Some suggest that the universe naturally produces complexity. The emergence of life in general and perhaps even rational life, with its associated technological culture, may be extremely common, argues Kelly Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy&Biological Sciences at Clemson, in a recent Space Policy paper.

What's more, he suggests, this universal tendency has distinctly religious overtones and more knowledge of astrobiology may even establish a truly universal basis for morality.

Smith, who got a Masters degree in evolutionary genetics before getting a PhD in Philosophy, says he applies recent theoretical developments in Biology and Complex Systems Theory to attempt new answers to the kind of enduring questions about human purpose and obligation that have long been considered the sole province of the humanities.

Sugars of the interstellar medium. Credit: NASA

Scientists have always discussed the basic structure of the universe but Smith says increasingly more are beginning to discuss how the basic structure of the universe seems to favor the creation of complexity and that astrobiology could lead to a general theory of moral value - disordered energy states produce atoms and molecules, which combine to form suns and associated planets, on which life evolves. 

Life then seems to exhibit its own pattern of increasing complexity, with simple organisms getting more complex over evolutionary time until they eventually develop rationality and complex culture.

And recent hypothetical models in Biology and Complex Systems Theory suggest this trend may be real, arising from the basic structure of the universe in a predictable fashion. The sociality-reason-culture triad (SRCT) moral valuation would be shared by any non-human entities capable of reflection on the nature of such things - morality would naturally derive from objectivity. The manifest destiny (manifest complexity) of all life which could provide an ultimate, metaphysical foundation for ethical value, he argues. 

"If this is right," says Smith in the Clemson University statement, "you can look at the universe as a kind of 'complexity machine', which raises all sorts of questions about what this means in a broader sense. For example, does believing the universe is structured to produce complexity in general, and rational creatures in particular, constitute a religious belief? It need not imply that the universe was created by a God, but on the other hand, it does suggest that the kind of rationality we hold dear is not an accident."

Smith feels another similarity to religion are the potential moral implications of this idea. If evolution tends to favor the development of sociality, reason, and culture as a kind of "package deal", then it's a good bet that any smart extraterrestrials we encounter will have similar evolved attitudes about their basic moral commitments.

In particular, they will likely agree with us that there is something morally special about rational, social creatures. And such universal agreement, argues Smith, could be the foundation for a truly universal system of ethics.

Smith will soon take sabbatical to lay the groundwork for a book exploring these issues in more detail.

Citation: Kelly C. Smith, 'Manifest complexity: A foundational ethic for astrobiology?', Space Policy Volume 30, Issue 4, November 2014, Pages 209–214 DOI: 10.1016/j.spacepol.2014.10.004