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The Great Silence (Philosophy and Fermi’s Paradox)

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I just finished The Great Silence: The Science and Philosophy of Fermi’s Paradox by Milan M. Ćirković.  Which I was made aware of after corresponding with the author some months ago. At the time, I was on a quest to send my Fermi’s Paradox as Proof of the Existence of God theory to people who had written about Fermi’s Paradox, and his name ended up on the list, though I forget why. He was very gracious and in addition to sending me some papers that touched on my theory for the paradox (none particularly close) he also recommended his forthcoming book. I’m grateful for the recommendation, since, despite having a Google Alert set to notify me if anyone talks about the paradox anywhere on the internet, I don’t think I ever saw an alert for this book. Thus, without the correspondence, I might have completely missed it, which would have been a great shame because it’s fantastic.

(Edit: Actually just this week as I was writing my post, but after composing the first paragraph, I finally got an alert which mentioned Ćirković’s book.)

This post will be split into two parts. In the first half I’ll review the book, and point out things I found particularly notable or interesting about Ćirković’s approach. In the second half I’ll examine the case for including my explanation as a contender using the standards Ćirković has laid out.

Review and Commentary on The Great Silence

Before I get into a discussion of the finer points of the book, I’ll start with a brief general review. In other words I’ll address the question, “Should you read this book?”

“The Great Silence” is the best thing I have ever read about the paradox, though to be fair, that’s a pretty small field. So I’ll point out, additionally, that I thought it was good enough to deserve a spot in the bookshelf on my desk. A bookshelf set aside for the 50 or so books I expect to reference again and again for a long time to come. That praise aside, this is not a book for everyone. It’s very scholarly, and sometimes goes too far in assuming background knowledge which not everyone will posses. (Including me.) But for that narrow slice of people who agree with Ćirković (as I do) that:

[Fermi’s Paradox] is…a conundrum of profound scientific, philosophical and cultural importance. By a simple analysis of observation selection effects, the correct resolution of Fermi’s paradox is certain to tell us something about the future of humanity.

(I would change “something” to “quite a bit”.) Also…

The very richness of the multidisciplinary and multicultural resources required by individual explanatory hypotheses enables us to claim that [Fermi’s Paradox] is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science. (Emphasis original.)

If you are in this group, then “The Great Silence” is invaluable and I could not recommend it more highly.

Like Ćirković I’m going to assume a certain amount of background knowledge as we begin our discussion. If for some reason you’re only marginally familiar with Fermi’s Paradox you should go read the Wikipedia article first. And if you’re familiar with the paradox, but not familiar with my argument for why the existence of God makes a pretty good explanation, you might want to review that post as well before diving in. Those caveats aside let’s proceed.

Obviously the first thing to be done in a book like this is to define what Fermi’s Paradox is, starting with the obligatory discussion of the famous lunch where Enrico Fermi asked his question, “Where is everybody?” Once that’s out of the way, Ćirković breaks his definition up into three levels:

  1. ProtoFP: Exactly what Fermi said. The absence of extraterrestrials on Earth is incompatible with the rest of our assumptions.
  2. WeakFP: The absence of any evidence of extraterrestrials in the Solar System  is incompatible with our assumptions:
  3. StrongFP: The absence of any evidence for extraterrestrials anywhere.

It honestly never occurred to me that someone referring to Fermi’s Paradox would be using any other definition than the strong one, but apparently it happens. Accordingly I’ll include Ćirković version of it here in full and declare that whenever I discuss the paradox I’m referring to the “Strong” version.

Strong Fermi’s Paradox(a.k.a. The Great Silence, Silentium Universi): The lack of any intentional activities or manifestations or traces of extraterrestrial civilizations in our past light cone is incompatible with the multiplicity of extraterrestrial civilizations and our conventional assumptions about their capacities.

The strength of the paradox when stated this way is perhaps most apparent when we consider how easy it is would be to detect traces of humanity if the situation were reversed and we were the extraterrestrial civilization being searched for. There are already many ways for the presence of humans to be detected by someone outside our Solar System and even more ways to detect the presence of life on Earth. All of this technology consists of things we’ve already mastered, and lack only engineering to implement them on the scale required. Meaning that it should be child’s play for a civilization even a few hundreds years more advanced than where we are currently.

Given how detectable advanced civilizations should be, Ćirković makes an interesting point, receiving an alien signal from one other civilization doesn’t necessarily resolve the strong version of the paradox. One could certainly imagine picking up a signal from someone only a few hundred years ahead of us, and still be in a situation of asking, “Where is everybody else?”

The next challenge one faces when discussing explanations for Fermi’s Paradox, is how to organize those explanations. Stephen Webb, who I’ve talked about previously, collected 75 explanations in his book, If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens Where Is Everybody? Webb decided to organize them into these three buckets:

  1. They are (or were) here
  2. They exist, but we have yet to see or hear from them
  3. They don’t exist

That’s not a bad system and certainly it covers all of the possibilities, but I think Ćirković’s system is both more clever and more useful. He starts by identifying four assumptions we have made about the universe, and then grouping explanations for the paradox in buckets corresponding to which assumption would have to be incorrect for that explanation to possible.

The four assumptions are:

  1. Realism: The assumption that what we see is reality. Explanations which violate this assumption include things like the Simulation Hypothesis which posits that we live in The Matrix, and the “Include Aliens” flag has been set to false.
  2. Copernicanism: Also called the Mediocrity Principle. This is the idea that there’s nothing particularly special about humans or Earth. Explanations which violate this assumption mostly fall into the “Rare Earth” category, and include things like the theory that multicellular life is exceptionally difficult.
  3. Gradualism: The assumption that things will continue much as they have. That humanity will continue to expand outward, that the galaxy wasn’t markedly more dangerous in the past than it is now, etc. The popular worry that we’re going to wipe ourselves out with nukes is one example of something which violates this assumption.
  4. Non-exclusiveness: The assumption that there is diversity among potential extraterrestrial civilizations, that they are not likely to all behave in exactly the same manner or agree to the same things. This is closely related to the last assumption, for example maybe some civilizations will blow themselves up, but for that to be the answer we have to violate this assumption by assuming all civilizations blow themselves up.

Webb’s method works well as a logic division for all possible explanations of the paradox, but I think Ćirković’s is much better if your goal is to solve it, which takes us to the next requirement of any good book about the paradox, grading the possible solutions, which Ćirković does literally.

There are quite a few D’s and F’s (18 out of 36 total), but we’re obviously interested in the A’s. No explanation gets a straight A because that would be equivalent to declaring it The Solution, but he does give out one A- for the Gaian Window explanation. A Rare-Earth hypothesis which basically states that stable biotic feedback loops are rare, which creates several narrow bottlenecks all of which we managed to pass through, but which no else has.

Rare-Earth explanations are fairly common, indeed that’s the explanation Webb favored in his book, and to be fair there’s a lot to be said for them as potential explanations, but in general they’re the least interesting of the possibilities. In recognition of this Ćirković includes a list of his subjective favorites, these are:

  • New Cosmogony (Grade: B)- I’ll discuss this in the next section.
  • Astrobiological Phase Transition (Grade: B)- Something we don’t understand makes life possible only relatively recently, and may in fact periodically reset things such that life has to start over.
  • Deadly Probes (Grade: B+, the next highest grade and the only B+ given)- There is a galactic ecosystem of self-replicating probes that destroy all intelligent life. I discussed this at some length in my Fermi’s Paradox and the Dark Forest post, and as always the question (which I think Ćirković doesn’t pay enough attention to) is, “What are they waiting for?”
  • Transcension Hypothesis (Grade: B-)- All advanced civilizations get reduced to information flows which are hard to detect, particularly if you don’t know the protocols.
  • Galactic Stomach Ache (Grade: C)- The removal of stress becomes the dominant preoccupation of civilizations, which not only absorbs all their resources, but also removes all the beneficial stress which dominated all pre-technological progress. As you can imagine I really like this explanation, so I’ll be talking about it next week, though perhaps not in the form you expect.

I agree with Ćirković that these are some of the more interesting explanations, and I’m glad he lists his favorites even if subjectivity is discouraged in science because it somewhat lets me off the hook for spending so much time on my favorite explanation, which takes us into the second half of the episode.

Supernatural Explanations for the Paradox

In one of the quotes above, Ćirković asserts that the paradox is “the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science”. But one disciple he doesn’t want to bring to the table is the discipline of theology. Specifically he says early on that he’s going to hew to “methodological naturalism” in his search for explanations. This means that he is not going to “invoke supernatural agencies and capacities in searching for an explanation for observed phenomena”. This is entirely appropriate for a book of this sort, and I have no problem with this methodology. Also it’s to his credit that Ćirković unlike so many others at least acknowledges that there might be supernatural explanations which should be in the running, absent this restriction.  No the problem I have, and you knew there was one, is where do you draw the line between the supernatural and the natural?

Ćirković offers several explanations of the paradox where that line has been drawn very expansively. I’d like to look at three of his explanations, and in particular look at where he has drawn the line with each. I’ll will open each with Ćirković’s formal defining statement of the explanation:

Zoo Hypothesis: Advanced Galactic civilizations intentionally refrain from contacting newcomers for ethical reasons, reasons to do with security, or some other reasons (which would be incomprehensible to newcomers). We are located in the Galactic analogue of a zoo or a wilderness preserve—a chunk of space set aside for the low-level civilizations to evolve without interference. This no-contact policy extends to hiding traces and manifestations of their existence. We may be confident that they observe us, as we observe animals in a zoo, a lab, or a wilderness preserve, without us being aware of the fact.

This is one of the more common explanations for the paradox, frequently encountered in popular culture, for example Star Trek’s Prime Directive. According to this explanation our observation of the rest of the universe is being severely restricted. Would it be fair to say it’s unnaturally restricted? Certainly it’s unnatural to stick animals in a zoo or even a wilderness preserve. I could see an objection in jumping from unnatural to supernatural, but at the very least this explanation places limits on our ability to use methodological naturalism to get to the bottom of the paradox, because that methodology is being subverted by our “zoo-keepers”.

The New Cosmogony: Very early cosmic civilizations (…billions of years older than humanity) have advanced so much that their artefacts and their very existence are indistinguishable from ‘natural’ processes observed in the universe. Their information processing is distributed in the environment on so low a level that we perceive it as operations of the laws of physics. Their long-term plans include manipulation of these very laws in order to create new stages of cosmological evolution. Since the whole of the observable reality is, thus, partly artificial, there is no Fermi’s Paradox.

Many posts ago I talked about Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. Sagan was deeply interested in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) and appears frequently in Ćirković’s book. “Contact” was his book about SETI, and as a bonus it also gave a fictional answer to the paradox. This answer was what you might expect with a few exceptions, most notably he introduces aliens that are so powerful they can embed a code in pi, such that once you calculate it out to a few billion digits, it turns into a binary code. You can perhaps see why this explanation which involves manipulating the laws of physics reminded me of the novel. But whether it appears in Sagan’s book or Ćirković’s the question we care about is whether this explanation might be supernatural. In my opinion, something which allows you to manipulate the laws of nature is by definition supernatural.

Simulation Hypothesis: Physical reality we observe is, in fact a simulation created by Programmers of an underlying, true reality and run on the advanced computers of that underlying reality. Due to a form of principle of indifference, we cannot ever hope to establish the simulated nature of our world, provided that the Programmers do not reveal their presence. As a parenthetical consequence, the simulation is set up in order to study a rather limited spatio-temporal volume, presumably centered on Earth—there are no simulated extraterrestrial intelligent beings, so there is no Fermi’s Paradox.

Another explanation that gets mentioned a lot, and also appears in popular culture, particularly The Matrix. I would assume here that the explanation’s supernatural character is obvious. Not only are “Programmers” gods in all but name, they have also specifically set up an unnatural reality where the laws of physics as we understand them would lead to you expect extraterrestrials, but the Programmers have chosen to leave them out of the simulation, which is hard to label as anything other than a supernatural act. Certainly it appears difficult to apply “methodological naturalism” to the question since nature is entirely what the programmers have decided it should be.

Difficult, but perhaps not impossible, and there have been various proposals over the years for ways we might be able to tell. And I assume that this is the argument most people would summon to create a dividing line between the natural and the supernatural, the dividing line of falsifiability. Which all of these explanations share, at least in theory. In the first, if at some future point we have spread out across the galaxy without encountering any zoo-keepers then that explanation would appear to be false. In the second, the task is a little more difficult, but as Ćirković points out it doesn’t provide a very good explanation for why there are no extraterrestrials technologically between us and those aliens with the power to rewrite physical laws. And I’ve already linked to some attempts to falsify the third explanation.

At this point I am perfectly comfortable declaring that there are certainly some religious explanations which are too supernatural to deserve discussion. Anyone offering up the explanation that the entire universe is only a little over 6000 years old and thus extraterrestrials wouldn’t have time to develop, should not be taken seriously. But that is not what I’m claiming. My explanation, if rendered in the same fashion as the others in the book might run as follows:

God Exists: As expected aliens do exist, and their technology is vastly superior to ours, so much so that it appears miraculous. In order to pass this technology along they need to ensure we will use it responsibly. Existence, as we recognize it, is a test of this. This test is similar to current proposals to minimize AI Risk. And similarly a full understanding of both the test and the alien’s existence would invalidate it. Accordingly they act more subtly through things like miracles and prayer. All of which is to say, that aliens exist, they do communicate with us, Therefore, there is no Fermi’s Paradox.

Stated this way I would argue that it sounds similar to all of his other proposed explanations, there’s nothing that sets it apart as being especially supernatural, particularly when compared to the other explanations I just quoted. Some people may object to the fact that I entirely leave out life after death (and in the LDS case life before birth) which is both central to the majority of religions and definitely a supernatural element, but is not the same thing possible, even likely under the Simulation Hypothesis? And yet Ćirković not only includes it, but gives it a B- grade in his assessment of how seriously it should be considered.

