Level Up

Since the book’s overdue, I figured I’d better push through its peculiar dream before returning to The Brothers Karamazov (did you know someone gets murdered in that book? I had no idea, I’m two-thirds done and I thought it was going to be all theology and bickering (not that I mind!)). The book is Paul Davies’ The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search For Alien Intelligence.

I like lyricism. I also like, though, scientists’ own dry conjectural way of discussing what amazes them. And plenty in this book amazes: the idea of a shadow biosphere right on earth, nature’s implicate order (you know, how the cat in the box isn’t really alive or dead until you look inside), the Matrioshka Brain, or the impossibility of fathoming alien technology.

Like, would we even know a UFO if we saw it? In one passage, Davies imagines information as a “higher level concept” than matter, since moving information (as our brains understand it) in an organized way requires manipulating matter; your laptop’s Pandora pushes electrons through a circuit to play. What, he asks, would the analogous level up from information be? That is, what machine organizes information to correlate some higher-up X, as information machines do to mere stuff? Could we fathom this machine, any more than Francis Bacon would Photoshop?

Davies goes on to speculate that most aliens, like our descendants (provided we don’t kill ourselves), will be self-fixing immortal quantum computational bundles, dreaming to themselves in cool low-radiation deep space, who don’t give a damn about visiting other worlds.

Admitting that he’s “curiously depressed,” Davies calls himself “nostalgic in advance” for the loss of bodied individuality this post-biological future necessitates. Then he adds there’s little chance our radio telescopes could see such quantum cloudbeings anyway.

So far, the cosmos is silent. Still, my nerdy, Keatsian head sweats, and carries me back to human philosophical problems. The scary assured impassivity of alien intelligences (whether in theory or in science fiction) makes me wonder: is doubt essential to sympathy? Do wobbling, passion, and uncertainty in myself leave me better able to conceive the world as seen by those I disagree with? A satisfied mind (on a pulpit, circling a distant star) seems one maybe incapable of mercy.

Do you care more deeply when deeply human-level– uncertain, heartsick or weird? Or when way above it all– observant, sunstruck and anonymous, the way your interest attaches to varieties of lavender or earthworm in a garden you go ambling through? What sort of stranger would you rather meet?

Last, a little uncertain music: