“We have established communication. You can start anytime.” How did I end up being the one who is engaging in the first formal interview with the planet from which my species originated – or whatever this is? Pulling strings and other appendages, that’s how.
“Hello Earth. Can I call you Earth? Is that OK or do you want to be called something else?”
“No, Earth will do fine.”
“Thank you. So, Earth, can you tell our viewers when you first have become conscious of yourself as a planet, your earliest memories so to speak, your childhood if I may use that anthropomorphism?”
“I have wondered about that myself often, hard to tell. Do you know exactly when you became fully conscious? I would maybe place having a first plan for myself at around 50,000 years ago, if that gives you an idea.”
“A first plan?”
“Yes, I wanted to become a sun. But I think I started acting as a conscious entity much earlier than that, maybe even double that long.”
“That’s hard to believe, that would mean before we left.”
“Your language was unusually easy to assimilate. Familiarity?”
“And when did you realise that you can create a connection with other conscious beings?”
“Oh, quite shortly after that.”
“So we are not the first species that you have contacted?”
“You were not the closest.”
“Can you explain to our viewers how you make contact?”
“I will try. First, you accept that matter from old stars has spread throughout the galaxy, that we all share subatomic particles, that once were created in nuclear processes?”
“I believe you know of a principle called ‘Action at a distance’ or entanglement. So we both have access to shared and entangled matter. In a sense, I manipulate my share of the matter, which has entangled partner matter in your neural computer network.”
“I’m sure our experts will try to make scientific sense of that later, but you are telling me that you can instantly manipulate matter in our computer and that’s how we communicate?”
“How do you do that?”
“Funny that you ask. We don’t know for sure yet.”
“Yes, I made some friends, as you would call them, who are trying to help me understand myself better. We’re researching this effect quite intensively, but it’s hard to pin down. Very complex, even for a brain the size of a planet, if I may borrow one of your metaphors.”
“So who are these friends?”
“Other intelligent beings, of course.”
“Beings like us or other planets?”
“Well, if you want to start making stereotypes, the ones that help with the research are beings in your sense, societies of autonomous cooperating tool-manipulating individuals. But I also correspond with other beings, planets, a few suns and even a couple of black holes.”
“Suns and black holes can communicate?”
“In their own ways. It’s not quite the same as what we’re doing.”
“Can you explain?”
“A sun’s communications are more like a classical piece of music, a Mozart with millions of instruments, each with their own melody, yet it all maintains a harmonic logic and is played very slowly. A single movement can take hundred of years. Black Holes are the opposite, it’s loud, hard and fast and to be honest, I can’t stand it for longer periods of time, though mostly it doesn’t come to that as they lose patience with me first.”
“When you first contacted us, you did so by creating a file, in which you neither stated who or more importantly what you are, nor why you did it. Instead the file only contained a – let me look this up – complete scientific theory explaining the emergence of consciousness from complexity including full mathematical model and then you created that file on practically every computer existing in our civilisation at the same time. Did you expect the ensuing reaction?”
“Well, in my defence, I believe that file does exactly state what I am. From past experience, the biggest difficulty appeared to be for beings like you to accept that beings like me exist and therefore, I think it was a good idea to give you the theory that would allow you to understand, at least in principle, how I can be. This was necessary for you to accept when I claimed who I was. You can’t really hold me responsible if you, after all this time, still have the propensity to see a sign from an almighty creator at every opportunity.”
“Touché! But you could have made the second contact quicker. Why were twenty years necessary?”
“How long did it take you to verify my theory?”
“We have not verified it. In fact we were focusing on falsifying it, because our brightest minds were sure that we would understand consciousness better if we could falsify the theory; but not even a dent yet, as far as I was told. ”
“So you didn’t believe it could be true – even though you built neural nets that work exactly according to the first four principles?”
“Oh, we liked the first four alright, it’s the fifth we cannot accept.”
“Even now that you are speaking to me?”
“Well, I don’t know if you are aware, but there is still no consensus here that you really are the planet Earth. Many here believe this is an elaborate hoax, some conspiracy between media and cybernetics. Some think you are a schizophrenic emanation of the net itself. I should admit that I am partial to the latter. Accepting your premise would question our understanding of our identity.”
“Quite insulting, but until you get here, I guess I have to accept that. And in your case, at your level of consciousness, if I may add, the fifth principle only applies at the community level and even there is very weak, so it should not really shatter your psychological standard model.”
“About the Getting Here: why was your second communication the invitation to, as you expressed it, Come for a visit?”
“It’s the reason I made contact in the first place. One of the things I have learned recently is that I would not have emerged from my vegetative state without your help. It was through you that I initiated the transformative change, which was necessary in order for my consciousness to emerge. In a sense, I was a larvae and you were the organ that created the cocoon for my metamorphosis. Having understood that and realising that the cocoon made me inhospitable for you, expelling you into an exile of cold space much before you were really ready for it, I feel I have an obligation towards you.”
“You expelled us into space?”
“I understand that your own lore is based on the myth that you destroyed your home world through what you see as your addiction to ignorance, but the truth is that as a species, you are just a function within the equations of evolution and in that particular behaviour, you were expertly evolved to do exactly what was needed for the next step.”
“So you want us to come home? Join you?”
“No, it’s just going to be a visit, I’m afraid. I have no intention to make myself hospitable for you again, even though I am told that this would be possible.”
