September 22, 2007

Greer: Industrial civilization and the problem that is Fermi's Paradox

John Michael Greer explores energy limitations and resource constraints that may account for the Great Silence:
On another level, though, Fermi’s Paradox can be restated in another and far more threatening way. The logic of the paradox depends on the assumption that unlimited technological progress is possible, and it can be turned without too much difficulty into a logical refutation of the assumption. If unlimited technological progress is possible, then there should be clear evidence of technologically advanced species in the cosmos; there is no such evidence; therefore unlimited technological progress is impossible. Crashingly unpopular though this latter idea may be, I suggest that it is correct – and a close examination of the issues involved casts a useful light on the present crisis of industrial civilization.


Anonymous said...

"there should be clear evidence of technologically advanced species in the cosmos" - to me this is a textbook case of anthropocentrism. Had Greer lived in the 1800's, he would have said that we should see the output of of large coal factories and steam engines. Had he lived in the 1700's, he would have been looking for signs of massive combustion of wood. I'm familiar with the laws of thermodynamics and how they apply to this topic, but we're talking about intelligences that could be millions of years beyond us. That's why these common blanket statements such as "it is impossible" smack of arrogance. Another analogy is someone from the early 1800's saying there are no such things as atoms, because they would have viewed in their microscopes.

SETI has the same anthropomorphic affliction: ETIs must be communicating in the parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that we expect. I rarely comment on these conclusions; but they happen so often, I might start becoming more outspoken about these common Fermi Paradox logical fallacies.

Star Larvae said...

Or the technologies and the organisms are not separable, hence maybe we should be looking at natural, and not peculiarly technological, expressions, as proposed by the good folks at

Anonymous said...

You could make the argument that real innovation and progress has already stopped.

There was an interesting article in US News a while back about the PBS/BBC program "The 1900 House". It compared the labor saving and entertainment gadgets in the 1900 house with those found in an "Ozzie and Harriet" house in 1950, and with a modern 2000 house. Interestingly, while the 1950 house would come as a major surprise to the Victorians of 50 years earlier, there is very little aside from a PC that Ozzie and Harriet wouldn't recognize in a 2000 house. The conclusion, all the really big innovations in consumer goods, entertainment and productivity occurred in the first half of the 20th century. The second half saw little more than incremental improvements - e.g. compare the *invention* of the TV with the *improvements* of color TV or Cable. The Victorians would not know what a TV is, but Ozzie and Harriet would recognize even a modern TV as a better version of their own TV.

Moral of the story: true innovations - new things - may be running out of steam, leaving us with only improvements of existing devices.

Anonymous said...

Another argument is that we are about to reach the "end of science" and the limits of scientific inquiry due to inherent physical limitations or practicallity (string theory would need an atom smasher the size of the solar system to test). The main proponent of this teory is John Horgan.

His book, "The End of Science" hasn't sold me completely on his argument, it does make intuitive sense. If a graph of our scientific progress can truly be described as an S-curve, the rapid growth in human knowledge we have seen since the time of Galileo would be considered the steep vertical portion. Prior to Galileo, human knowledge increased only incrementally with a few dark ages thrown in (the first flat portion of the s-curve). After our current age of rapid knowledge growth, another era of incremental knowledge growth (the second flat portion of the s-curve) will occur.

In an interview with Edge, Horgan makes it clear that he is referring to pure scientific research, not applied science or engineering. These can continue long after science butts about against the limits of inquiry, so there is no need to close the patent office just yet:

I believe that this map of reality that scientists have constructed, and this narrative of creation, from the big bang through the present, is essentially true. It will thus be as viable 100 or even 1,000 years from now as it is today. I also believe that, given how far science has already come, and given the limits constraining further research, science will be hard-pressed to make any truly profound additions to the knowledge it has already generated. Further research may yield no more great revelations or revolutions but only incremental returns.

In other words, evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, etc. can only be discovered once. Though some scientists strain against the limits of inquiry, indulging in what Horgan refers to as "ironic science":

The vast majority of scientists are content to fill in details of the great paradigms laid down by their predecessors or to apply that knowledge for practical purposes. They try to show how a new high-temperature superconductor can be understood in quantum terms, or how a mutation in a particular stretch of DNA triggers breast cancer. These are certainly worthy goals.

But some scientists are much too ambitious and creative to settle for filling in details or developing practical applications. They want to transcend the received wisdom, to precipitate revolutions in knowledge analogous to those triggered by Darwin's theory of evolution or by quantum mechanics.

For the most part these over-reachers have only one option: to pursue science in a speculative, non-empirical mode that I call ironic science. Ironic science resembles literature or philosophy or theology in that it offers points of view, opinions, which are, at best, "interesting," which provoke further comment. But it does not converge on the truth.

In other words, once science reaches the practical and physical limits of inquiry, all scientists can do is speculate about non-testable, non-falsifiable hypotheses — much like medieval theologians arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

All the big questions have been answered. We are leaving the golden age of science which was akin tot he age of exploration (from Columbus to Perry) when the planet was mapped. All that isleft to us is some surveying to fill in the gaps.

Nato Welch said...

I've been meaning to ask: Do you know anyone who is tempted to put the mystery of dark matter & energy together with the fermi paradox in attempt to explain either or both?

George said...

n8o: Not that I've heard. Could be some interesting fodder for speculation....