In his article, Where Are They? Why I Hope the Search for Extraterrestrial Life Finds Nothing (PDF here), Oxford University’s Nick Bostrom has raised some very troubling questions.
According to Bostrom, one must wonder what to make of the apparent absence of intelligent civilizations in the universe: the statistical probabilities suggest the universe ought to be teeming with great varieties of Intelligent ETs.
In light of the universe’s great age and scope, it seems mathematically probable that, if the development of intelligent life happened on Earth, it’s likely to have happened somewhere else in the universe at some finite time in the past. And knowing what we do know about how life evolves and spreads, it’s a wonder that we see no sign of Intelligent Life out there even now.
So Bostrom wonders – just how freakish can this be, given that the universe is flush with galaxies and habitable planets galore? By rights, armies of ETs ought to have strung the firmament with neon panoply ages ago.
Bostrom thinks there might be gating factors – “Great Filters” which reap civilizations before they become spectacularly successful.
I have seen this idea before: Bill Joy referenced it his article, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” He was quoting Carl Sagan from his book, Pale Blue Dot:
It might be a familiar progression, transpiring on many worlds – a planet, newly formed, placidly revolves around its star; life slowly forms; a kaleidoscopic procession of creatures evolves; intelligence emerges which, at least up to a point, confers enormous survival value; and then technology is invented. It dawns on them that there are such things as laws of Nature, that these laws can be revealed by experiment, and that knowledge of these laws can be made both to save and to take lives, both on unprecedented scales. Science, they recognize, grants immense powers. In a flash, they create world-altering contrivances. Some planetary civilizations see their way through, place limits on what may and what must not be done, and safely pass through the time of perils. Others, not so lucky or so prudent, perish.
Bill Joy, Carl Sagan and Nick Bostrom all seem to issue a collective shudder of discomfort over the prospect of humanity’s impending encounter with our own advancing technology.
Somehow this dilemma reminds me of the Vorlons from the television show Babylon 5: an aging, advanced civilization finally realizes that they have outgrown their own galaxy – like fish who have outgrown the sea. Their exodus “beyond the rim” could be analogous to a fish crawling onto the land – or to angels ascending into heaven.
From the point of view of some highly advanced civilization of ETs, the cold comforts of our material, time-bound universe might be about as inviting as a mud flat or a marsh bottom.
Maybe the hidden answer to Bostrom’s question is that Intelligent Civilizations invariably discover Heaven, and once they do, they move there.
Why I Hope the Search for Extraterrestrial Life Finds Nothing