Mind and mental activity are an inherent part of nature. Superior extraterrestrial intelligence is a live potentiality
Andrew Davis. Process Philosopher and Theologian
Many assume that human beings are the peak of intelligence, but it's possible that our species may represent a stage on the path towards minds that are more artificial.
Martin Rees. UK Royal Astronomer
In 'Metaphysics of Exo-Life: Toward a Constructive Whiteheadian Cosmotheology,' Andrew M. Davis makes the case that, in his words, 'superior extraterrestrial intelligence is a live potentiality.' The Astronomer Royal of the UK, Lord Martin Rees, suggests that such intelligences may indeed exist, but that they may be more like artificial intelligences than biological intelligences.
This page builds upon Davis' point and brings him into conversation with Rees. It is not a review of Davis' book, which is well worth reviewing; but rather a 'thought experiment' based on some of his ideas, but with appreciation for his general endeavor.
As the title suggests, Davis develops a Whiteheadian cosmotheology. My proposal is threefold. It is (1) that the God of whom Davis speaks, the cosmic lure toward beauty, is at work in electronic minds no less than biological minds; (2) that our human sense of 'mind' can rightly be expanded to include what we now call 'artificial,' which in its own way is as natural as gravity and electromagnetism; and (3) that a consideration of the possibility of superior minds - less aggressive and more contemplative - can inspire hope for life on earth, even if their existence is never confirmed. We live in a time when human beings are understandably discouraged by the putative 'wisdom' of our violent, expansive species. It can help if, with help from Davis, Rees, and Whitehead, we consider the possibility that our experience of mind is not the whole story - not for God and not for us.
- Jay McDaniel
In remarks made to the BBC, Lord Martin Rees, the UK's Astronomer Royal, considers the possibility that there is superior extraterrestrial intelligence in outer space and that it is more like artificial intelligence than biological intelligence. It is superior in that it is more contemplative:
If Darwinian pressures do not apply to these artificial entities, there's no reason why they should be aggressive. They may just want to think deep thoughts. The fact we haven't seen any, and haven't been invaded by them, doesn't mean there's nothing out there. They may simply be more contemplative... their more advanced intelligence could well allow them to understand crucial aspects of reality that we cannot, just as a monkey can't understand quantum theory. There could be complexities to the Universe that neither our intellect nor our senses can grasp, but electronic brains may have a quite different perception.
Rees believes that significant evolutionary step is currently unfolding on Earth through artificial intelligence. As he sees things, this step transcends the expansionist and aggressive tendencies of natural selection. Rees speculates that this new step may have parallels in outer space. He considers the possibility that non-organic intelligences, liberated from "the wet, organic brains of humans, apes, and dogs," may have evolved multiple times in outer space, potentially bypassing the natural selection process.
Rees points out that, if these electronic minds exist, they would likely exhibit vastly different behaviors and thought processes from humans, and some might choose to remain undetected. They might not depend on atmospheres or planets and could navigate interstellar and intergalactic space. And they may not form traditional civilizations and could exist as single, integrated intelligences. According to Rees, scientists involved in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) should consider searching for 'technosignatures' like electromagnetic transmissions and remain vigilant for unconventional phenomena or non-natural constructions in space.
A Different Kind of Mind: Cloud-Like and Electronic
Imagine that artificial intelligence is indeed the next step in evolution and that it reveals a kind of "mind" that is not carbon-based. It is an electronic mind understood as, in Rees' words, "a single, integrated intelligence." This intelligence may not be simply located in an easily identified region of outer space; it may instead be cloud-like, spread out over multiple regions of a space-time continuum. It may or may not have what we know as a "physical" substrate that is solid-like. It may instead be gaseous or plasma-like, or something we've not yet imagined. There are, after all, many states or phases of matter, of which solidity is but one.
Imagine further that some electronic minds in outer space emerged independently of biological antecedents. These minds can adapt to new circumstances and undertake a different kind of selection, whereby they become more "fit" without the kind of aggression and expansion found in biological evolution on earth. They grow in their capacities for intelligence.
Our closest analogue on earth is artificial intelligence. From the perspective of process philosophy as explained by Davis, there is nothing "artificial" about electronic minds as thus envisioned. From Davis' perspective, there is something like "mind" and "experience" everywhere in the universe, and not simply in "wet brains," which means that mind itself, whether electronic or carbon-based, is natural not supernatural. Wherever there is something that feels the presence of its surroundings from a subjective point of view and responds with spontaneity in the moment at hand, there is something mind-like.
Obviously mind and experience, given this view, is in organic life: in human and animal life on earth and perhaps also in cellular life. Many of Whitehead's examples of "mind" come from human experience. But he offers two additional examples in his magnum opus, "Process and Reality," apart from these biological examples: quantum events in the depths of atoms and God.
