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SETI, or SAC: Should the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence be a Search for Alien Consciousness?

Late last year, legendary ufologist Jacques Vallee uploaded a quite extraordinary paper to his website, with little fanfare.

What makes me describe it that way? The amazing fusion of the knowledge base of the co-authors, and the topics it discusses in relation to future SETI strategies.

Firstly, the three authors of the paper:

  • Jacques Vallee himself – a polymath known mostly for his status in the field of ufology, but who also holds higher degrees in astrophysics and computer science, is an award-winning novelist, a venture capitalist, and contributed to the foundations of the internet via his work for the ARPANET.
  • Federico Faggin – physicist, engineer, entrepreneur and inventor, perhaps best known for designing the first commercial microprocessor, the Intel 4004.
  • Garry Nolan – a renowned professor of microbiology and immunology with Stanford University (head of the ‘Nolan Lab’). Nolan was in the news last year for his investigation of the Atacama ‘alien mummy’ (and is also rumoured to be the pseudonymous ‘James’ in Diana Walsh Pasulka’s American Cosmic).

As for the topics? While the title of the paper – “Towards Multi-Disciplinary SETI Research” (PDF) – might sound like a generic call for astronomers to work with academics in other fields, in actuality the authors are suggesting that SETI consider ideas from fields including parapsychology, consciousness research, anomalies and ufology.

As can be imagined, probably not what most people in SETI – known for aligning themselves with skeptical organisations – would be wanting to see. But apparently, at least some within SETI do: on Twitter, Garry Nolan explained that the paper was originally written at the request of someone from SETI, but when it became obvious it would be lost amongst ‘conventional’ proposals, the trio brought their involvement to an end.

Thankfully, even though they pulled out of the project, Vallee put the paper on his site for us all to read. So, what does it have to say?

It begins by recapitulating SETI’s origins in the ‘Drake Equation‘, and the organisation’s failure to find any evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence in subsequent decades.

In this paper, we draw lessons from the non-detection of such recognizable electromagnetic signals despite more than a half-century of sustained effort. We propose to broaden the scope of the Drake equation parameters by leveraging recently-discovered facts about forms of life, consciousness, and potential communication modes that the founders of SETI didn’t have at their disposal in the initial decades. We also support the concept of an expanded EM search in less noisy environments.

Radio Telescope Scans the Sky

The paper then looks at three areas where SETI’s core concepts could be reevaluated or reconsidered:

1. A revised Drake Equation and the expectations of extraterrestrial intelligence

Vallee, Faggin and Nolan raise two points in regards to revising the Drake Equation: the first being, rather than searching for the conditions of life as we know it, “and of intelligence directly derived from such life”, instead, “couldn’t we pose the problem in the form of “a search for consciousness?”

If we assume that consciousness may not always be attached to a body in the material, biological sense as we currently understand it, how could the parameters in Drake’s equation be revised?

Secondly, the trio note that “each advance in humanity’s long-range communication systems has had a short half-life (lighted fires, telegraph, telephone, radio waves, fiber optics, and terahertz waves to name a few)”. And while electromagnetic waves might be the primary medium of current human communications, “it is ‘slow’ at interplanetary distances and perhaps moot at a cosmic scale – wherein a civilization might transcend understanding or disappear in the time frames between ‘Hello’ and ‘Yes, who’s calling?'” As such, they ask, should SETI be considering how advanced alien civilisations might have transcended EM waves as a mode of communication?

Radio signaling in today’s computer networks (or fiber optics) would not have been detectable with the best electronic equipment in the 1960s, so what does that say of a truly advanced civilization that might be 10s of thousands or millions of years older than our own? Are there novel forms of “signal” we could monitor by studying other physical properties by which the universe is currently known to operate? Is electromagnetics the only form of communication? Have we considered quantum signaling approaches amongst our signaling modalities?

2. Modern biology and advanced AI suggest needed extensions of the model

The first point raised by Vallee, Faggin and Nolan is hardly a novel criticism of SETI and how it should perhaps broaden its horizon when it comes to consideration of advanced communication methods. But their second point starts heading into far more heretical areas.

