Cosmologists, astronomers and others have wondered for many decades, why is there no sign of any extraterrestrial civilization? We have been looking and probing the expanse of our universe with ever more accurate instruments. The consensus is that an immense number of earth-like planets suitable for life populate the heavens. Yet we have found no evidence of any civilization, other than our own, reaching for the stars. This puzzle is called the Fermi Paradox, after the physicist Enrico Fermi (1901–1954), who raised the question publicly in 1950.
Various explanations have been offered to explain the Fermi Paradox. I offer one more.
The Story of Our World
We live in a huge, awesome and amazing universe. One of its most remarkable features is the fact that among the stars and galaxies we see in the skies, we now know there are many billions of earth-like planets.
We have also learned that the conditions in this universe are really quite specific. The fundamental physical constants, the parameters that control and guide the physics and chemistry of the universe, are precisely fine-tuned. They provide the necessary conditions for the emergence of life. Minor changes in those parameters would create a universe with no life, or no planets, or no stars, or no time and space.
We have learned that life, once begun, inevitably grows and explores its local environment. Through mutation, natural selection, diversification and cooperation, more complex and intelligent organisms evolve. Eventually, sentient beings can, and did, emerge through evolution: conscious, sentient, wondering beings who yearn for the stars.
And yet, throughout the vastness of this universe, there is no evidence of extraterrestrial civilization beyond our own. There are no other sentient beings moving beyond the confines of their home planet. How could this be?
What Does It Take to Go Off-World?
Let’s consider what is required for a civilization to go off-planet.
For one, it seems clear that the sentient beings on any given world would need to have the intelligence, the language and the organizational skill to build a terrestrial civilization.
Those beings would also need the empathic capacity and moral imagination to create the art, music, literature, religion and philosophy necessary to bind them into a sufficiently cohesive society to become global. They would, naturally, wonder about, and aspire to, the heavens.
That society would have to develop large collaborative institutions – libraries – academies – science – and governmental and non-governmental organizations.
Global industrialization, including the deployment of advanced aeronautical, digital and biological technology, would be essential for that civilization to, literally, get off the ground.
Are these unreasonable assumptions? The conditions have been met once, on our planet. Life as we know it demonstrates a trajectory towards complexity and the accumulation of information and control. We do not have any reason to assume it will behave differently on planets with virtually identical conditions to our own: and there are very, very many of them. These criteria do not seem so difficult to meet.
The Challenges That Arise
A civilization with the technological mastery and global society essential to going off-world will have challenges. The sentient beings on any given planet are going to face a number of inevitable obstacles before they can move beyond the confines of their home planet. These obstacles could be seen as a series of tests. Only a civilization that passes these tests successfully will be able to reach the stars.
What are some of these tests?:
- They will master nuclear technology and build nuclear weapons capable of destroying all life on their planet.
- They will exploit the resources of the home planet, potentially to exhaustion.
- They will populate and pollute their planet, altering meteorological and biological conditions, potentially to the point of climate collapse.
- They will:
- Develop intelligent machines potentially capable of destroying its creators or the world;
- Build increasingly networked information systems subject to risks of collapse or attack, and;
- Develop novel methods and devices of war.
- They will face biological threat from pandemics or weaponized biological agents, and from unforeseen consequences of deploying chemical, biological, and genetic technologies.
- They will experience societal conflicts – institutions will become entrenched – populations will be alienated – hope may turn to nihilism – frustration and resentment may turn to terrorism. Wars are likely.
- Self-reinforcing institutional power structures will arise – governments sustained by the fantasies of populism or nationalism or the control of authoritarian leaders — or globalized hyper-capitalism exerting increasingly concentrated control of money and resources towards personal rather than global ends.
Going off-planet would require a global civilization to wrestle with and to solve these challenges.
What Do We Need to Succeed?
Advanced rockets will be one of the final tools invented to propel sentient beings beyond their global home.
Now imagine human progress as a rocket shooting towards an extraterrestrial future. That rocket will be powered by empirical science and the technologies that have done so much to lift humanity from the Paleolithic. But rockets also need guidance and control systems. Rockets can and do fail, sometimes spectacularly. Will we?
The existential tests listed above suggest that the guidance system of a sentient civilization will need special capacities in order to reach the stars successfully. It will need to be programmed with the highest of sentient empathic capacities, from which the trust and collaboration necessary to solve those problems can emerge. Anything less will fail.
In short, any sentient species, including ours, will need to love their way to the stars.
Apparently, this almost never happens.