The Fermi Groundhog Day

      15 Comments on The Fermi Groundhog Day

Warning: This is going to be a weird post about Aliens, Technology, Loops, Wars and #BlackLivesMatter. I can’t promise it will make sense.

Most people have, at least once in their lives, heard of the Fermi Paradox.

MeetTim

Wait But Why, one of my favorite blogs, explains it infinitely better than I ever could, so I’d suggest reading about it over there first.

Tim will teach you

On the other hand, it is VERY long for a blog post (4400+ words), so I’ll give an extremely shortened and incomplete explanation too.

Considering what we know about life, evolution, and the size and composition of the universe, the existence of civilizations like ours should have happened a lot of times. Odds are at least some of those would have appeared thousands or millions of years earlier than us, so they should be incredibly more technologically advanced, if they weren’t lazy. Then, why didn’t any of them contact us, or even leave some kind of trace of their existence that we could see? The possible answers include several different speculations, like super advanced predator civilizations, life just not kick-starting, and the Great Filter. This last one is the most important.

FilterVSPredator

The great filter is the idea that at some point, between the first life form and a higher lifeform casually visiting the universe, everyone dies. This could come in many forms, but essentially, nobody actually makes it to higher life form status. Either we’re special enough to be the only ones that actually made it through the Great Filter, or it’s ahead of us and we’re most likely doomed.

I honestly think the filter being ahead of us is incredibly more likely. On the other hand, I believe that there is another option, one that Tim didn’t talk about in his post, that is even more likely.

First of all, we have to think about what could the Great Filter be? It has to be vague enough so that any advanced civilization will encounter it (or create it themselves), while still being precise enough to kill everyone every single time without fail.

The most obvious one to me was a super intelligent AI that kills everybody quickly after becoming self-aware. But, this idea, while definitely Great Filter-worthy, is not valid to answer the Fermi Paradox. There is no reason, if a biological civilization could conquer the universe, why an AI that killed every member couldn’t do it. If it’s even possible, and AI is the Great Filter, we would encounter AIs in space at least as often as we would expect to encounter Aliens.

SkynetInSpace

 

Another easy one that comes to mind is War. During the cold War, global nuclear anihilation was a real threat, and even if we don’t talk about it as much nowadays, it is still possible. While it is definitely physically possible to blow up everybody, I have trouble figuring out how that could actually happen. During any war, the countries fighting it will attack each other, but there will always be countries that have no threatening weapons and no allegiance, that would really give no reason to be attacked. I don’t see why the USA or Russia would shoot nuclear missiles on the entire surface of Madagascar while fighting each other, it makes no sense to me.

StrategicMeeting

Almost every week now, we see trouble in the modern world. Black Lives matter vs Police, Social Justice Warriors vs Milo, Left-wing vs Right-wing, Mexicans Illegals vs Trump, etc. America, the country that was once seen as some kind of modern dream of wealth and comfort, is now full of people fighting and protesting in the streets, in schools, on highways, very often using violence and vandalism. I’ve been thinking about how it could be solved.

Right now, I’m not going to argue about which side of those issues is right or wrong. What’s clear is that one side wants to keep things how they are, and the other side wants change. When two groups have such blatant conflicting interests, you can never please both. Every single action, rally, policy, is somewhere between the two extremes, and it will displease one group at least as much as it pleases the other. If we give protesters everything they want today, tomorrow their opponents will be protesting, probably using the same tactics. I really can’t see how it could be solved at all.

But, there has been a time where life in general was more peaceful. I’m obviously not talking about world peace or paradise, but at least there wasn’t violence in the streets between two large groups (that are both convinced to be the good guy) every other day. If we no longer can get this kind of society, why? What exactly has changed?