As far as falsifiability, I would submit that it does even better here. Most of the explanations given above are only weakly falsifiable, and in fact have a resistance to falsifiability built right into the explanation. It is not any piece of evidence, but rather a lack of evidence, that makes us think Zookeepers and Programmers might exist. On the other hand I can think of at least three straightforward ways for the God Exists explanation to be falsified:

  1. Under Christian eschatology (the one I am most familiar with and the one that fits best with the God Exists explanation) we read concerning Christ’s second coming, “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” That said, I think everyone would agree that if it’s going to happen it should happen in the next few hundred years. Let’s round that up to a thousand. I will happily say that if Christ doesn’t return by 3018 that Christians are wrong about everything, including any ways in which Christianity might explain Fermi’s Paradox.
  2. As I mentioned above one of the more interesting things Ćirković points out is that the mere detection of a single alien signal would not resolve the stronger versions of Fermi’s Paradox, though it would falsify some explanations. The God Exists explanation is one of those, and to falsify it we would merely need to detect one other set of intelligent aliens anywhere. Note that none of the other three examples would be falsified by this. (Though, in theory these aliens could have a religion which corresponds to the God Exists explanation of the paradox in which case their discovery would push things the other way, and make the explanation far more likely.)
  3. The God Exists explanation makes several predictions about how things should work. As one example, for it to be true, traditional religious morality would have to have some long term value, even in the face of steadily advancing technology. If 500 years from now all religious societies have been decisively out competed by secular societies, then it would follow that we’d have good reason to reject the God Exists explanation (as well as most of the other claims of religion.) As I discussed in a previous post, the societal benefits of religion are often overlooked. As a more recent example of that, I refer you to the study showing that religion is better than cognitive-based therapy (one of the most recommended forms of treatment) for treating the most depressed.

I’m tempted at this point to give my explanation a grade, but obviously I’m not even close to being objective enough. Perhaps Ćirković will check in and do it for me. I suspect it will be lower than I would like, because even though he calls for greater attention for even radical ideas, this explanation is still probably both too supernatural and too anti-Copernican for his tastes.

I’ve already covered the supernatural angle, so I’ll close by discussing whether the explanation is anti-Copernican. It is true that most religious cosmologies are anti-Copernican. People are quick to point out that this was literally true during the time of Galileo. But here LDS/Mormon cosmology is different. It’s profoundly Copernican. It doesn’t think there’s anything special about Earth, or humanity. In the LDS version of Genesis, God tells Moses that he has created “worlds without number” and that all of them are inhabited. I would be surprised if Ćirković found this to be a very satisfying answer, but it does technically resolve that objection. And as to Ćirković’s more practical concern that latent anti-Copernicanism is fatally undermining SETI efforts, I would argue that LDS cosmology is not contributing to that. All the Mormons I know are excited by the idea.

Many of the explanations involve aliens with godlike powers and motivations, and I for one think injecting a little god and religion into the process is therefore entirely appropriate.


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Stubborn Attachments vs. The Vulnerable World and Fermi’s Paradox

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Imagine there’s an urn. Inside of the urn are balls of various shades. You can play a game by drawing these balls out of the urn. Drawing a white ball is tremendously beneficial. Off-white balls are almost as good but carry a few downsides as well. There are also some gray balls and the darker the gray the more downsides it carries. However, if you ever draw a pure black ball then the game is over, and you lose.

This is a metaphor for technological progress which was recently put forth in a paper titled, The Vulnerable World Hypothesis. The paper was written by Nick Bostrom, a futurist whose best known work is Superintelligence, which I have referred to more than once in this space.

In the paper, drawing a ball from the urn represents developing a new technology (using a very broad definition of the word). White balls represent technology which is unquestionably good. (Think the smallpox vaccine.) Off-white balls may have some unfortunate side effects, but on net they’re still very beneficial, and as the balls get more grey their benefits become more ambiguous and the harms increase. A pure black ball represents a technology which is so bad in one way or another that it would effectively mean the end of humanity. Draw a black ball and the game is over.

As an example of a “black ball technology” Bostrom asks us to imagine a hypothetical alternate history:

On the grey London morning of September 12, 1933, Leo Szilard was reading the newspaper when he came upon a report of an address recently delivered by the distinguished Lord Rutherford, now often considered the father of nuclear physics. In his speech, Rutherford had dismissed the idea of extracting useful energy from nuclear reactions as “moonshine”. This claim so annoyed Szilard that he went out for a walk. During the walk he got the idea of a nuclear chain reaction—the basis for both nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs. Later investigations showed that making an atomic weapon requires several kilograms of plutonium or highly enriched uranium, both of which are very difficult and expensive to produce. However, suppose it had turned out otherwise: that there had been some really easy way to unleash the energy of the atom—say, by sending an electric current through a metal object placed between two sheets of glass.

Having asked us to imagine this alternate history Bostrom asks us to further imagine what would have happened to the world had this been the case. I suspect most of us have a hard time imagining anything other chaos and anarchy.

This is the “Vulnerable World Hypothesis” (VWH) from the title. The hypothesis that somewhere in the urn there is a black ball (and probably more than one). Sure, nuclear weapons ended up being difficult to create, but perhaps engineering new, highly infectious diseases will be as easy as ”sending an electric current through a metal object placed between two sheets of glass”. If there is a black ball in the urn, then the worry is that if we keep drawing from the urn eventually we’ll pull it out, and as I said, the game will be over.

Once you start thinking about this idea, there are some interesting (and frankly frightening) possibilities. One of the things that Bostrom doesn’t go into very much is that the shade of the ball might change after being drawn. To begin with when you do research It’s not always clear what sort of technology you’re going to end up with. For example when Roentgen stumbled on X-rays, that ball may have looked a little greyish, but once their medicinal application became apparent the color of the “X-ray ball” ended up being very white.

One consequence of this, is that in addition to not being able to choose the shade of the ball before we draw, the balls can change color the longer they’re out. You can draw a ball which looks bright white and ends up getting darker and darker the longer the technology is in use. Certainly some people would argue that coal falls into this category. (The gradually darkening of the ball being appropriate in this example.) When people first started burning coal the ball must have seemed pretty white, but now there are at least as many people who think it’s going to destroy the planet (and very few people think it’s great.)

Social media is definitely not as black as coal (pun intended), but I think everyone agrees that it’s getting grayer with every passing year. It’s hard to imagine it will go all the way to black, but once again this illustrates that it’s impossible, if you’re actually drawing balls to not draw ones that are bad because even after you draw them the shade may not be apparent, possibly for decades, or in the case of coal, centuries. Thus even if you think that somehow humanity will coordinate in some amazing and unprecedented way if a true black ball is drawn, we might not know until it’s too late.

As you might imagine this metaphor is not encouraging. The only way humanity avoids drawing a black ball, and thus “losing the game” is if they stop drawing, or if there are no black balls. The first seems possible but very, very, unlikely, though as unlikely as the first one is the idea that there are no black balls seems even more unlikely. I am reminded of Taleb’s Black Swan, just because the only swans you’ve ever seen are white doesn’t mean there aren’t any black swans, but of course this situation is even worse. It’s not as if we have only drawn white balls so far, and can thus plausibly hope that’s all there are. We have already drawn many balls that are very, very grey (thermonuclear weapons anyone?) and many of the balls are getting darker with each passing year.

Interestingly at around the same time as I came across Bostrom’s paper, I also finished reading Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals by Tyler Cowen. You could consider this book a companion to Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (and Cowen mentions that book approvingly). Whereas Enlightenment Now’s thesis is that everything is going great and will continue to do so as long as we don’t abandon the ideals of the enlightenment, Cowen’s thesis is that everything is going great and will continue to do so as long as we don’t take our eyes off the ball of economic growth. As you might imagine the VWH doesn’t fit in very well with either model, but in particular Cowen could be said to be advocating not only that we continue to draw balls from the urn, but that we increase the speed at which we do so.

If we set aside the VWH for a moment, Cowen’s focus on growth, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, makes quite a bit of sense, and it’s worth laying out the case for it. Here’s the books own summary:

Growth is good. Through history, economic growth in particular has alleviated human misery, improved human happiness and opportunity, and lengthened human lives. Wealthier societies are more stable, offer better living standards, produce better medicines, and ensure greater autonomy, greater fulfillment, and more sources of fun.

Cowen is not claiming that growth makes everyone better at the same rate, or that there aren’t pockets of problems. Rather, his claim is that if you compare the world of today with the world 200 years ago that basically everything is better, even if there are individual years within that span that were worse than the previous year. Over a long enough time horizon all the problems of unequal distribution and outcomes are eventually solved..

Some people would counter that modernity has brought a decrease in contentment and happiness, but Cowen argues that this is just a problem with the way we describe happiness.

To give an example, if you ask the people of Kenya how happy they are with their health, you’ll get a pretty high rate of reported satisfaction, not so different from the rate in the healthier countries, and in fact higher than the reported rate of satisfaction in the United States. The correct conclusion is not that Kenyan hospitals possess hidden virtues or that malaria is absent in Kenya, but rather that Kenyans have recalibrated their use of language to reflect what they can reasonably expect from their daily experiences.

In other words happiness is relative, but in absolute terms Americans are way better off than Kenyans. And that this is because of economic growth. This is an important point for Cowen to clarify, and beyond that, there are of course all manner of nooks and crannies to his arguments. For example, he makes a big deal of preserving certain rights and values even if they conflict with maximizing growth. He also has interesting things to say about charitable giving and redistribution, but I don’t have the space to cover most of them. There is however one concept of his which I do need to bring up because it’s so central to the rest of the book, his idea of “Wealth Plus”.

Wealth Plus: The total amount of value produced over a certain time period. This includes the traditional measures of economic value found in GDP statistics, but also includes measures of leisure time, household production, and environmental amenities, as summed up in a relevant measure of wealth.

Thus when Cowen talks about maximizing growth, he’s talking about maximizing Wealth Plus. Which means he doesn’t think people should work fourteen-hour days, nor does he think it’s a good idea to destroy the environment. In fact to his credit Cowen advocates for very low time preference, something we share. And, insofar as leisure time, and amenities and traditional wealth contribute to happiness, maximizing Wealth Plus generates happiness as a useful byproduct.

Recently I have become more and more convinced that one of the central tensions in the modern world is the tension between the values of happiness and survival. Now, Cowen goes to great pains to say that he is not trying to maximize a single value:

…I hold pluralism as a core moral intuition. What’s good about an individual human life can’t be boiled down to any single value. It’s not all about beauty or all about justice or all about happiness.

But then he also explicitly says that he wants to maximize Wealth Plus, and as I just pointed out even if Wealth Plus is not a “single value” there is a lot of overlap between it and happiness. Also you’ll notice that survival is not mentioned in his list of potential values, either. And of course all of this takes us back to Bostrom and the urn.

It would appear that regardless of whether Wealth Plus is shorthand for happiness or not, it explicitly calls for us to draw out new balls at an ever faster rate, particularly given Cowen’s assertion that “technological progress [is] a major factor behind U.S. economic growth.”

All of this leaves us with a few possibilities:

1- We stop drawing balls. This would certainly allow us to avoid any black balls, but it’s hard to imagine how we would continue to experience any economic growth let alone the level of growth that Cowen is advocating. Also I can’t imagine any world where the policies necessary to make this happen would be implemented, even assuming they could be enforced.

2- We keep drawing balls, but we implement draconian measures to prevent black balls from truly “ending the game”. This is the suggestion Bostrom puts forth in the paper, and in fact it forms part of his definition:

VWH: If technological development continues then a set of capabilities will at some point be attained that make the devastation of civilization extremely likely, unless civilization sufficiently exits the semi-anarchic default condition.

He then goes on to define “semi-anarchic default condition” as a world characterized by three features:

a) Limited capacity for preventive policing.

b) Limited capacity for global governance.

c) Diverse motivations.

I obviously don’t have the space to go into these three features, but his recommendations end up being quite extreme (think 1984’s Big Brother only worse). They may perhaps be more feasible than stopping technological development all together, but not by much. Making this possibility only slightly more probable than possibility number one.

3- We keep drawing balls, but there are no black balls in the urn. There is no technology that will irrevocably end humanity. For example, I mentioned thermonuclear weapons above, but perhaps their actual effect was to make war so unthinkable that it never happens again (meaning they were actually a white ball.) Or maybe even if there is a nuclear war perhaps over a long enough time horizon it would end up being just be a bump in the road, not any kind of hard stop. I think this is the option most people hope for, though I doubt there is much conscious choice involved. I have some thoughts on how to evaluate the probability of this option, which I’ll get to in a moment, but I suspect it’s lower than most people think.

Thus far none of these possibilities seems especially promising, and none seem to play very well with Cowen’s growth-will-fix-everything model, but perhaps that’s exactly the point perhaps that’s the fourth possibility:

4- Growth will fix everything even the existence of a black ball. Back under possibility number two Bostrom claims that the VWH is only a worry as long as we are in a semi-anarchic state. In an analogous fashion perhaps VWH is also only a worry if you haven’t experienced enough growth or if your rate of growth is too slow. Perhaps the best example of this: many VWH possibilities go away once we have self-sustaining populations on two planets. And it’s also possible that most black balls have a white ball which negates them, we just need to develop it. Returning one more time to nuclear weapons, some have made the argument that once submarine launched nukes were available they provided a guaranteed second strike capability. This made nuclear weapons functionally unusable because the initial aggressor couldn’t guarantee they would escape without retaliation. It could then be argued that nuclear weapons were only a “black ball” during the period between their invention and the invention of submarine launched missiles.]

Perhaps we need to add another shade of ball to the game. A pure white ball, which, when drawn, permanently wins the game once and for all. Perhaps something like creating an omnipotent AI which would fulfill all three of Bostrom’s criteria for moving us out of a semi-anarchic state.

What this means is that even though Cowen’s plan has us drawing balls out of the urn as fast as possible, it might actually be the safest plan, because it leads to the shortest time between a black ball and the white ball which counters it. And if there is a pure white ball we draw it as soon as possible as well. Perhaps this plan will work. Maybe there is a potential future where we can have our cake and eat it to. That focusing on economic growth/happiness is also the best way to ensure our survival as well.

That seems too good to be true, but how can we know? Is there any method which would allow us to evaluate the probability that there are no black balls or that if we just grow fast enough we can counter all the black balls with “defensive” technology, or that pure white balls exist?

Well one thing that would certainly help is if we could point to the example of someone else who had done it. And here we return to our old friend Fermi’s Paradox. Which once again, instead of giving us hope for the future, leads us to the exact opposite conclusion. Could VWH be just one more explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, and further an explanation which puts the Great Filter ahead of us rather than behind us? That black balls exist and that all civilizations eventually draw one, and that’s why we’re alone in the universe?

Long time readers of the blog will know that my preferred explanation for Fermi’s Paradox is that aliens are out there, but they’re so advanced that we just call them “God”. It’s not my intent to revisit that argument here, but it does give us one final possibility:

5- Someone is in charge of the game. If we return to considering possibility number three, the idea that there are no black balls just by chance, that somehow the universe is randomly set up such that there is definitely very destructive technology, but it’s always just this side of being too destructive. This seems suspiciously convenient, also unlikely, particularly when you toss in Fermi’s Paradox. But if you consider my explanation for the paradox, or even religion more generally, there is the possibility that someone is running the game, and it’s designed such that at least some people will eventually “win”. Obviously this takes us into the realm of theology, but that objection aside, I think you’ll agree that it’s clearly the most hopeful of all the possibilities. Of course, there are many people who can’t put this objection aside, which would mean our best hope is possibility four.