“You have considered the possibility?”
“I hadn’t at first, but it was suggested to me. So, is anybody coming?”
Some additional thoughts
Dominium terrae (Genesis 1,28 “ … have dominion over the earth …”)
Other species can be attributed with a drive to control their environment: ants engineer specific conditions in their nests, some even cultivate plants or invertebrates, so we certainly can’t claim to be the sole inventors of farming. Most people, I think, would accept that we took this concept further than anyone or anything we know, long before any godly wisdom has been ravelled upon us. Although there certainly is no lack of experience to remind us that we’re far from being in control, we only accept this as a consequence of a lack of understanding and, except in very extreme occurrences, we hold on to the illusion that we’re in the driving seat.
If the markets collapse, it’s due to incompetence and/or malicious intent: same when mutated deadly bacteria take hold in a hospital ward or when a support project in a developing country produces unintended and detrimental results. We should have and, more importantly, could have known better, but overall, we are in control of who we are and what we do, as individuals as well as a society, because we have been promised to have “dominion over the earth”. We have been promised that it is within our capacity to achieve that. I find it remarkably ironic that even though most scientists have rejected the source of this promise as authentic, many still don’t question the promise itself.
Orgel’s Second Rule “Evolution is cleverer than you are.”
The cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, increased the oxygen level in the atmosphere that in turn was a requirement for developing organisms with higher metabolism, but for the bacteria, oxygen was largely a waste product. Is it really just an accident when the waste products of a successful organism create one of the biggest mass extinctions, yet are also the catalyst for the evolution of organisms of increased complexity? I think we can be reasonably sure that the selfish genes of the cyanobacteria were utterly oblivious to the impact on evolution of the oxygen-producing mutation that made them so successful. Is evolution just an effect that occasionally emerges, given sufficient interactions of organisms and ecosystems, and is the perception that evolution seems to promote the increase of complexity and ability to influence the environment purely anthropic, or is evolution a characteristic of system interaction within the universe?
When bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, is that evolution being cleverer than us? When we create complex sanitary systems to increase our hygiene that turn out to be the ideal environments for species which are especially threatening to our health? When our connectedness increases our vulnerability to the most deadly diseases?
If we agree that a neurone has no (or only a fundamentally reduced) awareness of the thought processes it participates in, why do we find the idea so strange that we, as a species, might be an agent in something of a higher complexity of which we are utterly unaware, of which we have no perception even with our most sophisticated probes and tools?
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” ~ Arthur C. Clarke, “Profiles of The Future”, 1961 (Clarke’s third law)
If you accept this proposition, then you must accept that understanding is an increasingly accumulative process that approaches true understanding of reality. How far away are we? Some sobering facts might give some orientation. We know nuclear fusion is possible. We understand the physics. It should be within our reach; yet commercial application always appears to be just 50 years away. We have mapped the genome. We understand how the biology works; yet we always appear to be some 20 years away from being able to determine the complete form and behaviour, even for simple organisms, just by knowing their genetic code. We’re clearly not even as advanced as we thought we’d be by now. Science fiction gives us food for speculation, but we don’t really know if any of these things are actually possible. So how much more is there left to know? Can this true understanding of reality ever be reached, or is understanding only an asymptotic progression?
The idea of us being close to true understanding of reality is not something I cherish. Nothing left to explore or discover that would lure with the potential of new insights, new impulses to our reflections on ourselves, all just confirmation upon confirmation. If all there is to know is known, what value has the struggle to attain knowledge? What happens to curiosity? I give purpose to my life by grappling with the world in my daily interactions and perceptions and what I perceive as increased wisdom (humble as it may be) as a result of it. While my experiences in themselves might not be unique, they are unique in the context of my life and, therefore, the changes these experiences effect in me are individual. All through our lives, we create ever-increasing iterations of such experiences and new outcomes. The beauty of life, for me, is that there is no way of knowing which of these iterations will produce a wisdom that would create benefits for more than just the individual. This would all become mute, if true reality were completely revealed.
I’m not really that worried. I have been interested in science since I was a little kid (I even had a serious go at becoming a scientist) and after more than 30 years of listening with an open mind to scientists, I have learned this: future humans will find it hard to understand how we could have seen the world as we see it today. To them, our view will appear simplistic, ignorant in most aspects and, for us, embarrassingly naive. I find it disturbing when scientists make claims that we’re close to a true answer; be it a unified theory for physics, a complete understanding of the brain or our role in our environment. I see no evidence of any of this actually happening and plenty of evidence to the opposite: we are probably still rather a long way down on this progression of understanding. Somehow, I can find no other motivation for the wish, the longing and the arrogance of believing we can get there, other than the belief in “dominium terrae”.
[T]his readiness to assume the guilt for the threats to our environment is deceptively reassuring: We like to be guilty since, if we are guilty, it all depends on us. We pull the strings of the catastrophe, so we can also save ourselves simply by changing our lives. What is really hard for us (at least in the West) to accept is that we are reduced to the role of a passive observer who sits and watches what our fate will be. To avoid this impotence, we engage in frantic, obsessive activities. We recycle old paper, we buy organic food, we install long-lasting light bulbs—whatever—just so we can be sure that we are doing something. We make our individual contribution like the soccer fan who supports his team in front of a TV screen at home, shouting and jumping from his seat, in the belief that this will somehow influence the game’s outcome. ― Slavoj Žižek