Cixin Liu says: you are silly fish and hungry cats are tracking you
People who live their whole lives in the fishbowls of Washington DC, Wall Street and Houston can easily develop delusions of grandeur, and grossly underestimate the folks who are tracking them who may undo all their plans
in an easy, cat-like strike of the paws. That is true at many levels. This morning, I feel called to discuss analytically
what Cixin Liu himself says about this theme – though I hope I will have time this morning to mention a few other aspects of this serious life or death theme.
Cixin Liu is perhaps the best-selling science fiction author of China, the “Isaac Asimov
of China.” My wife Luda recommended his new novel – and this was the first time I remember her even reading science fiction since I met her; she reported that Obama and Zuckerberg (the Facebook guy) recommended reading it.
If you search on “Three Body Obama Zuckerberg” you will in fact see Zuckerberg’s post on this.
Which hungry cats am I referring to? No, I am not talking (today) about the advocates of a global Third Caliphate in the Middle East who are laughing about how easy it is to distract and manipulate the politicians in Washington. China itself has its own tradition of taking the long view; people like the followers of Meng Tzu and the Liu family of the Han dynasty worked very hard and remarkably well (despite some obvious shortcuts requiring revision) to get past the self-destructive chaos one can fall into when one is too myopic. Cixin Liu’s book The Three Body problem, and the sequel, the Dark Forest, are well worth studying, just for the sake of better understanding China and Chinese thinking... and how it feels to be an intelligent person living in China today (or to be a competent engineer) ... but that is not what this story is about. The two-volume series, Three Body Problem and Dark Forest, is about the old theme of earth itself as a fishbowl, and what happens when the universe beyond earth gets involved. This is not a new question, but it is very important, and deserves being revisited in a serious way. Cixin Liu gives a view of this question different from what we see in thoughtful Western writing. Myself, I have a third view.
Where to begin?
David Brin, a prominent American science fiction writer, has a short and easy science fiction “Existence” which contains reviews of the current literature on “Fermi’s paradox.” According to one legend, Fermi observed: “If interstellar travel is possible, if the universe is billions of years old and contains many planets where life should evolve according to our best understanding of what Darwin taught us, WHERE ARE THE ALIENS? Why haven’t we seen them yet?” This paradox really does cry out for an answer; yes, we can guess many possible explanations, but a serious scientist would not just Believe the first possible explanation, especially when the choice of explanation says a lot about our fate and our real future possibilities. For example, if we explain the lack of aliens by saying that almost all species which develop nuclear
technology end up blowing themselves up in a few thousand years, shouldn’t we be very serious about thinking twice about where our world is going today? (To be honest, I found Brin’s “Uplift series” to be a more serious theory than the theory in his new novel, but they are all just speculation. Liu is a bit closer to real science.)
One more amusing cartoon for introduction. Several years ago, I participated in a big workshop “Humanity Three Thousand,” funded by the Foundation for the Future, which was funded in turn by Kistler of Kistler Aerospace. A leader of Japan’s space movement praised the great vision of Kraft Ehricke, where he said we humans today are like the first fish who started to crawl up upon the land, opening up a whole new phase of the evolution of life. He had a slightly sad and sour expression on his face when I mentioned a kind of Pogo cartoon which flashed into my mind as he was speaking:
In the water, a ragged big old fish is speaking to younger fish assembled around him: “Children, I have sorted to the heights.
After much great struggle, I survived the trip to the land and even survived the return. I have seen the higher universe and learned what our role in it really is.” “Oh” ask the children, “What IS our role in the greater universe?” The old fish says: They have a word for it. They call us sashimi.” Seriously, it makes a difference if we are not the first. Is it not a typical childlike exercise of silly narcissism and wishful thinking just to assume we must be the first, in such a large universe? The recent movie Jupiter Rising is less realistic scientifically than any of the other stories I mentioned yet – but it still has some value as a kind of correction to silly assumptions which Cixin Liu also criticizes.
Orson Scott Card has also written on this theme, and there is a compendium called Far Futures which contains serious insights, but for now let me focus on the final picture which emerges at the end of The Dark Forest, which I finished reading yesterday (on the Kindle app in my galaxy Tab). (I have yet to read the third volume of this trilogy, but my wife says it just develops the same picture further.)
