I sometimes joke to my students that “teleology” is one of those things like “functionalism” that humanist intellectuals now instinctively recoil from or hiss at without even bothering to explain any longer to a witness who is less in-the-know what the problem is.
But if you want a sense of how there is a problem with teleology that is a meaningful impediment to thoughtful exploration and explanation of a wide range of existing intellectual problems, take a look at io9’s entry today that reports on a recent study showing that self-replicating probes from extraterrestrial intelligences could theoretically reach every solar system in the galaxy within 10 million years of an initial launch from a point of origin.
I’ve suggested before that exobiology is one of the quintessential fields of research that could benefit from keeping an eclectic range of disciplinary specialists in the room for exploratory conversations, and not just from within the sciences. To make sure that you’re not making assumptions about what life is, where or how it might be found or recognized, and so on, you really need some intellectuals who have no vested interest in existing biological science and whose own practices could open up unexpected avenues and insights into the problem, whether that’s raising philosophical and definitional questions, challenging assumptions about whether we actually could even recognize life that’s not as we know it (or whether we should want to), or offering unexpected technical or artistic strategies for seeing patterns and phenomena.
As an extension this point, look at the Fermi Paradox. Since it was first laid out in greater detail in 1975 by Michael Hart, there’s been a lot of good speculative thinking about the problem, and some of it has tread in the direction I’m about to explore. But you also can see how for much of the time, responses to the concept remain limited by certain assumptions that are especially prevalent among scientists and technologists.
At least one of those limits is an assumption about the teleology of intelligence, an assumption that intelligent life will commonly or inevitably trend towards social and technological complexity in a pattern that strongly resembles some dominant modern and Western readings of human history. While evolutionary biology has long since moved away from the assumption that life trends towards intelligence, or that human beings are the culmination of the evolution of life on Earth, some parallel speculative thinking about the larger ends or directionality of intelligent life still comes pretty easily for many, and is also common to certain kinds of sociobiological thought.
This teleology assumes that agriculture and settlement follow intelligence and tool usage, that settlement leads to larger scales of complex political and social organization, that larger scales of complex political and social organization lead to technological advancement, and that this all culminates in something like modernity as we now live it. In the context of speculative responses to the Fermi Paradox (or other attempts to imagine extraterrestrial intelligence) this produces the common view that if life is very common and intelligent life somewhat common that some intelligent life must lead to “technologically advanced civilizations” which more or less conform to our contemporary imagination of what “technological advancement” forward from our present circumstances would look like. When you add to this the observation that in some cases, this pattern must have occurred many millions of years ago in solar systems whose existence predates our own, you have Fermi’s question: where is everybody?
But this is where you really have to unpack something like the second-to-last term in the Drake Equation, which was an attempt to structure contemplation of Fermi’s question. The second-to-last term is “the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space”. For the purposes of the Drake Equation, the fraction of civilizations that do not develop that technology is not an interesting line of thought in its own right, except inasmuch as speculation about that fraction leads you to set the value of that term low or high. All we want to know in this sense is, “how many signals are there out there to hear?”
But if you back up and think about these questions without being driven by teleological assumptions, if you don’t just want to shortcut to the probability that there is something for SETI to hear–or to the question of why there aren’t self-replicating probes in our solar system already–you might begin to see just how much messier (but more interesting) the possibilities really are. Granted that if the number that the Drake Equation produces is very very large right up until the last two terms (up to “the fraction of planets with life that develop intelligence”) then somewhere out there almost any possibility will exist, including a species that thinks very substantially the way we do and has had a history similar to ours, but teleology (and its inherent narcissism) can inflate that probability very wildly in our imaginations and blind us to that inflation.
We’ve been notoriously poor in the two centuries since the Industrial Revolution really took hold at predicting the forward development of technological change. The common assumption at the end of the 19th Century was to extrapolate the rapid development of transportation infrastructure and assume that “advancement” always would mean that travel would steadily grow faster, cheaper, more ubiquitious. In the mid-20th Century it was common to assume that travel and residence in space would soon be common and would massively transform human societies. Virtually no one saw the personal computer or the Internet coming. And so on. The reality of 2013 should be enough to derail any assumptions about our own technological future, let alone an assumption that there will be common pathways for the technological development of other sentient life. To date, futurists have been spectacularly wrong again and again about technology in fundamental ways, often because of the reigning teleologies of the moment.
It isn’t just that we tend to foolishly extrapolate from our technological present to imagine the future. We also have very impoverished ways of imagining the causal relationship between other possible biologies of intelligent life and technosocial formations, even in speculative fiction. What technologies would an underwater intelligence develop? An intelligence that communicated complex social thoughts through touch or scent? An intelligence that commonly communicated to other members of its species with biological signals that carried over many miles as opposed to at close distances? And so on. How much of our technological histories, plural (because humanity has many more than one technological history) are premised on our particular biological history, the particular contingencies of our physical and cultural environments, and so on? Lots, I think. Even within human history, there is plenty of evidence that fundamental ideas like the wheel may not be at all inevitable. Why should we assume that there is any momentum towards the technological capabilities involved in sending self-replicating probes to other star systems or any momentum towards signalling (accidentally or purposefully)?
Equally: why should we assume that any other species would want to or ever even think of the idea? Some scientists engaging the Fermi Paradox have suggested that signalling or sending probes might prove to be dangerous and that this is why no one seems to be out there. E.g., they’ve assumed a common sort of species-independent rationality would or could guide civilizational decision-making, and so either everyone else has the common sense to be quiet or everyone who wasn’t quiet is dead because of it. But more fundamentally, it seems hard for a lot of the people who engage in this sort of speculation to see something like sending self-replicating probes for what they really might be characterized as: a gigantic art project. It’s no more inevitable than Christo draping canyons in fabric or the pharoahs building pyramids. It’s as much about aesthetics and meaning as it is technology or progress. There is no reason at all to assume that self-replicating probes are a natural or inevitable idea. We might want to at least consider the alternative: that it is a fucking strange idea that another post-industrial, post-scarcity culture of intelligences with a lot of biological similarity to us might never consider or might reject as stupid or pointless even if it occurred to them.
Anthropocentrism has died slowly by a thousand cuts rather than a single decisive strike, for all that our hagiographies of Copernicus and Galileo sometimes suggest otherwise. Modern Western people commonly accept heliocentrism, and can dutifully recite just how small we are in the universe. Until we began getting data about other solar systems, it was still fairly common to assume that the evolution of our own, with its distribution of small rocky planets and gas giants, was the “normal” solar system, which is increasingly obviously not the case. That too is not so hard to take on board. But contemporary history and anthropology provide us plenty of information to suspect that our anthropocentric (specifically modern and Eurocentric) understandings of how intelligence and technology are likely to interrelate are almost certainly equally inadequate to the reality out there.
The more speculative the conversation, the more it will benefit from a much more intellectually and methodologically diverse set of participants. Demonstrating that it’s possible to blanket the galaxy with self-replicating probes within ten million years is interesting, but if you want to know why that (apparently) didn’t happen yet, you’re going to need some philosophers, artists, historians, writers, information scientists and a bunch of other folks plugged into the discussion, and you’re going to need to work hard to avoid (or at least make transparent) any assumptions you have about the answers.