When I started this blog a couple of years ago, my very first post talked about being in a race between a beneficial singularity and technological catastrophe. Possibility number four brings us back to the same spot, a race of drawing balls as quickly as possible and hoping we either draw a pure white ball, or that each black ball we draw is quickly negated by a white ball. The only hint we have as to whether this plan will succeed is Fermi’s Paradox, and if it has any predictive power at all we have to assume that this is a race we’re probably going to lose.

Next week I will return to Fermi’s Paradox. I’m continually amazed by how many subjects eventually end up being touched by it, and even though I’ve spent plenty of time talking about it already, we’re going to be talking about it again. I just finished another book on the subject which has revealed even more nooks and crannies to explore.


This week rather than make an appeal for donations of dubious cleverness. I’d ask that you answer a few questions about the blog. Here’s the link.


Fermi’s Paradox: Mistake of Dramatic Timing and Other Errors

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I just finished the Bobiverse Trilogy. If you haven’t heard of the trilogy it’s a relatively new science fiction series by Dennis Taylor. The premise is that the consciousness of a guy named Bob is put into a self-replicating spacecraft (also known as a Von Neumann Probe), and sent out to explore nearby stars. As I said it’s self-replicating, meaning he can make more Bobs, thus the Bobiverse.

Like most current science fiction it has to grapple with Fermi’s Paradox, and, if I’m going to be honest, it did not do a very good job of this. Now this is not to say these aren’t good books. I thoroughly enjoyed them, they’re a quick, fun read. And despite having some major problems with how he approaches the paradox, he does tackle some other big ideas in an interesting fashion, just not that one. Also, he is not the first to make the mistake I’m about to describe, but he is the example I encountered most recently, so I’m going to be picking on him a little bit. I’m going to call the mistake that he, and others, have made, the “Mistake of Dramatic Timing”.

I’m not going to be able to discuss this mistake without a few spoilers, but I’ll try to keep them as mild as possible. In the books, the Bobs encounter aliens, and as it turns out the tech level of these aliens is basically within a few hundred years of human tech, and perhaps more importantly the aliens were within a few hundred years of encountering Earth regardless of what the humans did. This is the Mistake of Dramatic Timing, and it’s present all through science fiction. I’m sure you can probably think of numerous examples. Though once again, to be honest, I’m not sure I can immediately summon an example as egregious as the Bobiverse. (It’s actually worse than it looks, but I’d have to get deeper into spoilers to explain why, feel free to email me if you’ve read the books, but aren’t sure what I’m talking about.) Which is one of the reasons I felt compelled to point it out.

Hopefully the term “dramatic timing” is descriptive enough that people already know what I’m talking about, but even if that’s the case, putting some percentages to things helps clarify how unlikely it would be to encounter aliens in the exact fashion the Bobs did. Though, for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book, and in order to avoid more spoilers, let’s switch to one of the other examples of this mistake, the movie Independence Day. In Independence Day the aliens are after our natural resources. You can make an argument, given the insane logistics of space that this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Regardless, the point is, with this goal they don’t care if there are humans around or not. In fact it would have been much better if they had shown up 50 years earlier (before the Macbook…)

This means the only reason for the aliens to show up when they did was dramatic. They (and any other potential aliens) could have conceivably visited Earth at any point during its existence. Meaning the chances of them coming during any specific 500 year period (roughly the period from Galileo to the present day, the period during which we’ve actually cared about astronomy) is 0.00001% (500/4.543 billion).

The further probability that when they arrive, their technology will be only a few hundred years in advance of ours, is a little less straightforward to calculate, since it’s unclear whether technology will stagnate, or whether, on the other hand, it will continue to grow exponentially, but either way you’re looking at another very tiny number. For the sake of the example let’s once again use 500 years as our window of matching, and assume a modest average lifetime for a civilization we encounter of 250,000 years (it could in reality be in the billions). If we then assume that they would contact us on average 125,000 years into their existence, then we’re still looking at only a 0.4% chance of having technology that’s within 500 years of the aliens, and a 500 year difference is still pretty bad. I doubt Renaissance Florence would be very eager to fight the US Sixth Fleet. What this means is that the chance of both happening is so improbable as to be effectively impossible. Particularly given how conservative I’m being on the estimates in the differences in our technology.

I’m sure that some people are going to argue that using the entire existence of the Earth as the denominator in our equation is unfair, since there are certain conditions which need to be met before intelligent life could could arise anywhere. In particular most people argue that it’s limited by the metallicity of the universe, and because that takes time to build up (through supernova) and because that limits the number of terrestrial planets on which life could evolve. But as it turns out, terrestrial planets don’t depend nearly as much on metallicity as we thought, In fact, somewhat ironically, it actually appears to have more of an effect on gas giants. The upshot of all this is that we’ve recently discovered rocky planets that are more than twice as old as the Earth. Meaning that life on another planet would have as much time as life on Earth has had before Earth even came into existence. Accordingly, without bringing other factors into play, there’s every reason to believe that there should be civilizations out there which are billions of years ahead of us. Whether it’s exactly 4.543 billion or just a couple of billion doesn’t materially affect the percentages above.

Now of course we know exactly why Roland Emmerich (director of Independence Day), and Dennis Taylor, and all of the others did it, because despite being a mistake it’s a dramatic mistake. Having the aliens show up and stomp the living daylights out of us before we’re even aware of what’s happening (imagine the Sixth Fleet vs. Renaissance Florence only worse) doesn’t make a very good story, and consequently very few people decide to write that story. This would be fine except that everyone has absorbed these stories as the way it’s most likely to happen, and so when they imagine contact with some kind of extraterrestrial it’s science fiction aliens with better, but not ridiculously better technology (and ideally an Achilles’ Heel.) This thinking is the most obvious distortion, but as I have argued in other posts, I believe it distorts even the thinking of those scientists and academics who are paid to think deeply about this problem. In any case the key thing I want you to take away from the “Mistake of Dramatic Timing” is that IF aliens were going to show up, or more technically if aliens are ever going to be aware of us, than it’s almost certain that it’s already happened, that nothing dramatic will happen in the next few hundred years.

We have to deal with one final argument before we move on. The point I’m making is that nothing has changed in the last few hundred years as far as what aliens might be out there and what they might want from us. However, to be fair, some things have changed recently in terms our ability to detect potential aliens. And it is possible that this is a place where something might change soon. But with every year that passes this becomes less and less likely. Also as I have argued before, if aliens are out there and they want to be detected they could almost certainly figure out how to make that happen. Much harder is not being detected, and that task is much easier if you’re aware of what’s trying to detect you, which takes us back to where we were. Either aliens are aware of us now, or very probably they never will be.

As I said I enjoyed the Bobiverse, (I even enjoyed Independence Day, probably because I was less jaded back then) and they are fiction, so I entirely forgive them for getting this wrong. But fiction is not the only place where people are proposing solutions to the paradox. There are academic papers doing the same thing, and recently one was released which claimed to dissolve the paradox. Obviously this is the sort of thing that needs to be taken more seriously.

The paper doesn’t actually center on the paradox. It takes as its focus Drake’s Equation, which will hopefully be familiar to readers of this blog. If not, basically Drake’s Equation attempts to come up with a guess for how many communicating extraterrestrial civilizations there might be by determining how many planets might get through all the hoops required to get to that point (for example all planets, multiplied by the percentage with life, multiplied by the percentage of that life that’s intelligent, etc.).  And it turns out that if you multiply the average of all the terms in the equation, that you get an expected average of quite a few communicating civilizations, and yet there aren’t any, which then brings in the paradox.

The authors of the paper point out that if the distribution of the estimates is narrow, and if it looks like a bell curve, multiplying the averages would give you a pretty good idea of what the overall probabilities are. You could say something like, “We think with 68% certainty, that the number of communicating civilizations in our galaxy is between 1 and 11. With an average of 6.” Which would imply that there probably is a paradox. But if the distributions are ridiculously wide (they are) and on top of that not normally distributed (and apparently they’re not that either) then you can end up in a situation where the most probable situation is that we’re alone, even though the average number of expected civilizations is greater than one.

If we are alone, that means that there’s something which keeps other civilizations from getting to the point where they can communicate. This has come to be called the Great Filter, and what this paper and other’s claim is that, “Good News!” the filter is most likely behind us. I don’t have the time to digest all the math in the original paper, but I’m inclined to take it’s conclusions with a large grain of salt, for a few reasons:

Reason 1- As uncertainty decreases it almost always points to life being more common

The authors point out that there’s a large degree of uncertainty for all of the terms in Drake’s Equation, fair enough. But one assumes that as time goes on and our knowledge increases that uncertainty will get less. One great example of this are the exoplanets that have been discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope. This has vastly reduced the uncertainty in the number of stars with planets. (Which is the second term in the equation.) The question is, as uncertainty is reduced, in which direction will things head? Towards a higher estimate of communicating civilizations or towards a lower estimate? The answer, so far as I can tell, is that everytime our uncertainty gets less it updates the estimate in favor of communicating civilizations being more common. Let’s look at three quick examples of this:

  1. There’s the one I just mentioned. According to Wikipedia when Frank Drake first proposed his equation, his guess for the fraction of stars with planets was ½. After looking at the data from Kepler, our current estimate is basically that all stars have planets. Our uncertainty decreased and it moved in the direction of extraterrestrial life and civilizations being more probable.
  2. I also talked about number of rocky planets, which relates to the term in the equation for fraction of total planets which could sustain life. As I mentioned above we used to think that rocky planets would only appear seven billion years or so into the lifetime of the universe. Now we know that they appeared much earlier. Once again our uncertainty decreased, and it went down in the direction of life and civilizations being more probable.
  3. Finally there’s the existence of extremophiles. We used to think that there was a fairly narrow band of conditions where life could exist, and then we found life in underwater thermal vents, in areas of extreme cold and dryness, in environments of high salinity, high acidity, high pressure, etc. etc. Yet another case where as we learned more, life became more probable, not less.

The trend is clear and I think it will continue.

Reason 2- The wildcard of panspermia

The next area where I have reason to doubt that the paradox has been “dissolved” is the idea of panspermia. And from where I sit, it appears that the evidence for that is increasing as well. On the off chance that you’re unfamiliar with the term, panspermia is the idea that life, in its most basic form, started somewhere else and then arrived on Earth once things were already going. Of greater importance for us is the idea that if it could travel to Earth there’s a good chance it could travel anywhere (and everywhere). In fairness, there is some chance life started on say, Mars and travelled here, in which case maybe life isn’t “everywhere”. But if panspermia happened and it didn’t come from somewhere nearby, then that changes a lot.

Further, it’s important to remember that panspermia is not accounted for in Drake’s Equation, and that makes it a wildcard for this entire question. Given the tenacity of life I’ve already mentioned above, once it gets started, there’s good reason to believe that it would just keep going. This section is more speculative than the last section, but my gut says that panspermia is probably more likely than people think. That said, I’ll lay out my reasons and you can decide for yourself.

  1. Certain things double every so many years. The most famous example of this phenomenon is Moore’s Law, which says that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years. A while back some scientists wanted to see if biological complexity followed the same pattern. It did, doubling every 376 million years. With forms of life at the various epochs fitting neatly onto the graph. The really surprising thing was that if you extrapolate back to zero biological complexity you end up at a point ten billion years ago. Well before the Earth was even around (or Mars for that matter). Leaving Panspermia as the only option. Now the authors confess this is more of a “thought exercise” than hard science, but that puts it in exactly the same category as the paper which “dissolves the Fermi Paradox”. (I would actually argue that the Moore’s Law analogy is probably less speculative.)
  2. There’s a significant amount of material travelling between planets and even between star systems. I mentioned this in a previous post, but to remind you. Some scientists decided to run the numbers, on the impact 65 million ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. And they discovered that a significant amount of the material ejected would have ended elsewhere in the Solar System and even elsewhere in the galaxy. Their simulation showed that around 100 million rocks would have made it to Europa (a promising candidate for life) and that around a 1000 rocks would have made it to a potentially habitable planet in a nearby star system (Gliese 581). Now none of this is to say that any life would have survived on those rocks, rather the point that jumps out to me is how much material is being exchanged across those distances.
  3. Finally, and I put this last because it might seem striking only to me. I came across an article recently that said the very first animal had 55% of the DNA that humans have. They ascribe this to an “evolutionary burst of new genes”, but for me that looks an awful lot like support of the first point in this list. The idea that life has been churning along for a lot longer than we think, if the first animal had 55% of our DNA already half a billion years ago.

Now, of course, even if panspermia is happening, that doesn’t necessarily make the dissolving-the-paradox guys wrong. You could have a situation where the filter is not life getting started in the first place, the filter is between any life and intelligent life. It could be that some kind of basic life is very common, but intelligence never evolves. Though before I move on to the next subject, in my opinion that doesn’t seem likely. You can imagine that if life itself has a hard time getting started, in any form, that out of the handful of planets with life, that only one develops intelligence. But if panspermia is happening, and you basically have life on every planet in the habitable zone, a number estimated at between 10 and 40 billion, then the idea that out of those billions of instances of life that somehow intelligence only arose this one time seems a lot less believable. (And yes I know about things like the difficulty of the prokaryote-eukaryote transition.)

Reason 3- To little accounting for the data we do have i.e. Earth

The final reason I have for being skeptical of the conclusion of the dissolving-the-paradox paper is that as far as I can tell they give zero weight to the fact that we do have one example of a planet with intelligent life, and capable of interstellar communication: Earth. In fact if I’m reading things correctly they appear to give pretty low probability to even the Earth existing. My sense is that when it comes to Fermi’s paradox this is the one piece of evidence that no one is quite sure what to do with. On the one hand, the history of science has been inextricably linked to the mediocrity (or Copernican) principle. The idea that Earth and humanity are not unique, we’re not the center of the universe or of the solar system or what have you. Humans are not special, we’re just another monkey, etc. And yet on this one point we are currently unique. We are the only example of intelligent life for which we have any evidence.

