The Fermi Paradox is Scientifically Redundant, Right?

© Trevor Barton, May 2018.

When someone introduced me to the “Fermi Paradox” several years ago I felt troubled. I remember that, at the time, this weary and confused disposition was, perhaps, interpreted by the third party who dropped this “Fermi bombshell” as me being irrational, or just me “wanting to believe” in aliens – as many of us do – and therefore not wanting to accept the boring hard facts and hard science of reality and think like a rational human being for a change.

But something was nagging me – a feeling; and this sense of something being wrong with the Fermi Paradox stayed with me for many years. I decided to do something about it and find out why.

So I did; and this is the result. It’s a paper first written for debate in my local Philosophy in Pubs group – or a version of that work.

It’s a mixture of things. Since no animals repeatable fresh scientific discoveries have been harmed done in the making of this movie, hair product text it isn’t new science; more philosophy. But sometimes discourse can bring existing work together and move a conversation forward. That’s to say I hope and intend for it to be a real-world contribution to real science even if it isn’t direct science itself (and if anyone can help me get it, or a version of it, into a relevant peer reviewed astro-thingy-whatsit journal I’d be most grateful).

I’m underlining this before I start: I’m not a professional scientist or a professional philosopher. Just a humble author. The opinions or assertions expressed in this blog post (this paper) are my own. These are published to encourage fresh debate; I want someone to prove me wrong – either on the main point, or any of the other minor points within it. Disagree? Have a point of fact to correct? Please tell me! I want to know.

Here’s my assertion:

“The Fermi Paradox Has No Scientific Use.”

Am I right?

I hope to prove the Fermi Paradox scientifically useless. This is the paradox contrasting the point that, given the numbers, we should expect to have had extra terrestrial intelligence (ETI) evidence by now with the apparent lack of such a thing. Contrasting those things it poses two questions; and these questions are used to both develop better frameworks for discussing ETI probability and also refine approaches to “the ETI problem” in other contexts (such as military). That’s to say it has real-world implications. My assertion combines the assertions of others to make a new point. This point relies on the view that we’ve misunderstood the process of evolution; so I shall begin exploring this before revisiting the Fermi Paradox and how I think the Paradox is essentially devoid of real-world scientific application.


Evolution: Misused and Misunderstood

The cell is the smallest thing both exhibiting life and to which natural selection applies. We have to presume that’s a cosmic universal, so what we learn in evolution science must have a determination on the nature of extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI) too. Evolution science is concerned with what heritable thing makes the difference between selected and unselected individuals. [1] (As implied, individuals here can mean cells – not just whole flora or fauna.) So what is our view on the state of that science?

By examining evolution on the scale of cells and microbes, Lynn Margulis observed symbiosis: cooperation, dependence, and networking. Since this scale is more fundamental, and far older, she has challenged if not rewritten evolutionary theory; dissolving [2], I believe, the view that “big muscle” or “competition” were “ever especially important in spreading life”. (Symbiogenesis may even create speciation – in flat worms; and her work suggests revisions on other scales too. Genes have no self [3]; cross-species clones don’t work.)

*That cooperation and networking in natural selection do scale up above cellular level is pretty important to my argument. It seems to be a debate in mainstream science right now. See Second Nature by Jonathan Balcombe for some useful findings strongly suggesting that, yes, it does scale up.

Since Darwin used Spencer’s phrase “survival of the fittest” to mean fecundity [4], not big guns, even Darwin is likely to have been fascinated with her conclusions.

We misunderstand Darwin and Darwinism, is my point.

Despite evolutionary science’s on-going and nuanced re-appraisal, we all sometimes use “Darwinism,” “Evolution,” and “Survival of the Fittest” to mean that on any scale the strongest prevail. As with lions, so with corporations. From there, a corporation acting like a lion is fitting the natural order and will “naturally” prevail. It’s “the way of the world.” One day everything will be lion-like. (Oh, wait. That’s only good for lions until it’s really, really bad.)

Evolution doesn’t care how well we dramatize it as a three-part play in the boardroom, or use it to excuse misogyny. Yet it’s a habit we can’t seem to kick.

Evolutionary theory is not even fully settled, yet we use a selective [sic.], out-dated, and rather false version of it as a moral guide. There’s so much of this habit (and it’s always done with the old social-Darwinism-that-never-was) that I think it’s skewing other fields of inquiry: including inquiry into alien life; including, no less, the Fermi Paradox. I’d like to know if I’m right. There’s a bias in the Paradox. Combined with its other faults – it’s redundant.

