The Myth of the Good Alien: on Skeptical Wishful Thinking

Deutsche Version: Der Mythos des guten Außerirdischen: über das Skeptische Wunschdenken

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We all know that: while the thinking of religious people is dominated by all sorts of irrational processes like confirmation bias, wishful thinking, personalization and so forth,  self-professed Skeptics are (almost) always thinking rationally whereby their emotional states have only a very small influence on their reasoning abilities. Almost all conclusions they reach are well-grounded and it is Reason and evidence alone which lead them to conclude that reductive materialism is true and that one ought to mock and ridicule everyone disagreeing.

However to an outsider like me, it appears obvious that Skeptics are as prone to cognitive and psychological biases as everyone else.

The whole idea that the overwhelming majority of intelligent space aliens are beings full of empathy and love is a very representative example. Whilst it is certainly not a belief held by all Skeptics, it is extremely popular among many Skeptical circles around the worlds, especially those actively supporting the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project.

Michael Shermer’s influential article The myth of Evil Aliens should always be used as a case study for this type of self-deception.

I will let the FERMI-paradox (if there are so many alien civilizations out there, why don’t we see them?) aside and grant for the sake of the discussion that there are actually countless extraterrestrial races in the universe.

The great astrophysicist Stephen Hawking expressed worries about one possible consequence of contact with another intelligent race. As Shermer reported it:

“According to Stephen Hawking, we should keep our mouths shut. “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet,” he explained in his 2010 Discovery Channel documentary series. “I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.” Given the history of encounters between earthly civilizations in which the more advanced enslave or destroy the less developed, Hawk­ing concluded: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

While Hawking certainly does not think that every extraterrestrial civilization would act in this way, his concerns sound quite reasonable to my mind. How does Shermer dismiss it?

“I am skeptical. Although we can only represent the subject of an N of 1 trial, and our species does have an unenviable track rec­ord of first contact between civilizations, the data trends for the past half millennium are encouraging: colonialism is dead, slavery is dying, the percentage of populations that perish in wars has decreased, crime and violence are down, civil liberties are up, and, as we are witnessing in Egypt and other Arab countries, the desire for representative democracies is spreading, along with education, science and technology. These trends have made our civilization more inclusive and less exploitative. If we extrapolate that 500-year trend out for 5,000 or 500,000 years, we get a sense of what an ETI might be like.

In fact, any civilization capable of extensive space travel will have moved far beyond exploitative colonialism and unsustainable energy sources. Enslaving the natives and harvesting their resources may be profitable in the short term for terrestrial civilizations, but such a strategy would be unsustainable for the tens of thousands of years needed for interstellar space travel.

In this sense, thinking about extraterrestrial civilizations forces us to consider the nature and progress of our terrestrial civilization and offers hope that, when we do make contact, it will mean that at least one other intelligence managed to reach the level where harnessing new technologies displaces controlling fellow beings and where exploring space trumps conquering land. Ad astra!”

 Now I believe that Shermer’s wishful thinking already begins with his enumeration of the alleged current progresses of our own kind.

He leaves aside the harmful consequences of the wild capitalism and neocolonialism he actively supports.

This will be the topic of future posts. For the sake of this discussion I will just assume that he is completely right with respect to human moral progresses.

At face value, his reasoning seems compelling and reassuring. Shermer grants the obvious point we cannot answer this question empirically since we’re the only one subject in the sample, but we can, on logical grounds, conclude that any such advanced species would have reached high moral standards in the same way mankind is heading towards that goal. So, we’ve good grounds for thinking that interstellar traveling aliens are peaceful and loving.

Yet a closer examination shows that such an argumentation lacks an important step.

In order to get an advanced alien civilization full of love and empathy, the following conditions must be successively satisfied:

1)      On an ideal planet, an intelligent species emerges through evolutionary processes

2)      This species evolves a strong propensity for love, empathy and altruism (LEA) besides other instincts

3)      Through a technological and cultural evolution, this species designs social, political and ethical structures which allow LEA to be optimally expressed

I tend to agree with Shermer’s optimism that given enough time, the extraterrestrial civilization is going to develop structures and ethical principles leading its basic moral instincts to be expressed in a maximal way.

