Fermiís Paradox , The Great Silence, and The Singularity

by Tihamer T. Toth-Fejel

(September 1997, #108, Moon Minerís Manifesto, 1630 N. 32nd Street, Milwaukee, WI 53208-2040 (414) 342-0705, KokhMMM@aol.com)

(See MMM# 106, June 1997: The Real Question About Life on Mars, Tihamer Toth-Fejel, p. 3, and Some Real Questions About Fermi's Paradox, p. 4, Peter Kokh.)

The possibility of life on Mars raises some hidden but staggering issues regarding our place in the universe, and finding some would impact us as much as the Copernican Perspective did hundreds of years ago. In a nutshell, finding life on Mars would intensify the Fermi Paradox in that with two successes out of two possibilities, it would seem that the universe should be teeming with life, and the aliens should have already been here. But they arenít.

All Space activists are united in the belief that we need to be a Space-faring species to insure not only that our home world is protected from K/T class meteorites, but that if one does somehow get past us, then viable pockets of humanity beyond the cradle world would remain to carry on our civilization. Therefore, the answer to Fermiís Paradox has little bearing in our day-to-day lobbying and other grass-roots pro-space efforts (unless we run into SETI enthusiasts) and in fact, wonít be relevant until we finish settling our Solar System. After that point, the resolution to Fermiís Paradox will be critical to our survival as a species. It is very difficult to devise strong theories based on one data point. But itís so much fun, especially when the philosophical implications of these theories are so overwhelming.

It has been said that the possible existence of aliens does not make our species more or less valuable. I disagree, for while the rareness of something is often makes it more valuable (e.g. large diamonds), rareness does not necessarily make it more valuable (e.g. the last stack of papers I tossed on the recycle pile contained many unique random numbers, plus my notes, stains from my lunch, etc). Ted Reynoldís allegorical tale "Can These Bones Rise" (Analog, March 1978) illustrates that, we can and should make judgments on the differential value of cultures and species, including ourselves. For those who have not read his story, it is set in a time long after the extinction of humans. One woman is ressurrected by a race of aliens who tell her that they will raise the rest of Earthís dead if she gives them a good enough reason to do so. Reynoldís point is that there are objective values that trancend the parochial mindsets that individuals and individual cultures may have, that at least some species will value characteristics such as physical or political power, beautiful art, or unselfish love, and that these are not equal.

Scientists, engineers, and science fiction writers all have personal psychological needs, including those that may expressed in the belief that we are alone, or in the belief that we are not. These needs are a characteristic of being human, and unavoidable, even when one is trying as hard as possible to be objective. The best that can be hoped for is to display our logical reasoning, along with our hopes, fears, and motivations. Personally, I fear Berzerkers, though I am fairly sure that in about 50 to 100 years, we will be able to handle them. For me, an even greater fear is based on our own historical record -- I fear that contact with a superior civilization would destroy us, even with their best intentions. On the other hand, it certainly would be nice to have the guidance of an elder race, one wise enough to build us up without destroying us, one wise enough to help us mature without destroying ourselves. As far as feeling that our being alone might be interpreted as a Sisyphean cosmic joke, I canít deny anyone choosing that interpretation, nor can I deny someone elseís interpretation (e.g. Tipler and Barrow especially) that our being alone instead makes us the God-cherished super-special pinnacle of creation. Both positions are logically reasonable, but my point is that you get to choose one. Since it is experimentally impossible to distinguish between the two alternatives, it would be more reasonable to choose the one that has the more positive consequences. Given the problems so many individuals in our culture have with depression and low self-esteem (why else do you think Alternative Rock is so popular?), Iíd say (at the risk of sounding Pollyannish) that if you canít know for sure, recognize the arbitrariness of your decision, but choose the belief that gives you joy, and not the one that fills you with despair.

Most space enthusiasts, especially the more technically adept ones such as Bob Zubrin, agree that some theoretically possible starship propulsion systems would be detectable many light years away. The problem seems to be one of concurrency -- we would need to be looking at that evidence when it arrives at our planet -- a highly improbably event if their civilization only lasts for a thousand years. This is an especially tricky guess since we have *NO* datapoints for how long a radio-using civilization will last. On the other hand, if we consider radio as a form of communication analogous to writing, then from the limited number of examples on Earth, at least two countries (China and Egypt) have used writing to support their national identity for five thousand years, and at least one organization (the Catholic Church) has maintained a strong centralized hierarchy for two thousand. But these timeframes are still minute in comparison to galactic time frames.

