Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

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Earth as a tourist destination

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In August, the journal Acta Astronautica published some dark thoughts by scientists at The Pennsylvania State University about what intelligent extraterrestrials might want to do to us if they ever find their way to Earth. This became hot news for a few days. While one can never rule out the possibilities that extraterrestrials might come here to exploit us, I’d like to offer a sunnier alternative.

For several years now, I’ve been convinced that if extraterrestrials ever do visit our dear little planet, it won’t be for conquest but for tourism. Extraterrestrial planetary connoisseurs will, I think, be attracted by Earth’s peculiar mix of water and land masses. They will like how plate tectonics and the geological rock cycle have only very slowly remodeled the surface of our continents, allowing rain and runoff to sculpt it into the many beautiful shapes that we so often take for granted. Their tours will take in the craggy, snow-capped peaks of our high mountain ranges, the broad valleys and deep gorges cut by our rivers, and the shorelines and island chains eroded into so many unique shapes by our oceans’ waves.

Earth will likely be prized for having the right range of temperatures to support water as solid, liquid, and gas—and all three in substantial quantities. Interstellar tourists will watch the calving of icebergs near its poles and then bask in its tropical rainshowers. They will also enjoy the pace of our planet’s cycle of evaporation and condensation, and the speed of our jet streams, which together produce such a diversity of weather patterns and cloud formations. Our sunsets will, I think, be particularly acclaimed.

They will appreciate the diversity of elements in Earth’s crust—a remnant of the long-ago nova of our solar system’s first sun and the subsequent re-aggregation of the matter thrown off by it, to form Earth and the other planets. Having been to other less chemically diverse planets, they will marvel at the range of colors and textures in our planet’s rocks, thanks to the many combinations that can be formed of its various elements.

Needless to say, any extraterrestrials who are able to travel to our planet must have gained so much control over matter and energy that they could engineer other planets to achieve whatever aesthetic effects they desire. But just as we prize natural diamonds over more flawless synthetic diamonds, the more discerning extraterrestrials will prefer the rare idiosyncrasies of naturally occurring planets like Earth.

The beauty of our planet owes much to the plants that cover so much of its landmasses, and to the softening effect they have had on the landscape—turning rocks and gravel into dark, rich soil. Interstellar visitors should enjoy how many of our planet’s photosynthetic organisms are multicellular, and in so many different sizes, shapes, and colors. Even to our Earth-accustomed eyes, the beauty of a landscape so often comes of how a diversity of plants have grown over the attractive shapes of the land itself. I suppose the home planets of our interstellar visitors are likely to have multicellular photosynthetic organisms, but still ours are bound to seem exotic to beings who haven’t grown up here. And the flowers and fruits that we so often take for granted may be unique to our planet’s angiosperms.

The beauty of Earthly scenes is further enlivened by the animals that move over our land, in our waters, and through our air. Terrestrial biped though I am, I’m guessing that Earth’s birds and flying insects will be most celebrated by interstellar visitors, followed closely perhaps by our brightly colored tropical fishes. Mammals may appeal to us humans, but most of them are rather drably colored, and they seldom make themselves as conspicuous to a casual glance as birds do.

The tourism appeal of our planet should benefit from the welcoming service they will get from our species. Once we have gotten over the initial shock of contact, and as we grasp the benefits to us of interacting with so technologically advanced a civilization, I am confident that we will extend the same gracious hospitality to extraterrestrials that people all over the world already do to human tourists. Not having yet encountered any other intelligent lifeforms from other planets, I can of course only offer my own hunches, but I doubt that many others will exhibit so many of the gentle and agreeable emotions that we humans do, or be so well-suited to supporting an interstellar tourism industry. With their vastly more advanced civilization, extraterrestrials will I think be charmed by our simple ways. Those who have come to enjoy visiting Earth will presumably resist any attempts by others to exploit our planet more violently.

I suppose even as beautiful a planet as ours won’t be for everyone. We have evolved on Earth and so are adapted to its particular conditions, and so to us its gravity and air pressure feel just right. Visitors from other mid-sized rocky planets may feel at home, but other extraterrestrials will presumably need technological assistance to feel comfortable here.