What’s that Paradox again?

Here we go. There is high statistical probability for intelligent alien life, but no evidence for it. Fermi’s Paradox explores that contradiction. It can be asked in two ways [5]: “Why are no aliens or their artefacts found here on Earth, or in the Solar System?” and/or “Why do we see no signs of intelligence elsewhere in the universe?”

(There’s no need to remember the list that’s about to follow.) Frank Drake, in 1961, took this statistical paradox and refined it as a math equation (the Drake Equation [6]) with seven elements: R∗ rate of star formation, fp number of exoplanets, ne how many exoplanets can support life, fl of exoplanets how commonly life develops, fi of life how much of it becomes intelligent, fc of intelligent life how many have communications we could detect, and L – how long detectable signals get broadcast.

Fermi thought we should be seeing something but we’re not and, therefore, no aliens. Emphasis on “should.”

Using Drake’s equation, we know that his first three numbers are high: 500 billion billion sun-like stars, and probably 100 Earth-like planets in the cosmos for every grain of sand on Earth. In such a big system a low number for the remaining values in the equation is still huge. But, low or high, we only end up with wild conjecture because we don’t know enough yet about how common, intelligent, communicative, or long-lived ETIs tend to be.

Important here is that even if the equation result is tiny, we’re not seeing them; and that’s the paradox. We really should be.

Many different answers to this Paradox are argued.

Common ones used to explain this probable-yet-unseen scenario for aliens include:

  • Maybe we’re in a simulation.
  • Spacetime is too vast.
  • Earth is quarantined (I must get round to reading Scalzi).
  • Earth is too rare.
  • Gloopy cosmos.
  • We’re doomed.
  • Extinction happens (Kurt Vonnegut?)
  • Gaming is more fun.
  • Searching alienness using radio isn’t alien enough.
  • Singularity is a little bored of biological (like it is in my book Balance of Estubria).
  • Earth’s in a backwater.
  • We haven’t looked long enough.
  • They came and left.
  • It’s a cover-up.
  • They’re busy somewhere else.
  • They’re here unacknowledged or undetected.
People in a philosophy group debate my paper May 2018
My local “Philosophy in Pubs” group discussing this paper yesterday.

* My local Philosophy in Pubs group, while discussing this paper, came up with others. I quite liked “they’re not desperate enough to be rapacious”; but more on that below.

For me, the best respondent is Freitas

Robert Freitas, a scientist who has done work for NASA [7], took a more unusual approach. He pulled the Paradox apart by demonstrating that the propositional logic is flawed. (On his website the key bit is where he says: “‘Should’ is not “must.’ ‘Should’ is barely maybe.” [8])

* It is, perhaps, unfortunate that Freitas demonstrates what he means is wrong about the logic steps taken in the Paradox by using a real-world illustration in the form of lemmings. The problem is that it isn’t real-world. Lemmings don’t commit suicide. However, we can skip past this. He just uses it as an illustration of why the logic is flawed. He offers others, and even without any illustrations his point about flawed logic still (I believe) stands.

It was Freitas’s argument that reminded me of evolutionary theory.

Freitas’s assertion is that the Paradox can only positively exclude rapacious galactic civilizations because, if they’re not rapacious, why should we ever see them? (There’s that “should” again.)

* What does he mean by “rapacious”? The group discussing my paper suggested he means “observable”. I think it’s both. He means any civilization big, bad and bold enough to be seen. Not big, bad and bold? Not observable out there and not observably here yet either. Therefore, he says, the Paradox only excludes big, bad and bold aliens. If that’s not what they’re like then, given the probabilities, how can we say they don’t exist?

So that’s exciting. It suggests the logic or the mathematics points in the direction of friendly aliens. But for Freitas to be right, something in nature must back him up with his point…

So here’s my argument. It does.

Lots. With natural selection. At cellular level: cooperation, networking, and sometimes symbiogenesis. At the DNA level: if I’ve understood correctly, an empirical question being explored right now could challenge the “selfish gene” idea. (Dawkins’ DNA-reductionism has (hasn’t it?) been shown to be problematic [9].) Even at the level of mammals: we’re observing cross-species cooperation.

This is the problem..we’re looking for big, bad and bold because beany, benevolent and bashful is too much effort, doesn’t sound like us, and doesn’t make movies, wars or votes.

