Readers will recall that we have been looking at science writer Matt Williams’s analysis of the various reasons that we do not see extraterrestrials except at the movies. Last week, we looked at the Firstborn Hypothesis: We don’t see aliens because they haven’t evolved yet. And, when they do, we must be careful not to harm their development through colonization. This week is a bit of a deeper dive: The extraterrestrials have evolved so far beyond us that perhaps we could not encounter them.
… the Transcension Hypothesis ventures that an advanced civilization will become fundamentally altered by its technology. In short, it theorizes that any ETIs that predate humanity have long-since transformed into something that is not recognizable by conventional SETI standards.Matt Williams, “Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” XI: What is the Transcension Hypothesis” at Universe Today (October 1, 2020)
Generally, they have moved from outer to inner space. The Transcension is held to happen after the the Singularity, when we merge with computers, as predicted by futurist Ray Kurzweil to happen this century.
Perhaps, ahead of the curve of technology today, the extraterrestrials have become virtual minds living at the femtoscale, an unimaginably small space. Eventually, continuing to push the frontiers of technology, they pass out of the spacetime environment and meet up with other advanced civilizations that have done the same.
A short vid unpacks the concept:
The idea that extraterrestrials might choose to become very tiny derives directly from miniaturization in technology, which is associated with increased capacity. It contrasts starkly with the more common idea that ETs would be vast detectable civilizations spread over galaxies. On the contrary, on the Transcension view, they are virtual and undetectable and their spatial extent is so small as to be irrelevant to ordinary calculation.
“Transcension” seems to be a blend of the words “transcendence” and “ascension,” which implies that the hypothesis has mystical associations. Indeed, an early statement (1932) by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky sees the Transcension in explicitly religious terms:
“Millions of milliards of planets have existed for a long time, and therefore their animals have reached a maturity which we will reach in millions of years of our future life on Earth. This maturity is manifest by perfect intelligence, by a deep understanding of nature, and by technical power which makes other heavenly bodies accessible to the inhabitants of the cosmos.” [from Tsiolkovsky, K. “Is there a God?” Russian Academy of Sciences (1932)]Matt Williams, “Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” XI: What is the Transcension Hypothesis” at Universe Today (October 1, 2020)
Concepts from several well-known cosmologists contribute to the idea. For example, recent Nobelist Roger Penrose advances the idea of black holes as an energy source; in fact, he believes that they are energy left over from a previous universe. The late John D. Barrow (1952–2020) proposed a scale of advances via miniaturization (a Kardashev scale in reverse).
Recall that shrinking or growing can both be seen as forms of travel. While the Transcension hypothesis has the extraterrestrials traveling away from us by shrinking, it is also possible to travel away by growing rapidly. Some religious writers, like C.S. Lewis, picture Hell as a very tiny place. Those who escape it simply grow far beyond its scale.
The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination. … In particular, we introduce arguments that black holes may be a developmental destiny and standard attractor for all higher intelligence, as they appear to some to be ideal computing, learning, forward time travel, energy harvesting, civilization merger, natural selection, and universe replication devices. In the transcension hypothesis, simpler civilizations that succeed in resisting transcension by staying in outer (normal) space would be developmental failures, which are statistically very rare late in the life cycle of any biological developing system. If transcension is a developmental process, we may expect brief broadcasts or subtle forms of galactic engineering to occur in small portions of a few galaxies, the handiwork of young and immature civilizations, but constrained transcension should be by far the norm for all mature civilizations…John M. Smart, The transcension hypothesis: Sufficiently advanced civilizations invariably leave our universe, and implications for METI and SETI, Acta Astronautica, Volume 78, 2012, Pages 55-68, ISSN 0094-5765, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actaastro.2011.11.006. (Payment required)
The increasing power of computing combined with the possibility of uploading our minds into machines could mean that advanced civilizations may upload their minds onto quantum particles and exist in the fabric of spacetime. Such entities may already be around us but impossible to detect. And if not, they may very well be harboring near black holes at the center of the Milky Way, a region Smart calls the “galactic transcension zone.” This hypothesis may sound outrageous, but it is aligned with the current technological pathway of humanity.Raya Bidshahri, “Where Is Everyone? 4 Possible Explanations for the Fermi Paradox” at SingularityHub
What to make of the idea? As Matt Williams notes, underlying it are several assumptions. A hypothesis depends on the assumptions that go into its formation. Here are two that he notes:
➤ The “Great Silence” really is due to the fact that intelligent extraterrestrials really are not out there for us to find.
