Cognitive Symmetry

One Science, Many Intelligent Species?

In science we have not yet needed to control for differences that would arise from different species with different intellectual endowments engaged in the same research program, but we can easily see the possibility of the sciences of distinct civilizations from distinct progenitor species growing together, and in this case there would be a need to control for these differences. An experiment in which that results were the same for any intelligent species that performed it could be said to exhibit cognitive symmetry. At this point, the distinction between the natural sciences and the social sciences would come to have cosmological significance.

While another species might have a different order of discovery of the truths of natural science than human beings, but where both human beings and some other intelligent species had arrived at a scientific exposition of some aspect of nature, we assume that the results of their research would be in agreement, unless these two species were at very different levels of scientific maturity. However, we would also expect that the social sciences would be rather different, and that one and the same social science experiments would yield different results for different intelligent species. Probably we could find some common core of intelligence shared by intelligent species, and probably also we could find some common core of evolutionary psychology shared by species arising from the biospheres of planetary endemism, but the differences would also likely be both profound and pervasive. Intelligent prey species and intelligent predator species, for example, would have developed radically different evolutionary psychologies.

Fulfilling the Promise of the Social Sciences

Social science, then, which in our time is plagued by problems of reproducibility and vagueness, might only come to realize its potential in a future context of multiple intelligences could be compared and contrasted for the different results obtained from social science research. These multiple intelligences might be multiple intelligent species originating in disjoint biospheres, but they could also mean a mixture of human, non-human, enhanced, and artificial intelligences, all of which could be realized even if there are no other intelligent species in the universe. (Is the physical science correlate of this idea the possibility that the natural sciences would only come to realize their full potential in the future in which a species capable of exploring the multiverse was able to compare and contrast different universes with different physical laws and physical constants?)

We assume symmetry among intelligences — or, rather, we debate the possibility of symmetry among intelligences and the extent of this symmetry — when we consider the interpretation of signals detected by SETI or when we consider METI message composition. Most proposals for communication between species of disjoint biospheres that have never met in the flesh call for some kind of communication based on mathematics or physics, and these disciplines are assumed to possess a greater degree of cognitive symmetry than, for example, communication based on principles of the social sciences. I would suggest that biology also possesses universal significance, and perhaps a broader significance for peer species than mathematics or physics. The choice of mathematics or physics itself betrays a certain ambiguity, moreover, and there is no consensus upon the scientific status of mathematics. We know that mathematics is necessary for advanced science, but whether or not mathematics is itself a science, and what kind of science it is, is a matter of contention among philosophers of mathematics.

Constructing Commensurable Science

The recent film Arrival gives a very different picture of communication between human beings and extraterrestrial intelligences, but this communication is based on a somewhat personal meeting — the human and alien protagonists are able to meet each other face to fact, after a fashion — so this does not quite fit the SETI or METI paradigm. In the film the protagonists mention the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which in its strong form would argue against the possibility of distinct intelligent species being able to formulate commensurable sciences.

But we can break this problem down further, distinguishing between symmetry of consciousness (and here alone we could further distinguish forms of consciousness), symmetry of sentience, symmetry of intelligence, and so on. If consciousness alone (apart from consciousness possessing sentience or intelligence) possesses symmetry among species, including species from strongly distinct biospheres, then there is reason to suppose that languages and sciences can be commensurable, or can be made commensurable. However, this formulation is too vague because consciousness is not likely to be one thing and one thing only; consciousness on Earth seems to have many different forms in many different species. But if we can be sufficiently narrow in specifying a form of consciousness, then I think that the hypothesis of the symmetry of consciousness across species is a reasonable one, and one that we might one day hope to test.

If consciousness among species is or can be symmetrical, we could work our way up from peer forms of consciousness to peer forms of intelligence supervening upon peer forms of consciousness, with these peer forms of intelligence possessing symmetry, and producing symmetrical forms of mathematics and science. In this case, translation in consciousness among species could join translation in space and translation in time as symmetries characteristic of scientific research.

Reproducibility and Cognitive Symmetry

In the mechanism of scientific reproducibility we already have a limited form of cognitive symmetry, demonstrating what parts of our epistemic infrastructure remain invariant under cognitive changes. When different teams of researchers in different parts of the world reproduce the results of scientific experiments elsewhere, we unknowingly demonstrate the cognitive symmetry of these different populations engaged in research.