You might think there is no, “On the other hand”, but there is. It’s called the anthropic principle. And let’s just say I’m not a huge fan. This is not the first time I’ve talked about the anthropic principle and I would point you at one of my previous posts for a more detailed criticism, but basically it says that conscious life will only be found in places where conditions allow it to exist, therefore when we look around and find that things are set up in just the right way for us to exist, it couldn’t be any other way because if they weren’t set up in just the right way no one would be around to do the looking.

As I said, I’m not a fan. I think it’s a cop out. And in order for us to be as unique as this would imply, there would have to be something entirely unique about Earth, or a series of very improbable things that combined to create an entirely unique Earth. And so far while there’s a lot of speculation, there is no smoking gun. And, again, remember, every other time we thought we were unique, we ended up being wrong. It’s my firm belief that this time isn’t any different.

In case you’ve missed my central point, which is entirely possible, since I’m not sure I actually mentioned it, and it’s more of the central point that runs through all of my posts about Fermi’s Paradox. The point is, there’s numerous, very good reasons to think that there should be other intelligent species out there, despite people claiming to dissolve the paradox. And if there are aliens out there then there should be some evidence of it. This is unlikely to change in the next 100 years. We either already have the evidence or we never will. Based on all of this, the simplest explanation which fits everything we do know, is that we do have evidence of something beyond this earth, and we have labeled it God.


Life isn’t the only thing that can get spread really far in tiny amounts. Money can do that as well. Perhaps if instead of asking for donations, I should ask for money panspermia. That makes it sound awesome!


Commentary on Moloch (Now With More Fermi’s Paradox)

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As I mentioned a few weeks ago, in addition to recording my own blog posts and turning them into a podcast, I started doing the same thing with posts from SlateStarCodex, Scott Alexander’s fantastic blog. I would again repeat that if you like SSC and prefer to listen to your content rather than reading it, you should check it out. When I announced the SSC podcast several people requested that I record some of the older SSC posts, the classics if you will, so this week I decided to record his Meditations on Moloch post. And I figured as long as I was doing that, I might as well provide some commentary on it. Because while I think Alexander is largely right on the money, I don’t think he goes far enough, or maybe it’s fairer to say, in my opinion he misses some of the implications.

Of course Alexander’s post is nearly 15,000 words, and my posts are generally around 3,500 words so I don’t know how much of his epic post I’ll be able to cover, but I think there are several ways in which his post ties into themes and subjects I’m interested in, specifically technology, religion, and Fermi’s Paradox, so I’ll be highlighting those connections. But before reading my take on things, I would urge you to read the original post or listen to my recording of it. The name of the post, comes from Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, particularly part II, consequently Alexander makes extensive reference to the poem and I’ve used a recording of one of Ginsberg’s recitations of Howl every time Alexander quotes from it. (Which I personally think is super cool.)

For those of you who can’t be bothered, or don’t have the time to read or listen to the original (and as I said it is long) I’ll give a very brief summation of (what I believe to be) Alexander’s point:

The idea of Moloch is the idea of the race to the bottom, and Alexander gives over a dozen examples of it in action, but the one I want to borrow is his analogy of the rats and the island.

Suppose you are one of the first rats introduced onto a pristine island. It is full of yummy plants and you live an idyllic life lounging about, eating, and composing great works of art (you’re one of those rats from The Rats of NIMH).

You live a long life, mate, and have a dozen children. All of them have a dozen children, and so on. In a couple generations, the island has ten thousand rats and has reached its carrying capacity. Now there’s not enough food and space to go around, and a certain percent of each new generation dies in order to keep the population steady at ten thousand.

A certain sect of rats abandons art in order to devote more of their time to scrounging for survival. Each generation, a bit less of this sect dies than members of the mainstream, until after a while, no rat composes any art at all, and any sect of rats who try to bring it back will go extinct within a few generations.

He offers the rat example in the Malthusian Trap section, and in this case it’s a race to the bottom for survival, but you can see a similar race to the bottom with capitalism and profits, democracy and electability, and essentially any system with multiple actors and limited resources. Alexander groups all of these drives to optimize one factor at the expense of others under the heading of Moloch. And makes the, not unjustified claim, that unless we can figure out some way to defeat Moloch that it will eventually mean the end of civilization. And by this he means the end of art, and literature, and science and love. Because just like the rats, in the end those aren’t any of the factors we’re optimizing for.

Presumably very few of my readers will outright disagree with the idea of Moloch, that evolution, and capitalism, and politics are predisposed to engage in a race to the bottom. They will only disagree with how much of a factor it is in this enlightened age, with many granting the existence of Moloch, but convinced that he has already been well and truly beaten. Others, in my opinion, the more realistic, believe that the contest is as yet undecided. And finally there are certainly people who believe that we are destined to lose if we haven’t lost already.

The difference between these groups hinges almost entirely on their views of technology. With the first group feeling that technology has allowed us to progress past things like Malthusian Limits. We may be rats on an island, but technology allows us to turn more of the island into arable land, to build houses on the slopes of the extinct volcano, and best of all, if necessary, to build ships and find new islands.

People in the middle group agree with the benefits of technology, and agree that when the rats first arrived on the island that things were pretty awesome, but they understand that other islands are really hard to get to, and that the current island is not looking so great. Also that while some rats have it pretty good, that there are a lot of rats who already have a sad, miserable life.

In the final group we have people who are convinced that we’ve already wrecked the island we’re on, and that the other islands are horrible inhospitable wastelands. They probably also believe that we’re already on the verge of collapse and we just don’t know it. And, that sure, collapse won’t kill all the rats, but it will leave those that survive envying the dead.

I’m in the middle group, maybe leaning towards the final group, mostly because the majority of rats seem completely unaware of Moloch, and the race to the bottom. But also because I think technology could fail to save use by not being powerful enough, but also by being too powerful. And this is where things like the singularity and in particular artificial intelligence come into play.

On these points Alexander and I are largely in agreement, and at this stage I mostly want to point out how the idea of Moloch ties into the theme of this blog. I claim the summer is past and the harvest is over, but this presupposes that there was a summer and a harvest and also explains why it must eventually end, not because I’m a pessimist, but because there is a implacable force driving things in that direction, Moloch.  Alexander acknowledges the summer and the harvest as well and ties it into Robin Hanson’s idea of Dream Time, the idea that humanity has never believed in more crazy non-adaptive things. In other words they’ve never been less worried about Moloch. Why should this be?

Alexander offers four things that are currently keeping Moloch at bay, and allowing people to engage in a host of activities which don’t have much to do with daily survival.

Excess resources: When the rats first arrive on the island, they don’t need to worry about survival because they have a whole island to themselves. To tie this in to a point I’ve made in the past, it was not that long ago that we discovered the “island” of millions and millions of years worth of stored solar energy, in the form of fossil fuels. And we have kept Moloch at bay through the excess resources of coal, oil and gas, ie cheap and abundant energy, but as I pointed out in a previous post, even if you don’t believe in peak oil, or even if you’re unconcerned by global warming, at some point continued growth runs into hard limits built into the laws of physics.

Physical Limitations: Certain human values, like sleep, have to be preserved because optimizing productivity requires optimizing sleep, or at least not ignoring it. But what if we can use technology to get around physical limitations like the need for sleep? There’s been a lot of worry recently about whether robots or AI will be taking jobs, another thing I have written about in the past. As an example, just today I saw an article in Slate Jack in the Box CEO Says It “Makes Sense” to Consider Replacing Human Cashiers with Robots If Wages Rise. Within the article, there’s the vague hint of disapproval (like the scare quotes around “makes sense”) but if Jack in the Box doesn’t do it, someone else will, and I predict that the time is not that far distant where it won’t take increased wages to make robotic cashiers competitive, they’ll be dramatically cheaper almost regardless of what you pay the human cashiers.

Utility Maximization: This is just Alexander’s way of saying that human values and some of the systems we rely on are currently well aligned. That one of the reasons capitalism and democracy have done a pretty good job, despite being built such that they will eventually descend to the lowest common denominator, is because, for the moment, both are mostly aligned with genuine human values. Customer and employee satisfaction in the case of capitalism and voter satisfaction in the case of democracy. But Alexander points out that this is a temporary alliance and is more likely to be broken by technology than strengthened. (See robots above.)

On this topic Alexander made one comment that really jumped out at me and which I want to pay particular attention to. I don’t know how much this is related to technology, but it is something I’ve been more and more worried about. As I said democracies are almost custom built to engage in a race to the bottom. Partially this is prevented by the need to align themselves with voter satisfaction, and partially this problem is solved, at least in the US, by as Alexander points out:

having multiple levels of government, unbreakable constitutional laws, checks and balances between different branches, and a couple of other hacks.

I entirely agree with this statement, but I also think that the checks put in by the founders to prevent a race to the bottom have been significantly weakened over the last several decades. I talked about DACA/Dreamers a few months ago, and I just saw that a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to partially revive it. We can argue about the morality and ultimate wisdom of DACA all day long, but it’s hard to see where the judiciary ordering the executive to reimplement legislation the legislature failed to pass is anything other than a gross erosion of the checks Alexander mentions.

Returning to the list, the final thing Alexander lists as something which keeps Moloch at bay is coordination. As an example, the rats could all agree to limit the number of children they have. Corporations could all agree to only make people work 40 hours a week (or more likely be forced to do so by the government). And, in theory, under the rule of law, we all agree to abide by certain rules. Alexander repeatedly talks about how things are solvable from a god’s-eye view, but not by individual actors. Coordination allows people access to this god’s-eye view.

In Alexander’s view coordination is the only thing which is a pure weapon in the fight against Moloch. But, as we’re still on the subject of technology, does it increase coordination or does it undermine it? At first glance most people, including Alexander feel that it will increase the ability to coordinate, and certainly there are lots of reasons for thinking this. Better communication being the primary one. But remember the original post was written in 2014. Now that we’re in 2018 and you can look back over the last few years, and the increasingly fractured landscape, are you sure that technology is going to, on net, improve coordination?

Recall that during World War II the Soviet Union was coordinated enough to sacrifice 13.7% of it’s population in a coordinated attempt to defeat Nazi Germany (who were able to sacrifice ~8.5% of their people in a coordinated attempt to do the opposite.) Does anyone feel like we could achieve that level of coordination in modern America? You may argue that that sort of coordination was the bad sort, maybe, the outcome was certainly bad, but does anyone doubt both countries were more coordinated than we are by any measurement? Or you may argue that given there is no Nazi Germany, it’s not necessary for us to possess the coordination of a Soviet Union. This is a good point if the only time we need to coordinate is when we’re in conflict with other nations, but what if we need to coordinate to avoid overfishing, or stem global warming, or to put a colony on Mars?

It occurs to me, that like many things coordination may have a sweet spot, to little and a race to the bottom is unavoidable, to much you create a fractured society of hundreds of ideological groups composed of perfectly coordinated individuals who refuse any level of coordination with other groups.

Without coordination, the problem is that you have millions of individual actors, all maximizing their own welfare at the expensive of the commons. With perfect coordination you have thousands of ideological clusters which end up being more powerful than the individuals they’ve replaced, but no less selfish. Or to put it another way, we’ve moved from the individual to the alt-right and the antifa, but in between those two points we were all just Americans. Which was better. There was, perhaps, less true coordination, but we were more effective (witness our contributions to World War II).

Moving on from technology, the next topic on my list is religion, which is, of course, another very effective method for coordination, but which has lately fallen into disfavor. Alexander doesn’t spend much time specifically discussing religion except to lump it in with the other things that assist in coordination, like traditions, social codes, corporations, governments, etc. But in another post he makes a strong case for religion being the very best of all coordinating institutions. Which ties into a point I frequently bring up: Religion is more important and useful and antifragile than the non-religious (and even some of the religious) realize even in the absence of God. Coordination is just one more example of that.

Alexander brings up another example when he talks about the controversial topic of historical patriarchy and the tradition that women should stay home and bear children. Like most people these days he’s against it, but he brings up the point that it does make a society more resistant to Moloch. (He actually uses the phrase gnon-resistant, but we don’t have the space to get into what gnon is.) And whatever your opinion of it, this is something most religions emphasis, and I offer it up as one more piece of evidence that these beliefs came about because they were useful, not because everyone in the past was a horrible sexist bigot. Whether they continue to be useful is a different topic.

So these are a few of the benefits of religion even in the absence of God, but what if we bring God back into the picture? What does a discussion of Moloch say about whether God exists? In the original post, Alexander repeatedly talks about terrible problems, which disappear in the presence of a “god’s-eye-view”. It’s a phrase he uses repeatedly (17 times, actually.) Thus the obvious solution for Alexander is to build a god that can “kill Moloch dead.” In Alexander’s estimation our best chance at creating this god, is to build a friendly, superintelligent AI. This gives us a god which will not only allow us to engage in perfect coordination, but endow us with infinite resources, remove all physical limitations, and create systems where incentives are perfectly aligned. That is certainly one plan.

Another plan is to hope such a God already exists. (Or to exercise something very similar to hope, faith.) In other words, Alexander’s plan is to hope that we can create a friendly god. Those who are religious have faith that such a God already exists. Is one strategy really that superior to the other. And is there any reason why you wouldn’t hope for both?

If someone is going to place their faith in Alexander’s plan it’s reasonable to ask how likely it is. Well, let’s take a moment to discuss it. Alexander’s god doesn’t get us away from maximization, just as the rats have to maximize for survival, and capitalists have to maximize for profit, the superintelligence will end up having to maximize for something as well. If we want to know how much hope we should have, we need to know what it’s likely to maximize. The cautionary example that most people are familiar with is the paperclip maximizer, which stands in for all sorts of potential maximization. In this specific example the AI just happens to be programmed to produce paper clips, and ends up turning all available matter into paper clips. Of course, the example doesn’t have to be as silly as paper clips. Even if we tell the AI to optimize for intelligence that could still entail turning all available matter into computers, which is less ridiculous than paper clips, but no less deadly for us. Or we could tell it to optimize our happiness, which may just result in the AI plugging an electrode into our pleasure center. A process AI researchers call wire-heading. Viola! Maximum happiness, and who cares if you’re indistinguishable from a heroin addict. This is just a small taste of the difficulties we face in implementing Alexander’s plan, difficulties which have had whole books written about them. (For example Bostrom’s Superintelligence which Alexander references frequently in the original post.)

As an aside, you may at this point be wondering, if everything has to maximize for something what does religion say that God maximizes for? Well I only feel competent to speak about Mormonism, but on that count we know the answer. It comes in Moses 1:39:

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

This sounds like it would align pretty well with human values.

To return to Alexander’s plan, as you might imagine there are a lot of challenges when you decide to build a god. But what about the other plan: religious faith?

