April 26, 2010

The Religion of Fear Itself, or Why I Despise Modern Liberals (reason 334)

Hatched by Dafydd

Rarely do I get such an opportunity to opine on my two favorite topics, politics and science fiction, simultaneously!

Physics idol Stephen Hawking is quite convinced that life -- and intelligent life -- exist elsewhere in our galaxy:

The suggestions come in a new documentary series [beginning Sunday, May 9th, at 9 pm, on the Discovery Channel -- DaH] in which Hawking, one of the world’s leading scientists, will set out his latest thinking on some of the universe’s greatest mysteries.

Alien life, he will suggest, is almost certain to exist in many other parts of the universe: not just in planets, but perhaps in the centre of stars or even floating in interplanetary space.

Works for me. The chemical processes that produce the building blocks of life are entirely natural, and indeed many might not even need a planet on which to form; analysis of the data is not conclusive, but some simple amino acids may be able to form spontaneously in space.

The next step will produce a few howls of outrage; but one must accept that much good evidence points to life arising from non-life on this planet due to entirely natural, thus repeatable processes. Indeed, biologists and science writers have written entire books on the subject of abiogenesis, e.g., Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins, by Robert Hazen. There are so many models and hypotheses, so much experimental and observational data, so much creative science being published monthly, that the intelligent, well-read student simply cannot dismiss the possibility without months or years of research. That is, unless one is willing to...

  • Reject virtually all modern science along with the scientific method;
  • Adopt the a priori and unfalsifiable assumption that life requires a "Creator" who is cagey enough to deliberately hide all evidence of his (sorry, His) presence;
  • And insist upon referring to contemporary evolutionary biology as "Darwinism" -- thus smarmily implying that it's just a cult of personality like Stalinism or Scientology.

For the 80% or so who are still with me, as life arose here through natural processes, it's a good bet that there are other planets elsewhere in the galaxy (and in other galaxies) where similar natural processes produced forms of life that we could at least recognize as such.

The penultimate step is that like life itself, intelligence -- that is, animal cunning -- is clearly a biological advantage; thus the chain of life will necessarily produce smarter and more sophisticated animals (shorthand for animated forms of life)... unless freakish local conditions preclude, e.g., the development of multicellular organisms. In any event, some planets with life will evolve cleverer life.

The last step is the one about which we know least. Does self-awareness arise spontaneously? Is it part of the implicate order of cleverness? Or does it require the breath of God to create the spark of a soul? If the former, then clearly we should assume there is intelligent life elsewhere in the void until proven otherwise.

But even if the latter situation obtains, what hubris would we exhibit were we to assert with confidence that God would never strike that spark anywhere but on this particular planet where we happen to live! Who are we to tell He who made Leviathan that Earth is the only planet "zoned" for self-aware, moral beings?

I believe as much as ever before that the odds favor a universe populated with many, many civilized cultures; but of course, nobody can know what civilization, morality, or even communication means to creatures which evolved on a completely different planet... or in a gas cloud or the surface of a somewhat coolish star, for that matter.

Hawking agrees with that point as well:

Hawking’s logic on aliens is, for him, unusually simple. The universe, he points out, has 100 billion galaxies, each containing hundreds of millions of stars. In such a big place, Earth is unlikely to be the only planet where life has evolved.

“To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational,” he said. “The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.”

But what's all this about modern liberals? Why should I despise someone with whom I fundamentally agree on such a vital issue? Because in his next breath, Hawking proves himself a coward; and I despise poltroonery:

The aliens are out there and Earth had better watch out, at least according to Stephen Hawking. He has suggested that extraterrestrials are almost certain to exist -- but that instead of seeking them out, humanity should be doing all it that can to avoid any contact.

Note that my main dispute with the eminent Hawking stands, even if the reader of this post rejects evolution: Hawking obviously believes in evolution by variation and natural selection, and he believes that will ultimately produce alien civilizations; but he is clearly terrified of the prospect of contact. Contrariwise, all my space-nutter friends and I desperately hope to see human-alien contact during our lifespans. That is one major difference between New-Left liberals and true libertarians: Whether one dreams of alien contact -- or endures an agonizing nightmare about it.

