December 8, 2007

The problem with 99.9 % of so-called 'solutions' to the Fermi Paradox


Sure everyone has a convenient answer to the Fermi Paradox, but nearly all of them fail the non-exclusivity test. While some solutions to the FP may account for many if not most of the reasons why we haven't detected signs of ETI's, they cannot account for all.

For example, take the notion that interstellar travel is too costly or that civs have no interest in embarking on generational space-faring campaigns. Sure, this may account for a fair share of the situation, but in a Universe of a gajillion stars it cannot possibly account for all. There's got to be at least one, if not millions of civs, who for whatever reason decide it just might be worth it.

Moreover, answers like the ‘zoo hypothesis,’ ‘non-interference,’ or ‘they wouldn’t find us interesting,' tend to be projections of the human psyche and a biased interpretation of current events.

Cosmological determinism

Analyses of the FP need to adopt a more rigid and sweeping methodological frame.

We need to take determinism more seriously. The Universe we observe is based on a fixed set of principles -- principles that necessarily invoke cosmological determinism and in all likelihood sociological uniformitarianism. In other words, the laws of the Universe are moulding us on account of selectional pressures beyond our control.

Civilizations that don't conform to adaptive states will simply go extinct. The trouble is, we have no say in what these adaptive states might be like; we are in the business of conforming such that we continue to survive.

The question is, what are these adaptive states?

Strong convergence

Transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom refers to this as the strong convergence hypothesis -- the idea that all sufficiently advanced civilizations converge towards the same optimal state.

This is a hypothesized developmental tendency akin to a Dawkinsian fitness peak -- the suggestion that identical environmental stressors, limitations and attractors will compel intelligences to settle around optimal existential modes. This theory does not favour the diversification of intelligence – at least not outside of a very strict set of living parameters.

The space of all possible minds...that survive

Consequently, our speculations about the characteristics of a post-Singularity machine mind must take deterministic constraints into account. Yes, we can speculate about the space of all possible minds, but this space is dramatically shrunk by adaptationist constraints.

The question thus becomes, what is the space of all possible post-Singularity machine minds that result in a civilization's (or a singleton's) ongoing existence?

And it is here that you will likely begin to find a real and meaningful explanation to the Fermi Paradox and the problem that is non-exclusivity.


David Schwartzman said...

Yes, I agree with your point about the non-exclusivity test.

I summarize my take on the implications of the "Great Silence":

1) We are indeed alone, or nearly so, hence no Galactic Club ("GC").

2) We are unfit for membership in GC, hence deliberate silence, with a very strict protocol evident, "No Messages to Primitive Civilizations!" (Hence the necessary requirement to pass the credentials committee of the GC, as J.D.Bernal once put it, is to emerge as a mature planetary civilization, i.e., zero military budget, solarized energy infrastructure, etc.)

3) The GC is unaware of our existence. I find this explanation most implausible given the likely age of the GC and opportunities to spread Bracewell probes throughout the Galaxy in a few million years.

Only inadvertent, sporadic and non-repeated signals (e.g., the "Wow"signal?) can be detected by a primitive civilization, with opaque
signal content not distinguishable from natural signals or noise.

Because of the likely theoretical distance limit, arising from
Galactic noise, to the detection of leakage radiation from primitive
civilizations ("us"), the scenario outlined in Schwartzman and Rickard
(1988) for entrance into the Galactic Club (GC) must be revisited. If this limit is on the order of a few hundred light years then no meaningful upper limit on N/L can be deduced from a negative search for this kind of leakage radiation from an Earth/solar system-based search.

Alternative scenarios should be entertained:

1) The GC credentials committee monitors biotically inhabited planets by remote "Bracewell"probes with programmed instructions. Such a probe would plausibly be now hiding in the Asteroid Belt (as Papagiannis once suggested). If the GC exists there was ample time to set up this surveillance system long ago.

2) GC sends very weak or disguised signals only decipherable by newly
mature civilizations that just pass the entrance requirements. Just as
previously suggested (Schwartzman and Rickard, 1988), the material
and/or energy resources needed for these signals to be recognized must
correspond with great probability to a newly ripe mature civilization.
Hence, cleverness in itself can not be the criteria for successful
detection/decipherment. Further, there must be another reason for the allocation of the necessary material/energy requirements, if
invitation is the norm for newly emerged mature civilizations. E.g.,
detection of predicted or surmised astrophysical phenomena. However,
this scenario implies a fairly long delay in real communication with
GC (a conversation), otherwise we are back to scenario (1). I am
assuming speed of light limit to communication and spacetravel.

