When I lived in the Bay Area, I used to get together with my friend Jaron Lanier to explore the implications of spectacularly weird thought experiments.
Outlandish thought experiments have been essential in the intellectual history of science, but the point isn’t the weirdness itself. The payoff of thinking about strange things like Schrödinger’s cat, the infamous cat that is alive and dead at the same time, is not necessarily that we should then “believe” in the existence of such a cat. Instead, we can hope that uncommon ideas will shed light on the murky margins of our thoughts; in the case of Schrodinger’s cat, in dealing with the question of superposition. The point is not to confuse or bamboozle people, but to eventually find a way to think that makes more sense and is a little less murky.
The bizarre notion I want to consider here came from a discussion of the search for alien life forms. There are a variety of ways to look for signs of alien life in the universe, usually involving a large array of telescopes. One approach is founded on the hope that perhaps astronomers will get lucky and chance upon an alien radio broadcast. But in the thought experiment Lanier and I explored, we considered a different and far more dramatic possibility.