There’s an interesting column by Charles Krauthammer in the National Review. It’s titled Are We Alone in the Universe? The sub-title tells us Krauthammer’s basic theme: “Intelligence may be a fatal endowment.”
Sooner or later, most of us spend some time thinking about the Fermi Paradox: If the universe is full of life, some of it intelligent, then — as Enrico Fermi is said to have asked — “Where are they?”
We’ve written about it before (see Evolution and the Fermi Paradox). In that post we suggested that intelligent aliens have probably been around far longer than our species, and they’ve made improvements in themselves such that they’d see us — newly evolved with torsos full of guts and bacteria — as physically disgusting. Thus, they’re avoiding us until we grow up a bit.
We’ve been giving the issue a bit more thought, and we’ll tell you about that after we see what Krauthammer has to say. To his credit, he totally ignores the creationists’ “privileged planet” explanation. First he discusses the recent discovery of few earth-size extra-solar planets, but none yet found are in the habitable zone “to allow for liquid water and therefore possible life.” Then he says, with bold font added by us:
But it’s only a matter of time — perhaps a year or two, estimates one astronomer — before we find the right one of the right size in the right place.
And at just the right time. As the romance of manned space exploration has waned, the drive today is to find our living, thinking counterparts in the universe. For all the excitement, however, the search betrays a profound melancholy — a lonely species in a merciless universe anxiously awaits an answering voice amid utter silence.
After that he describes the Fermi Paradox, and then:
So why the silence? Carl Sagan (among others) thought that the answer is to be found, tragically, in the high probability that advanced civilizations destroy themselves.
In other words, this silent universe is conveying not a flattering lesson about our uniqueness but a tragic story about our destiny. It is telling us that intelligence may be the most cursed faculty in the entire universe — an endowment not just ultimately fatal but, on the scale of cosmic time, near instantly so.
We’ve never been impressed with that argument, but Krauthammer obviously is. Let’s read on:
This is not mere theory. Look around. On the very same day that astronomers rejoiced at the discovery of the two Earth-size planets, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity urged two leading scientific journals not to publish details of lab experiments that just created a lethal and highly transmittable form of bird-flu virus, lest that fateful knowledge fall into the wrong hands.
And forget the psychopaths: Why, just 17 years after Homo sapiens discovered atomic power, those most stable and sober states, the United States and the Soviet Union, came within inches of mutual annihilation.
He’s undoubtedly referring to the Cuban Missile Crisis. We continue:
Rather than despair, however, let’s put the most hopeful face on the cosmic silence and on humanity’s own short, already baleful history with its new Promethean powers: Intelligence is a capacity so godlike, so protean that it must be contained and disciplined. This is the work of politics — understood as the ordering of society and the regulation of power to permit human flourishing while simultaneously restraining the most Hobbesian human instincts.
If Krauthammer thinks our only hope is in politics, then we’re surely doomed. He concludes with this:
We grow justly weary of our politics. But we must remember this: Politics — in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations — is sovereign in human affairs. Everything ultimately rests upon it.
Fairly or not, politics is the driver of history. It will determine whether we will live long enough to be heard one day. Out there. By them, the few — the only — who got it right.
We know you’re all wondering: What are the Curmudgeon’s latest thoughts on the Fermi Paradox? We think we may very well be unique. It’s not that life on Earth is unique in the universe — not at all. And we don’t think we’re unique in possessing intelligence. But what may be unique about us is that we’ve developed the glorious concept of science.
Think about it. For most of humanity’s existence, although some technology was developed, there was nothing like our modern scientific civilization. It could be that, like humans until quite recently, the intelligent aliens out there never develop beyond the stage of ancient Egypt, or Babylonia, or even Rome. The aliens, abundant though they may be, have no serious disciplines like physics, chemistry, etc. They’re not sending signals because all they have is torches, trumpets, and their own equivalent of the pony express. So although they exist, we can’t hear them.
What does it take for a civilization to develop science? For one thing, it requires a degree of prosperity. If everyone is scampering around just to stay fed, or to keep his slaves working in the fields, then almost no one will have sufficient leisure in which to do serious thinking as a career. The first human civilization to systematically develop geometry, logic, and philosophy was the Greeks — primarily the Athenians. What did they have that none of their predecessors had? They had a mercantile economy that generated prosperity — at least for some significant segment of the population. That requires several abstract notions like property and money and credit and laws and such. Some earlier civilizations had those, to some extent, but the Greeks also had the concept of freedom — at least for those who were citizens.
Alas, the Greeks didn’t endure long enough to develop what we would consider science. And the Romans who succeeded them were more interested in other things. Science had to wait until the Dark Ages abated — a thousand wasted years when Europe was ruled by a variety of theocratic tyrannies. Such societies can copy the work of others, but they’re unlikely to generate anything original. And then came the Age of Enlightenment, when all the philosophical pieces finally fell into place. The result is our modern scientific civilization.
Even a brief acquaintance with history reveals that our current situation was by no means inevitable, and its survival is certainly not assured. Humans could have gone on, as they always had, living in one version of Babylonia after another, without ever creating the philosophical foundation for what we now enjoy. Except for the last ten generations or so, that’s been the entirety of human civilization. And so it could be with intelligent aliens.
That’s our new explanation of the Fermi Paradox. Krauthammer is only partially correct. He says it’s politics; we say it’s far more than that. It’s a whole package of abstract concepts, loosely described as philosophy. We’ve got it and the aliens don’t. We should take care to preserve our fortunate legacy.
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