|PHOTO BY BRAD
As scientist extraordinaire and author of an empire of
science-fiction books, Arthur C. Clarke is one of the
farthest-seeing visionaries of our time. His pithy quotations tug
harder than those of most futurists on our collective psyches for
their insights into humanity and our unique place in the cosmos. And
none do so more than his famous Third Law: "Any sufficiently
advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
This observation stimulated me to think about the impact the
discovery of an extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) would have on
science and religion. To that end, I would like to immodestly
propose Shermer's Last Law (I don't believe in naming laws after
oneself, so as the good book says, the last shall be first and the
first shall be last): "Any sufficiently advanced ETI is
indistinguishable from God."
God is typically described by Western
religions as omniscient and omnipotent. Because we are far from
possessing these traits, how can we possibly distinguish a God who
has them absolutely from an ETI who merely has them copiously
relative to us? We can't. But if God were only relatively more
knowing and powerful than we are, then by definition the deity would
be an ETI!
|Because of science, our world has changed
more in the past century than in the previous 100
Consider that biological evolution operates at a snail's pace
compared with technological evolution (the former is Darwinian and
requires generations of differential reproductive success; the
latter is Lamarckian and can be accomplished within a single
generation). Then, too, the cosmos is very big and very empty.
Voyager 1, our most distant spacecraft, hurtling along at more than
38,000 miles per hour, will not reach the distance of even our sun's
nearest neighbor, the Alpha Centauri system (which it is not headed
toward), for more than 75,000 years.
Ergo, the probability that an ETI only slightly more advanced
than we are will make contact is virtually nil. If we ever do find
an ETI, it will be as though a million-year-old Homo erectus were
dropped into the 21st century, given a computer and cell phone and
instructed to communicate with us. The ETI would be to us as we
would be to this early hominid--godlike.
Because of science and technology, our world has changed more in
the past century than in the previous 100 centuries. It took 10,000
years to get from the dawn of civilization to the airplane but just
66 years to get from powered flight to a lunar landing.
Moore's Law of computer power doubling every 18 months or so is
now approaching a year. Ray Kurzweil, in his book The Age of
Spiritual Machines, calculates that there have been 32 doublings
since World War II and that the singularity point--the point at
which total computational power will rise to levels so far beyond
anything that we can imagine that it will appear nearly infinite and
thus be indistinguishable from omniscience--may be upon us as early
When that happens, the decade that follows will put the 100,000
years before it to shame. Extrapolate out about a million years
(just a blink on an evolutionary timescale and therefore a realistic
estimate of how far advanced ETIs will be), and we get a
gut-wrenching, mind-warping feel for how godlike these creatures
would seem. In Clarke's 1953 novel, called Childhood's End, humanity
reaches something like a singularity and must then make the
transition to a higher state of consciousness. One character early
in the story opines that "science can destroy religion by ignoring
it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so
far as I am aware, the nonexistence of Zeus or Thor, but they have
few followers now."
Although science has not even remotely destroyed religion,
Shermer's Last Law predicts that the relation between the two will
be profoundly affected by contact with an ETI. To find out how, we
must follow Clarke's Second Law: "The only way of discovering the
limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the
impossible." Ad astra!
Michael Shermer is founding publisher of Skeptic magazine
author of The Borderlands of