The Transcension Hypothesis: Do Advanced Civilizations Leave Our Universe?

Low-mass X-ray binary (LMXRB) star system. Strange as it seems, Earth’s future may look something like this, with us inside a black hole of our own creation, on a highly accelerated path to merging with other universal civilizations doing the same. If true, our destiny is density!

Below is the abstract of a paper of mine recently accepted for publication at Acta Astronautica. The paper considers the question of whether universal complexity development, and thus universal progress, has some long-term directionality and predictability to it. If so, this would be big news, as it would help clarify questions about the future of intelligence in our universe. The transcension hypothesis asks whether our civilization is rapidly developing into something analogous to a black hole. Most people don’t know this, but black holes are the most computationally efficient entities that we know of, at present. They also do some very unusual things to spacetime. Black holes are forward time travel devices, as any civilization that can enter them without destroying itself will merge effectively instantaneously with all other civilizations that do the same. From outside the black holes, in our “outer space” universe, it takes many billions of years for all the black holes in our galaxy to merge. But from their strange perspective, due to extreme gravitational time dilation, these mergers happen nearly instantaneously. Some physicists also argue black holes may be “seeds” or “replicators” for new universes, thus giving us a clue as to what we would do after we meet up with other intelligences.

How might we accomplish such a crazy feat as entering a black hole without destroying ourselves? By rebuilding ourselves into very, very small structures, probably below the atom in size. You may not know this, but there are 25 orders of magnitude in size between atoms and the Planck scale. This is almost as large a size range as the 30 orders of magnitude presently inhabited by life on Earth. If you’ve heard of nanotechnology, you know that life’s leading edge today, humanity, is doing everything it can to move our complexity and computation down the smallest scales we can. We have been very, very successful at this shrinking over the last several hundred years, and our ability to miniaturize and control processes at both atomic and subatomic scales is growing exponentially. In fact, human brains themselves are already vastly denser, more efficient, and more miniaturized computational devices than any living thing that has gone before them. But they are positively gargantuan compared to the intelligent computing devices that are coming next. OK, enough strangeness for now, on to the abstract. Hope you like it!

Abstract: The emerging science of evolutionary developmental (“evo devo”) biology can aid us in thinking about our universe as both an evolutionary system, where most processes are unpredictable and creative, and a developmental system, where a special few processes are predictable and constrained to produce far-future-specific emergent order, just as we see in the common developmental processes in two stars of an identical population type, or in two genetically identical twins in biology. The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination. Transcension as a developmental destiny might also contribute to the solution to the Fermi paradox, the question of why we haven’t seen evidence of or received beacons from intelligent civilizations. A few potential evolutionary, developmental, and information theoretic reasons, mechanisms, and models for constrained transcension of advanced intelligence are briefly considered. In particular, we introduce arguments that black holes may be a developmental destiny and standard attractor for all higher intelligence, as they appear to some to be ideal computing, learning, forward time travel, energy harvesting, civilization merger, natural selection, and universe replication devices. In the transcension hypothesis, simpler civilizations that succeed in resisting transcension by staying in outer (normal) space would be developmental failures, which are statistically very rare late in the life cycle of any biological developing system. If transcension is a developmental process, we may expect brief broadcasts or subtle forms of galactic engineering to occur in small portions of a few galaxies, the handiwork of young and immature civilizations, but constrained transcension should be by far the norm for all mature civilizations.

The transcension hypothesis has significant and testable implications for our current and future METI and SETI agendas. If all universal intelligence eventually transcends to black-hole-like environments, after which some form of merger and selection occurs, and if two-way messaging is severely limited by the great distances between neighboring and rapidly transcending civilizations, then communication with feedback may be very rare, an event restricted to nearest-neighbor stars for a very brief period prior to transcension. The only kind of communication that might be common enough to be easily detectable by us would be the sending of one-way METI or probes throughout the galaxy. But simple one-way messaging or probes may be not worth the cost to send, and advanced messaging or probes may provably reduce the evolutionary diversity in all civilizations receiving them, as they would condemn the receiver to transcending in a manner similar to that of the sender. If each civilization in our universe is quite limited in what they can learn given their finite computational resources, and if many civilizations evolve in parallel and in isolation in our universe for this reason, then a powerful ethical injunction against one-way messaging or probes might emerge in the morality and sustainability systems of all sufficiently advanced civilizations, an argument known as the Zoo hypothesis in Fermi paradox literature. In any such environment, the evolutionary value of sending any interstellar message or probe may simply not be worth the cost, if transcension and post-transcension merger are elements of an inevitable, accelerative, and testable developmental process, one that eventually will be discovered and quantitatively described by future physics.

