Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Fermi Paradox - A Philosophical Straw Man

We who write speculative fiction have to deal with esoteric philosophical concepts all the time. It’s part of the job description But some of them just make me tired. 

A couple of days ago I was reading a news article, that had a link, that mentioned a reference, that had another link, that led to yet another article, that lured me into a story wherein was mentioned one of my least favorite debating points. Namely, the Fermi Paradox. A topic which invariably provokes indigestion for me. 

The Fermi paradox is almost certainly familiar to anyone reading this. But just in case some innocent traveler got lost in the woods and stumbled into this If you have any sense, RUN. Otherwise, here’s the gist of it. Enrico Fermi was a nuclear physicist who, back around 1950 or so, was sitting around having a bull session with some of his colleagues. ‘Bull’ session is the perfect description for it, in my opinion. 

In fairness, old Enrico was a number cruncher, which means a left brain thinker by definition. It’s not his fault that he stumbled over some basic common sense issues. But people are still poking at it after all this time, which I take as evidence that some people really need a new hobby. 

Anyway, the gist of the Fermi Paradox is this. Our star is pretty boring and typical. There are lots of other stars like ours out there. So there should logically be lots of other planets with people on them. So where are they and why haven’t we heard from them? After all, the universe is billions of years old. There’s been plenty of time for the neighbors to come calling. But they haven’t. 

Hence, the paradox. 



Okay. Without staining my underwear, I can reel off a library full of different explanations for the known data, or lack of data. It all ultimately comes down to the fact that We Don’t Know Crap About What’s Going On because we haven’t gone out there yet. So sitting around with our thumbs in our randomly selected orifices is a bit useless. But here’s a few reasons why the Fermi Paradox is a waste of mind space, in my opinion. Just a few reasons off the top of my head. 

1) Earth has had life for billions of years. Earth has had intelligent life for maybe one million years, plus or minus. Intelligent life on Earth has had the capacity to make its presence known to any other planet for less than a century. Basic math here: 100 years / approx 4,000,000,000 = a teeny weeny fraction of a percentage of time during Earth’s life bearing existence that we have been even faintly detectable. And even then, we would only be detectable to someone within a hundred light years. By the time our radio signals get a thousand light years out, they will be so weak and garbled that background radiation will effectively destroy them. Even if the galaxy is chock full of other worlds like us, how could we possibly hear them? 

2) Intelligent life is not necessarily a desirable survival trait. The shark is a fish so ancient that it doesn’t even use bone. It predates bone. It uses cartilage. It predates modern fishes, it predates the dinosaurs. But it still rules the oceans as king predator. The scorpion was the first animal to crawl up on land, according to my training. Scorpions are still pretty much the way they were hundreds of millions of years ago and going strong. Ditto for spiders. And ants. And mosquitoes. Crocodiles were here with the dinosaurs. So were ferns. Every other life form that ever lived on Earth (countless numbers of species, literally countless) never bothered to develop intelligence, yet they seem to keep trucking right along. In many cases still going strong after hundreds of millions of years. 

An intelligent brain is quite expensive to feed. Which means that an intelligent life form would just about have to spend most of its time looking for food, even if it is an omnivore. Our ancestors did. Many of us still do. A big brain also has a dismal tendency to go off-kilter sometimes. Plus, a big brain means a big head, which causes issues with reproduction. So even if life is ubiquitous, there is plenty of evidence right here that intelligence is a highly unlikely direction for life to follow. Our ancestors only went there because they had no other real option. 

If we knew how many species of life ever developed on Earth, we could calculate a realistic probability of intelligence developing. But we don’t have that information. All we CAN say with confidence is that even on a biotic world, the odds of developing an intelligent life form are several million to one, and that it is not likely to happen in less than four billion years..

3) Even if the galaxy is teeming with life, and even if I am wrong and every living world develops an intelligent race sooner or later, what are the odds that they all develop at the same time? Billions of years, remember? There is no inherent reason that an intelligent life form could not have developed just a few million years ago in Mesozoic times, if it had not been for the random element of that asteroid strike. Even a spacing of one million years, which is proportionately an eyeblink in the scale of galactic time, could result in two races never meeting each other.

4) Which leads into the conviction that some people hold, about interstellar colonization being inevitable. One of the recurring points that people bring up about the Fermi paradox is that after all this time, why haven’t we been colonized? Someone even went to the trouble of calculating how many thousands or millions of years it would take for a race to colonize the whole galaxy. 

Horseshit. There have been numerous human cultures that weren’t big on colonization, not even of their neighbor’s island. If we have that much variation within a single species, why does it necessarily follow that IF a world develops intelligent life, and IF that life happens to develop anywhere near the same time period that we do, and IF they happen to use tools, and IF they happen to be interested in learning how to fly, and IF they happen to decide that space looks kewl and want to go see what’s out there, and IF they decide that it’s worth the trouble to develop interstellar spaceships.... 

I got side tracked. Where was I? Oh, yeah. With all of that, it still doesn’t necessarily follow that they would be the kind of people that like to horn in and steal other people’s land. And IF they are the kind of aggressive, expansionist race that tends to spread out and glom onto anything they happen to think looks attractive, what are the odds that they are also belligerent and quarrelsome? Which means, warriors. Which means, they would probably fight each other, and any other warriors they come across. Which reminds me of the Biblical adage, "...they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." In other words, an aggressive race that sets out to colonize the galaxy would most likely self-destruct. Which I suppose is sufficient to answer the question as to why they aren’t here. 

Now if I could just answer the question as to why I bothered to spend time and energy pondering this, and give myself indigestion again.