Sensing Epiterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 26 Aug 2013
Embedding of “extraterrestrials” in episystemic dynamics?
Some astronomers continue to express interest in “extraterrestrials” and “life” elsewhere — and maintaining the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). There is disappointment that no traces or signals have been detected after 50 years of searching. Mars exploration has the search for “life” as one preoccupation now. Many people speculate variously on the possibility of such life — the topic of a recent review by The Royal Society (The Detection of Extra-terrestrial Life and the Consequences for Science and Society, 2011).
Extraterrestrial life remains a major theme of science fiction and related movies. If intelligent, it is potentially a major challenge for religions (The Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey, 2008). The possibility of such “life”, and the search for it, is however primarily focused on “where” it might be found, especially now that some 30 habitable planets have been detected in other solar systems.
“How” rather than “where”: The concern here derives from a widely-cited quotation of one science fiction writer, Ursula Le Guin: There are no right answers to wrong questions. Assuming that “extraterrestrial life” might be located on such planets may be a consequence of the “wrong question”. It may not be a question of “where” such “life” is located but rather of “how” that “life” is expressed. This possibility is consistent with theoretical concerns with nonlocality. As stated by Einstein, quantum nonlocality refers to the “spooky action at a distance” of quantum entanglement.
The question of “how”, rather than “where”, frames a concern that there may even be terrestrial forms of “life” which escape the attention of biology — focused as it is on a particular understanding of its expression through the organization of organic molecules into cellular form. The point could also be made that humans are not especially skilled at communication with nonhuman forms of “life” — possibly as a consequence of failure to understand the variety of ways through which it may be expressed. That there is evident human insecurity in the desire to demonstrate that humans are the “highest” form of life is also a factor.
Fruitful communication: In the light of the dramatic challenge to human communication between those of different religious or philosophical persuasion — and currently with the Taliban or with alienated youth — even if “extraterrestrials” (as imagined) were to be detected by the SETI program, it is quite unclear that humans could communicate meaningfully or fruitfully with them. This is the theme of a separate discussion (Communicating with Aliens: the psychological dimension of dialogue, 2000).
A concern of the following exploration could be provocatively expressed through recognition that although no “extraterrestrials” have been detected, the dramatic increase in the proportion of terrestrial “extras” has indeed attracted attention. Here “extra” is the variant used to describe a background performer in a film, television show, stage, musical, opera or ballet production — typically in a nonspeaking, nonsinging or nondancing capacity. The unemployed and alienated could well be understood in that light — and especially given the challenge of communicating effectively with them. The same might be said of many endangered species — too readily assumed to be of little significance.
Relational life: With respect to “how” intelligent “life” might be otherwise expressed, the concern here is with the possibility that it could be expressed through the dynamics of relationships between what humans isolate conceptually as distinctive entities, variously defined and bounded by categories. The human focus is on the “life” currently associated with a selection of category-defined entities (man, woman, dog, dolphin, etc). The possibility is excluded that the dynamics between such entities may also constitute a vehicle for “life” and intelligent identity. This is partially suggested by swarm intelligence, as evident in movement of shoals of fish, or flocks of birds, or human crowds. It is also suggested by recent discussion of Quantum Aspects of Life (2008)
The possibility merits attention in suggesting a spectrum of “life” far more extensive than is currently assumed. The “extraterrestrials” for which searches are conducted elsewhere may indeed “exist” on distant planets — but “elsewhere” on this spectrum than is assumed by the human definition of “life”.
Terrestrial implication: The focus in what follows is on the possibility that intelligent “life” is also expressed in this way “on Earth” — to a far greater extent than is conventionally imagined by science, preoccupied as it is with particular categories and modes of detection. The challenge to comprehension is clear if the expression of such life is not a matter of “where” but “how” — and even “when”. If it is through relationships that that intelligent life is distinctively expressed, it is necessarily intangible and primarily implicit — less “within” than “between”. As such it would not lend itself to the conventional focus on the tangible and the explicit — with which conventional definitions and categories are so readily associated.
Epiterrestrial: As a means of clarifying the contrast with the “extraterrestrial” preoccupation, the argument which follows makes use of the uncommon term “epiterrestrial”. The prefix “epi” offers one approach to understanding significant differences in the nature of such “relational life” than conventionally associated with use of “extra”. Use of “SETI” is a deliberate provocation as a suggested reframing of its conventional use — as with the replacement of “Search” by “Sensing”. This points to the potential of polysensual modalities, as separately argued (Strategic Challenge of Polysensorial Knowledge: bringing the “elephant” into “focus”, 2008).
Strategic possibility: The exploration may offer insights into the challenges of the Middle East peace process — now primarily defined in terms of the bounded categories of the land and its ownership — when a focus on what is “relationally between” might be more fruitful. The discussion of “epiterrestrial” may also help to reframe the current situation of “terrestrial extras”.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 26 Aug 2013.
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