As a bookish and introverted child I developed a fascination with science fiction that has continued to this day. At its best this fascination has led me to explore possibilities and ways of thinking that I might otherwise never have encountered. At its worst, science fiction has been a means of escaping reality and not dealing with the present. For good or ill both my intellect and imagination have been shaped by fantasy, and it is to fantasy that I owe this post’s inspiration.
I grew up on the adventures of Captain Kirk and Picard, and long held the latent expectation that the universe is full of attractive humanoid aliens, who speak perfect English, and prefer Earth men to all others. Along with this expectation of intergalactic adventure and seduction was the assumption that human travails are temporal, and that humanity will innovate its way to prosperity and enlightenment. More recently however, I have come to more critically examine this childish expectation as it comports with adult reality.
Most people are in some way influenced by the Star Trek optimism I allude to above. As many have observed, technology has itself become a sort of religion. Monotheistic in nature, those who worship at the alter of the machine place their faith in innovation. The most devout of these adherents espouse a gospel of “things will be ok” and “do what you like today, fore tomorrow we will figure out how to avoid the consequences.”
Most will agree with the proposition that fundamentalists are dangerous. Fundamentalists are irrational, often violent, and inclined to ignore or distort entire segments of reality. Because they are so dangerous, most governments devote enormous resources to seeking them out and neutralizing them, lest they become a danger to the larger society. However, to identify fundamentalists, we must first decide that a set of ideas held by an identifiable group of people is so unbending and out of sync with reality, that the group and ideas are dangerous.
I contend that there is a new sort of fundamentalist out there, who is more malignant and numerous than the rest, and is in desperate need of identification and neutralization. As you may have guessed, these radicals belong to the cult of technology, and go by the name, “Radically Optimistic.”
The Radically Optimistic transcend creed, nationality, socioeconomic status, and political ideology. Which would make them illusive, but for their numerosity. These radicals seem to hold the following propositions to be inviolate: the Earth contains unlimited resources, the limits of technology are endless, all 7 billion inhabitants of Earth can and should live like Americans, humans will be delivered from any hypothetical or real peril by human ingenuity (without any personal effort or contribution by the adherent), and most importantly, things will eventually work out (again, without any personal effort or contribution by the adherent).
Though I write this post with tongue in cheek, I could not be more serious about the underlying issues. Most new data suggests that life is fairly abundant in the universe. However, to me at least, that no longer also suggests that the universe is also full of lithe and beautiful humanoid women.
Simple lifeforms are probably fairly common in the universe. Intelligence may even be common. What is likely uncommon, is intergalactic advanced civilizations. Life is easy, all you need is a few cells capable of reproduction. Intelligence to some degree is also attainable by many simple organisms. But advanced civilization, that is a different matter.
Think of all the things a species must overcome to reach past its own planet into the stars. First, they must manage to develop the technology to escape the gravitational pull of their planet to reach space; second, they must somehow, either by design of luck, not destroy themselves in the process; and third, they must not fall victim to Radical Optimism upon achieving these remarkable things.
In the end it seems to be a question of overcoming hubris. Maybe other species are more modest than humans.