➤ The rate and type of development of civilizations in our universe is consistent over time. That is, civilizations naturally continue to advance in technology along foreseeable paths. The Singularity and what follows from it is inevitable.
Here are a couple of possible responses:
➤ The first assumption —they just aren’t out there— is quite a reasonable one. But it is very difficult to prove a negative—which is why so many ET hypotheses can flourish without apparent marked conflict.
If we did locate a number of intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations, the picture would change, of course. We might be in a better position to discount some hypotheses or at least attribute lesser weight to them. For example, the Firstborn Hypothesis would be strengthened if every civilization encountered was less advanced than we are. But if we mainly encountered the ruins of high-tech civilizations, the Berserker Hypothesis would be strengthened.
➤Do we have a good reason for assuming that the development of civilizations in our universe is truly consistent and foreseeable, leading to a general Singularity and then Transcension?
Smart, in particular, relies heavily on concepts from biological evolution on Earth. But we can only use the course of evolution on Earth to interpret or forecast events in remote parts of the galaxy if we assume that there are “laws”of evolution. Most prominent philosophers of biology today tend to agree with Darwin that “There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.” Their view doesn’t provide a very clear basis for making assumptions or forecasts about remote events.
Of course, the prominent biologists today could be wrong. Perhaps the origin and development of life forms is indeed governed by laws and designs we have not even looked for. If so, forecasts, including those favored by Smart, would have a basis in the history of the life that we know. But it is only fair to warn that design in nature is currently a controversial view.
In any event, the plausibility of the Singularity itself, when we merge with our software, has been questioned: Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (brainchild of Paul G. Allen, Microsoft co-founder), has cautioned against hype about superhuman AI: “Exponentials are very important. If we extrapolate exponentials, we can be exponentially wrong.”
Smart’s “ever smaller and ever smarter” aliens may be just as likely to reach a limit in this universe as everything else does. And the limit may or may not be foreseeable.
That said, John M. Smart deserves credit for the most imaginative thesis to date about why we do not see extraterrestrials, despite the vastness of our universe.
Next week, we will have a look at the machines of our imagination: von Neumann machines, Dyson spheres, Matrioshka brains…
You may also enjoy these accounts of why we do not see the aliens:
1.Are the Aliens We Never Find Obeying Star Trek’s Prime Directive? The Directive is, don’t interfere in the evolution of alien societies, even if you have good intentions. Assuming the aliens exist, perhaps it’s just as well, on the whole, if they do want to leave us alone. They could want to “fix” us instead…
2.How can we be sure we are not just an ET’s simulation? A number of books and films are based on the idea. Should we believe it? We make a faith-based decision that logic and evidence together are reasonable guides to what is true. Logical possibility alone does not make an idea true.
3.Did the smart machines destroy the aliens who invented them? That’s the Berserker hypothesis. A smart deadly weapon could well decide to do without its inventor and, lacking moral guidance, destroy everything in sight. Extinction of a highly advanced civilization by its own lethal technology may be more likely than extinction by natural disaster. They could control nature.
4.Researchers: The aliens exist but they are sleeping… And we wake them at our peril. The Aestivation hypothesis is that immensely powerful aliens are waiting in a digitized form for the universe to cool down from the heat their computers emit.
5.Maybe there are just very few aliens out there… The Rare Earth hypothesis offers science-based reasons that life in the universe is rare. Even if life is rare in the universe, Earth may be uniquely suited to space exploration, as the Privileged Planet hypothesis suggests.
6.Does science fiction hint that we are actually doomed? That’s the implication of an influential theory as to why we never see extraterrestrials. Depending how we read the Kardashev scale, civilizations disappear somewhere between where we are now and the advanced state needed for intergalactic travel.
7.Space aliens could in fact be watching us. Using the methods we use to spot exoplanets. But if they are technologically advanced, wouldn’t they be here by now? The Hart-Tipler conjecture (they don’t exist) is, of course, very unpopular in sci-fi. But let’s confront it, if only to move on to more promising speculations.
8.Is the brief window for finding ET closing? According to some scenarios, we could be past our best-before date for contacting aliens. Of course, here we are assuming a law of nature as to how long civilizations last. Can someone state that law? How is it derived?
9. What if we don’t see aliens because they have not evolved yet? On this view, not only did we emerge during a favorable time in the universe’s history but we could end up suppressing them. The Firstborn hypothesis (we achieved intelligence before extraterrestrials) lines up with the view that humans are unique but sees that status as temporary.