Sunday, August 14, 2016

Existential Nihilism in Alien Civilizations

Wouldn’t it be humorous if philosophy were the reason why aliens aren’t buzzing around our planet and waving to us? Philosophy affects almost nothing on Earth, in an explicit way. No one goes around thinking about ‘what would Kant think about this?’ or ‘how does dialecticism affect my decision to buy a new car?’ It may be affecting us on a deeper and more subtle level, but we don’t seem to recognize it as doing so. Aliens on the verge of traveling from star to star may be more intelligent than we are, with a better grasp of technology and every aspect of science, but it still seems like a stretch to hypothesize that philosophy affects the biggest decision their civilization makes.

Existential nihilism, in case you have forgotten, is the branch of philosophy that expounds that life has no meaning. That is the essence of it, and different philosophers, mostly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe, twisted and turned that idea so that it seemed to have other implications, such as freedom being the highest goal, or there being no morality, or destruction is mandatory, or some such. These are reflection of their own inspiration, but all existential nihilism is remains very simple to express and simple to understand.

Alien civilizations, perhaps many, many millennia ago, went through the same development process for philosophy that we did, as science is science, no matter who’s doing it. But what we know about existential nihilism is largely the product of a lack of scientific knowledge, rather than science finally getting into philosophy and solving the problems there. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we knew very little about how the human brain operates. Now, more becomes clear, and this information is useful in trying to anticipate how philosophy might ground alien civilizations.

Since the universe provides us with no goals, in other words, does not give any meaning to our lives, we have to choose a meaning, or a set of goals, for ourselves. We do this using the information we have, processing that information as a human being with a large neural network inside our skulls. The information we have is what we received during our training, including all of it, but mostly from the training received in pre-rational childhood. The neural net works by making associations, in countless layers, and possibly even via some feedback loops. So, the meaning of life, as we make it ourselves, is just what bubbles out of the stew of our training. Nothing more, nothing less. In an alien civilization, where they know exactly how to train young aliens to have meaningful lives, the aliens have meaningful lives. Science did it for them, and they did science.

But the training a young alien receives will certainly involve the ability to question assumptions, to think critically, to evaluate assumptions, and all the other rational tricks that we know and they will know. So, while the aliens, upon reaching adulthood, will know how to behave and what choices to make, without having to think too deeply upon them, as their training will have been done excellently. That does not mean they will not question these choices and behavior norms. Assuming they are all intelligent, they all will ask these questions, and elaborate on them. Intelligent people enjoy this sort of thing here, and supposedly intelligent aliens would also enjoy it. That is part of the process of training of course, in that whatever is seriously trained into an alien brain goes in either by association with a positive emotion, or with a negative one, like fear. Presumably some technique like critical thinking will go in by association with other happiness, and so doing critical thinking will be something they enjoy doing. A biological neural network can’t be programmed otherwise.

So the question on the mind of every young adult alien, in every generation, is, should we expend resources on preserving our species, meaning on star travel, and all the associated nuisances of moving an entire civilization to another star system with a really nice planet? Or should we just taper down our numbers and quietly go extinct when we run out of resources? This latter situation might entail returning to earlier levels of civilization, ones where the energy inputs can be satisfied by biological collection of photons from their star. Or that might be too dreadful, and they just decide to turn off their gestation machines and stop making new aliens. Either way, the alien civilization is not going to come to Earth.

So, when existential nihilism hits each alien smack dab in the face, and says, life has no meaning and no goal, and you have been programmed in an excellent way so that you know how to behave and how to interact within our civilization, but that programming, i.e., training, is just something that continues because of some legacy. It became traditional at the dawn of the alien civilization to teach this to everyone while very young. So, that means that it doesn’t have to be followed, as it is simply an arbitrary choice made on the basis of some long-deceased ancestors’ motivations, which were also random and arbitrary. If all the alien young people ask this same question and figure out the same answer, that continuing their civilization is a totally arbitrary act, then they might just decide to spend their resources differently, and perhaps enjoy their lives a bit more.

Perhaps philosophy can affect a civilization. Obviously, it presupposes that the aliens are intelligent and learn to think deeply and confidently. If the alien civilization has fallen prey to Malthusian idiocracy, then there is virtually no one to figure this out and to raise these questions, and no one who understands enough about how the brain works to put together the big picture needed to appreciate existential nihilism. If the alien society bifurcates, into the smarties and the remainder, the smarties will suffer from the twist of philosophy that renders their training questionable and rejectable, intellectually if not emotionally. These smarties are the ones making the decision on whether to go into interstellar space, provided the resources exist to do it, so we can say that any alien civilization that can go into space will have to come to grips with philosophy, and figure out a way to get through it. Or not. Perhaps the simplest solution, deciding to enjoy life rather than struggle with a new planet, would be completely justifiable based on existential nihilism.

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