The Fermi paradox revisited

I am still thinking about Nick Bostrom’s stimulating essay (and Robin Hanson’s precursor essay).  Nick of course is worried about finding signs of alien life, which would suggest that life has arisen many times, leading to the question "where are they?" and the fear that life dies out pretty easily.  For Nick it is cheerier, from our point of view at least, to think it is very hard for life to get underway in the first place.

In pondering the Fermi question, I often wonder if I am not simply missing the party, so to speak.  Most people already *do* think they see signs of an alien presence of some kind, of course defining that concept broadly to include The Gods.  So how can we say we don’t see "them"?  Maybe I, the agnotheist, don’t see "them" (Him?) but surely most other people think they do.

Doesn’t that make the Fermi paradox go away in a snap?  No one cites Blind Boy Blake and screams "He doesn’t see them!".

Another way of putting it is to say we don’t take David Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion seriously enough.  We really have just one data point, so who can say what "they" look like, or what kind of "display" they would have made for us?

Alternatively, I am struck by the tension between the Fermi paradox with the "We are probably living in a simulation" claim.  Both are popular with the same group of people because they are nerdy ways of making you believe something weird; in reality the two conundrums don’t fit together.  If you take the simulation option seriously, you again see the creators all around you, albeit in disguised or cloaked form.  Of course you had to use Bayesian inferential reasoning to see them, but what’s wrong with that?  Better than a telescope, some would say.  And since most people believe in God, the creators might even consider their artwork to be already "signed."  (I’ll note rapidly in passing that the arguments against the simulation hypothesis also strike at the Fermi worries, but establishing that would take lots of work.)

Either way, it seems we see "them," or ought to think we see them, even if that turns out to be a visual mistake of sorts.

Addendum: I liked Michael Goodfellow’s point:

After that first species gets control, it makes all the rules.  If it shells over all the stars, no other life can even develop, since all the planets are frozen solid.  If it wants to let biological evolution continue, it can do that, by avoiding stars with fertile planets.  It can prevent any other technology from arising (by monitoring all the planets where life is evolving.)  It can guide or change any life that it does find.

This may seem horrible to you — little robots putting all the stars out!  Spreading like a weed and killing or preventing any new life from developing.  But you’re looking at it the wrong way…The first species out there gets to decide the future, for every species that follows.  For lack of any other evidence, let’s hope it’s us.

Splendid, but I part company at the last sentence.  There is some other evidence (of the Bayesian sort) and I think the most logical assumption is — whether you believe in God or space aliens — to think of ourselves as their product, one way or another.

Or to put it yet another way, what’s the principle of individuation here?  Isn’t "seeing us" and "seeing them" more or less the same thing?

Hail David Hume!


Comments for this post are closed