Monday, January 4, 2016

Inspiration in Alien Civilizations

Inspiration is a form of motivation. It occurs in human beings, and has served as a strong motivator, albeit for only some and for only a temporary period. Does it have such a strong base in neurology and psychology that it would be likely universal, so that any alien civilization with members who have associative neural networks running their brains would experience it?

Motivation might be discussed in two dimensions. One is the expected target of the benefits to be gained if the actor follows through on his/her/its motivation. It might be the actor him/her/itself, or it might be other people. The other is the time scale of the benefits; they could be short-term or long-term. Obviously these dimensions could be extended, as in short-term/medium-term/long-term, but for the sake of simplifying the thinking necessary, let’s keep it as simple as possible.

To clarify, satisfying individual needs is a short-term, own benefit example. Taking care of someone else, and satisfying their individual needs is a short-term, other benefit example. Getting training or education is a long-term, own benefit example. Inspiration falls in the fourth bin, the one remaining. Inspiration means striving to achieve benefits for others in the long-term.

Like many English words, inspiration can have many other meanings, for example, the little light bulb that goes on when you are trying to write a post and nothing happens until one instant, when the light bulb goes on and you know what to write about. This type of inspiration is certainly important, but not here and now. Inspiration of the type that might affect alien civilizations in the large is the one defined first.

Inspiration is actually in a corner of the fourth bin above. It is typically directed towards benefits of everyone, which for an alien on an exo-planet, means some large subset of the members of that civilization. It is not typically directed at individuals, but at the generic other alien. And it is typically not directed at individual needs, but at more abstract needs.

On Earth, in our recorded history, inspiration is the label used for what causes someone to devote their lives to a cause or to risk their life for a cause. Inspiration makes war possible. Inspiration makes religion possible. Inspiration makes revolution possible. Inspiration also makes exploration possible.

When an explorer on a planet, in the early days when the planet has not been mapped and technology is in a primitive state, decides to take on a trek or a voyage to parts unknown, they potentially risk their life and they commit much time to it. In our history, there have been many examples of explorers who have spent years uncovering parts of the planet, and many examples of explorers who have not returned, having sacrificed their lives in an attempt to fulfill their inspiration. Later on in our history, there are examples of people, rather teams, who have worked for years to design and construct a space probe, and then who have spent years waiting for the results to come back, if they did. No lives were at risk, but still the word inspiration might be used to cover the dedication that goes into the support of space exploration. We have seen a few examples of the risking of lives in the space exploration plans of different nations, and some lives were lost. In the near future, we may see more of the same, as mankind stretches its reach farther out.

Where does this inspiration come from, and would it be present on alien planets? One view could be that it provides meaning to the life of the people making the commitment, and dedicating their lives or a large part of it, or risking their lives. Providing meaning means eliminating the uncertainty that faces all decision-makers who have to make choices. With a single, solitary goal in front of someone, they can determine everything else from it. They ask, “How does this affect or contribute to the goal I am seeking to fulfill?”

The lack of goals provided for free by the universe has been discussed elsewhere, where it was proposed that only by establishing memes would an alien civilization be able to motivate itself to accomplish goals. Without memes for goals, factions would form and competition would rule the day. But inspiration, with or without a meme to support it, also serves to provide motivation. Without inspiration, an individual has to face nihilism, the realization that there are no goals in life. By seizing arbitrarily on a goal, that disappears, and the feeling of knowing what to do emerges. This is a very satisfying feeling for a lifeform with an associative neural network for a brain.

A star travel meme can motivate the entire alien population to support star travel. Inspiration can motivate individuals, or groups of individuals, to throw themselves at the goal of star travel. Recall that memes have to be created, typically at the stage of beginning the genetic transition. Why would someone create them? Inspiration is the answer.

If an influential group is swept up by the inspiration to spread their planet’s life to other solar systems in the galaxy, they can attempt to produce the meme that will inspire the many, many generations that would be necessary to attempt it. In those generations, there may be individuals who are inspired on their own for it, supported by the masses who are influenced by the memes they learned while young. This answers the questions of where these memes might come from. One answer, given before, was that it was a rational choice made before all the answers were in from science. Another answer is that alien psychology, if it is like human psychology, induces some small subset of the population to throw their arms around a goal and take it as the principal directive for their own lives. If that subset includes enough people with enough influence, a meme can be created.

To corroborate this conclusion, it would be useful to think through the neurology of inspiration, and see if there is anything unique to human psychology which would lead to it, but not because of the way we are wired. Perhaps another post is called for.

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