Thursday, December 10, 2015

Why Study Alien Civilizations? Part 2

The previous post on "Why Study Alien Civilizations" covered the amusement aspect of it, or rather, why the study of alien civilizations has to be one of the most interesting areas on the basis of its breadth. Everything about a civilization, its origins, astronomical connections, and anything related is within the coverage envelope. From a standpoint of satisfying a diversity of interests, or fitting in with a lifelong habit about learning about all kinds of knowledge of the scientific or near-scientific variety, alien civilizations has no peer. The alternative viewpoint is that anyone on a quest for certainty, or deep investigations into a specialty area is not going to find what they need in this field. Deep digging into a niche cannot be done until the niche is located, and for alien civilizations, the initial maps are just being drawn.

Flip the coin over. Is there any use for studying alien civilizations other than amusement? The answer is a YES, in capital letters and bold type.

If someone in some field of study wants to question assumptions, hypothesizing an alien world is a nice way to think through what alternate assumptions would mean for some conclusion. When we think about things here on Earth, we have one civilizations, with factions certainly, but just one example, and so it is sometimes rather difficult to question things. But on a hypothesized alien world, things could have developed differently, and the assumptions cannot be just questioned, but replaced amid the rest of the knowledge, and the effects determined. The figuring out is all mental, no experiments possible, but a trained mind can put together factors to find out how they might interact. One way of saying this is to think of a theorized alien world as a mental laboratory, where different situations can be imagined.

This type of theorizing wraps the current thinking in a larger framework, and so it is possible to see the variations that might be possible. When thinking about an alien civilization, it is not necessary to stop at one, but a suite of them can be looked at. It is possible to think about an alien civilization that made this choice and one that made that choice and one that refused to choose. It is possible to think about an alien civilization that made its choice early in the passage of technology development, and one which did it in the middle, and one which put it off until much later. It is possible to think about an alien civilization which has plentiful resources for its population and one which has nothing but scarcity across the board. All of these hypothesized alien civilizations can be thought through, and some insights developed on a broader basis, or rather that cover a broader range of possibilities, than ones which only arise from the well-known instances we have documented here on Earth.

Time is another variable that is given free range in thinking about alien civilizations. We have some paleological records of what evolution did millions of years ago, and for times since then up to now, but we have no anti-paleological records of what will be in the future. All that can be envisioned by thinking about alien civilizations that have lasted for millennia or even millions of years. No, there is no certainty to what we deduce, but instead there is consistency. Consistency is the mainstay of reasoning about non-experimental situations. One layer of details may allow the hypothesizer to say anything at all, but when the implications are looked at, the next layer of details may show that some possibilities simply cannot happen, and certain situations cannot arise, because the preceding situation cannot arise or the conditions needed cannot come into existence or something else.

Plausibility is also a reasoning tool that is exercised to the extreme in thinking about alien civilizations; but it is a dangerous tool as well. Consistency is solid. Something inconsistent cannot exist. Plausibility is mushy, and when arguing from plausibility it may be necessary to go back and dig down another layer of details and see if something plausible on the surface stays plausible when the details are uncovered.

Another benefit of thinking about alien civilizations relates to connections. Many times consistency is not a problem when things are thought about in a narrow range, but if someone steps outside that range, the inconsistency or even implausibility becomes obvious. Since alien civilization study is boundless, and should stay that way in order to maintain the maximum checks, connections are easier to make. In a field where one can dig deep, that is sometimes all that is done, and deeper and deeper investigations are done, when they should not be done because some external implications were ignored, and these show the inconsistency and implausibility of the assumptions that go along with the deep investigation.

Maybe a good way to express this is to say thinking about alien civilizations helps to relax assumptions. We can easily assume that the way we know is the way things must be, and often the assumptions are made without being called out. They are just asserted. This is the way things are because that is the way things are on Earth. But on Planet X somewhere out in the Milky Way, they might not be that way. Then, by asking about how things would be affected by some alternative assumption related to conditions on Planet X, our own thinking is expanded, and our own assumptions become more explicit. Then the statements change from assertions to stated assumptions. Instead of “This is how things are” we have “Provided we assume things are this way, this will happen”. It is so much stronger in reasoning to make all assumptions explicit, and then they can be examined to see if they are really true. In the pre-alien civilization situation, without assumptions being even listed, they can hardly be looked into to see if there are failings in making them, such as poorly defined terms or snapshots extended into the far past and future or some other illegitimate use of reasoning.

Thus, besides the amusement that examining alien civilizations provides, they might even be a bit useful in helping us make the long distance march to asymptotic technology. Well worth doing!

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