The Superior ETI Slice
difficult to imagine up. It is easier
to imagine down. When comparing
humans with animals, for example, we can imagine down by distinguishing things
we humans can do that are beyond the capability of our animal neighbors. When
is comes to imagining ETI who might be superior to us in intelligence, it is
difficult to imagine up. It is difficult to imagine what superior intelligence
could manifest that is beyond the very human intelligence that is doing the
imagining. This puts initial constraints or limits on how we can begin to
approach the topic of ethics when engaging ETI more advanced than earths homo sapiens. Nevertheless, it is
incumbent in astro-bioethics to speculate about the possibility of engaging
with intelligent beings who are superior to us.
If we meet ETI
superior to ourselves, will they be hostile? Neutrally peaceful? or salvific?
Given the assumptions made by many astrobiologists that extraterrestrial
evolution will follow a path toward increased intelligence as it has on earth,
the prospect of ETI fitting the hostile category is to be expected. Charles
Darwins key evolutionary principle is natural selection, which he identifies
with the struggle for existence and with Herbert Spencers phrase, survival of the fittest
In the struggle for existence, living creatures undergo cruelty, suffering, and
waste (Darwin, 445).
And the species to which virtually every individual creature belongs will
eventually go extinct to make way for a more fit species. The strong devour the
weak. The big eat the small. The fit survive in a world that is, as Tennyson
put it, blood red in tooth and claw.
astrobiological assumptions regarding a repeat of evolution on extraterrestrial
planets, hostility is what we should expect on the part of ETI. Yet,
surprisingly, some SETI speculators anticipate meeting intellectually superior
ETI who will benevolently help us on earth. For this reason, I add the
Now, how do we
get from the struggle for existence to extraterrestrial saviors? How does
evolution transcend itself?
Lets look at the
logic operative in this speculation. Some in the astrobiology community project
an image of a more highly evolved extraterrestrial creature who would like to
rescue us earthlings from the ignorant habits we have developed due to our
inferior level of intelligence. Because we on earth have not yet achieved the
level of rationality necessary to see that international war and planetary
degradation are inescapably self-destructive, we could learn from ETI more
advanced than we.
is obviously myth, not science. No empirical evidence justifies such
speculation. Yet, such dreaming of redemption descending from Earths skies is
tantalizing to the terrestrial imagination. I have noted elsewhere that
included in much of astrobiological theorizing is a version of the ETI Myth (Peters, 2008, chapter 3). The
essence of the ETI myth is that science saves. Science can save earth from its
inadequacies, its evolutionary backwardness, its propensity for
self-destruction. If terrestrial science is insufficient, then extraterrestrial
science just might be.
By myth here I refer to a cultural
construct, a window frame, so to speak, through which we look in order to view
the world out there. At work in modern culture in general, as well as in
astrobiology in particular, is an identifiable framework - a myth, if you
will--within which we cast the questions we pose to the mysteries evoked by our
experience with outer space. The ETI myth reveals its shape as SETIs Frank
Drake gives voice to speculations: Everything we know says there are other
civilizations out there to be found. The discovery of such civilizations would
enrich our civilization with valuable information about science, technology,
and sociology. This information could directly improve our abilities to
conserve and to deal with sociological problems - poverty for example. Cheap
energy is another potential benefit of discovery, as are advancements in
medicine (Cited by Richards, 2003, 5). Note the optimism. Drake does not
expect what Darwin
or Hawking would expect, namely, an extraterrestrial race engaged in the
struggle for existence which might like to exploit us on Earth. Rather, Drakes
extrapolation of evolution to ETI imagines an intelligent and benevolent race
ready to offer us aid and assistance. His vision includes optimism regarding
the solution to earths sociological problems such as poverty and energy.
Space visitors might even give us a leap forward in medicine.
What Drake believes
is that science is salvific; and extraterrestrial science would be even more
salvific than terrestrial science. In sum, should an extraterrestrial
civilization more evolutionarily advanced than we engage planet earth, we could
benefit from the ability of ETI to save us from our own primitive inadequacies
and even our own propensity for self-destruction. It is this thought structure
within astrobiology that warrants the designation for more highly evolved and
more intelligent ETI as salvific.
Drakes prophecy gets fulfilled. Suppose ETI turn out to be salvific. In the
event that ETI turn out to be not only more intelligent but also altruistic
toward us, then an ethic of gratitude might be included in our responsibility.
We would receive and make use of the gifts that increased intelligence would
allegedly provide us: such as the means for maintaining a healthy planetary
ecology, improvement in our medical care, and more justice in our social
practices. Then, we would build upon what we have already said about
maintaining terrestrial peace and treating our superiors with dignity; we would
add a measure of grateful respect.
alternative, of course, is that superior ETI might be hostile. If superior ETI
and Hawking and confront us with hostile and exploitative enslavement, then
perhaps we will frame our ethics accordingly. The New Testament provides
instructions for slaves. NRS 1
Peter 2:18: Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all
deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.
This may seem unrecognizable for us today. The treatment of the superior master
by an inferior slave has fallen into disuse in our post-Enlightenment period.
This is because of the erasure of the line between superior and inferior human
beings within modern Enlightenment culture. We are all equal - that is, we all
share the same moral status. Each of us has dignity by virtue of our belonging
to the human race, and slavery violates the principle of dignity. Should a master-slave
relationship rear its ugly head somewhere on our planet, we children of the
Enlightenment would encourage the slaves to rebel and strive for their own
liberation. Such a moral commitment to liberation would be justified by the
assumption that both masters and slaves are not other but rather are equal.
When we use
the assumptions made by many in the astrobiology field, however, we cannot coherently
make the argument that all intelligent beings are equal. Those who have evolved
longer and who have attained a higher level of rational intelligence would be,
by definition, superior to us. We could not justify liberating ourselves from
their rule with an argument based upon equality. Perhaps we are now getting a
vision of the blind alley that we are led into when we make intelligence our
primary criterion. When we tie dignity to rationality or intelligence - and when
we find ETI more intelligent than we are - we hang ourselves on our own gallows.
All that is left for us is a self-appointed slave ethic. I am not prescribing
this with enthusiasm. Rather, Im drawing out ethical speculations based upon
intellectually superior ETI are not especially hostile nor altruistically
motivated to be our saviors, then we might frame our ethical deliberation
anticipating neutral peacefulness. In the event that either peer or superior
ETI approach the civilizations on Earth in a peaceful manner, we would want to
respond with working through just institutions. Maintaining peace would become
an immediate moral commitment. We might even find ourselves organizing to quiet
down and restrict earthly voices that would disturb the peace. We would want to
police ourselves in the name of peace. Peace would benefit life on earth. In
addition, moral policies we set would likely treat our new space friends with
dignity, respect, and courtesy.
It is my own
view that we should treat superior ETIs with dignity, respecting and even
caring for their welfare. If they are hostile and enslave us, we should invoke
an appropriate slave morality that maintains their dignity. If ETI are peaceful
toward us and open up avenues of conversation and commerce, then the principles
of justice and the striving to maintain peace should obtain. If out of their
superior wisdom and altruistic motives ETI seek to better our life here on
earth, we should accept the gifts they bring and respond with an attitude of
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