It’s technology. More precisely, communication. Think of the first wars in the world. The motive was always either resources, or the existence of a group that was different, and we didn’t like it. Nowadays, all those differences are living together. Race, Religion, Sexuality, Gender, Age, everyone is not only living in the same country, but everyone can extremely easily communicate with everyone else no matter the distance. 100 years ago, you needed weeks to send a message to someone from the east coast to the west coast. 500 years ago, you needed months to communicate overseas. 1000 years ago, it took weeks between cities, and it wasn’t even close to reliable or private. Nowadays, you need, at most, seconds to reach anyone in the world.

MaryIsTypingNow

We also get cool new features with that kind of speed

Back in the days, even if old Mr. John hated all gays and muslims from his farm in the middle of nowhere, nobody cared. He wasn’t in any position to attack those people, or even show them he disliked them. He ranted about them at the dinner table with his 14 kids, and it never went further.

With the internet today, you can quickly and easily see all those evil white people and damned gays talk like they deserve the same things as you in life. You can quickly see so many damn republicans that hate muslims, and easily talk to all the idiot democrats that hate God.

Most importantly, you can quickly find fellow black people that would join your activism, fellow feminists that would criticize the patriarchy with you, you can reach fellow christians that would criticize homosexuality with you, fellow republicans that would buy a dozen guns to prepare for the muslim attack with you. You can find people like you, create your own echo chamber, and prepare for defending against the evil attackers in the opposing group. Obviously, you just defend, and never “start it”, because you’re the good guys, and your opponents are the evil ones.

I’d say about 5% of people in any given group would change their minds given the right proof. The rest (including me on several topics obviously) all fall victim to the Backfire Effect. People won’t come to an agreement. The easier it is for people to find opponents and allies and talk to them, the more they will be convinced they’re right, and the more they will fight. It will always be “Us versus them”. The current presidential election, with two extreme candidates that most people hate, shows the problem very clearly.

I think those fights will get worse with time. Maybe not within a couple years, but it won’t get better. As long as technology makes progress, things will worsen. Think surveillance state and mind control for example. No matter who gets their hands on it first, their opponents will fight. This will go on until a certain point. When the fights get so bad that they directly hinder technological progress enough to completely stop it, stopping the intolerance acceleration at the same time. At that point, it may stabilize, and we won’t ever make progress again, or it may reverse (think nuclear war) and bomb us not into extinction, but into great regression. Maybe 1000 years, maybe 100, maybe 25, nobody knows. But enough so that this specific kind of fight then dies out until technology, once again progresses enough to start over.

This, despite not dooming us or even getting close to extinction, completely satisfies all the Fermi Paradox conditions for never becoming a higher lifeform that conquers the universe. It might not be a literal Great Filter, but its effect is the same. Humans would essentially get stuck in a neverending cycle. At least as long as Entropy allows it anyway.

ExasperatedGod

Yes, I realise that this is a very dark and pessimistic way to look at our future, so as always, I’m looking forward to disagreements. I’m just doing as a certain cartoonist would recommend, and looking for patterns. Humans never let the chance of greater good get in the way of their petty disagreements. Obviously, there’s a first time for everything, but there’s a lot more data pointing the other way. Or maybe I’m just a victim of selective memory and confirmation bias. Or maybe the people who made the simulation hadn’t found their aliens yet, so there aren’t any in our universe. I could also just be pessimistic. Who knows?

 

  • Kingfisher12

    I think you stumbled on what I think is the most likely resolution to the Fermi Paradox. I don’t think our refusal to understand each other will result in our extinction (I’m optimistic that we’ll work things out eventually). But I do think our inability to see things from a different perspective is what will keep us from observing potential civilizations more advanced than us, or even civilizations on the same level as us that took a different path.

    I’ve been watching the Original Series of Star Trek and I notice something. There are no aliens. There are only humans in makeup, exotic animals, and mythological gods. Even the gods are illustrated as advanced humans.

    I understand that this is a literary necessity – people want to hear stories about themselves, if you introduce actual aliens the stories wouldn’t make any sense – and would be hard on the costume departments.