The big question will be whether they can tolerate the oxygen gas in our atmosphere. Thanks to the molecular adaptations of our distant single-celled ancestors, our cells produce anti-oxidants that protect us from the toxic oxygen free radicals produced from O2, and the O2 in our atmosphere actually helps in the release of energy from organic molecules. Extraterrestrials from other planets with oxygen-rich atmospheres should have analogous adaptations and so will be fine, but how common are those I wonder? The oxygen gas in our atmosphere has been produced from water molecules through the action of electron transfer systems in photosynthetic organisms. Such biochemical adaptations may evolve often on water-rich planets, in which case interstellar visitors would likely be unharmed by our atmosphere. Otherwise, the tourism potential of Earth would be more limited, as visitors would have to be encased in protective suits and so the experience could hardly be relaxing.

To appreciate the colors of our planet, they will have to be able to sense light in the wavelengths put out by our sun. Depending on what molecules their bodies are made of, they may need to grow their own food or show us how to develop chemically isolate environments in which we can grow their food for them. These and other problems will no doubt have to be solved before our interstellar tourism industry can really take off. But if they are motivated to vacation here, our visitors should take the lead in offering solutions. I just hope I’m here to see it.

© Joel Benington, 2011.


Written by Joel Benington

September 22, 2011 at 7:43 am

Using counterfactual thinking

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What is counterfactual thinking? It’s thinking about things that aren’t real. I introduced the idea in my last post, and proposed an interesting counterfactual scenario in which people all of a sudden start living about twice as long.

Thinking about counterfactuals may seem silly or strange, but in fact we do it all the time. Any time you imagine having a conversation with someone so you can prepare for how they might react to something you’d like to say, you’re engaging in counterfactual thinking. The same goes for any future thinking, whether it’s disaster preparation or wedding planning. To do that well involves imagining possible futures to anticipate the consequences of possible events and actions. When we do that, we’re thinking about things that are not currently, actually real. The military does this in deadly earnest all the time, as does the Center for Disease Control in developing strategies for dealing with possible epidemics.

We also apply counterfactual thinking to the past, as part of reasoning about causes and effects. Whenever you’ve regretfully thought, “ If only I hadn’t…,” you’ve thought counterfactually. Lawyers do it all the time when questioning witnesses, and to persuade a jury that one person’s actions were or were not to blame for something that happened. Historians do it too, spinning scenarios like How would World War II have played out if the US hadn’t entered the war? Some historians are disinclined to take this approach seriously, but others have argued that historians actually deal in counterfactuals all the time, often without even noticing that they’re doing it, and that counterfactual thinking is unavoidable if historians want to draw conclusions about cause and effect.

Of all the courses I’ve taught at St. Bonaventure University, my personal favorite is a seminar in our Honors Program that’s called Counterfactual Thinking. I developed the course a few years ago because I’m convinced that counterfactual thinking is a powerful vehicle for seminar discussions.

The great thing about counterfactual thinking in a seminar course is that it forces students to think creatively and independently. So much of college learning involves mastering facts and concepts that other people have already worked out, and that are widely considered to be true. When teaching that sort of material, we’d like students not only to learn an idea but also to see why it makes sense, but most of the time students just learn that an idea is true and are happy to take that fact for granted.

How do we figure out why an idea makes sense? For practical problems, it often involves imagining how the system (physical, logical, etc.) would work differently if a different idea were put in its place, and that is thinking counterfactually. Why do scientists perform controlled experiments? Why do accountants use double-entry bookkeeping? Why do we have trial by jury? We can justify those practices by showing that the systems they’re used in wouldn’t work as well in their absence.

But while counterfactual thinking can be used to make sense of real-world practices like these, that’s still well-worn ground. Students wouldn’t have to work terribly hard to find pre-existing justifications for such practices, which means they’re letting “experts” do the counterfactual thinking for them. The best way to force (!) students to think for themselves is to jump out of the real world altogether, and preferably in ways that haven’t already been done to death. There’s no point thinking counterfactually about time travel because whole books have been written about different ways it could be done, paradoxes that would result, ways around those paradoxes, etc. Only new and different counterfactual scenarios will get students thinking without a net, as it were.

