Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Great Filter – The Post Office

How does science and technology actually get started in an alien civilization? In the early days of the civilization, when only primitive tools and items were being produced, a producer of them could teach his offspring the techniques, or even take in offspring of nearby sources as apprentices. The tools themselves could be traded if such things were established; otherwise they would only exist in the place where they originated. This type of behavior, involving specialized labor, can occur when there is a civilization proficient enough at providing for itself that some citizens can devote some or all of their time to specialization, such as tool-making. In the earliest days of the life of the alien species, there was no opportunity for specialization. This requires a larger social unit, bigger than a hunting group or some other group which has only a few individuals in it. Competition between the individuals has to diminish somewhat, so that an individual who can produce a better tool can do so for individuals other than himself.

Most likely, specialization of labor cannot exist in a nomadic community; some settled community is necessary. And after that, for a long period, tool-making stays very closely connected with utility. Tricks and techniques are developed, perhaps accidentally or by trial-and-error, and remembered. They are taught to the apprentices, and tool-making advances bit by bit over generations. This is not science. It has nothing to do with understanding the cause-and-effect relationships, or let us say, coming up with a theory of why something works better than something else. Utility is a hard driver, and it does not promote abstract thinking at the earliest stages of learning.

Abstract thinking requires the dedication of time. For some alien citizen to have that time available, the society must be relatively prosperous, and the citizen involved has to somehow amass enough resources so they are not constantly involved with producing things for survival. So, there needs to be some mechanism by which an individual can find the time free for abstract thinking. Furthermore, they need access to materials with which to experiment. In the earliest days, there would likely be those who engage in abstract thinking, such as happened here on Earth with gurus and others in similar roles. These individuals would not be coming from a basis in tool-making, however.

Some individual has to somehow collect the resources needed to support abstract thinking, and then those resources have to be provided to someone capable of it, either the same individual, a descendant of the collecting citizen, or some appointed person chosen for their ability. Once the resource question is resolved, the citizen who is now responsible for figuring out things in a more coherent way can begin his/her/its work.

But abstract thinking is difficult. Having an isolated individual working alone and coming up with new abstract theories, in a situation where experiment can prove someone wrong, is conceivable, but unlikely. So there could be a situation where the collecting authority dispenses the resources to multiple individuals who act in consort, but in the earliest days of technology, there aren’t that many individuals standing around with their hand outstretched, waiting to engage in abstract thinking. That there is one available at any place and time, in this early era, is fortunate. So what happens?

This is where communication comes in. If, in different parts of the planet, there are individuals capable of doing abstract thinking, and who have been so fortunate as to find a sponsor for their work and their time, and they can communicate with one another, abstract ideas can be slowly generated. The number of individuals with genius genes, and who are able to recognize their own skills, see how to use them, obtain sponsorship, and produce something useful in this area, is likely very, very small. Somehow they would have to hear about one another, and somehow they would need to communicate.

Operating in an isolated fashion, such an individual might not produce anything particularly useful, and the sponsorship that they had found would cease. Thus, without some additional means of generating ideas for these abstract theories, of verifying them, of pointing out flaws and errors, and all the various modes of interchange that active scientists rely upon, the initial attempt at science would fail.

To find out where such individuals are requires some sort of news to be shared between locales where resources are sufficient to support such an endeavor and where a person who collects resources has the opinion that such thinking should be supported. There might not be many locales, but if there are some, some means of communication has to exist. By this time, writing would certainly have been invented, and not only writing, but writing technology to allow the transfer of information over distances. Writing technology has to have progressed far enough so that it involves lightweight, portable means of communication, and the technology has to have spread to all these locales where bright individuals are ensconced. Beyond the ability to write in a way that is portable and lasting, there has to be a medium of communication, some common language, or at least an ability to translate any differences in language or dialect that exist in different locales. Since we are talking about primitive times, it is not likely that one single language has yet replaced all the original ones that arose in small groups.

One last thing is necessary for the dawn of science. There has to be some way for writing to be transmitted from one locale to another. Call it the Post Office. This might involve any means of carrying written materials from one location to another. Before science in invented, there is only one option. Some citizens have to be devoted to the ferrying of information, in written form, from one place to another. More specialization of labor happens. When this is established, the first thing to happen is that information about the appointment of individuals to positions where they can concoct theoretical explanations of phenomena has to be spread to all the other locations. After this, the obvious exploitation of the transmittal service has to happen. The individuals have to start communicating, and sharing their own formulations of why something happens. They would also share what experiments they have done, and what results were obtained. After this step, the invention and implementation of a post office, science, in the sense of theorizing about cause and effect in an abstract manner, can begin. One could say that civilizations that are more hermit-like, and do not communicate between regions, and have no post office, will not develop technology. So, one possibility for a Great Filter that prevents aliens from visiting us is the Post Office.

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