Many people will complain that there’s very little evidence for God (to be fair that may be why they call it faith…) and that there are several problems, not the least of which is the problem of evil and suffering. In a marvelous piece of serendipity I believe research into artificial intelligence has given us a great answer to those problems (an answer Alexander himself expressed some admiration for.) But I have yet to talk about Fermi’s Paradox, and I think within the original post we have yet another reason to believe there might be a God.

As Alexander describes Moloch there seems to be no reason why he hasn’t swallowed the universe. In fact Alexander says:

This is the ultimate trap, the trap that catches the universe. Everything except the one thing being maximized is destroyed utterly in pursuit of the single goal, including all the silly human values.

Oh, wait, that’s not Moloch, that’s what happens if we get Alexander’s AI god wrong. But I suppose that’s one form Moloch could take. But he also says when speaking of walled gardens:

Do you really think your walled garden will be able to ride this out?

Hint: is it part of the cosmos?

Yeah, you’re kind of screwed.

But if this is true, if Moloch will eat everything in its path, why hasn’t it already? Why haven’t we been destroyed by the Berserkers of Fred Saberhagen? Turned into computronium by alien AIs? Been enslaved by Kang and Kodos? If your argument is that interstellar travel is hard than why haven’t we seen evidence of the Moloch-style process of creating a Dyson sphere? Or given the prominent place memes have in Alexander’s post, why haven’t any infectious messages been broadcast at us?

As usual, it’s always possible that we are entirely alone. Which I think leads to the worrying conclusion that Moloch is a strictly human creation… It’s also possible that the “Gardener over the entire universe” Alexander says we need, already exists, and our task is to figure out what he wants from us.

Finally, I think Alexander and I both agree that the harvest is past and the summer is ended, and that the path to salvation is a narrow one. He pins his hopes on transhumanism and a friendly AI. I’m pinning my hopes on the existence of God. If you think I’m silly, that’s fine. If you think Alexander is silly, that’s fine. If you think both of us are silly, well then, are you sure you’re not worshipping Moloch without even realizing it?


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75 Solutions to Fermi’s Paradox but Still Missing Mine

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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:

  1. My biases
  2. As an example of how nearly everything relates to the paradox
  3. 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.


Fermi’s Paradox and the Dark Forest

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I thought that while I was in the zone I would continue the discussion of Fermi’s Paradox I started in my last episode. As a reminder, the paradox is, that, despite the seemingly high probability that aliens exist, we have seen no evidence of them. As I also mentioned in my last episode (and explained at great length in an episode I recorded late last year) my explanation of the paradox is that we ARE communicating with aliens we just call the communication prayer, and the aliens God.

In order for this to make sense I am assuming that given enough time that aliens would be indistinguishable from gods. From a technological perspective everyone seems to basically agree that this would be the case. But what about from the standpoint of morality? Would aliens with the technology of gods also have the benevolence of gods?

At least one explanation of the paradox argues that aliens aren’t naturally benevolent. That in fact the reason we see no evidence of aliens is that they’re all hiding, worried that by revealing their presence they will give away their location to a galaxy full of other aliens who are not only more powerful, but who, once alerted to their existence, will have every reason to destroy them.

The recent science fiction series Remembrance of Earth’s Past (also called the Three Body Trilogy) by Chinese author Liu Cixin is built around this explanation of the paradox, and once again if you’re worried about spoilers you might just want to skip this episode.

Still here? Very well then, he calls this explanation the Dark Forest, and he describes it thusly:

The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound. Even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life–another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod–there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people. An eternal threat that any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out. This is the picture of cosmic civilization. It’s the explanation for the Fermi Paradox.

Liu’s theory, and by extension his worry is not unique. There are many people who warn about the dangers of actively revealing our location and existence to the rest of the universe. Stephen Hawking has said that we should avoid revealing ourselves to aliens because contact between us would end up similar to contact between the Native Americans and the Europeans (with humanity playing the role of the Native Americans). David Brin, a noted science fiction author, has also been very vocal in urging caution. These people would have no need to issue warnings if there was not group of people, on the opposite side of the issue, who actively advocate broadcasting our existence as widely as possible. These broadcasts are called either METI (Messages to ExTraterrestrial Intelligences) or Active SETI (Search for ExTraterrestrial Intelligence). The two sides both have valid points, and it is not my intention to enter into a debate on the merits of METI. I’m more interested in discussing how benevolent advanced aliens are likely to be, though I can see where that discussion could have a definite bearing on the wisdom of METI.

As long as we’re in the realm of science fiction, there is another set of books which explores this issue. This series of books by Fred Saberhagen is about an intergalactic scourge of self-replicating robots called the Berserkers.  (Imagine the Terminator movies only on a galactic scale.) The Berserkers were created long ago in a war between two extraterrestrial races. Having passed beyond the control of their creators their mission is to destroy all life, and they feel no remorse or pity.  The books follow the desperate war for survival humanity is forced to wage against this most implacable foe. These fictional Berserkers are a fantastic example of exactly the sort of thing that Brin and Hawking are worried about. And if that’s the kind of aliens who are out there, then we should indeed do our best to remain hidden and it further goes without saying that METI is a colossally bad idea. But are the Berzerkers a good representation of the extraterrestrial civilizations we’re likely to meet? Or to restate it, what level of benevolence should we expect from an extraterrestrial civilization when and if we ever encounter one?

Let’s start by examining the hypothetical malevolent, aliens. The kind who wander the Dark Forest shooting infants and old men on sight. We can imagine that they would come in two types.

The first type are purposefully malevolent, e.g. the already mentioned Berserkers. While they could be similar to what was envisioned by Saberhagen, they could also take the form of an out of control AI, some sort of resource maximizer with no morality we can detect or a morality completely foreign to us. Despite our inability to understand them, they would have an expansive and all consuming purpose. Something that drives the extraterrestrial civilization to swallow up humanity if for no other reason than that they represent resources which can be put to better use.

Extraterrestrial civilizations in this category would not need to be truly malevolent, anymore than someone building a road is expressing malevolence towards the ant hill they pave over. The best example of this in fiction might be the opening of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Vogons show up to destroy Earth because it’s in the way of a hyper-spatial bypass. There is more interaction between the humans and aliens than between us and an anthill, but not much more. Humanity is simply not important to them. When one considers the, almost certain, vast technological difference between humans and any aliens we might encounter, positing that the interaction might be similar to that between us and the ants is probably not far off.

Of this first type we can say a couple of things, to begin with they would spread fast. In the example of both the Berserkers and the resource maximizers their malevolence comes from their single-minded motivation. This single mindedness would drive them to accomplish their goals in the most expeditious fashion possible which means expanding at a truly blistering rate from the standpoint of interstellar travel. Of course as has been discussed here and elsewhere it doesn’t even take a blistering rate of expansion for the Milky Way to have long ago been completely colonized.

Thus we are once again brought to Fermi’s Paradox and the question that created it, “Where is everybody?” If there is an advanced, expansionistic, single-minded, malevolent civilization out there, why have they not already arrived? The arguments related to this are well-trod, both by myself and others, but to restate it as it relates to this particular argument. Let’s assume that if we can make it another 10,000 years that we won’t have to worry about the Berserkers because it will either be obvious that they don’t exist or we will be technologically advanced enough to not have to worry. That sounds like a long time, but for the kind of rapaciously malevolent civilization we’re talking about it wouldn’t matter if they got to Earth two billion years ago or tomorrow, the result is the same. If the Berserkers had shown up at any point since the start of life 3.8 billion years ago, we’re assuming that it would all be over. In other words we’re 99.9997% through the danger zone. I choose the figure of 10,000 years, but if it makes you feel better you could use 100,000 or a million years and all you’re doing is moving the decimal point one or two places. The point is that if this kind of extraterrestrial civilization exists they should have wiped out life on Earth long, long ago.

The second category of malevolent extraterrestrial civilizations resembles the Europeans I mentioned earlier. They’re not single-minded about anything. They have plenty to keep the occupied in their own corner of the galaxy, but if they become aware of us, or specifically aware that we have something valuable. Some number of them will arrive to take it from us, without much concern for the impact. If we do fight back they may decide to exterminate us, but only because it’s easier than the alternative. This category of extraterrestrial civilization presents an interesting thought experiment. If they’re just consuming the raw material of the universe in the most expeditious fashion available, then they fall into the first category of malevolent aliens.

For them to fall into the second category, and for them to be of concern to the opponents of METI, their expansion has to have basically stopped, but we have to possess something so valuable that they’re willing to come and get it, expending the enormous resources necessary to reach us. (You may argue that for sufficiently advanced aliens the journey might be trivial. If so why aren’t they here already?)

What could we have that is so valuable? The costs of “importing” raw materials over a distance of multiple light years is so ridiculous as to be unthinkable. Only something unique could possibly have any interest to the aliens. Are we imagining that we have the only supply of iron or rhodium in the galaxy? No, the only thing truly unique to Earth is Earth based life, meaning that if anything the aliens might end up taking better care of the planet that we do. One could certainly imagine that they might take some humans and put them in a zoo, in fact the Zoo Hypothesis (closely related to Star Trek’s Prime Directive) is one of the explanations for the paradox. But just like humans, the aliens would probably want to largely leave earth alone. In any event this scenario bears no resemblance to the Dark Forest as described by Liu.

One could imagine extraterrestrial civilizations between the two extremes, expansive, but taking millions of years to go from one solar system to the next. Even in this case the galaxy is so old we still have to wonder that we haven’t encountered them yet. And again we have to imagine aliens who are close enough that they will arrive in the window where we can’t defend ourselves, but far enough away that they haven’t arrived already.

As an aside, this all assumes that there is no faster than light travel. If faster than light travel is possible (we just haven’t figured it out) then the situation is drastically different. Even so, we’re still left with the original question of “Where is everybody?” and if aliens can travel at faster than the speed of light, they should be everywhere, including here.

Thus far we’ve approached the question by starting with the assumption that there are aliens who are both advanced and malevolent. Now we’re going to question that assumption by examining whether it’s really possible to be both advanced and malevolent.

We are accustomed to thinking of nature as being red in tooth and claw, a Darwinian struggle where only the strong survive. I have no problem granting that in most cases this is in fact the case. But I would argue that it can’t be the case for an extraterrestrial civilization. To begin with all extraterrestrial civilizations would have to start as single planet civilizations. If it starts out as warlike how is it going to get off that planet? Let’s imagine what our own situation would look like if we were more warlike.

Colonizing even Mars is going to be enormously expensive, and enormously fragile. It wouldn’t take much to hamper the efforts while they were taking place on Earth or to fatally damage the colony’s chances once they were established. We’ve already talked about the difficulties of creating a permanent settlement on Mars. Now imagine that Elon Musk is trying to do it while we’re at war with Russia. The difficulty, which is already off the charts, would increase an hundredfold. In other words unless the original one planet civilization has an extended period of peace and cooperation they’re never going to become a multi-planet, extraterrestrial civilization. Once they’d mastered cooperation would they abandon it the minute they spotted the first alien? Also in any encounter between two of these civilizations one would almost certainly be, technologically, thousands if not millions of years ahead of the other, leaving the weaker of the two no choice but to cooperate, and the stronger no incentive to abandon the cooperative spirit they already possess.

Of course if you read much science fiction you’re going to encounter alien races who didn’t learn to cooperate, they were born to cooperate. In other words they resemble social insects, like ants or bees, with one queen and a lot of workers. These aliens might cooperate very naturally with each other, but not at all with anyone else. Making them naturally malevolent to anything they encounter. Here at last, perhaps, we have found a model for our malevolent extraterrestrial civilizations.. Though most of the previous caveats still apply. Why have we not already encountered them? Or if they’re not expansionary, what do we have that would make them change their mind?

Also, in this specific scenario we’re imagining something that resembles a super intelligent ant colony. Obviously it is unforgivably myopic to draw conclusions based only on the evidence of life on Earth. But you’ll notice that none of the life forms which work in this fashion have anything close to what we would describe as intelligence. One can imagine (as Douglas Adams did) that Dolphins might be sentient, but it’s a lot more difficult to imagine how ants eventually evolve to be a space faring race. As I said, lots of science fiction authors have imagined extraterrestrial civilizations that operate on a model similar to ants and other social insects (Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers both come to mind) but in every case these aliens have been hand waved into being a space faring race. I haven’t seen any credible attempt to explain how they would have evolved into one.

Perhaps that point is overly pedantic, but consider this. Technological progress is fed by idea generation, idea generation is fed by creative individuals, generally operating in a competitive environment with other creative individuals. If the thinking for your entire society is done by a handful of “queens”, how many ideas will actually be generated? It appears quite likely to me that if such a civilization did exist they would be fatally hampered by the inability to creatively generate sustained technological progress. To look at it from another angle, if a society is mindlessly cooperative then wouldn’t they lack the mind necessary to develop technology in the first place?

Of course there are a group of people I’ve talked about previously who believe that progress and morality go hand in hand. From their perspective obviously any aliens we encounter would be benevolent. You will also recall that in both my episode on the Religion on Progress and during my episode on  Steven Pinker that I took issue with these people, and yet it may appear that I’m making a similar argument. That godlike technology results in godlike benevolence. There are, however at least two important differences. The most fundamental being the assertion that just because someone, somewhere will achieve godlike technology and benevolence that humanity will inevitably do it as well. Perhaps an even even bigger difference is their assertion that the current progressive ideology of the last few decades is what has put us on this inevitable path to future perfection.  All that said, to the extent that our views do overlap I’m happy to use their opinions as additional support for the idea that a certain level of civilization requires a certain level of morality. (Though even here they may be reversing cause and effect.)

Having come this far I’ve hopefully established that we can eliminate certain categories of aliens from consideration. If all conceivable extraterrestrial civilizations are benevolent, then we can dispense with any discussion of what non-benevolent aliens might do and how that impacts the paradox. And, finally, with any luck, we’re left with assumptions that more accurately reflect the true state of the universe.

This is important because the field is already crowded with assumptions. Most of them derived, not from the sort of deep examination we’ve engaged in, but rather from the most recent TV show or movie the person saw (a point I made in my last episode.) If you were to establish a composite picture of alien contact based on the average person’s vision of it. Call this the distilled conventional wisdom of what aliens are like. It would involve them arriving suddenly, without any warning, sometime in the next few years. In addition, while they would be recognizably alien, they wouldn’t look too weird and they would have technology that’s advanced, but not too advanced, the sort of thing that given a few days or at most a few weeks, humans could easily reverse engineer. According to this convention wisdom we may marvel at their strange appearance, or be baffled by their weird ideas, but interaction with aliens really comes down to their technology. How does it work? How can we defeat it, steal it or use it to cure cancer?

