The Fermi Paradox: Looking for Smoke Signals in a Cell Phone Universe

The Fermi Paradox has plagued folks who ponder the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life ever since Enrico Fermi asked the question, “Where is everybody?”

I think it’s time we admit how presumptuous his question is.

Recently, I read another xenophobic article by Gary Bates, entitled (rather unimaginatively) The Fermi Paradox. One of his points is as follows:

“…the SETI organization has been scanning the universe at a rate of millions of radio frequencies every second for over 50 years. And how many ETs have they caught ‘phoning home’ in that time? Zero!” [emphasis on original]

Gary Bates, of course, believes that this current lack of contact is because sentient extraterrestrial life does not exist.

Cool your jets, Gary. A few inconvenient facts need to be accounted for here.

Writing for Forbes, Ethan Siegel points that the search has really just begun:

The speed of light is quite a limiting thing as well: if our radio signals have been traveling through interstellar space for 80 years, that means that only civilizations within 80 light years of us would have had an opportunity to receive those signals, and that only civilizations within 40 light years would have had the opportunity to receive those signals and send something back to us that we would’ve received by now. If the Fermi Paradox is the question of “where is everyone,” the answer is, “not within 40 light years of us,” which doesn’t tell us very much about intelligent life in the Universe at all.

There are only about 1000 stars within that 40 light year band. That means we’ve barely made a mark on the universe.

In a 2010 study, Jill Tarter, best known as the inspiration for Jodi Foster’s character in Contact (1997) likened the current search to looking for a fish in all of Earth’s oceans by examining a single drinking glass of sea water. This year, she noted that we’ve increased our search only slightly.

“Our current search completeness is extremely low, akin to having searched something like a large hot tub or small swimming pool’s worth of water out of all of Earth’s oceans.”

Radio transmissions reach as of 2011

So perhaps it’s best to admit that the Paradox isn’t really anything of the sort. Our sample size is really too small to start acting puzzled about not finding anything yet.

There is the added possibility that alien civilizations aren’t really looking for radio transmissions as a sign of intelligence. The movie Arrival (2016) illustrates the problem of communication with a truly alien species.

Val Latyshev has suggested along these lines that life out there might be too different for us to actually recognize as intelligent life simply because we are cognitively closed. Providing a bird as an example of an organism that is cognitively closed, he observes:

“Birds might be relatively clever, but they will never understand general relativity or be able to read Dostoyevsky. No one in their right mind will try to teach a bird to construct an internal combustion engine. And a bird won’t recognize an iPhone for a technological wonder that it is. “

These limits in how we think have consequences for our search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

“Because we are cognitively closed, for us to encounter extraterrestrials millions of years ahead in evolution is like for an ant to encounter a human being. We explore this analogy and arrive at an unexpected conclusion — there are no highly advanced alien civilizations out there at all. ‘Civilization’ is just our parochial concept that fails to capture what we are after. Something is out there, but we cannot say anything meaningful about it at all.”

Obviously, as a creationist, I disagree with his remarks about evolution; however, his argument makes sense in regards to the potential alien-ness of aliens and our respective ability to recognize each other without the ad hoc evolutionary assumptions.

Still Ethan Siegel is optimistic about our ability to eventually find any intelligent extraterrestrial life that might exist:

“So long as they’re making power, we can find them. With SETI focusing solely on electromagnetic signatures, we may, at present, be looking for the cosmic equivalent of smoke signals in a cellphone-filled world. But this likely won’t be the case for long. As our technology continues to advance, our knowledge of what to look for will advance along with it. And perhaps someday — perhaps even someday soon — the Universe may have the most pleasant surprise of all in store for us: the news that we aren’t alone, after all.”

Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps he’s not.

Gary Bates’ article actually mentioned this problem of being cognitively closed:

“Shostak believes that we may be a primitive culture trying to communicate with older, more advanced civilizations, similar to a jungle tribe that bangs on drums and is listening for return messages from yuppies who communicate with mobile phone.”

Unfortunately, Bates then uses hand waving to brush this point aside, claiming that “this suggestion does not satisfy Fermi’s original question.” Except that it does. It addresses it by saying we may simply not have the right technology to recognize them yet. As usual, Bates provides no rationale why this does not satisfy Fermi’s question. He just makes an assertion that it is so.

Bates ends his article with the notion that the idea of intelligent extraterrestrial life is an evolutionary concept.

“There is a simple answer to why we have not found (or been visited by) intelligent, sentient life that is like, or even more advanced than, humans—there is none! There was no big bang and no billions of years, and it is no accident that the earth occupies a special position and appears unique. It is because it was uniquely designed that way by a unique Creator God.”

He cites Isaiah 45:18 as a Biblical support for his view, even though we have pointed out this verse says nothing which would prevent God from having created life on other worlds, intelligent or otherwise. Such a mistranslation prevents even the discovery of plant or animal life on other planets. Creationism’s dependence upon a dogmatic Rare Earth hypothesis inferred from the strong Anthropic Principle could be our undoing, or at least seriously damage our credibility on a level akin to the Galileo debacle. Point in fact, the Genesis narrative says that God created the Earth first and filled in the heavens with stars on Day 4 of the Creation Week, not that He created the universe “just so” in order for life to exist upon Earth.

Maybe God created intelligent life out there for us to discover. Maybe He didn’t.

Either way, it is utter hubris for Christians to dogmatically deny the possibility, especially when the Bible is silent on the subject and we’ve still explored so little of this universe.

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