In essence, Liu argues what I said in the headline: the galaxy is full of big hungry cats poised to swipe at us and gobble us up very quickly as soon as we make even the smallest move exposing our location.
He doesn’t actually compare us to fish in a fishbowl. He starts the Dark Forest by comparing us to ants crawling over the letters of a tombstone... and then he returns to that metaphor with great force at the end of the novel, when a big cat appears.
He starts by saying we can deduce it all from two simple axioms – that resources to support life are finite in this galaxy, and that life naturally expands (ala Darwin) to reach the limits of those resources. Throughout the novel, he gives us examples of how things work... but at the end, a canny Chinese official still has to ask: “What do your axioms actually tell us concretely?” I enjoyed that scene, because very few people even in science seem to fully understand the full power of axiomatic analysis (when tempered by respect for experience). At www.werbos.com/Mind_in_Time.pdf, I review a larger set of axioms, which are more powerful than the small set of two which Liu tells us about, but it seems it would take more than one human lifetime to explain to people what all the concrete implications are. But yes, I see no reason at all, in any of human experience, to reject a view of the cosmos which I sometimes call “Einstein materialism,” in which life as we know it is indeed the outcome of natural selection, and Liu’s axioms do apply.
That’s a bit of a simplification; here I will just state the main caveats without explanation: (1) even in the Einstein formulation, based on Lagrange-Euler equations, the cosmos itself has some of the properties we commonly associate with life; (2) natural selection as we know it is basically just a limiting case or approximation of more general higher order thermodynamics, the study of emergent phenomena in systems like PDE, which allows for more time symmetry in life, as discussed in my chapter for Pribram’s edited book on self-organization; and (3) though I know of no serious evidence, in science or in spiritual experience, to contradict Einstein materialism, it is natural and proper that we try to be open-minded to alternative models and, more important, alert to any evidence suggesting which of the many many concrete alternatives might actually be justified. But even after those caveats, the main gist of Liu’s concern remains valid. For billions of years on earth, Darwinian selection has been a primary driver, and limits on resources have led to life or death struggles and species extinctions and so on; we have no good reason to believe it is otherwise in this galaxy, apriori. I do wish we humans could face up more intelligently to the serious issues raised in E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology; we can put our heads in the sand, but the issues of DNA and evolution will not just go away. Still, when Kistler had a bit too much to drink as he gave the FFF award to Wilson, and when Wilson himself withdrew like a frightened turtle in his recent books... (as did Wittgenstein and Stephen Hawking, on the issues of meaning and time-symmetry respectively)... I am sorry that our culture did not just revise the model as logic requires, move on and continue to use the model. Liu gropes with the right issues in a verbal sort of way... but... but could he have had some math in his mind that he did not put on paper? It is possible. His book makes it clear he does know a bit of mathematical thinking, and has a right-brained clarity American novelists usually lack... but he gets lots of things backwards as also happens often with right-brained people.
He argues that the galaxy simply does not have the special kinds of local networks and personal contact across star systems which allow somewhat less war-or-all-against-all in our life on earth. Absent such mechanisms, the outcome is predictable he says. Actually, if you read the novel with some awareness of Chinese history (like most of its many, many enthusiastic readers!), you will remember that China itself has experienced many brutal times of such war of all against all, and famine,
and that higher civilization was very much hard won (after the early pre-Malthusian period wore out, a period most Chinese do not know as much about). The novel seems very bleak, at one level, but it also argues that there is some hope even in the galaxy, if we work very hard, think very hard, overcome childish ways of thinking and acquire more situational awareness.
(As did Kung Fu Tzu and Meng Tzu, but at a much higher level?) That awareness includes an awareness of a need to be very, very secretive in some ways, even as we work to achieve better cooperation with those we must be most secretive to as a matter of realistic current awareness.
And.. in truth, he also mentions the great divide between our level of life, in the realm I would call “3 femtometers” and above, and the realm of how things work and life below that level. Only this past year, after a lot of productive struggle to really understand that kind of physics mathematically, do I fully understand just how sharp that divide really is; I wish, in retrospect, I had maintained more separation between those realms, to avoid unnecessary confusion and conflict, but we children of earth and sky really do all have a lot to learn and should not shy away from learning.
A key question Q: is Liu really right, at least on the basics? Is the galaxy very likely to be full of life already, or is it a case where all or almost all species totally destroy themselves after discovering nuclear technology?
