Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Goals of an Alien Civilization

The idea that an entire civilization can have a goal may seem absurd to us on Earth. We on Earth may have individual goals, personal ones, such as getting an education, a job, a spouse, children, more income, a good retirement, entertainment of some particular type, or many others. With a little bit of deeper investigation, however, it becomes clearer that the human brain is not made for having unitary goals. A computer program may be written to accomplish some goal and if it is written correctly, it will proceed to accomplish it. If there are a thousand accounts to be totaled, it can do it. A well-written computer program is written in a fashion to accomplish a goal, and a code reader can follow the steps needed to do it.

The human brain works by associating things with one another, matching patterns, weighing influences, and so on. A human can associate the word ‘goal’ with something in particular, but the brain itself is not designed to drive the person possessing it to reach the goal. It is subject to collateral influences and distractions, competing alternative goals and needs for relaxing, sustenance and so on which are critical to the person continuing to function. At best, goal seeking in an individual is done by part of the brain, while other parts are busy doing other things, seeking other goals, or even debating whether the original goal should be done or the priority to give to it. The cognitive center in the brain assembles inputs from different parts of the brain and integrates them to decide on the next step forward. All in all, humans have goals but there is some fuzziness to any goal a human has.

Humans typically have many goals, not just one, although some may be more likely to be communicated than others. Psychologists have categorized these goals in various ways, and they range from immediate bodily needs, such as escaping from extreme cold, to interaction-related ones, such as seeking praise or comfort.

An alien civilization has many citizens, each of whom have, presumably, brains which can come up with goals for their own lives. One can also categorize them and, in civilizations which have advanced far enough technologically, one would expect to find some goals which relate to the civilization itself. We humans sometimes adopt goals for other individuals, such as members of our family, or larger groups. An advanced alien civilization would be expected to be unified much more than a primitive civilization such as we have here on Earth, with individuals much more identical to each other than humans are due to genetic engineering, and so having a common goal residing among individual goals is a reasonable thing. Perhaps the reason we Earthlings do not have such a common goal spread throughout all citizens is that we are divided into many groups, and we tend to think of goals for some of our favored groups rather than for everyone. Some people do think universally, but this type of thinking is not widespread, except in communication.

The idea of a common goal that a whole alien civilization would support derives from three things, one is the unification of the civilization, not just of governance, but across all aspects of society; a second is the lack of marked differences between citizens in capability and nature; a third is the triumph of understanding of psychology and sociology, which means that divisiveness which would prevent common goals from emerging is understood and has been dealt with. One could also add the increased average intelligence of the citizens, where all are somewhat smarter than the best we have ever evolved. Increased intelligence facilitates communication, consensus-seeking, and rationality, all of which move in the direction of common goals.

There is a dynamic here. As the alien civilization marches through that brief period when technology is being advanced, scientific theories are being developed and verified, and engineering capabilities are being expanded and deepened, one of the things which is going on is the increase in intelligence of the citizens. Genetic engineering does not spring into being fully formed, but instead it would be expected that there is a gradual process of determining how to improve the genome, and the training and education as well, in the direction of increasing intelligence. As intelligence increases, the ability to comprehend goals for society, to evaluate them, and to persuade others to support them grows. As knowledge of psychology grows, the ability of specialist citizens to make arguments that make sense to the new generations of improved aliens will grow as well. The ability to formulate goals and to communicate them grows as well.

As has been discussed before, the formulation of goals that cover the whole civilization is essentially writing the memes that will form the basis for the civilization taking on tasks. There would certainly be a wide variety of them, but the one that this blog is concerned about is the star travel meme. Some alien civilizations may not include these in their list of memes they want to become standards for their civilization; they will do no star traveling. Others might accept it, in the various guises that have been listed in this blog before.

Thus, there is a reasonable bridge between the period when a primitive civilization is divided into factions which compete in various ways between one another and the period when an advanced civilization has chosen what it wants to do, has written it into their fundamental credos, their memes, and can implement it using the power they have in their technology and their ability to plan, design, build and test. The bridge is reasonable because of the fundamental premise that has been discussed before: technological determinism. By following the pathway to more knowledge, society is modified and adapted to it, rather than the other way around. And since technology is universal, in the true sense of the word – universal – the same across the universe, it would be expected that all alien societies which do not meet an early downfall will arrive at the same place, that they will all have gone through the process of choosing memes, and will be ready to implement them.

What we don’t know is the distribution of alien civilizations, i.e., how many take interstellar travel as a goal, and how many dispense with the idea and do other things. What we can understand is that they would all make that choice, amidst a framework that is fairly comprehensible and predictable in the broadest sense.


  1. Hi Stan,followed your link on the Aeon article on purpose. Thoughtful hypotheses you have going here - very interesting!

  2. I think some of your assumptions might require further exploration. Here's my two cents :)
    Alien civilizations might not be more unified due to genetic engineering. Circumstance and preference may dictate a move towards greater diversity. I'm not sure that increased intelligence always does push toward consensus seeking. In some scenarios it can be the opposite; that increased intelligence correlates with a greater tolerance for ambiguity, contradiction, and difference. So the interesting question then, is if a particular alien civilization does drive towards greater diversity, how then does that shape potential civ-scale purpose? I suppose that still leads to a singular purpose as the civ wide purpose would have to be to facilitate maximal development of a diverse range of individual purposes wouldn't it? hhmmm

    anyway super interesting post. I'm tempted to write an essay of rambling half thoughts in response but I'll spare you.