We’re presuming cosmic rapaciousness. We’re writing “old school social Darwinism that never was” at the biggest scale: the cosmic one; and, because we’re doing that,

  • we might not spot ETI,
  • we might be fundamentally prejudiced against their likely temperament before contact is even made, and
  • we might make stupid errors such as use our false general presumption (rapaciousness) as an excuse to militarise our solar system (doing so, I might add, against the sentiment of the 1966 Outer Space Treaty. The Pentagon certainly wants to do that right now [10]).

Drake’s final four numbers might be high (they only have to be higher than zero) and we still won’t or might not see evidence for ETI on or around Earth, or even far off elsewhere, if ETI is non-rapacious.

Rather than

  • looking at probability,
  • saying we should be seeing them,
  • not seeing them, and
  • concluding they don’t exist (or the plethora of other common replies to the Paradox)

we should instead be

  • looking at the probability,
  • saying we should be seeing them,
  • combining this with evolution science and
  • feeling excited that (with these two strands combined) it probably means they’re friendly.

The more we’re not seeing them, and/or not seeing them obviously (my word this time) (in the sorts of ways the Kardashev scale refers to, for example), the friendlier they are likely to be… and natural selection comes down on the side of friendly too.

So, that’s my assertion done and dusted. But why, then, are we (and why is the Paradox) biased in favour of big, bad and bold?

Fear.

To me, it feels like everyone else is showing why, using pure logic or science or both, ETI either don’t exist or (if they do) they’ll be nasty… and this is plain silly.

Of course they’re nasty! Haven’t you watched enough military-influenced Hollywood sci-fi movies? [11]

Perhaps these other Paradox respondents are not using pure logic or science. Perhaps they’re just a Joe on the street simply observing human colonial history, pointing at that and saying, “look at what we do, or did. We’re bad, or have been, so aliens are too!”

But if they are, I’d say this is exactly my point. We weren’t interstellar in the 17th century. We still aren’t now. In other words…

Actually… the void naturally selects co-operators!

How about considering that the presumption of rapaciousness (i.e., not being friendly ourselves) is the very thing that will be our doom?! The idea of a US Space Corps certainly makes me think it could be. (OK. We humans dropped that one, but we seemingly won’t give up.)

On spotting our weapons, who in the ETI community would come any closer, or in friendship?

I see nothing in science or nature to back the idea that weaponing space is the logical thing to do.

Yawn. Yes, I know. Space battles are so cool. Real ones, however, wouldn’t be. No sound. Things moving veeerrrrryyyy sloooowwwwllllleeeee. Excepting uninvented, unproved tech, real-world space battles are a boring, silent, slow way to be a hero. Super dull.

The only backing I see for weaponing Earth’s orbit zone or our solar system comes from us!

  • testosterone
  • the United States of America’s seemingly scope-creeping second amendment
  • the background human fear innate in all of us (fight or flight) (I think I’m right in saying Dawkins points out that we have the choice to overcome this) transposed to the cosmic scale
  • human psychological projection (our frame of reference stems from us, therefore “other” is always not-us)

It’s just fear, guys!

And it’s not very useful! Unless you’re a politician. Or a film maker. Or in the military.

If Fermi’s Paradox can only positively exclude rapacious ETIs as Freitas says, and evolution works the way Margulis and others say, then (with a lack of ETI evidence forthcoming) we can surely only best conclude that they’re not, in fact, particularly likely to be rapacious.

If that’s the case – if, evolutionarily, the big bad and bold type is unlikely because of the way natural selection actually works in the real world(s) – then the Paradox is left with nothing at all to exclude. It refers within its logic set-up to things that aren’t there – and that means that it becomes scientifically redundant.

Am I right?

* Originally I called the Paradox “useless”. The philosophy group pointed out that it isn’t useless because it generated interesting and lively debate. I conceded the point. I mean no scientific use.

* I haven’t missed out the Great Filter. In a zero situation you’re not engaging with the Paradox. The Great Filter is one of the arguments for aliens not being observable either here or out there. If you don’t think aliens exist, the Fermi Paradox is useless to you anyway. It’s only a paradox if you plug numbers into Drake’s coefficients and have come up with more than zero (which, interestingly, for Drake and Fermi means this “observable-rapacious” type). Yeah… that’s pretty cold war thinking, folks – don’t you think? Right out of the post-war brain is that one.

* The group wondered about observable-and-friendly. After all, we celebrated a peaceful moon landing. Yes. Look at that option. Look at it long and hard. Why, exactly is it that we presume expansive must mean bad? The argument tends to go (and it’s not my argument – it prevails on the web, in sci-fi books, pretty much everywhere ETI is discussed): if you’re intelligent enough you’ll realise you’re probably not the only one “out there”, therefore the logical thing to do is be the first one “there” everywhere; and then you can never be the last (slave, extinct).

