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Dave - this superlative piece really gets to the heart of one of my favorite subjects (it comes a close third to Multiple Male Orgasms and the Pink Floyd lyric: Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.)

I've always loved the idea that we weird creatures would one day make contact with others "out there" - if only to receive a swift kick in the nether regions for being so goddam conceited.

But from what you've shown here, we're no doubt looking for evidence in the wrong way, for the very reason that we are stupidly modelling extra-terrestrial intelligence on our supposed intelligence.

In my experience, a great number of Homo callidus couldn't locate evidence of a donut from sugar crumbs in the bottom of a paper bag. Apparent scientists who have suspended scientific rigor owing to their ultra-optimistic anthropocentrism (and anthropomorphism) are unlikely to know what they're looking at if their instruments capture some ET output that is off the scale of these human scientists' "intelligence".

All that being said, I remain extremely interested in the concept of ET life. I work hard to keep alight a little flicker of a fragment of a molecule of hope that there's intelligent (i.e. sapient) life somewhere in this cwazy universe!

Mike Roberts

I found myself nodding in agreement at the boxed Why Should You Care... As I've cared about this question for decades, and have helped a little with seti@home, I have to admit that I still do but in a less passionate way. As you say, it doesn't matter to us in any way, except emotionally, but it would be the most amazing achievement if "we" did detect life of any kind, particularly intelligent life (assuming we could recognise it as such) elsewhere in the universe.

I love Shostak's first name, Seth, which seems to fit it well with projection - Search for Extra-Terrestrial Humans.

Great point about the mediocrity principle. I was also convinced that there is nothing special about this planet and all the life on it. But when Kuhn says that there is no evidence that this planet and its life are anything special, he's wrong in that the only evidence we have is that there is no evidence of any life anywhere else in the universe. I know absence of evidence is not evidence of absence but the only observational evidence we have suggests that the planet may indeed be special (in the meaning of "unusual").

A thought struck me while reading this, since Vogager 1 has also been in the news recently. I wonder if SETI has detected Voyager 1 (or 2). It is a very weak signal and, presumably, detectable by Voyager Control because it knows roughly where it is and how it is transmitting.

One day the Voyagers may be captured by some inhabited planet (or by a neighbouring planet). I wonder what the inhabitants of those planets would think of it, if they could detect it. Or it could simply burn up in the atmosphere and be hardly noticed.

Thanks for the piece, Dave.

[PS I signed up to some science site recently (Science, I think) and was recommended some articles from New Scientist, including "Earth Audit" - it's still doing the rounds!]


The best evidence of aliens is corn syrup. Obviously a plot to fatten us up for future consumption. "To serve man" anybody ?

Dave Cohen

Not many comments.

This is what I call the eerie silence, the DOTE version ;-)

But then again, there isn't much intelligent life on Earth, is there?

If I've accomplished little else over the years, I've certainly established that.

-- Dave


As often as I ponder the Cosmos, seldom do I think of, or consider, alien intelligence. It's been a while, so I did check up on Fermi's Paradox on wikipedia. If you scroll down through the "Explaining the paradox hypothetically" section, you will find...

"They are too busy online"

Or maybe text'n & tweet'n



Dave - re. ...the eerie silence...there isn't much intelligent life on Earth, is there?

This is hardly any consolation, but I just stumbled across the following:

“Despair is the price one pays for self-awareness.
Look deeply into life, and you'll always find despair.”
Irvin D. Yalom

Does this account for the deliberate avoidance of self-awareness among the multitude of diehard inhabitants of Flatland?

Dave Cohen

Oliver --

There is no "deliberate avoidance" of consciousness in Flatland.

That implies agency, an agent (mind) doing the avoiding, some "Self" who knows better, and might therefore be capable of doing the right thing.

There is no such agent.

There is only a near-total absence of consciousness in Flatland.

That's what "Flatland" means.

The lights appear to be on, Oliver, but they only appear that way. The truth is, the lights are on, but nobody's home.

Well, at least that's the conclusion virtually all the evidence points to.

When you hear the phrase "willfully ignorant", which is like "deliberate avoidance" in the general context of the Human Condition, ignore it. Neither phrase is incoherent -- makes any sense psychologically -- and neither phrase describes the human situation.

Both phrases imply some agent (Self) being willful or deliberate (making a conscious decision) to remain in some state of ignorance about something. But people either know (are aware of) what's going on or they don't. When something is in the unconscious, that means it is unavailable to awareness -- it remains buried there forever.

People may engage in avoidance, but in that case they are aware of whatever it is they are avoiding. But that's not what I talk about, and never have.

