Everything That Rises Must Converge

Why extraterrestrial life might be extremely alien and yet still resemble ... us.

So far as I noticed, not that many reviews of The Decadent Society engaged with the book’s deliberately weird ending, in which I left behind merely human answers to global decadence and contemplated more exotic and transcendent and alien possibilities. Including literally alien ones, like the sudden arrival of extraterrestrials as the consummation of a modernity that might otherwise be fated to stagnation and decay.

Thanks to certain Pentagon videos, though, there’s been a lot of interesting commentary on just this subject lately. I particularly liked my colleague Ezra Klein’s discussion of what effective proof of alien life without actual first contact might mean — whether the revelation would be easily enfolded into late-modern normalcy or whether the mere news of an alien civilizations on a distant world would be enough to change conditions on our own. Then there’s David French’s recent discussion of what such revelations might mean for religious faith — with French taking a fundamentally optimistic view of our shared Christianity’s resilience (or even its vindication) in the face of extraterrestrial encounters.

I share some of this optimism, but for that reason and others I was interested in the more pessimistic take offered by Noah Millman, in part as a counterpoint to French, in which he stresses the potential unfathomability of an alien intelligence, the possibility-cum-likelihood that nothing in all our science fictions have prepared us for how an intelligent non-human civilization or culture would present itself to us — and with it the likelihood that such an encounter would be much more unsettling to human civilization than we can necessarily imagine now.

Millman cites two recent documentaries that center on highly-intelligent animals — a sow and her piglets in Gunda, an octopus in My Octopus Teacher — who manifest behavior that he thinks point toward this kind of unknowability, this fixed gulf between the species: The death drive of the female octopus, who is literally biologically programmed to self-destruct after she lays her eggs, and the sow’s strange combination of seemingly-recognizable bereavement, when her piglets are old enough to be taken from her and slaughtered, and cruelly-indifferent infanticide, literally stomping the runt of her litter to death when he can’t keep up.

Both examples, Millman suggests, reveal an intra-species gulf too wide to be bridged imaginatively, however great the effort:

When we stretch our minds to imagine what it might be like to be different from ourselves—which we do all the time, or else we couldn’t understand other people—we’re always stretching empathetically, that is to say, imagining what it would be like if we were those other selves. We carry ourselves with us on that empathetic journey. When the other self is as radically other as a different species—and I know I’m not the first to make this suggestion—I suspect that baggage is just too heavy to make the trip.

That’s what science fiction is really doing when it conjures up intelligent alien species. The Mote in God’s Eye is an interesting book with engaging (and deeply right wing) ideas about politics and international relations. The aliens conjured up for the novel, with their complex biologically-driven caste system, are there not to plausibly represent alternatives to human consciousness but to create a world where those political ideas are clearly true. The same is true with The Left Hand of Darkness and its ideas about gender. You can call that deck-stacking or you can call it a fruitful thought experiment, but either way it’s about us, not them, not the aliens.

Real aliens won’t be like that. They won’t be about us. By definition they won’t be about us—not just inasmuch as they won’t want to heal our heartsickness nor steal our women, but in that nothing about them will be organized around our social and mental categories. If we take them for angels or demons or faerie, we’ll be making a fundamental category error, for all of those imagined beings, even if you believe they are real, are there for us, for the needs of our consciousness. Aliens won’t be. For that reason, the history of how we have imagined them is mostly useless in trying to guess what they might be like, because that history is a history of our concerns. Most likely, aliens—even intelligent aliens—will be largely incomprehensible to us and will remain so. After all, we have never had an actual conversation with a dolphin, a bat, an octopus or an ant colony, and I don’t know that we ever will—and we’ve been around them for all our lives …

But if we were able to communicate with the aliens, we’d still likely find them baffling, and quite possibly much more fundamentally disturbing than distinct human cultures have ever found each other to be. The wildly optimistic case in terms of comprehensibility is that we encounter aliens who prove capable of communicating with us in a common language and forming some kind of shared society, but who (just to pick a random example) eat their own young, as Frank Herbert’s Gowachin do. That’s a case more analogous to the cultural pluralism that we actually live with, but with the added element that some of the cultural differences between humans and Gowachin are unarguably biological in nature, and that therefore what we consider morally abhorrent is to be treated as normal for Gowachin—because without that acceptance coexistence would be impossible.