Everything about the conventional wisdom of alien contact is silly, the silliest part being that they would arrive in the next few years after not giving any evidence of their presence for the last ten million. The next silliest is our conception of their technology. First what makes us think that alien technology is even going to resemble our technology. Remember Clarke’s Third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Secondly what makes you think that their technology would even enter into it?

If aliens are malevolent then of course their technology matters because how else are we going to stop them? If they’re neither excessively malevolent or excessively benevolent then their technology matters because what else do they have to offer? But if, as we have concluded in this episode their benevolence probably exceeds our own, then their technology might be of secondary importance, assuming we even recognized it as technology and didn’t just view it as magical (or perhaps even more likely miraculous). And of course we haven’t even taken into account how the aliens would react to us. One assumes that they wouldn’t just give us super-advanced technology and then wash their hands of the whole situation. They might just leave us alone, but if they were going to interact with us, it seems obvious that they’d want to improve our morality first.

I’d like to expand on that point with an analogy. Imagine that we’re dealing with a group terrestrial people perhaps an uncontacted tribe. As a starting point imagine which presents the greater difficulty, supplying them all with cell phones or implanting a morality into them? And when I say implanting morality, I’m not just speaking of giving them a bible, I’m talking about imparting actual morality, such that this group, going forward, ceases from all murder, rape, theft and even extramarital affairs. I think the answer is obvious. Just giving someone some technology is easy. Teaching them correct behavior (and here you may define correct behavior as anything you like) is extremely difficult, particularly if you have any interest in their behavior conforming to those teachings.

It would be the same for any highly advanced aliens who might exist. Giving us technology is easy. Teaching us how to use it without causing untold damage, that’s the hard part. Thus if a benevolent extraterrestrial civilization does choose to contact us, they might be far more worried about our morals than our tech level.

In the end we’re left with aliens being most likely beings of godlike technology and godlike benevolence who are mostly concerned with making humans moral. Am I the only one who thinks that sounds like a religion?


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Fermi’s Paradox and the Movie Interstellar

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After several political posts of varying intensity I thought it might be nice to take a break, and return to some of my other interests. In particular I wanted to return to a discussion of Fermi’s Paradox. If you haven’t read any of my previous posts on the topic you can find them here and here. I would recommend reading them first, but I also suspect you might not bother, so for those that don’t, allow me to provide a brief introduction, both to the paradox and to my specific take on it. In brief Fermi’s Paradox is the seemingly irreconcilable set of facts that on the one hand, we have not been visited or contacted by aliens despite, on the other hand, billions of planets on which life could arise and billions of years during which they could have visited Earth. As for my take on it I think the simplest resolution of the paradox is that we ARE communicating with aliens we just call the communication prayer, and the aliens God.  

I have a couple of methods available for advancing this very unorthodox opinion (an opinion largely shared by no one else.) First I can show ways in which the beliefs of traditional religions (Mormonism in particular) fit in with the facts and even the speculations associated with the paradox. Or second, I can show how none of the other explanations for the paradox make sense, or at least show they make less sense than my explanation. Of course on top of all of that I have to be able to communicate my ideas period. Which is a bigger challenge than it appears even aside from the obvious limitations of being me. One of the ways to overcome that challenge is to piggyback on something from popular culture. And that is what I intend to do in this post, by discussing Fermi’s Paradox using the movie Interstellar.

I only recently got around to watching Interstellar. (I know. I’m behind.) And even though it never mentions Fermi’s Paradox it ends up lurking in the background nonetheless. The movie itself was interesting and beautiful, and engaging. It also about gave me an aneurysm. If you haven’t seen the movie and you don’t want to be spoiled then you should probably skip this post. But we’re also talking about an Oscar-winning movie (ok, it was just visual effects) from two years ago that made $675 million dollars worldwide. If you haven’t already seen it by now, can you really expect to not be spoiled? I certainly had no such expectations.

The point of talking about Interstellar is not to get into a detailed review of the movie. I’m more interested in talking about how the movie portrayed things like space travel, aliens, habitable planets, and the future of humanity, and tying that portrayal into a discussion of the paradox.

Let’s start with space travel. If you read my post from a couple of weeks ago you know how costly it is to get out of gravity wells. And indeed in Interstellar they needed a two stage rocket to get off of Earth, so there is some acknowledgement of what’s called the tyranny of the rocket equation. But after this brief nod to reality for the rest of the movie escaping gravity wells is trivial. In particular they have no problem either lifting off from a planet with 1.2 times the gravity of Earth or casually maneuvering in the vicinity of a black hole using just their lander. I have seen some weaselly answers about how the lander used a different fuel, with some people suggesting anti-matter. Ahh… yes those troublesome anti-matter engines are always flooding. They just cannot handle the tiniest bit of water. (That said the visuals of the giant wave were very cool.)

Moving beyond the physics of Interstellar the movie also implied that space travel had to happen quickly or it wouldn’t happen at all. Not to spend the entire post picking on the movie (though that may be where we’re headed) but as far as I could tell Cooper finds NASA and then launches into space the next morning, or maybe the next week? The timeline was a little unclear, but in any event it sure looked like he only had about 15 minutes to say goodbye to his daughter.

In reality any potential travel of the kind we’re talking about when we talk about the paradox, that is aliens spreading out across the entire galaxy, would happen over millions if not billions of years. Presumably this is one of the reasons why Nolan introduced the food crisis. For the movie to be dramatic there had to be some urgent reason to get off of earth. This is not to say there might not be some catastrophe that would make departing Earth both important and urgent, just that if there was, we’re probably screwed. As are the humans in Interstellar in the absence of the wormhole. Getting off the planet and creating a sustainable extraterrestrial colony (to say nothing of an extrasolar colony) would be the result of a slow grind lasting decades of not centuries. In other words if all other potential alien species are trying to get off their planet in the midst of a crisis while being sabotaged by Matt Damon, then it may make sense that we haven’t run into any of them, but I assume that’s actually fairly rare, particularly the Matt Damon part.

The next subject I’m interested in is the way the movie portrays aliens. Of course the paradox would be solved if we ever did encounter intelligent aliens. And they do just that in Interstellar. Though, once again, the movie ends up imposing a lot of implausible restrictions. To begin with it’s strongly implied that they aren’t aliens. That they’re humans from the future who’ve forgotten how to communicate with us. This is very convenient from the standpoint of telling the story, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense otherwise. Apparently they can understand humanity, and Cooper in particular, well enough to make a four dimensional copy of the daughter’s room (or maybe it’s even more than four), but not understand us well enough to actually have a conversation?

As it turns out, the inability to communicate is one favorite and common explanation for the paradox. When presenting this explanation people often use the metaphor of humans trying to communicate with ants. And it’s true that we are not great at communicating with ants. For instance we don’t have long conversations with ants about free will or the nature of the universe, but we can still communicate with them and we do so far more effectively than the aliens in Interstellar can communicate with humans. We can get ants to go where we want, we can move ants, we can kill ants, we can separate ants into their different roles, etc. I know that some of that doesn’t sound like communication, but trust me, getting snatched and moved someplace else communicates volumes. At this point we’ve seen zero evidence of intelligent extraterrestrials, while I think it goes without saying that ants have seen plenty evidence of us. And if aliens just wanted to let us know they exist there are plenty of things they could do to communicate that. In fact it would be difficult for them to not communicate it.

Instead, for some vague reason, these future humans have lost the ability to communicate with us. Also they wait to contact us (and I use the term contact very loosely) until the Earth is uninhabitable and we’re about to die. How are they sure this is when they should intervene? Were they ever worried about us during the Cold War? Does this have anything to do with the weird time-travel paradoxes? Perhaps, but in any event they intervene using their near godlike powers and set up a wormhole near Saturn. And this wormhole leads to a couple of planets that are essentially uninhabitable, and a third planet where nothing grows, but at least it doesn’t have 4,000 foot tall waves. And all of this is in another galaxy.. near a black hole so big they call it Gargatua…

This takes us naturally to the subject of habitable planets. I know I said I wasn’t going to spend the entire post picking on the movie, but perhaps it’s unavoidable, because it’s “stance” on habitable planets was kind of ridiculous. So we’ve got these aliens, or future humans, or whatever, and they want to rescue humanity, so they create a wormhole. I’ve already mentioned that we have to go all the way to Saturn to get to this wormhole. But to be fair perhaps they’re limited on where they can create these wormholes, and they can’t get it any closer to Earth than the orbit of Saturn. If so they must be really limited on the other side because, as I already pointed out, the only planets they can get near to on the other end are objectively awful. I’ve already mentioned the water planet with gigantic waves but in addition to that the planet is so close to the giant black hole that one hour there equals 7 years of time everywhere else.

The second is completely covered in ice, and based on the fact that there is no surface it probably isn’t even as good a candidate for colonization as Mars or Europa, which the ship passed on it’s way to the wormhole. The final planet appears to be a vast desert, whose main advantage appears to be that at least it has a breathable atmosphere?

If planets that can support life are really as rare as Interstellar makes them out to be (you have to go to another galaxy to find even a sucky one) it would be a great explanation for the paradox. Unfortunately we already know they’re not. Just looking at the planets we’ve found using Kepler (which by the way has only examined a tiny fraction of the galaxy, around one-millionth, if that) we’ve already found 3,565 planets, 34 of which are potentially habitable. If you do the math you’re looking at 34 million potentially habitable planets, without having to go to another galaxy (also I’m pretty sure that none of the 34 potentially habitable planets Kepler has found are anywhere near a black hole.) In fact the nearest potentially habitable planet is just the next star over. Which makes the choice of the wormholes’ end point even more baffling. All of this is to say that if Interstellar is your primary source of information about how common habitable planets then you’re going to end up with a lot of very wrong ideas.

The last element I said I wanted to examine from Interstellar is it’s vision for the future of humanity. I already mentioned that the food crisis is one of those things that is manufactured to provide urgency, but this is not to say that we couldn’t have some gigantic agricultural collapse. That certainly could happen, but the big problem with the scenario is that if we can’t grow crops on the Earth, we are unlikely to be able to grow them anywhere else. As I point out in the blog I already mentioned, nearly everywhere on Earth from Antarctica to the depths of the ocean, is more hospitable to life, particularly that life which evolved on Earth, than any conceivable extraterrestrial location. In Interstellar they lose the ability to grow okra. Let’s just say that if you can’t grow okra in Georgia you’re not going to be able to grow it on a lifeless desert planet in another galaxy.

Another fascinating element of Nolan’s vision of the future was the way in which they decided to declare the moon landings to be a hoax. First that represents something of a nightmare for me, so it definitely got my attention, second it implied a sort of collectivist mindset. None of us are going to escape unless all of us can escape. This is something else I talked about in my previous post on space colonization. There are a lot of noble ideals which end up not being compatible with the core value of saving humanity, and creating the illusion that we couldn’t even get men to the moon in order to help people to focus on Earth is definitely one of those ideals.

But of course the most consequential element of Nolan’s vision for the future of humanity was that we would someday transcend time, come back and save our past selves. This by itself is not that interesting. Nolan is not the first to imagine some sort of technological transcendence. Where it does get interesting is in how it relates to one of the leading explanations of the paradox. As I mentioned in one of my previous posts on the subject, many people favor the explanation that we are in fact alone. That despite billions of planets and billions of years that we are the only intelligent species in existence. By making the aliens future humans, Nolan comes to essentially the same conclusion. And it’s a conclusion with some terrifying implications. This is not the space to go into a full examination of all of them, but at a minimum it implies that there’s no one out there to save us. If, on the other hand, there are aliens you can always imagine that they my someday show up with the cure for cancer, unlimited free energy and super delicious donuts. You can also imagine something similar if God exists. But if neither exists then we have to save ourselves. And while some people may find that empowering (if they think about it at all). When I look around and see how flawed humanity is, I think if we’re all there is, then more likely than not we’re in a lot of trouble.

You may think that this is an awful lot of time to waste examining the ideas of a movie whose only goal was to entertain. Particularly since I agree that it was entertaining. But I read something recently (unfortunately I can’t locate it now) which made the excellent point that fiction, specifically movies and TV, are more and more taking the place of history as a guide for what might happen, or what should be avoided, or whether something is a good idea. To put it more bluntly we are being educated by entertaining lies rather than by reality. As I recall, the article used the example of a discussion about artificial intelligence. In any discussion of artificial intelligence you would not be surprised if someone referenced a Skynet scenario, drawing on the Terminator movies and the idea that a given artificial intelligence (in the movie it was Skynet) could come alive and immediately try to destroy humanity. Another example would be if someone (including myself) wants to talk about a post apocalyptic scenario they might reference Mad Max. This is in contrast to the past when people might talk about something being similar to Caesar’s rivalry with Pompey or they might draw inspiration from the Battle of Marathon (enough so that they created a race in it’s memory.)

In the past people were frankly inundated by history. A large part of schooling was learning Greek and Latin. This wasn’t so they could talk to people in Latin (or Greek) it was so they could read history in its original language. If you thought of history as their popular entertainment you would not be far off. But of course now, while history isn’t missing from our popular entertainment (The TV series Rome is a good example of this) it’s a pretty small slice. Entertainment these days is largely dominated by fiction (All superhero movies, Star Wars, anything animated) and present day navel gazing (essentially everything currently on TV). Using what has happened as a guide to what might happen, is no longer done. Instead we are educated (and I use that term loosely) by the fictitious imaginings of a few creative individuals with unclear (if not actively harmful) motivations.

There are two reasons for this change. First, there are certain situations, like a malevolent AI, or nuclear apocalypse which have no historical analogies. If you wanted to talk about some point of no return for AI, you could draw on history and use, say, Caesar crossing the Rubicon. But the Skynet example, despite being fiction, is a better description of what might actually happen. This first reason is generally harmless and possibly even useful. But there is another reason for people to draw on fiction rather than history, it’s more accessible and easier to understand. Unfortunately that doesn’t make it more accurate. In fact fiction is, almost by definition, less accurate. So in situations where there is something in history to guide us we should always draw upon that first.

What does this have to do with Fermi’s Paradox? Surely this is one of those things that has no historical analog and movies, even horribly misguided movies like Interstellar are going to be the best analogies we have. I know it seems that way, but with the paradox, that’s not the case. We have a wealth of history to draw on, in fact we have all of history.