In my course, I use a blend of “realistic” counterfactuals that sensible people will have already thought about (what is needed to develop driverless cars and how would that change our world?), and more bizarre, otherworldly counterfactuals (how would human life and society be different if there were three different human genders rather than the existing male and female, and what might the third gender be like?). The more realistic scenarios let students see other intelligent people thinking counterfactually, which gives them a jumping off point for their own further explorations, and gives the seminar ideas either to agree or disagree with. The more bizarre scenarios give students the ultimate hallucinogenic counterfactual experience, forcing them to start the thought process pretty much from scratch. They also give students an opportunity to question things that are such fundamental parts of the real world that we almost always take them for granted. The discussions that develop out of these scenarios can be exhilarating as well as sometimes hysterically funny.

Really and truly—you should try this yourself and with your friends. It’s best when it’s not an anything-goes discussion but when each counterfactual possibility is critically analyzed, questioned, second-guessed. Some of the best ideas come not from the initial inspiration, but from the alternatives or modifications that come out of this critical process.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

Written by Joel Benington

August 12, 2011 at 9:59 am

In praise of counterfactual thinking

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We should all spend more time thinking about things that aren’t real. Take a vacation from the usual human fixation on the truth, and start wondering about the consequences of some possible reality that you know isn’t true. Stop thinking about facts for a bit, and think about counterfactuals.

Why should you do this? Well, it’s fun and it costs practically nothing. But it’s also a great way to train your mind. It takes creativity to think counterfactually, and it takes careful analytical reasoning to evaluate the counterfactual scenarios that your creative mind comes up with.

Here’s one: how would our world be different if next year scientists announce that they’ve figured out how to slow down the aging process by a factor of two? In other words, what if human beings were suddenly able to live about twice as long as they do, so at 100 we have about the same physical and mental vigor that we currently do at age 50?

The first step is to define the details of the scenario.

How is the slowing of aging accomplished? Let’s say it’s done with a pill that people have to take regularly. Once a day may seem like a bit of a pain, but I bet most people would do that if it would extend their life. Heck, a lot of people put themselves through an aerobic workout every other day, and I don’t think that prolongs physical vigor quite by a factor of two.

How much will the pills cost? There are some interesting variations on the scenario here, depending on whether the life extension is available to more or less everyone, or whether it’s a privilege only of the wealthy. But even if it starts being expensive, I bet that most of the high cost is recouping of R&D costs and taking advantage of how much people would be willing to pay for something so desirable. Patent protection would run out in less than 20 years, and if the manufacturing cost isn’t super-high, generic versions would then be reasonably cheap. And in the meantime, you just know that other pharmaceutical companies will rush to develop copy-cat drugs based on the same physical principle. So for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the pills would cost little enough to make them widely available, either right away or in the near future.

Which parts of the normal human life cycle will be extended? I’m assuming most people won’t want to extend childhood and adolescence, so let’s say people start taking the drug as young adults and cut the rate of aging in half starting around age 20. That would make 60 like today’s 40, 80 like today’s 50, 100 like today’s 60, and so on. Premature deaths would still occur, but the risks associated with heart disease and cancer would be pushed back to later ages with the slowing of the aging process. Breast cancer rates typical of 70-year-old women today, would in this imagined future be typical of 120-year-old women. The only exceptions would be accidents and violence, unless of course people changed their behavior in this imagined future.

So think about it—what would be the consequences of this one change to our world? I bet you can come up with some interesting ones in just a few minutes. But if you keep thinking about it, you’re likely to experience two very interesting processes.

First, more and more consequences should keep coming to you, affecting more and more different aspects of our world, including some that you probably wouldn’t have initially thought would be affected by this one change.

Second, you should find yourself second-guessing some of the ideas you came up with at first. Either you’ll decide that your first ideas were unrealistic once you’ve had more time to think about it. Or you’ll decide that while a particular change may start to happen, people will respond to that change in a way that neutralizes it or takes our world in another direction altogether.

The first process is your creativity at work, spinning out more and more imagined consequences of this one counterfactual scenario. The second process is your analytical mind at work, subjecting your creative ideas to a kind of counterfactual reality testing, accepting some, rejecting some outright, and accepting some only with modifications.

If you’re not too busy, give this scenario a shot and see how good you are at developing this sort of scenario. Get some of your friends involved. Think it through together, or work on it separately and then trade notes and argue about the points you disagree on. Please feel free to include any ideas you have in comments on this post.

Counterfactual thinking can be a blast, if you go in for that sort of thing.

© Joel Benington, 2011

Written by Joel Benington

August 3, 2011 at 6:51 pm