Where are they?

November 21, 2007

Fermi’s paradox can be reasonably resolved in only two ways:

  1. Technological civilization is a nearly unique occurence. That is, very few technological civilizations (such as that of humans on present-day earth) have ever developed in the observable universe, or,
  2. There exists a space faring civilization that maintains our galaxy, or at least our area of the galaxy, in a pristine state.

If both 1. and 2. are false, then there would very likely arise at least one civilization that would create self-duplicating probes around the universe. Unless some entity was cleaning these probes out of our [area of the] galaxy, such probes would be ubiquitous and evident from (or even on) earth.

The paradox therefore implies that either

  1. Our existence is a miracle on a universal scale, or
  2. There exists a powerful body that has specific objectives and it manipulates our of space in order to further those objectives.

Either of these options takes us some significant step toward a theistic position.

Update: Some discussion at “Daylight Atheism“. It turns out those self-duplicating probes are called von Neumann probes.


3 Responses to “Where are they?”

  1. While I am not an atheist myself, I must disagree a bit on this. Our existence is a bit tricky to reason about. If we didn’t exist, we wouldn’t know, so how could it ever surprise us that we do exist?

    I find that I can’t imagine any kind of existence without unanswerable existential questions. Still, doesn’t one have to hope for one?

  2. yoramgat Says:

    Hi Harald,

    I am not sure what your disagreement is.

    How surprising you find the implications of Fermi’s paradox is, of course, a matter of personal disposition. I do find them somewhat surprising: intuitively, my position would be that we are nothing special (i.e., there are and have long been be many civilizations similar to ours), and, that the observable universe is not being manipulated by a conscious agent. It turns out that at least one of those two assumptions must be wrong.

    The immediate impetus for writing this post is my impression is that my intuitive position as I described is common to many of the New Atheists. I wonder whether they would be willing to face what may be called “Fermi’s Fork”.

    (I will probably try and find out soon, by posing the question at Phryngula, or some such New Atheist forum.)

  3. yoramgat Says:

    P.S. After writing the previous comment, I had the brilliant idea of searching Pharyngula for “Fermi”. I found 4 mentions of Fermi’s Paradox, including one fairly long treatment.

    It turns out that at least one New Atheist, PZ Myers, likes the “civilization is very rare” side of the fork. He supports this with the argument that technological civilization developed only once on Earth during billions of years of evolution. This is a reasonably good argument.

    Myers doesn’t say how rare is very rare. Does he believe we are one of a handful of technological civilizations that ever developed in the Milky Way? In the observable universe?

    He seems to be in quite a hurry to get to “I think it’s a non-problem and a non-paradox.” More discussion seems in order.

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