Analogy and Reflexivity in Extraterrestrial Civilizations


By Morris Jones, METI International Advisory Council

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is challenging to the scientific and wider scholarly communities. Much of the difficulties encountered in academic work on SETI stem from the sheer lack of concrete information concerning real extraterrestrial civilizations. A subsector of the SETI community is actually focused on the possibility that extraterrestrial civilizations do not even exist, and the lack of any evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence (so far) is consistent with this theory.

Apart from the frustration of a decades-long search without results, there is an underlying set of methodological difficulties stemming from this lack of evidence. Scientific inquiry normally begins with observable data, then constructs theories to explain the observable. In the case of SETI, there is an abundance of theories but little in the way of actual observed data.

Some aspects of SETI are highly scientific in a traditional sense. The physical sciences have achieved remarkable progress due to the fact that physical phenomena are so consistent and repeatable. Thus we have witnessed the elevation of physics, chemistry and related disciplines to mature levels. We can observe distant stars and planets. Astronomy and planetary science can make reasonable deductions about factors we cannot directly observe on other worlds. We also have remarkable insight into the activity of life at a molecular level. Thus, the broader realm of “astrobiology” is a flourishing arena of scientific activity.

The “search” element of SETI is also informed by these traditional disciplines. The advanced state of astronomy, communications theory and related engineering disciplines has produced rigorous search programs. The most significant problems relating to SETI searches usually concern their lack of funding rather than any methodological problems.

Beyond this, speculation on the nature of the extraterrestrials themselves is more difficult. The core physical sciences do not neatly extrapolate to these realms. Furthermore, we must admit that scholarly disciplines that could address these questions are not as evolved as the physical sciences. Cognitive science, linguistics, sociology, psychology and anthropology all have the potential to help us. Yet none of these disciplines is as rigorously predictive as a “law” from physics. This is not intended as a condemnation of these disciplines, but rather, an acknowledgement that they deal with areas less mechanical than falling apples.

The quest to know more about intelligent extraterrestrial life is thus compromised on two fronts. There is a lack of observable data. There are also shortcomings with the scholarly disciplines that could be used to address these inquiries. Facing these dilemmas, SETI scholars have frequently resorted to an alternative strategy. The process of “analogy” appears frequently in SETI writings. Analogy in SETI practice uses the human race and the planet Earth as observables and attempts to extrapolate conditions in extraterrestrial civilizations from these observations. Analogy is a compromise. With no civilization beyond Earth accessible to us at the present, we make use of what we have.

Analogy with Earth also offers a convenient pathway for circumventing some of the shortcomings of the social sciences. We have a bounty of observable phenomena, even if the mechanisms underlying these phenomena are not properly understood. Thus, a form of heuristic reasoning can substitute for a deeper scientific modelling.

Increasingly, we are exploring interdisciplinary links between scientific disciplines that are generally treated as discrete. We know that physics and chemistry underpin the mechanisms of biology. We are also becoming more aware of the links between biology and sociology. Thus, broader areas of society once considered difficult to quantify and model are known to be at least partially influenced by more concrete scientific disciplines. This makes conditions on other worlds potentially more knowable through the application of theoretical extrapolations. It also makes analogy with a known world more scientifically rigorous.

Analogy is useful. It could help us to describe observable conditions on other worlds. But it is also somewhat limiting in terms of proposing species and societies that could be vastly different from our own. This could be wise. Some of the wilder concepts for extraterrestrial civilizations proposed by science fiction and some visionaries seem less likely when they are examined through these disciplines. We can allow our imaginations to run wild, but some ideas could be more fantasy than potential reality.

This does not mean that considering “fantastic” scenarios is pointless. We can apply the concept of “reflexivity,” which is like running the process of SETI inquiry in reverse. We consider the nature of societies and biologies vastly different from our own, and we ask how such hypotheticals could change our perspectives on our own civilization. With only ourselves to study, we can take too many factors for granted. Observables that appear to be “constants” or self-evident could actually be “variables” or different in other civilizations. Thus, considering alternatives to Earth could help us to understand ourselves more than we currently do. In turn, this could help the evolution of the social sciences. The advantage of reflexivity is that it can be performed without any knowledge of real extraterrestrial civilizations. We can imagine or propose hypothetical civilizations that may not even be expected to be discovered. We can perform comparisons between these hypotheticals and our own world. We can thus consider human society within the context of a broader range of alternatives.

Analogy and reflexivity thus offer ways of making genuine progress in the absence of real knowledge of extraterrestrial intelligence. One deals with the real and known world of Earth. The other deals with hypotheticals that may not exist, but are still useful tools even they do not. They approach the same problem from different directions. They explore the potential links between extraterrestrials and ourselves. Ultimately, they remind us that the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence is a part of a broader quest to understand life in general. That includes understanding ourselves.