Why is Hawking so frightened? And why does he think should the rest of us be afraid? Because liberal ideology -- and in particular disgust with Western civilization and unthinking acceptance of all the environmenalist myth-making about the unnaturalness of humanity -- leads many liberals into despair and terror.

Such scenes [of imaginative and extraordinary alien life that might exist] are speculative, but Hawking uses them to lead on to a serious point: that a few life forms could be intelligent and pose a threat. Hawking believes that contact with such a species could be devastating for humanity.

He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. 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 colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “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.”

So many Eco-Left bugbears bubble up from this ill-considered froth! If only Hawking would apply the same faculty for critical thinking to the potential of alien civilizations as he applies to physics problems.

Resource scarcity

Let's start with the scenarios he himself presents. Why would aliens travel dozens of lightyears (at least!), hundreds of trillions of miles, just to "raid Earth for its resources?" Which resources would those be... hydrogen, the most common element in the galaxy?

Oxygen, nitrogen, water vapor, and carbon dioxide, easily obtained from any Earthlike planet much nearer to the aliens than Earth? Pure water, as in the original TV series V -- which can be melted from any water-ice asteroid in our asteroid belt without us ever noticing its "theft?"

Gold, silver, uranium, or any other precious metal -- which can be mined anywhere?

And why would the aliens even need to dig minerals out of the rock? Assuming they're smart enough and technologically sophisticated enough to cross interstellar distances, wouldn't it be likely they could artificially produce such elements in nuclear manufactories in any quantities they needed, and with a fraction of the cost and none of the danger?

There is no vaguely logical reason why a civilization in search of resources would trundle across the vastness of space to tussle with some squalid alien Neanderthals (that would be us by comparison) for what they can obtain or create by lifting their smallest tendrils. "Invasion for resource raiding" is complete nonsense as a plausible reason for violent attack. Christopher Columbus may have stumbled upon the New World and enslaved the natives, but that's because he lived in a universe of scarcity, where mechanization could not yet replace human labor.


What else could aliens want -- territory? But planets that can support life, on which life evolved, where intelligence reached a critical peak, where that bright life awoke into self-awareness, where science was discovered and technology invented, and where practical spaceflight was developed... such planets would be an occasional fleck of diamond in a vast beach of ordinary sand. Why fight for territory when it's all free for the taking, as much as you want?

Psycho-sociological quirks

One can always wave one's hands and warn that the aliens might have some cockamamie religion that requires them to conquer and enslave humans. But it's equally valid to speculate that their cockamamie religion might drive them to help us gain the scientific understanding and technological powers they themselves enjoy. The same Western powers that claimed entire continents in the name of king and country centuries ago have more recently used their blood and treasure to raise up the Third World to First-World status (or tried to do, anyway).

Abstruse and obtuse reasons

When my pal and worthy co-conspirator Brad Linaweaver and I wrote the Doom tetralogy, we wanted (for plot reasons) to have an interstellar war (we were writing a subluminous, Einsteinian space opera, which I think is unique in science-fiction history). My goodness, how we struggled to come up with a reason that was not preposterous on its face, that was vaguely plausible, why alien races would ever go to war!

We finally settled on a long-ago dispute between competing schools of literary theory, the Surrealists and the Post-Modernists, each trying to analyze a fistful of fragments left behind by the first race ever to achieve spaceflight, billions of years earlier. These academic disputes erupted into a war that, due to lightspeed limitations, still continued after thousands of millennia. But that took us days of teleconferences to concoct.

Simply put, logic implies there is simply no reason for beings of one stellar system to attack beings of another. And while it's true that alien logic might be very different, we don't have any to study; so we're stuck with our own logic. To be frightened of the prospect of contacting aliens is to yield to xenophobia and the mortal sin (and bleak helplessness) of despair.

And that brings us, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, back to contemporary eco-nut liberalism. As we have seen, liberalism has metastacized into the philosophy of catastrophe, where every way we live brings about our gruesome death: Eating, drinking, exercising, heating our homes, cooling our heels, and now even exhaling. From the Center for Science in the Public Interest to the IPCC to ELF and ALF, liberals warn that we must fear everything.