Schwartzman, D. and L.J. Rickard, Being Optimistic about SETI, 1988,
American Scientist 76, No.4, 364- 369.

Tim said...

Is Fermi really all that paradoxical? It seems to me that there are three major questions we're assuming the answers to. Until we have definitive hard date on all three, it seems fairly meaningless to worry about it.

1) Are we looking for the right things? There's a heck of a lot we don't know about the universe, and that includes what forms advanced technology might take, and what emissions, if any, it might produce. It seems arrogant to assume that the members of the Galactic Club definitely have to emit complex electromagnetic signals just because we do.

2) What is the ratio of emergent civilisations to highly advanced ones? Again, we have no idea if we're a relative oddity, or one of a countless throng of yammering fledglings. It also seems arrogant to assume that the GC has the spare resources to come and have a look at us.

3) Finally, what is the realpolitik situation within the GC? Some civilisations will most likely be interventionist, and some isolationist. But we have no idea whether the GC treats emergent civilisations as free game or not. I can easily imagine a scenario in which we have been first located by isolationists, who are then keeping interventionists from interfering with us -- and maybe even blocking wow signals before they hit the solar system. It is just plain short-sighted to assume that cannot be the case.

Fermi's Paradox is a highly humanocentric construct. We have no idea to what extent any of the assumptions underlying it represent fact. Until we know more, about all we can do is treat it like the whimsy it is.

Tim, tumbleworld via

Anonymous said...

You are a member of an advanced species that has finally put aside so many primitive aggressions. You now explore the stars.

And humans still wonder why such beings will not contact us?

For the same reason people avoid going into bad neighborhoods, that's why.

Anonymous said...

Its clear to me that the commenters here are injecting their utopian fantasies into their cliche alien society ideas. Why couldn't aliens behave just as humans do, with crime, war, etc. If they came about through evolution they would have survival of the fittest, probably a tribal mentality, and a need for resources.

Anonymous said...

The same could be said for the last
commenter's post - that he/she is expecting an alien species to act human.

All living things on this planet have some things in common, but they do not approach them in the same way. So why should we expect an alien species from a distant planet to do the same?

This is why we need more SETI, so we can stop this rampant speculation and find out what is really going on.

Is it more frightening to have all civilizations eventually end up being the same as opposed to their being wiped out? I am reminded of the Q Continuum in Star Trek, where they eventually became so advanced that there was nothing left for them to do.

Humanity is truly just a babe in the woods at this point.

GoatGuy said...

Let's just look at it the 'other way around'. Insofar as we understand our planet's biosphere, it has milled about for 99.999% of its history, producing wonderful plants and animals, with between them nary a whit of intelligence (at least of the kind that can make it to the stars... wouldn't want to underestimate the cetaceans).

Does it specifically take 4.65 billion years for intelligence to evolve? Of course not. It is random, influence by so many factors and trends. But most coeval scientists I know feel that it certainly would take on the ORDER of 'billion or so pacific years' for things to shake out.

But we presume that a higher civilisation would last a LONG time once they appear. This implies that there are a lot of potential 'places for civilization' to harbor. 0.1% of the stars by statistics alone should be 'good to go'. So where are our ET sisters?

Working on a different time cycle, to be certain! 10,000 years to send out a probe, and "get back the science"? Well, sure. Even if the remote-civilisation-detetion tech is really good, 'c' gets in the way. EM radiation is terrible as a feedback mechanism: at astrophysical scales very likely to be anomalously refracted (and thus 'missing the home dish') and thus useless. Probes must then shuttle back and forth.

Further, if the civilisations are as advanced as we purport, then they're very likely SHARING sensors and information. Basic network theory there: local nodes, local loops. So, it isn't likely at all that millions of civilisations are independently sending probes to visit us. What is more likely is that we are visited every few hundred to thousand years to see how our evolution is coming along.

