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Nearly three years ago I read “If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … Where Is Everybody?: Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life” by Stephen Webb. Well Webb put out a second edition entitled If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … Where Is Everybody?: Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life (emphasis mine). And while the first inclination of any reasonable person might be to talk about the trend of increasingly long book titles, I thought this represented a good opportunity to revisit my solution for Fermi’s Paradox.
For those who need reminding, my solution is fairly straightforward. To begin with, most people who’ve given it any thought, have concluded that potential aliens would be thousands if not millions of years ahead of us technologically. This difference would make these aliens appear godlike in power, and give them abilities that would seem miraculous. Second, these aliens would likely be much more interested in our behavior (which is to say our morality), than in giving us technology, trading with us, destroying us or any of the other common tropes of science fiction. Combine the two together and you’re basically describing religion. And in particular a careful reading of the LDS/Mormon religion says that this is essentially exactly what’s going on. (Though to the best of my knowledge I’m the first person to make the connection explicit.)
Returning to the book, with 25 more solutions to choose from in the second edition, I was curious to see whether mine had finally made the cut. In short, it did not.
(I should point out that there is a chapter titled “God Exists” but it bears no resemblance to my explanation, but if you want more details I covered it when I talked about the first edition of the book.)
I expect, the reason my solution didn’t make the cut, is because Webb had not heard of it. (I intend to rectify that.) Given the solutions which did make the cut, you seriously hope that he hadn’t heard of it. For an example of what I mean, let’s look at the first three potential solutions which were included:
- They Are Here and They Call Themselves Hungarians (Many very prominent scientists were Hungarian. Many went to the same high school.)
- They Are Here and They Call Themselves Politicians (David Icke’s theory that most powerful individuals are shape-shifting lizard people. The less said about it the better)
- They are Throwing Stones at Radivoje Lajic.
If these three make the cut, the bar has to be pretty low. For what it’s worth, both of the last two solutions are new in the second edition. As I said I have no desire to give Icke anymore space than I already have, but as an example of the sort of solution which Webb decided should make the cut, let’s look at the details of the Radivoje Lajic solution. Lagic is a Bosnian gentleman who claims his house has been struck by meteorites on six separate occasions. As Webb points out (somewhat tongue in cheek) given the paucity of meteorite strikes in general, either Lajic has fantastically bad luck, there is some extraterrestrial intelligence with a particular interest in this one poor dude from Bosnia, or there’s something fishy about the whole story. The point of all of this, is that I guess if it’s the middle explanation then it counts as a very weird solution to the paradox.
To be clear, I do not mean to imply that Webb puts any of these three forward as a serious solutions, but it is interesting to wonder why these made the cut and nothing even resembling my solution got included. I know I said he probably hadn’t heard of it, but on the other hand, this is someone who has spent an enormous amount of time thinking about the Paradox, and yet nothing like my solution ever occurred to him. To me this suggests a large blind spot or maybe several. And having just finished the second edition, now is the ideal time to examine what those blind spots and prejudices might be. And what it says that the story of Radivoje Lajic made the cut and nothing, in any way related to religion, did. And of course it isn’t just Webb, these blind spots are common to almost all discussions of the Paradox.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I would assume that most people are familiar with Fermi’s Paradox by now, but if not, it’s the idea that with hundreds of billions of stars (just in our galaxy) and billions of years for other space-faring civilizations to have developed, that by any rational estimate, the universe, as Webb says, should be “teeming with aliens.” This is especially true if you follow the long held statistical assumption of scientists going at least as far back as Copernicus that there is nothing special about us. That Earth, and humanity, represent an average example of what you should expect in any given star system. The paradox is that despite all of the things arguing in favor of aliens, or to use Webb’s Term extraterrestrial civilizations (ETCs) we have found zero evidence of them.
For the purposes of this blog the paradox is profoundly important. When I say “We are not saved.” Or more specifically that technology is not going to save us. Fermi’s Paradox is a powerful point in my favor. And when someone on the other side argues that technology will save us, they have to explain why across billions of years, and hundreds of billions of stars we find no evidence of it ever having done so before.
The generalized problem of the Paradox can be distilled into the idea of a filter. Something which prevents Earthlike planets (which most estimates place in the tens of billions) from developing ETCs. And the key thing to remember is this filter can be in our past (e.g. life is unusually difficult to start) or it can be in our future. Increasingly, with the discovery of more and more earth-like planets, and ever hardier life forms, a filter in the past is looking less and less likely. But if it’s ahead of us, and if we assume that if we’re ever going to spread beyond our solar system we’ll probably do it relatively soon (next 500 years?) or not at all, then the filter is probably something we’re already doing or about to do.