Nobody is "willfully ignorant" of what's going on in the oceans or "deliberately avoiding" what's going on there.

I know all this is hard for people to accept.

In such a tragic situation, how would it be possible for a conscious person to avoid despair about the Human Condition?

-- Dave

Mike Roberts

So true, Dave. I often wonder how anyone whose been given the information about the state of our planet, could possibly continue on as though nothing was happening. I know the information is difficult to find but fragments do appear in the mainstream media, from time to time, occasionally appearing in the first few stories. But it's so swamped by trivia that it easy to overlook, if one isn't conscious.

But your posts have proved beyond a doubt that it's simply impossible for most people to take in reality and use that information in a conscious way. Even so, I still do sometimes wonder ...


Put in another way (the poster in Mulder's office):

I figure if the aliens really want us to know them, they'll show up on Oprah instead of doing Banksy impressions in corn fields or probing rednecks. I find it highly unlikely that some form of life doesn't exist elsewhere in the universe, though.

On searching for signs of intelligent life, I totally agree. We look for things like us, and that is one whopper of an assumption. It's doubly screwed up in that we don't really have a good handle on what we are, or even what a really adequate definition of 'intelligence' is.

Interesting thoughts on why a techno-optimist would desperately want to find signs of 'intelligence', or technological civilizations. They want confirmation of their core beliefs. I know a guy who passionately believes in aliens AND understands our predicament in the next 100-200 years, but I wonder if his belief in aliens isn't just a form of hope (if life doesn't go on here, it will there, or a few aliens will save a few humans, etc.).

BTW, it's not this guy:

I like this vein of study you've taken here.


Dave - you're right of course. What I was positing (poorly, it seems) was the number of people in supposed positions of societal power who surely have at least an inkling of Reality but choose to deny it, because pursuing knowledge of despair-generating Reality is not conducive to amassing personal wealth or attracting fuck buddies - the twin driving forces of Homo callidus.

Jordan Drew

I haven't payed a whole lot of attention to the field of astrobiology over the years, but I can honestly say I was was a little bit shocked at just how anthropocentric the scientists on the cutting edge on the search for extraterrestrial life are. I mean, I realize humans likely developed their taste for technology before we achieved anything near the level of intelligence/consciousness we are currently capable of, but to assume that our path is somehow the only worth wile path to consciousness is awfully narrow minded. It also implies these so-called astrobiologists don't know all that much about biology.

By the way as much as I miss daily DOTE I really like this sporadic "big essay" format. Haven't been commenting but I have been reading.


Fermi's Paradox is only a paradox if all the underlying assumptions are true. Calling it a paradox implies that the underlying assumptions are true, including mediocrity, and that the earth is 'normal'. I think we can safely rule out Von Neumann Probes though, even if it took them 3 million years to 'colonise' the universe, it wouldn't take much longer at that rate of exponential growth to consume all the matter in the universe. I think the fact that we have a universe, not a gajillion Von Neumann Probes should give us a bit of a clue as to their existence. Unless of course they have only recently been released.
It's amusing how optimistic, believers are, based on zero evidence. I'm of the opinion their could be, after all as Sagan said (for longer then 2mins) there are lots and lots and lots planets out there. Interstellar civilisations though, most likely not.


"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

Except, of course, when it is. As Irving Copi puts it, "In some circumstances it can be safely assumed that if a certain event had occurred, evidence of it could be discovered by qualified investigators. In such circumstances it is perfectly reasonable to take the absence of proof of its occurrence as positive proof of its non-occurrence."

So examining numerous samples looking for evidence of a complicated event and finding only a single case (which happens to be the tester no less!) is certainly evidence that the said event does not commonly occur and may not occur in any other instance. What's more, there is a difference between having no evidence and weight of evidence.

So far there is zero evidence to support the proposition that extra terrestrial "intelligent" life exists as proposed by these scientists. Just hope.

I would take it a step further, though, and state that they are not seeking intelligent life, just human-like life, and that no intelligent life has even been found on our planet. Certainly, there are organisms more or less complicated in there means of operation, but all seem bound by inescapable primal drives.

The irony (and hubris) of mankind looking for intelligence is indeed overwhelming. If we ever found anything actually resembling rational actors, we would likely respond only with primal emotion ranging from worship to hatred, much like we do with everything else.

It seems to me there is very little difference from these optimistic astrobiology hunters pining for aliens and those of religious faith seeking angels, gods, and demons. Both hope for some mighty revelation and vindication of purpose as the facts indicate otherwise and the timer keeps rolling on.....

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