On the other hand, while nations fall, and people scatter, life is pretty tenacious. After we get off this planet and establish self-sustaining OíNeill colonies and terraform planets, what could possibly exterminate all of Terraís daughter biospheres? It would have to be big, mean, and nasty. And it would have to hit soon -- for in a thousand years (which is a cosmic nanosecond), it is entirely reasonable that we will have sent out hundreds, if not thousands of starships (otherwise, why the heck are we NSS members?). It is certainly probable that many starships may never arrive at their intended destinations, either because of internal or external mishaps. But is there anything that could possibly stop them all? Once theyíre leaving at relativistic light speeds, they will constitute a wave that, even if Earth and her daughters destroyed themselves after spawning, would echo throughout the galaxy for a million years. The same reasoning applies to any other space-faring civilization. And while we can easily come up with scenarios that might wipe out any one species, we know of none that could wipe them all out. So the concurrency argument lacks an important factor in that it lacks universality.

Arecebo-class radio antennaes could pick up only the carrier wave of "I love Lucy", but you can bet that if we picked up such an artificial signal from Space, we would build another, much larger antennae with which to pick up the modulated signal. This is because of the inevitable characteristics of intelligent life have survival value in the real world, especially cautious curiosity and playful exploration.

The argument has been raised that a conscientious civilization might have a sort of "Prime Directive" that would motivate them to steer clear of "G" type solar systems like our own. But given that nature (human nature especially) is filled with predators, it is inconceivable that there would be no space-faring predators. Perhaps some of the "enlightened" races could set up a "wild-game" preserve for humans, but could not the "game wardens" be bribed or overwhelmed? They would have to have the virtue and power of angels to resist the poachers (hmm, maybe there is something about this decadeís preoccupation with aliens and angels). Perhaps the border is broached often enough to feed the rumor mills of the UFO and angel enthusiasts. On the other hand, why an advanced predator would be interested in mutilating cattle or inseminating human females (while leaving the rest of the planet untouched) is beyond me. As an All American wrestler, I have known blood lust, and it might explain a thrill-seeking hunterísmotivations, but domesticated cattle? That would be as much fun as pulling wings off of butterflies. Why not create a Jurassic Park and stalk some real game? The idea of alien abductions for DNA sampling is equally ludicrous. Artificial mosquitoes and/or fleas could get DNA samples of every person on this planet much faster and with a lot less fuss. For an advanced interstellar species to desire human females (or males) for sexual conquest is as ridiculous as humans having sex with insects. On the other hand, some perverted humans prefer to have sex with animals, so this could be a similar phenomenon. But wouldnít a Virtual Fog holodeck be a lot more satisfying, with a lot less risk? The only logical explanation would be that the "poachers" would be using the mutilations and abductions to serve another goal. I am struck by the juvenile immaturity that runs through the antics reported in the UFO stories. On a darker note, Dr. Scott Peck points out in People of the Lie, that one of the side-effects of evil is confusion, and the people experiencing so-called alien abductions are certainly bewildered and confused by it.

The Fermi Paradox does not say that interstellar visitors would leave relics. It is rather provincial to think that visitors would leave the high tech equivalent of graffiti in the hopes of "leaving a mark in the sands of time". Itís nice to achieve immortality by achieving great accomplishments, or by raising wonderful children, but its probably nicer to achieve immortality by not dying. Therefore, relic-leaving, graffiti, and other expressions of yearnings for immortality would not be a characteristic in any reasonably long-lived species -- which, if current technology advances as quickly as past trends indicate, will soon include us. Besides, why leave relics on the Moon when youíre metabolizing the entire Sun? Though the four fundamental forces of this universe favor the chemistry of water-dependent carbon-based life forms, there is no need to anthropomorphically assume that interstellar visitors would share our chemistry. However, based on our observations of life forms on Earth, it is reasonable to assume that at least one alien species depends on energy and matter to reproduce, survive, and think. And if they are a space-faring species, they will need starships, and tools with which to build them. So they need energy, and any convenient star will do. If it only took one afternoon for Eric Drexler and Keith Henson to figure out how to move our Sun to the Far Edge Committee meeting (at the other side of the Milky Way), imagine what a technologically advanced species could do!

Some have claimed that mature, long-living races would be following Maslowís hierarchy and therefore no longer be interested in interstellar imperialism. However, there is no mathematical imperative inherent in the structure of the universe that would force an interstellar culture to adopt Maslowís hierarchy, possibly because it suffers from some philosophical difficulties. Therefore, it is highly likely that at least one alien species would not follow it -- hence, they would have been at our doorstep a long time ago.