And here we arrive at, what I consider, the first blind spot. Webb is too focused on the idea of a filter. For one, when we eventually get to his solution to the paradox (the 75th solution) he is of the opinion that *spoiler alert* we’re alone. There are no other intelligent civilizations for us to communicate with. Thus, if we suspect Webb of having any biases they must almost certainly be in the direction of overemphasizing the strength of all the potential filters. Second and related, of the three sections he groups the solutions into, only one, the “They Are (or Were) Here” section, specifically doesn’t assume any sort of filters, and only 10 of the 75 solutions fall into this category, and, of those ten, several are not especially serious, including the three we already encountered. Are there so few because that’s just how it naturally breaks out? Or is it because of a failure of imagination on Webb’s part. Given that my solution would fall into this category I suspect it’s the latter.
This failure of imagination is probably the chief problem. We are too tied to our biases and expectations. Though it is not only that we can’t imagine aliens vastly different than ourselves, a problem which most people recognize, I think it works the other way as well, and we are also too quick to dismiss parallels between aliens civilization and our own. And it’s this latter problem that I want to talk about first, though I would argue that Webb and others suffer from the “vast difference” problem of imagination as well.
It’s not that no one has considered possible parallels between our civilization and an alien civilization, but I have seen very few people other than myself look to what humans themselves did when they encountered other civilizations. This includes both what the Europeans did when they discovered the New World and what we do now with uncontacted tribes.
In the former case in addition to all the subjugation and resource extraction, we sent missionaries. This tactic becomes even more apparent when we consider how the Europeans dealt with the far eastern cultures like China and Japan. (I just got done watching the movie Silence by Martin Scorsese about Jesuit missionaries in Japan, so this topic is fresh in my mind.) We no longer do this in quite the same way, mostly because we have decided that it’s a bad thing to impose our ideology on others. Though it still happens. Mormons will certainly send missionaries to any country that lets them, and less religious “missionaries” spend lots of time and money doing things like bringing clean drinking water and education to less-developed countries.
How would this work with aliens? Who knows, but if we can take any broad lessons away from this comparison, it’s that aliens are anything like us they may be far more interested in whether we practice cannibalism, or burn widows on the pyres of their dead husbands, than in dazzling us with giant mile long spaceships. Which is to say that I think most people who talk about the Paradox have read too much science fiction, and they imagine that alien encounters are going to look a lot like Star Trek, ignoring the fact, as I already mentioned, that aliens are likely to be millions of years ahead of us in technology. And they will likely contact us or not contact us in any way they like. Which brings us to the other example: uncontacted tribes.
Currently on the Earth there are still many groups which have never been contacted by the “modern” world. And the agreed upon standard is to, insofar as it’s possible, leave them completely alone. And if we are going to interact with them to have as small a footprint as possible. We’re only a thousand or so years ahead of most of these people and yet, we can do a pretty good job of keeping an eye on them without any awareness on their part. Now imagine how good a job you could do if you were a million years ahead of the civilization you wanted to keep an eye on. You might be able to do things that seemed miraculous. A point I’ll return to shortly.
While Webb doesn’t draw the parallel between how aliens might deal with us and how we deal with uncontacted tribes, he does put forth several solutions which amount to this tactic. These include the Zoo Scenario, the Interdict Scenario and the Planetarium Hypothesis. All of these potential solutions imply that aliens are around, they’re aware of us, and for various reasons they have chosen to hide all traces of their existence. As I have pointed out before, in these scenarios the super-powerful alien races are effectively God. They may not be the Christian God or a Muslim God, or a God that any of the traditional religions would recognized (though they might be, and that takes us back to my explanation) but, to return to the theme of the blog, as far as humanity being saved, our salvation is now entirely dependent on these aliens. If they are powerful enough to hide from our best technology, they are presumably powerful enough to do pretty much anything else they want with us.
Thus, as far as the question of whether or not we’re saved? The answer becomes, “It entirely depends on the whim of super powerful aliens who’ve chosen to hide their existence from us.” This situation is essentially a religion, just one with no obvious doctrine. Is it that much of a jump from these solutions to exactly the same situation, but with actual religious doctrine? I would argue that this is yet another failure of imagination, another blindspot.
Much of this failure stems from the inability of Webb and others to imagine how miracles work. A subject I said I’d return to and which illustrates a lack of imagination on the other end of the spectrum. On the one side people ignore examples like Christian missionaries, because they’re too human, and on this side, they ignore anything which might violate well understood physical limits because humans believe strongly in those limits. For example everyone seems wedded to the speed of light as a hard limit. and while I certainly wouldn’t bet against it, it seems silly to declare anything out of bounds if people have a few millions years more to work on it. Thus they remove from consideration things like prayer, or life after death, or the thousand minor miracles religious people cling to, because these either violate some physical law, or they appear too mundane to be the kinds of things intelligent aliens might do, but then at the same time they assert that it’s foolish to try and predict what a highly advanced ETC might do, because they might be as different from us as we are from ants.
