Thursday, October 6, 2011

Poker With Aliens

In a recent New York Times column (The Stone, October 5, 2011), the author wonders whether, on the chance that they should arrive here, "Will the aliens be nice?"  He concludes that the prospect is not a neutral one and that its fascination may well be outweighed by its downside: "[F]or the foreseeable future, contact with [extraterrestrial intelligence] would have to result from their coming here, which would in all likelihood mean that they far surpassed us technologically. They would be able to enslave us, hunt us as prey, torture us as objects of scientific experiments, or even exterminate us and leave no trace of our civilization."

"Can't I just keep one?"

In short, earthlings might realize the worst of possible worlds - the aliens might be just like humans. Which raises the further question whether the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is worthwhile and desirable as scientific inquiry, merely neutral, or entirely imprudent. "Since we have no way of predicting with any certainty the outcome of such contact, it might seem that we have no reason to assume a bad rather than a good result.  From this we might conclude that there is no objection to pursuing SETI, if only to satisfy our curiosity."

The calculation, then, becomes a sort of reverse Pascal's Wager: if some course of action might produce a greater benefit than merely a neutral state of affairs, or (at worst) a sustainable disadvantage, it seems reasonable to pursue that course of action. For example, the invading (visiting?) aliens might bring a peaceful world order, technological wizardry to clean the environment, reverse climate change and prevent thermonuclear holocaust. But "they might . . . give us each thousands of years of excruciatingly painful existence as their slaves. This might not even be due to moral perversity; they might be so beyond us that they were incapable of recognizing us as objects of moral concern." They might, in other words, behave like we would.

Pascal's Wager assumes that there's no downside if you choose the course of action that might (or might not) result in the optimal outcome, while failing to do anything might (or might not) result in the worst possible outcome. It's not a choice in which the consequences are symmetrical. In the case of aliens, however, there will be an outcome whatever we choose to do, and it stands an equal chance of being good or terrible. So any continuing attempt to contact extraterrestrial intelligent life arguably has no benefit for us. Chances are equal that aliens could either save us, annihilate us, or just enslave us. And the choice will be theirs, not ours. Who would stay in the hand and ask for more cards, given those odds?

There's another possibility, of course: they might also be cloyingly nice and bring us the best of their advanced civilization, things like small dogs for pets, air freshener, processed "space food" . . .

. . . distributed-risk bundled financial instruments and the One True Religion. Still want to play?

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