This effort at reproducibility constitutes on a planetary scale what I was suggesting on an interstellar scale (or, vice versa, interstellar reproducibility constitutes on an interstellar scale the reproducibility we have already obtained on a planetary scale), with many different intelligent species involved in a collaborative research program in which each tested the results of their research against the results of other civilizations in a concrescence of terrestrial and extraterrestrial science.

Reproducibility of scientific results occurs today because different teams of researchers have access to the resources necessary to reproduce scientific results. But there are limits to this, because of the limits to our resources. There is, on Earth today, only one LHC. Results from the LHC cannot be reproduced elsewhere on Earth, though clever experiments may yet be formulated that will allow for a partial reproducibility without access to the same hardware and resources. However, this present limitation is primarily a matter of the funding of science. As we all know, there were plans to build the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas, which didn’t get built for financial and political reasons. We could have several scientific experiments on the scale of the LHC in the world today, and the fact that we do not is a demonstration that terrestrial civilization today is not yet a scientific civilization — perhaps it is on the cusp of being a scientific civilization, but it is not quite there yet.

Megastructure Science

However, we can posit scientific projects so large that they would require the resources of an entire civilization to build. Let us call such projects civilization-scale science, which is orders of magnitude larger than contemporary “big science.” If a civilization should reach the level of civilization-scale scientific projects — projects so large that it would be unrealistic for a civilization to build more than one — reproducibility would be difficult if not impossible, and it would be possible to project a civilization-scale scientific project that would be so large that its duplication within a single planetary system would be demonstrably impossible. In other words, beyond “big science” lies megastructure science — science so great in its scope and magnitude that its instruments would be megastructures.

Paul Carr in his The Absolute, Definitive Truth About Alien Megastructures outlines six reasons for building a megastructure, one of which is scientific, though he limits scientific megastructures (which we might call mega-instruments) to astronomical instruments:

Astronomical megastructures — a massive phased array of optical or radio or some other elements that would permit detection and detail beyond a terrestrial astronomer’s fondest dreams. I would expect that these would be built around cooler, dimmer stars — K or M dwarfs. I think this is a pretty reasonable thing to expect an advanced technological civilization to do.”

Structures for astronomical research are obvious candidates for megastructure science, but a civilization (especially a scientific civilization) might also be interested in building high energy physics megastructures, such as colliders too large to fit on any one planet.

Megastructure Research and the SETI Paradigm

In the context of the SETI paradigm — the idea of civilizations stranded within the home planetary systems because interstellar travel is too difficult, too expensive, or simply impossible, so that these stranded civilizations are only able to reach out into the universe by means of the exchange of information by remote signaling technologies — the possibility of megastructure science would give advanced civilizations each stuck in their home planetary systems something to talk about, and something worth waiting for: corroboration of megastructure experimental results that could not be duplicated, replicated, or reproduced within their own planetary system.

We can define the threshold of megastructure science as science that requires an instrument the construction of which would consume the better part of resources of a planetary system, leaving insufficient resources available to build a peer instrument capable of reproducing the results of the first instrument. Megastructure science thus defined could not be reproduced within a single planetary system, although it would be possible to tear down a megastructure instrument in order to build another intended to secure reproducibility results for the experiments with the first instrument. As this process would likely require thousands of years, if not tens of thousands of years, there would have to be a multigenerational trust in scientific data in order for the second instrument’s experiments to count as the reproducibility of the first instrument’s results, which would be the experimental data of distant forebears (though a longer-lived scientific agent would not encounter this particular problem).

The scales of time involved in serial megastructure science would be comparable to the wait for data from other civilizations on the other side of the galaxy, but much shorter than the time scales involved in the wait for data from other galaxies. But if scientific data were posted on the Encyclopedia Galactica, there to be accessed by any interested civilization, then the later civilizations in the history of the universe could have their results corroborated by the work of earlier civilizations, which later would only send their data out into the universe without any hope of reproducibility.

Spacefaring Civilization and Self-Replicating Megastucture Science

Beyond the SETI paradigm, a spacefaring civilization capable of interstellar flight would have the opportunity to build multiple scientific megastructures, with the possibility of reproducibility only a matter of traveling to other systems to build the appropriate instruments. Given this scenario, modified Von Neumann probes might be sent out into the universe with instructions to build scientific megascale instruments at their target planetary systems.




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Nick Nielsen

Nick Nielsen

One Man Think Tank

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