The “Transcension Hypothesis” and the “Fermi Paradox”

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, September 5, 2016.)

John Smart, a colleague of mine in the Evolution, Cognition and Complexity Group, has advanced the transcension hypothesis. In Smart’s words:

The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination.

An important implications of the transcension hypothesis is as a possible explanation for the Fermi paradox—the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence for the existence of extraterrestrials along with high probability estimates given for their existence by the Drake equation. (I have previously written about the Fermi paradox here and here.)

What all of this means is that rather than exploring the outer space of the universe, advanced civilization explore their inner space and eventually disappear from our view. And this is why the SETI Institute hasn’t found evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. This two-minute video explains this clearly.

While the transcension hypothesis is speculative, it is also quite reasonable. An implication of the hypothesis is that, if true, there is more to reality than we know. And this suggests the possibility that there may be better realities than our current one. Perhaps our descendants will escape to such realities and somehow bring us along, maybe by running ancestor simulation? Who knows. But one thing we can say for sure; much is hidden from our ape-like minds, and this should cause us to be humble.

8 thoughts on “The “Transcension Hypothesis” and the “Fermi Paradox”

  1. This is my hope. Even if it takes eons to “crunch down” after digitization, it still provides an escape from universal heat death, and offers potentially true immortality.

  2. This is by no means a new theory. Its been out there for some time.

    Some variation of it is probable. Especially once AI is achieved and advances exceed human physical limitations in managing them. In theory, AI will advance more in 24 hours than all of life in 3.5 billion years…actually, advance near the speed of light and exponentially in minutes.

    There are likely a quadrillion or so Intelligences that have arisen ( using the conservative Drake variables) Some a couple billion years ago. Where are they? They just ‘are’ . Things like looking for evidence of a ‘Dyson Sphere’ have always seemed silly to me….things will not get ‘bigger’ but happen at the quantum level.

    One note on the article…please no use of the word ‘metaphysical’. It detracts from the actual science.

  3. I don’t buy it. My first objection is that it seems more hopeful than rational — a scheme for getting around the apparent fact that we’re alone in the universe. It’s a frightening thought, hence this effort at consolation.

    My primary objection, however, is that it has no rational foundation. All this talk of huge leaps in miniaturization has no basis in reality; it is simply an extrapolation of recent technological progress. In many ways, it is no different from the fantasies of the last century of everybody owning an airplane, or the old Flash Gordon movies where people jumped out of spaceships and flew down to a planet using their capes.

    My own opinion is that we are doomed to follow the sad trail of all civilizations: growing more and more powerful at an ever-faster rate, changing our environment as we go, until we change our environment in such a manner that we cannot adapt quickly enough to survive in it. And any species that cannot adapt to a new environment always goes extinct.

  4. Appreciate your thoughtful comments. I agree that there is a significant chance we will go extinct. But I disagree that it is irrational to extrapolate or draw inferences about the future based upon past trends, with the caveat that we can’t predict the future with much certainty. I also disagree that it is an “apparent fact that we’re alone in the universe.” Agnosticism regarding the issue is about the best position for now.

  5. You’re right: agnosticism is indeed the best position regarding extraterrestrial life. And I certainly accept the notion that that probability of extraterrestrial life somewhere out there is close to 1. I go even further in my opinion that advanced technological civilizations have existed and do now exist. However, I strongly suspect that they have such short life spans that we are most unlikely to actually encounter one.

    As to the extrapolation issue: what bothers me is the narrowness of imagination that simply extrapolates current technology into the future. Transportation did not advance by developing larger, faster horses. Aircraft technology advanced with surprising rapidity for the first 50 years, then slowed way down. We are still flying 747s nearly 50 years after they were first designed, and the B52 is more than 60 years old.