While it is true that there are some who will argue that we have already been visited by aliens. (My own theories on alien divinity aside.) There is no evidence for an alien visitation as it is typically imagined. This is particularly true if you look at ALL of history, not just recorded history. Allow me to explain. There are various theories that Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid or the Nazca Lines were all built by aliens. But all of these are recent enough that humans could have built them. If we’re talking about aliens they could have left artifacts on Earth at any point in its 4.5 billions years of existence, now sure some of these might have been sucked into the mantel and destroyed, (or to avoid that they also could have placed them on the moon similar to 2001) but even accounting for that there were still millions of years for the aliens to leave some evidence of their presence. But they didn’t.

This is what I mean by using history not just popular culture when judging the likelihood of something. If you just pay attention to popular culture you probably think that aliens could show up any day now. That despite millions if not billions of years of not showing up, that it could happen next week. We see this conceit with Interstellar, and also with the more recent movie, Arrival. In fact I would I would be curious to see how people would respond if they were polled on the probability of aliens showing up. My guess is based on the enormous number of movies and TV shows depicting just that, that the probability would end up being quite high. Despite no evidence for it happening anytime in the last million years.

This is the danger of using fiction to understand the world. Any serious study of Fermi’s Paradox reveals that it’s one of the most important questions facing humanity. And if I’ve managed to convince you that the existence of God is tied up with it, then it only becomes more important. And yet people assess the probability of encountering or communicating with aliens based on a recent movie rather than on a sober assessment of reality.

The challenges humanity face are not trivial. The cannot be solved with an entertaining two (or in Interstellar’s case, three) hour movie. I think everyone should be hoping that God exists, because if not we most likely are on are own. And however much Anne Hathaway urges us to trust in love, if we are all alone in the universe I think it’s going to take a lot more than that to save us.


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The Secular Answer To Fermi’s Paradox

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Having explored at some length in our last post the idea that Fermi’s Paradox may offer strong support for the existence of God.  As well as the idea that assumptions made about extraterrestrial communication line up better than might be expected with the process of prayer. I want to flip the coin and look at what the conventional wisdom is as far as the Paradox. For my examination I will be mostly drawing from 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. There has obviously been quite a bit written about the paradox, but this appears to be one of the only (if not the only) book length treatments. My discussion will use the first edition of the book, which has 50 potential explanations for the Paradox. The second edition, which I have yet to acquire has 75 potential explanations. I cannot speak definitively about the second edition, but of the 50 potential explanations in the first none resemble the explanation I offered in my last post. But otherwise it is admirably comprehensive.

Webb breaks extraterrestrials into three broad categories:

  1. They are here.
  2. They exist but have not communicated with us.
  3. They don’t exist.

The first possibility is broader than the initial title would suggest. It essentially encompasses all scenarios under which aliens exist, and are aware of us. These explanations range from the humorous (They are here and they call themselves Hungarians) to explanations for why, if they exist, they might choose to hide from us. The classic example of this thinking is the Prime Directive from Star Trek, the principle that the federation will not interfere with any less advanced civilizations.

Interestingly enough the final explanation in the “They are Here” section is titled “God Exists”. From the title, at least, it sounded like it must be very similar to my own thinking. It wasn’t. Webb spends a couple of paragraphs talking about some vague theological issues, but then spends the rest of the section (four more pages) examining the idea that there seems to be no good reason for the constants of the Universe to have the values they do (for example the strength of the weak nuclear force or the mass of an electron.) From there he goes on to discuss a theory of universe evolution under which new universes might be created by black holes so universes would “evolve” to maximize black hole production. If the physical constants which lead to the creation of black holes are similar to the constants necessary for the emergence of life you might end up with the second condition being a byproduct of the first.

The second possibility, that they exist but have not communicated with us, generally boils down to the idea that on top of the enormous number of stars and the enormous amount of time that has passed, which argue in favor of alien life, that there are other enormous numbers: the distance between habitable planets (less now than a couple of weeks ago); the number of ways language and communication could develop; the different types of intelligent life; and so forth, which argue against alien communication. This could mean that it’s just too far, or that they are communicating with us and we don’t understand, or in one of the more off-beat explanations, perhaps most worlds have skies perpetually shrouded in clouds. In which case, would they ever even develop astronomy, or even a full Newtonian understanding of the Universe?  

The final possibility is that there is some kind of filter which works against intelligent extraterrestrial life. Some process which keeps life from starting at all, from reaching sufficient complexity, from developing consciousness, from lasting long enough to spread, or from accomplishing any of the thousands of steps required to have a truly interstellar civilization. As you can imagine, such a filter might be behind us, or it might be in front of us. Examples which have been offered for filters we have already passed, have included: the difficulty of moving from prokaryotes to eukaryotes, galactic catastrophes like supernovas, getting life started in the first place, and even plate tectonics.  

Examples which have been offered for filters yet to come include: blowing ourselves up with nukes, losing ourselves in virtual reality, civilizational collapse, or of course galactic or solar catastrophes yet to come. Another explanation is that aliens do exist, but they’re aggressive and warlike and no one wants to risk initiating communication (or what’s termed Active SETI) because they’re all afraid they’ll be discovered and destroyed.

This is of course one of the things that makes Fermi’s Paradox so fascinating, the number of possible explanations is huge and those explanations can tie into anything (from the Runaway Consumerism to having a particularly large Moon.)

I said that Webb’s book offered up 50 explanations for the paradox. That’s not entirely true. He actually offers up 49 explanations and then for the 50th he offers his own explanation. He mentions in one of the introductory sections that the 50th explanation will be his explanation for the paradox, and while reading the book I was intensely curious about what his explanation would be. And if, for whatever reason you were thinking of reading the book (which I recommend only if you are REALLY interested in the paradox) and you don’t want to be spoiled you should stop reading now…

Webb’s final solution titled “The Fermi Paradox Resolved…” is not unique, it’s not some new take on things or an explanation that hasn’t been offered already, it’s the combination several explanations. Having gone through 49 possible explanations for the paradox Webb’s answer is that we are alone. This is an interesting conclusion. And I think he reaches it somewhat reluctantly, but it carries an enormous number of consequences, not all of which he’s willing to grapple with. But before we get to that let’s examine how he arrives at his conclusion.

In a similar fashion to how Fermi and Drake arrived at their numbers, Webb comes up with is own filter for determining how many intelligent civilizations there should be. All of his filters come from the previous 49 explanations of the paradox already laid out in his book. And in a fashion similar to Drake, he starts with the number of stars in the galaxy. He then multiplies that by the average number of planets per star. This gives him a number of 10^12 or one trillion potential planets. Starting from there he begins to filter planets out. His filtering process is somewhat involved and scholarly, but it’s interesting enough that I’d like to walk through it. He goes through seven steps (actually 8, but one of his steps doesn’t actually filter anything, so we’ll skip it.)

Step 1- Eliminate any planets not in the galactic habitable zone. Most people are familiar with the solar habitable zone, (discussed more in step 3). This is the same thing on the galactic scale, and mostly has to do with the frequency of large scale galactic catastrophes. If you’re too close to the center of the galaxy, then the density of stars is such that galactic catastrophes would be frequent, potentially too frequent for life to ever establish a foothold. Consequently only stars out on the rim of the galaxy would accident free enough for life to develop, and this region is the galactic habitable zone. Webb uses an estimate of 20% of stars being in this zone so that takes us down to 200 billion planets.

Step 2- Eliminate any planets which don’t orbit sun-like stars. Bigger stars burn too fast and smaller stars don’t give off enough energy. Only 5% of stars are sun-like (G-Type) which leaves us with 10 billion planets.

Step 3- Eliminate any planets which aren’t in the continuously habitable zone (CHZ) of the star. This means, not only do they currently have to be at a distance from the star where water is liquid, but they have to have always been at that distance. He puts this number at 0.1% of planets. Which frankly seems extremely conservative particularly in light of the data we’re getting from Kepler which is biased against Earth-sized planets. To be fair to Webb part of the low estimate comes from the idea that the Sun was much fainter in the past. That filter takes us to 10 million planets.

Step 4- Eliminate any planet in the CHZ on which life doesn’t actually emerge. After saying that he considers life to be a probable occurrence for planets in the CHZ he, somewhat unexpectedly, goes on to say that it would happen on only 5% of them. Which takes us to half a million.

Step 5- Eliminate any planet where life gets wiped out by a supernova or some similar solar or galactic catastrophe. Here he’s fairly optimistic and thinks that only about 20% of life would be eliminated in this fashion. I think on this step, contrary to all the other steps he is too optimistic, that possibly far more than 20% could be wiped out by something like a supernova or some giant collision. Though we have also eliminated the planets most prone to this in Step 1. In any event this takes him to 400,000.

Step 6- Eliminate any planet where life doesn’t ever get to be multicellular. Conveniently he places the odds at life making the jump from single celled to multi celled at 1 in 40 which works out nicely to give us 10,000 planets with multicellular life.

Step 7- Eliminate any planets where life doesn’t produce an intelligent, tool-using, mathematical species capable of developing technology. He thinks the odds of this happening are least 1 in 10,000 (0.01%) and possibly much greater which means that there is only one of those civilizations, us. We are alone.

At first glance the whole process seems scientific, but similar to the Drake equation Webb has very little evidence for any of his estimates. The late Michael Crichton of Jurassic Park and Andromeda Strain fame once gave a talk about the Drake Equation at Caltech. His purpose was to take a shot at global warming, and perhaps you’ll dismiss it on that grounds, but his point was nevertheless valid:

This serious-looking equation gave SETI a serious footing as a legitimate intellectual inquiry. The problem, of course, is that none of the terms can be known, and most cannot even be estimated. The only way to work the equation is to fill in with guesses. And guesses-just so we’re clear-are merely expressions of prejudice.

Nor can there be “informed guesses.” If you need to state how many planets with life choose to communicate, there is simply no way to make an informed guess. It’s simply prejudice.

As a result, the Drake equation can have any value from “billions and billions” to zero. An expression that can mean anything means nothing. Speaking precisely, the Drake equation is literally meaningless, and has nothing to do with science. I take the hard view that science involves the creation of testable hypotheses. The Drake equation cannot be tested and therefore SETI is not science. SETI is unquestionably a religion.

His point about SETI being a religion is particularly telling for the purposes of this blog and our discussion. As is his point that the guesses are an expression of prejudice. In the case above it’s obvious that Webb already has a final answer in mind before he started plugging in his guesses, it didn’t just happen to come out with one to his amazement and surprise, he arranged his guesses so that it would come out as one.

Think about that for a second, you start off with one trillion, and in the end you’ve created a filter that leaves just one planet left out of the one trillion you started with?  Not zero, not a million? Imagine that you were going to create a set of seven filters which when applied to 7+ billion humans left you with one and only one person, and that you could only use natural criteria, like weight and height, not artificial filters like a social security number or the name of the town they were born in. It would be impossible, and recall that Webb starts with one trillion planets, not seven billion, so he’s already dealing with potential set over 100 times as large.

But let us for the moment assume that he’s correct. That in all the galaxy we are the only intelligent, technological life. As I already mentioned, the consequences of that are far-reaching and extreme.

First it reverses one of the major trends in science. The trend towards de-emphasizing humanity’s place in the universe.

In the beginning if you were the ruler of a vast empire you must have thought that you were the center of creation. Alexander the Great is said to have conquered the known world. I’m sure Julius Caesar couldn’t have imagined an empire greater than Rome, but I think Emperor Yuan of Han would have disagreed.

But surely, had they know each other, they could agreed that between the two of them they more or less ruled the whole world? I’m sure the people of Americas, who were entirely unknown to them, would have argued with that. But surely all of them could agree that the planet on which they all lived was at the center of the universe. But then Copernicus comes along, and says, “Not so fast.” (And yes I know about Aristarchus of Samos.)

“Okay, we get it. The Earth revolves around the Sun, not the other way around. But at least we can take comfort in the fact that man is clearly different and better than the animals.”

“About that…” says Darwin.

“Well at least our galaxy is unique…”

“I hate to keep bursting your bubble, but that’s not the case either,” chimes in Edwin Hubble.

At every step in the process when someone has thought that humanity was special in anyway someone comes along and shows that they’re not. It happened often enough that now they have a name for it, The Copernican Principle (after one of the biggest bubble poppers). Which, for our purposes, is interchangeable with the Mediocrity Principle. Together they say that there is nothing special about our place in the cosmos, or us, or the development of life. Stephen Hawking put it as follows:

The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.

This is what scientist have believed, but if we are truly the only intelligent, technology using life form in the galaxy, then suddenly we are very special indeed. Which, as you’ll recall, is what religion has been arguing all along, and it is primarily against religion that these various attacks at uniqueness have been leveled.

Now obviously it’s not impossible for the Copernican principle to be wrong, but you can still imagine that it presents a problem for scientists to explain. Particularly for scientists who would rather not give any ammunition to the unbelievers. In other words, for militant atheists, the idea that we might be unique and special, that the universe and the galaxy and the solar system might have been designed for us, is deeply troubling. And if you talk to any of them who are knowledgeable about this issue, they have a response ready, the Anthropic Principle.

The Anthropic Principle is complicated enough that it almost certainly deserves it’s own post, particularly as we are already 2500+ words into this post, but in short what it says is that there’s nothing remarkable about our uniqueness, because only our uniqueness allows it to be remarked upon.

To expand on that a little bit. Conscious life will only be found in places where conditions allow it to exist, therefore when we look around and find that things are set up in just the right way for us to exist, it couldn’t be any other way because if they weren’t set up in just the right way no one would be around to do the looking.

As I said the subject is deep enough that it will probably eventually get it’s own post (though not next week I’m feeling a hankering for something different.) But I will end with four points about the anthropic principle to chew on:

1- It’s logically true, but logically true in the sense that a tautology is logically true. It basically amounts to saying I’m here because I’m here, or if things were different, they’d be different. Which is fine as far as it goes, but it discourages further exploration and a deeper understanding rather than encouraging it.

2- It’s generally used as an answer to the question of why all the physical constants seemed fine tuned for life. To which people reply there could be an infinite number of universes, so we just happen to be in the one fine tuned for life. Okay fine, but is there any evidence that the physical constants we experience don’t apply to the rest of the galaxy? Because that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about Fermi’s Paradox. In fact we don’t even have any evidence that they are different anywhere in the visible universe of the 100 billion additional galaxies. In other words if the Earth is fine-tuned for life as far as physical constants, so is the rest of the galaxy, at a minimum.