    The closest thing that I can recall approaching an alien is the rock-monster thing. The point is, being an alien, it wasn’t immediately recognized as being alive at first, and wasn’t recognized as being intelligent until it displayed some human attributes. Even the rock-monster was anthropomorphized.

    But my point is that we won’t find any actual alien life because we lack the capacity to tell viable stories about things very far outside our experience. We conceit ourselves into telling a story about spreading out to colonize glittering islands in the vast cosmic ocean, because we understand islands and oceans. But we haven’t even begun to explore space. It may be that travel through interstellar space will require us to change into something that we wouldn’t understand.

    Lastly, the resolution to the Fermi Paradox may be that interstellar travel induces a humility in a species that makes them nearly invisible to arrogant upstart species like ourselves. The meek shall inherit the galaxy?

    • Kaito Kid

      I agree that us humans seem to have a problem with telling stories about things or beings that are far from us. Any movie not staring humans will still have a human version of whatever the characters are. Cats, Dogs, Lions, Toys, Food, Thoughts, Aliens, Monkeys, everything is anthropomorphized. On the other hand, I fail to understand how our inability to create a non-human version of intelligent self-aware creatures would prevent us from finding them? Provided that they obey the same laws of physics than we do, we should see traces of them. They might look like rocks and communicate through a ternary morse code using shadows and moss, but we would still eventually notice the differences in patterns between those rocks and the ones on earth. To be intelligent and self-aware, you at the very least require some energy and a minimum of control over how you use it, at least according to current physics models. That’s something we can find if we look for it.

      I’m still pretty impressed that someone else finds my idea not only possible, but even likely. I had no idea if this sounded like complete nonsense to people who aren’t me. I mean, it still could, but that’s less likely now.

      • Kingfisher12

        I think we might eventually get there, but I don’t think we’re close to that yet. We have a basic understanding of life on our planet because we’re part of it. We successfully tell stories about the things around us because we have a great deal in common with those things.

        But there is a fundamental limitation to our search for alien life and alien intelligence. The primary way we come to understand things is by analogy. But when we come across something for which there is no analogy, not only do we have a hard time understanding it, we have a heck of a time observing it, because nature didn’t give us the tools to observe it.

        From universal chemistry we figure there is a good chance that complex life will be carbon based and water mediated, because those are abundant substances and are well suited for complexity. But it’s foolish to assume that DNA is the most probable method for molecular replication, and if not based in DNA, resulting life forms may end up looking very different. And if they look so different, we really have no idea what the structures they would build would look like, or what form their technology would take. We may not even have the mental capacity to imagine it.

        It may be that the first intelligent life we find will be so different that we don’t even realize it is alive until we note anomalous concentrations of long-chain carbon molecules coating the surface of a seemingly natural asteroid with anomalous gravitational properties. And don’t realize it is intelligent until the asteroid changes course for no apparent reason.

        • Kaito Kid

          Have you ever read “Meat”? I feel like this short story has a lot in common with your view about the subject, or at least the premise does.

          http://www.terrybisson.com/page6/page6.html

          • Kingfisher12

            Coincidentally, I read that yesterday. Literally yesterday. Perhaps it influenced my response.

            • “Meat” is excellent – I hadn’t come across it before, so thanks to you both for that. Also, I don’t know if either of you have read any of the Julian May “Pliocene Exiles” and “Galactic Milieu” books, “Intervention” in particular goes into the possible reactions of advanced beings on observing us humans, in an uncomplimentary way – not quite as bad as “Meat” though.

              My favourite quote from it:

              “After all, this is a species whose principal means of population control are famine, abortion, a high infant death rate and war.”

              Yup; that’s got us pegged right enough:-)

              • Kaito Kid

                Not to criticize the idea, but i feel like any means of population control would be pretty much as horrible as what you described. Most animal species rely on being eaten or fights to the deaths for mates as their biggest population control. I should also mention that, for equally ugly methods, at least the other species succeed at it, while we fail miserably and are way overpopulated.