As to communication? Well, assuming that eventually the Probe will sally forth (since by now Homo Sapiens' rise is surely well known) we also have to assume that its makers will expect that we will have discovered some key astro-technology that will make communications be obvious. Shoot, if the probes 100ka and 250ka ago were alert, by now there probaly are dozens of probes awaiting activation. It is plumb dumb to imagine that they'd be "parked" in the Asteroid belt. They would want to 'hang out where they would get the best view', no doubt: at the L1 Lagrangian. No, not to look at the sun like SOHO, but to look back at Earth with extraordinary precision - and great 'cloaking' from our prying radar and optical telescopes (sun's bright glare). Unlike SF Space Opera, L1's "working volume" is substantially larger than the Earth itself; small probes at millions-of-km, quietly observing and not making SciFi blips ... aren't easy to discover against the sun's malstrom. Shoot, we can't even figure out where to find one out-of-time Saudi in the middle of Afghanistan.

No, if the GC has nothing else, it will have patience, measured in kiloyears, megayears. We'll eventually work out the puzzle, and instead of whining like a sapient pup at the door, we'll just step up and give 'em a shout.

Because that to me is the funny thing: we're doing all this SETI work by LISTENING. Like, folks, aren't we supposed to speak up first? Ah, but that would take billions of dollars every year, instead of billions to build giant ears to kick back and listen for the squawks and burbles, creaks and infomercials of an Alien civilisation's remotes.

I hate to say it but... if there are probes watching our development, they're 99.99% going to have their outbound chatterbox pointed some other direction than our planet's surface. Moreover, we have no idea what novel EM or other commuication they are going to use. We can't decide yet where they might be in the Solar System.

So, its obvious: until we start shouting out at ALL the reasonably probable gravitationally beneficial 'dives' - AND listening just as intently for something coming back ... we're not going to get an answer from a probe. Their absolutely probable extraordinary intelligence is just listening in, categorizing all these people's facial expressions when they see each other having bad hair days, and trying to determine when it will be good to reach out and Touch Someone.

Meanwhile, we get bigger ears, bigger eyes, and have nothing but a stick and a whistle's worth of outbound communication.

contact me at [] if you like.

rick said...

I rarely look down when I'm walking to avoid stepping on ants. When I see an ant mound, I generally ignore it and them(unless they are fire ants and I've run over them w/ my mower).

There are a lot of assumptions being made, and the first one is that we actually are intelligent, and looking around our planet, and especially watching the media programming, I see no evidence that we are.

Worse, looking at some of the TV ads I've seen recently, we are leaving Huxley's "it's better to spend than mend" mentality to a "destroy the X you own so you can buy a new X" mentality.

This is not a sign of intelligence nor enlightenment.

Anonymous said...

Why can't they already have been here and gone?

Hoka-shay-honaqut said...

Terence McKenna believed that the ambassador messengers are already here.
"5 grams of psylocybin fungus guarantees contact".

Most would take that proclamation with a grain of antipsychotics, but TM thought the chemical/fungus may be an alien technology, with a long history of interaction with humans.

However; if you are listening for the modulated squeaking and pinging of stretched light, you might never countenance the possibility.

It hardly matters if the cow flops are speaking to us,
or not.

Strong Festivus.

Marcel said...

What about the transcension scenarion? All modern theories, be it M-theory or loop-quantum gravity postulate structures or information processing on the planck scale and the possibility of new universes with completly different laws of physics to arise.
If this is really the case sufficiently advanced civilisations should be able to upload themselves in the quantum foam or create new universes with optimized laws of pysics or move to other branes or a higher-dimensional multiverse.
If evolution and technological evololution is a general fact among all lifeforms it could well be that all advanced civilisations move to spacetime-engineering, plancktech and multiversal transcension before they are visible on a galactic scale. Perhaps matrioshka-brains are outdated before they are even built.

Nato said...

I like Marcel's comment - I've often contemplated the same eventual scenario. Even if it took a thousand years of advancement past the development of the electronic computer before intelligences got to Planck-scale existence, it would still imply that their existence would be confined to a small area. Even if they found a way to locomote a million times C, their presence in any given galaxy might be a flash in the pan, the traces of which some other civilization might notice before they too go the quantum-physical route, or perhaps not.