Friday, April 18, 2008

E2.0: David Brin: The Great Silence and the Enlightenment

This is the 31st in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s "Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.". I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

Welcome back to the weekend series on the Beyond Belief conference, “Enlightenment 2.0”. Our next speaker is David Brin, astronomer and science fiction author.

Brin is concerned about the great silence – about the fact that this huge universe exists, and yet there is no evidence of any other occupants within it. The hypothesis that explains this observations is that something (or some combination of things) prevents civilizations from reaching a point where they actually become space-faring (or at least space-communicating) civilizations. Given how far we have come in just 10,000 years, and the fact that we already are a space-communicating civilization and expect to become more so very rapidly, we have to ask . . .

Where is everybody?

What’s getting in the way of everybody else, and what should we be on the lookout for?

Brin’s suggestion is that the problem is feudalism, and the solution to this problem is the enlightenment.

The problem is that, the instant that people started to make tools that they can use to harvest the crops, they have turned those tools into weapons for attacking their neighbors – taking their women and their wheat. This situation, which he loosely calls ‘feudalism’ is the natural state of mankind.

There is another state, called ‘enlightenment’, that allows for tremendous progress. However, it is a very unstable state. There are always people trying to cheat – trying to get advantage over others through violence and other forms of cheating. They seek to recreate a feudal state – of course, one in which they are the feudal masters.

He complained against the libertarians that the great enemy of markets is not government bureaucracy. The great enemy of markets is the aristocracy, or would-be aristocracy. These people sit at the heads of their empires and want to secure their position. The way they do so is by using the power that they have as the heads of their empires to secure their position, to create feudal policies where they may maintain their position and pass it on intact to their children.

From Brin’s description, we can see how the aristocracy would be opposed to income taxes (which shrink the size of their kingdom) and an inheritance tax (which gets in the way of their handing their empires down to their children).

In order to explain how to counter these feudalistic tendencies he draws upon the writings of John Locke. What we need is a set of institutions that helps to promote our better natures, while it suppresses our baser natures. (This sounds very much like the description that I have given to morality – an institution for promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.)

The tools that Brin wants us to use to promote our better natures and inhibit our baser natures are the four great “accountability arenas” – Markets, Democracy, Science, and Law Courts. In each of these arenas, competing ideas come in to do battle, but do so within a system of rules that “keeps the bloodshed to a minimum.”

This stands in contrast to the feudal system mostly in terms of the lack of concern over the amount of blood that has been shed in the feudal system. Feudalism is the violent confrontation of one system that cares little about the amount of bloodshed – turning farm tools into weapons and robbing one’s neighbor of its food and kidnapping its women. Often, the aristocrats themselves enjoy charging into the fray.

If we lose the enlightenment, and if we let the aristocrats win (by allowing the aristocrats to take control of government and to establish a feudal government with each business conglomerate being the modern version of an ancient feudal holding, with workers as serfs working in the feudal holdings, then, according to Brin, it will be 10,000 years before we will have another chance to rise from that feudal society.

The difference, Brin suggests, between the human race becoming another one of those civilizations in the world that nobody ever hears about, and our becoming the civilization that moves out among the stars and, perhaps, adopts the task of helping other civilizations, is whether or not we can hold on to the enlightenment.

I have a problem with Brin’s presentation in that he has this grand theory, but he has nothing to back it up. I have, in my life, heard a lot of people offer a grand “Theory of Everything” that explains a wide variety of phenomena. In Brin’s case, he seeks to explain everything from the rise of civilization to the great silence (the absence of extraterrestrial civilizations willing to talk to us). I simply find it difficult to put much stock in those types of claims.

I have argued in this blog that truth certainly has value. We aim to fulfill our desires, but we act so as to fulfill our desires given our beliefs. False beliefs tends to get in the way of us acting so as to fulfill our desires. It is easy to imagine the things that we would have done differently, and the things we would do differently today, if we only had true beliefs.

The four institutions that Brin mentions – markets, democracy, science, and courts of law – are designed to provide people with information. The relationship between science and a well constructed court system and the truth is obvious. The power of markets comes precisely from the fact that price carries a tremendous amount of information and ties that information to reasons for action.

I have trouble seeing democracy as a tool for truth. It does provide a set of rules for avoiding bloodshed – the decision that we will all bind ourselves to the expressed will of the majority. However, what the majority believes is not necessarily true, and embracing the beliefs of the majority is not the same thing as embracing truth.

In place of ‘democracy’ I would put ‘liberty’ in this category. Liberty has value in that we are better off to the degree that the person who makes decisions for an individual should be the person who is the most knowledgeable and the least corruptible agent possible. Giving the job to somebody who is less knowledgeable or more corruptible means that value that the first agent would have acquired will likely be missed. In other words, the individual will be worse off.

I’m not going to tie this to the absence of other voices from space, however. When it comes to explaining why we have not heard from other civilizations, I am at a loss. I look at our civilization, and to what we could accomplish in the next few thousand years. We already know how to build beacons that can communicate across half the universe. A society in the Milky Way that had beaten us to this level of civilization even by a mere hundred thousand years should be noticeable to us.

So, where are they?

And . . . it suggests that there might be something wrong with the basic assumptions that I make about the universe, if those assumptions predict that there would be voices out there to talk to us, and there are no voices. This suggests that something about those assumptions may be mistaken. Or, our corner of the universe has suffered an unusually large quantity of bad luck.

I do not need to make grand statements on how a lack of concern for truth explains the great silence. Truth has value enough for us, regardless of what the reasons for the great silence actually turn out to be. Truth (information) is the means by which acting so as to fulfill our desires given our beliefs actually results in fulfilling our desires.

That’s really all that I need.


Anonymous said...

'When it comes to explaining why we have not heard from other civilizations, I am at a loss.'

The Fermi Paradox. I think the explanation has to be we're looking for something small in something big, we don't really know what to look for, haven't been looking for it very long and probably wouldn't understand it if we saw it.

I suspect when we work it out, it'll just snap into place. 'Oh, the *stars* are intelligent lifeforms and we've been staring at a million aliens every night' or 'stars don't just go bang, someone's got to blow them up ... what, you think black holes just make themselves' or something seemingly insane like that.

I think there is a parallel with religion here - I'm an atheist. I can, though, accept the idea that God might exist in such a way that we mere humans just can't see. Like the atoms in Uma Thurman's body don't know they're in Uma Thurman ... and couldn't do very much with the knowledge if they did.

That is, of course, the exact opposite of what all human religions have ever taught.

Isn't the 'problem' that we're basically monkeys who think a hundred miles is a long distance and a hundred years is a lot of time, dealing with units of time and distance where 'a million' is represented by a single pixel on the screen?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is a test of the ability to tolerate ambiguity, to express humility and remain humble, and to acknowledge that we are limited by our ability to measure only to the limits of our ability to perceive.

One other possibility is that we have or are being contacted, but that the visitors choose to remain hidden.

I enjoy this series, and I will be revisiting this post many times.

Anonymous said...

'acknowledge that we are limited by our ability to measure only to the limits of our ability to perceive'

One of the most frustrating aspects of modern theology is the celebration of mystery. Well, that and that their mysteries are all rubbish and science solved most of them years ago.

If we're limited by our ability to perceive, we should expand our abilities. That what quantum physicists do - literally they see things so small that *protons* overlook them.

If we can't see stuff or think in a certain way, it's our job to build machines that see and think better, not sit in a corner of a cave in awe.

Anonymous said...

I posted a link to this post on David Brin's blog.