                • Hang on a tick, Klato, we’re sentients. We’re supposed to be better than most animal species! We have the option that they don’t: of overruling our instincts, of forming moral judgements rather than just reacting. Basing our morality on “nature red in tooth and claw” is the Naturalistic fallacy.

                  The point of the Intervention quote was that all the other Milieu sentient races had enlightened methods of population control, but that us humans didn’t;-) The bigger irony in the Milieu books was that us humans had by far the greatest potential metapyschic powers – so the Milieu needed us human roughnecks:-). The biggest irony of all was that the Milieu only existed because of us – and some time travel:-)

                  • Kaito Kid

                    Naturalistic fallacy or not, today, we are doing worse than animals in the domain of population control. Until we learn how to move to other planets, we have limited ressources and our population is growing quickly. If being sentients, and therefore better than animals, ends with us all dying of overpopulation, is it really worth it?

                    I feel like it’s really useless to criticize the methods when either way, we aren’t getting any good results. Improving a method because it doesn’t work should take priority over improving it because it’s ugly.

                    • I’m not sure we’re doing worse re population control than many animal species, but I agree we’re not doing well. Arguably there are too many of us because of our success at learning how to feed so many billions of us.

            • Kaito Kid

              Or maybe the simulation is using code reuse as a way to reduce charge and optimize processing. Those “I never heard about X before last week but 9 people mentioned X since then even though X is old and had no particular recent popularity surge globally or locally” coincidences seem to happen awfully often in my life. Am I the only one? I should probably just blame selective memory.

        • All good points about the hardship of detecting life, let alone consciousness. Note that Star Trek: The Next Generation did at least occasionally try to tell some stories about alien life that wasn’t dressed up humans – for example, the one about the nanites. There, indeed, they didn’t at first recognise that the strange phenomena they were seeing were the actions of a life form, and when they scanned microscopically and saw lots of regular blinking chemical structures, they didn’t realise that was a life form!

          • Kingfisher12

            Yes TNG did try harder to incorporate actual aliens into some of the plots, but even then, one can tell that it these are difficult stories to tell well. It introduced this as the theme of the series with the series premier where the crew of the Enterprise D had to prove to a higher intelligence that they could actually recognize alien life when they saw it. It took some effort on their part.

            Many episodes of TNG, especially in the first seasons, are obvious riffs off of original series episodes. The one you are referring to had many thematic elements similar to ‘The Devil in the Dark’.

            Gene Roddenberry envisioned Star Trek to be a socially important show, so there are many heavy themes in most episodes. But in spite of the ambition of the writers it’s easy to see just how difficult it is to write about genuinely alien life.

            The useful thing to take from episodes that try is to consider the argument that is presented that our first response when we actually recognize truly alien life will probably be a mix of revulsion, fear, and absurdity, but if we can get over that, we might learn something.

            • Good TNG points there KF.. I agree that Star Trek (original) tried to be socially important, but I don’t think it’s worn terribly well – it looks incredibly old fashioned, Kirk’s casual sexism in particular. TNG by contrast has worn much better – but of course it’s nowhere near as old, so that’s not a fair comparison. I like your final point: yes, maybe we can get over our instincts.

              One of Terry Pratchett’s descriptions from the Diskworld series springs to mind: the character Sam Vimes, who arguably travels the furthest over the series (from a drunken Captain in the 3 man Nights watch [police], to Commander Vimes, a Duke and the chief of police in the London-equivalent on the Diskworld, is described by a thoughtful person who meets him for the first time as an unusual genius – a man with the instincts of a street thug who overrules those instincts from moment to moment. If Vimesy can do it, so can we all:-)

  • Wow, your posts are getting longer all the time. And also: harder to understand what point you’re really making:-)

    However: I think you may have something with your idea that modern communications may be causing all sorts of ructions, perhaps because we’re not adapted to work at planetary scale. Whether argumentative members of internet echo chambers may have anything to do with the Fermi paradox is “less clear” shall we say.