Progress, American-style, sort of
|By Billy Cox|
Twice in the past year, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology has held brief hearings on Earth's strides toward the confirmation of extraterrestrial life. Although said proceedings have been exceedingly superficial and accomplished nothing, for the least productive Congress in modern history, those sessions may be as symbolically visionary as Capitol Hill will ever get. Regardless, it makes good political sense that, on Sept. 18, NASA has invited Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) to open its two-day conference on astrobiology in Washington, D.C.
Co-sponsored by the Library of Congress, the symposium’s title — “Preparing for Discovery: A Rational Approach to the Impact of Finding Microbial, Complex, or Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” — is conceptually a great idea. It offers a diverse lineup. There’s even going to be a Vatican emissary to tell us what "discovery" might mean in a religious context.
But nope, you guessed it — no room at the inn for The Great Taboo. And what makes this symposium particularly mind-bending are the contortions in play to avoid contact with the UFO elephant in the room, especially given how so much of its content is devoted to hypothetical scenarios. Garnished heavily (not surprisingly) with SETI radioastronomers, its topics come with provocative titles like “The Moral Status of Non-Human Organisms,” “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?,” “Equating Culture, Civilization, and Moral Development in Imagining ETI: Anthropocentric Assumptions?” and “Communicating With the Other.” But here’s the one that really grabs De Void by the eyeballs — “Alien Minds,” by Susan Schneider,
Schneider is an associate professor with the University of Connecticut’s Department of Philosophy, and here’s part of her lecture description: “Drawing from the computational paradigm in cognitive science, thinking about the technological singularity and philosophical work on the nature of consciousness, this talk comments on what alien minds might be like,” etc. Did you catch that? The nature of consciousness? Many UFO researchers are beginning to agree that consciousness is an integrated component of The Great Taboo. Excerpts from Schneider’s web page: “My current work is on the nature of the self and mind, which I examine from the vantage point of issues in philosophy of mind, cognitive science, metaphysics and neuroethics.” Flirting with metaphysics? At a NASA symposium? Say what?
Even more to the point, earlier this year, in an essay for The New York Times addressing the conundrum of artificial intelligence raised by the Spike Jonze film “Her,” Schneider contemplated the possibilities for uploading one’s mind into a futuristic digital realm in order to escape biology’s programmed obsolescence. And of course, this could easily have originated in some of the earliest SETI discussions about AI-propagated robotic space probes from other worlds. Furthermore, as De Void frequently reminds readers, the idea of ET “postbiologicals” capable of repairing and upgrading their capabilities while exploring the universe was presented in a 2003 International Journal of Astrobiology paper by former NASA chief historian Steven Dick.
Today, as the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, Dick had a big hand in arranging this imminent “Discovery” symposium. To his credit, it includes at least a cursory nod to the frontier of consciousness. But that's about as avant-garde as this event gets. As long as Dick continues to keep the non-hypothetical evidence for UFOs off the agenda — evidence that might even validate, or at least support, his own robotic probe theories — this exercise will probably be like visiting Disney World to admire the parking lot. Those hoping for a more ambitious agenda might be better served by leaving the northern hemisphere altogether and attending more intellectually intrepid reports from scientists in, say, Chile.
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