    Technology advances in fits and starts, often jumping in completely different directions. Before the personal computer (which we called a “microcomputer”), computer scientists imagined ever larger, more powerful central computers. The notion of lots of little computers seemed crazy back in the 1960s. And the significance of the Internet was lost on most people right up into the early 1990s. Bill Gates missed it at first, waking up to it just before it was too late to jump onto the wave.

    There’s a classic television series that you have probably seen, but if you haven’t, you should definitely dig it up; I’m sure it’s on YouTube. It’s called “Connections” and was made in the late 70s or early 80s. It’s a surprising analysis of technological progress, and wonderfully entertaining.

  6. I agree with all of this. It is hard to know the future of technology. Some things evolve fast—computers—some 19th century technologies are still around–railroads—and some things come out of nowhere—the internet.

  7. I have a problem with this miniaturization theory, and it is this: that even WITH the development of cellphones with faster processing than the big computers of the 1960’s, it still takes a tremendeously MACROSCOPIC infrastructure of: international trade, neo-colonialism, conflicts, war-outfitting, factories, sweatshops, and physical transportation to move them from production to market. With outsourcing, products have to move even greater distances than before. Ever heard of “conflict minerals,” anyone? The Columbite-Tantalum that is harvested from the Democratic Republic of the Congo? People who get over-fascinated with the marvels of the digital inner space seem to me to be stuck in an inner-space themselves of pure mind fantasy, disconnected from the real physical world. Despite the digital boom, today’s problems still continue to be the same problems of the 1930’s, 1970’s, and 1880’s: unemployment, conflicts over trade deficits, energy prices, etc. You cannot shrink a physical human brain into a black hole. I’m sorry. Maybe you could in thousands of years after development somehow using quark information storage or something. But for the long, foreseeable future, human expenditure and energy is still going to be expansive, outward. We are going to need to go into space and colonize nearby moons and asteroids first, then make the interstellar jump in order to secure enough real estate for our growing population.

    I will offer another solution to the Fermi Paradox: How do we know that extraterrestrials haven’t visited us?
    Consider the following scenario: A few expanding extraterrestrial civilizations carve out bigger and bigger spheres of influence and colonization. Pretty soon they bump into one another, and a conflict ensues. With the frightening kind of weaponry that involved (Death Star, anyone?) these civilizations quickly come to a point of MAD, Detente, and all the familiar “Nukes Keep The Peace” paradigm of the Cold War. With this comes a flurry of interstellar agreements on trade, policy, and treaties. Out of this galactic order also evolves something like a “Prime Directive,” where its illegal to interfere with the development of lower tech cultures, such as ours.

    Yet at the same time, the interstellar federations keep tabs on and monitor developing planets to check and see of new emerging species (like ours) could become a threat eventually. But with a Prime Directive in place, how would you stop or steer an emerging civilization into making the transition to interstellar travel without becoming a significant military threat? You would have to interfere, right? Hence another paradox. But this is easy: in order to break a prime directive, you interfere WITHOUT MAKING IT LOOK LIKE YOU INTERFERED. I.e., getting the species under surveillance to stop itself from growing or steer its civilization. Using human agents to condition humanity. Just beam thoughts into humans’ heads and make it seem like God, or an angel, is talking to them, and direct them to create a religion that puts the brakes on the kind of rational inquiry that leads to science. Until such a time is right that Humanity is judged to be ready for interstellar contact. Hence, we have the Tower of Babel scenario. Ancient Aliens NOT as builders of ancient civilizations (plain old ordinary human ingenuity was plenty capable of doing that), but as stoppers of ancient civilizations. The “If as one, they can build this, then nothing will be impossible for them,” scenario. If Humans can build pyramids and chart the circumference of the planet using trigonometry, then what’s to stop them from one day reducing the mass size in the Alcubierre Equations, build a starship, and go blow up a planet or kill off some other low-tech species for resources and liebensraum?

    Maybe science is not such a good idea for them after all. Beam religion into their heads and slow down their growth until we can steer them toward more peaceful expansion. Hence, quarantine and isolation as a solution to the Fermi Paradox.

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