Friday, January 27, 2012

The problem with intelligence in science fiction

As a closing question in an interview with Tim Maudlin, there was this question (and response):
I recently came across a paper about Fermi's Paradox and Self-Replicating Probes, and while it had kind of a science fiction tone to it, it occurred to me as I was reading it that philosophers might be uniquely suited to speculating about, or at least evaluating the probabilistic arguments for the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. Do you expect philosophers of cosmology to enter into those debates, or will the discipline confine itself to issues that emerge directly from physics?
Maudlin: This is really a physical question. If you think of life, of intelligent life, it is, among other things, a physical phenomenon -- it occurs when the physical conditions are right. And so the question of how likely it is that life will emerge, and how frequently it will emerge, does connect up to physics, and does connect up to cosmology, because when you're asking how likely it is thatsomewhere there's life, you're talking about the broad scope of the physical universe. And philosophers do tend to be pretty well schooled in certain kinds of probabilistic analysis, and so it may come up. I wouldn't rule it in or rule it out.
I will make one comment about these kinds of arguments which seems to me to somehow have eluded everyone. When people make these probabilistic equations, like the Drake Equation, which you're familiar with -- they introduce variables for the frequency of earth-like planets, for the evolution of life on those planets, and so on. The question remains as to how often, after life evolves, you'll have intelligent life capable of making technology. What people haven't seemed to notice is that on earth, of all the billions of species that have evolved, only one has developed intelligence to the level of producing technology. Which means that kind of intelligence is really not very useful. It's not actually, in the general case, of much evolutionary value. We tend to think, because we love to think of ourselves, human beings, as the top of the evolutionary ladder, that the intelligence we have, that makes us human beings, is the thing that all of evolution is striving toward. But what we know is that that's not true. Obviously it doesn't matter that much if you're a beetle, that you be really smart. If it were, evolution would have produced much more intelligent beetles. We have no empirical data to suggest that there's a high probability that evolution on another planet would lead to technological intelligence. There is just too much we don't know.

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