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Scientific American

Shermer’s Last Law

published January 2002 | comments (3)
Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God
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As scientist extraordinaire and author of an empire of science-fiction books, Arthur C. Clarke is one of the farthest-seeing visionaries of our time. His pithy quotations tug harder than those of most futurists on our collective psyches for their insights into humanity and our unique place in the cosmos.
And none do so more than his famous Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

This observation stimulated me to think about the impact the discovery of an extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) would have on science and religion. To that end, I would like to immodestly propose Shermer’s Last Law (I don’t believe in naming laws after oneself, so as the good book says, the last shall be first and the first shall be last): “Any sufficiently advanced ETI is indistinguishable from God.”

God is typically described by Western religions as omniscient and omnipotent. Because we are far from possessing these traits, how can we possibly distinguish a God who has them absolutely from an ETI who merely has them copiously relative to us? We can’t. But if God were only relatively more knowing and powerful than we are, then by definition the deity would be an ETI!

Consider that biological evolution operates at a snail’s pace compared with technological evolution (the former is Darwinian and requires generations of differential reproductive success; the latter is Lamarckian and can be accomplished within a single generation). Then, too, the cosmos is very big and very empty. Voyager 1, our most distant spacecraft, hurtling along at more than 38,000 miles per hour, will not reach the distance of even our sun’s nearest neighbor, the Alpha Centauri system (which it is not headed toward), for more than 75,000 years. Ergo, the probability that an ETI only slightly more advanced than we are will make contact is virtually nil. If we ever do find an ETI, it will be as though a million-year-old Homo erectus were dropped into the 21st century, given a computer and cell phone and instructed to communicate with us. The ETI would be to us as we would be to this early hominid — godlike.

Because of science and technology, our world has changed more in the past century than in the previous 100 centuries. It took 10,000 years to get from the dawn of civilization to the airplane but just 66 years to get from powered flight to a lunar landing.

Moore’s Law of computer power doubling every 18 months or so is now approaching a year. Ray Kurzweil, in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines, calculates that there have been 32 doublings since World War II and that the singularity point — the point at which total computational power will rise to levels so far beyond anything that we can imagine that it will appear nearly infinite and thus be indistinguishable from omniscience — may be upon us as early as 2050.

When that happens, the decade that follows will put the 100,000 years before it to shame. Extrapolate out about a million years (just a blink on an evolutionary timescale and therefore a realistic estimate of how far advanced ETIs will be), and we get a gut-wrenching, mind-warping feel for how godlike these creatures would seem. In Clarke’s 1953 novel, called Childhood’s End, humanity reaches something like a singularity and must then make the transition to a higher state of consciousness. One character early in the story opines that “science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the nonexistence of Zeus or Thor, but they have few followers now.”

Although science has not even remotely destroyed religion, Shermer’s Last Law predicts that the relation between the two will be profoundly affected by contact with an ETI. To find out how, we must follow Clarke’s Second Law: “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” Ad astra!

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3 Comments to “Shermer’s Last Law”

  1. Blog de Astronomia do astroPT » Quanto tempo leva a viajar? Says:

    [...] todo o lado. Lembra-lhes alguém? Alguém que está em todo o lado ao mesmo tempo? Faz-me lembrar a Última Lei de Shermer (baseada na 3ª lei do Clarke) que diz: “Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial [...]

  2. N.R.G. Says:

    I’m sorry to see that only one comment has been made so far, but I’m happy that the commenter had the guts to comment more than six years later! This inspires me to comment again now…

    I first heard ShLL in the video debate between Profs. Shermer and Phillips, which is unfortunately no longer available at YouTube (where can it be gotten?).

    Hearing this “Law” had a big impact on me, providing me with a middle ground and compromise between my weakening belief in the Biblical God, and a feeling that there are things in this world that demand an explanation beyond our mere humanity.

    I now believe (mostly in private so as not to unnecessarily shake up my religious peers) that whatever real gods were or are imputed to exist (as opposed to irrelevant imaginary ones), are really ETI ala ShLL, regardless of our current perception of the difficulty they would confront in trying to reach us, personally (whatever form their person might take) or even via communication.

    Thank you, Michael!

  3. Jim Barnhart Says:

    Perhaps the World wasn’t quite ready for Shermer’s Last Law at the time. Maybe the idea is only now picking up steam. Plot the timeline curve of the comments – 6 years, 8 years, 9 years. (Admittedly not much data yet. C’mon people.)
    Shermer’s statement at the end about Science’s effect on Religion may be a little off. It seems to me that religious institutions around the planet are beginning to show their flaws. They are certainly losing membership in vast numbers. The current revival of religious fervor in the monotheistic faiths from the Middle East is a predictable social backlash against their crumbling structures but will not prevent the crumbling.
    I would certainly like to see the effects of computational power on society by 2050. That’s not too far away. I’ll only be 100, which is very attainable now, as long as I don’t play in traffic, so to speak.
    As for N.R.G.’s comment on the difficulty of an ETI contacting us, the rapidly advancing field of Quantum Physics is opening up all kinds of possibilities in that realm of endeavor. What we need now is a test for that visiting ETI to determine its level of ‘godliness’. Of course that means we would have to first decide on a definition ourselves, beyond the current levels of superstition that we’ve been playing with for the last couple of thousand years.
    So, who’s up for making a ‘Turing Test’ for godliness?

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