Fortunately, transcension processes may be measurable today even without good physical theory, and radio and optical SETI may each provide empirical tests. If transcension is a universal developmental constraint, then without exception all early and low-power electromagnetic leakage signals (radar, radio, television), and later, optical evidence of the exoplanets and their atmospheres should reliably cease as each civilization enters their own technological singularities (emergence of postbiological intelligence and life forms) and recognizes they are on an optimal and accelerating path to a black-hole-like environment. Furthermore, optical SETI may soon allow us to map an expanding area of the galactic habitable zone we may call the galactic transcension zone, an inner ring that contains older transcended civilizations, and a missing planets problem as we discover that planets with life signatures occur at a much lower frequencies in this inner ring than in the remainder of the habitable zone.

Read the full article here: The Transcension Hypothesis, 2010.

See this beautiful 2 minute YouTube video of the hypothesis, by the inspiring futurist Jason Silva and Kathleen Lakey.

I think the strangest and for many, hardest-to-believe part of the transcension hypothesis is the idea of universal development. The most amazing and odds-defying thing I know of is the natural process of biological development. Development is a form of future-specific selection that is far more constrained than what we call natural selection, and if something similar is happening on a universal scale as well, along with all the much more intuitive evolutionary processes, then certain aspects of the future of complex systems are highly biased to proceed in particular directions, and science has a lot of growing up still to do. Fortunately I think many of the pieces of these speculations, such as STEM compression, are stepwise testable, which is encouraging.

You can find a good overview of the evo devo (evolutionary and developmental) universe hypothesis in my chapter-length article, Evo Devo Universe? A Framework for Speculations on Cosmic Culture, 2008.

Comments? Critiques? Feedback is always appreciated but never expected.


  1. While I’ve seen the “go inward” hypothesis before (and it appears in different forms in the fiction of writers like Ken Macleod and Greg Egan, it faces the same problem many answers to Fermi have — they posit something that must always, always happen to every intelligence that ever rises on any planet in any galaxy for the past 14 billion years. Just one exception, one expansionist, human-like culture in a galaxy and soon it’s everywhere.

    So while it is possible that some physics we don’t know directs them all to dive inward, it’s an extraordinary claim and needs extraordinary evidence. Of course for now we have none, other than the silence, which can be explained in far simpler ways.

    The proposal that all the civilizations would wish to wait to meet up with all the others without knowing anything about these civilizations is hard to accept. One would not know if the other civs were non-violent or intellectually compatible and it would be a big risk to wait 20 billion years in an eyeblink just to find out you don’t like the neighbours you waited for. As such I would posit that in fact any civ that did that would only do it if it knew there were going to be cool friends to meet, because that civ had in fact explored the galaxy and found remnants saying, “Hi, we went into the black hole. Here’s our library, you can see we’re cool. When you get bored, come join us.” In other words, instead of being immoral, communication between the civs is a must. Even so, by the way, it takes the risk that some later civ that comes along and joins the club is nasty and more powerful.

    Do planets need to vanish for a civ to take the inward dive? I am not sure we can predict that, though as you say if we find deserted planets that will provide evidence that everybody went somewhere.

    I have always believed that the proposed inner space must be truly infinite, that a group of beings can satisfy all their needs with no scarcity of resources. If there is any scarcity, then an exponentially growing species (like humans) will wish to expand. We don’t know there isn’t such a physics of non-scarce resources on the small scale, but as yet we have no evidence that there is. So I’ve always put this one in the “interesting Fermi speculations” class.

    One thing we now know is this: There is either no intelligent civilization anywhere in our region of the galaxy that is interested in communicating with people at our level of technology, or somebody is blocking such communications to us. Kepler has taught us planets are everywhere, and that even people of our technological level can find them, even search for the products of life like free oxygen on them. Everybody in the region with slightly more tech than ours has known there is life here for a billion years. Anybody with tech slightly ahead of us could be blinking a laser at us that you could see with the naked eye, if they wished to. That has left us with 3 options: They are not there, they do not wish to, or somebody is blocking it. The go-inward hypothesis is an example of them not wishing to — we’re too boring to bother signaling.

    • Thanks for the comment Brad. I don’t posit in the paper that all civilizations must enter inner space. What I say is that if transcension is both a developmental and accelerative process, failures should be very hard to find. If our telescopes are good enough, and the timescales work out right, I argue we should find evidence of a few areas of a few galaxies, and perhaps even a few entire galaxies, where we see expansionist activities. Any developmental process only holds statistically, there are always failures.