Is Hawking a liberal? He tries not to talk about it, but enough has seeped out to make it fairly clear: He was a member of the Oxford University Liberal Democrats when he was at university; he "appeared on a political broadcast for the United Kingdom's Labour Party," according to his Wikipedia biography; and like most scientists who don't specialize in climate-related research, he is a fierce proponent of global-warming hysteria -- "globaloney chic."

He's either an agnostic (if you believe him) or atheist (if you believe his first wife). And of course, he hails from England, where even the so-called Conservatives are far to our left on the political spectrum.

Everything fits; it's all of a pattern. Hawking is clearly a liberal, and he evinces the same terror of the unknown that liberalism propagates as its primary recruiting tool. And for what the wretched ideology of left-liberalism and eco-nuttery has done to such a fine intellect, I despise modern liberals.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, April 26, 2010, at the time of 3:50 AM

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The following hissed in response by: snochasr

Count me as one of those anti-Darwinists who believe that He can be the Creator without doing it in six days of flash bang. You hint at such a possibility when you suggest that at some point humans are given a "soul"-- sometimes known as the breath of God.

What seems odd is that, while you are mildly dismissive of those holding to such unscientific opinions, you seem to take great comfort from it. You recognize the possibility that "animal cunning" could arise spontaneously among extraterrestrials, and then go on to assume that this would somehow limit itself to civilized and rational behavior. Why wouldn't highly intelligent life put all of that intelligence, like a pack of wolves, towards predatory and decidedly non-benign behavior towards any species other than its own? Like the aliens of the movie "Predator," why wouldn't they obliterate our planet just for sport?

While I like your point about comparing fear of aliens to environmentalist wackos here at home, a proper mental health requires me to be frightened about the latter while being entertained by the possibility of the former.

The above hissed in response by: snochasr [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 26, 2010 7:09 AM

The following hissed in response by: MikeR

Dafydd, you're not afraid of the Kzin?

I don't quite know what Hawkins is talking about. What should we or should we not be doing? Broadcasting to nearby stars with lasers and such? It won't be very long before we can ourselves detect whether nearby stars have planets with technology; it's just not that far from our current abilities. Any star-faring civilization can surely do much better; there is no hope of hiding from them, whether we broadcast or not.

The above hissed in response by: MikeR [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 26, 2010 8:39 AM

The following hissed in response by: DK

"To Serve Man"

The above hissed in response by: DK [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 26, 2010 11:05 AM

The following hissed in response by: Mastermind2much

If the creation of life is a natural process why did it happen only once?

The above hissed in response by: Mastermind2much [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 26, 2010 6:03 PM

The following hissed in response by: Bob Hawkins

A corollary of Hawking's argument is that, if we are the first into interstellar space, we should eradicate any alien life above pond scum level, to avoid future problems. In Emil Petaja's SF novels, this was called the policy of Allkill.

The above hissed in response by: Bob Hawkins [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 26, 2010 7:15 PM

The following hissed in response by: Nuclear Siafu


I think you're being a little too hard on Hawking. His reference to Native Americans is apt on several levels, and neatly reinforces concerns about First Contact that are very reasonable.

For instance, we can agree that the expansion of Western Civilization was a Very Good Thing, even for the Native Americans. Of course, it only turned out to be a Very Good Thing for them in the long term. In the short term, it was a bloody nightmare.

While Western explorers didn't find the Early American Immigrants living in some kind of noble savage utopia, they did find them living. Thanks largely to unintentionally introduced diseases, the Native Americans were decimated by West's arrival.

Now, it's true that disease isn't something we're going to be worried about during First Contact, owing to the specialized nature of viruses and microbes. I only bring up disease to make a point about unintended consequences.

Consider: Those diseases were a consequence of the civilization the West had to build in order to make organized expeditions. Without intensive agriculture and bustling cities, those diseases would most likely not have developed.

We can make a similar argument about dangers inherent to Contact with an alien civilization. We can say with some confidence that anything mustering itself to Sol will have a staggering edge in energy and technology. They will be so far ahead that they could ruin us without even meaning the least bit of harm.

