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Abandoning our cosmological responsibilities?
Posted by Tony on 14th November 2016 at 15:15:14
Across thirty years of increasing appreciation of complex systems, emergence and supervenience, I've had bursts of trying to tie all the threads together into an illustrated monograph or whatever the nearest equivalent might be in our ever evolving media landscape. In the beginning it was to be called Beyond Democracy: the prospect of an informed age. A key component of that plan warrants brief reflection, the proposal that there would be No Secrets and No Need for Secrets. Despite Pinker's statistical insistence that human amenity continues to improve, ever increasing social censoriousness continues to increase the need for secrets leaving it easiest to advocate when you have no skin in the game. More recently on the back of an intense four years of research into highly productive yet previously neglected corners of cellular automata rule space, I was, and mostly remain, happy to focus on Exploring Possibilities as answers to both is? and ought? But after a further five years of notional retirement bashing my head against many aspects of The System with some success, it is impossible to pretend to be staying ahead of the tide, nor to anticipate enough active life ahead that that might change. So without trying to deny some residual attraction to nice things, I'm every day happier that the rest of my time does not need to be compromised defending past achievements of which there are clearly none of sufficient magnitude that their defence might be meaningful. In particular that allows me to change my mind and even propose ideas that I'm well aware many great allies will reflexively hate. Preamble done, I should try to get to the point now.

I'm reluctantly convinced that there are terms in the Drake Equation which are vanishingly close to zero, that is the existence of a society capable of making an industry of fantasising about interstellar travel is so improbable that nobody else will ever know we existed if we blow it. While that is enough for the discussion that follows, I really don't expect there to be anything even vaguely like us anywhere else in the multiverse. This opinion rests heavily of two unpopular understandings of available evidence:

  • the unlikely make or break steps in our (pre)historic past explode combinatorially; and
  • it is variation rather than selection which enables biological evolution to appear to be progressive.
Thus we are likely the only extant entities that can conceive of the possibility that we might (collectively) come to know everything, that is make a comprehensive map of the riches scattered across however much of the territory we can examine going forward. A positive note is important here that our ability to extract knowledge from traces buried in the physical world is on an ever more explosive trajectory. But that only amplifies our responsibility not to stuff up.

That same 30 year journey of increasing understanding, together with positive identification with the tide of antiauthoritarian rebound across younger years, long blindsided me to the creep of what we have recently come to talk of as neoliberalism, but is better described as greed, short termism and unspeakable prejudices. While life expectancy pushes eighty, the bankers have forced most of our productive efforts to focus on maximising our catch on our current voyage with ever diminishing prospects that the gig will be repeated. Yes, even allowing that a lot of growth is achieved by increasing what is counted rather than new activity, the economy is scrambling across a high plateau. But it is only doing that by externalising costs to planetary systems at twice the rate those systems can dissipate. All we shout about is human amenity and rarely whisper about ecological health. Short of unprecedented concessions to reigning in extravagance and indulgence, we already have far too many billions of humans for most to be able to reach advertised life expectancy. So the challenge moves to ensuring enough survives that the next recovery will avoid this slippery slope and make a better attempt to realise our potential. Certainly their are roles for robots and digital "intelligence", particularly off-planet. But isn't it time we put more effort into communicating with the many other intelligent species we are squeezing out than with trying to identify improbable signals from extraterrestrials? We should be well aware the universe is indifferent to our well being, but does than mean we of powerful if scattered emotions should not feel a responsibility to ensure continuance of the human project and the life world which nurtures it which far exceeds commitments to ideologies or other bad ideas?

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