Friday, September 4, 2015

Finding Doom Where There is None

Some writers have a penchant for predicting doom and collapse and even the end of civilization on Earth. This type of writing might be used by someone trying to analyze potential alien civilizations to predict Great Filters, in the social development half of the pathway to star travel, where there really are none.

Consider the Roman Empire, perhaps the most famous example of a civilization that failed. By taking as a boundary in time the end of the reign of the last Roman emperor, it could easily be written that a mighty civilization has within it the seeds of destruction. Many different varieties of seeds of destruction can be found, but the bottom line is that nothing stopped at that boundary in time except the reign of the last Roman emperor. The people did not disappear. Knowledge was not lost forever, meaning that anything the Romans knew about technology was either preserved or re-invented, perhaps with one or two exceptions. Social organization did not disappear, it merely changed. Agriculture did not cease to be practiced. Transportation did not dry up, and any reduction was made up in later times. There was suffering at the end of the Roman empire. There was suffering during the Roman empire. There was suffering after the Roman empire. There is suffering today, and will be tomorrow.

Consider a longer view. Start at the beginning of Rome, and end yesterday. Now the fall of the Roman empire looks rather small. If you plot the population of some area, the city of Rome, a circle 50 km around the Coliseum, the present boundaries of Italy, or wherever you like, and you will see population growth. Possibly the growth will be irregular, but comparing the beginning with the end of this time span, growth occurred inside all areas. Consider production of anything, such as food. Also up. Energy, also up. Standard of living, also up. Knowledge of science, also up. Longevity, also up. Average amount of travel per year by the average resident, also up. Trade, also up. There is no doom here.

Doom is found by taking advantage of particular instants in time, when there may have been downturns or incidents of some kind. Over a longer period, one thing happened. People made intelligent choices, learned from past mistakes, and overcame the problems. This is the key fact. People are intelligent, and this does not mean literate or numerate, it means able to identify and solve problems. It does not mean that everybody is capable of solving problems, but that in a mass of people, somebody will figure out a course of action, and others will imitate or follow it, solving the problem.

Another method of finding doom is to do snapshots. If one looks at today’s world, there are things that can be labeled problems. In order for this to be a good candidate for a doom prognostication, the problem has to be on the growth side of its existence. Problems begin, they grow, solutions are found, they diminish. If you look at the growth portion of the problem, it may be possible to paint a horrendous picture of the future, assuming nobody finds a solution or no solution is adopted. This assumption might be temporarily true, but if the problem becomes more of a nuisance, more intelligent people will be looking for solutions, and more people in total will be open to adopting the solutions. This is the key fact: people are intelligent. This is a synonym for problem-solvers. To say it again, people solve problems. Taking any existing problem as a forecast of doom is to assume away the key feature that distinguishes an intelligent species from a non-intelligent one.

When we talk about alien civilizations, we talk about intelligent aliens. They are just like us in that their brains have developed sufficiently so that they can observe difficulties, formulate an understanding of why they are occurring, conceive of a solution to it, and implement it. We on Earth have not seen a problem that will stop us from our path to the stars, and we cannot translate any of the delays that we might encounter into a Great Filter that will prevent all alien civilizations from traveling between stars.

Catastrophes do happen. One common example is the arrival of the bubonic plague from Asia to Europe, where the population had not developed immunities to it, nor had they learned how to prevent its propagation. A third of the population of Europe died from the disease. If one was to look at a period of time from the first case of the plague in Europe to the year when the population was at a minimum, it would certainly be possible to make the argument that biological problems could destroy a civilization. This is a result of the choice of timing of the interval. Europe recovered from the plague, and has not seen a recurrence of it.

Nowadays, one very popular doom is from climate change. This doom projects that mankind and its technology might cause the end of the current ice age, bringing Earth back to the normal state of the planet before it would otherwise have done so. The normal state of the planet, where there is no ice, is a bit warmer than it is during an ice age, and so there might be some disruptions of human society that result from it. Some of the common disruptions that are envisioned are having to move low-lying cities and to change agricultural regions or modify crop choices. This would probably not cause a population effect as bad as the bubonic plague in Europe, but even if it was, mankind would recover and continue solving problems, in the area of climate, just as the ones in the area of plague were solved. This again is the key fact about humanity, and our assumed alien civilizations as well. They solve their problems and continue their rise to the heights of technology.

There certainly might be a Great Filter, but the way to find one is not by looking for predictions of doom here on Earth and then translating it over to all alien civilizations. There are better ways. The ways which have the most payoff take advantage of the three methods of prediction: normative analysis, time scale comparison, and parameterization.

As an example of a normative analysis, consider the requirements for technology to be advanced. One of the requirements is perhaps the most obvious: there must be sufficient intelligent people. How could the number of intelligent people decline? This is the problem of idiocracy, which has been discussed elsewhere.

As an example of time scale comparison, think about the length of time during which alien civilizations could have developed and compare it to the length of time it takes an intelligent species to learn asymptotic technology. The first is governed by the age of the galaxy, of the order of ten billion years, and the second is governed by the rate of inventions and discoveries, which are of the order of a millennia. Thus the idea that an alien civilization would develop at about the same time as Earth’s is probabilistically small.

As an example of parametrization, consider the types of categories of alien civilization, as parametrized by their meme for space travel. We have divided these civilizations up into about six categories, each one of which has been well defined. Six is a number of alternatives that can be extensively handled, and different posts have either walked through the whole set or concentrated on details of one.

It is undeniable that aliens have not announced themselves to us, and this raises the suspicion that there are none traveling in space or doing other detectable things. It is certainly possible that a doom awaits an intelligent alien civilization, and it would be ideal if we could catch a glimpse of what it might be. It is necessary to continue to develop those tools which might lead us to that, and not slip into making analogies with dooms forecast for Earth or reminiscent of those which have already befallen all or part of Earth’s humanity.

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