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The Superior ETI Slice

It is difficult to imagine up. It is easier to imagine down. When comparing humans with animals, for example, we can imagine down by distinguishing things we humans can do that are beyond the capability of our animal neighbors. When is comes to imagining ETI who might be superior to us in intelligence, it is difficult to imagine up. It is difficult to imagine what superior intelligence could manifest that is beyond the very human intelligence that is doing the imagining. This puts initial constraints or limits on how we can begin to approach the topic of ethics when engaging ETI more advanced than earth’s homo sapiens. Nevertheless, it is incumbent in astro-bioethics to speculate about the possibility of engaging with intelligent beings who are superior to us.

If we meet ETI superior to ourselves, will they be hostile? Neutrally peaceful? or salvific? Given the assumptions made by many astrobiologists that extraterrestrial evolution will follow a path toward increased intelligence as it has on earth, the prospect of ETI fitting the hostile category is to be expected. Charles Darwin’s key evolutionary principle is “natural selection,” which he identifies with “the struggle for existence’ and with Herbert Spencer’s phrase, “survival of the fittest” (Darwin, 89). In the struggle for existence, living creatures undergo cruelty, suffering, and waste (Darwin, 445). And the species to which virtually every individual creature belongs will eventually go extinct to make way for a more fit species. The strong devour the weak. The big eat the small. The fit survive in a world that is, as Tennyson put it, blood “red in tooth and claw.”

Given astrobiological assumptions regarding a repeat of evolution on extraterrestrial planets, hostility is what we should expect on the part of ETI. Yet, surprisingly, some SETI speculators anticipate meeting intellectually superior ETI who will benevolently help us on earth. For this reason, I add the subcategory: salvific.

Now, how do we get from the struggle for existence to extraterrestrial saviors? How does evolution transcend itself?

Let’s look at the logic operative in this speculation. Some in the astrobiology community project an image of a more highly evolved extraterrestrial creature who would like to rescue us earthlings from the ignorant habits we have developed due to our inferior level of intelligence. Because we on earth have not yet achieved the level of rationality necessary to see that international war and planetary degradation are inescapably self-destructive, we could learn from ETI more advanced than we.

Such thinking is obviously myth, not science. No empirical evidence justifies such speculation. Yet, such dreaming of redemption descending from Earth’s skies is tantalizing to the terrestrial imagination. I have noted elsewhere that included in much of astrobiological theorizing is a version of the ETI Myth (Peters, 2008, chapter 3). The essence of the ETI myth is that science saves. Science can save earth from its inadequacies, its evolutionary backwardness, its propensity for self-destruction. If terrestrial science is insufficient, then extraterrestrial science just might be.

By myth here I refer to a cultural construct, a window frame, so to speak, through which we look in order to view the world out there. At work in modern culture in general, as well as in astrobiology in particular, is an identifiable framework - a myth, if you will--within which we cast the questions we pose to the mysteries evoked by our experience with outer space. The ETI myth reveals its shape as SETI’s Frank Drake gives voice to speculations: “Everything we know says there are other civilizations out there to be found. The discovery of such civilizations would enrich our civilization with valuable information about science, technology, and sociology. This information could directly improve our abilities to conserve and to deal with sociological problems - poverty for example. Cheap energy is another potential benefit of discovery, as are advancements in medicine” (Cited by Richards, 2003, 5). Note the optimism. Drake does not expect what Darwin or Hawking would expect, namely, an extraterrestrial race engaged in the struggle for existence which might like to exploit us on Earth. Rather, Drake’s extrapolation of evolution to ETI imagines an intelligent and benevolent race ready to offer us aid and assistance. His vision includes optimism regarding the solution to earth’s “sociological” problems such as poverty and energy. Space visitors might even give us a leap forward in medicine.

What Drake believes is that science is salvific; and extraterrestrial science would be even more salvific than terrestrial science. In sum, should an extraterrestrial civilization more evolutionarily advanced than we engage planet earth, we could benefit from the ability of ETI to save us from our own primitive inadequacies and even our own propensity for self-destruction. It is this thought structure within astrobiology that warrants the designation for more highly evolved and more intelligent ETI as “salvific.”

Suppose Drake’s prophecy gets fulfilled. Suppose ETI turn out to be salvific. In the event that ETI turn out to be not only more intelligent but also altruistic toward us, then an ethic of gratitude might be included in our responsibility. We would receive and make use of the gifts that increased intelligence would allegedly provide us: such as the means for maintaining a healthy planetary ecology, improvement in our medical care, and more justice in our social practices. Then, we would build upon what we have already said about maintaining terrestrial peace and treating our superiors with dignity; we would add a measure of grateful respect.

The alternative, of course, is that superior ETI might be hostile. If superior ETI follow Darwin and Hawking and confront us with hostile and exploitative enslavement, then perhaps we will frame our ethics accordingly. The New Testament provides instructions for slaves. NRS 1 Peter 2:18: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” This may seem unrecognizable for us today. The treatment of the superior master by an inferior slave has fallen into disuse in our post-Enlightenment period. This is because of the erasure of the line between superior and inferior human beings within modern Enlightenment culture. We are all equal - that is, we all share the same moral status. Each of us has dignity by virtue of our belonging to the human race, and slavery violates the principle of dignity. Should a master-slave relationship rear its ugly head somewhere on our planet, we children of the Enlightenment would encourage the slaves to rebel and strive for their own liberation. Such a moral commitment to liberation would be justified by the assumption that both masters and slaves are not other but rather are equal.

When we use the assumptions made by many in the astrobiology field, however, we cannot coherently make the argument that all intelligent beings are equal. Those who have evolved longer and who have attained a higher level of rational intelligence would be, by definition, superior to us. We could not justify liberating ourselves from their rule with an argument based upon equality. Perhaps we are now getting a vision of the blind alley that we are led into when we make intelligence our primary criterion. When we tie dignity to rationality or intelligence - and when we find ETI more intelligent than we are - we hang ourselves on our own gallows. All that is left for us is a self-appointed slave ethic. I am not prescribing this with enthusiasm. Rather, I’m drawing out ethical speculations based upon widespread assumptions.

If intellectually superior ETI are not especially hostile nor altruistically motivated to be our saviors, then we might frame our ethical deliberation anticipating neutral peacefulness. In the event that either peer or superior ETI approach the civilizations on Earth in a peaceful manner, we would want to respond with working through just institutions. Maintaining peace would become an immediate moral commitment. We might even find ourselves organizing to quiet down and restrict earthly voices that would disturb the peace. We would want to police ourselves in the name of peace. Peace would benefit life on earth. In addition, moral policies we set would likely treat our new space friends with dignity, respect, and courtesy.

It is my own view that we should treat superior ETIs with dignity, respecting and even caring for their welfare. If they are hostile and enslave us, we should invoke an appropriate slave morality that maintains their dignity. If ETI are peaceful toward us and open up avenues of conversation and commerce, then the principles of justice and the striving to maintain peace should obtain. If out of their superior wisdom and altruistic motives ETI seek to better our life here on earth, we should accept the gifts they bring and respond with an attitude of gratitude.

 Printer-friendly | Contributed by: Ted Peters

Go to Genetics Topic Index

The Superior ETI Slice

Cutting the Ethical Pie for Engaging ETI: An Adventure in Astro-Ethics
The Inferior ETI Slice
The Peer ETI Slice
Hostile? Peaceful? Salvific?


Ted Peters
Dr. Ted Peters

See also:

AstroTheology: Religious Reflections on Extraterrestrial Life Forms
Will ET End Religion?
Are We Alone?
The Relation of Science & Religion