Are There Other Intelligent Civilizations Out There? Two Views on the Fermi Paradox

Scientists have now discovered a few thousand planets orbiting other stars and, based on these observations, believe there may be as many as 8.8 billion potentially habitable Earth-sized planets in the Milky Way alone. Include stars smaller than the sun and that number increases to 40 billion potentially habitable Earth-like planets.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope peering deeper into the universe than ever before. Image credit: NASA
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope peering deeper into the universe than ever before. Image credit: NASA

Some take these observations as an indicator we couldn’t possibly be the only technologically advanced civilization in existence—others wonder why we haven’t heard from anyone else yet. This is the Fermi paradox: The galaxy should be teeming with evidence of intelligent civilizations, but we’re still waiting for ET to call.

The Fermi Paradox sometimes makes me think of the famous scene in Fight Club when Tyler Durden says: “You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”

Cliché or not, when I stare up at the sky, I still wonder if we’re alone in the galaxy. Could there be another technologically advanced civilization out there?

During a panel discussion on space exploration at Singularity University’s Global Summit, Jill Tarter, the Bernard M. Oliver chair at the SETI Institute, was asked to explain the Fermi paradox and her position on it. Her answer was pretty brilliant:

“The Fermi paradox can be summarized as: If there ever was, anywhere and anywhen, a technological civilization other than ours, then in a time that is very short, they would obviously develop the ability for interstellar travel, and they would obviously colonize the galaxy.

No matter what your model is, it would take place in a time that’s short compared to the lifetime of the galaxy. But they’re not here. Therefore, given the structure of the paradox, there can’t have been any technology anywhere and anywhen before us. We’re the first.”

Tarter next pivoted into her stance on the paradox:

“That whole logical structure revolves around your ability to say they’re not here. And I don’t think we can say that. I don’t think that we have explored even our own backyard—the solar system—well enough to rule out the possibility of alien technology being there.

I mean, we’re really working very hard to find one kilometer rocks out there that might have our name on them. Littler things are much harder to find.

So, I don’t think that they’re here abducting Aunt Alice off the streets of New York for salacious medical experiments. There’s no evidence for that. But we really haven’t looked either physically or for signals. We have hardly begun our SETI search.

All that we’ve been able to do in 50 years is numerically equivalent to kind of scooping one eight-ounce glass out of the world’s oceans and looking and saying, ‘Huh, well, no fish in there; I guess there are no fish in the ocean.’ That’s where we are.”

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Also on the panel was Alex Filippenko, a well-known professor of astronomy and physical sciences at UC Berkeley, and this was his position on the Fermi paradox:

“My own view is reasonably pessimistic, actually, about mechanically-able, intelligent civilizations that are able to communicate and, much less, able to travel and colonize the galaxy.

 My solution to the Fermi paradox is that we’re not alone, but we may be alone in our own Milky Way, or one of very few.

And if there were other ones in the past, it’s conceivable that intelligence and mechanical ability at our level always comes (or nearly always comes) with a tendency towards self-destruction, which we clearly have as Homo sapiens.

If that’s the case, then intelligent, mechanically-able civilizations could be like flash bulbs in the night of the Milky Way galaxy. They just extinguish themselves before they’ve had a chance to go out and colonize the galaxy.”

So, Tarter questions the Fermi paradox’s central assumption that no one else is here. We just haven’t looked enough. Filippenko thinks we may find an explanation simply by looking at our own behavioral tendencies right here on our home planet. (And of course, there are many other hypotheses to answer the famous paradox—here’s a good rundown.)

Presently, we’re exploring the solar system with robotic probes and rovers and hope to send humans in the future. Yet on Earth, we’re simultaneously making powerful technologies that, depending how we use them, will be helpful, dangerous, or both.

When talking about space exploration Tarter said, “Exponential technology is going to get us much farther, much faster, and I’m really excited about the potentials.”

But if Filippenko’s stance on the Fermi paradox is accurate, does that mean another technologically advanced civilization has been exactly where we are today? If so, will we self-destruct—like a “flash bulb” in the night—before we move off Earth?

What do you think?

Image credit: NASA

Alison E. Berman
Alison E. Berman
Alison tells the stories of purpose-driven leaders and is fascinated by various intersections of technology and society. When not keeping a finger on the pulse of all things Singularity University, you'll likely find Alison in the woods sipping coffee and reading philosophy (new book recommendations are welcome).
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