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.
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?