The Fermi Paradox

Where are all the aliens?

I’ve mentioned the Fermi Paradox here quite a number of times, but I’ve never made it the main topic of a post. Lately I’m becoming more and more convinced our world is facing a Great Filter, and that we may very well be seeing one answer to Mr. Fermi’s interesting paradox.

Which is a response to the Drake Equation, which I have made the topic of a post.

Essentially, the Drake Equation attempts to estimate the number of intelligent space-faring species in a galaxy and, by most accounts, comes up with a number noticeably larger than one. The Fermi Paradox says: Okay Mr. Drake… if so… where are all the aliens?

The thing is, given the size of our galaxy, a space-faring species could — at sub-light speeds using technology we can envision today — easily (depending on their disposition) explore or loot or colonize the galaxy within a million years.

Only assuming only that they want to, which seems likely on many accounts: curiosity, resource needs, expansion, general acquisitiveness, or who knows what. (Some SF stories posit a highly xenophobic race that just can’t abide any other species existing in the galaxy.)

Given that our galaxy is over 13 billion years old, there are a lot of million-year spans (13,000+ of them, in fact) in which some species could have taken over.

It would take just one such race in all that time to leave a noticeable mark — assuming they didn’t vanish billions of years ago. The general assumption is that once a species invades a domain, they tend to remain unless pushed out.

As one example, the dinosaurs lasted millions of years. It took a giant ass meteor to wipe them out.

(On the other hand, there is a time component here. It’s reasonable to believe that species do have a lifetime of some kind. Technology can extend — or conceivably very much shorten — the lifetime of a species. The Drake Equation does take lifespan into account as a factor.)

The Paradox does depend on how we evaluate Drake’s Equation. It’s possible, if the equation factors are extremely low, that intelligent species are quite rare. It could be that the odds are actually less than one per galaxy, which means we’re likely alone and lucky to be here at all.

Which is one possible answer to the Paradox: The lack of signs of anyone else is normal. We’re it! There is no one else.

But if the Equation has larger factors, then there is a bit of a puzzle.

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Another answer to the Paradox (which I’ve posted about before) is that the Equation does have a low yield and intelligent life is rare (but not so rare as to limit to only one per galaxy).

Yet it is rare enough that it hasn’t happened in 13 billion years.

Until now.

We’re the first.

In science fiction terms, we’re the Ancestors that “modern” species in the distant future either fear or revere. (Or both.)

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One common answer to the Fermi Paradox is that, although intelligent life does arise with some frequency, it’s rarely (or never) intelligent enough to not kill itself off.

Technological or sociological utter disaster, a staple of science fiction, is a subset of (or at least related to) a larger category of Paradox resolutions: the idea of Great Filters.

A Great Filter, in this context, is any challenge that faces an entire evolving species on its way to intelligence (and space flight). The idea is that failing the challenge prevents further evolution (or even destroys the species).

In particular, it means the species doesn’t make it into space.

It seems to me that we’re facing a sociological Great Filter right now.

(In contrast to, for example, technological Great Filters, such as atomic power, or ecological Great Filters, such as climate change.)

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The Great Filter I think we’re facing, which I’ve seen growing for about 50 years, and which I’ve written about many times here, has many names: post-truth; post-fact; post-empiricism; post-realism.

But they all say the same thing, really. That our culture has turned its back on science and rational thought.

Which is quite in contrast to our former cultural view that science and rational thought were the saviors of humanity that lifted us out of the dark ages.

Some of this is reaction to a world that moves faster and faster, that contains more and more (often contradictory) information, that seems harder and harder to understand, and which for many has fewer and fewer returns on perceived investments.

The complexity of the world may have outstripped our ability to keep up. We are drowning in the interweb world. We are stunned by a world too big to really comprehend.

The pushback, as usual, swings the pendulum too far. We tend to over-correct, with the usual back-and-forth result. Interdiction seems much easier than moderation, more absolute.

There is also that we, as mammals, have an evolutionary past involving tribes and herds. Early humans lived in very small groups, which expanded to villages, then to towns, then to cities, and finally to vast cities with millions of people.

Our existence now more resembles bees in a hive or ants in a nest, and I’m not sure that’s a viable mode for us. It’s clearly stressful.