Of course, Herbert invented that scenario, and that imagined species for his own purposes; reality will not do the same. But why should that mean reality would be easier to assimilate? I think the mere possibility of that scenario is already more than enough to dismiss out of hand the confidence of folks like David French that a genuine encounter with an intelligent alien species would not radically unsettle anything about human society, religion very much included. We have ample precedents, from the conquests by the Arabs, Mongols, Spaniards and English, of how badly human culture can be jolted by unexpected encounters with a novel culture. If we actually encountered a far more deeply different intelligence, how could it not subject everything we believe to question? And remember, that’s the wildly optimistic case, where we at least can communicate with them.

So I completely agree with the jolting part, which is why my own book deliberately alien encounters as decadence-ending developments; to think, with French, that Christianity or any other human religion might adapt and thrive despite the jolt is not to deny the radical unsettlement.

I’m less certain, though, that the gulf would be as fixed and wide as Millman imagines. It’s true that even with what appear to be the most intelligent animals on our planet, there is still some kind of irreducible difference that prevents us from imagining what it is really like to be them, and thereby relating to them as we would relate to a different tribe or nation of our fellow homo sapiens. But this irreducible gulf is striking precisely because of the other ways in which they do resemble us, whose accumulation is precisely what makes them so interesting to study, observe, even befriend.

This is connected to something Caitrin Keiper points out in her terrific essay, “Do Elephants Have Souls?” — that the people who take animal intelligence and self-awareness and sentience most seriously tend to anthropomorphize their subjects, even as more mechanistic-cum-instinctive accounts of animal behavior regard anthropomorphism as taboo. Now maybe that taboo is justified and the instinct to anthropomorphize a pig or an octopus or a chimpanzee just reflects the limitation Millman is describing, the human inability to imagine a genuinely different form of self-awareness, which makes us (mistakenly) see a version of ourselves in every beast who manifests intelligence.

But it’s also possible the anthropomorphizers are actually right, in the sense that in observing human-like qualities in great apes or elephants or dolphins, they’re picking up on real capacities shared by the higher animals, which reflect a convergence along separate tracks, a parallel evolution with a common destination. Meaning, that while many different biological substrates could potentially sustain what we call consciousness, the Thing Itself might end up looking somewhat similar in any form — porcine, avian, marine, or otherwise. Or as the heterodox Jesuit had it: Everything that rises must converge.

It certainly doesn’t seem crazy to think that this might be true of most conscious species that we’re likely to encounter — any starfaring species, that is, capable of sending messages or explorers across the cosmos. If you were making a list of the qualities that distinguish the human mind — not just tool-making and language and self-recognition and religious ritual but our slightly god-like capacity to stand mysteriously outside the material and biological world and analyze and understand its deeper order — and the qualities that a species might need to escape its planetary origins, I think there would be significant overlap. The core human experience of consciousness, the sense (accurate or not) of some kind super-natural self-awareness filtered through a material substrate, seems extremely well-adapted to getting from planetary evolution to galactic exploration — assuming, of course, that such a thing is possible at all.

In which case the crucial differences between these imagined starfarers and ourselves would reflect differences in the biological substrate, the diverging inheritances from our respective evolutionary prehistories. These could certainly be much wider and more shocking than the differences among human tribes … but they also could still be a difference of degree and not of kind, and thus somewhat more bridgeable than Millman makes it sound.

To take some of his examples, suppose we encountered a civilization with a porcine substrate that still practiced infanticide in some form, and seemed by our standards horribly indifferent to its cruelty. Would that really be so different from a human civilization that forbade abortion encountering a civilization that was casual or indifferent about it? Or alternatively a human civilization that practiced ethical vegetarianism, and regarded the casual consumption of hamburgers with moral horror, encountering and recoiling from our own carnivory?

