The "Final Frontier" as Metaphor for Mind: Opportunities to Radically Re-conceptualize What It Means to be Human
Joel Parthemore (Centre for Cognitive Semiotics)
Contra someone like Roger Penrose and per e.g. Douglas Hofstadter, one finds real and, to a certain extent, knowable limitations to human conceptual abilities: there are things we do not know now; there are things we may never know; and there are things we can be fairly certain we can never know, because they fall outside our abilities: so e.g. one can describe the mathematical properties of a tesseract and build a model of a tesseract in three dimensions; but it seems a necessary limitation of being human that no one has ever pictured a tesseract in all its four-dimensional wonder, and no one who is human ever will.
At this stage in the development of the species, the budding fields of astrobiology and astrocognition offer an unmissable opportunity to explore the territory between what we do not know now, what we may never know, and what we think we can be certain we can never know. They represent a research area that is, as close perhaps as is possible to get, truly unknown – but which, at least in substantive part, need not stay so. In the absence of evidence, powerful intuitions rule; and otherwise respectable scientists proclaim the near certainty or unlikelihood of finding life elsewhere in the solar system or beyond. Without more substantial evidence, it is impossible to assign any probabilities. Largely trapped within our exceedingly narrow Earth–bound perspective, we begin – as we probably must – by looking elsewhere for conditions that foster life here. Yet we already know from the explosion of research in so–called extremophiles just how many seemingly unlikely places life turns up on Earth. Almost simultaneously, the existence of other planets beyond the solar system has gone from theoretical possibility to known certainty, with new planets being discovered on an increasingly routine basis.
Regardless of whether we find intelligent life among the stars – “intelligent life” I will take as shorthand for “life possessing recognizably human–like intelligence” – the discovery of life in any form (underneath the surface of Mars or inside Europa, we expect to find at most single–celled organisms – but, again, we do not know!) will lead, almost inevitably, to a radical re–conceptualization of both the world – the Earth that has been nearly our entire universe, for nearly our entire existence – and what it means to be human. Our current conceptual frameworks in which we embed our understanding of ourselves are built on two million years of being – until the last fifty years or so – entirely Earth bound. Earth’s sun is but one minor yellow star in an outer arm of a galaxy containing, by some estimates, nearly half a trillion stars. As we step up the pace of space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life, our perspective on the galaxy – let alone the universe – of which we are a part cannot help but change fundamentally, yielding up fresh understandings of ourselves and our place in existence. By exploring the frontier that is outer space, we explore what is truly the final frontier: the unmapped territory of the human mind.