It has been argued that the Great Silence can be explained on economic terms -- i.e. it is much, much cheaper to listen than to broadcast. This may be true, but for civilizations that metabolize the energy of many suns, whose offspring are spreading in unknown and unpredictable directions, broadcasting over millennia would be the only way it could guarantee a light-year distant link with the home world. Again, it is quite reasonable that many home worlds might choose to send only narrow beams, but there is no reason why all of them would do so. In addition, it can be argued that since most of the great movements on this planet were sparked not by economics, but by the birth of an idea (e.g. the banning of slavery, the Master race, representative democracy, communism), economics may nudge but it will not dictate the behavior of a space-faring civilization. Goodness knows, 99% of the people in the space activist community are not motivated by money, but by a dream.

Galactic topography will certainly result in uneven intra-galactic expansion, and backwater pockets will certainly exist for a while. However, as the Terran biosphere amply demonstrates after every natural or man-made disaster, life fills every niche as soon as possible. As members of the National Space Society, we our consciously working toward that goal, with Space being a rather big niche. It is inconceivable that all intelligent, tool-using life-forms would be incapable of doing the same. If it is, then why are we bothering? Perhaps we are a young, brash species that hasnít come to terms with the word "impossible." A more disturbing thought is that the "child-bearing years" of a civilization are a characteristic of cultural expansion, and that the socio-economic, technological, and political capabilities that enable starships also set the stage for the death of the cradle world. What would be the mechanisms that drive such a self-destructive procreative act? I donít think there are any. In fact, the Turner Thesis (which Bob Zubrin has applied with great success toward the settling of Mars) looks at the histories of the Mediterranean and of the New World to show that it is precisely that expansion of a nation into frontiers which invigorates those who stay behind (not to mention the opportunities it provides for those who go).

One of the problems with understanding too much about molecular technology is that it makes most science fiction seem like 1940s Buck Rogers -- hopelessly outdated. For example, ideas of "Seed and Spore Arks" equipped with robo-wombs and robo-parents in mini-biospheres seem quaint when we consider the capabilities of advanced cellular manipulation: Why would we need plants and animals if we can recharge our mitochondrial ATP directly with electricity? We wouldnít need to eat or breath oxygen. By reinforcing our skin cells with a titanium-diamonoid matrix, we wouldnít need to worry about hard vacuum, and with appropriate error-checking and molecular repair, even cosmic radiation would no longer be a concern. High energy applications could be supplied at high efficiencies by anti-matter, while low-energy needs might be supplied by spreading wings to collect starlight photons. Like the spice-mutated pilots in Herbertís Dune, such space-faring individuals may not look human, but not only could they be our descendants, but us, in our augmented bodies. At present rates of technological progress, all you have to do is make it to the point where technology pushes life expectancy forward faster than time passes.

The Fermi Paradox says that there is* no* reason that at least one interstellar species would not take over and settle *every* star in the Milky Way. So while everything we know indicates that they should be here, they obviously are not. So thatís the paradox. In his famous Cosmos series, Carl Sagan put forward one cautionary possibility that resolves it. Focusing on nuclear weapons, he essentially claimed that advanced tools automatically cause the self-destruction of the species. Another, less well known but more optimistic possibility is Vernor Vingeís technological Singularity, popularized in his novel Marooned in Real Time. Vinge envisions a point at which technology hyper-accelerates to the point that people become transhuman and then quickly transcend this universe. This is a likely candidate for the Great Silence because technology always builds on itself. Certainly, technology advances in fits and starts. It can also be misused, and it could be probable that many civilizations vaporize themselves to oblivion in a wide variety of ways just before reaching The Singularity. But in either case, they are out of the picture considerably before they leave their star, and all the arguments of rare concurrency in a huge and empty universe become valid. Even if an alien species did launch starships, technology would continue to be developed within these starships (if they are at all viable), and they too would soon follow the cradle world into transcendence. But again, these are just reasonable predictions -- we have no proof, just short (50 year) trends and conspicuous holes in our knowledge.

At this point, the lack of the evidence for aliens indicates that we are alone, with no friendly elder race to care for us. In that case, the few hundred activists in NSS, SFF, SSI, and similar groups currently hold the responsibility for the destiny of the human race and Terraís biosphere. We alone. I donít know if the existence of star-faring species would be a comfort or not. The image of Berzerkers in the dark, homing in our radio waves, simmers under my primate instincts -- Be prepared for fight or flight.

In either case, Ad Astra!

Tihamer "Tee" Toth-Fejel

Founder of the Ann Arbor Space Society, a chapter of the NSS.

Editor, The Assembler, Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group, a non-regional chapter of the NSS.