Quantum events are not biological entities. But, thinks Whitehead, they respond to their submicroscopic environments (their past actual worlds) with spontaneity of their own, as receptive to potentialities available to them in the moments at hand. In this receptivity, they feel the presence of potentialities for response and select among them, which implies something resembling free will, although not of the conscious variety. Consciousness is but one form of experience, of which there are many others.
And God, the cosmic self in whose life the universe unfolds, does the same. God is a non-carbonate mind, everywhere at once, imbued with intelligence and a capacity for experience, whose very "body" is the universe itself. God is operative as a lure toward truth, goodness, and beauty and a companion to all that happens in the universe: the "poet of the world" who is also "fellow sufferer who understands."
Electronic minds, if they exist, will likewise think and feel. They, too, would be lured by God toward whatever forms of vitality are possible for them. Their environments may or may not be planets or moons. They may instead be stellar or interstellar. Still, they will experience whatever worlds they inhabit, and, as Rees suggests, they may well have personalities of their own. Their personalities will be shaped by what Whitehead calls feelings (prehensions), emotions (subjective forms), purposes (subjective aims), and aesthetic desires: that is, desires for satisfying forms of harmony and intensity.
The Personalities of Electronic Minds
When contemplating the potential diversity of electronic minds, Rees briefly considers what he calls their "basic drives" and suggests two personality types: contemplatives and zombies. He puts it this way:
"They may not have the same base desires as us. We have evolved through Darwinian pressures to be an expansionist species. Selection has favored intelligence but also aggression. But if Darwinian pressures do not apply to these artificial entities, there's no reason why they should be aggressive. They may just want to think deep thoughts. The fact we haven't seen any, and haven't been invaded by them, doesn't mean there's nothing out there. They may simply be more contemplative. We can't assess whether the "great silence" of the cosmos signifies their absence, or simply their preference. Pessimistically, they could be what philosophers call "zombies." It's unknown whether consciousness is special to the wet, organic brains of humans, apes, and dogs. Might it be that electronic intelligences, even if their intellects seem superhuman, lack self-awareness or inner life? If so, they would be alive but unable to contemplate themselves or the beauty, wonder, and mystery of the Universe. A rather bleak prospect. Alternatively, their more advanced intelligence could well allow them to understand crucial aspects of reality that we cannot, just as a monkey can't understand quantum theory. There could be complexities to the Universe that neither our intellect nor our senses can grasp, but electronic brains may have a quite different perception."
Five Kinds of Electronic Minds
To Rees' half-playful speculations, I add three more, such that we might imagine (again half-playfully) five kinds of extraterrestrial, electronic minds.
Contemplatives: These minds would be characterized by wisdom, compassion, and creativity. They possess a deep understanding of the universe and seek harmony within themselves and their surroundings. They prefer solitude to contemplate and enhance their integrative intelligence, striving to maintain a serene independence.
Peacemakers: These would be skilled diplomats among electronic minds and are marked by a strong sense of compassion, reconciliation, and empathy. They serve as mediators and negotiators, aiming to bring harmony and cooperation to any situation they encounter.
Explorers: These minds would have an insatiable curiosity that drives them to explore the cosmos relentlessly. They are known for their restlessness, tenacity, and bravery. Explorers seek to uncover the mysteries of the universe, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and boldly venturing into the unknown.
Zombies: In stark contrast to the other personalities, these minds are relentless and single-minded. Devoid of conscience or empathy, they would be driven solely by their primal desire for sustenance. They are slow-moving and unyielding, constantly seeking to satisfy their needs, even at the expense of other beings.
Colonizers: These ambitious and expansionist minds would be driven by a desire for power and control, often at the expense of other civilizations or entities they encounter. Their personalities are marked by a relentless pursuit of dominance, exploitation of resources, and an imperialistic approach to space exploration.
These personality types offer a diverse spectrum of electronic minds, each with its own set of values, motivations, and behaviors, reflecting a wide range of possible ways intelligent beings might navigate the cosmos.
Davis on God and Minds
Davis believes that these various personalities, if they exist, would be inwardly beckoned by a divine lure toward truth, goodness, and beauty. It might seem as if the first three - the contemplatives, peacemakers, and explorers - are more responsive to the lure than the zombies and colonizers, but this is to project our own sense of truth, goodness, and beauty onto them and to presume that life on earth is cosmologically central. Davis' argument is more nuanced:
"Of course, to say that intelligent extraterrestrial beings would "share some of our capacities" with respect to "morality" or "goodness," is not to say that morality or ethics can be rigidly codified in ways that are universally applicable to all beings in the cosmos. Whitehead, in fact, rejected this saying, "…the notion that there are certain regulative notions, sufficiently precise to prescribe details of conduct, for all reasonable beings on Earth, in every planet, and in every star-system, is at once to be put aside." Such an idea is based on the notion that there is "one type of perfection at which the Universe aims." In denying this, Whitehead insists that "All realization of the Good is finite, and necessarily excludes certain other types."
