God nothing more than a sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence?"
This question is based on what I call, tongue in cheek, "Shermer's
Last Law," that any sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence
is indistinguishable from God.
As scientist extraordinaire (most profoundly as inventor of the communications
satellite) and author of an empire of science fiction books and films
(most notably 2001: A Space Odyssey), Arthur C. Clarke is one
of the most far-seeing visionaries of our time. Thus, his pithy quotations
tug harder on our collective psyches for their inferred insights into
humanity and our place in the cosmos. And none do so more than his famous
Clarke's First Law: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist
states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When
he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."
Clarke's Second Law: "The only way of discovering the limits of
the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."
Clarke's Third Law: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable
This last observation stimulated me to think more on the relationship
of science and religion, particularly the impact the discovery of an
Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (ETI) would have on both traditions.
To that end I would like to immodestly propose Shermer's Last Law (I
don't believe in naming laws after oneself, so as the good book warns,
the last shall be first and the first shall be last): "Any sufficiently
advanced ETI is indistinguishable from God".
God is typically described by Western religions as omniscient and omnipotent.
Since we are far from the mark on these traits, how could we possibly
distinguish a God who has them absolutely, from an ETI who has them
in relatively (to us) copious amounts? Thus, we would be unable to distinguish
between absolute and relative omniscience and omnipotence. But if God
were only relatively more knowing and powerful than us, then by definition
it "would" be an ETI! Consider two observations and one deduction:
1. Biological evolution operates at a snail's pace compared to technological
evolution (the former is Darwinian and requires generations of differential
reproductive success, the latter is Lamarckian and can be implemented
within a single generation). 2. The cosmos is very big and space is
very empty ("Voyager I", our most distant spacecraft hurtling
along at over 38,000 mph, will not reach the distance of even our sun's
nearest neighbor, the Alpha Centauri system that it is "not"
even headed toward, for over 75,000 years). Ergo, the probability of
an ETI who is only slightly more advanced than us and also makes contact
is virtually nil. If we ever do find ETI it will be as if a million-year-old
"Homo erectus" were dropped into the middle of Manhattan,
given a computer and cell phone and instructed to communicate with us.
ETI would be to us as we would be to this early hominid godlike.
Science and technology have changed our world more in the past century
than it changed in the previous hundred centuries. It took 10,000 years
to get from the cart to the airplane, but only 66 years to get from
powered flight to a lunar landing. Moore's Law of computer power doubling
every eighteen months continues unabated and is now down to about a
year. Ray Kurzweil, in The Age of Spiritual Machines, calculates
that there have been thirty-two doublings since World War II, and that
the Singularity point may be upon us as early as 2030. The Singularity
(as in the center of a black hole where matter is so dense that its
gravity is infinite) is the point at which total computational power
will rise to levels that are so far beyond anything that we can imagine
that they will appear near infinite and thus, relatively speaking, be
indistinguishable from omniscience (note the suffix!).
When this happens the world will change more in a decade than it did
in the previous thousand decades. Extrapolate that out a hundred thousand
years, or a million years (an eye blink on an evolutionary time scale
and thus a realistic estimate of how far advanced ETI will be, unless
we happen to be the first space-faring species, which is unlikely),
and we get a gut-wrenching, mind-warping feel for just how godlike these
creatures would seem.
In Clarke's 1953 novel Childhood's End, humanity reaches something
like a Singularity (with help from ETIs) and must make the transition
to a higher state of consciousness in order to grow out of childhood.
One character early in the novel opines that "Science can destroy
religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one
ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the nonexistence of Zeus or
Thor, but they have few followers now."
Although science has not even remotely destroyed religion, Shermer's
Last Law predicts that the relationship between the two will be profoundly
effected by contact with ETI. To find out how we must follow Clarke's
Second Law, venturing courageously past the limits of the possible and
into the unknown. Ad astra!
Shermer is the founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine
and the author of The Borderlands of Science.