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Anarchism in Interesting Times

Thoughts on the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter Hypothesis


The Paisley Abbey ‘Xenomorph’ Gargoyle (Mark Harkin, Creative Commons)

The Fermi Paradox isn’t really a paradox is it? You know when you can’t find the remote control, but you know no one brought it out of the house? You can spend an hour looking for it and still can’t find it, you know it is in the house though, you don’t consider it a paradox. The Fermi Paradox, basically stated, is the supposed contradiction between the very high probability of alien civilisation and the lack of evidence for it. It rests on the fact that there are up to 400 billion stars in our galaxy and at least 2 million galaxies out there in the universe and that the milky way galaxy could be traversed in a few million years, so, someone should have visited or contacted us by now.

This came to my attention today when a friend posted an article from the London Independent, “There’s a compelling reason scientists think we’ve never found aliens, and it suggests humans are already going extinct“, which can be summarised as follows: “There’s a strong chance that humans will go extinct in the next few centuries, therefore there must be a filter which stops civilisations from advancing to a point where they develop interstellar communication and/or travel.” Among many things, this hypothesis is a powerful illustration of why scientists shouldn’t try to dabble in philosophy (at least unless they have a grounding in the discipline). Even from a scientific perspective, this hypothesis rests on too many assumptions to be taken seriously.

The main assumption here is that the looming environmental catastrophe and/or nuclear war is and always was inevitable. There have been several points in our history where there were opportunities to correct the destructive trajectory that the human species is on and we could still survive if radical societal change happens in the next couple of decades. But a shift away from fossil fuels two decades ago would have left us in a position where runaway climate change was highly unlikely. That this didn’t happen wasn’t down to some iron law of history, but because the capitalist system has a growth imperative that values profit over ecology. There were decisions made by human actors that accelerated this path and there were movements that had they used different tactics could have and still could overturn this order. To suggest otherwise is to fall foul of the crudest form of determinism.

The second assumption that is drawn from the first is that all civilisations are subject to this filter, that is to say that no matter where sentient species arise in the universe, they go through all the same stages of development that humanity has been subject to, evolve in the same way, develop society and economies the same way, and are destined to make all the same mistakes that we made. Either the cosmos that the great filter hypothesis describes is a clockwork universe that Isaac Newton would have balked at suggesting, or we need a grand cosmic course of CBT to break the habit of destroying ourselves every time we get close to transcending our planetary existence.


From the comments thread on that article

The Fermi Paradox itself is full of groundless assumptions that can be summarised as follows:

  1. Aliens want to contact us
  2. Aliens know where we are to contact us.
  3. We know what we’re looking for

If an alien civilisation was to contact us, they’d probably do a bit of recon first. Having seen what is going on down here, is it likely they’d be enthusiastic about making contact? Here is a species that for thousands of years has been busy with infighting and enslavement. We’re destroying our own planet, we have weapons that could wipe out our species and leaders who talk enthusiastically about using them. Why would any advanced species want to run the risk of contacting a species like that? If there are advanced space faring civilisations out there, they could also have something like the prime directive in Star Trek, that forbids contact with emerging planetary species until they have reached the technological level of being able to leave their own star system.

The Fermi Paradox speaks of the possibility of traversing the galaxy in a matter of millions of years at speeds we at the moment know are possible as if this makes it likely we would be contacted. For starters, even if lifespans in such a civilisation are many times that of ours, who wants to spend millions of years on a spaceship? Secondly, it assumes that there are straight lines from a to b and aliens wouldn’t have to make judgement calls about which direction to head in, which direction to send signals in and where to look for for signals. It also assumes they are as interested in the idea of life elsewhere as we are. Perhaps there are star systems with multiple habitable planets and multiple technological civilisations who are quite happy to engage with the species they can easily reach, seeing looking elsewhere as a waste of resources.

The last assumption, which is a possibly a greater example of human hubris than the first, is that life elsewhere would be easily recognisable to us, I.E. it would somewhat resemble us. Given that there are life forms on Earth that are wildly different from ourselves, given different environmental conditions, life elsewhere could be more alien than we could possibly imagine. But even if life on some planets with similar environments to ours has humanoid form, what makes us think that they haven’t developed energy sources that we have not yet imagined, use means of communications we cannot yet comprehend and wouldn’t even think of using radio waves to contact anyone? So they wouldn’t be looking for them either.

This assumption and a lot of the work of looking for advanced alien civilisation centres around assumptions in the Kardashev Scale, which assumes that any such species’s success would rest on the domination and subjugation of nature, as our civilisation currently does. Perhaps, given the logic of the great filter, it would be more helpful to assume that if there is advanced life out there, they would have transcended the need to plunder their environment before they could step out into the cosmos.

So, following this logic, I’m going to make some assumptions that draw on the great filter hypothesis and the Fermi Paradox and correct their hopelessly deterministic logic. I call the following, Hoskins’ Law. It’s not really a law, more of a hypothesis but I like the sound of it. So anyway, it goes something like this:

Any civilisation that becomes technologically advanced enough to destroy itself without disposing of hierarchical social relations will destroy itself. 

I follow this with what I call The Vulcan Hypothesis:

A technologically advanced alien species would not make contact with a technological civilisation who have not yet disposed of hierarchical social relations, fearing that they would get hold of their technology and use it to take their destructive presence into the wider universe. 

The likelihood is that there is life out there. There is probably microbial life elsewhere in the solar system and we will likely discover that in the coming decades. The idea that there is nowhere else in the universe that has what we call intelligent life says more about the human ego than the chance of meeting alien species. The odds of us being alone in the cosmos are very long, but if we are ever to meet other civilisations we need to first correct our destructive path and ensure that life continues on our own planet. And science needs to start taking philosophy seriously again.

Hey you just read me, and this is crazy, but here’s my twitter, follow me maybe?

One comment on “Thoughts on the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter Hypothesis

  1. frithkin
    November 9, 2018

    If I was an alien ( and I am not saying I am not an alien though ) I wouldn’t want to visit this planet either .

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This entry was posted on August 12, 2017 by in Aliens, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , .
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