Here, Liu’s way of thinking has some scary limits. For example, when he talks about the final days, he talks about “which theory is right?” and “what is the right action, to fit the true case?”, when a rational, fully sane person would think very explicitly about UNCERTAINTY (discussed of course at length in www.werbos.com/Mind_in_Time.pdf). Instead of deciding WHICH POINT to locate one’s fleet at, what of a mixed strategy, some here, some there, to hedge? He shows some awareness of the risks of deterministic thinking, but only sometimes.
If you fully understand and accept uncertainty, you could respond to the questions Q in the same sort of way that Pascal once did. If you feel uncertain... EITHER we are on a path of certain destruction, OR we might be part of a different scenario, it is rational to base action on the possibility of hope. But fortunately, I see more real justification for hope than what this limited argument provides.
What justification? In www.werbos.com/Mind_in_Time.pdf, I review the powerful streams of evidence which have convinced me that the types of experience which some folks call “psychic phenomena” (and which others call spiritual or paranormal) are inescapable realities and that they really are NOT physically impossible from the viewpoint of Einsteinian physics (a physics which is a lot weirder in its implications than typical clerk type people imagine). Yes, I agree with those Chinese historians who say that most organized religions on earth are really just the untrustworthy propaganda arms of people in power, the modern descendants of the priest kings of Sumeria who would put to death all “heretics” who dared even to think for themselves. But humans all over the earth have had serious odd experiences since long before those priest kings; an important NSF-funded study by Greeley (cited in Mind in Time) shows how a majority of PhDs today have had at least some experiences which force some rethinking. Liu also reports some such experiences, an evidence of artistic honesty, worthy of deep respect... but how can we make sense of them scientifically, without succumbing to the mumbo jumbo of fuzzy priest kings with huge conflicts of interest?
As a beginning, I cite the “noosphere” or “Gaia” concepts of Verdansky and Teilhard de Chardin and many others. The ancient view that we are children of earth and sky actually makes a kind of sense, in science. Dante has said that we humans are “half beast, half angel” – ideally living our lives as a kind of joint enterprise of the beast (DNA organism) and the angel (life form existing as a pattern of a kind of dark matter). This is not really crazy, now that we have strong evidence BOTH that dark matter is most of the matter of this cosmos, AND that dark matter is not unstable stuff like “WIMPS”.
(See the latest issue of Scientific American! By the way, that issue also has an important article on AI which demands a third way, but that’s for another discussion.) But to encompass the full range of what we really see in psychic phenomena,
the “angel” must be understood more as kind of ... hive?... of angels, a collection, with strongly evolved communications mechanisms.
Here is where I part with de Chardin: I agree strongly with the critics of de Chardin who say that the natural “evolution” of a complex system like the earth is NOT towards that kind of intelligence. Rather, it is towards entropy, and current world politics certainly has elements of entropy, where every possible pathology receives lots of support, pushing towards suicide in a hundred ways at once. (The thought leaders of the Third Caliphate movement are really just one of those, but in many ways they are as serious as the sophons of Liu’s novel. And likewise the clusters Koch had organized, and Halliburton, and the serious powerful lurkers like Kahlil hinted at in the new issue of Scientific American.) We SEE a noosphere... yet a noosphere could not exist if it were just the earth. Even with computers and AI, the final outcome is total death if that were the total story.
But hey, folks, dark matter is not limited to earth! My proposed revision to the theory of de Chardin is that our noosphere is just ONE instance of a much larger species. It is not our specific kind of DNA, but a kind of “dark matter DNA” which, like our local DNA, is the outcome of billions of years of evolution, over a much larger sphere of complexity, with its own evolved mechanisms of variation, longevity and childhood states.
A corollary of this is that our hope of living longer, as a living planet, depends crucially on how well and fully these noosphere mechanisms are actually manifested and implemented on earth. NEITHER sharia NOR canon law NOR any of the political ideologies now active in the US are CONSISTENT with this hope of survival, EXCEPT for the movement for greater human potential which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for human survival all across the globe.
Is Gaia just going through her teenage years? Ah, but in nature (and even in the US!), not all teenagers survive those difficult years. Giving up delusions of grandeur is one part of what is also necessary... but keeping up our energy is also necessary. Best of luck with it...