The answer might turn, as Millman suggests, on whether we could have a conversation with this hypothetical porcine civilization, whether they had their own ethical debates, and so on — in other words, whether their general way of relating to the world was similar to ours, irrespective of specific differences in customs and instincts and moral intuitions. But if it were, then even with something as horrifying Gowachin cannibalism, I suspect that a similarity in consciousness would be enough to eventually build a bridge, even if the initial encounter led (as human encounters often did) to war or genocide. After all humans have practiced both cannibalism and ritual child murder in our own complex past. Or again, suppose we encountered an octopedal civilization whose inhabitants had an alien-to-us death drive following reproduction: Wouldn’t we be able to draw on the human suicidality, human impulses toward self-harm, to understand at least some of what these aliens experience?

It also seems likely that in a civilization advanced enough to explore outer space, the control or management of these kind of tendencies or impulses — toward suicide or cannibalism or what-have-you — would be an important part of their cultural matrices, much as human social systems evolved to manage our particular impulses toward violence or exploitation, the divergences between the sexes at puberty, the internal gestation required of human females (the subject of an important recent book, you may have heard), and other mammalian distinctives.

Thus a civilization with Gowachin impulses might have developed highly-ritualized versions of the paternal winnowing, or it might have developed practices of separation to keep dads and kids apart during the period when the cannibalistic impulses run strong. A civilization where death follows reproduction might have developed complex religious or political customs around that brute fact, or it might have evolved or figured out ways to avoid the the biological necessity of death but still retained a death drive as a common psychological experience — to be managed, resisted or embraced depending on the specifics of the social order. A civilization where the male reproductive desire spiked periodically in ways that threatened death unless he mated might lead to the development of complex rituals … ah, but now I’ve described the Vulcan pon farr on Star Trek.

Which I guess is just proof that I have more confidence than Millman that the imaginarium of science fiction might be able to encompass alien civilizations with biological substrates substantially different from our own. And in fairness, sci-fi also has a record of imagining something closer to the incommensurability he describes, albeit often necessarily just from the perspective of baffled human beings, like the parents in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, losing their children to the Overmind. If some kind of Borg-esque hive consciousness is actually better-suited to making the breakthroughs necessary to navigate the interstellar deep, and we just don’t happen to have an example of hive consciousness operating at the highest possible level here on earth — well, Star Trek saw that coming too. (cf “What Is It Like to Be a Borg?,” Thomas Nagel, Starfleet Academy Press, 2372.) Or if there are forms of consciousness with some totally different relationship to space-time than our own — well, that’s right there in 2016’s Arrival. Or to get super-Christian for a moment, if there are forms of consciousness that are unfallen and thereby somehow have radically different mind-body relationships than our own — well, C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle at least tried to imagine that.

Then as a final aside, it’s worth noting that the kind of alien encounter most obviously challenging to Western monotheism wouldn’t need to involve a different form of consciousness at all. An alien race that seemed a lot like us could play havoc with religious faith by just showing up and playing a “Chariots of the Gods” card, claiming to have stage-managed the plagues of Egypt and the Resurrection. It’s ancient aliens taking credit for the Bible that’s the real danger zone for faith.

Whereas I’m not sure that just encountering an intelligent alien race that isn’t there “for us” would be all that different from the way that human beings in the past have thought about a realm like Faerie, whose widely-accepted existence did not seem to particularly shake medieval Christian faith. Millman lumps the fair folk in with angels and demons, but so far as I can tell they aren’t interested in us in the way of Gabriel or Screwtape or your guardian angel: They may toy with us and take a certain interest in our doings but in most accounts they remain fundamentally inscrutable, apparently neutral in our good-and-evil struggles, operating with purposes and along timelines we can’t begin to fathom.

So to the extent that contemporary alien/UFO/whatever-they-may-be encounters have a certain amount in common with old-fashioned encounters with the Good People, you could even argue — who can say? — that the human race isn’t simply waiting for an encounter with what appears to be an intelligence or consciousness that’s beyond us in some way: In a certain kinds of paranormal experience we’ve been living with them all along.