Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sam Vaknin: The Ten Errors of Science Fiction

Global Politician columnist Sam Vaknin argues in a recent article that science fiction is guilty of ten specific mistakes when postulating the characteristics of advanced extraterrestrial life. Specifically, he contends that sci-fi writers consistently buy into fallacies about:
  1. Life in the universe
  2. The concept of structure
  3. Communication and interaction
  4. Location
  5. Separateness
  6. Transportation
  7. Will and intention
  8. Intelligence
  9. Artificial vs. natural
  10. Leadership
While the article certainly raises some food for thought, Vaknin's call for writers to think more 'outside of the box' is a bit of a stretch, if not condescending. Science fiction writers, for the most part, take great pains to weave a coherent narrative around novel imaginings of what ETIs might look like. Moreover, Vaknin is himself guilty of considerably hand-waving, arguing that ETIs may be existentially and qualitatively of a different sort than what we might expect, but at the same time he doesn't provide any substantive or compelling evidence for us to believe otherwise.

Sure, I agree that ETIs may be dramatically different than what we can imagine and that they may exist outside of expected paradigms, but until our exoscience matures we should probably err on the side of the self-sampling assumption and figure that the ignition and evolution of life tends to follow a similar path to the one taken on Earth. Now, I'm not suggesting that we refrain from hypothesizing about radically different existence-states; I'm just saying that these sorts of extraordinary claims (like alternative intelligences spawning different quantum realities) require the requisite evidence. It's far too easy to fantasize about some kind of energy-based hive-mind living in the core of asteroids, it's another thing to prove that such a thing could come about through the laws of physics [my example, not Vaknin's].

In the article, Vaknin also posits six basic explanations to the Fermi Paradox (and the apparent failure of SETI) that are not mutually exclusive:
  1. That Aliens do not exist
  2. That the technology they use is far too advanced to be detected by us and, the flip side of this hypothesis, that the technology we use is insufficiently advanced to be noticed by them
  3. That we are looking for extraterrestrials at the wrong places
  4. That the Aliens are life forms so different to us that we fail to recognize them as sentient beings or to communicate with them
  5. That Aliens are trying to communicate with us but constantly fail due to a variety of hindrances, some structural and some circumstantial
  6. That they are avoiding us because of our misconduct (example: the alleged destruction of the environment) or because of our traits (for instance, our innate belligerence) or because of ethical considerations
Very quickly, point number one is possible but grossly improbable, points two to five are essentially the same argument—that we don't yet know where, how and what to look for, and point six violates the non-exclusivity principle (explains some but not all ETI behavior). It's odd that Vaknin selected these particular six arguments. There are many, many potential resolutions to the FP with these not being particularly stronger than any other (though point #1 has a lot of traction among the Rare Earthers.). And where is the Great Filter argument, which is possibly the strongest of them all?

Nice try, Vaknin, but the Great Silence problem is more complex than what you've laid out.

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