have a thing laid aside, You must first set it up, as chapter 36 put it.