But this is the sticking point: what if the species lacks LEA and has evolved other ways to become a powerful intelligent race?

Given the extraordinarily high number of possible places where intelligent life could evolve in the universe (let alone in the multiverse!), it seems almost certain there will be countless worlds with intelligent beings having moral intuitions radically different from ours.

And I’ve never read or heard any reason to think otherwise which does not beg the question in one way or the other.

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And this clearly greatly undermines atheistic attempts to define an objective morality. If our moral intuitions are evolutionary contingent, we cannot assume they are true in an absolute sense any more than another intelligent species with conflicting intuitions could do.

And if evolution (or more generally nature) does not define what is right and wrong, how can a worldview denying the existence of any kind of transcendence provide us with a grounding for morality?

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14 thoughts on “The Myth of the Good Alien: on Skeptical Wishful Thinking

  1. And if evolution (or more generally nature) does not define what is right and wrong, how can a worldview denying the existence of any kind of transcendence provide us with a grounding for morality?

    For the sake of the argument, I´ll grant you every kind of transcendence you would like to propose.
    Now, please explain how exactly that would help you to ground an “objective morality”. Also, please define what exactly you mean by “objective” – does that mean that there is some platonic realm of ideas where moral ideas reside? Does that mean “independent of individual and cultural context” or something
    along that line? Or something completely different?

    • Yes I view moral truths as categorical imperatives having a Platonic nature.

      A materialist can say:

      it is wrong to kill IF I want to avoid problems
      IF I want to avoid remorses
      IF I care for society

      and so on and so forth.

      But he cannot say “it is wrong to kill period ” without any IF following the sentence.

      For me, moral truths are similar to mathematical truths.
      if there was not our universe, the Pythagorean theorem would still be valid, even if it would not be actualized .

      Likewise moral rules are objective statements describing the way humans ought to behave towards each other given their existence.

      Now I also happen to believe that this does not work very well in a godless Platonic system, but this is another story.

      • Yes I view moral truths as categorical imperatives having a Platonic nature.

        Then I have two questions:
        1. If moral truths can and do exist independently of minds that conceive them, how does your mind access such a moral truth?
        2. How do you know that you have accessed a moral truth instead of a moral falsehood? (Or do you say that only moral truths exist independently of minds but moral falsehoods don´t? If so, how do you know that?)

        A materialist can say:

        it is wrong to kill IF I want to avoid problems
        IF I want to avoid remorses
        IF I care for society

        and so on and so forth.

        But he cannot say “it is wrong to kill period ” without any IF following the sentence.

        But that was not what I asked for. What I said was: “I´ll grant you every kind of transcendence you would like to propose.Now, please explain how exactly that would help you to ground an “objective morality”.”
        => So again, how does that help you to “ground an objective morality”? (for example: how does that help you to ground the claim “killing a person is always and under any circumstances objectively wrong”?)

        For me, moral truths are similar to mathematical truths. if there was not our universe, the Pythagorean theorem would still be valid, even if it would not be actualized .

        The pythagorean theorem rests on the dogmata of euclidean geometry. These dogmata are made up. We can change them at will – we can for example change the parallel postulate of euclidean geometry (which actually leads to maths that has some interesting applications). If moral truths are similar to mathematical truths, then they are the logical consequences of dogmata that we make up and can change at will, meaning that the resulting moral truths are also not fixed.

        • Hello Andy, sorry for the delay of my answer, I am currently getting through pretty stressful times.

          In my post I was defending an ontological requirement for the objectivity of morality and left aside the epistemological aspects you mentioned.

          The postulates of Euclidean geometry are only invented if you are a nominalist.
          The fact that there are other geometrical systems does not necessarily mean it has been CHANGED for they might very well exist besides each other.

          For me they are not brain states but belong to an infinite realm of ideas existing independently from time and space.
          As I explained in another post about the meaningfulness of materialism where we had such a long debate, I don’t think you can make sense of reality if you believe it is ONLY made up of matter.