I don’t find that to be a sign of intelligence. I find it to be evidence of stupidity. Again, making everything a lion is only good for lions until it isn’t. Self-defeating end games. ETI must have to “get this point” if natural selection works the way those I reference assert. To not get this point is to be less selectable and therefore less likely to survive until the point of reaching interstellar capability. (Does that map over to an AI species where natural selection no-longer applies? Following my own logic I would have to argue that it does still apply at the behavioural level: achieving AI is a biological accomplishment. A hard one. Like interstellar travel.)

I suppose one has to shrug and say observable-and-friendly is an option Fermi Paradox could positively exclude. I’m OK with that as one of the friendly options. It’s just an unlikely one if the evolution science I reference has anything to say on the matter (and I’m saying here I think it does).

* While the group had this debate I suddenly remembered this. It’s a PDF called “Key to ET Messages”… and it’s published on the NSA’s website. I was so intrigued by it I sent it to a real SETI scientist. They didn’t know what to make of it. My point? We may be discounting evidence we do have just because it isn’t big, bad, or bold. (Since links on the NSA website do not appear to be perpetual, here’s a local copy of the PDF too; or just use DuckDuckGo to search “key_to_et_messages.pdf”.) Talk about science’s biggest open secret!

Wild Conjecture, Final Notes

It’s in a lot of powerful people’s interests that the masses generally don’t feel chilled out and (whilst to say so is veering off into conspiracy-land) one can hardly deny this is the case. Look at the media. Being so, I wouldn’t put it past a politician to cook up a false flag event (see page 6 of this document or, if that link breaks, see this local copy) justifying a sort of Team America World Police for outer space. Lions, I tell you! Lions everywhere! Look! Another one!

My point? If I was super-advanced, I wouldn’t want much to do with a species that’s generally so afraid of “others” it presumes them to be bad. And I’d check for signs of that. We have plenty. Nuclear warheads are probably easily detectable from space; and if we put some in space then even more so.

My gut feeling is that scientific, repeatable, big and obvious connections won’t be made until we’ve shown we are ready for such things. Changing our understanding of natural selection as it applies to extra-terrestrial life is a good start and signals hope for how we see one another, our planet, and those beyond it. For that matter, and since it reduces anxiety and even alters gene expression, so has meditation. Take a chill pill, folks. Symbiosis is winning. Rethink your gene expression.

But what if I’m wrong? What if Mars Attacks? You know, we stand on a roof top waving our peace flags and they come and zap us properly really dead? Whatever that doom scenario is, it isn’t to my mind an argument for a presumption of cosmic rapaciousness. Make this my epitaph. Yes – even if an alleged alien zaps me with a ray gun: the cosmos ain’t that bad, folks!

————-

[1] http://www.voicesfromoxford.org/video/Homage-to-Darwin-part-1/74

[2] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Lynn_Margulis accessed March 2018.

[3] http://www.voicesfromoxford.org/video/Homage-to-Darwin-part-2/63

[4] Lynn Margulis in Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Evolution from Our Microbial Ancestors (1986) page 124

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox#Basis

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation

[7] http://www.rfreitas.com/Bios/250-wordBio.htm accessed March 2018.

[8] FERMI’S PARADOX: A REAL HOWLER by Dr. Robert A. Freitas Jr. in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine 8 (September, 1984): 30-44. Accessed online 26 February, 2018: http://www.rfreitas.com/Astro/FermiHowler1984.htm

[9] “there is no clear technical notion of “information” in molecular biology. It is little more than a metaphor that masquerades as a theoretical concept and …leads to a misleading picture of the nature of possible explanations in molecular biology.” – Sahotra Sarkar in “Biological information: a skeptical look at some central dogmas of molecular biology”, p. 187 via https://io9.gizmodo.com/its-time-to-get-skeptical-about-the-selfish-gene-1476844689 accessed March 2018.

[10] http://www.nextgov.com/cio-briefing/2018/03/pentagon-may-create-combatant-command-space/146455/ accessed March 2018.

[11] https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/exclusive-documents-expose-direct-us-military-intelligence-influence-on-1-800-movies-and-tv-shows-36433107c307 accessed March 2018.

* Anything marked with an asterisk is an edit following the public philosophy group debate of this paper on Wednesday May 30th, 2018.

On my travels after writing this paper I found this. It’s a great read.