      But the timescales may be wrong for us to see whole galaxies that are developmental failures, if they exist, and the signs of intelligence engineering too subtle for us to see the few partial failures where intelligence expanded regionally within our own galaxy before they too transcended. We’d love to communicate with neighboring civilizations, but if they are all spaced too far apart, on average, and the process too accelerative, meeting them via transcension will I think be the overwhelming norm, if indeed that occurs.

      Again, if it’s a developmental process, we can expect all kinds of emergent constraints on our expansionist urges, constraints that we can dimly imagine today. Few would have predicted, looking at early humanity, just how civilized we would become via social and ethical development these last few centuries. Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature is great for data on this, and if this process continues, postsingularity societies will be even more ethically restrained than most of us would imagine today.

      I suspect if the transcension hypothesis is right, those who try to send one-way communications or probes would be considered highly unethical, due to the loss of evolutionary diversity that would likely ensue, and somehow ignorant of the way the whole universal system is guiding them toward inner space at an accelerating rate. See my post, for more thoughts on this accelerating “inward dive” we seem to be engaged in. In either case, I think the fraction of spacetime that gets expanded into, rather than transcended out of, by higher intelligence may be quite small in our universe, and perhaps very hard to detect by us at this stage.

      There is yet another assumption here, which requires yet more extraordinary evidence, as you remind us, that as leading edge computing systems get more complex, they get naturally more self-policing and ethical, again on a statistical basis. You may not share this assumption. Fortunately, I think this issue will be settled long before we have the option to transcend or not transcend. I suspect the technological singularity will make a lot of these issues a lot clearer to postsingularity minds. But it’s fun to speculate on them now, and consider early tests of the theory, like the Missing Planets prediction I make in the paper. Again, thanks for your insights.

  2. I remember when these ideas were hesitant conjecture, John. You have nurtured and refined your early insights into an evermore robust and compelling hypothesis. Your work is important, I’ll continue to follow your progress and cheer your success.

    • Thank you John. Adam Ford just notified me that there’s a good discussion of the hypothesis going on these last few weeks at Extropy Chat. This is the oldest transhumanist email chatlist. Some of our readers might want to join it.
      Their archives are a great browseable source of interesting topics.

      I find one of the hardest to accept implicit assumptions of the transcension hypothesis for many people is the idea that intelligence may get massively more self-policing, ethical, and integrated (organism-like, rather than independent network like) as it becomes postbiological, in any civilization. In other words, it might be only an ethical failure that would lead to interstellar expansion or messaging after AI arrives, and such failures could be extremely rare statistically, once we’ve got AI ethics anywhere.

      This idea goes against our “the future always gives us more freedom” instinct, but historically we see great swings between evolutionary diversification (new freedoms) and developmental integration (rise of multicellarity, moral codes, city states, laws, etc.). The dominant trend for our planet’s next phase of development may be a massive new integration (a devo over evo phase), emergence of a “collective mind” if you will, with all the new diversity coming in the sub-minds, the way we each have mindsets that argue inside our own head but which remain part of one highly integrated organism. These future minds may have massive new freedoms in what they can construct and experiment with in “inner space” (very small physical scales, and virtual space), but the price of that may be their loss of freedom in outer and physical space, at the scale of the collective and beyond. The whole planet looks, to outside observers, like one integrated organism at first, and a computronium “crystal”/black-hole-like entity later. All the new freedoms might happen inside, in a space outside observers can’t easily see. And perhaps if they weren’t deeply and rigorously integrated, any one of these minds might possibly, with future exponentially powerful tools, threaten the very existence of the civilization.

      Given the trends in violence we’ve seen over both the last millennium and the last century, I personally think there is already reasonable evidence for this idea that our social collectives must become more integrated and self-policing and moral as a function of their complexity. Of course, others draw entirely different conclusions from the same history. It may be too early to know, but I don’t think it’s to early to start guessing and trying to improve our hypotheses. As I mentioned earlier, I think Steven Pinker’s new book, Better Angels of our Nature, is an excellent summary of all these issues, and very evidence-based. It’s a great place to get a long range perspective on integrating trends in social collectives, and what they may mean for the future if they continue.

  3. I’m a little late to the party but I have a question that has been nagging me.

    If the future of hyper advanced civilizations are black hole like environments and in such an environment we assume that these beings possess higher levels of consciousness or awareness that just happens to coincide with density of the black hole like environment. Does this somehow equate to consciousness or more particularly highly organized consciousness being a primal driving force in the creation of universal structures that enable the development of said consciousness in a positive feedback mechanism? Could gravity = primal consciousness?