The point being in all of this is that people have a very hard time separating their biases from nearly everything, even thinking about why we have never received any communications or visitations from an ETC, with their presumed lack of any human biases, something which makes shedding biases especially important. In the interest of making sure that I demonstrate my own bias, I’ll close by presenting another potential solution to the Paradox, I do this to illustrate three things:
- My biases
- As an example of how nearly everything relates to the paradox
- How tenuous salvation through science might be
As you might have gathered I have my worries about the social justice movement. Could it be an explanation for the Paradox, could it keep us from getting out of the solar system? To be clear I’m not saying it will, I’m just saying that my biases lead me to look for evidence that it might. As I said, I don’t think technology and “progress” will save us, and from my perspective there’s a lot of reasons for that. A mania for social justice is only one of them, but it makes a good example.
Insofar as welfare and entitlement spending are social justice issues (and I would argue that they are) it’s only natural that a massive increase in that spending would crowd out spending on things like NASA. At the height of the Apollo Program, NASA spending was 4.41% of the federal budget, now it’s 0.47%, so basically one tenth of what it was at its height. All of this is to say that it’s certainly possible to end up in a situation where you’re so concerned about what’s happening on Earth that you never get around to leaving it. I’ve already spent a post explaining the difficulties of leaving Earth on any sort of permanent basis so I won’t spend a lot of time rehashing those difficulties here, suffice it say that it’s not something that can be done as afterthought, and can anyone honestly say that 0.47% of our budget could be considered as anything other than an afterthought?
(For those of you about to say, “But what about Elon Musk?” I would urge you to re-read the previous post I just mentioned, but if you’d rather not, consider that for there to be any kind of long term settlement it eventually has to be profitable. What profits could a Mars colony generate to cover it’s enormous costs?)
That’s something of the 50,000 foot view, but there are other, smaller things which concern me as well. As an example, and perhaps it was just me, I was deeply struck by the controversy over the shirt. For those that don’t recall or didn’t hear the story, back in late 2014 the European Space Agency landed a probe on a comet. This was pretty exciting and accompanied by a live broadcast from mission control. One of the astrophysicists that was on staff wore a t-shirt “depicting scantily-clad cartoon women with firearms.” Despite this shirt being worn because it was made by a female friend of the astrophysicist, it was made to be emblematic of all of the ways men make it hard for women in science. The outrage was so great that the astrophysicist was driven to tears as he made his apology. In my humble and possibly incorrect opinion, if we’re more focused on the shirt then on the fact that we managed to land a probe on an actual comet, then it’s conceivable that our priorities are not aligned in a way that would allow us to make it out of the Solar System.
In another example of a smaller thing which came to my attention recently. In an effort to give every possible group it’s due there is a history book, which despite clocking in at 1,277 pages, makes no mention of the Wright Brothers. (Despite me recently learning about it recently, the article was from 2010, so it might have changed since then.) It is certainly possible that doing space flight well will not require any historical knowledge on how we got to this point, but leaving out stuff like this certainly can’t help.
And then of course, there’s the fact that a substantial percentage of the early employees of NASA were former Nazis. I feel pretty certain that we couldn’t have pulled that off today, and while I doubt we’ll have to make exactly the same tradeoff, there are still tradeoffs to be made, and when getting off the planet conflicts with the principles of social justice, I’m afraid that unless things change, social justice is going to win. And that’s assuming that we ever even get to the point where it matters.
Of course, I already have an explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, and even if I didn’t I don’t think our fixation on social justice would end up at the top of the list, but could it be a contributing factor? Definitely. Mostly likely it’s all part of a generalized lack of will, perhaps tied into an aging civilization. I’m not the first person to suggest that we no longer dare to do big things. But it makes a lot of sense. And one undeniably big thing is putting people on Mars. I’m as excited as anyone about Elon Musk’s plan, despite the fact that I think it’s completely impractical and never going to work. (This is much the same way my excitement about libertarianism works.) But this not Elon’s fault. I suspect that we’re all a tiny bit at fault, and maybe as a society we need to spend our money better, but only time will tell.
The larger point I’m trying to get at with all this, is that if, like Webb you believe that we are all alone, then you’ve essentially placed all of your chips for long term survival and salvation on getting off the planet, and anything that threatens that project should be viewed in a very harsh light. If, on the other hand, you are persuaded by my solution then things are far less grim.
I know, Christmas is on Monday and you haven’t gotten me anything, and you feel bad, well it’s never too late to donate.
Speaking of Christmas I’ll be taking next week off for the holidays, but I’ll be back in 2018 with more of my strange mix of politics, religion and technology.