Although the scenario Hawking brought up about a civilization of locusts intentionally targeting Earth is silly, an abundance of resources doesn't necessarily rule out hostile alien visitors. Resources are abundant but, as you said, space is huge. If a roving Alien Mothership finds its way near Earth, why not load up on all that free Raw Matter next door?

Of course, it could also be the case that they don't want any company in the cosmos, and just drop a few rocks on Earth to reset its biosphere. Point is, there's no good reason to assume anyone who comes knocking isn't going to have some nasty hangups.

I have a hard time seeing this as "Liberal Thought." I mean, I'm a fairly conservative person and I would love to meet ET, but from a position of strength, just in case. We should at least avoid actively looking for Contact for the nonce.

The above hissed in response by: Nuclear Siafu [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 27, 2010 2:17 AM

The following hissed in response by: mdgiles

Ah yes. The leftist resource paradigm. The enormous error sitting at the heart of many bad 50's sci-fi movies - and not a few more recent ones (Independence Day, Avatar). Actually, unless they were xenophobes, a universe full of all sorts of different species and civilizations, would simply be more interesting. Imagine a comparative religion scholar with the religions of a thousand worlds to study and compare.

Oh, and on the subject of a Creator; why do some assume that an omnipotent, omniscient, immortal being would create reality - and then have to come back every five minutes to check on His handy work. Or that His time scales would even begin to approximate ours. What exactly is "a day" to such a being?

The above hissed in response by: mdgiles [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 27, 2010 8:10 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dishman

We have most of the technology now to build self-replicating machines. Even at Voyager speeds, that gets you to full presence (essentially every system) in under a billion years.

The incremental cost of full colonization is a few gigabytes of data carried along, or even transmitted after the machines have established themselves in a system.

Why would anyone wage xenocide? "I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure."

The above hissed in response by: Dishman [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 27, 2010 3:16 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


If the creation of life is a natural process why did it happen only once?

What makes you think it did?

Nuclear Siafu:

I think you're being a little too hard on Hawking. His reference to Native Americans is apt on several levels, and neatly reinforces concerns about First Contact that are very reasonable....

Point is, there's no good reason to assume anyone who comes knocking isn't going to have some nasty hangups.

And equally no good reason to assume he does. It's like everything else about which we have no information: There is a nonzero chance it may be dangerous or noxious. So what?

This is the same argument that the Instrumentationalists use to oppose all manned-space exploration: We mustn't send men because something could go wrong, someone could get hurt, you'll shoot your eye out... so we should send only unmanned drones with instrument packages. This is still the argument from fear.

I believe we have as much right to explore the cosmos as any other species, and we shouldn't allow unsourced fear to drive policy. Think how much worse a world this would be had the Europeans been too afraid ever to explore beyond their one continent!

If we run into hostiles, then I suppose we'll have to fight. We're a fighting species; that's what we do best. I bet we'll win. (That is, I'm more of an Arthur C. Clarke, "Rescue Party" guy than a Thomas Disch, "Puppies of Terra"* guy.)

* A.k.a. "Mankind Under the Leash," a.k.a. "Camp Concentration," I think.


What seems odd is that, while you are mildly dismissive of those holding to such unscientific opinions, you seem to take great comfort from it.

You conflate two different points:

  • I am very dismissive of those who reject biological evolution;
  • In addition to believing in biological evolution, I believe in a "soul" of some sort that converts mere cunning to self-awareness. But that soul could arise spontaneously, perhaps as part of the "implicate order" of intelligence. (Contrariwise, if the soul turns out to be God-given, that doesn't bother me in the least.)
  • I think I've referenced that extraordinary book by Francis S. Collins, the Language of God: a Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, several times before. I urge anyone interested in both evolutionary biology and religious faith to read it.


    The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 28, 2010 5:33 PM

    The following hissed in response by: Dishman

    I believe Hawking was thinking about "Active SETI", and counseling against it.

    Except for our grids, most of our EMI drops below the noise floor at fairly short range. "Active SETI" is an attempt to push a signal out further. That could go badly.

    I believe we should disperse our seeds as expeditiously as practical. I believe we should do so quietly, though.

    We may not be the biggest predators.

    The above hissed in response by: Dishman [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 29, 2010 9:44 AM

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