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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.
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:
- Because of the huge number of stars and planets, it is inconceivable that we are the only intelligent life.
- Because of the huge amounts of time involved it is inconceivable that other intelligent life hasn’t spread through the galaxy and visited Earth.
- Because of the inevitable gigantic technological disparity which would exist between us and any spacefaring extraterrestrials they would appear to us as gods.
- 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.