Reaction to Davies (2010): ”Nature Plus”

Davies, in this excerpt from his popular book The Eerie Silence, examines what we consider technology and how it may not necessarily apply to an advanced intelligence a thousand or even a million years ahead of us in terms of technological progression. He gives a definition of technology as “a mind, intelligence, or purpose blended with nature, which obeys the physical laws and harnesses them.” Therefore, technology is not distinct from nature in the sense that it is physically separate from nature, but is a part of and a higher form of it. It is “Nature-Plus.”

Classically, we recognized things as being artificial technology based on the organization and structure of its constituent parts, and its utility as a system. And also, such systems are macroscopic in scale. An example of such a system would be the modern personal computer, which is made of billions of transistors that come together to perform specific functions written in software, and which has occupies a physical volume on the scale of cubic decimeters. In fiction (and sometimes in bad science), there is a tendency to anthropomorphize the technology of an alien intelligence to follow our notions of machines.  However, on the deeper level, he calls into question even the aforementioned characteristics of technology that we take for granted, and posits that an advanced technology would be like nothing we would understand. We can imagine (but not yet understand) a technology that doesn’t manifest or operate on the material level, or which is indistinct in form or topology, or which transcends our one temporal and three spatial dimensions, or which to us appears as bereft of function, or which does not appear to consist of discrete quanta. An example of such a technology in fiction would be the “sophon” of Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem, an intelligent particle which can communicate instantaneously across interstellar distances and which is formed of a circuit system sketched onto a multi-dimensional manifold and collapsed to a point.

If such notions of technology were real and currently in operation, then our theories of how the universe works may be called into question. And so, we should ask, what exactly is it about technology that makes it distinguishable from nature? The question is loaded because we operate on the premise that the nature we observe is truly natural. That is, astrophysical phenomena are emergent properties of a universe governed by the laws of physics. This however, may not be the case. We can imagine scenarios where those phenomena that were thought to be natural turn out to be artificial. Then, any theory of how the universe or its constituents operates that was based on such an observation would be flawed. This is similar in vein to the Planetarium Hypothesis solution to the Fermi Paradox, which suggests that the universe we see is artificially constructed or designed in such a way to make us believe that it is self consistent (that is, until we can muster enough resolution to “lift the veil” so to speak, and discover that the universe is not as it seems).

I think this idea of “Nature-Plus” should be taken seriously by SETI scientists because it challenges the way we think about nature and may be an explanation for why searches based on conventional notions of technology and energy consumption have been unsuccessful. And I do indeed think that it is meaningful to search for astrophysical anomalies, because of the twofold benefit of performing novel science alongside a SETI search.

Author: Alan

Hi, I'm a first year graduate student in the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds.