Totally Alone in the Universe

I saw this tonight, which highlights an insignificant something that has been bugging me for awhile:

While we wait to establish contact, one technique we can use back on Earth is an equation that American astronomer Frank Drake formulated in the 1960s to calculate the number of detectable extraterrestrial civilizations may exist in the Milky Way galaxy.

It is not a rigorous equation, offering a wide range of possible answers. Instead it is more a tool used to help understand how many worlds might be out there and how those estimates change as missions like Kepler, a telescope that is currently searching for Earth-like planets, begin to discover more about our universe.

Drake Equation infographic

This brought back to mind something I had written in my personal journal a few weeks ago:

On some podcast, someone said that in the case of an alien invasion, they would rather be killed by an alien rather than in the panic of people, because then they would know that humanity is not alone in the universe.

First of all, if there were alien life in the universe, I think the point most people miss is how fundamentally different their form of intelligence is likely to be. I doubt communication is even possible. What we consider intelligence is a totalizing, speciesist, anthropomorphic understanding of a specific pattern of behavior and qualities that enable us to converse and cooperate. Alien phenomenology and epistemology is so unlikely to have developed in the way that our understanding of the universe has – fantasists who dream about aliens presume that technological sophistication results from this same form of rationalist, fundamentally procedural one-two-three-four way of thinking that gives us microchips and missiles. Aliens who are advanced enough to build space ships must be true rationalists, empiricists. That’s why we only encounter fictional aliens on the same terms – once we get into space. Before that point, contact with aliens comes in the form of a scavenging species, or an empirical, crafty sort of aliens who want to take our planet for its resources (with the assumption that there still are some before they get here. Wouldn’t that be inconsiderate of us to use them all up? What if aliens, like the ones in V, come to earth for water – specifically drinking water? poor them).

Of course, I was being sarcastic when I wrote that aliens must be true rationalists, this is just the trope we’re usually given, because advanced species are presumably advanced in every way. I think the reality is that it’s unlikely we’ll be able to even relate to these alien life. Futurists and enthusiasts point to mathematics as a common “language,” but it seems a rather large leap to go from empirical truths of arithmetic and algebra, to the signs and signifiers that make up our communication.

Real aliens would probably be what some call “starfish aliens.” But our imaginations have been trained by poor writing and cheap production budgets to picture aliens as bipeds with goofy heads and appendages, their language as something quite a bit more Greek than it should, and their culture as weird but comprehensible. Except for that whole moralizing “it’s barbaric!” that Starfleet officers sometimes belt out.

In fact, our imaginations have the same limitations when it comes to conceptualizing the divine. Anthropocentric thinking inevitably creates an idol of not only the human figure, but the way we think as well. One alternative to this has been negative or apophatic theology, which was popular in the history of Christianity but has fallen out of favor, as people find it easier to construct gods they can use to their own ends. A noumenological god, the sort of “Ein Sof” or Atzmus that gnostics and mystics pursue, and the Buddhist-styled no-thingness of that “god” is totally useless to most human beings. We want a being that we can relate to – with this in mind, theodicies are never about whether or not god might exist, but if “a God” exists with the characteristics we would appreciate.

If there is a God-object, then people-objects must undergo theosis in order to be unified with it (it is usually a him when human beings with some sort of cultural power define God). Salvation is something individuals must achieve in order to appease the god-object. The alternative to this is a sort of self reflection seen in Eastern christian as theoria or contemplation and in Buddhism/Hinduism/Jianism as enlightenment. These beliefs also teach strong values of non-violence and pacifism, to the point where they have active verbs (Ahimsa) that mean “not doing harm” (this distinction is noted in Mark Kurlansky’s excellent book on Nonviolence). What we see here is that the divine is not an objectified individual, but a unified essence of all things – balancing a sense of our no-self (Anatta) with self (Atman) through the understanding of dependent origination (that all phenomenon are connected in an ecology of cause and effect).

This east/west divide is not new. People have written gobs on it from its novelty and will continue to write gobs on in the future (assuming eastern thought is not trampled down before it’s fully appreciated). But my original point was this:

(Despite the efforts of some very exciting philosophers,) Our typical perspective is to treat each other as independent, relatable objects. Our ontology is to see our self with certainty. Whether it is aliens or God, we treat this other as we do all others – something that can be related to, something that can be comprehended. Something that is understandable and with which we may eventually communicate. And then it is not us that is so afraid of being alone in the universe. It is our way of thinking. If our way of thinking is so universal and prominent that it spans the galaxy and interpenetrates beyond to whatever realm god exists in, then it is truly by itself. And if that way of thinking is One, in the unifying sense of pantheism/panentheism, then all of us are totally alone together. (On that last note, maybe Sherry Turkle’s book reveals more about the digital public sphere then we recognize! I just have to get around to finishing it)

Imagine how terrifying that truly is for a moment. It is the galactic equivalent of being trapped in a room by ourselves, with only a mirror for company. First, we are afraid that our reflection is all we have. Then something enters. If that something is a thing we can talk with, and relate to, eventually we become one are are again alone with ourselves. If that something is anything else, then we are not alone. Either way, it is the isolation we fear – of being alone with our thoughts, our language, our way of thinking. But moreover, it is the illusion of self, that we are alone and that we are not one.

When we are afraid of being one and alone with ourselves, we do not understand the depth and majesty of that. We do not recognize the all-encompasing togetherness of our human and biocentric ecology, because we are used to thinking of ourselves as individuals. We can be together, if we only recognize we were never apart. Our language is bigger than we are. Our thinking is greater than we understand. The anxiety shouldn’t be for us, it should be for the everything, entities like Ein Sof or even the Object-God which would truly be alone, no matter how much it loved its creation. But we are ascribing those emotions to it. Is existential angst a human condition? It is certainly a human invention.

I realize much of what I’ve written is not perfect. But mental work never ends – you either become too exhausted or die before it can be finished. But it is amusing to imagine nonhuman beings experiencing this anthropocentric crises of identity. One of the things I love about my dog is that he is a dog. He is best at being a dog. I imagine the gamut of his thought process goes something like this: “I am a dog I am a dog I am a dog.” Except that he has had a few thousand years of domestication, which has flavored his behaviors so that he is a bit more human than the average nonhuman creature. Perhaps a fish would be a better example. “I am a fish I am a fish (etc)”

The problem with people is that we lost that self-assuredness somewhere down the line. We stepped out of the ecology of the planet and started trying to make sense of it all for ourselves. We no longer know what it means to be a person. Instead we are concerned with questions like “what does it mean to be an alien?” or “what is God like?” I would suggest that these things, if we picture them as objects, are busy being what they are, unless they suffer the same malady as we do. In that case, it’s certain we could probably relate to them. But since we haven’t heard a great deal from God lately, we can assume he is probably crazy by this point (joke). Let’s hope the aliens aren’t crazy when we meet them.