          Again, if the concept “everything” is just the mental construct of human brains, what material fact can correspond to the assertion “everything is material” ( thereby making its negation impossible ) ?

          Perhaps of more practical relevance for you might be the fact that denying the reality of mathematical concepts might greatly undermine scientific realism, as Mark Colvyan argued:

          http://www.colyvan.com/papers/Musgrave.pdf
          http://www.colyvan.com/papers/noeasyrd.pdf

          If we believe that the ubiquitous mathematical entities coming up in our description of physical things are nothing more than artificial constructions, what gives us a warrant that the physical entities (electron, neutrinos etc…) might not be artificial as well?

          Arguing along similar lines, Max Tegmark explained why he thinks that the theory of everything will most likely be of a mathematic nature:

          Now it is obvious that neither one of us will be able to settle such an important philosophical controversy by exchanging a few comments 🙂

          • @lotharson,

            As I explained in another post about the meaningfulness of materialism where we had such a long debate, I don’t think you can make sense of reality if you believe it is ONLY made up of matter.

            Doesn’t the same criticism hold of there being a supernatural realm? How can you know it exists if there is no super-supernatural realm? I’m getting strong hints of Gödel, here.

          • I think it is better to avoid speaking of “supernatural” in this context because it is a very loaded and fuzzy concept. Let us focus on materialism.

            I am not speaking about epistemology but about ontology: what makes a claim true instead of how one can know it is true.
            https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/can-materialism-be-meaningful/

            Since according to materialism truth is just a human construction corresponding to fact(s), there has to be a fact for each proposition, including the truth of materialism itself.
            As I argued, I think there can be no such fact (unless you restrict the definition of materialism to the universe as we observe or know it and give up the notion of wholeness or exclusiveness).

            But given the existence of platonic properties, the truth of theism is MADE by the truth that there is a maximally great being, a being whose actual existence fulfills abstract (mathematical) properties.
            The epistemological issue is another matter altogether and it might well be that we can never KNOW that a being satisfies those conditions.

          • @lotharson: It appears your response actually went through; it shows up as 2 minutes before your comment of exasperation. 🙂

            If your question is ontological, isn’t it just that if materialism obtains, it is true by that fact, regardless of whether we can know it? It seems that you’re conflating the fact of something being as it is, and the provability that it is as it is.

            It seems to me that every meta-level (do you know X? do you know that you know X? do you know that you know that you know X?) lies in a different ‘plane’, somehow. To give a complete description of any system, you must stand outside the system. Thomas Breuer’s The Impossibility of Accurate State Self-Measurements may be of interest to you. What this would mean for God is something I don’t know, but perhaps the Trinity allows one to solve the self-measurement issue Breuer brings up? I haven’t read his paper well enough to know whether it is a necessary truth or contingent truth. It’d be pretty fascinating if you needed a minimum of three persons, all participating in some unity, in order to avoid the problem. That would show remarkable prescience.

      • “if there was not our universe, the Pythagorean theorem would still be valid, even if it would not be actualized .”

        please tell us how you arrived at this being the case.

      • @ lotharson

        “For me they are not brain states but belong to an infinite realm of ideas existing independently from time and space.”

        please, what is an infinite realm?

        and, where might i find one?

  2. I only skimmed this post, but it seems excellent! I would recommend A Canticle for Leibowitz if you haven’t read it. You might also like Wikipedia’s Myth of Progress subsection. I have been told that prior to WWI, many scientists were exuberant about how much mankind was progressing, and how excellent the future would be. Then WWI and WWII hit, and that confidence was dashed. Or look at the academics who idolized what was going on in the USSR, even after data about the horrific civil rights abuses started flowing in. Today, I suggest that we have another bout of myth going on, one which will inevitably lead to terrible places if we aren’t utterly honest about the human condition. As far as I can tell, New Atheists aren’t brutally honest about the human condition. And thus, I have little confidence in their solutions.

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