The so-called Fermi paradox has grown in popularity until possibly everyone has heard about it. Thank you, Ancient Aliens. The concept, really, is too simple for the vexing questions that it propulses. If life in the galaxy abounds — which so much of our science now seems to suggest — then why do we not see it?
Surprisingly, academics do indeed write about these things. In a recent issue of the International Journal of Astrobiology, Simon Morris reviews the options.
Reading the article, you get the impression that Morris is a sort of dignified scientific rebel. A man unafraid to speak out and turn his pinkie up in jest, and just as quick to bend that pinkie down to shake a disinfected, scientific hand. Lest we be suspicious, remember that scientists accept rebels such as this only when they have proven that they bear a high enough yield of fruit.
As Morris describes, the proposed solutions to the paradox range from the cliche to the flat out incoherent. What seems clear is that convergent evolutionary processes tend towards attractor states in biological development. Intelligence does not simply evolve, but rather plops down on the table without dispute. There is no turning back — at least, not until you reach the human stage, where intelligence learns the clever (alcoholic) or not so clever (political) skill of immolating its own development.
Then, after reaching intelligence, just as inexorably, the denizens of these civilizations become machines. But we do not see the clear signatures that we might expect from computing industry. Neither telltale heat nor light nor pattern falls upon the optics of our great congealing instruments.
Perhaps, like the giants of our own computing, the Googles, Apples, Facebooks, these civilizations put their marketing money into camouflaging who they really are: legions of software developers that churn like fire ants upon the incomprehensible. And any incidental signal that we detect would be a sign of wasted energy, which they would have long since analyzed and snuffled out.
At least it seems clear, that if the initial belief inspired by the academic Kardashev was that a great alien civilization would be so energy demanding as to be unmistakable, then that belief has proven badly flawed.
We cannot begin to even pretend to explain the psychology of a superintelligent civilization, yet the lack of psychological insight buzzes like a fly beneath the drum. It seems a necessity of universal life that any newcomer that could appear would immediately choose to hide itself. An undignified entrant to the galactic playground could at best embarrass themselves, and at worst, attempt to stage a coup.
In Morris’s review, the cosmos does not hide due to insecurity as much as due to unfathomable technological advance. When a civilization has figured out how to live inside its own black hole, then it disappears from off the map without leaving its explanation written on the sky.
A slightly more conspicuous solution to the paradox is the zoo hypothesis. In this solution, the alien civilizations are not preoccupied with their own affairs or the need to hide. Spookily, they know that we are here.
The zoo hypothesis dovetails well with the idea that UFO’s that are witnessed in countless sightings actually are extraterrestrial phenomena. If we see a UFO in Beaver, Utah, zipping along at 6,000 miles per hour, as was recently shown in an interesting piece of YouTube footage, then what is it we are looking at? In the zoo interpretation, it is we the animals, seeing the self-conscious visitors dash by the outside of our cage.
Yet UFO’s are infinitely debated, likely to remain so, and the consensus from astronomers is that we seem to be alone. Morris counts this as the second class of solution to the paradox. Since we do not see proper evidence, we must assume that we are in fact alone.
To the restless imagination this solution is untenable. The questions of psychology and motivation bubble up again. What exactly do these hidden computer civilizations that exist in so great a number busy themselves upon? Is it the search for ever more intelligence, which would seem to be the universal token?
Like crypto miners burning up their GPU’s in Nordic warehouses, the civilizations all work unceasingly towards higher intellect. Towards those additional, final steps that would lead to alpha status in the cosmos.
Morris does not consider these rationalizations which are admittedly speculations heaped upon the speculative. He does consider whether we live inside a simulation, or whether our universe consists of interpenetrating dimensions, though the substance of such dimensions in Morris’ views isn’t clear. These options could offer their own solutions to the paradox. In these explanations, we don’t see life out there because life isn’t really “here”.
In modern physics there are indeed notions of higher dimensions and multiple universes, but Morris does not connect these established notions to his remarks. Nevertheless, at least in the case of the simulation argument, there are indeed cogent solutions to the paradox that might force us to increasingly question the fundamentals of our reality.
It may be that we have reached a point where the realistic seeming solutions to the Fermi paradox have transmogrified themselves into what is only recognizable as fantasy. Along these lines, Arthur Clarke declared that technology advanced beyond a certain point is indistinguishable from magic. Perhaps then we have come full circle, where the blind premise of magic would feel more believable and trustworthy than the well-justified proposition that aliens live inside a multiverse dimension, or that we are all inside a simulation.
Morris in the end endorses this final and most troublesome line of thinking most strongly. In no way however does his article give the impression that the Fermi paradox is closed. The search continues along its threads. And on a planet where we are all increasingly locked inside our screens, the discovery of other life would offer a refreshing turn from technology’s trend towards loneliness.
Conway Morris, S. (2018). Three explanations for extraterrestrials: Sensible, unlikely, mad. International Journal of Astrobiology,17(4), 287-293. doi:10.1017/S1473550416000379