    • Let me clarify. IF this inward race is the inevitable destination of sufficiently advanced civilizations and the identifying characteristic is black hole like conditions, then would that not dictate that gravity and intelligent consciousness are one in the same forces? Could complexity be how kaku describes when he talks about ants not realizing the interstate system IS evidence of higher intelligence because they do not possess the complexity necessary to understand it as such? How does your theory diffrentiate natural blackholes from intelligently created blackholes? Is it possible that they are one in the same? If so what does such a speculation hold for the true nature of stars?

      • Hi Steve,

        I share your intuition that gravity may be one of the driving forces, or at least a critical enabler, of complexification within the universe. I talk about that possibility in my 2008 paper.
        Others have proposed that the informational properties of thermodynamics (entropy increase) may instead be the most fundamental driver, an alternative approach also mentioned in my paper. We don’t have good theories in this area yet, though many are publishing and thinking about it.

        To address your other comments, if we live in an evo devo universe, both stars and black holes, if they are both replicating evo devo systems, may each be doing their best to encode and express increasing evolutionary and developmental complexity in each cycle. As Smolin himself has speculated, the vast majority of black holes in our universe may be analogous to the history of bacteria in our environment.

        Bacteria, and most of the “unintelligent” black holes in our universe, may each express significantly less complexity than, for example, humans do as they complete their lifecycle. But we may need to *start* from these simpler replicating systems as a base on which far more complex replicating universes may emerge. It is a parsimonious theory, and it proposes a lot of self-similarity between replicating complex adaptive systems both within and outside the universe.

        For another model that proposes self-organizing replicative stability as the central feature of all complex systems, let me recommend Addy Pross, What is Life?: How Chemistry Becomes Biology, 2012.
        His theory of dynamic kinetic stability (DKS) as a replicative (evolutionary and developmental) perspective on the emergence of adaptive complexity fits very with the models described above. We shall see, as they say.

  4. Robbie Shapiro says:

    Hello, i find your theories very interesting, but i have a question, you say that every new physical complex entity is smaller yet mpre complex tan the pne before it, but i cannot see how this is true for, lets say a Galaxy, which even if it is more complex tan a star is far bigger, and another example of my question would be, an animal which is more complex tan a cell, but it is bigger too.
    I hope you have time to answer my questions.

    • Hello Robbie,

      Good thinking! I can see your concerns. Let’s consider each of your questions.

      1. Stars emerged after and within galaxies. And they progressed from Population III to I to I-type stars over billions of years, over a small subset of galactic space and time. This is an example of both increasing hierarchy and locality of complexity emergence.

      2. Single eukaryotic cells did indeed go to multicellular organisms. From the perspective of eukaryotic organisms, this is indeed a small but real decrease in locality. But keep in mind that the first living organism was likely bacteria, and bacteria are best understood as one interconnected global superorganism, like an ant, bee, or termite colony. They share genes between each other all the time (bacterial conjugation). Their various subtypes go miles deep into Earth’s crust, and likely traveled on meteorites, as spores, to neighboring planets (Mars, Venus) via meteorites. Thus the range of the bacterial superorganism is, to date, far greater than any eukaryotic organism or species, including humanity (though a few of our instruments have of course gone farther, but they aren’t autonomous). Locality, the drive toward physical and virtual inner space, really does seem to be the dominant life trend, at least as far as I can tell.

      See my online papers, Evo Devo Universe? and The Transcension Hypothesis if you want to explore these ideas more.

      Thanks for the good questions!

      • Robbie Shapiro says:

        Thank you very much for your answer, but i still have i few questions that i hope you may answer, one is about our future, i now understand that the bacterial superorganism is the biggest life organic form in our solar system, because of that, and going along with the theory of increasing locality, humanity will never live in othe planets, not even the moon, that means that there won’t be any moon base at any time in the future, a i right? if that’s so? what do you think will happen to the projects of the european unión, russia or china, i recently Heard they were trying to créate a moon base.
        On the other hand i now understand that the galaxy came before the stars, but i cannot see how is the galaxy less complex than a star, to me it seems more complex, how is that you measure how complex is any given physical system ? and how do you know which physical system comes after which ? i mean, you say stars are more complex than galaxies, but why stars, why not the solar systems ?
        Thank you for your time and attention.


  1. […] a way to reach us very quickly, before they turned postbiological (they apparently don’t, and postbiologicals apparently have other interests) they would they look roughly like us, as the astrophysicist Frank Drake, author of the Drake […]

  2. […] based in the trending prevalence of electromagnetic frequencies. See additional thoughts by Smart here via blog […]

  3. […] and the potential attraction of universal intelligence to black hole-like environments (the Developmental Singularity or Transcension Hypothesis) have asked me for my take on Christopher Nolan’s latest film. Here it is, along with […]

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