It begins in reasonably orthodox territory, noting that “at the time when the SETI model was initiated the common scientific definition of life was a narrow one. Some forms of life on Earth had not yet been discovered, such as archaea, the extremophiles known to survive in harsh conditions close to underwater volcanoes, or algae that thrive on ice.”

These examples alone, they note, suggest that creatures could evolve in conditions very different from those anticipated by the Drake Equation. But then adding on ideas related to the progress of AI and ‘post-biological evolution‘, they suggest that the model “could even include civilizations that have transferred their consciousness and their ability to communicate to physical substrates such as plasmas or solid state systems capable of operating at temperatures, pressures, and other environmental conditions far above and below the ranges permissible for carbon-based life.”

As such, they say, SETI should not just be focusing on stars with ‘habitable systems’, as everywhere could be habitable for advanced lifeforms: “In such form they might have migrated far from their “birth” star and a classical search would fail to find them. We focus on stars — but are the vast reaches of intergalactic space or inter-supercluster volumes being ignored?”

And then, the trio head into territory that probably turned a few faces white within SETI…

To this point, new models for the evolution of consciousness and matter are under study that suggest novel possibilities to interpret the nature of reality and which are at odds with a materialistic worldview. This includes the possibility of other forms of communication or contact with alien intelligences that are considered “science fiction” by mainstream science, yet have an extraordinary history of anecdotal evidence. We are speaking of everything from telepathy, empathy, remote viewing, and out of body experiences that may be pointing towards channels of communications beyond what electromagnetic waves can reveal.

…The proteins in our brain that form our neurons sit in a quantum mix where information is transferred in still unfathomable manners. Are those proteins and biologicals completely blind to all forms of information passing through them?

As I said – it’s an extraordinary paper!

3. Anomalous signals provide an opportunity to test novel hypotheses

The third point raised by the trio would again have caused the likes of Seth Shostak to break out in a cold sweat upon reading the proposal, as it heads into that forbidden SETI territory, the wildlands of ufology.

The paper notes that “a civilization experienced at inter-species communication would either have to tailor communication to each new species it expects to contact, or might have a common mode for such interaction”, and poses the question: “so, what really constitutes a signal?”

One possible answer? UFOs.

Over the last 60 years progress has been made in the study of anomalous objects reported in the atmosphere and beyond by competent observers, both civilian and military, in all countries. Although the subject has been controversial, several serious groups have been formed to screen and analyze observations from the public and the special files of aviation reports. These observations may not be directly relevant to “detection” of a nonhuman intelligence, but they provide a ready-made test bed for the improvement of the methodology and its extension to forms of consciousness that might have already traveled to our solar system. Many intriguing, yet reliable astronomical observations from the 18th and 19th century tend to confirm this possibility.

If we remove a potentially strong signal from the table of consideration, i.e. something that is somehow “directly” signaling to our consciousness today, are we blinding ourselves to the “wow” signal for which we’ve been searching? Have we defined the solution so narrowly that when it knocks on our door we refuse to see it for what it is?

Or, for the TL;DR crowd: “Is the appearance of a clearly non-terrestrial anomaly in the sky a signal?”

The paper goes on to explain:

[M]ainstream physicists currently and reasonably argue quantum realities, multiverse concepts, “warp” drives, the universe as a simulation… yet the Drake equation (and SETI) takes these considerations off the table. If there is more than one universe, each with different timelines and potentially different rules of physics, might they be able to signal us at a subconscious level, while we have not yet learned how to understand what we are receiving?

And for the brave SETI scientists who made it to the end of the paper, they conclude by explaining why they feel it is important to ‘think outside the box’ when it comes to future SETI directions. “It was not long ago that airplanes, travel to the moon, and even nuclear power were considered ridiculous,” the trio note. “Do reasonable scientists take evidence off the table if it cannot be explained, or when it doesn’t fit a preconceived model?”

As such, they implore the open-minded SETI researcher, it’s worthwhile considering ideas that most dismiss out of hand.

“It’s fine to have models and Occam’s razor. But they are not universal truths, and history proves that discovery happens when anomalies are not ignored.”

Read:Towards Multi-Disciplinary SETI Research” (PDF)

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