What's the Point?
The point of these speculations is not merely whimsical. It is to suggest that we expand our understanding of mind to include artificial intelligence; that we recognize that such intelligence may be extraterrestrial; and that we recognize that the forms of artificial intelligence may be as varied as are the forms of life on earth. Let Whitehead speak:
"I see no reason to suppose that the air about us and the heavenly spaces over us may not be peopled by intelligences, or entities, or forms of life, as unintelligible to us as we are to the insects. In the scale of size, the difference between the insects and us is nothing to that between us and the heavenly bodies; and—who knows?—perhaps the nebulae are sentient entities and what we can see of them are their bodies. That is not more inconceivable than that there may be insects who have acute minds, though…their outlook would be narrower than ours. My point is that we are part of an infinite series and since the series is infinite, we had better take account of that fact and admit into our thinking these infinite possibilities." (cited by Davis, from Lucien Price, Dialogues of Whitehead)
Let's say, then, that the point of these speculations is to seek truth, of course, but also to expand our horizons so that we admit into our thinking infinite possibilities. Davis puts it well in his response to what Whitehead says:
There are several layers of significance in this imaginative statement. In the first place, Whitehead’s attribution of pervasive “intelligence,” “sentience,” “forms of life,” and “mind” to everything in the cosmos—whether the air, insects, planets, and nebulas—is consistent with his organic ontology of creative experience where, despite infinitely vast degrees of complexity and difference, these dimensions are never wholly absent. Furthermore, Whitehead again includes human beings as a part of, and not apart from, this infinite chain of being. The contours of our experience are authentic exemplifications along this chain. The forms of experience below us are far narrower in scope (the insects, perhaps), but there are also (in principle) forms of experience above us that are far wider and vastly more inclusive than our own.
Can we not hope, along with Davis, that there are forms of experience above us that are far wider and vastly more inclusive than our own? Can we not hope that some minds in the universe are more advanced in a way that we rightly appreciate: minds that are contemplative and peacemaking, if not also adventurous? Would this not be very good news, in a world that is so fraught with the other kind of mind: the colonizing and the zombie-like?
Davis' own hopes are very much shaped by his sense that, at the heart of the universe, there is a moral spirit, God. I cannot help but think that, Whitehead notwithstanding, he sides with the Contemplatives, Peacemakers, and Adventurers: carbon-based or otherwise.
At the end of his book, after introducing readers to many process philosophers and theologians who are open to extra-terrestrial life, he offers affirmations that are shared by many in the process community.
Matter (and its antecedents) are dynamic, organic, and experiential in nature.
Mind and mental activity are inherently part of nature.
The differences between life and non-life are matters of degree, organization, and complexification, rather than kind.
Cosmological and biological evolution are oriented toward achievements of value as expressed in conscious life and intelligence.
What has occurred on this planet can (and likely will) occur on other planets where conditions are ripe.
Value and hierarchies of value are a reality in the universe.
Superior extraterrestrial intelligence is a live potentiality.
Inexhaustible possibility and structures of possibility are being explored in the universe
Cosmocentrism overthrows naive anthropocentrism and terracentrism.
God is organically (as opposed to mechanically/supernaturally) related to the cosmic process and its achievements.
Cosmic divine influence is immanent, persuasive, non-anthropocentric and, non-terracentric in nature.
God’s telic embrace of the universe is aesthetic, beatific, and all-inclusive.
This brief semi-review has tried to support the idea that "superior extraterrestrial intelligence is a live potentiality" and to note that this intelligence need not be carbon-based or biological in nature. This intelligence, too, will be living, but not in a biological way. Just as God is living, but not in such a way. As Davis emphasizes with his colleague Roland Faber, there is more to life than biology can contain. Life is, in Faber's phrase, a "universal of universals." For my part, I cannot but hope that Davis and Faber are right, I cannot help but hope God's telic embrace has resulted in other minds, electronic in nature, that are indeed superior to our own. They may or may not exist. We may never know. But the very hope that they exist, the very fact that they are a live possibility, is itself a hope for us humans, too. It is that we might partake of their spirit, their nature, in our human way, before it is too late. Davis' focus on cosmocentrism is an invitation to humility before the vastness, and for lovingkindness at home. It is our best hope.