Autonomy & SETI

Autonomy is today’s Bio-topic, and E.T. is A&P’s.

Do enhancement technologies, particularly human reproductive cloning and genetic engineering, threaten the autonomy of children (and the adults they’ll become) and/or liberal-democratic values?

What would the credible discovery of extra-terrestrial intelligence in the universe do for or to our sense of species identity?

Is SETI a waste of time, or is the universe a cosmic waste of space? They “believe we are conducting the most profound search in human history — to know our beginnings and our place among the stars.” They even have a Carl Sagan Center, devoted to such questions.

How many planets exists that might support life? Indeed, what is required for life to exist? How does life start? How does it evolve, and what fabulous creatures can evolution produce? How often do intelligent creatures appear in the giant tapestry of life? How can we estimate the number of technological civilizations that might exist among the stars? 

The Drake Equation is an attempt to calculate an educated guess about that last one. HINT: it’s not 42.

What would David Hume say about all this? He’d be skeptical. “The strong propensity of mankind to the extraordinary and marvelous” must be checked by extraordinary and marvelous evidence. There’s not a lot of that in the local (earthbound) folklore, people are frequently more inclined to believe Billy-Bob took a ride in an alien ship of his imagination than that he saw some flashy lights in the night sky and leapt to fantastic and hallucinatory conclusions. 

As Nicholas Agar says: “‘Cool,’ ‘creepy,’ or alluring ideas are more persistent than merely true ones.” 

And as Hume says: “Always I reject the greater miracle.”

But we should still keep our eyes on the sky, and continue to ride our spaceship of the imagination. It’s a big universe.

Back on earth, meanwhile, we must preserve our capacity for the extraordinary and marvelous experience of first contact. A proper galactic citizen is a free and self-directed agent, not a branded modular assembly of traits it occurred to someone else to try in combination.

If and when we find evidence that we’re not alone in the cosmos, we’ll want to care. We won’t care, if by then we’ve engineered ourselves to feel less like explorers than puppets and playthings. Though Russell Blackford thinks our concerns about the autonomy of genetically engineered children are “largely misguided,” he concedes the point that human psychology is always vulnerable to the perception or misperception of external manipulation.

And yet, some enhancements might actually “boost [our] powers of rational reflection,” might even make us smarter searchers. Great! But let’s be sure it’s our search, not our Chief Engineer’s.

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