Sunday, January 1, 2012

Hello, universe, anyone home? Hello?

By Donald Sensing

The Fermi Paradox raises its head again, this time over at Outside the Beltway. Doug Mataconis posts, "Hey, Is Anyone Out There?" in which he tries to answer the paradox. The paradox, first formulated by physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950, is this:

The universe is many billions of years old.
Fermi calculated that an alien species smart enough to become spacefarers could reach any point in the galaxy in five million years.
But we we have no scientific evidence that aliens beings have been here.
So, Fermi asked, where is everybody?

Doug does a good job in laying out the premises of the paradox and offers some perspectives I haven't seen before, including that while the galaxy may be teeming with intelligent species, they have all become addicted to entertainment and simply are uninterested in space travel, a notion floated by Geoffrey Miller.
Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. ...

Evolution simply could never have anticipated the novel environments, such as modern society, that our social primate would come to inhabit. That would be a computationally intractable problem, even for the new IBM Blue Gene/L supercomputer that runs 280 trillion operations per second. Even long-term weather prediction is easy when compared to fitness prediction. As a result, brains must evolve short-cuts: fitness-promoting tricks, cons, recipes and heuristics that work, on average, under ancestrally normal conditions.

The result is that we don’t seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that have tended to promote survival, and luscious mates who have tended to produce bright, healthy babies. The modern result? Fast food and pornography. Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote real biological fitness, but it’s even better at delivering fake fitness—subjective cues of survival and reproduction without the real-world effects. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity. The business of humanity has become entertainment, and entertainment is the business of feeding fake fitness cues to our brains.

Maybe the bright aliens did the same. I suspect that a certain period of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any intelligent life evolves.
Behaviorally, this makes a lot of sense, but it falls into the same trap that pretty much all discussions about the commonality of intelligent life off earth do: the assumption that earth and humanity are typical examples of planets and life anywhere else in the universe. This is usually referred to as the Theory of Mediocrity, that earth and its creatures are just average, universally. Doug himself endorses this notion in a comment to his post: "it does seem hard to believe that we are the only intelligent form of life to ever evolve in our own universe." The problem is that Mediocrity is not a scientific conclusion but a presumption that is necessary for ETI searchers to do any work at all.

Last year I put together a slide presentation for the topic to discuss Fermi's Paradox at my church. You will probably be surprised at the conclusion. Here tis:

Fullscreen here.


Stephen Hawking, science fiction writer

This is pretty impressive, too.

Why We Matter (link was dead, fixed now.)

Let there be

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