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I read recently that suicide rates are up significantly lately. There have been two very prominent ones recently: Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.

As with Robin Williams, these are people who make you wonder how their lives could be that bad. Clinical depression, a medical condition, surely plays a role in cases like this.

My life, by some measures, is very empty. Parents dead, not close to what remains of my family, no wife, no kids, retired after a hit-and-miss career, thoroughly disenchanted with society, and strongly misanthropic… but I cannot conceive of killing myself (or anyone) over my emotions.

Terminal illness? You betcha, I’m outta here in a flash. But because life sucks? I just don’t understand that at all. (Because, of course life sucks. That’s kind of a given.)

So it must be the case that the mind breaks in terrifying ways that are hard to imagine (but which many of us can at least perhaps suspect on our darker days).

Yet I can’t help but wonder what role our increasing materialism and secularism plays. Does an increasingly “soulless” world lead to existential despair? Certainly it can. Existentialism absolutely can lead to nihilism.

Maybe these things lead to the mental issues that seem to make suicide a viable option. Maybe some people feel a “rock and hard place” sense of life that leaves them no happy options.

It’s called Weltschmerz, and I can certainly appreciate the feeling! Especially lately!

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I’ve also read recently about how some actors from recent horror films have needed therapy to overcome the stress of making the film. Some films, and some roles, have been so horrific to even play that they damaged the psychology of the actors who played them.

While I do sometimes wonder about the things that drive people to therapy, taking this at face value I can see it as one more sign of how amped up everything is.

Social and entertainment excitement acts like any drug: you develop a tolerance and need a stronger dose to feel the same thing. (This, to a large extent, explains the course of music in this country since at least 1950.)

My canonical example is how we’ve depicted someone getting shot. Back in the day, they clutched their stomach, groaned, and fell down. It’s gotten more and more graphic ever since.

I’m not a fan of horror, but I can only imagine how horrific it’s gotten, and I can also imagine that people associated closely with, but not originators of, the making might well find their minds a bit twisted. (I would assume the originators have no problem with the material; they originated it!)

As film and games become more and more lifelike and immersive, we’re faced with some crucial questions. For example, what kind of virtual reality would we allow for a child molester? How far can we go in expressing our fantasies in full computer glory?

And should we, perhaps, view art and entertainment through different lenses? Is entertainment more like sports than storytelling? Much of it certainly seems so (dance contests, game shows, and many “reality” shows).

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What makes all this deeply terrifying to me is the rejection of physical reality and rational thought in favor of tribalism and emotionalism. I can’t help but see these as huge steps backwards in human progress — almost literally a return to the dark ages.

(To quote Leon Wieseltier once again: “Too much digital; not enough critical thinking; more physical reality.”)

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There is also the problem of the exponential curve. Many key aspects of society, population, for example, show exponentially increasing curves.

Basically, the more you have, the more you can make. People. Pollution. Whatever.

The problem is that exponential curve increase (faster and faster) forever!

Which is clearly impossible in the real world. Something has to give, and it often gives catastrophically. The system blows up. If we’re talking population, billions die.

An exponential curve can be mitigated into an “S” curve if the increase is damped by some force that flattens out the increase.

The curve describing knowledge gained about a specific system is often an “S” curve. At first learning is slow, but it picks up, increasing faster and faster, until most of what can be learned is learned — then progress slows.

Overall, our technological growth seems exponential; just consider how much has happened since 1950 compared to all the centuries leading up to it.

And our entertainment, which tends to be very technological these days, also seems to be moving exponentially. Hence, maybe, actors needing therapy.

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These are topics I’ve written about many times before (and probably won’t avoid writing about again), and I’m quite aware how pointless it is.

Except, maybe, as a venting mechanism.

I can totally see how some might find the current reality intolerable. I know I do (it’s just that I see no serious choice but to keep on keeping on).

My point here today is that, as I look upon all this mess, I’m increasingly certain I’m seeing humanity in the process of failing a Great Filter.

I think it’s possible we got as good as we’ll ever get, it wasn’t good enough, and now we’re sinking back down to our lowest common denominator, because humanity turns out overall to be a fail, so screw it.

The Apocalypse won’t be Technological; it’ll be Medieval!

Go ahead and prove me wrong, humanity, I’d love to see it.

But, frankly, I don’t think you have it in you.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

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