3- It’s an argument from lack of imagination. Or in other words Webb asserts that we are alone because there has not been any evidence to the contrary. It is entirely possible that we have just not looked hard enough. Webb admits this possibility of course, but it is not his preferred explanation, which is that we’re alone, because of the factors which I mentioned above, but all of those factors could just be a lack of imagination. Imagining how life could develop in the center of the galaxy, how life could develop outside of the CHZ (say Europa) or, especially, imagining how we might already be in contact with extraterrestrials and just call it prayer.

4- It’s not science. Just as Crichton (and others) argue that SETI is a religion, so is the anthropic principle. In this particular religion it’s easier to believe that we’re alone and use the anthropic principle as justification then to think that we’re not alone and that God exists. It’s the religion of, humanism, especially the belief that there is nothing beyond the limits of rationality and science.

When I said the consequences are far-reaching and extreme, this is what I meant. If we are truly alone, if we are the lone intelligence in the entire observable universe then that puts us in a position of awful responsibility, and takes us back to the premise of the blog. My assertion is that the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. If you assert that humanity is alone, that we are all there is, then what you’re saying is:

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we HAVE to be saved.


Fermi’s Paradox As a Proof of the Existence of God

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It all began one day sometime in 1950 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Enrico Fermi and some other scientists were discussing UFOs over lunch. It was the dawn of the atomic age (as they all well knew, working at Los Alamos) and anything seemed possible. Consequently their conversation covered all manner of speculative topics, including the potential for FTL travel. In the midst of their discussion, and seemingly out of nowhere, Fermi exclaimed, “Where are they?” The conversation had been so wide ranging, that it took the other scientists a moment to understand that he was talking about extraterrestrials. But in that moment the paradox which bears his name was born.

It was immediately apparent that Fermi’s question had touched on something deep. As the story goes Fermi went back to his office and ran some numbers (these calculations apparently pre-date the Drake Equation) and confirmed what he had already suspected, that even using incredibly modest assumptions, we should have been visited by extraterrestrials long ago and many times over. Instinctively Fermi and the other scientists recognized that the question touched on a deep paradox, which is why this question, out of all the questions ever asked while eating lunch, have survived to the present day.

I mentioned the Drake Equation, and it’s closely tied to Fermi’s Paradox, and it might be worth taking a brief detour into the question of what the Drake Equation is. One day in 1961 Frank Drake was preparing for a meeting on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and, according to his recollection, the equation came about during that preparation:

As I planned the meeting, I realized a few day[s] ahead of time we needed an agenda. And so I wrote down all the things you needed to know to predict how hard it’s going to be to detect extraterrestrial life. And looking at them it became pretty evident that if you multiplied all these together, you got a number, N, which is the number of detectable civilizations in our galaxy.

Drake’s equation essentially acts as a series of filters. (The concept of a filter will be very important in discussing Fermi’s Paradox.) You begin with the number of stars (technically the rate of star formation.) You then filter out any stars without planets. From there you filter out any planets which don’t have life, and then filter out that life which isn’t intelligent, and finally you filter out any life which is incapable of communicating on an interstellar scale. After filtering out all the possible stars and planets and life forms that aren’t communicating with us, you arrive at a number of, as Drake said, “detectable civilizations in our galaxy.”

What Fermi’s numbers and later Drake’s showed was that the first number, the number of stars, is so massive, (100 billion in the Milky Way) that even if you’re pretty conservative with your filtering you still end up with a big number. And even if you are very pessimistic with your estimates, and the number of expected civilizations ends up being small, another large number, the age of the galaxy, means that even if there only ended up being one star-faring civilization, they would have had plenty of time to spread out across the entire galaxy under almost any conceivable scenario.

The Drake Equation article on Wikipedia is fascinating, as is the article on Fermi’s Paradox, and I have borrowed heavily from both. In fact, rather than trying to restate everything I would just suggest that you read those articles. What I’m more interested in is viewing Fermi’s paradox through the lens of LDS Doctrine and LDS Cosmology. In the process, I don’t guarantee that we won’t end up fairly far afield, though I don’t imagine we will arrive anywhere too controversial.

LDS beliefs aside, from a broadly religious perspective it can only be viewed as fortunate that we haven’t been visited by extraterrestrials, or at least extraterrestrials of the sort envisioned by most science fiction. I don’t have the required background to speculate on the impact of such a visit on the eastern religions, but it could only be a huge blow to all the Abrahamic religions if aliens shows up and their belief system didn’t incorporate the idea of a single omniscient deity. It would therefore follow that Fermi’s Paradox works in favor of religion. In fact I would go so far as to say that Fermi’s Paradox is in fact a strong argument in favor of God generally, but, I hope to show that it’s even a stronger argument in favor of the specifically LDS conception of God.

The LDS conception of God is, as far as I know, unique among the religions. We’re basically in a category by ourselves when it comes the way extraterrestrials fit into our conception of God. To take just one example, directly from the scriptures:

And thus there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, which Kolob is after the reckoning of the Lord’s time; which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest.

Abraham 3:9

Obviously one can get pretty deep in the weeds when you start talking about Kolob and the more esoteric aspects of LDS cosmology, so I’ll try to keep that sort of speculation to a minimum. Even so, I don’t think one has to engage in much speculation to say that Mormons believe that God is an extraterrestrial, using the broadest definition of that term. Which, then means, if we follow that thought to it’s logical conclusion, that Mormons have the answer to Fermi’s Paradox. Fermi’s numbers suggested to him that we should have been visited by extraterrestrials long ago and many times. Well if God is an extraterrestrial then we have. There is no paradox. Additionally this would explain why no other extraterrestrials from visiting us (if there are other extraterrestrials in any meaningful sense in this scenario.)

On it’s face this argument seems perfectly reasonable to me, but I guess for most people it seems crazy, or impossible, or somehow unthinkable, because in all the time I’ve been interested in the paradox I don’t believe I’ve ever seen someone make this argument. (Though if past experience is anything to go by five minutes after I post this I’ll find someone making this exact argument.) I’ve have seen people come close. Interestingly one of the people who came the closest is Michael Shermer, a noted religious skeptic (he’s the founder of the Skeptics Society and Editor in Chief of Skeptic Magazine) In his answer to one of the Edge Questions of the Year he up the following:

Is God nothing more than a sufficiently advanced extra-terrestrial intelligence?

As you can see he get’s really close, but he never draws the connection between this question and the paradox, or makes the leap that I’m going to make which is to say that Fermi’s Paradox could be considered proof of God’s existence. I use proof in the sense of something which helps to establish the truth, not something which is ironclad and irrefutable. This proof would go something like this:

  1. Because of the huge number of stars and planets, it is inconceivable that we are the only intelligent life.
  2. Because of the huge amounts of time involved it is inconceivable that other intelligent life hasn’t spread through the galaxy and visited Earth.
  3. Because of the inevitable gigantic technological disparity which would exist between us and any spacefaring extraterrestrials they would appear to us as gods.
  4. Therefore the simplest explanation is that the being we refer to as God exists and fulfills all of the above criteria.

I feel like we should give this proof a name. Fermi’s Paradox’s indirect Proof for the Existence of God, seems too long, maybe Proof by Extraterrestrial Exclusion? In any event if someone out there thinks they see any big holes in this line of reasoning I’d welcome the chance to hear them. But I would argue that not only are there no holes in this line of thinking, but that most of the explanations which are offered for the paradox provide indirect support for this explanation.

I just got done watching The Big Short, which covers the housing crisis and the few people who were betting it would happen, and one of the main worries of the people in the movie was that they were overlooking something. That they had missed some key piece of information. If no one else was betting against the housing market maybe everyone knew something that they didn’t. They weren’t missing anything, but they were right to be skeptical, and at this point I should engage in similar skepticism. If no one has come up with this same line of thinking, am I missing something?

To continue with the comparison to the Big Short, a large part of the blindness which afflicted the people who were involved in the housing crisis was the assumption that you would never have a simultaneous nationwide decline in housing prices, in large part because it hadn’t ever happened before. I think a similar blindness affects the people thinking about Fermi’s Paradox. When people imagine aliens they mostly imagine a sort of ray-gun-flying-saucer sort of thing. Or they imagine something so inhuman that we might not even recognize it as life. Imagining that our contact with aliens might take the form of prayer is both too mundane and too fantastic. But to offer up an adaptation to Clarke’s Third Law (and I am not the first to suggest this modification):

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a miracle.

Of course as all “educated” people know there aren’t any miracles, consequently when people involved in SETI look for signs of alien life they look for signals in the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio waves, or possibly lasers. And when they think of aliens visiting they think of something similar to Independence Day. But what should we be expecting if we really approach things without preconception or bias? (And by no means am I claiming that I am free from bias, only that I have a completely different set of biases.)

The first thing we should expect if we give any credence to Fermi is that they should already be here. This is obviously not what most people think. In fact most people have a bias towards expecting them to show up in the near future. A bias which got it’s start at the dawn of the age of science fiction with HG Wells and War of the Worlds (and almost certainly earlier than that, but Wells is probably the first author most people are aware of.) A bias which continues through to the present day with movies like the aforementioned Independence Day and the soon to be released Arrival.

But of course the chances that, in the 4.543 billion years of the Earth’s existence that aliens will pick next 50 to arrive are 0.00000001%. Aliens have either already visited or they never will. Communication would appear to be different than visiting, but not really. Think about it, if incredibly advanced aliens are out there then either they want to talk to us or they don’t. If they do want to talk to us then we should assume that, given that they’re thousands if not millions of years ahead of us in technology that they should have figured out a way to do it. Accordingly even if we restrict it to communication, I would once again say that there’s a strong bias towards it already happening, or never happening. Of course I’ve completely breezed past the idea that they’re waiting for something to happen before they talk to us. But that is an interesting enough topic that it deserves it’s own post. The point is, outside of some fringe theories about pyramids and Mayans the only current candidate for extraterrestrial communication is prayer.

I understand this will strike many people as an entirely ludicrous idea. But why? On what basis do they rule out this idea? I understand I may be accused of constructing a strawman, but since I haven’t seen this theory in print, let alone any objections to it, I don’t have any actual objections to answer, so we’ll have to imagine some. Still I think these won’t be too far from the mark.

Objection 1: Prayer is scientifically impossible.

Honestly I hope they’re smarter than this, and that this isn’t one of the objections, but I could certainly imagine that it would be. Everyone agrees that any potential aliens (LDS doctrine or no) would be at least thousands if not millions of years ahead of us technologically. How do we know, at our level of development what is or isn’t possible? I could trot out a list of everything we thought was impossible scant decades before it became commonplace. How can anyone have any confidence about predicting what is and isn’t possible with thousands, if not millions of years of additional progress?

Objection 2: Prayer is not the way aliens would contact us.

For people raised on the biases I already mentioned, when they imagine alien contact they imagine a single flying saucer landing in Washington DC or a scientist working late at night at some radio observatory. What they do not imagine is communication with single individuals that appears unreliable at best, mostly involves people asking for, or expressing gratitude for mundane things and is responded to with vague feelings of peace and the occasional (unconfirmable) vocalization. But why couldn’t it be? Once again it’s dangerous to make any assumptions about what extraterrestrials can and can’t do or would or wouldn’t do. To return to the Big Short, it opens with a quote by Mark Twain:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

In future posts I’ll get more into why prayer may be precisely the way that an advanced race of beings may want to talk to us, even if it were unmoored from its religious origins.

Objection 3: Prayer is inexplicably selective.  

Similar to the last objection, but this gets more into the fact that even if prayers are answered there a certainly cases where one set of prayers are answered while another are not. Non-mormon’s might also wonder why extraterrestrials would select 15 men to receive the best communication of all. Are we to imagine that aliens are Christian? (Why not?)

I’m sure there are other objections, but for the moment let’s stop with that last one, because I think the answers are similar, and this point it may be best to turn to an examination of what we, as humans, do in a similar situation.

There are in the world, many tribes which have no significant contact with global civilization. And it’s instructive to examine how we have chosen to deal with them, but also to examine more broadly what is and isn’t acceptable behavior towards them.

The first thing that we obviously don’t do, and that no one has suggested doing, is giving them a huge dump of technology. Whether that would be, in the worst case, a bunch of guns and ammo, or in the most innocuous case a set of encyclopedias. At the moment, what we mostly do is leave them alone. Though in the not too distant past we would contact them, and while this risks getting into an argument on how best to deal with indigenous people and colonialism, etc. such contact actually was largely religious in nature. The first people to show up when a new people were found were missionaries. And what did they try to do? Give them instruction in morality, build schools, and convert them to Christianity.

Interestingly I can’t think of any science fiction novel where the aliens set up schools, or educated humans in the dominant galactic religion (though Childhood’s End is sort of in that vein.) I think this is largely because people expect religion to disappear at a certain point in a civilization’s development. (I know the Hyperion Cantos keeps religion around, but his treatment of Christianity is pretty appalling.) I’m not claiming that a book written along those lines isn’t out there, but I know of no well known book written along that premise. What we mostly see are mysterious communications, or ships showing up with unclear intentions. There are of course war-like aliens, and those stories map well with the way civilization has dealt with more primitive tribes, but if there are aliens and they’re bent on war then we’re already screwed.

Let’s instead turn towards looking at how the objections to prayer might look if we applied them to contact with previously uncontacted people. The first objection was that prayer wasn’t scientific. I imagine that there are numerous ways we could use to contact these tribes which would seem equally miraculous as prayer seems to us, and remember that they’re only a few thousand years behind us in technology. We could be dealing with aliens that are millions of years ahead of us.

The second objection is that prayer isn’t how aliens would contact us. Okay, now take that thought and for a moment imagine that you’re an anthropologist studying an uncontacted tribe. Imagine that any individual in this tribe could send you a message, which would be instantly translated into your native language, and the message would describe in a detail not even available in a written journal the person’s deepest concerns, and the whole of their inner life? Yes there would obviously be privacy concerns, but for the moment put that aside (or you could assume that the anthropologist is maximally benevolent.) Wouldn’t that be the ideal way to allow that tribe to make contact? I think so. Perhaps you disagree. But I would think that you could at least see where such a system might have some significant advantages.

The final objection is that prayer is selective. Well so are we. You could certainly imagine that you might decide to contact one group of the previously uncontacted people without deciding to open the floodgates and contact all of them. You might do this because this particular group was in danger, or if they had developed a certain level of technology, or if they asked for help, or if you were experimenting with a new method of making contact. There are all manner of reasons why you might leave one group alone while making contact with another.

My point is not that prayer is so obviously alien communication as to preclude any other possible explanation, anymore than I am arguing that Fermi’s Paradox is obviously proof of God, but given how little we actually know, and given the assumptions that we can safely make, it fits at least as well as any other explanation and in some ways even better.